Category Archives: Culture

Posters (and More) @ the PEM

In my recent post on the Phillips Library, I deliberately excluded any commentary on the Peabody Essex Museum, but most of the commenters did not. Any large expansive institution inserting and asserting itself in the midst of a small city like Salem is going to incur a lot of commentary, and the Peabody Essex Museum is not an exception. I wanted my post to focus on Salem’s material heritage, so I excluded its enveloping institution, but in fact my feelings towards the Peabody Essex are mixed. I understand that in order to be successful, the 1992 merger of the former Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem had to result in a completely new museum, rather than a Frankenstein-esque amalgamation of the two former institutions. That has happened: the Peabody Essex is new, and dynamic, and thriving. I do miss the dusty Essex Institute a bit, just because I like those sorts of institutions, and I think Salem needs a historical society/museum run by professionals for passion and preservation, rather than profit. But I know it is never coming back. However, its archive, the Phillips Museum, must come back. And meanwhile, the Peabody Essex is here, and expanding like a force of nature: one must embrace it. I appreciate many things about the PEM: its collections, its community programming, even its shop. It is a constant resource for me as both a curious individual and a teacher. But just as I want to see more of its historical records, I want to see more of its collections–and it seems to me that the showcase, display, and interpretation of the PEM’s permanent collections are deemed secondary to the mounting of blockbuster exhibitions time and time again: DRESSES, HATS, SHOES. The first great expansion of the relatively new PEM over a decade ago was explained in terms of the need to have more exhibition space to display the Museum’s collections, as is its current project, but in the interim we have seen lots of DRESSES, HATS and SHOES (and several months of McIntire and Gould, to be fair).

At present, the PEM has two blockbuster exhibitions on view coincidentally: the summer-long exhibition Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style and It’s Alive, a showcase of classic horror and science fiction movie posters from the collection of Kirk Hammett. When I first heard about both, I thought, oh no, posters and posters taking up precious gallery space (away from the permanent collections): ephemera. But I have visited Ocean Liners several times over the summer and I think it comes very close to the “glocal” vision first expressed at the time of the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum: local history with an enhanced global context. It is maritime history ramped up several notches, encompassing art, history, culture, and style. There are posters, of course, but wow, several of them speak volumes in terms of their impact and message. It’s Alive just seems like a collection of movie posters to me, not really an exhibition, but if I were a curator at the PEM with October hordes passing by my door, I wouldn’t have turned them down either!

PEM ExhibitionsPortholes and eyes at the PEM.

PEM Exhibitions 3

PEM Exhibitions 4

PEM Clyde

PEM Exhibition LinersPEM Exhibitions 7

PEM Exhibitions 5

PEM Murals

PEM Fashion

PEM Luggage

PEM Exhibitions 6

PEM Exhibitions 2

PEM Enlist

PEM Enlist LOCJust a few items from Ocean Liners, which also includes some amazing ship models of which I don’t seem to be able to take a good photograph. Stanley Spencer’s Shipbuilders on the Clyde: Riveters (1941) is amazing! The panel from the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic is displayed in full majesty, altar-style, in the midst of renderings from other pre-World War I ships–this was an era in which the interiors were certainly not streamlined. I never knew there was Titanic “recreation diorama” for tourists just a couple of years after the disaster! This Fred Spear Enlist poster from 1915, showing victims of the Lusitania sinking, really stopped me in my tracks–the last image is from the Library of Congress. 

PEM EX CATS

PEM EX Wallpaper

PEM Exhibitions KarloffMy favorite posters from It’s Alive, on either side of some very atmospheric wallpaper.


Destination Tamworth

Even though I previously, and unjustly, relegated New Hampshire to the status of “drive-through” state, it doesn’t mean that I never stopped in its midst. I brake for historical markers, and I’m pretty certain that New Hampshire has more markers than all of the other New England states combined—and not just to dead white men like Mr. Webster below. All sorts of events, institutions and individuals are memorialized by green road-side Bicentennial markers: combined with the historical societies which seem to be located in nearly every New Hampshire town, they are a testament to a state that takes its history seriously. This earnest presentation is refreshing, frankly, especially when contrasted with Salem’s more cynical commercialization of just one aspect of its more varied past: history for history’s sake rather than for profit. Driving northwesterly across the state to the Lakes Region, I wanted to stop at each and every historical society, but I was pressed for time: I did stop at many markers.

