March 13, 2013
For Downton Abbey fans wondering how to spend their time until season four begins next year, PBS is offering a little something to dull the pain. Starting March 31st, we’ll be able to indulge our frothy fantasies with “Mr. Selfridge,” a new series replete with Edwardian finery, intricate plots and engaging actors.
Inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s 2007 biography, Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge, about department store magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, the new Masterpiece Theater series starring Jeremy Piven in the title role, makes an important connection: “If you lived at Downton Abbey, you shopped at Selfridge’s.”
The American-born Selfridge (1856-1947) learned the retail trade in the years when dry goods outlets were being replaced by dazzling urban department stores. Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Gimbels in New York were vast “palaces of abundance” that treated shoppers like pampered pets. These stores made shopping entertaining, competing for attention with tea rooms, barber shops, fashion shows and theatrical presentations.
In a twist of irony, shopping also provided a platform for women’s empowerment and for the rising emancipation movement. The modern “new woman” rode bicycles and worked in cities and appeared in public alone without fear of scandal. To women who embraced a modern public identity, department stores became a safe haven where they could convene without guardians or escorts. Shopping was a declaration of independence. And the fun was in the details. Fashion was always changing so there was plenty of reason to load up shopping bags and come back for more.
Setting the stage with as much hoopla as possible, the art of selling had became as much a “show” as any theatrical venture. Beautifully appointed, Field’s, Gimbels and Wanamker’s were glittering showplaces, bathed in the glow of newly invented high-wattage electric lighting. And shopper’s found paradise enjoying the displays of exciting new goods in the large plate glass windows. John Wanamaker, whose Philadelphia department store reflected the newest techniques in salesmanship—smart advertising and beautifully displayed merchandise—even exhibited Titians and Manets from his personal art collection.
Harry Selfridge got his start as a stock boy at Marshall Field’s landmark Chicago store. For 25 years, he climbed rung-by-rung the proverbial corporate ladder until he became Field’s partner, amassing a considerable personal fortune along the way. But it wasn’t enough to quench an insatiable ambition and on a trip to London in 1906, he had a “Eureka” moment. Noting that London stores lacked the latest selling techniques popular in America, Selfridge took his leave from Field’s, and opened a London emporium. Always a dreamer, but quite practical as well, he chose a site ideally situated to attract thousands of people, traveling the Central Line—the London Underground that had opened just six years earlier and would become a boon to West End retailers.
Opening for business on March 15, 1909, the store became a commercial phenomenon, attracting a million people during its first week. A London columnist reported that it was second only to Big Ben as a tourist favorite. The store was a marvel of its day—five stories high with three basement levels, a roof-top terrace and more than 100 departments and visitor services, including a tea room, a barber shop, a hair salon, a library, a post office, sumptuous ladies’ and gentlemen’s cloakrooms, a rifle range, a nursing station and a concierge who could book West End show tickets or a passage to New York. The store’s massive six acres of floor space was gorgeously designed with wide open-plan vistas; brilliant lighting and trademark green carpeting throughout. Modern Otis “lifts” whisked customers quickly from floor-to-floor. “A store, which is used every day,” Selfridge said, “should be as fine a thing and, in its own way, as ennobling a thing as a church or a museum.”
The opening coincided with the burgeoning suffrage movement. The same year, Alice Paul—a young American Quaker who moved to London to work on the British suffrage movement—made headlines when she disrupted the Prime Minister’s speech by throwing her shoes and yelling, “Votes for women!” Politically awakened, women felt newly empowered in the marketplace and at the department store in particular where they could shop independently, without a chaperone and without fear of causing scandal for doing so. Selfridge himself understood this, once explaining “I came along just at the time when women wanted to step out on their own. They came to the store and realized some of their dreams.”
The act of shopping may have opened doors for turn-of-the-century women, but the dream of suffrage would require organized political engagement for ensuing generations. On her return to the United States, Paul became a leader in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In March 1913, she organized a massive parade in Washington to demand a Constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. The 19th Amendment was ratified seven years later on August 18, 1920; in 1923 Alice Paul drafted an Equal Rights Amendment that would guarantee women’s equality. Congress passed the ERA half a century later in 1972, but of course not enough states have yet voted for its ratification.
Meanwhile, the enticing real-life story of Mr. Selfridge and his department store will take us back to a time when women wore corsets and ankle-length dresses, and couldn’t vote. But they could shop. And perhaps unwittingly, Harry Selfridge furthered their ambitions when he said: “the customer is always right.”
