Category Archives: Culture

Now I feel even worse for the Romanovs

I’ve had this dreadful summer chest cold over the last week or so; it’s taking forever to go away. I have tried to go about business as usual, but it persists, so on Monday I just laid in bed all day determined to vanquish it with as much liquids, honey, throat lozenges, and rest as possible. I was too miserable to read, so television was the only option. I turned on my reliable Turner Classic Movies only to find that forgettable 1930s caper movies were the order of the day, and so surfed around on Netflix for a bit and chose one of their new offerings called The Last Czars, and once it was on, streaming and streaming, I found that I could not look away, simply because it was so awful. I was aghast; I remain aghast. If this is where history dramatizations are going, it’s over for us a civilization. Let me just start with one illustration of the series’ sloppiness: a screenshot supposedly representing “Moscow in 1905” with Lenin’s Mausoleum (which assumed its present form around 1930) clearly visible! Everything is fluid, right; Russian Empire, Soviet Union, what’s the difference?

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I’m certainly not the first to point this error out: the series has received scathing reviews both in the West and in Russia (this particularly essay is great). And I’m also no Russian history expert, but even I noticed all sorts of little “discrepancies” and much chronological confusion: without sufficient context, the Russo-Japanese War seems to morph right into the First World War. But these are not the primary sins of The Last Czars (why “czars” and not “tsars”; and why plural?): its most glaring fault is its format, a weird, even bizarre, hybrid of talking-head commentary and very intimate drama. One minute we’re hearing that the Nicholas and Alexandra had a rare royal loving relationship and the next minute we’re seeing them rolling around on the bed and the floor with very little left to our imaginations. These transitions are far from seamless: when it first happened I thought (in my cold-medicine-induced haze) that I had somehow changed the channel. There’s nothing particularly new about the docudrama, but the contrast between the drama and the commentary is heightened to an unwatchable degree by the intense focus on the personal in the scripted scenes of The Last Czars, so that both parts of the production do not add up to something whole or greater, but something far less. It is neither feast nor fowl.

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It’s all so personal and so sexual: perish the thought that an idea, a consideration, or even a well-articulated sentiment existed in the realm of the Romanovs. Even before the inevitable arrival of Rasputin there is gratuitous sex and once he is in the picture there is of course more, much more. No doubt the producers of The Last Czars have rationalized the inclusion of so much sex as a way to uncover their subjects’ humanity but instead they have robbed them of their dignity, particularly the Tsar and Tsarina, and their daughter Maria, often described as innocently flirtatious but ready to go all the way with a Bolshevik guard in the series’ last episode. Obviously there’s nothing fresh or new about the focus on Rasputin or the continuous thread of the Anastasia impostor, which serves no purpose that I could see. The sole redeeming features I could find in this soulless series are the contemporary film clips and anti-Rasputin ephemera (though I have since learned that the latter date from after the mad monk’s death in 1916) but even they add to the confusion of the presentation. After watching as much of The Last Czars as I could take, I felt worse, both for myself and for the Romanovs, who died very early on this very day one hundred and one years ago.

Last Czar Last PictureThe last photograph of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they were executed in the early hours of July 17, 1918.


(Reen-)Action in Marblehead

There is filming or preparation for filming all around us this July: on Salem Common, in Forest River Park, in nearby Danvers and Marblehead. On Saturday I drove over to see Marblehead’s Old Town dressed as Salem during Halloween for a Netflix film starring Adam Sandler titled Hubie Halloween. I knew that the Revolutionary reenactment company Glover’s Regiment would also be camped out at Fort Sewall in Marblehead, and I thought the two “sets” might make for an interesting cultural clash. I was right: it was a theatrical afternoon. I have to admit to being a little annoyed that Salem could not play itself: we have to deal with the real Halloween but aren’t good enough to play the fake one? But watching the set designers put together their perfect Halloween town, it was obvious that they were going for a cute, hometown Halloween, not the darker version that has emerged in Witch City. At least Salem Common will see some action. The camp at Fort Sewall was well-established by the time I got there, with cream canvas tents all in a row, and visiting “French” and “British” soldiers—the latter were appropriately camped outside the fort’s walls!  For an hour or so, it really did seem like I was wandering around some Hollywood backlot to go from Halloween in July to an eighteenth-century encampment.

