Tag Archives: Exhibitions

Why are there no WPA Murals in Salem?

The various initiatives of the Works Progress Administration made their mark on Salem during the Depression: substantive work on Greenlawn Cemetery and the Salem Armory was completed, Olde Salem Greens was carved out of Highland Park, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created along Derby Street. Many historic structures in Salem were measured and photographed under the aegis of the Historic American Building Survey, for which I am grateful nearly every day. I’m sure there were more infrastructural improvements implemented with federal funds in Salem in the 1930s, but I don’t have the time or the inclination to lose myself in the massive archives of the New Deal!  There is a conspicuous absence of federally-funded art in Salem however: no murals in the Post Office or City Hall illustrating the city’s dynamic and dramatic history. This absence is conspicuous because Massachusetts in general, and the North Shore in particular, is home to some notable New Deal murals, commissioned by various Federal cultural agencies to embellish public spaces with uplifting, patriotic, accessible American scenes while simultaneously providing unemployement for artists. There are amazing murals in Boston, Worcester and Springfield, and in Natick, Lexington, and Arlington, and here in Essex County, in Gloucester City Hall, Abbot Hall in Marblehead, the Topsfield Public Library, and the Ipswich Post Office. Moreover, there were several Salem artists who painted murals for the WPA elsewhere–but not in the city of their birth or residence. Why?

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Umberto Romano, “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, formerly the US Post Office, Springfield, Massachusetts, photograph by David Stansbury, and Hollis Holbrook,” John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians”, US Post Office, Natick, photograph by Thomas Cortue, both part of the joint Smithsonian National Postal Museum and National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, “Indians at the Post Office: New Deal-Era Murals”; Aiden Lassell Ripley, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, US Post Office, Lexington; and Charles Allen Winter’s “Protection of the Fisheries”,  and “Education” , two of 6 murals in Gloucester City Hall that have been recently restored.

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but this weekend I was engaging in my semi-regular weekend fantasy-shopping-on-1stdibs session and I came across a study painting by Dunbar Beck for a mural entitled The Return of Timothy Pickering which eventually embellished the interior of the Danvers Post Office, where it remains to this day. And I thought to myself: why the hell was the mural commissioned for DANVERSWhy didn’t it come to Salem? Timothy Pickering is one of the most famous native sons of Salem, his house is here, and his mural should be here too. Danvers is the former Salem Village, and was long part of Salem, but still this mural clearly portrays Salem Town and harbor.

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Dunbar Beck, Study Painting for the Danvers Post Office mural “The Return of Timothy Pickering”, currently available from Renaissance Man Antiques on 1stdibs.

So, why no murals of Salem’s earliest settlements, famous vessels, lively port, sea captains’ mansions, or Witch Trials on the walls of public building downtown?  Well there would have had to be some visual reference to 1692, and that was hardly an uplifting American episode that could be used to raise spirits during the Depression. That’s the curse of 1692, which manifests itself time and time again. Or maybe there was no place for one in Salem’s relatively new Post Office or venerable City Hall. But I for one would like to see a simplistic scene of North America’s first elephant stepping on Salem soil somewhere around town.


Luther, the Great Disruptor

Was it just me or was the word disruption used intensively in the closing months of 2016? It seems like every time I turned on the radio or picked up the newspaper I was confronted with that word. Now that the year has turned to 2017, my attention has definitely turned to the ultimate change agent, Martin Luther, who sparked a religious/political/social/cultural disruption that divided western Christendom with the “publication” of his Ninety-five Theses in October of 1517. I’m trying to work my way through a stack of recent Luther publications so that I can update the content of both the undergraduate and graduate courses on the Reformation that I’m teaching this semester, and taking breaks to check out (digitally, because I don’t think I’m going to make it in reality) the several American exhibitions that are ending this month: Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation at the Morgan Library & Museum, Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Law and Grace 2016Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach, and the Promise of Salvation at the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta.These three concurrent exhibitions are connected through German sponsorship and the Here I Stand: Luther Exhibitions USA 2016 project website and catalogs, which will be useful resources for both myself and my students, though the former is oriented more towards the secondary-school level I think (and oddly fails to acknowledge or even reference Luther’s anti-semitism). There have already been some notable Luther exhibitions in German institutions as we are in the midst of a Luther anniversary decade, but everything shifts back to the homeland for this anniversary year under the aegis of the In the Beginning was the Word: Luther 2017 project.

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Luther on the cover of Time for his last big anniversary, in 1967, and this year’s anniversary logos.

