I attended the press preview of "The Philosophy Chamber," a new exhibit at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, last week. Here I am with curator Ethan W. Lasser and three portraits by John Singleton Copley. (My review was published in the July 2017 Maine Antique Digest, posted in the "Books, Etc." section of this website.)
For the last more than a dozen years, it’s been business as usual for me to discuss in casual terms the astronomical prices that some people are willing to pay for old things. A few years ago, for example, I was covering an auction where a basket, woven in the early 20th century by a Tlingit woman living in the Pacific Northwest, sold for $63,250, I actually asked the auctioneer if he was disappointed with that result. He was. His official pre-sale estimate, printed in the catalog, had been $80,000 to $90,000. But as we agreed, bidders like items best when they are fresh to the market, and this had come from a dealer.
A New Jersey couple, known bargain hunters, were the basket’s buyers. No doubt, they will take good care of it. Nonetheless, although it’s awkward to admit, considering what has long been my reportorial beat, I habitually convert prices into what more practical things the same money might buy: college tuition, years of groceries for a family of four, etcetera.
Understandably, I am more willing to acknowledge that I also silently cheer whenever a public institution manages to outspend the private collectors. That’s because a museum purchase invariably means it will be shared by all of us. So imagine how I surprised myself when on a Sierra Club trip to British Columbia last summer, cruising around Haida Gwaii, I began to question how I felt even about museum purchases, at least where certain ethnographic material from the Pacific Northwest is concerned. In Haida Gwaii I realized I didn’t even want a museum to have what I was seeing — specifically, the Haida people’s magnificent, monumental, carved-cedar totem poles.
At the beginning of my week-long trip to this exquisitely remote archipelago off the coast of Vancouver Island, I was emphatically in favor of what might be called the poles’ “museumification.” By mid-trip, after learning about the poles’ meanings and purposes, I modified that stance. (“Well, a few definitely should be in public institutions. The rest, okay, they can stay here.”) By the trip’s end, having undergone a true education, I had made a complete about-face, thinking that all of them should stay exactly put, in the beautiful, mystical cedar forests of Haida Gwaii.
One may legitimately argue that only the Haidas’ opinions matter here. Who am I anyway to weigh in on this subject? But if we sincerely believe we are all one family, that thinking goes right out the window or, to use a more suitable metaphor, over the side of the boat with the scraps from the kitchen. So here is my story.
Awakening on that boat each morning, seeing eagles in the sky and, with luck, a black bear scavenging on the shoreline, I found myself in the perfect situation for my new attitude to take form. I also had the perfect teachers. On visits to Skedans Village, Hot Springs Island, Rose Harbour, Scudder Point, and Windy Bay, our guides were Haida, who are called watchmen, because they watch over this land of their ancestors. These otherwise regular guys, with jobs on the mainland in the cold months of the year, led us along paths carefully delineated by lines of white clam shells. We were instructed not to step beyond them into the forest, which is populated by their ancestors’ spirits.
In each place we saw remnants of the Haidas’ summer houses and the poles that once soared above them. These communities had been abandoned starting in the mid-19th century, after European diseases devastated them. Although we could still see their carved totems — eagle, bear, raven, killer whale, frog, beaver, and so on — all of the poles were in various states of decay. The ones that faced the water were gray, weathered, like the cedar shingles I customarily see on houses on Cape Cod and elsewhere in New England. Deeper inland, where it was damp and shady, they were covered in furry green moss. What is more, while some of the poles were still upright, others were leaning, and still others had toppled over. It seemed a shame; at least it did at first.
In the late 20th century, some poles were removed to museums on the mainland, where the idea was that they would be studied, exhibited, and preserved. Prominently, Haida artist Bill Reid (1920-1998) orchestrated the removal of examples to a Vancouver museum. Surely someone of his heritage and profession had given ample thought to such an enterprise and its consequences. Surely he could not have been wrong.
Museums, however, have always been problematic for First Nations people. They are all too keenly aware that many ethnographic objects were originally acquired in questionable ways. “If there is any people on earth whose lives are more tangled up with museums than we are, God help them,” the sharp-witted Paul Chaat Smith wrote in one of the essays collected in his eye-opening book Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong. (And yes, as he has written elsewhere, he does see the irony in his current position as associate curator at Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of the American Indian.)
Reid is buried on one of the islands we visited in Haida Gwaii. His bronze sculpture Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe is on view at the Vancouver airport. Considering what I have learned about his life, accomplishments, philosophy, politics, and persona, it’s hard not to compare him, unfavorably, with another man who became passionate about Native Americana. He was George Gustav Heye (1874–1957), an investment banker whose family money came from petroleum and who founded the Museum of the American Indian in New York City in 1916. Standing 6’3” and weighing in the vicinity of 300 lbs., Heye smoked big cigars while driving his limousine 90 miles an hour (his chauffeur having been relegated to the passenger seat, as the story goes) in cross-country searches for objects for his collection. In the antiques trade we call that the “Hoovering" style of collecting, as in Hoover vacuum cleaner. By 1990 when Heye’s museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution, the inventory list was almost a million items long, making it the largest assemblage of Native American artifacts gathered by a single individual.
There’s no denying that much of what Heye and others collected would otherwise have been lost. That’s why you may think, as I once did, that it’s important for institutions to bring the poles inside. Otherwise, dust unto dust. Right? Well, here’s the point that was initially lost on me. As I learned from the watchmen, the poles’ seeming state of neglect is not neglect at all. Even if the Haida hadn’t been ravaged by the epidemics, the way I was seeing the poles was exactly as those who carved them and raised them up in great celebrations had designed them to be seen at this stage in the poles’ lives. They were meant to dissolve back into the earth, replenishing it. From the fallen ones, new trees sprout and grow straight up out of them: a complete, interdependent, ecological system. In fact, some of the poles are literal mortuaries, containing the remains of the dead. Others are memorial poles, meant to honor people buried elsewhere, but they, too, were intended, just like life itself, to be only temporary. Seen from that new perspective, suddenly the furry green moss, especially in the sunshine, looked luminous to me, life-giving.
