Coining Liberty: The Origins of the US Dollar

1794dollar

A 1794 US silver dollar that sold for over ten million dollars in 2013 is going a European tour this spring, where it will be displayed alongside an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. More information about the exhibition can be found here and the itinerary is as follows.

Prague: February 9-11
Warsaw: February 16-18 
Tallinn: February 22-23
Helsinki: February 25-26
Stockholm: Feb 29-March 1
Oslo: March 3-6
Dublin: March 12-13
London: March 18-20

 

The tour was organized by the Samlerhuset Group, which also published a fine volume on “the rise of the dollar” that I contributed an essay and the introduction for.

rise of the dollar
Today of course the United States dollar is recognized and valued around the world, but this contemporary power has obscured its humble origins. The first silver dollars struck at the newfound mint in Philadelphia in late 1794 were modeled on Spanish silver coins that were the dominant form of currency in circulation at the time. The equipment was so inadequate and the government reserves of silver were so small, that only seventeen hundred or so coins were produced, many of them weakly struck. Still, the coin was significant in the sense that it affirmed American independence. Thomas Jefferson famously intoned that “Coinage is peculiarly an Attribute of Sovereignty. To transfer its exercise to another country, is to submit it to another sovereign.” The iconography of the coin, and indeed its very existence, was a material reflection of the revolutionary spirit upon which the United States was founded. Check out the catalogue for the full story of the origin of this seminal coin.

Let Us Now Praise 12 Years a Slave

twelve_years_a_slave

This past weekend I was finally able to see 12 Years Slave, which has been one of the most talked about and lauded films of the past year. Given the rather harrowing subject matter, it was not necessarily something I was looking forward to, but I came away impressed with the film as both a work of art and a powerful consideration of the historical legacy of slavery in the United States. As most readers will undoubtedly already know, it is based upon the experiences of Solomon Northrup, a free-born African American from upstate New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After over a decade working on different plantations in Louisiana, Northrup was able to secure his freedom with the help of an itinerant Canadian carpenter and friends from the North. Working with an editor named David Wilson, Northrup subsequently published a narrative of these events entitled Twelve Years a Slave (originally published in 1853, link is to an 1859 edition). Although there is some scholarly debate about the veracity of all the happenings and anecdotes included therein, it is unquestionably a powerful account of the American slavery system.

Illustration from 1855 edition of Twelve Years a Slave
Illustration from 1855 edition of Twelve Years a Slave

John Ridley’s admirably spare adaption for the most part remains faithful to Northrup’s narrative, and the episodic fashion in which Steve McQueen’s film unfolds was, I thought, particularly effective. In short, I liked it because it does not try to do too much. I am not sure what I can contribute to the already voluminous and penetrating commentary on the film (see this great piece by Wesley Morris for one), but I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share. For one, it was simply refreshing to see an honest depiction of slavery in American popular culture. The racial power dynamics portrayed in the film long outlasted slavery, and the nation’s tortured race relations have been reflected and refracted in American culture in ways that typically marginalize black people and experiences or turn them into a form of entertainment for white audiences. In presenting the brutal historical legacy of slavery from a black perspective, 12 Years a Slave powerfully confronts the pernicious cultural legacy that haunts American popular culture. One of the more striking scenes in the film for me was when the drunken Master Epps rouses Solomon and the other slaves from their quarters late one night to dance for his amusement. Finding their enthusiasm wanting, an enraged Epps screams at the “damned niggers,” whip in hand, until sufficient spirit is shown and he begins to cavort with his “property.” The dismal scene is arguably an apt metaphor for the traditional dynamics of popular entertainment in the United States.