I haven’t made it through all of these materials yet, but there seems to be a strong emphasis on the dissemination of Luther’s critique of church teachings and practice, through the means of both words, particularly printed words, and images.The connection between the new medium of printing and the success of the Reformation has long been acknowledged by historians, but the focus on Reformation art is a more recent development. I’m using two books in my courses that represent both approaches well: Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther and Steven Ozment’s Serpent and the Lamb, which explores the creative and mutually-beneficial relationship of Luther and Philip Cranach the Elder. The latter furthered the Reformation cause with both painted and printed images, while still, remarkably, maintaining his Catholic patrons! The Morgan exhibition features two beautiful contrasting Cranach paintings of the Virgin and Child/ Jesus and Mary: one very traditional the other strikingly humanistic in which we encounter Christ in a completely unmediated way, a reformed perspective that was also the product of the Renaissance.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder, Virgin and Child with St. John as a Boy, about 1514. Oil and tempera on panel. Federal Republic of Germany (on permanent loan to Veste Coburg Kunstsammlungen) & Christ and Mary, ca. 1516–1520. Oil on parchment on panel. Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha.

One review of the Morgan exhibit asked if Luther was history’s first “tweeter”, sending out cheap flugschriften (“flying pamphlets) to the masses. If we want to push the social media comparison farther, then Cranach ran the Lutheran Instagram account, by providing his friend with a steady supply of anti-papal illustrations for these pamphlets. When you gaze upon Cranach’s famous “papal-ass”, which went viral, you can appreciate the disruption that Luther made.

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Lutheran disruption via Cranach’s cartoons: the “papal-ass” and clerical wolves, devouring their prey (the sheep=Christian believers), Heimatmuseum Osterwieck, British Museum and Universitätsbibliothek Bern, Zentralbibliothek , Switzerland, Call No. ZB AD 357.


Footcandy in Salem

And now for the shoes. While I didn’t find the latest PEM blockbuster material exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain to be particularly probing, it was definitely aesthetically pleasing, and I enjoyed the insights into the production and collection of shoes. For me, the other exhibition themes of transformation, status and seduction did not seem quite as well-developed as those of creation and obsession. The cumulative presentation focuses on the extreme rather than the mundane, and on the colorful rather than the neutral, and thus is tailor (cobbler?)-made for social media. I kept thinking that I had seen it before, and then I realized I just missed it at the Victoria & Albert Museum when I was in London last winter, but must have absorbed a lot of the publicity when planning my trip. Two minor comments: 1) I was really happy to see a high-heeled King Charles II rather than the usual Louis XIV, Sun/Shoe king (after all, Charles II was a tall man whose shoes were a choice of fashion while the much-shorter Louis XIV’s heels were partly an invention of necessity); and 2) Loved the creative use of shoe boxes, and our opportunity to “peak” into the closets of some local collectors.So what’s next?  We have seen myriad garments, hats and now shoes: perhaps purses or gloves? Since the PEM seems to follow in line with the Victoria & Albert Museum with these types of exhibitions I went to the latter’s website to look for upcoming events, and my bet is on lingerie based on their spring showUndressed: A Brief History of Underwear.

My highlights from Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, beginning with perspectives on Charles II’s coronation portrait by John Michael Wright, Sebastian Errazuriz’s “Heart Breaker” shoe and iconic heels from Christian Laboutin and Manolo Blahnik. 

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An assortment of heels, one of several Latchet shoes in the exhibition, North Shore shoes, and myriad embellishments: feathers, polka dots, pom poms, laces………………

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The last part of the exhibit, on collection/obsession, was probably the most introspective, if only because it featured the collections of some local shoe lovers–and insights into how they wear/store/display their shoes. Love the last shoe “box”, which I suppose can double as an ottoman in the dressing room.

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Cabinets on Canvas

After stuffing ourselves with Thanksgiving dinner the day before, and Thanksgiving breakfast pie yesterday morning, we walked downtown to the Peabody Essex Museum to see their latest blockbuster exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and PainIt is a fine visual feast for sure, but not exactly thought-provoking for me (and I’m not really a shoe girl–but I did get some great pictures for another post), so I wandered next door to another current exhibition, Samuel F.B. Morses Gallery at the Louvreand the Art of InventionThis traveling exhibition focuses on Morse the artist and “copyist” rather than Morse the inventor: his 1831-33 painting of an imagined exhibition of 40 artworks at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, combined with his role as the “father of American photography” based on his early experimentation with the daguerreotype process, is the inspiration for a complementary display of over 65 photographs from the PEM’s extensive collection. I must admit I didn’t quite grasp the connection between the painting and the photographs—“the spirit of curation, storytelling, and cross-cultural affinities”—but I was happy to see both, and I spent some time trying to find my own connections, which is the very best impact any exhibition can have.