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Striking Fourths

No heavy lifting/posting for me this week, although I did want to offer up something celebratory for the Fourth, so I went through some of my digital files and favorite pictorial resources (MagazineArt.org and the Magazine Rack at the Internet Archive) to come up with a portfolio of July covers from the “Golden Age” of American illustration. It’s interesting to me how different types of magazines use patriotic themes and tropes to fashion images for their particular audiences: just the colors and perhaps a few artfully-placed stars and stripes can be evocative of the holiday without adding Uncle Sam and George Washington. For the most part, I’ve avoided the very literal in favor of the suggestive, although I can’t resist some of the “playing with fire” images which are pretty striking before World War One: the Comfort lady below looks quite uncomfortable, and like she is quite literally blowing off her hand with firecrackers, but the Puck lady seems quite happy to be ablaze. Some of the most illustrative Fourth of July images from this era can be found in children’s magazines (Harper’s Round Table and John Martin’s Book), but women’s and shelter magazines also signaled the holiday in style.

Fourth Harpers Roundtable Maxfield Parrish 1895

Fourth Lippincotts July 1896

Playing with Fire Collage

Fourth Puck 1902

Fourth John Martin_s Book 1920-07

Fourth Harpers Bazaar 1930

Fourth Delineator 1930-07

Fourth Dance 1931-07

 

Fourth House Beautiful 1933

Fourth House Beautiful 1934

Fourth WomansHomeCompanion1937-07

July magazine covers 1896-1937: from the Digital Commonwealth (Harper’s Round Table), the Library of Congress (Lippincott’s and Puck), CuriousBookShop@Etsy (House Beautiful , 1933) and the great site MagazineArt.org.


Mid-Century Maritime

The Peabody Essex Museum’s new building, or at least its exterior, is now completed, creating a sweep of contrasting structures along Essex Street, with the East India Marine Hall centered between two more modern monolithic structures. During the long construction process, and after we learned that the PEM would be removing Salem’s archival heritage to a new Collection Center in Rowley, it was revealed (not in a press release, of course) that the large anchor which was placed in front of the Marine Hall over a century ago would also not return. I believe it’s up in Rowley too. I don’t know the rationale for this decision with absolute certainty, but I did hear a rumor that the leadership of the museum believed that the anchor reeked of “maritime kitsch”, which is obviously incompatible with its new profile and identity. If that is indeed the case, it’s amusing to see several “Ladies of Salem” figureheads hanging prominently in front of the PEM’s sleek facades.

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Salem is awash in witch kitsch; I think a little maritime kitsch would balance things out. But the anchor is hardly kitschy when you compare it with some nautical designs from half a century ago, when Salem was embracing its maritime identity a bit more than its witch-trial one: before Bewitched white-washed the latter and paved the way for full-scale exploitation. The sleek nautical images of the 1920s and 1930s gave way to more idealistic and pictorial depictions in the 1940s and 1950s, and I don’t think you could find any better representative of this mid-century aesthetic than the marketing materials of the Hawthorne Hotel. I have a menu and a flyer which present a very colorful past, enabling the hotel to offer “the charm of Old Salem in a modern manner.”

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I don’t really see how the Hawthorne’s 1950s lobby “captured the spirit of Old Salem”, but its Main Brace cocktail lounge was indeed very “salty”. It featured murals by the Rockport maritime artist Larry O’Toole, who also produced a famous pictorial map, “A Salty Map of Cape Ann”, in 1947-48, as well as maritime murals and paintings commissioned by institutional and individual patrons. The netting, the captain’s chairs, the mural: not a nautical detail was overlooked in the Main Brace.

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Mid Century Maritime HH Main Brace 1942

Mid-Century MapThe Hawthorne Hotel’s lobby and Main Brace cocktail lounge; Jonathan Butler, Harriet Shreve & John Pickering X in the Main Brace c. 1942 from Kenneth Turino’s and Stephen Schier’s Salem, Volume 2 (Arcadia Publishing, 1996); Larry O’Toole’s Salty Map of Cape Ann from Geographicus.