As crucial an element in the Haida ecosystem as the cedar forest is the region’s salmon. Not coincidentally, the $63,250 Tlinglit basket was made to carry salmon,and seven such fish were woven into the geometric pattern that ringed it. Like the Haida, the Tlingit people depended on the salmon for sustenance. They still do. Indeed, that salmon culture was on display at a simply amazing lunch of local foods I enjoyed on this trip.
They were all made by a Haida woman, Roberta Olson, whose business is called Keenawaii's Kitchen. There were fresh and smoked salmon dishes of course, but also a dried version, called gilgii, and a medicinal fish oil a few drops of which Roberta offered as an addition to any of the other dishes of the meal. There were also things like a gorgeous salad of tomatoes and blueberries — the work of an obvious artist. Only later did I find the modest Roberta on the Internet, where I discovered that she and her cuisine are quite famous, so much so that, a month after we were there, she cooked lunch for Prince William and Princess Kate Middleton, serving it to them in the same space where we had eaten — her modest home.
The royal couple’s visit was part of Britain’s ongoing historic reconciliation with the Haida Nation. There is still more work to be done. That part of the world used to be known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. The name was officially changed to Haida Gwaii in 2009, although it’s a good bet that many non-Haida persist in calling it by its former appellation.
About four months after I returned home from Haida Gwaii, I went to the British Museum in London. I hadn’t gotten much past the front door when, lo and behold, I saw two poles literally towering above the museum goers in what is called the Grand Court. I made a beeline for them, as if to greet old friends. I found, however, that seeing them so far removed from their original context made me sad.
One was Haida, the other Nisga’a. “Raising poles involved tens or even hundreds of people,” the signage for the Haida example said. If I hadn’t known better, I would have taken the past tense of that statement as fact. But the truth is, new poles are being carved and raised by Haida today. I had seen a brightly painted, newly raised one at the Haida Heritage Center in Skidegate. And I had heard about another going up in Masset. One of the British Museum’s poles had come from a spot very close to that village, Kayang, in 1903. At the time, the signage said, Kayang had already been devastated by the introduced diseases and abandoned. I later looked this pole up on the museum’s website. It was acquired from Charles Frederick Newcombe (1851-1924), a “physician, botanist and ethnographer collector” who in the 1880s emigrated to Oregon, then Victoria, with his family. Elsewhere on the web, I learned that Newcombe started to collect Haida artifacts for multiple museums in order to “preserve” them. These include museums in the U.S. as well as Britain and Australia.
The Nisga’a pole, acquired by the British Museum in 1933, was initially bought by Canadian ethnographer Marius Barbeau the previous year. According to the museum’s website, the receipt for it reads: “[To] Smith and his clan For totem pole of Eagle-Beaver, their property, which they cede in complete clan agreement without further claim (assuming responsibility of division of price between themselves) to M. Barbeau for his disposal according to authority received. Received payment in full (signed) William Smith his mark. (witness) Albert Allen. $310.” I read elsewhere on the web that Barbeau (1883-1969) was an early proponent of recognizing totem poles as art but that he believed they were a post-contact development, a theory that has been thoroughly quashed.
The two poles in the Great Court have been on permanent display there since 2008. As I finished writing this, I learned that the museum has opened a new, complementary exhibit, “Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America.” Scheduled to be on view through August 27, 2017, it the first of its kind at this institution. “These people have created some of the most extraordinary carving and weaving traditions in the world,” says the press release, “and many of these are displayed for the first time in the British Museum’s history.”
I have to acknowledge that I want to see this exhibit. If I were going to London between now and then, I would make it my business to. It’s also undeniably true that without the museum component many people would have to travel, as I did, a great distance to see the poles — not an easy or inexpensive thing to do. Alternatively, we would have to rely on other people’s photography, and to be sure, photography does have its limits. When I got back to my London hotel room after my visit to the British Museum that day, I looked at the photos I had taken with my phone all over the building. Everything had come out fine, with the sole exception of my images of the poles. They simply weren’t there. Who can explain it? So odd. So uncanny. I was reminded that the watchmen took special delight in telling us the myths that the totems on the poles represent. Some are heroes, some villains, and not a few are tricksters capable of supernatural feats. I’m not someone who usually subscribes to such things, but in this case, I must chalk up the disappeared photos to the spirit of the Haida.
There’s something to be said, when you’re getting ready to fledge, for encountering someone—indeed, being more or less mentored by someone—who is suffering a temporary lull in his or her own career. It’s less intimidating. That’s the main benefit. It can, however, cause a youthful smugness, temporary to be sure, but isn’t all smugness temporary? If not, it should be.
In my case, that someone was a fifty-four-year-old man named Stanley Foster Reed, although he went by variations of that name, for example, the nom de plume Foster Seelye Nader, which he both used as a byline for his own stories and put on the masthead of his magazine. He put my name on the masthead, too, and under it the glorified title of editorial assistant, the better for it to look as if he had a full staff working for him at this time in his tumultuous personal and financial history.
The magazine was called Mergers & Acquisitions: The Journal of Corporate Venture. It had been a brilliant idea when Stanley had founded the quarterly at the start of the decade-long mergers-and-acquisitions trend in 1965. By the time I got there in 1973, M&A had lost many of its subscribers, who either had found other ways to learn about which businesses were buying and selling what, or else had sensed that the trend was waning. That year also was the start of the 1970s recession, a period of economic stagnation in much of the Western world that essentially ended the post-World War II economic boom, the one that had allowed my parents to get a toehold in the middle class and send me and my older sister to college. As a result, facing mounting losses, Stanley had moved his offices from downtown Washington, D.C., to the basement of his house in McLean, Virginia.
That’s where I, as a college senior, had been interviewed by Stanley—he, dressed in a short, white, terry-cloth bathrobe, purportedly because he had forgotten I was coming; me, in the black knit dress I had worn at my roommate’s wedding—and been hired to make sense out of his chaotic files, clip news of mergers, acquisitions, and sell-offs from piles of the Wall Street Journal and other sources, and type his longhand manuscripts. The date of the interview is easy to remember. It was my twenty-first birthday, December 19, 1972. I had been driven out to McLean by my boyfriend in his roommate’s MGB. He was waiting patiently at curbside for however long it might take. (Reader, I married him—a year and three days later.) There had been an initial interview a couple of weeks earlier, with a guy, perhaps in his early thirties, who turned out to be a congressman’s son—he, too, down on his luck—who had said I seemed a good fit for the job but that I needed to come back to be interviewed by Stanley. For that first interview, I had ridden my ten-speed bike, in the rain. The distance was nine miles from my dorm room, I recently checked on Google Maps, but even if, back then, I had realized how far away it was, I doubt I wouldn’t have made the journey. Ah, youth.