While I certainly found the film and its implications disturbing, it was not as hard to watch as I expected. Part of this was no doubt due to my knowledge about the history of slavery going in, but it was also due to McQueen’s masterful direction. Despite telling a relatively straightforward and downright brutal story, the film is not unrelenting. At times the camera lingers on the natural beauty of a scene; at others we see some of the small triumphs of Solomon and the other slaves in their struggle to preserve their humanity. Probably the most cutting scenes for me were those in the New Orleans slave market, where we see the dehumanizing process of chattel slavery at work (for a great scholarly take on the same, see Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul). The one scene that fell a bit flat for me, and one which I appreciate was supposed to be a very emotional moment, was Solomon’s singing of “Roll Jordan Roll” at the funeral of an unnamed fellow slave. Spirituals, and music more generally, clearly played an important role in slave life (see Shane and Graham White’s The Sounds of Slavery), but the use of this particular song in what was ostensibly a transformative moment just felt a bit contrived to me. I could probably write an entire book on the role of music and dancing in the film, though, so it is perhaps best to move along.

This might sound strange, but the work that resonated most with me in thinking about this film was James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Although McQueen is trying to represent something of the historical reality of slavery and Agee/Evans are considering the contemporary lives of white sharecroppers amidst the Great Depression, both are works of art that center on somehow capturing and communicating the humanity of their subjects. This probably deserves a much longer post and explanation, but I cannot help but think of the two as complementary. In the “Preamble” to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee struggles with the limits of representation and human experience, writing that “a piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point” than a “book,” and he goes on to warn the reader that if they were to truly understand what he wants to communicate, “you would hardly bear to live.” I imagine that McQueen likewise struggled with these issues, albeit in a rather different context. I also cannot help but think that Agee would have appreciated the naturalism, economy of style, and moral force of 12 Years a Slave. There’s a powerful moment in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (“Late Sunday Morning”) when a group of African-American singers perform for Agee and Evans at the behest of their white landlord, much to the discomfort of both parties. The scene eerily echoes Epps forcing his slaves to dance, though in this case Agee is “sick in the knowledge that they felt they were here at our demand, mine and Walker’s, and that I could communicate nothing otherwise.” Though much had obviously changed in the intervening century, the stultifying racial power dynamics remain, and a disconcerted Agee plays his part through by tipping the young men, who thank him in a “dead voice” and go on their way. Agee and McQueen each in their own way grapple with the discomfitting history of American race relations, and their respective works of art succeed in part because they are so clearly moral efforts. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen has produced an at once beautiful and harrowing film that forthrightly addresses the terrible history and complex cultural legacy of slavery in the United States. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

*A quick final note, and one that some will no doubt find superfluous. Solomon Northrup was lured from Saratoga Springs to Washington by two men, Brown and Hamilton, who promised him work with a circus company there. Brown was apparently a small-time magician and ventriloquist as he performed a show in Albany for an audience that Northrup recalled was “not of the selectest of character.” They arrived in Washington in early April and a quick check of the relevant sources shows that that there was no circus wintering there and a touring show did not arrive until later that summer. It thus seems clear then that neither Brown nor Hamilton were actually affiliated with a circus and this was simply a ruse to lure Northrup south. While the nineteenth-century American circus undoubtedly had its share of dodgy characters, skipping out on debts was more par for the course. Still, the deception does reinforce why itinerant entertainers were looked on with such suspicion by so many Americans at the time.

Further reading: Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853); Clifford Brown, et. al., Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave (2013); Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (2001); Shane and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery (2005); James Agee and Walker Evans, Let us now Praise Famous Men (1941); Laurence Bergreen, James Agee: A Life (1984).

The Armory Exhibition at 100

Archives of American Art
Archives of American Art

The centennial of the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better know as simply the Armory Show, has prompted a renewed wave of interest and a number of competing exhibitions about what many regard as the most important event in the history of American art. A full list of exhibitions and related publications can be found here, but perhaps the most prominent of these shows is the New-York Historical Society’s Armory Show at 100, which runs through February 23, 2014. I had the opportunity to visit when I was in New York City last week, and I must say that I came away rather disappointed (though the accompanying website is useful). Although the NYHS was able to get some fantastic material on loan for the exhibition, the overall interpretation was creaky and its organization was at times simply confusing.

