museum day

I was fed up with everything the other day and decided I needed to go see the revamped Greek and Roman hall at the Metropolitan. Once there, I faced momentary sticker shock ($20) but reminded myself that the splendors of the ancient world were probably worth it. The Greek hall and the new Roman atrium area (site of the long-ago restaurant; hard to believe Dorothy Draper was ever there!) are soaring, beautiful, sky-lit spaces. Somehow they managed to envelope school groups and seniors and cranky babies and unruly throngs in a delicate calm. Sunlight gave the marble a beatific glow. I saw Cycladic and early Geometric Greek, Classical Greek, and Late Hellenistic, Early Roman, Classical Roman, and Late Roman, and, up on the mezzanine, a jumble of Etruscan for good measure. I also saw Tate Donovan, late of "the OC."

It is difficult to reconcile the (my) stereotypical notion of the Classical World: white, measured, Golden Mean, moderation in all things– with much evidence to the contrary. Polychromed, gilded, bawdy—the ancient world was loud in every sense of the word. Classical statuary, I would say, is quiet, pensive— even
the heroic athletes or combatant youths. All the more so because it's often fragmentary and the viewer, receiving partial information, must pause and imagine. Objects like the colorful vase and box or the peculiar ring of painted ladies or even the fey fellow with wings (images above) seem to sing or laugh or cackle... {That "angel" really struck me— I don't think I've ever seen ancient winged adult figures, have I? Babies or sphinxes or harpies but not youths.}

Another thing I never truly noticed before was how mutable form was for the Greeks and Romans et al. Again, this flies in the face of the measured, symmetrical rationality that supposedly defines the Greeks. Double-faced ("janiform") heads, heads split down the center (like that astounding ram-donkey headed drinking cup), human figures sprouting horses, extra heads or an accretion of limbs. Vases in the shape of legs, heads, phalluses, birds, even lobster claws (above). It's as though corporeal form, for them, was a transient state: often recorded, in bronze or terra cotta, in mid-transformation...
That tremendous bronze statue of Some Later Roman Emperor (I was bad with recording what it was I was looking at) was
so ludicrous, so ghastly, I was embarrassed for it. Ungainly, oafish and truly cringe-worthy it was as though some crazy uncle finally went unhinged and took off his clothes at Thanksgiving dinner.
Some things are just so powerful in their fragmentary state (hand holding a rod, above) I think the whole would be somewhat disappointing.
Finally I wended my way to
the dour comfort of the Northern Renaissance to see some Old favorites when I came upon a man (and woman) wearing the tightest jeans I have ever seen. But what nearly floored me were his white kid skin dance shoes, which, back in the day, were generically called "Capezios." These two were studying a Bosch-inspired landscape so intently they didn't notice me gaping and snickering.
I laughed out loud at this particular Christ ascending into heaven, which I don't suppose was the desired effect. But really, it's as though stage hands were sloppily hoisting him from the frame...


cameo cards and the great rescue

I found the slim and rather clumsily titled "Cameo Cards and Bella C. Landauer" while snooping around on the desk of collagist and master printer Robert Warner. He was kind enough to overlook that fact and lend the booklet, which was published by the Ephemera Society of America, to me. The Society describes itself within the booklet in endearing terms as
concerned with the preservation, study, and educational uses of printed and handwritten ephemera... These bits and pieces of everyday life have held a strange fascination for all those who have rescued the minor documents of society from obscurity.
I especially love the designation of "rescuing" – I often feel just that when I'm debating over yet another postcard/ billhead/ticket stub. I sometimes get slightly panicky if I pause to think about the countless "minor documents" that casually slipped into obscurity...

Cameo cards, strictly speaking, are embossed commercial calling cards. So called because with their light figures on dark ground they bear a passing resemblance to carved cameo jewels (see top image, above, with its particularly high-relief portrait). Especially popular in the decade or so before the Civil War, they continued to be produced through the end of the 19th century.

This booklet, likely out of necessity, is a sadly low-budget affair and the very poor black and white reproductions only hint at what must be gorgeous reality. (Color pairings and variants are noted and reeled off: light blue and pale red, blue with bronze and copper, violet with brown, and so on). The booklet also reveals the obsessive cataloging and redundant cross-referencing that seems endemic to fervent collectors...

Much of the credit for making the world of ephemera, well, less ephemeral goes to Bella C. Landauer (1874–1960) who amassed such a tremendous collection that the portion of her archive donated to the New-York Historical Society alone numbers 850,000 pieces. Mrs. Landauer, who looked like an extra from a Marx brother's film, was tireless and somewhat manic-- she apparently presided over her collection in a disused kitchen in the attic of the Historical Society until more genteel showrooms became available. She glued, cataloged, and added to the archive several days a week, until her death.

I tried to understand what it is that I find so enchanting about these cards: the juxtaposition of minute detail and crudeness; fanciful shapes and awkward word breaks, the idiosyncratic phrasing
and of course, rampant commas!
"Adams, Hotel"
"Practical Steam Marble Works"
"Cracker and Variety Bakery"
"Theodor Kay, fancy turner in Meerschaum..."