The position at the magazine had been advertised in the classifieds of my college newspaper, The Hatchet. (This was George Washington University, and along the same lines, the yearbook was called The Cherry Tree.) Although I was majoring in journalism, I had never written for The Hatchet and did not aspire to. In reporting class, for writing in-class assignments, we were each given a single sheet of yellow paper to roll into a manual typewriter bolted to a desk. We were supposed to start typing a draft, make corrections as we went along or afterwards when we pulled the paper out of the machine. But I didn’t write like that. I wrote rough drafts and then more drafts, correcting, typing, and retyping. I even wrote drafts of letters home. I did not save trees; quite the contrary.
More my style was the assignment to keep a journal for my American Autobiography class, whose excellent syllabus included Lillian Helman’s An Unfinished Woman, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. For one journal entry I wrote of a long, cold series of subway rides that I took from Grand Central Station to visit a college friend in Forest Hills over Christmas vacation. There we paid a call unannounced to the classroom of her former high-school English teacher—I’ll call him Mr. Irving. When he saw my friend, he said one word, “Chinese?” So began my first encounter with egg rolls, wonton soup, and all the rest of it. Having grown up in an Italian-American family, I feared the eating of Chinese food in restaurants or otherwise.
We went to Mr. Irving’s apartment afterwards. It was empty of furniture. He was going through a divorce, and apropos of that, he told us a story about having had sexual relations with his neighbor and being so bored by it that, as I wrote in my American Autobiography class journal, “he fell asleep while still inserted in her.” At the time, I hadn’t found it untoward for a high-school teacher to be imparting such information to his former student and her friend. I also didn’t realize it was somewhat untoward for me to write such a thing for my college professor. There’s the difference between youth and experience.
By my first day on the job at Stanley’s, the congressman’s son was no longer working there. He later came to my dorm room to try selling me cleaning products. Feeling sorry for him, I bought a box of laundry detergent for $5, for me a princely sum. Once, flat broke, I had asked my sister to send me that very amount in the mail from her own college in Baltimore. I was on the meal plan and would not have starved without it, but I desperately needed it for another essential of mine at the time: cigarettes. She did promptly send it in an envelope on which she hand-wrote my dorm’s address. The trouble was, it went first to Washington, North Carolina. Because my sister’s way of writing a D looked like an N, it was a very long wait for that picture of Lincoln.
Since I still had college classes to attend, papers to write, and exams to take before my graduation, the work at Stanley’s was part-time at variable hours and, need I say, not well paid. I can see by my Social Security tally all these years later, I earned a total of $58 a week. I don’t remember the hourly rate that the sum represents, but I do recall that the pay checks were issued by Stanley irregularly.
For a short time I had driven my VW bug to get there. That was why I felt I was able to take the job in the first place. My father had bought the car from a neighbor for a dollar. I had driven it in high school. Over Christmas he and my mother agreed to let me drive it from Connecticut back to college and to use it to get to the job. They probably thought the position represented the beginning of the end of their being in charge of me, which it did. I’d never had much guidance from either of them, and hadn’t asked for it. I had chosen my own college, written my college essay in longhand in pink Flair pen without showing it to them or anyone. I had gone to my college orientation by myself, despite the fact that the summer weekend had been designed for both students and parents. I took the train to Union Station, riding in the smoking car with a number of unpleasant drunks. When I arrived in D.C., I struggled with my suitcase in the days when suitcases had no wheels. I remember how big the eyes of a certain lithe youth’s grew when he saw the bills in my hand. I had taken them out to give him a tip for carrying that cumbersome suitcase to the curbside for me. I had not intended all of the bills to be his. Witnessing the grab and run, the driver sitting behind the wheel of his taxi just shook his head. He had seen the likes of me before.
I parked the car on the street near my dorm. Driving to Stanley’s one morning I was quickly surrounded by D.C. police cars. A similar VW bug had been stolen, but not this one. On my way home another time, I lightly rear-ended the car in front of me and we locked bumpers. I stood and jumped on them to get us loose and apart—naturally in the rain. Another time, after work was done for the day, Stanley had offered us some wine and cheese. I didn’t realize the wine had hit me until on the way home when I ran a red light on Georgetown’s M Street and almost hit a motorcyclist. “You missed me that time!” he shouted, shaking his fist. Like the cab driver, he, too, recognized a familiar figure.
That car was trouble. I was better off on my bike. My parents, even though I never told them these stories, realized it, too, when the car needed a tuneup they were unwilling to pay for. A short time later, my father flew down and retrieved it. I tried not to think that its throwing a rod in the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel was payback.
Wanting to keep my job, I resorted to my bike and the harrowing, helmet-less commute to Stanley’s. The route took me from my dorm in Foggy Bottom, along the Georgetown canal towpath, across Chain Bridge, and up a giant hill. The giant hill, downward, on the way home was the harrowing part, during which I had the realization that there’s confidence and then there’s recklessness. Early one morning on the towpath I saw a car parked up ahead. I had never seen a car on the towpath before. I had no idea how it got there. As I pedaled closer and closer, I saw men, two or three or them, emerge. Workmen, I supposed, until they wobbled. Were the drunk? Had they slept all night in their car? As I drew closer and closer, their arms reached out and lunged for me. I swerved and pedaled harder than I had ever pedaled in my life. When I got to Chain Bridge, a policeman was standing century, manipulating the traffic light to regulate the cars in rush hour. I told him what had happened and what almost had. I don’t think he even looked at me, so intent was he on manipulating that light. Yet now as I recall it, it seems so much like a dream, men moving at me in slow motion, the unfazed cop, I have to wonder if it happened at all.