First and foremost, it is not clear where the exhibition actually starts, with a small gallery of material about “Organizing the Armory Show” and a hallway full of contextual information about New York City in the early twentieth-century awkwardly positioned before the main gallery (I am still not sure if I was meant to go through these before or after the art). Whatever the case, the central gallery includes some 100 works drawn from over thirteen hundred pieces that appeared in the 1913 exhibition. One thing that is made very clear from the beginning is the overall theme, which promises “Modern Art & Revolution,” but much of what follows belies this bold promise and the conflation of politics and aesthetics is problematic throughout. The NYHS exhibition is roughly structured along the same lines as the original show, but the very truncated wall texts deal in such generalities that it is sometimes difficult to get a strong sense of either the historical exhibition or the contemporary interpretation being proposed.

Archives of American Art
Archives of American Art

One salutary feature of the present exhibition is its fidelity to representing the wide range of art works that appeared in the Armory Show, much of which was neither revolutionary nor particularly modern. The American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) and French Symbolist Odilon Redon (18401-1916) were among the most well-represented and received artists, and neither are particularly well-known today.

Terra Foundation for American Art
Terra Foundation for American Art

My favorite paintings in the exhibition (and it is almost entirely paintings) were those by what I would call the American avant-garde. George Bellows’ The Circus, Robert Henri’s Figure in Motion, Arthur B. Davies’ Line of Mountains, and John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar are all wonderful paintings by artists identified with the so-called Ashcan School. All of these artists were also “revolutionary” and “modern” in their own way, but the framing of the exhibition is so narrowly focused on celebrating an ostensibly sui generis European modernism that it effectively marginalizes innovative American art. Indeed, this was something that many American artists bemoaned about the the Armory Show at the time, so I suppose it is only proper that this current exhibition similarly elevates the European artists over their supposedly hidebound American counterparts. In short, the NYHS exhibition does not do American artists any favors, and all the Armory Show’s complications and contradictions are elided in favor of the shibboleth that the “new” European art revolutionized American culture in one fell swoop.

One noteworthy section positioned amidst the transition to the vaunted European works is a selection of prints by a variety of artists, ranging from John Marin and Stuart Davies to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edvard Munch. These delightful prints suggest a much more complementary relationship between European and American art than is elsewhere acknowledged.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Still, in arriving at the exhibition’s version of Gallery I, the infamous “Chamber of Horrors” that featured Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude, it is easy to see why some visitors found these works so surprising in 1913. The NYHS was able to borrow an impressive array of what was regarded as the more sensational art in the Armory Show, but it is of course impossible to resurrect the shock of the new with what are now canonical works. Count me as skeptical that “everyone” was so stunned by these artworks. Recent scholarship suggests that the response to the Armory Show by critics, artists, and the public was much more complicated than the conventional narrative suggests. Moreover, one of the most tired tropes in cultural history and criticism is the idea that X (film, book, album) shocked the world and/or changed everything. As J.M. Mancini, Christine Stansell, and many others make clear, this supposed cultural and aesthetic revolution had a much longer trajectory.

To be fair, some of these complications are addressed around the edges of exhibition, and I can appreciate why the curators stay so focused on the conventional, if flawed, interpretation of the Armory Show to give the exhibition a certain clarity. But other decisions seem less defensible. The end of the main gallery contains a mixed bag of material that confusingly includes some works from J.P. Morgan’s collection in an apparent effort to show that not all contemporary collectors were interested in modern art, which hardly seems surprising. There are also a smattering of works that do not convincingly address the legacy of the Armory Show in American art, though it is a subject that gets more satisfying treatment in the historical materials displayed in the hall adjacent to the main gallery. I really wish that an effort had been made to integrate the very useful and important contextual material in this hall that both sets the scene and explores the legacy of the Armory Show with the actual art. It would have made for a much more coherent interpretation and introduced a level of dynamism that the simple recreation of the original show in smaller form lacked. Of the other ancillary room on “Organizing the Armory Show,” the less said the better about this text-heavy and generally uninteresting display. In sum, I feel like what the Armory Show at 100 needed was to find a better angle, one that would have integrated the Armory Show art with the other materials into a larger story about the development of American modernism. All of that said, the NYHS has assembled a truly wonderful collection of art, and it is well worth a visit. I should also note that the museum has another exhibition open downstairs called Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America, which has a rather more satisfying and focused interpretative line and some really excellent portraits so be sure to check that out as well.