NH Marker Webster

Many people are drawn to New Hampshire for its mountains and lakes, but these attractions are secondary to me: if you’ve spent any time at all on this blog you will have noticed my preference for the built landscape! So even though I had a prominent lakes/mountain destination last weekend, I became much more fixated on a town nestled between the two: Tamworth, established in 1766. Tamworth has everything: a picture-perfect town center, a pedigreed summer theater (the Barnstormers), a museum dedicated to life and work of  two country doctors (The Remick Country Doctor Museum & Farm) a presidential (Grover Cleveland) summer house, a babbling brook (the Swift River), a farm-to-table restaurant and grocer (The Lyceum), a general store (the Other Store), an amazing foundational edifice named Ordination Rock, a shiny-new distillery (Tamworth Distilling), and an inn (Highland House) built by a Salem sea captain! I’d love to have a summer house here (if I can convince my husband that it is possible to live more than a half-mile from the ocean and still be happy, a big if).

Tamworth Library

Tamworth House

Tamworth House 3

Tamworth Sign

Tamworth Barnstormers

Tamworth Poster Barnstormers

Tamworth Remick Museum

Tamworth Remick Barns

Tamworth Remick House

Tamworth Livestock

Tamworth Cow

Tamworth Brook

Tamworth Lyceum

Tamworth Poster

Tamworth Concert

Tamworth Distilling

Tamworth Brandy Sights & happenings of Tamworth: the Library, Barnstormers Theater, Remick Museum +Buildings+”Inhabitants”, Tamworth Lyceum, Sunday concert, Tamworth Distilling & Mercantile.

Given its heritage, of course Tamworth also has a historical society, recently re-christened (as you can see below) the Tamworth History Center. We found it open and bustling, with volunteers within eager to tell us about the town and the Center, which features revolving exhibits in its two ground-floor rooms: currently the early history of the Barnstormers is on, along with a very comprehensive genealogical exhibition on one of Tamworth’s prominent families. There is a dual preservation/presentation mission at present: focused continually on the town’s heritage as well as on the ongoing restoration of the Center’s c. 1830 headquarters. I enjoyed the exhibits immensely, but became a bit distracted by the untouched-for-decades attractions of the house’s central hallway! When restoration is complete, the house will not feature the traditional period rooms; instead it will serve as a forum, or center, for “the many stories that have made Tamworth unique, from 1766 onwards”. I want to hear more.

Tamworth History Center

Tamworth collage

Tamworth Exhibit

Tamworth HC

Tamworth HC2 Inside the evolving Tamworth History Center above; another visual presentation of Tamworth’s past—and present.

Tamworth PC


Summer Reading List

My entire summer can be summed up by the fact that I am only now offering up this “summer reading list” on August 2! I’m still teaching for a few weeks yet, but other obligations have lifted, so I’d really like to get into my library (to pick out books–I seldom read there, because as you can see below, there is no comfy chair). I’m not really a fiction reader, but I do have a few novels on my list, including Kate Hickman’s The House at Bishopsgate, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and a strange pioneering Gothic novel that I’ve been wanting to read for years: Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (I like variations on the Faustian Pact). Local readers will probably assume that the Essex Serpent is about the famous Gloucester sea serpent that appeared off Cape Ann several times in the colonial era, but most famously in August of 1817–so this is his/her anniversary year! But no, Perry’s book is about another mythical Essex Sea Serpent, appearing across the Atlantic at the close of the nineteenth century.

Summer Reading List Library

Summer Reading List Bishopsgate

Summer Reading Essex

Summer Reading List Melmoth

Summer Reading Sea Serpent The American Essex/Gloucester Sea Serpent, 1817, Boston Rare Maps.

