The Personal Archive

There are only 6 pages left in my journal. There used to be about 300 smooth, creamy, unlined pages in that leather-bound notebook given to me by good friend and classmate on the day of our college graduation. As I’m nearing the end of this collection of stories, I’ve begun to read over my thoughts on the events, travels, worries, stunted romances, people, achievements and losses that mark my life since September 2007. But in recollecting all that has happened since my senior year of college, I realized the process of piecing together my life is less simple than reading one journal. There’s another leather-bound notebook to be perused, a few word documents that acted as a diary while I was in the library working on papers, a series of digital photo albums, and blogs.

For most of the academic projects I undertake, personal and family papers are the core of my research. Thinking back on my work on Ellen Day Hale (1855-1940), I spent hours rummaging through her tremendous archive of hand written notebooks and letters – correspondences scribbled on small bits of paper, filled to the corners with words so as not to be wasteful, years and years of personal finances diligently kept in ledgers, photographs and sketchbooks. Her published writings and her manuscripts — all there for me to handle and read. But the personal archive is changing. Should my personal papers one day end up in MoMA’s library, handwritten notebooks and printed photographs will be in the minority.

Today, while there are still journals to be filled with ink (and fill them I will), there are word documents, facebook albums, blogs and flickr. The personal archive is no longer purely a paper trail.

I wonder — does this means our archives have become more personal (think of how much more we can record thanks to technology)? There’s something about a handwritten page and a carefully selected photo that speaks more about an individual than a typed or airbrushed digital document. But then again, thanks to digital, we get to archive more of our life…

I pity the poor grad student who writes her dissertation about me.


The Unwashed Phenomenon Decks the Halls

I couldn’t believe it either. Bob Dylan has released a Christmas album. 

The definitive voice of America’s counter-culture, the definitive voice of the anti-establishment had gone the way of the shimmering smooth pop-prince and recorded a Christmas record. Could you imagine anything more of a stretch? And Dylan is no crooner a la Frank Sinatra or Michael Buble. Would the croaking drawl that elongated syllables and fell in unexpected cadences butcher such loved carols as “Little Drummer Boy?

Skeptics, take note: there is no singer in this day and age more suited to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus” than Bob Dylan.

“Christmas in the Heart” is easily one of the best holiday albums recorded in the last decade by a popular artist. Dylan is as much a historian of traditional American folk songs as he is a creator of them. His early years were spent chasing Woody Guthrie, Odetta and John Jacob Niles — learning their songs and attempting to capture the visceral, genuine qualities of their voices. He is an archivist of sorts and deeply rooted in music’s past. Christmas carols are folk songs — songs that tell a story, that are revived year after year and passed from one generation to another. Who better to sing them than the King of Folk?

One of the great successes of “Christmas in the Heart” is that it’s a paired down, no-frills album. The only embellishments to the 15 well-known tracks are a few sleigh bells and backup singers that could easily be the company in “Holiday Inn.” The fact that Dylan’s Christmas album sounds more 1942 than 2009 only makes it more believable as a holiday album. Let’s face it — the American vision of Christmas has been shaped by Irving Berlin, “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) and Jimmy Stewart. That said, a good Christmas album should evoke the age of Gene Autry, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Personally, I can think of anything worse than an over-popped, poorly “updated” carol. Actually, when it comes to Christmas songs, there’s a lot of things that are pretty terrible… [click here]

Dylan has compared his musical journey to an Odyssey… “I had set out to find this home I’d left a while back,” he said in an interview for the documentary No Direction Home. “I couldn’t remember where exactly it was, but I was on my way there. I was born very far from where I was supposed to be, so I’m on my way home.” It seems appropriate then that my favorite track off “Christmas in the Heart” is “I’ll be home for Christmas.” Everything about it is just sooo Bob Dylan.