The idealized maritime aesthetic was not just a presentation or projection: it was also a perspective, as illustrated in the many “great men in their great ships” books which were published in the 1950s and 1960s portraying American history as the history of expansion by land and sea—-and Salem playing an absolutely central role in the latter. Consequently when tourists came to Salem they wanted to see the remnants of this glorious past. Arthur Griffin’s photographs of Salem in the 1940s and 1950s (at the Digital Commonwealth) depict well-dressed tourists looking at all manner of maritime relics in the old Peabody Museum of Salem: how far we’ve come from that innocent age.

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Brandywine Weekend

I am just back from a long weekend spent in the Brandywine Valley spanning the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware. A few friends and I drove down principally to visit Winterthur, but I think we were blindsided by all the attractions of this beautiful region: the lush landscape was a welcome escape from still-Spartan New England too! As usual, time was limited, so I felt like I was rushing around trying to see and capture as many houses, gardens, and treasures as possible, but there was simply too much. I’m going to have to go back and spend a week or more. So what you will see in these next two posts are rather impressionistic views of the region in general and Winterthur in particular. When I return, the first thing I’m going to do is drive down every single road slowly (or maybe bicycle) so I can see as many old houses as possible: stone, brick, wood, and combinations thereof, small and large.

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Just a sample of the many beautiful houses in the Brandywine Valley: you can see that I was drawn to the stone as it’s more unusual in New England. We were fortunate to be taken to see Primitive Hall, a 1738 manor house in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with its double (“pent”) roof, a common architectural feature of early houses in the region, including the Gideon Gilpin House at the Brandywine Battlefield site. The Battle of Brandywine was the Marquis de Lafayette’s first American battle, and he was quartered at the Gilpin House.

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Primitive Hall exterior and interior and the Gideon Gilpin House at the Brandywine Battlefield site; outbuildings of both houses—I could write an entire post on historic Brandywine sheds!

The region is beautifully preserved, in large part due to the work of the Brandywine Conservancy, as well as the institutional presence of the Brandywine River Museum, Winterthur, and Longwood Gardens, and the efforts of farm (horses! mushrooms!) owners as well, I am sure. What really stood out for me, besides the abundance of open land, were a number of really stately trees—and I am no tree girl. Looming over the public part of the Brandywine Battlefield site is an American sycamore tree dating to 1787–almost a witness to the Revolution. We saw a seventeenth-century “Penn Oak” on the grounds of the London Grove Friends Meeting House in West Marlborough, Pennsylvania, and many old trees in Longwood Gardens.

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Longwood Gardens, the lifetime passion and achievement of industrialist and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) was almost overwhelming in its beauty, scale, organization and administration. What a resource for this community! I would live there if I lived nearby. I think we visited at the perfect time with abundant spring blooms everywhere, but I’m sure it’s beautiful in every season and I intend to visit in every season. There was rather dreary day on the Friday we visited, but the sun miraculously appeared for the afternoon, so no filters were needed for these photos!

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20190426_153431Longwood Gardens + Conservatory and “Green Wall” surrounding restroom doors!

I don’t think that we were completely prepared (yet again) for just how charming the Brandywine River Museum of Art is, with its comprehensive yet intimate focus on multiple generations of the multi-talented Wyeth family. I was pretty familiar with patriarch N.C. Wyeth’s illustration work,, somewhat familiar with that of his son Andrew, and a bit familiar with that of his grandson Jamie, but I had no idea that all of his children were so talented, that he was mentored by my favorite illustrator of all time, Howard Pyle, and that he suffered such a tragic death (crushed by a train, along with his little grandson, in 1945). There was also a poignant tribute to Phyllis Mills Wyeth, the wife and muse of Jamie Wyeth, who died just this past January, in the form of an exhibition of Jamie’s works which depict and were inspired by her—including a series of charming Christmas cards which he made for her every year. A visit to the Wyeth family home and N.C.’s studio nearby enhanced the whole experience, and also highlighted how and why the Brandywine Valley was and is so inspirational.