My nonfiction stack is higher, and comprised of books I need to read for course prep as well as for pleasure. The former titles are, for the most part, a bit too dry to reference here (the latest biography of John Knox!), but some might appeal to a broader audience. I like to pick themes for my medieval survey every year, just to make it interesting for myself and my students because it is indeed a surveyand this fall’s theme is medieval outlaws, ideal and real. That means I must reread Robin Hood, as well as as Maurice Keen’s classic The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, and finally finish a few biographies, including one on Simon de Montfort. I’m also going to try to up my food history game this coming academic year, so am reading two books by Massimo Montanari: Cheese, Pears & History is amazing! Anything regarding consumption is always interesting to me, but I am trying to read more agricultural history so I’m not always talking about the one percent: this Oliver Rackham book has been by my bedside for years and I am determined to finish it this summer. Finally (and I’m not really sure where this “fits”: I guess it it reading for pleasure!), I just picked up a copy of the very amusing and collectible Cooking to Kill. The Poison Cook-Book (1951), the book that has been called “not only a cook-book to end all cook-books, but also a cook-book to end all cooks”.

Summer Reading List Medieval

Summer Reading food collage

Summer Reading Spices

Cooking-To-Kill-The-Poison-Cookbook


In-Vested

Yesterday I was treated to a very special tour of the China Trade gallery and basement of the Peabody Essex Museum by a distinguished and generous curator, and while I was able to snap lots of photographs (exhibition items, packing and conservation materials, amazing things in storage, including a whole subterranean gallery of ship models, some in their original Peabody Museum cases) I came away thinking about just one item, a portrait of Captain William Story by the Chinese artist known in the west as “Spoilum” (Guan Zuolin). The Story portrait stuck with me for two reasons. I had just been reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Custom-House” prelude to The Scarlet Letter, which disses Story as one of the venerable figures, sitting in old–fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, ill voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms–houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labour, or anything else but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew at the receipt of custom, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom–House officers. By all accounts this is an unfair characterization of Story, who was ending his storied maritime career with a post at the Custom House as Weigher and Gauger, but you can read about his long career here. The other reason I was so taken by Story’s portrait is far less weighty: once again I wondered, why is his hand in his vest? This is a portrait by a Chinese artist who probably knew nothing of that western convention—or perhaps Spoilum was such a popular artist precisely because he did.

Story PEM

Story Spoilum

Importing Splendor gallery wall at the Peabody Essex Museum with portrait of Spoilum’s Portrait of William Story, c. 1804; close-up from MIT’s “Envisioning Cultures” website.

Everyone seems to associate the hand-in-vest/waistcoat pose with Napoleon but many such portraits predate those of the little emperor. Why put the hand in this position in an expression of apparent disablement? Or is it cloaked power? Then there are the rather spurious theories of Masonic hidden hands or attempts by the artists to lessen the challenge of rendering hands by painting just one. Apparently it was simply a dictate of genteel behavior, handed down from the ages of Greece and Rome (which explains the pose’s eighteenth-century origins, in that most neo-classical of centuries). If it was a question of gentility, you can see how the pose would appeal to merchants and sea captains, self-made men who perhaps wanted to appeal a bit more polished for posterity.

Piggot

Young Mariner

George_Washington,_1776

Spoilum Cranstoun

Portrait of a Western Merchant

American Sea Captain Dutch School

Ships Model PEM

Pre-Napoleon in-vested sea captains (+ General Washington): Joseph Blackburn, Portrait of Captain John Pigott, c. 1752, LACMA; John Durand, Portrait of Young Mariner, ca. 1768–1772, collection of John and Judith Herdeg; Charles Willson Peale, General George Washington, 1776, Brooklyn Museum of Art; Chinese-export Reverse Painted Mirror of Captain John Cranstoun, c. 1785, Bonhams; Spoilum, Portrait of Western Merchant, c. 1785, “Envisioning Cultures at MIT; Portrait of an American Ship Captain (Purported to be Captain John Thompson of Philadelphia who engaged in the China trade), c. 1785, Sotheby’s + in the basement of the Peabody Essex: what a treat!