Stanley, medium tall, perhaps once handsome, but now sporting a bit of pudginess, was literally more bearish than bullish. His smallish eyes were close-set, wary, weary, behind his horn-rimmed glasses. Most of all, he was the kind of middle-aged guy who liked to hold forth. It didn’t really matter what the topic was—he liked to talk—but his favorite topic was himself, on good behavior, bad, or otherwise. For example, he told us he had once thrown a teapot against the brick wall in his dining room, where we at that moment were having the lunch he had prepared. Was it a threat? To me at the time the story seemed purely entertainment.
That “we” at the dining table included two other young women. One was Kathy, Stanley’s long-suffering managing editor, who did the hard work of getting the magazine out, who taught me what I needed to know to do my job correctly, and who rarely smiled. The other was a soft-spoken, single mother named Betsy from Arlington, Virginia, by way of Richmond, who was Stanley’s bookkeeper. Occasionally, too, at the lunch table there was an old geezer hired by Stanley to make cold calls in pursuit of new subscriptions. Once when he saw me pull up in my VW, he jumped out of the way in fake alarm, as if to say, or perhaps he did say, “Whoa! Woman driver!”
In those days I wasn’t eating regular meals. Stanley was a good cook, but to be fair, pure hunger is a big reason why those lunches were so memorable. And it was a hunger felt all the more keenly after the nine-mile bike ride. Sharing food is a classic bonding experience and I doubt I would remember this episode in the early life of my professional career if that sharing hadn’t happened. Mr. Irving, my college friend, and I had shared a meal, but none of us had cooked it.
Stanley invariably served us his simple, pinto bean soup, which he made with rendered fatback. There was no recipe. As he explained it, he just kept adding to the soup pot—more beans, more fatback, and other bits of flavorful leftovers from his other meals. He claimed that some such soups had been kept going for years. I had never heard of fatback. Betsy knew all about it. The South was closer than I thought. In fact, I was in the midst of it, I had been realizing more and more, ever since I first experienced D.C. over that weekend orientation. We also had Caesar salad made by Stanley in the traditional way, starting with a clove of bruised garlic rubbed into the bottom of the wooden salad bowl and ending with scattered croutons that he had made from odd ends of old bread.
By then, his wife wasn’t much on the scene. At least, I never saw her. By this time, she must have had quite enough of him. He was the father of three daughters, but they were gone by then, too. I heard only about one daughter, who was studying comparative literature at Princeton. He was wistfully very proud of her.
When spring came, Stanley gave us a treat for lunch. He cooked shad roe on a plank in his backyard and we ate at the picnic table, probably just as he and his intact family once had done. On another day in spring, the termites swarmed. Although McLean is known to be a pricey D.C. suburb, Stanley’s house was nothing special, a mid-twentieth-century split level. The basement had sliding glass doors that opened out onto the backyard. As Stanley stood in the doorway of the room where Kathy and I worked, the little winged things were all over him, as if he were some kind of saint of the termites. I got up and fled as he laughed at the spectacle—the termites, himself covered with them, me fleeing. When I returned the next day, they were gone.
Except for that one-time, after-work wine, we didn’t ordinarily drink at Stanley’s, but thanks to him, I attended my first wine tasting, at Washington’s International Club. Both my husband-to-be and I were asked by Stanley to assist him at this gala affair that featured perhaps twenty-four tables offering samples. But I don’t remember doing anything much except tasting and afterwards being rewarded with a carton of various wines to take home. Stanley was invited to my husband-to-be’s apartment afterwards, where we smoked pot and danced to an album by America. Stanley impressed us by snapping his fingers, rhythmically stomping his feet, throwing his head back, and shouting “Hey!” tango-style. There were other people there, too, but who were they? Kathy? Betsy? Bob’s roommate, Paul? All I remember is that until it was discarded, Paul vociferously complained on political grounds about the presence of the South African sherry included in that carton of wine.
Some days before the wine tasting, Stanley had offered me a full-time job after graduation and I had accepted it. The trouble was, I had, on the heels of it, received a better offer from another magazine, whose subject was, of all things, model airplanes. In fact, it was a clutch of three such magazines designed for hobbyists, junior hobbyists, and hobby stores that catered to the first two categories. Stanley’s offer had been an annual salary of $6000. I had just rented an apartment above a Greek restaurant on Georgetown’s M Street and moved out of the dorm early to claim it, a month before graduation. Up two long flights of stairs, I carried my bike on my shoulder to this two-room, $170-a-month flat that would have eaten nearly a third of that income—before taxes. The job at the other magazine paid $7000, offered health insurance, and promised a $500 raise after six months. Plus it was in downtown D.C., a much easier commute from my new apartment and not in somebody’s basement.
Stanley had left behind his trench coat on the couch of that apartment. I brought it with me to McLean the next afternoon, when I planned to tell him that I would be taking the other job instead of the one he had offered. To my complete surprise, he had already heard the news. He was on the board of the publisher who had hired me, and they had enjoyed embarrassing him at their board meeting that morning by telling him that they had stolen me away from him.
I was unbothered by his sputtering claim that I would be labeled a “job hopper.” Coolly I replied, “Well, I just won’t mention you on my resume. No one will even know that I ever worked here.” Where does such confidence, such gall, come from? Kathy, who had worked for him downtown but who, after the move to the basement, had dusted off her resume, was leaving, too, but surely she had been able to make her plans known to him more graciously.
At my job at the so-called Potomac Aviation Publications, I learned to proofread, copy edit, and prepare a manuscript for a typesetter—useful skills—but the place did not play fair. Although I got my $500 raise, the management dragged its feet on signing me up for the health insurance. After my marriage, I got on my husband’s plan, but a resentment lingered. I grew dissatisfied, grumpy, and exasperated, especially when one of the editors sent me a Christmas card that quoted a line from the poem “The Second Coming” and attributed it to someone whose name he spelled “Yates.” I had taken the job in May; I left it in February. And perhaps it was no coincidence that in the same month my first freelance magazine article, which I had sold in 1973 while still in college, finally appeared in print and I received my first payment for professional writing. I would have had to leave anyway, in a short while. The company was moving to Colorado Springs, where the editors who were still flying model airplanes could do so with more ease.
As for me, in years to come, I would for a time specialize in writing short stories that featured rude awakenings. A series of them was lying in wait for me. And it would be many more years before I experienced anything even remotely like that youthful, temporary smugness again.