Meet me in the Bauhaus

a newspaper shelf by Walter Gropius. I'd love to sit a stack of Sunday Times on this

Okay, confession time again, folks: I’m an art historian who knew didly-squat about Bauhaus, one of the most important and influential design movements of the modern era.  And frankly, I didn’t care to know much more than it happened in Germany and that it was important. Man, was I ever missing out…

MoMA’s fall exhibition Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity, 1919-1933 sandblasts misconceived notions that German design is gray and industrial. It is a stunning exhibit, beautifully curated and cock-full of stuff to covet (there’s a few textiles I’d love to own as skirts and several pieces of furniture would look smashing in my dream flat). Illustrated books, ceramic pots, paintings, photographs, bookcases, light fixtures, tables, puppets, tea kettles, and chess sets — Bauhaus artists had their fingers in everything, and at least one of everything is on display on the 6th floor of MoMA.

a colorchart study by Paul Klee

Bauhaus was formed in Weimar in 1919 and was the brainchild of architect Walter Gropius who envisioned a school of design that brought the worlds of fine arts and industry into one. It was a Renaissance idea — all branches of the arts working harmoniously together — reborn in the 20th century in an economically devastated Germany. Over the next decade and a half, the Bauhaus would become home to some of the best-known names in 20th century art and design — Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Laszol Moholy-Nagey, to name but a small few. It would relocate twice, once in 1925 to Dessau and again in 1932 to Berlin, before being closed by the Nazi government in 1933. The exhibit is organized along these three periods in Bauhaus’ history, and the changes in leadership over time and place are easily traced through the works on display.

Color and shape abounds in “Bauhaus: Workshops in Modernity”; geometry and color charts are both toys and tools of the artist. Where “Tim Burton” is MoMA’s show for the masses, “Bauhaus” is its exhibition with more academic aims. The curators, Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, got their hands on objects from the Bauhaus archives that haven’t seen a public venue since they were made. Undoubtedly, Bauhaus is a scholarly show — the catalog costs $75 and features essays from the leading scholars on the school. This is not to say the exhibit requires some sort of background in the history of 20th century art or Germany to be enjoyed. Rather, it manages to be both scholarly and approachable (I think the colored walls help a lot — yes, orange walls in a museum!).

Oskar Schlemmer. Bauhaus Stairway. 1932.

Of all the exhibits on display at MoMA over the fall and winter months, Bauhaus is the shining jewel in the program’s crown. It has been called “one of those exhibits that comes along in a rare while,” and indeed it feels like a one-in-a-lifetime-landmark-kind-of-show. Bauhaus should be slowly savored, and luckily with everyone crammed into Burton, you’ll probably have most of the 6th floor gallery to yourself. So get going and tell a friend to meet you in the Bauhaus.

Tim Burton bombards MoMA

Untitled (cartoon series), c. 1980-1986. (Cupid's true colors)

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality,” iconic director Tim Burton once said. And if you happen to find yourself in MoMA’s fall/winter exhibit “Tim Burton,” you’ll discover Burton’s reality is pretty crazy.


“Tim Burton” is a ground-breaking and staggering exhibit. Ground-breaking because it’s the first time a major fine arts museum is exhibiting Burton’s non-cinematic work — the first time a Hollywood A-list director is being elevated to the status of fine artist. Staggering because there are so many doodles and drawings to peruse. There are hundreds of parts and their sum is a weighty and intimate look into the relentless imagination of one our generation’s best-loved filmmakers.

NYTimes critic Ken Johnson clearly doesn’t believe a museum like MoMA should be using gallery space on an artist like Tim Burton… because Burton isn’t a graphic artist, he’s a filmmaker. Leave him in the theaters, is essentially Johnson’s message. “To be a popular Hollywood moviemaker and to be an interesting fine artist in today’s terms are very different propositions” he writes, “and it’s no knock on Mr. Burton that he’s not great at both. Nobody is that good.” Johnson had some excellent points in his review — indeed, the exhibition could have done with about a hundred fewer drawings (I believe there are upwards of 400 hundred) — but to call it a “letdown” means he had the wrong expectations.

The majority of the works are cultivated from Burton’s personal sketchbooks and private collection. The reality is, these hundreds of drawings, doodles and cartoons were never meant for public display. With this in mind, they are not so much works of fine art as they are a visualized stream of consciousness.

If you’ve ever seen a Burton film — which unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen at least 3 — then you’re already familiar with his gothic and distorted figures. Proportions are stretched and shrunk, edges are sharp and humour is black.