Some final notes. The accompanying catalogue, which has a great roster of contributors, undoubtedly deals with some of the complications and criticisms of the exhibition that I offered above, but its size and price ($65!) precluded me from getting a good look. I will update when I do! There are also some great resources online about the Armory Show for those interested. Beyond the aforementioned New-York Historical Society website accompanying the exhibition, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art has a good collection of primary sources here, and the Art Institute Chicago’s has a neat site here about the Armory Show’s sojourn to the Midwest.

 

John Hewson Pruyn, Richard Risley, and the Misemono

In an earlier post about the American statesman John Hewson Pruyn, I wrote about the role that the American circus performer and impresario Richard Risley Carlisle played in the evolving cultural relationship between the United States and Japan. Risley arrived in Yokohama on March 6, 1864 with a small troupe of performers, and Pruyn initially expressed hope that the circus would help thaw tensions between the Japanese and foreign communities. The show opened on March 28 in front of an audience of around four hundred people, about half of whom were foreign residents. Pruyn was seemingly less than impressed with the circus as a letter dated April 1 noted that “the Japanese admire the clown very much,” but that he was “the very poorest I ever saw.” He went on to sarcastically speak of the relatively expensive tickets as being “exceedingly cheap for so intellectual a performance.” Whatever Pruyn’s opinion, the circus proved popular and a number of Japanese artists made wonderful woodblock prints documenting the show, including this one by Utagawa (or Issen) Yoshikazu.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

After its initial success, interest in the circus waned and the performers dispersed, but Risley elected to stay in Japan and pursued a variety of eclectic ventures, including at one point importing dairy cows from California and selling ice cream (for more on Risley’s doings in Japan, see Frederik Schodt’s aforementioned book). But the big idea that he finally hit upon was the realization that the Japanese performers who often entertained the foreign community would be a real novelty abroad. Indeed Pruyn frequently commented on the quality of Japanese entertainment, and he was particularly taken with the characteristic top-spinning performances that he witnessed, which were a novelty to foreigners. Below is a woodblock print that Pruyn saved commemorating a November 14, 1864 performance by a famous top-spinning troupe headed by Matsui Gensui (for a full account of the evening see Francis Hall’s recently published journal).

Matsui Gensui Troop of Top Spinners Woodblock print 1865 Albany Institute of History & Art Robert H. Pruyn Manuscript Collection, CH 532
Matsui Gensui Troop of Top Spinners
Woodblock print
1865
Albany Institute of History & Art
Robert H. Pruyn Manuscript Collection, CH 532

Matsui Gensui and those of his ilk were known as misemono, which Schodt translates literally as “things to show” or “exhibitions,” and included sleight-of-hand, balancing, juggling, acrobatics, amongst a range of other entertainments. The obvious popularity of misemono amongst the foreign community led a number of would-be impresarios to consider organizing a troupe to tour abroad, but the Japanese government’s prohibition on overseas travel and raising the necessary capital made such a venture difficult. With the help of the U. S. consul and local American merchants, Risley cobbled together the needed funding and secured permission for what was dubbed the “Imperial Japanese Troupe” to head abroad. In early 1867, the troupe arrived in San Francisco and embarked on a strikingly successful tour across the United States and eventually around the world. As Schodt notes, Risley’s Imperial Japanese Troupe ultimately played a signature role in introducing the then mysterious world of Japan to those in the West. Risley’s activities are a more or less perfect distillation of one of the major themes of my own work, namely how popular entertainment has served as a medium for cross-cultural exchange.