I brought no real knowledge to the press preview of "Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence," on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through December 4th. But what certainly helped was my Catholic school education of long ago. I have often found it handy when looking at artworks from the Renaissance. It supplies the necessary narratives that go along with the virtuoso depictions in paint, marble, or, in this case, glazed terra cotta. And so I confess in my best, lapsed fashion: the Sisters of Mercy are the reason I quickly called to mind the story of The Visitation, unequivocal centerpiece of the 46 sculptures by the Della Robbia family and associated workshops that have been gathered here for this first-of-its-kind exhibition in the United States.
Designed and created by Luca della Robbia circa 1445, The Visitation depicts a so-called mystery of faith. It is the visit of Mary, pregnant with Christ, to the household of her cousin Elizabeth, who at an advanced age, is herself pregnant -- with St. John the Baptist. As the story goes, upon the sight of Mary, Elizabeth felt a leap in her womb as the unborn John acknowledged the presence of the Son of God.
The Visitation usually resides in the Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia. Like the virgin birth, the elderly Elizabeth's pregnancy, and the fetus John's awareness, it's something of a miracle that Italy has allowed this piece, along with five others, to travel here or anywhere, in the first place. It's miraculous, too, that the colors of the glazes have not faded in more than five centuries. That's because of Luca's invention, a recipe that called for percentages of tin and lead much higher than were used for glazes that have not held up.
Interestingly, Luca chose an ethereal, creamy, monochrome white for the nearly life-size Visitation. It seems exactly right for depicting the moment shared by these two holy women. But nothing except polychrome would have sufficed for the monumental Resurrection of Christ, designed and created by Luca's nephew Giovanni della Robbia circa 1520. Bunches of plump purple grapes are prominent among the shiny green garlands and rough-skinned, oversize lemons that frame the massive (11-foot long) lunette of the risen Jesus. It was commissioned by a member of the winemaking Antinori family for the entrance of a country house outside Florence. Constructed of 46 separate parts held together only with friction, no pins or adhesives, the tableau features angels in flowing azure blue dresses as well as a saintly figure, hands clasped in prayer, identified as a mere mortal, an Antinori marchese.
A representative of the family's 26th generation, the charming Alessia Antinori (b. 1975), was a guest at the preview. "I always say that wine and art are related, because wine is art," Ms. Antinori said. Her ancestors sold the piece in the late 19th century to a grand-touring New Yorker, A. Augustus Healy, who donated it in 1898 to the Brooklyn Institute, now the Brooklyn Museum. The present-day Antinoris helped pay for the conservation of the relief for this exhibition.
This type of art was produced and in high demand from about 1430-1440 to 1550, said Dr. Marietta Cambareri, the show's curator, as she called our attention to the lifelike quality of the portraits, particularly the children and adolescents. In their day, they were often described as "almost seeming to breathe," she told us. I found that quality very much apparent and uncanny in Bust of a Young Boy, the work of Andrea della Robbia circa 1475. On loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, it must have taken as its model a simple Italian ragazzi. His parted lips, the curls on his forehand, and his eyes that look away in temporary innocence comprise an expression of another kind of miracle, the secular mystery of human life itself.
This show travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after its Boston run. Highly recommended to my fellow Bostonians.
There was one paragraph in Gerald Marzorati's interesting book Late to the Ball that was worth the price of it. The paragraph contained the excellent phrase "the healthy aloneness of singles tennis." Marzorati sees in it affinities with reading, which is what he calls his "life pursuit." Being that he was an editor at the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and The New Yorker, he has done a special kind of reading. As a writer, he has done the same. And so have I. So that explains to me, at least in part, why I have pursued tennis, specifically singles, and why it has meshed so well with my own "life pursuit," and conversely why I have always felt uncomfortable playing doubles. Even when (on those rare occasions) I am having fun at doubles, I don't get out of it what I get out of singles. And I would not have pursued tennis so relentlessly if doubles was all that I had played.
As for the rest of the book, it was a good idea well executed, but in the end, a disappointment for not going very deep. Maybe it should have been just a long magazine article, like the kind he helped other writers develop all those many years. Still, as I said in my opening, it was an interesting book, and will go on my bookshelf along with many other titles on the subject of tennis, including favorites like John McPhee's Levels of the Game, Andre Agassi's Open, and even Brad Gilbert's Winning Ugly. As it happens, what started it all for me in this sport was a book, Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis, which I initially read to help me with my writing. This was in the late 1970s, long before I had picked up a racquet with any serious ambition. Recommended to me by a pianist friend, Haskell "Hal" Small, to whom it had been recommended by an opera-singer friend of his, it turned out to be one of the most important books I have ever read -- on any subject. To this day, I return to it for inspiration both on and off the court.
RoosevElvis, now playing at the American Repertory Theater’s Oberon space on Arrow Street in Cambridge, takes two celebrities from completely different cultural spheres — Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley — and puts them in a juicer. Add to that unlikely mix the stories of two contemporary women, Ann and Brenda, who spend a weekend together in Rapid City, South Dakota, after meeting online. A screening of “Thelma and Louise” shows on monitors on either end of the stage. In addition, there are filmed sequences of Ann/Elvis and Brenda/Teddy. So there you have the ingredients of this intriguing, two-women show written by the Brooklyn-based ensemble TEAM that includes the two actors, Libby King and Kristen Sieh.
The program notes say this is “a conversation” that contrasts “two archetypes of American masculinity.” I read that only afterwards. What I thought while enjoying the performance was that it was about imagination, identity, and icons.
This is a rollicking show, but it isn’t zany. In the end, it’s poignant. We really feel for Ann, who has a boring job in a meatpacking plant, making chopped meat all day, and although she has acknowledged her sexual identity, she has no partner. (The chopped meat is an apt metaphor for this chopped meat of a production, by the way, although I guess the TEAM ensemble wanted the meat to resonate with the masculinity theme.) What should Ann do? She is seemingly trapped in Rapid City, but only because of her fears. She has never been on a plane, and doesn’t want to fly. (Fear of Flying, anyone?) But at least by the end she is headed to Graceland — in her car.
Brenda is better off. She has her own issues, but still seems somehow more stable and better equipped to handle life than Ann is. Either I missed it or we are not told where Brenda lives or what she does, but she is a plane ride away from South Dakota and has an ex-husband.