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Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery at the Louvre (Terra Foundation for American Art) in the PEM show, along with his copy of Titian’s portrait of François I and a crop of the artist/inventor instructing his daughter in the center of the painting from a blog post by Shoshana Resnikoff on the PEM blog Connected.

After a bit of thought and browsing around, ultimately I think I made one of the connections the curators of this exhibition wanted me to make by comparing Morse’s “gallery painting” with the original examples of this genre from the seventeenth century. The whole idea of collecting and creating a “cabinet” of curiosities, wonders, or magnificent works of art is so very early modern, and best expressed by Francis Bacon who prescribed that every Renaissance Man should have a goodly huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine hath made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity chance and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature hath wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included. In idealized ways, these cabinets were depicted by a succession of artists, and most ardently by Flemish and Dutch Golden Age painters such as members of the multi-generational Francken dynasty and David Teniers the Younger. There are notable differences between gallery paintings of the seventeenth century and Morse’s painting (besides the fact that the earlier paintings are obviously much better): the people depicted in the former are engaged with the art on the walls and tables through collection and admiration, not replication. As (old) Europeans living in an age of confidence–they probably thought they would always be surrounded by art: the gallery of Archduke Wilhelm, in the Teniers painting below, was newly-assembled following a bout of Swedish looting during the Thirty Years’ War (and many of these same painting came from the estates of English Royalists confiscated by Oliver Cromwell!). Morse’s painting seems more about capturing and transmitting art and culture–by whatever means possible– from the Old World to the New, which seems very appropriate for the inventor of his namesake code.

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Boston Halloween

Besides living in the self-proclaimed Witch City, yet another aspect of my tortured relationship with Halloween is my birthday, which falls a few days before and inevitably gets colored (darkened) by the proximity. It’s not quite as bad as having a Christmas birthday, but close, especially for me. There’s generally a big storm on my big day too–but not this year, thank goodness. This year we have family in town to celebrate their first Salem Halloween, but there was no way I was going to be their guide, so I left them to my husband and fled to Boston for the day. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts for the William Merritt Chase and Della Robbia exhibitions (the women!), then to the Antiquarian Book Show  (the prices!) at the Hynes Convention Center, and then I just walked around the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, as the weather got progressively warmer over the day. Oddly enough, I found myself enjoying the Halloween decorations on the stately brownstones and townhouses: very creative and such a contrast to the architecture! Maybe I like Halloween after all (just not in Salem).

Back Bay:

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Just one book from the show at the Hynes in keeping with the theme: next post I’m going to write about a beautiful ($45,000) incunabulum I had never heard of before (if I can find out enough about it).

Beacon Hill: who knew that Louisburg Square was Halloween central? This first house was amazing.

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Face-based History

I am a longtime admirer of Simon Schama, as both historian and art historian, presenter and public intellectual. For me, his study of the Dutch Golden Age, The Embarrassment of Riches: An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age (1987) is a classic of cultural history, illustrating a masterful engagement of textual and material sources, almost Burckhardtian in its scope. I always have it close at hand. Even though Schama is not principally an English historian, I show bits and pieces of his History of Britain series in class, just because he is such a good communicator–and teacher. As any reader of this blog (or former student) knows, I’m always utilizing (I think of it as playing with, actually, as I am not trained) art in class, in large part due to Schama, even though I am far less knowledgeable and adept than he. Schama’s latest project focuses on British portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, probably my very favorite museum in the world: The Face of Britain is a multi-media history of Britain through its portraits, rather than a history of British portraits. Through an exhibition last year at the NPG, and an accompanying book and television series, Schama examines Britain’s relatively modern history (after all, the portrait is a Renaissance creation) through portraits of individuals which represent both precise historical moments and dynamic trends. A very representative, and compelling, vignette relates the creation of a famous (or infamous) portrait of Winston Churchill, commissioned for the Prime Minister’s 80th birthday by Parliament. There was quite a bit of push-and-pull between Churchill and the commissioned artist, Graham Sunderland, resulting in a portrait that is described by Schama as a “beautiful ruin” detested by the subject, the humiliation of the artist at its public unveiling in 1954, and its eventual  destruction by Lady Churchill or one of her delegates. All we have are studies and photographs of the painting that captured this particular historical moment.

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Preparatory Study for Winston Churchill’s 1954 portrait by Graham Vivian Sunderland, National Portrait Gallery.