March 12, 2013
In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained to his publisher:
“America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women,
and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied
with their trash.”
Hawthorne’s contempt seethes with the sneering and patronizing discrimination of his era; and demonstrates the double bind of a lot of discriminatory attitudes—the outcast form their own counter-culture, and are further condemned for it. Banished from the highest echelons of literary culture, women responded by tapping a popular audience hungry for “domestic” fiction—romances and the like. They were, then, criticized for undermining serious culture. Nice!
Hawthorne’s superiority, coupled with his angry self-pity, is a particularly bald statement of the obstacles that women writers faced in 19th-century America. But it also inadvertently reveals that women were active producers and consumer of literary culture. Yet, how long would it take for women to be treated on equal terms with men? And how would women authors affect the form and content of American poetry and fiction?
The case of poetry is particularly interesting both in tracing the arrival of women poets, but also for the way that gender influenced and changed the very form of poetic writing.
Hawthorne may have let slip what a lot of people thought about women writers; discrimination is always a tangle of personal and societal motivations. It took a long time to untangle things.
In American poetry, there were outliers like Phillis Wheatley (1752-1784) and a century later, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Dickinson is the archetypical undiscovered genius: now considered one of America’s greatest poets. Virtually unknown and unread in her own lifetime, she wrote over a thousand poems, concise masterpieces about faith, death and the terrible beauty of life.
One suspects that when she wrote: “The soul selects her own society,/Then shuts the door,” she was referring not only to her own shyness, but also to the way that society shut the door on certain sensitive souls. It was only by hiding herself away in her Amherst, Massachusetts, home that she freed herself to write.
Writing poetry is such an odd business that it’s dangerous to try to draw a direct connection between improvements in the legal or social conditions of women and the quality of poetry written by them. Nonetheless, movement on civil and social rights did have a general, positive impact, especially as women gained access to higher education.
At the turn of the 19th century, Hilda Doolittle studied Greek literature at Bryn Mawr college and came under the patronage of Ezra Pound who wrote poems for and about her as well as encouraging her to cultivate a style influenced by the imagistic forms of Asian poetry. Her poem “Sea Rose” begins in almost haiku style:
“rose, harsh rose,/marred and with stint of petals,/meager flower, thin. . .”
Indeed, Pound bestowed Doolittle with the moniker, “H.D. imagiste. The H.D. stuck as her pen name although her verse became less imagistic as her career—and her religious faith—developed.
As a student in Philadelphia, Doolittle met other poets. Together, she along with William Carlos Williams and especially Marianne Moore formed, under Pound’s tutelage, the first generation of modernist American poets. And it was Moore who cracked the proverbial glass ceiling for women poets. Establishing herself, in a way that Langston Hughes did for African Americans, Moore became the poet who would command serious consideration from the literary establishment because the quality of her work could not be denied. Competing equally with poets like Pound or Williams or Frost influenced the kind of poetry that Moore wrote, over and above questions of personal choice and temperament. A particularly astute naturalist, Moore delighted in beauty and elegance of the animal world:
“I remember a swan under the willows in Oxford,
with flamingo-colored, maple-
leaflike feet. It reconnoitered like a battle-
In her poem about “Poetry” she confessed that “I, too, dislike it” but verse gave rise to voice:
“hands that can grasp, eyes/that can dilate/hair that can rise”
In creating a genealogy of American women poets, Moore is important for those she helped and mentored, especially Elizabeth Bishop.
Bishop, like Moore, handled the “women’s question” by ignoring it. They were modernist poets, who happened to be women and they didn’t spend much energy—in public anyway—considering their political predicament. Instead, they created poetry that was ordered by their close observation of the natural world and human society. The results offer the annealed and detailed quality of an Albrecht Durer etching. Consider these lines from Bishop’s famous poem, “The Fish” (Moore had written a poem with the same title so Bishop is paying homage to her mentor),which begins with the immediacy of “I caught a tremendous fish”
“He was speckled with barnacles
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.”
After 75 lines of exquisite observation, the final line is simply: “And I let the fish go.”
A double entendre, perhaps, since Bishop has created the fish in her poem and now lets it and the poem out into the world. Bishop’s tightly packed, carefully considered poetry (she was notable for the time she took before she was satisfied with her work and would release a poem for publication), fit into a solitary and somewhat reclusive personality.
As American poetry became more personal and confessional after World War II—Bishop’s great friend Robert Lowell led the way and she chastised him for making his verse too personal—women poets began to depart from the model created by Moore and Bishop. As the personal became political, so also did it become poetical and then again political as well.