While spending that single, not-to-be-repeated weekend together, the two visit Mount Rushmore, with Teddy up there, chiseled into the rock face. What a travesty! But it’s not dwelled upon. There are more important things to talk about. And talk these two do. Teddy has a wonderful patrician accent and is annoyingly overconfident. Elvis is boyish, aw-shucks-ish, a little shy, not particularly sexy, but he knows how to boast. While they reminisce about their lives, they play a game of one-upmanship. sparring with words, the facts of their lives. Yes, it’s a peeing contest, in the male-world vernacular. But it’s delightful, although sometimes confusing. One reviewer wondered if Ann had a split personality, since she goes back and forth between herself and Elvis, just as the Teddy character morphs into Brenda and back again. Fuggetabout it! Split personalities is not what this play is about!
At least at the Oberon, the production does have its amateur elements — the video monitors are small and poorly placed — but it seems intentional, and only adds to the charm of RoosevElvis, which, days later, I am still thinking about it. That’s the true test of anything, isn’t it?
The floating, cloud-like sculpture is composed of… colored plastic bags. Viewers are encouraged to walk under, behind, and around it. Lit from within and without, it’s an artwork by Aaditi Joshi (b. 1980) of Mumbai, whose city is inundated with trash, including bags like these. Ms. Joshi’s piece is part of a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, “Megacities Asia,” the largest (square-footage-wise) contemporary show ever organized by the MFA. I previewed it before its opening on April 3rd, taking the bus, then the T, from my house in suburbia and, appropriately, was late due to city traffic. But Boston is another story. This exhibit is about Asian cities — megacities, defined as those with populations over 10 million — and includes works by Asian artists only, 11 of them, a few of whom spoke to us that morning, some through translators.
The works are conceptual. They require words to explain. (That's just the way it is, Tom Wolfe.) A Beijing woman, Yin Xiuzhen (b. 1963), has combined broken-off sections of brick-wall rubble with bits of colorful clothing to make her statement. The bricks have been scavenged from very old buildings. The fabric has been imbedded in the rubbles’ cracks. It alludes the look of weeds growing up through cracks in walls and sidewalks, as they often do. She believes that clothing absorbs the human spirit and that infrastructures do, too. And like the weeds, she says, no matter what happens to buildings, sidewalks, clothing, human bodies, the human spirit will never die.
Asim Waqif (b. 1978) of Delhi, a former architect, has created an interactive enclosure, a taller than man-tall square structure made of crisscrossed bamboo poles and twisted cotton ropes reminiscent of scaffolding. Viewers are encouraged to enter it. When they do, they will hear odd, plaintive sounds or froggy, electronic beeps. The noises are caused by the viewers’ movements. Museum-goers are too passive, its creator said that morning. He encouraged us to fight against that tendency and get involved with the work. He wanted us to be curious and irreverent towards it. As we all tentatively weaved in and around it, he explained his piece's purpose. He wants it to represent the creative possibilities of simple, traditional building materials, ones that are no longer popular with today’s builders in his megacity, whose population has grown well past 10 million, to 25 million, up from a mere 2.3 million in 1960. Comparable leaps have been made by all five megacities represented in the show. Because of these unabated surges in peopling, there is confusion, chaos, and claustrophobia, including visual claustrophobia. The show's artists all seem to be trying to make sense of it while at the same time they try, like Waif, to hang on to memories and traditions of the past.
The provocative Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) is the show’s most famous artist. One of his two pieces is called “Forever,” a freestanding, circular sculpture made of 64 interlocked Forever bicycles. (Pictured above, center.) It is one in a series of similar pieces he has made. The role of the bicycle has changed radically in China over the last 50 years. Once it was the means of transportation that poor Chinese families aspired to own. It was a status symbol, particularly the Forever brand. Today the automobile has replaced it as the most covetable object — to China’s peril. And it happened so quickly, within Weiwei's lifetime. The other piece by Weiwei, “Snake Ceiling,” is a serpent-like form of linked school bags suspended overhead in a part of the museum distant from the exhibit’s main gallery. (Pictured above, right.) Another phenomenon that occurred all too quickly in China, due to the population surge: the building of substandard buildings, one of which collapsed during a major earthquake in 2008, killing more than 5000 school children. The knapsacks represent their lost lives.
“Wisdom of the Poor: Living with Pigeons” by another Beijing artist, Song Dong (b. 1966), is a pyramid-shaped installation that has been set up in one of the MFA's Asian galleries. (Other pieces are being exhibited elsewhere in the museum, as well as outdoors and in the downtown Faneuil Hall area, several miles from the MFA.) Meant to represent a megacity apartment topped by a pigeon coop, it is surrounded by traditional Buddhist sculpture — and fits right in. Inside are places for sleeping. Museum-goers can enter the space on Wednesdays and Saturdays at specific hours. The same goes for the pigeon coop, which has been converted into living space by the fictional family. Like real families in Beijing today, when they run out of room below, they “borrow from the sky,” as the saying goes. Residents are not allowed to add square footage to an existing home, but they may occupy an abandoned pigeon coop. That resourcefulness in the face of megacity overcrowding is the meaning behind the piece's title.
A gloriously whimsical work by Choi Jeong Hwa (b. 1961) of Seoul is titled “Chaosmos Mandala.” (Pictured above, on left.) It fills an entire room with color and light. Reflective mirrors cover walls, floor, and ceiling. In the room's center is a huge, revolving multi-colored chandelier. The effect is kaleidoscopic, discotheque-esque. Everything shimmers, shimmies. A reproduction French provincial armchair is set off to one side. Viewers are encouraged to sit in it and have a picture taken or take a selfie. I thought of calling it “photo-op art,” as opposed to the “op art” of old. Hwa hopes those images get posted on the Internet, proving one of the main tenets of all his pieces. As he said through a translator: "Everything is art. Art is everywhere. You are art."