Though we are straying ever farther from Robert Hewson Pruyn, the man whose papers at the Albany Institute of History & Art originally inspired these posts, I want to highlight one last cultural artifact of interest. It is a short motion picture filmed in Thomas Edison’s New York Studio on April 29, 1904 now at the Library of Congress. It shows two Japanese acrobats performing what was by then known simply as a Risley act. It was this foot-juggling routine that catapulted its namesake to fame and fortune, and its performance by two Japanese entertainers aptly illustrates the ongoing legacy of international exchange via performance and popular culture.

Aloha America, or, What’s in a Name?

aloha americaI recently reviewed Adria Imada’s book Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire for the Journal of Pacific History. It is an engaging study of how the popularization of hula fostered an “imagined intimacy” between the United States and Hawai’i that facilitated that hula played in the United States. The full review is here.

One interesting aspect to note is that like most contemporary studies, Imada’s book follows modern Hawaiian orthography and refers to the archipelago of islands as Hawai’i, i.e., including the ‘okina to mark a glottal stop. One outcome of the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s and the related rise of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement has been increased emphasis on the politics of language. Beyond simply forgoing English words for Hawaiian ones, there has been a concerted effort to use Hawaiian rather than English orthography for various terms. Perhaps the most visible manifestation of this latter shift is promoting the use of Hawai’i over Hawaii. In academia at least, Hawai’i is now the conventional spelling. Still, it remains to be seen if and when this change might be effected at the official government level (the University of Hawai’i and some other local and state institutions have already made the shift). Part of what is so interesting about the debate over what to call the islands (and how to spell it) is that it has been an ongoing and very political issue for over two hundred years.

When Captain James Cook sailed through the archipelago in 1778, he recorded the names of the islands given to him by the local inhabitants, including that of “Owhyhee,” which seemed to have been used interchangeably as the name for the largest of the islands (Hawai’i, i.e. the Big Island) and for the overall group. The seemingly extraneous O in Owhyhee was due to a misunderstanding of the Hawaiian language in which the o’ was used as a copula verb. In short, Cook recorded a phrase, O’ Hawai’i (This is Hawai’i) as the name. Of course, it did not much matter to him, as it was also Cook who designated the group the “Sandwich Islands” after John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty. Cook’s name stuck and at least through the 1840 most foreign sources and early Hawaiian laws and treaties referred to the islands as the Sandwich Islands. When missionaries standardized an alphabet and written Hawaiian in the 1820s, the native name was rendered as Hawaii. And despite the predominance of the Sandwich Islands in foreign/official usage, there was clearly Hawaiian resistance to that name. Librarian Russell Clement has noted that official correspondence resulting from USN Captain W. C. B. Finch’s visit in 1829 includes the following passage: “the Government and natives generally have dropped or do not admit the designation, of ‘Sandwich Islands’ as applied to their possessions; but adopt and use that of ‘Hawaiian Islands.'” Indeed, by the time of the 1840 Constitution, “Hawaiian Islands” was clearly the government’s preferred designation and it was codified as such. Below is a Google Ngram graph of the rival names:

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Of course, this graph only accounts for what British and American sources were choosing to call the islands. Although Google Books has some stray works, the vast majority of the abundant Hawaiian-language books and newspapers produced in the nineteenth century have not been indexed. The preferred designation among Native Hawaiians in the nineteenth century was “Hawaii nei,” or the fuller appellation of “Hawaii nei pae aina.” Although it is not necessarily evident in the above graph because foreign, and particularly British publications, continued to refer to the Sandwich Islands, the government and island residents almost invariably used Hawaiian Islands after 1850. This shift was clearly initiated by the Hawaiian monarchy and supported by its allies, but it was also a reflection of the waning of British influence and the increasing involvement of the United States in Hawaiian affairs. Whether a way of thumbing their noses at the British or simply acceding to the wishes of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the United States dispensed with Sandwich Islands in favor of Hawaiian Islands in all its official diplomatic relations after an 1849 treaty. Insomuch as American and Hawaiian preferences were now aligned, there was a distinct shift in usage as the century progressed.

sandwich-hawaiian

Matters only became more complicated with the overthrow of the Kingdom and the subsequent annexation of the Hawaiian Islands by the United States at the end of the century. In part II, we’ll have a look at the ramifications of these events on how the islands were referred to and then trace the debate up to the present day.