She Wears the Green

I looked back through my posts of St. Patrick’s Days past and found: green cards, green plants, greenbacks, green fairies, and green men. Lots of men, in fact, but very few women, unless they were representing (rather negatively) envy or absinthe! So on this particular St. Patrick’s Day, I’m featuring only women, in more positive (though also rather frivolous) displays. I’ve recently discovered the short-lived and absolutely amazing Gazette du bon ton, a French fashion magazine packed with artistic illustrations which was published from 1912 to 1925. Was there a war in there somewhere? You wouldn’t know it leafing through these whimsical pages. The Gazette features lots of seasonal green, and it was also a favorite color of one of my favorite graphic artists from this same period, Mela Koehler. Perhaps these early twentieth-century representations of lively, festive green are meant to counteract the color’s toxic associations of the previous century? I am opening and closing my portfolio with two more serious real females, both anonymous: a folk art portrait from the mid-nineteenth century (featuring a woman who is hopefully not wearing an arsenic-dyed dress–though I fear for the anonymous artist), and a photograph of a (Salem?) girl taken by a Salem photography studio with which I have taken some liberties: I love her jacket so much I wanted to highlight it by “greening” it up a bit for the holiday.

Green Dress Folk Art MFA 1838

Green dress 19th C MET

Women_19001914_Plate_191

Green Dress Clover Girl Kirchner 1899

Green Dress MK 1910 3 MFA

Green Dress Koehler collage

Green Dress Philip Coles NYPL 1912

Green dress Gazette de BonTon Worth 1912

Green Dress Gazettedubonton00B_0355 1914

Green Dress Gazettedubonton00A_0303 1920 Poiret

Girl in Green

Portrait by unidentified artist, 1838-40, M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Dress and Coat, Costume Institute Collection of Fashion Plates, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Raphael Kirchner and Mela Koehler cards, c. 1910, Lauder Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Coles Phillips, Woman in green dress sitting beside tulips, 1912, New York Public Library Digital Collections; Illustrations from Gazette du Bon Ton, 1913-1920, Smithsonian Libraries; undated Salem, MA photograph.


March of…….

I’m interested in the concepts and visualizations of march or marching on this first day of March, 2017 and trying to divorce the term from its predominantly military and political references. I’m tired of the march on and more interested in the march ofwho or what else is marching besides soldiers and activists? As I browsed through my favorite databases of museum and library collections and auction archives a few trends emerged, though it took some time to cull out all the military marches and marches on Washington, past and present. The third most popular use of the concept of marching has to do with time and/or progress: up until the middle of the twentieth century the “march of time” inevitably means progress–after that it’s not all that certain. Beyond time, the word is used to highlight certain social campaigns (the March of Dimes) or trends, often on sheet music or editorial cartoons. Then there are various whimsical marches that are more representative of artistic expression than any larger commentary. Animals are often marching, and after 2005, of course, it’s all about the March of the Penguins.

march-of-intellect-smithsonian

march-of-the-dawn-of-the-century

march-of-time-collage

One of several satirical prints showcasing future long-distance travel entitled The March of Intellect (“Lord how this world improves as we grow older”) published by T. McLean, London, 1828-30, and Dawn of the Century March & Two-Step, 1900, also featuring the “march” of technology, Smithsonian Institution Collections. By the middle of the twentieth century, the newsreel series The March of Time was much more realistic than idealistic. Also from the Smithsonian: I LOVE the 1928 print by artist and illustrator Robert Lawson (1892-1957) entitled The March of Progress below:  the gleaming modern buildings of the rising New York City skyline loom above sad fairy-tale characters exiting the scene (Central Park), led by a lone wolf: there’s no room for whimsy in 1920s New York!

marchofprogress-lawsonRobert Lawson, The March of Progress, 1928.

Forcing someone to march in line is an easy and effective way to constrain/tame/demean and mimic them–a visual device that is very apparent in Henri Gustave Jossot’s famous anti-clerical caricature from 1902:  the “Geese”. This image pairs very nicely with that of another French artist, René Magritte’s Le Marché des Snobs sheet-music cover from 1924, coming up in an auction of vintage posters at Swann Auction Gallery later this month. Another Swann lot, Rodolph Bresdin’s  Le Marché aux Parasols, illustrates that “marching” doesn’t necessarily have to be strident, purposeful, good or bad, just (somewhat) active.

march-of-the-geese

M28491-1 001

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Henri Gustave Jossot, The Geese, from L’Assiette au Beurre, 17 May 1902; René Magritte, Marche des Snobs. Sheet music, 1924; Rodolphe Bresdin Le Marché  aux Parasols, 1866, Swann Auction Galleries.