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20190426_115536Treasures of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, including: Howard Pyle’s influential “historic” illustrations and a N.C. Wyeth cover, Andrew Wyeth’s Snow Hill  and Jamie Wyeth’s Lime Bag, N.C.’s studio exterior and interior and in Andrew’s North Light, N.C. Wyeth, framed by his parents and looking down on his talented family, a Jamie Wyeth Christmas card for his beloved wife Phyllis.


Mirror of History

Louis XIV famously once said Fashion is the mirror of history but as we all know, sometimes mirrors show us things we don’t want to see. I was looking around for some inspiration for my Resistance Ball dress, when I discovered the work of an amazing Haitian-born, Brooklyn-based artist named Fabiola JeanLouis, a photographer, a stylist, a (paper)dressmaker, and a “maker” who seems to be able to embrace the past, present and future in her work, sometimes simultaneously. Her breakthrough exhibition, Rewriting History (2016), took my breath away. Look at this “mirror image”, in which the embroidery design on the back of the embellished dress of “Madame Beauvoir” mirrors the scars from the scourged back of the once-enslaved man named Gordon, displayed in a famous photograph by McPherson & Oliver that went viral during the Civil War.

Fabiola Jean Louis MADAME BEAUVOIR'S PAINTINGMadame Beavoir’s Painting

The juxtaposition of the very beautiful (women, dresses, surroundings) with very ugly historical events is jarring in these compositions, but also remarkably effective: you can’t look away. According to Ms. Jean-Louis, it’s not just the medium and the message but also the material: the paper gown sculptures are transformed in a way that allows me to represent layers of time and the events of the past as they intrude upon the present. Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors. Rewriting History seeks to reconnect viewers to the past so that parallels with current events are amplified.

Fabiola Jean Louis Madam LeRoy

Fabiola Jean Louis Rest in Peace

Fabiola Jean Louis Revolutionary-Dress-Top Madame Leroy and Rest in Peace; Revolutionary Dress Top (detail).

The beautiful Madame Leroy in her exquisite eighteenth-century gown with a stomacher (locket? window?) encasing a lynched man, an image which is repeated even more starkly in the model-less Revolutionary Dress. Less straightforward, at least for me, is Marie Antoinette is Dead, modeled on François Boucher’s portrait of a reclining Madame de Pompadour, but the updated subject seems to be a Voodoo Queen in a rococo dress. There are no fashion victims among Jean-Louis’s subjects: only powerful women, and heroines such as Mathilda Taylor Beasley: born into slavery in Georgia in 1832, she somehow escaped, and operated a secret school for African-American children in Savannah in the 1850s—a very dangerous act at that time and place. I cannot help but think of Charlotte Forten Grimké, a contemporary of Beasley’s and Salem’s first African-American educator, who ascended to that profession under far more advantageous circumstances in the North. Beasley is memorialized in Passing and Violin of the Dead, and now I know her name. I really can’t discern whether I am reacting to these works as a cultural consumer or an educator.

Fabiola Jean Louis Marie Antoinette is Dead

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Fabiola Jean Louis CollageMarie Antoinette is Dead; Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (Neue Pinakothek, Munich); Passing and Violin of the Dead.  All photographs by Fabiola Jean-Louis with more + commentary at her website: www.fabiolajeanlouis.com .


Portuguese Pavement

Like everyone else in the world, I admire Portuguese sidewalks, paved in mosaic patterns of polished white and black limestone, hand-cut and hand-laid: calçada Portuguesa is definitely an important part of Lisbon’s municipal identity, with a bronze installation of two pavers (calceteiros) at work situated in one of its central squares. We had great weather last week, but I’ve been on these sidewalks in the rain before, and I know that they are definitely slippery when wet. Consequently they have their critics, but I think the more serious threat to their continuing existence comes from the production side, as low wages, arduous work, and long hours have diminished the number of calceteiros working in Lisbon in recent decades. One article asserts that there are a mere ten pavers in Lisbon today, compared with 400 in the eighteenth century. I saw several pavers working while I was there, and they looked just like this bronze pair below: craftsmanship from time immemorial, still very evident along the streets of Lisbon.

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Even the beautiful store Vista Alegre was inspired enough by Portuguese sidewalks to design and produce an entire line of dinnerware with some traditional motifs: just stunning. It was hard to resist these plates but I was worried about breakage: and now I see I can buy them here!

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