It’s hard in this economic climate not to look at an exhibit like “Tim Burton” without questioning MoMA’s integrity. Museums have cut their operating budgets, endowments and donations are down. But before “Tim Burton” even opened, MoMA had sold out of its first printing of the exhibition’s catalog. Lines have already been forming round the block of people waiting to pay the $20 admissions fee to the museum. It’s the jackpot exhibit every museum hopes for.

But regardless about how you feel about MoMA and Burton and fine art, “Tim Burton” is a special. Sure we can go over the exhibit’s shortcomings. But I think that’s just silly. MoMA should be praised for having the balls to weather the naysayers that thought mounting such an exhibit was contrary to its mission. And let’s be honest, the greatest measure of the success of an exhibit is its popularity. The number of people flocking to the 3rd floor are testament enough — “Tim Burton” is brilliant.

Edward Scissorhands, representative of Burton's prevalent theme of lost childhood and dysfunctional human relationships

I think Bravo won when it Lost Project Runway

Season 6 of “Project Runway” was a waste of 14 Thursday nights.

The season finale Bryant Park show was a lackluster display of recycled looks, average street wear, and overworked gowns. Fashion forward? Not so much.

Did anyone notice the striking resemblance between Irina’s collection and that of season 4 winner, Christian Siriano? The all-black garments, the felt hats, the dramatic shoulders, the stilettos. We’d seen it all 2 seasons ago… but Christian was a showman. I still remember those stunning bolero jackets and high-neck blouses. His collection was like a series of Rembrandt portraits — dark and powerful, modern and immortal. Irina’s collection, while cohesive and certainly well-constructed, was not particularly memorable. It was perhaps the most tired of the three lines.

Althea just looked at what’s already going on in fashion — layers, boyfriend blazers, harem pants, 80s-shoulders, and cinch-waist belts — and made her own. It reeked of a high schooler on a limited budget who embarked on a DYI fashion project. Indeed, there were several individual pieces that would become staples in any woman’s wardrobe — a cardigan or pair of pants. But did it shake up your fashion world? Did it inspire you to redo your wardrobe? No. It was a snooozefest… albeit, one that would sell well in Macy’s.

Carol-Hannah had the most compelling, though most disjointed, collection of the three. Her first dress, a short, flowing champagne-colored cocktail number, was structured and draped in a way that echoed the lancet arches of Gothic cathedrals. It was a show-stopper. As was her “13th look” — a teal, floor-length gown that simultaneously screamed Grecian goddess and silver screen siren. But there were several metallic looks in the middle that looked like bad maternity wear, even with all the stunning embellishments. Also, her signature look (a gold, fish-tale gown) was remarkably similar to Rami’s (of season 4) signature look.

Throughout the season, Irina was the judge’s favorite. She won more challenges than the other designers and rarely received negative feedback. But she has a thing for fake fur, which to me means she has a taste problem. Fake fur always looks cheap. She also likes her dresses hip-hugging and skin-tight… which to me also indicates a taste problem.

Challenge after challenge, I questioned the judges’ decisions. Michael Kors was MIA for most of the season, and I feel as a result, some looks won and some looks were overlooked that shouldn’t have. Frankly, there was nothing particularly memorable about most of the winning looks… except maybe Chris’ first winning dress that was a cascade of ruffles that stopped just above the knee. I wish they had kept him for Bryant Park… at least he would have put on a show with 12 voluminous, over inflated gowns. Anything would have been better than all that black and beige.

And can I just say, what happened to all the sleeves on all the knitwear in that final runway show? Did they stretch out on the hangers and the models, or did Althea and Irina mean for the cuffs to hit the knees? I’m all for an oversize sweater, but at some point oversize looks ridiculous.

Considering Season 5’s dullsville finale (does anyone remember who won?), I was expecting Season 6 to be a knockout on par with seasons 1-4 (I wanted every one of those winners in my wardrobe). But after two lame seasons in a row, I have to say… I’m sorry, Project Runway, you’re out. Auf wiedersehen.

Better than the Da Vinci Code… cuz it’s true

002When I see books like “Rogue’s Gallery” (my current read) and “The Judgment of Paris” on a bestseller’s list, I get a little giddy (I have such an intellectual crush on Ross King). It’s refreshing to know that, 1. it’s possible to write art historical books that appeal to a non-academic audience and 2. that there is a hefty audience who finds the real-life intrigues of the art world as consuming as a Dan Brown novel.