Sylvia Plath’s coruscating poems about the emotional airlessness of middle class life; the analogy of her house to Auschwitz and her father to Hitler still shock. Others didn’t have the audacity—or the sense—to go that far, but the physical and emotional state of women now became a subject that could be raised in print instead of sublimated or kept out of public view.
The line of ascendency started by Plath and pointing to contemporary poets like Sharon Olds and Louise Gluck, who have focused on the body (their bodies), draws wider connections and resonances.
With women assuming a larger place in the literary canon, they have also begun questioning the very nature of language itself. In particular, is language necessarily patriarchal? The career of the great Adrienne Rich is key here. Rich was tremendously talented even as an undergraduate, her books won prizes, but in the 1950s she became aware that her poetic voice was not her own. Rich self-consciously re-made her poetics to suit her emerging feminist consciousness. Her poem “Diving into the Wreck” describes her purposes:
“I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
‘ and the treasures that prevail.”
The contemporary Irish poet Eavan Boland has taken up Rich’s task. Writing her way out from under the patriarchal inheritance of Irish literary traditions, Boland radically stripped her language and lines down to the essentials. In a series of autobiographical investigations, she remakes language, expressing not only her own artistic autonomy, but the multitudinous roles and traditions that she embodies as a modern woman writer.
In “Mise Éire,” Boland offers:
“a new language/is a kind of scar/and heals after a while/into a passable imitation/of what went before.”
Boland is too modest here: the wounding scar becomes a new language altogether and something else entirely.
What Hawthorne would make of women taking possession of the language and subjects of poetry and making it their own is hard to imagine. One hopes he would have grown with the times.
March 7, 2013
When Gabrielle Douglas isn’t flying between the uneven bars (earning the nickname “flying squirrel”) or flipping her way down a balance beam, she’s gracing the cover of Corn Flakes boxes, making cameos at the MTV Video Music Awards and sitting down with Oprah Winfrey. At age 16, Douglas won two golds at last year’s London Olympics, winning both the individual and team all-around competitions. With her double gold she became both the first African American gymnast to win the individual all around and the first American to also win the team competition. A series of high-profile appearances, including meeting the president, followed, but Douglas says she’s keeping focused on the next Olympics. Recently, she donated several personal items, including the leotard she wore during her first competitive season in 2003, to the growing collections of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in 2015. Until then, they can be seen in the museum’s gallery at the American History Museum. Around the Mall caught up with the champion via email to talk about the donation and her future plans.
What do the items that you chose say about you, your life or stage in your career?
The items that I donated really tell the story of my journey to the Olympics. They represent me as an ordinary girl with big dreams, and as an Olympian at the peak of my gymnastics career. I wanted to share my first competition leotard because that’s where it all began for me—back home in Virginia. It’s a constant reminder to me of how far I’ve come.
Why did you choose the Smithsonian?
My mother took me and my siblings to the Smithsonian when we were much younger, and I was in awe of the amazing history. It’s such an honor to have my personal items on display at the world’s largest and most respected museum—especially in time for Black History Month. I thought that was pretty awesome.
What do you hope visitors will take away after seeing your items? What message do you hope they send?
I hope they see that my Olympic success did not happen overnight. This has been over a decade of hard work, but it all paid off. I also hope visitors will see that I could not have done this alone.They will see pictures of my family—my support system throughout this journey; and my host family, who joined forces with my mom to make sure that I reached my goal. I hope that my items send the message that anything is possible if you commit to your dream and fight for it every day. My mom taught me that success isn’t reserved for people of a specific color or background—it belongs to those who are willing to work for it.
You’ve had such incredible success, earning an impressive list of firsts. First African American woman to win gold in the individual all-around. First woman of color of any nationality to win the honor. First American athlete to win both the individual all-around and team gold medals. Which one meant the most to you and why?
You know, I think they are all equally important to me. I definitely take pride in the fact that I was able to change the face of gymnastics as the first African American woman to win gold in the individual all-around competition because I know what that means to little girls who look like me. However, winning the team gold medal was also a very special moment. It wasn’t so much about making history—I was just so happy to have the opportunity to celebrate with my teammates. Together, we brought the gold medal home to the U.S. and it felt great!
What was your favorite moment of the Olympics?
I will never forget the moment I ran and jumped in Coach (Liang) Chow’s arms after the Individual All Around Competition. I thanked him for believing in me and pushing me to reach my highest potential. I could see the pride in his eyes, and it was overwhelming. It still gives me chills when I think about that moment.
How do you think you’ve changed since the Olympics? What about since that first competitive season in 2003?