Review of Antique Photographica: The Collector’s Vision, edited by Bryan and Page Ginns. Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
On its face, Antique Photographica is a book of illustrated essays that could be considered a series of mini-tutorials on collecting various types of photographic images, cameras, and other hardware used to create those images. The tutors have been well chosen. They are some of the most respected experts in the field, and each writes with passion and knowledge. What is more, accompanying their words are choice items from their own collections of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, cartes-de-visite, or whatever their chosen specialty may be. That’s a superficial description of this volume, anyway. What underlies this book’s excellent writing and superb imagery is as good a proselytizing tool for new collectors of antique photography and photographica as one is apt to get.
“Where are the young people?” We often hear that plaintive cry when an antique-show or auction is mostly populated, as it usually is, with representatives of the older demographic groups. Well, I have a good idea of where the younger ones are. They’re at South By Southwest , the annual music, film, and interactive conference and festival held in Austin, Texas. They’re at TED conferences, where “Technology, Entertainment, and Design” converge. They’re at Comic-Con in San Diego. They’re definitely at hacker conventions, one of which, ToorCon, I attended as a reporter for another paper and where I interviewed its then 17-year-old white-hat hacker cofounder and many of his highly intelligent colleagues. (See "H is for Hacker.")
I bring this up, because if there’s any hope of attracting more than a trickle of new collectors to the delights of old things, I believe one way is through the portals of antique science and technology, especially antique photography. Where else are the young people? Wherever they may be, surely you have noticed, they’re creating images -- photographs -- billions of them, with their phones and other devices. Don’t you think some might be just a little bit curious about the imagery and image-making processes of the past? It’s my opinion that many more of them, if given the choice, would display a far greater interest in those things than in, say, the carving of an acanthus leaf on the knee of a cabriole leg.
The leadoff essayists in this well produced volume are Jack and Beverly Wilgus, who collect camera obscuras and objects and images associated with camera obscuras -- i.e., the optical devices that take advantage of a phenomenon of nature in order to project an upside-down image of reality on a wall, screen, or smaller surface. These self-styled “guardians and champions” of the camera obscura’s history have also become “designers and builders” of several box camera obscuras and a small tent camera obscura that they call “The Magic Mirror of Life.” What is more, they collect “camera obscura experiences,” traveling around the country and the world to visit other working examples. How fun is that? Who wouldn’t want to join them? It’s one of my beliefs that young people are adept at collecting intangible things, like experiences. What if they were introduced to yet another kind?
Like the Wilguses, Ralph and Bobbie London are a collecting couple, but in the Londons’ case, each has contributed a separate chapter. The beauty of wood and brass is on display in the images of Ralph’s 19th-century American camera collection. There are, for example, a circa 1845 quarter-plate daguerreotype camera labeled “John Roberts, Boston” and circa 1890 full-plate daguerreotype Star View camera in mahogany. He hasn’t stopped there, however. This collecting area has allowed him to hunt for the more elusive posing chairs, head clamps, and photographic-chemical bottles, along with such things as “brass birdies,” used to keep children of earlier generations occupied while they were having their pictures taken. Ralph describes how one from his collection works: “Partially filling the base of the device with water and squeezing the bulb on the tube makes the bird sing while moving its mouth and tail.”
Bobbi’s chapter is on Stanhopes, also called “peeps,” which are microscopic image-viewing devices. As Bobbi writes, the term is “used to refer both to the combination lens-image unit and to the items into which they were placed.” My use of the term “microscopic” is not hyperbolical: the images are less than 1/30 of an inch square. (The diameter of a typical eye’s pupil is 1/6 of an inch.) As for the lenses, they are small enough to fit into an array of objects, large and small, that only imagination has limited. Developed by René Prudent Patrice Dagron (1819-1900) of France, the novelties were popular from the late 19th century into the 20th. They are the namesake of the lens’s inventor, Britain’s Charles Stanhope (1753-1816). The illustrations from Bobbi’s collection include Stanhope jewelry, letter openers, pipes, pencils, knitting-needle nibs, scent bottles, watch fobs, rosary beads, and children’s items, one of which is a miniature potty seat carved of bone. Humor and whimsy these Stanhope creators certainly had.
Leonard A. Walle’s chapter on American ambrotypes offers nearly 20 pages of rich visuals and commentary on the so-called “daguerreotypes on glass,” whose period of popularity was a veritable sliver of time, 1857-1858. “Hunter with His Dog” shows a contemplative man posed with his gun, game bag, traps, and long-eared canine seated obediently beside him against a painted backdrop. “Franklin Hose Co. No 5 Utica NY” presents a group portrait of ten uniformed firefighters along with tools of their trade, including the company’s hose nozzle, two trumpets, an oil torch, and hose wrenches. One of the group looks like a kid. He was indeed “torch boy” James McNall, named, as are all of them, courtesy of the Utica Tribune. Ambrotypes, which made use of the wet-collodion process, were cheaper to produce than daguerreotypes, which are silver-plated copper. But soon enough ambrotypes were overtaken by an even cheaper process, tintypes.
Tintypes are the subject of Janice G. Schimmelmann, who literally has written the book, i.e., The Tintype in America, 1856-1880. “Because of the tintype portrait, we have a visual record of post-1860 America -- vivid and direct,” she writes in her essay here. “Three Women Weeping” depicts mourners with what looks like a painted portrait of a man in their hands -- a deceased father or brother, Schimmelmann speculates. Their white handkerchiefs hide their faces. The young man pictured in “How Not to Be Seen” hides his face for a different reason and in a different way, with his hat tipped down over his eyes, as if he were napping standing up. Is he being funny or coy? “His battered hat, folded arms, and five-pointed star on his shirt only add to the mystery,” observes Schimmelmann, who has chosen these tintypes’ titles -- a creative act, as is the act of collecting. As she notes, “To add a tintype to my collection is a careful aesthetic choice.”
Other experts who share their collections in these pages include Greg French (daguerreotypes of outdoor scenes), Sabine Ocker (cyanotypes), Thomas Harris (cartes de visite), and Kenneth H. Rosen (early American stereoviews). Those unfamiliar with the depth and breadth of antique images will be amazed at what the photographic record shows.