Ghosts of Presidents Past

When a ghost appears, you know that something is not right: restless spirits always have a mission. Sometimes it is inspiration; sometime censure, but one always has to take notice. The relationship between the dead and the living depends on the historical context but in general, the former are often demanding something from the latter: prayers, respect, fortitude, compensation, correction. Medieval people were expected to compensate, in forms of religious ritual, for the premature, unexpected, and “bad” deaths of their dearly departed, while modern people are generally expected to learn from the spectres that haunt them, in one way or another: Dickens’ Christmas ghosts being prime examples. And then there are political ghosts, who have vast powers of assessment and judgement and can be utilized as a supreme moral compass: I don’t think it will be long before we see some of these spectral appearances! Looking through some digitized periodicals in preparation for my Presidents’ Day post last week, first very casually and then more intently, I came across quite a few presidential ghosts: Presidents Washington and Lincoln are clearly the most powerful (and summoned) apparitions, but they were not the only spirits roused from the dead because of compelling earthly concerns. In this first image from Punch (a periodical which utilizes ghosts to put forth its point of view fairly often) King George III asks George Washington what he thinks of his “fine republic” now (1863–in the midst of the Civil War), to which the President can only respond “humph!”.

presidential-ghost-washington-punch-1863

Punch, or the London Charivari, January 10, 1863.

This is an unusual presidential ghost sighting; usually we do not go to “Spirit-Land” (which appears to be populated with jellyfish as well as prominent people), spirits descend down to our realm. Much more common are these pair of cartoons commenting on the contentious election of 1884 between two scandal-ridden candidates: James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland: The Honor of our Country in Danger (again, Puck) and The Honor of our Country Maintained (George Yost Coffin, “respectfully adapted” from the Puck cartoon). The assembled ghostly presidents Washington, Lincoln and Garfield (recently assassinated so at the height of his power) are clearly the monitors of “honor”, before and after the election. The narrow winner of this contest, Grover Cleveland, clearly needs all the spiritual guidance he can get, as the ghosts of his predecessors appear regularly throughout his term(s).

presidential-ghosts-1884-collage

presidential-ghost-cleveland

“Honor” cartoons relating to the presidential election of 1884, Library of Congress;  “The Lesson of the Past”, Puck, July 1887: Lincoln inspires Cleveland to assert “I will not fail”.

Theodore Roosevelt inspires lots of ghostly visitations too, including a whole entourage of past presidents in Puck’s July 1910 cover cartoon: “Just Luck”. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Jackson wonder how did we ever run the country without him? while observing an industrious Teddy by the light of the moon. A couple of years later, however, there is a more censorious visitation by Washington when Roosevelt rescinded his pledge not to run for a third term in 1912. This Washington looks positively Dickensian!

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ghost-president-roosevelt

Just LuckcoverPuck, July, 1910; “Anti-Third-Term Principle” cartoon by Clifford Berryman, 1912, U.S. National Archives.

War-time presidents, or those on the verge of war, need lots of encouragement (as do nations), so the ultimate war-time president, Abraham Lincoln, appears behind Woodrow Wilson on the eve of World War I, and several decades later the latter returns the favor for Franklin Roosevelt. In the interim, we have a rare sighting of Warren G. Harding, wishing his successor Calvin Coolidge “Good Bye and Good Luck” and encouraging him to “write his own book”. This strikes me as a bit of over-reach for this device: did we really need to summon the ghost of Warren G. Harding?

presidential-ghosts-war-collage

presidential-ghost-wilson

Ghostly back-up in 1917 and 1935, New York Times and Library of Congress; J.N. “Ding” Darling cartoon from 1923, © 1999 J.N. “Ding” Darling Foundation and Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.


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