 

Tintype Revival

Last week I went for a photography session at the Penumbra Tintype Portait Studio, which is a project of the Center for Alternative Photography. There seems to have been something of a tintype revival of late, and I was interested in learning more about the process. Tintypes, or ferrotypes as they were sometimes known, were a form of wet plate photography that became very popular in the 1860s. The production process was much simpler and cheaper than other forms of photography and the resulting image was much more durable. Tintype was actually a misnomer as the traditional plates were actually thin sheets of iron. The Penumbra studio used a reproduction camera equipped with a Gascoigne and Charconnet Petzval lens, and the quarter-plate (3 ¼” x 4 ¼”) we had taken was made of aluminum.

The process itself is relatively straightforward. First, the camera is set up and focused on the subjects. In a darkroom, the plate is wet with thin layer of collodion and then is deposited in a silver nitrate bath. It is light sensitive when removed so it is put in a light-proof plate holder and brought out to the waiting camera. Traditionally, the sitters would have to remain still while the plate was exposed for several seconds, but at the studio modern flash/strobes are used for a more or less instant exposure. The plate is then taken back to the darkroom where a developer is poured on and the image somewhat ethereally emerges before being immersed in a bath for final processing. After drying, the plate is coated with a varnish and you’re all set. Early on, portraits were often placed in fancy cases, but cheaper cardboard and paper frames became more common as the century progressed. The New York Times has a useful slideshow of the overall process here. As you might imagine, the nature of the process and the chemicals involved make it a very inexact art, but even our failed portraits looked pretty cool. Below are a classic Civil War-era tintype of an unidentified soldier and a companion, and then our modern-day portrait.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Because they were so cheap and durable, tintypes were a popular mode of street photography well into the twentieth century. There is a nice shot in the Walker Evans archive of a vendor working a New York City corner circa 1933-34.

PH3978
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Along with a revival of the practice, there have been a number of recent publications and exhibitions about tintypes, though I would still recommend The American Tintype as the best starting point for further inquiry.

Update: The Metropolitan Museum of Art just opened a new exhibition, “Photography and the Civil War,” which speaks to the power and popularity of tintypes at that time.

Shop Life at the Tenement Museum

I finally had a chance to take the new “Shop Life” tour at the always interesting Tenement Museum this past weekend. It shifts the story from the diverse lot of immigrant families that lived on the upper-floors to the long line of businesses that occupied the basement rooms at 97 Orchard Street. The poster below, a calculated bit of ‘pro-lager’ publicity mounted by German Americans against temperance advocates, now stands in the front window.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

As this rather entertaining image suggests, the north half of the basement has been made up like a German saloon that was run by John and Caroline Schneider in the 1870s and 1880s. The interpretation centers on the role that beer saloons played in German immigrant life, and the room is neatly constructed and filled with period artifacts. The musical instruments hanging on the wall were interesting. I had not really thought that smaller saloons would feature live music, but it makes sense given the vibrancy of German musical culture (for those so inclined, Jessica Gienow-Hecht’s book Sound Diplomacy is an excellent study of music as an important avenue of cross-cultural exchange between the United States and Germany). A door at the back of the front saloon leads to the family’s living quarters, where the Schneiders, their son, and a serving girl resided. A nice touch is a faux membership certificate for the Improved Order of Red Men, which depending on your view was either a patriotic fraternal organization or a rowdy drinking club for working-class men. It was symbolic of the complex and ongoing negotiations that immigrants engaged in as they tried to preserve something of their culture and heritage while also adapting to American life.