--- --- ---
On reviewing this post a few days later I find it necessary to highlight 2 proprietor names that are worth a pause: first row just under the large portrait, left and center.

Also, anyone have ideas about what the mound-like structure in the last card is supposed to represent...A bee hive of carpet attracting all the ladies?


best regards

A small spotlight cast onto to a few of the best blogs I frequent. First installment:
Le Divan Fumoir Bohemien, where I pilfered this beautiful miniature, is a mystery. This is only partially so because it is entirely in French. Even if it were in English I imagine the site would still be suffused in a dreamlike wunderkammer atmosphere. The author gathers striking details from 18th and 19th century paintings, haunting bits of illustration, a series on ribbons, unusual scenes from abroad, a meditation on ice and winter imagery, and sugar glazed flowers...The last post I checked was a brief investigation into the origin of "Happy Birthday to You," prompted by recognizing the passing "notes mécaniques" in the air one night on a trip to Vietnam . The "about" page appears to refer to "Florizel, Prince of Bohemia" and to a Robert Louis Stevenson quote but that really gets one nowhere. I imagine her somewhere between Orlando and Ophelia...


the Forgotten Ideal

My friend John lent me a book last week, Hudson Valley Ruins by Thomas Rinaldi and Robert Yasinac. It took me several days to get beyond the academic publisher production values to finally see the beauty that this book is. Encyclopedic research — breadth and detail of truly heroic proportions — is spun into sensitive and occasionally haunting narrative.

The forgotten ideal referred to above is, the authors say, the 18th and 19th century conception of the Picturesque which had all but gone out of favor in the 20th. Ruins and relics that had once been valued, even cherished, were seen as blight or
nuisances at best.

The Picturesque**, as I personally interpret it, is a cousin to aspects of Romanticism**. The Romanticism of the Keats/Shelley/Byron is a melancholy of majesty-- a meditation upon Antiquity. The temporal aspect is a transportive state of mind. Washington Irving noted, "I longed to wander over scenes of renowned achievement...to meditate on the falling tower...to escape, in short, from the commonplace realities of the present." (As quoted in Hudson Valley Ruins)
Proponents of the Picturesque rhapsodized the beauty, the "sublimity," of the interaction of the forces of man and nature. Americans of the 19th century were especially proud of the country's vast landscape-- which, to them, embodied the potential and the freedom of the "young and vigorous" nation. The effects of wear of were prized for their evocation of the fleeting passage of Time. Ultimately, though, the eccentricities of the Picturesque seemed to become too easily subsumed by Victorian sentimentality and the "charm" of a passing scene:

... That beauty of ruins that is so rare with us in America— the nameless charm that.... always surrounds an old decaying structure that has played its part in the world, and seems resting and looking on dreamily, only an observer now, not an actor. –William Cullen Bryant, from Picturesque America (1874), as excerpted in Hudson Valley Ruins
In the 19th century, Rinaldi and Yasinac say, the Hudson Valley was lauded as the Rhine of the New World. And as the inspirational beauty of the valley became dotted with the moldering remains of Revolutionary-era forts and Dutch colonial manors-- all the better. The "modern" ruins of the recent industrial past hold a fascination too. Rinaldi and Yasinac discuss cement factories, mills, railway remnants, valve companies, pill manufacturers and ice works. They reveal a particular aspiration, I think, when they fleetingly touch on the appeal of industrial and utilitarian structures for artists like Charles Sheeler (see the authors' very Sheeleresque image above) and Bernd and Hilla Becher. The authors detail with equal enthusiasm a Wharton family residence, the Anaconda Wire and Cable Co. (a notorious former polluter*) and an old Dutch barn. I just love the masses of information in this book, told with a Humanist sensitivity.
A quote about Ruskin particularly struck me:

Ruskin promoted the idea that the process of aging and weathering was what perfected good architecture. That age was a building's "greatest glory." He wrote of "the mere sublimity of the rents, or fractures, or stains, or vegetation which assimilate the architecture with the work of Nature... (emphasis is mine)
I talked about this last year in my post about inexhaustibility and wabi-sabi. I'd found a comment by British designer Russell Davies, One of the things I hate about the design of most things ... is they're all designed to be new.” Obvious, but somehow I hadn't quite thought about it that way. And that pinpoints the problem I have with much of the really bad iterations of Modernism, and, (shiver) "Fedders" architecture– they won't make good ruins.

* "I seen all kinds of oil and sulfuric acid, copper filings; my gosh, they were coming out of that company like it was going out of style. I've seen lubro oil and I've seen #2 oil. All over Anaconda, off the dock, you could see this stuff coming out....This was entering the river on a daily basis, you know." First hand commentary about the Anaconda Company from PBS/NOW documentary, The Hudson: America's First River
**update/note: I'm amending my definition of Romanticism and Picturesque. A large component of Romanticism is about man and nature— as is the Picturesque. I think I'd emphasize the distinction between the two with a sense of action and turmoil (Romanticism) and its aftermath (Picturesque).  ----

Images, from top: The Course of Empire: Desolation, Thomas Cole, 1836; Alsen's Portland Cement Works, Smith's Landing; Oliver Bronson House, Hudson, NY. From Hudson Valley Ruins


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