Along with the ever popular art-heist thrillers (“The Lost Painting”) there have been some pretty interesting books of late that delve into the history of collecting, museums, and art market. I’ve always been fascinated with the public’s fervent love of art — from the riots surrounding the Paris Salons of the 19th century to the more recent protests surrounding a painting of the Virgin Mary covered in dung, it seems people have always had violent opinions about what should and shouldn’t be art. Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Kammen has written on this subject in Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (a book that’s been on my shelf for a year, but has yet to be cracked).

Why is it that we’re as fascinated by the history of the Met as by the artwork housed within its walls? Museums are complex symbols of power. We associate them with both with high culture and the exceedingly wealthy, which means there must be some good dirt about their founders and their collections laying around. And it seems a number of researchers have dug up that dirt.

Michael Gross’ Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum reveals the Met’s more sordid and contentious beginnings. We owe Phillip de Montebello a lot for expanding the Met’s holdings to include some of the most stunning and influential pieces in Western art. But before the beloved de Montebello, the Met had some questionable directors who aquired some questionable artworks. In a similar vein, Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman revives the Gilded Age characters who voraciously consumed El Grecos and Rembrandts. Saltzman focuses on a few select artworks and a handful of influential collectors who effectively shaped America’s most important art holdings. Her history is as readable as it is well-researched.

There’s also Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren, The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century, and The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft — all published within the last 2 or 3 years. “Seven Days in the Art World” by Sarah Thorton attempts to unravel the complex relationships between contemporary buyers and contemporary artists. I read it over the summer as I was starting to get more directly involved in the art world outside of academia — so far I consider it an essential road map.

As someone who wants to make a career out of publishing readable histories of artworks and the periods that produced them, its a relief to know there will be more than 5 PhD candidates reading my books…

Victorians are Always En Vogue

Portrait of William Walton, 1886

James Carroll Beckwith, "Portrait of William Walton," 1886.

If you happened upon today’s NY Times Thursday Style section, you may have noticed a front page spread on a Victorian revival in menswear. Partially spurred by Guy Ritchie’s re-envisioning of Sherlock Holmes, the 1800s inspired bowler hats, military coats, three-piece suits, and suspenders now en vogue seem an appropriate return to masculinity in a fashion world otherwise dominated by slightly effeminate hipsters. When we think of Victorians and fashion, corsets, bustles, and hatpins are what typically come to mind. What we forget is that the American male identity — the cowboy and the power-broker, the rugged frontiersman and the rough-edged urbanite — was effectively created in the years following the Civil War, in the Gilded Age. (Hello, J.P Morgan!)

I find an interesting irony in this revival in style. With last fall’s economic collapse, we witnessed the death of another Gilded Age. Wednesday’s Times featured articles on the post-meltdown retraction of philanthropic giving. Yet interior decorators and menswear designers have turned to the 1890s, an age marked by opulence, extravagance, and the birth of American philanthropy as we know it. What are designers trying to tell us? That things are looking up? Or have they found a sense of humour?

Whatever the case maybe, I’m quite happy to have this revival of old-school haberdashery. I don’t know about you other women out there, but these skinny jeans on anorexic men is just not my idea of sexy.

Now, what about the new Sherlock Holmes?

I once told three sharp women to “Leave Auntie Jane [Austen] Alone.”

Now I’m going ask Guy Ritchie to leave Sir Arthur Conan Doyle alone. I’m going to hold my tongue and not call Guy Ritchie one of the most overrated upstart directors of the last decade. I’m not going to call him a one-hit wonder (really, all he had was Lock, Stock… Snatch wasn’t up to snuff). But I will ask, does he really think turning history’s most beloved uber-sleuth into stuntman is a good idea? Does he really think Robert Downy, Jr. is the best man to embody a character marked by his “extraordinary powers” of deduction? Maybe Ritchie was thinking about Holmes as a cocaine addict when he was casting. Holmes is a dandy, not an action hero. He’s an intellectual who’s just a wee-bit feminine, and most importantly, he’s a social outsider, who as Watson tells us “loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul.” Somehow, Downy, Jr.., with his 8-pack, is just a little too cool for the Sherlock Holmes school… and don’t get me started on Jude Law as Dr. Watson.

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