shoplife100Years_slideshow01
Tenement Museum

The tour next heads into the other half of the basement, where museum workers discovered older living quarters and some twenty layers of wallpaper on the walls. We were shown some artifacts and a list of the dozens of businesses that occupied the building from 1863 through the 1980s, which ran the gamut from a butcher shop to a hosiery. The historical businesses were a fascinating index of the changing neighborhood, and this point was driven home during the final stop of the tour, one that I found particularly enlivening. After a short presentation, we were invited to pick objects from different eras off the store’s shelves and place them on a series of computerized tables with small handsets. The table then told the story of that particular object and provided interactive supplementary information in the form of historical photographs, sound and video clips, and the like. This was really cool I have to say. My object was a cocktail shaker from the 1930s when the space was occupied by a jobbing or auction house. Being able to handle the object myself really added something beyond the usual static physical and digital displays at museums. Moreover, the digital content was both good and easy to access. My only complaint would be that because of what I presume to be the technologically necessary texture on the table, the images were not of the highest resolution. While different institutions would obviously face a variety of different constraints, this system of allowing visitors to handle and learn about particular objects using a physical/digital interface seems like a very promising model for museums moving forward. In short, even if you are already familiar with the upstairs tours, the new “Shop Life” tour is well worth the visit.

George Catlin at the National Portrait Gallery

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits opens today at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It’s the first major exhibition of the painter’s work in Britain since he unceremoniously fled the country in 1852 after having been incarcerated for debt in Queen’s Bench Prison. Catlin was a showman and artist who toured around the United States and Europe with his famed “Indian Gallery,” a spectacular display of materials gathered and produced during five separate journeys around the American West in the 1830s. “Catlin’s North American Indian Gallery” was comprised of a mix of portraits and artifacts, which were later supplemented with live performances by both costumed whites and actual Iowa and Ojibwa Indians. His show opened at London’s Egyptian Hall in 1840, and the popular acclaim it garnered sustained Catlin for almost a decade, during which he also made several tours of the Continent.

Advertisement from The Era newspaper, 1840
Advertisement from The Era newspaper, 1840

Ultimately a combination of bad luck and simple mismanagement doomed the venture and forced him to make an ignominious retreat back to the United States. Catlin was a pioneer of the ethnographic entertainment business, and his work laid down a template of sorts that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show would so successfully exploit during its late nineteenth century European tours. I have written a full review for The World of Interiors that I don’t want to step on here, but I’ll link to it when it is published. Suffice it to say, the Indian Gallery raises some fascinating and complicated issues about representation, commerce, and colonialism that the exhibition does a good job of addressing. The curators, Stephanie Pratt and Joan Carpenter Troccoli, have also produced a fine catalogue that probes the lasting cultural legacy of Catlin’s work.

National Portrait Gallery
National Portrait Gallery

Walt Kuhn’s Majorette

Walt Kuhn (1877-1949) was a painter perhaps best remembered for organizing the Armory Show of 1913, which introduced avant-garde European art to the American public. Kuhn was also a lover of the circus and the theatre and in the 1920s began to somewhat obsessively paint portraits of circus performers and showgirls. He was eventually institutionalized in the late 1940s, but produced a truly stunning body of work, a sampling of which is now on display at the DC Moore gallery. The exhibition, Walt Kuhn: American Modern, runs through March 16 and the assorted works powerfully demonstrate his simple and affective style. I was of course particularly interested in Kuhn’s circus work and among the paintings are a few wonderful portraits of circus “girls,” as they were known in contemporary show business parlance. Among this group is one simply known as “Woman in a Majorette Costume,” from 1944.