French’s image of a shipbuilding scene includes a bed sheet hanging out a window. “So much for perfection, and yet it is perfect,” declares French, since the detail brings such an undeniably human moment literally into the picture. A farm scene of prize bulls is another gem from French, a collector-dealer, who has an instructive section on his Website, “A Beginner’s Primer: Ten Criteria for Evaluating Daguerreotypes.” In French’s astute analysis of the scene, the men’s poses demonstrate the power of animals in an agrarian society. In similar group portraits of men from different social classes, he writes, “there is usually a hierarchy where the well-heeled men in the top hats (presumably the owners) segregate themselves from their employees.” In this scene, however, “they are all incidental to the bulls.”
Ocker’s luminous Prussian blue cyanotype images range from a newly hatched chick to a man posing with his Penny Farthing bicycle to a Mount Holyoke chemistry student (class of 1898) in her lab. There is also a wonderful horizontal view of dozens of steamer trunks piled high at the Northampton, Massachusetts, train station. It’s from an album by an unknown member of Smith College’s class of 1905. As an historian of photography, Ocker has uncovered the distinctive role that cyanotypes played in women’s colleges and lives during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The availability of cheap cameras and pre-coated papers created an explosion” in documentation by women, who sometimes marketed their images, Ocker writes. That’s what those young people were doing with their spare time.
Rosen’s chapter gives us stereoviews (three-dimensional when seen through a stereoscope) of buildings (Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, Philadelphia, 1854), soldiers (Union men at a camp dinner), landscape vistas (Yosemite Falls, 1861, by Carleton Watkins), and celebrities (Mark Twain at his in-laws’ Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York). Young people and others who think 3-D movies are something new -- or, at the earliest, invented in the 1950s -- should be informed of the mid-19th-century technology that made possible these compelling images.
Some of the essayist-collectors share general thoughts about the art of collecting, useful to anyone who is object-obsessed. Most generous with his collecting philosophy is Mike Kessler, whose chapter is about stereoscopes. Kessler moved on to them after cameras and a host of other collecting interests, ordinary (stamps) and extraordinary (ice skates). What tipped the balance in favor of stereoscopes over cameras, he writes, was that “where countless reference books and price guides exist for cameras, the true extent of the field of stereoscopes isn’t fully known and may never be. There’s still the thrill of discovery.”
There’s so much more: magic lanterns and optical toys by Richard Balzer, autochromes by Hugh Tifft and Jeremy Rowe, and European daguerreotype stereoviews by the Ginnses. One from the Ginnses’ collection is a portrait of an unidentified man with a stereoscope and a lens on the table beside him. “For over twenty years, I have tried to ascertain the identification of the sitter,” Bryan Ginns writes. He has speculated that this could be an important person in the optical or photography field. Or “it could be just a creative French daguerreotypist using these instruments as studio props.” Undoubtedly, Bryan, like a true collector, will continue trying to solve the mystery.
All collecting interests needs to be awakened. I’m sure most collectors can recount their own collector “origin story,” i.e., their first encounter with whatever has become the center of their collecting lives. Many of them may wonder what they’d be doing now if not for that introduction. To be realistic, young people probably aren’t going to stumble upon this book. They’ll need to be shown it. However, there are far greater odds that they will serendipitously find antique photography on the Internet.
As it happens, the Ginnses operate the only online auction in the United States specifically handling the antique imagery and hardware of photography’s first 100 years. There are also numerous Websites on antique photographica that repay time spent with them. With the same phone that the young are using to take selfies, they can, for starters, take a look at Luminous Lint; Michael Pritchard’s British Photographic History; and the online American Museum of Photography. Once hooked, they’ll be searching for all the information they can find, only a tiny fraction of which is, still at this point, anywhere but between the pages of a book.
As we were leaving the theater, I said to Bob, "I don't know what we paid for the tickets, but it wasn't enough." What an extravaganza! The stage, the theater itself, seemed too small for this production -- not a criticism. It's just the way it was. Surely they want to go on to bigger things with this -- i.e., Broadway. I'm not qualified to predict, but I do think it would be a smash hit. The story is well known, since this musical is based on the film of the same title, which I have never seen. It dramatizes J.M. Barrie's friendship with the family that was the inspiration for Peter Pan. Four child actors played the parts of the boys of the family. They were brilliant! So were their mother, the leading man, and the guy in the dog suit who played Barrie's St. Bernard, Porthus. The choreography was distinctive, balletic. The humor was effective. The tearjerker moments genuinely jerked tears. The only minus I would give it would be for the songs. There was nothing even close to the level of, say, Where is Love? Melodies and lyrics were all somewhat cliched and predictable. I'm not humming them. Still, I am thinking about the show and its messages. It is important to Believe. Of course, we both glommed onto the time theme represented by the ticking coming from the alarm clock inside crocodile, a grandfather clock in the Barrie household, a clock face that was part of the stage set whose hands sometimes were propelled round and round. Never growing up means never having the clock hands move the hours, days, weeks, years forward. In the end, though, Barrie does grow up, and the children are looking forward to doing the same while remaining forever childlike, but not childish, which is an entirely different thing.
Initially, he didn’t strike me as someone who would say a word to his audience. To be honest, he looked like a curmudgeon. Scowling, no tan whatsoever. I thought: he must never get out in the summer sun, always at the piano. And there he was, dressed in a dark suit and tie on a July afternoon. A friend of his came up to him beforehand and asked if he was feeling the heat. One word: “Yes.” Well, without any introduction whatsoever, he started playing, which was wonderful enough; then he started talking. That made the day. He had story upon story, and told them all with great passion. About seeing the film “Girl Crazy” at age nine and going crazy for the Gershwins. About writing to Ira Gershwin and being answered, and writing again and being answered again, and again, and finally receiving an invitation to go see him in Los Angeles. Glazier grew up in Indianapolis. He was 12 years old when he met Ira and was invited to sit down at the piano that had once belonged to George. The young fan played “Embraceable You” and Ira sang. Magic! The show, under a tent on the back lawn of The Elms, was more magic, featuring some of the best American popular music ever written by anyone, including that number. It concluded with a classic work that rises to the level of true art, one of my favorite pieces of music ever, “Rhapsody in Blue.” p.s. The photo is small, but perhaps big enough for you to note the Martha Stewart lookalike in pink with arms crossed in the front row.
The "Commentaries" portion of this website is a record of some of Ms. Schinto's cultural experiences, e.g., books read, TV series watched, movies seen, exhibits visited, plays and musical events attended, etc. She also from time to time will post short essays on various topics.