The making of Churchill’s portrait is a study in power dynamics, and Schama explores other kinds of relationships in his exhibition/presentation/narrative: “The Face of Power” is accompanied by “Faces of the People”, “The Face of Fame”, “The Look of Love”, and “The Face of the Mirror”. The essential relationship in all of these categories, however, is between the artist and the subject, and consequently it is a bit difficult to string along an entire collective history. I didn’t see the exhibition, but I heard from friends that it was confusing because of its conceptual-rather-than-chronological structure. I do have the book and I’ve seen several episodes of the series, and (once again) Schama’s superior communication skills do seem to carry us along, especially as we move among variant genres: “portable portraits”, miniatures, statues, engravings, photographs. I didn’t learn too much from his analysis of the Tudor and Stuart portraits–I’ve heard all that virgin and martyr stuff before–though I do appreciate the inclusion of Oliver Cromwell’s “warts and all” portrait and the “mourning portraits” Kenelm Digby commissioned of his beloved Venetia. I got a little lost in the later seventeenth century, but thought he made effective arguments for the representational value of portraits from the eighteenth century up through much of the twentieth, and I LOVED his “faces of the mirror”: I always though of self-portraits as being exclusively individualistic and not particularly dependent on context, but no longer! As is often the case with Schama, his transitions were subtle and his connections convincing, so in the end I found myself agreeing with his assertion that”portraits bring you into their company”.

Historical faces from Schama’s Face of Britain: Sir Francis Drake, whom Schama calls “the first genuine heroic famous Englishman”, principally because he is a “man of action”; Two very different portraits by William Hogarth: David Garrick as Richard III and the convicted murderess Sarah Malcolm in prison; Two earnest expressions of love by Thomas Gainsborough (for his daughters) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (for Jane Morris, the wife of his William), and some amazing artists’ self-portraits, for which Schama provides plenty of context: Gerlach Flicke (cropped), an imprisoned sixteenth-century artist who painted the first English self-portrait so that his “dear friends….might have something by which to remember him after his death.”, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and William Orpen, “Ready to Start” fighing (?) in the Great War. Apparently Orpen later regretted his trivializing accouterments.

NPG 4032; Sir Francis Drake by Unknown artistSir Francis Drake by an unknown artist, c. 1580, ©National Portrait Gallery

british-faces-800_hogarth_davidgarrick_as_richardiii David Garrick as Richard III, William Hogarth, © Walker Art Gallery

british-faces-hogarth-sarah-malcolm-in-prison Sarah Malcolm by William Hogarth, Sarah Malcolm © Scottish National Gallery

british-faces-gainsborough-daughters-npgThe Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, Thomas Gainsborough ©National Gallery

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882; Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris)Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ©Society of Antiquaries of London

british-faces-gerlach_flicke_by_gerlach_flicke_crop Gerlach Flicke, ©National Portrait Gallery

British Faces Self-portrait_c.1747-9_by_Joshua_Reynolds_(2).jpgSir Joshua Reynolds, ©National Portrait Gallery

british-faces-498px-william_orpen-ready_to_start-1917 William Orpen, Ready to Start, ©Imperial War Museum


Blaze of Glory

I know, Summer doesn’t really end until September 20, but I’ve lived and worked on an academic schedule for my entire life, so believe me when I say that Summer ends on Labor Day. This year I have mixed feelings: on the one hand, I worked all summer teaching and doing various administrative tasks (not, unfortunately, writing, except for here), so it seems like there never was a summer in academic terms. So who cares, bring Fall on. On the other hand, because I didn’t really have a summer (again–in academic terms: I know how privileged I am), these last few days are even more poignant. Whatever–it’s over–as I write this I am sitting in an empty classroom awaiting transfer registration. September is one of my favorite months (October would be too if I didn’t happen to live in WITCH CITY), and because the month is so beautiful, I always have this idea that I’m going to make my garden last through it rather than just giving up and ceasing all garden activities.My garden actually looks pretty good, as we are not under a water ban here unlike many towns in Essex County. I water sparingly, because I feel kind of guilty doing it, but it’s pretty green back there if lacking in color.Unfortunately I am not crazy about late summer/early fall flowers: dahlias are too showy, and sedum too………fibrous (succulents creep me out, for some reason). I found a few other plants to replenish my garden up at Pettingill Farm the other day, but it’s never going to look like the ultimate late-summer garden at the Ropes Mansion.

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Late Summer flowers at Pettengill Farm in Salisbury and the Ropes Mansion, Salem. I had planned to go to the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston on Friday to see the amazing floral/architectural paper creations of Tiffanie Turner but now I see that they are not there! So disappointed. I might just start to like dahlias: hers look like floral armor for the challenges of Fall.

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A dahlia by Tiffanie Turner: more here.


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