DC Moore Gallery
DC Moore Gallery

The sitter is not identified, but it might actually be Katherine “Kitty” Clark, who joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1938, and served as a majorette for the circus through the 1940s. Clark was a skillful performer who at different times appeared in equestrian, aerial, and animal acts. She was also a renowned beauty and frequently appeared in the show’s advertising. Below is a 1941 poster produced by the studio of Norman Bel Geddes that was used by the circus throughout the decade with minor variations. It was actually designed by George Howe (you can see his initials between the elephant’s hind legs), who worked with Geddes, and shows Clark kicking up in her majorette uniform. Whether or not she was the model for this particular painting is of course questionable, but she certainly bears a passing resemblance to the woman.

Collection of Matthew Wittmann
Collection of Matthew Wittmann

Whatever the case, I highly recommend the exhibition. The Armory Show has unfortunately overshadowed Kuhn’s career as an artist, but hopefully this exhibition will give him increased recognition as a modernist American painter of real import.

Step Right Up!

I woke up today to a nice surprise. The Boston Globe’s art critic, Sebastian Smee, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year, penned a glowing review of Circus and the City. Obviously it is wonderful whenever someone says something positive about your work, but it is a mark of really excellent criticism when the essential idea is articulated in a more elegant manner than even the curator has been able to. Here’s the kicker:

“This may be a show that hinges on New York. But it is really about America, its unquenchable thirst for novelty, and its endless appetite for diversion. As such, it should not be missed.”

Full article here.

Play Dead and Spiritualism as Show Business

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Teller and Todd Robbins’ production Play Dead is how it illustrates the continuing appeal of what might best be described as “anti-spiritualist entertainment.” The show itself is a loosely structured mix of magic, mind reading, and debunking delivered in a gothic style that is alternately scary and amusing. It certainly provoked a range of lively response from the audience the evening I was at the theater. The performance is difficult to categorize and really must be seen, but the driving force is Robbins, who tells a series of tales based around macabre historical figures and events. The inspiration for the show was apparently the tradition of spook or fright shows that attracted mostly young people in search of a thrill at carnivals or at special midnight shows at local theatres across the country. While some will find undoubtedly find the scares in Play Dead hackneyed, it offers, in its own way, a rather serious meditation on death.

For those interested in nineteenth-century entertainment, it is a delightful continuation of the long tradition of exposing and often lampooning the practices and beliefs associated with spiritualism. Spiritualism was a heterogeneous movement that centered on a belief in the supernatural and that the living could communicate with dead spirits via human mediums. Despite its very public staging, spiritualism has generally not been understood as a form of show business. But as R. Laurence Moore’s notes in his fascinating study In Search of White Crows (1977), part of its appeal was that “mediums could be good theater” and were “another source of entertainment for at least two generations of Americans who liked to explore puzzling situations and gathered to witness anything billed as out of the ordinary (5-6).” Spiritualist entertainers like the Davenport Brothers toured the world with a “spirit cabinet” act in which they were tied up and placed inside of a box with musical instruments that mysteriously played after the lights were dimmed. The noted American magician Harry Kellar (1849-1922), an erstwhile assistant to the brothers, became even more famous for his exposure of this routine.

KellarSpirit
New York Public Library

The overall point is that spiritualism and anti-spiritualism paid dividends at the box office. But mediums, and the magicians that ostensibly worked to expose them, also pushed the boundaries of good taste. Purported communication with dead friends and relatives was obviously a charged subject, and performer’s risked the ire of both the credulous and the critical.

The spiritualist show business existed in an ambiguous space, and critics like Kellar couched their entertainment as a way learn and defend oneself from con games. It is exactly this sort of framework that Todd Robbins adopts in Play Dead, which centers on the tale about Mina “Margery” Crandon (1888-1941), a Boston medium who claimed to be able to speak to the dead. The show runs through a range of spiritualist tricks, including a segment where Robbins somewhat uncomfortably demonstrates the ability to “communicate” with the dead friends and relatives of the audience. I don’t want to reveal too much about the actual performance, but it is both very well written and performed. In short, Play Dead gives a heady mix of cheap thrills and macabre ruminations that is sure to entertain, just as such shows have done since the mid-nineteenth century.