I’m asked that question all the time, but I’m just the same fun-loving Gabby. I love to hang out with family and friends, joke around, and have a great time. My family really keeps me grounded. I think, if anything, I’m more focused on using this platform I’ve been blessed to help inspire others. As for that first competitive season in 2003, I would say I’m definitely stronger and more confident. I’ve had a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, but those experiences have shown me how tough I am. I’m a fighter, and I love my competitive spirit.
What are you most looking forward to now?
My Olympic success has provided me with so many great opportunities in such a small window of time. It’s been such a whirlwind and a ton of fun. I’ve been able to meet some awesome fans who continue to encourage and support me. I’ve also made several appearances and met so many cool celebrities; I even met President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. I’m super grateful for all of these opportunities, but I’m really looking forward to getting back into the gym and working on new routines with Coach Chow. I’m ready to learn new tricks and step it up for 2016 in Rio!
The display at the American History Museum includes Douglas’ leotard as well as, ” the grip bag, wrist tape and uneven bar grips she used at the 2012 London Olympics; the ticket to the Olympics used by Douglas’ mother, Natalie Hawkins; and credentials used by Douglas to gain access to Olympic venues. Also on display will be personal photos donated by Douglas and an autographed copy of her new book Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith.”
March 5, 2013
Cindy Chao knew, with more than 2,300 gems of diamonds, rubies and tsavorite garnets, her butterfly brooch was masterpiece of craftsmanship. Made in 2009, the brooch found its way to the cover of Women’s Wear Daily–the first piece of jewelry ever to do so in 100 years. Known for her wearable works of art, Chao had made a name for herself as the first Taiwanese jeweler included at a Christie’s auction in 2007, and her work even debuted on the Hollywood red carpet.
Now her butterfly brooch comes to the Natural History Museum’s Gems and Minerals collection as the first piece designed by a Taiwanese artist. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and brilliant enough to illuminate a room. The brooch packs a punch. But it also packs a surprise.
Curator Jeffrey Post says he was compelled by his ongoing interest in the optical behaviors of diamonds to put the piece under ultraviolet light, and the ensuing light show was nothing short of spectacular. The diamonds and sapphires fluoresced, glowing neon in the dark. “When we saw all these fluorescing diamonds, all these different colors, it was just the whipped cream on top of the cake,” says Post, “It was just the most wonderful surprise.”
Chao, meanwhile, had never seen this phenomenon. “When Dr. Post showed it to me under the ultraviolet light, I was shocked because he thought I did it on purpose.” An artist influenced by her father’s career as both an architect and sculptor, Chao cares about the craft of jewelry-making and working with unique materials. She calls the fluorescent reaction a natural miracle. Now, she says, “I check everything under the ultraviolet light.”
A symbol of metamorphosis, the butterfly speaks to Chao’s own transformation from jeweler to artist. While she’s had great success in the market (her pieces command any where from $15,000 for a ring and nearly $1 million for a brooch), she says earning a spot in the Smithsonian was a great honor as an artist. She hopes to pass on her lessons to students who share her passion for the craft of jewelry-making.
The brooch also speaks to the natural metamorphosis each gemstone undergoes. “Every gemstone,” says Post, “including this butterfly, starts out as a mineral crystal that forms, and only the best and most perfect of those mineral crystals are transformed into gemstones.” Post says that the incredibly detailed design of the brooch, which mimics the microstructure and scale of a living butterfly’s wings, speaks to the piece’s rarified quality. “The other side of the butterfly is just as beautiful as the front and that’s how you know, this is really a masterpiece creation,” he says.
Joining the recent Dom Pedro donation, as well as the famed Hope Diamond, the piece will brooch in the Hall of Gems and Minerals. Its donation also marks the fifth anniversary of the museum’s Butterfly Pavilion.
July 6, 2012
According to the theory of the six degrees of separation, she is connected to Albert Einstein, Cézanne, Eleanor Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Frida Kahlo and President Ulysses S. Grant.
But who is Peggy Bacon?
Bacon (1895-1997) was a New York artist and talented caricaturist of celebrities and artists, however, her name is by no means well known. The Archives of American Art specialists, who created the “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon” exhibit, do not expect people to know who Peggy Bacon is—in fact, that’s the point.
While the original concept of the six degrees of separation dates back to Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who developed a radio telegraph system, the term became commonplace in 1990 when playwright John Guare debuted his production, “Six Degrees of Separation.” The play was based on the idea that no more than six acquaintances separate any two people.
Playing off the popular celebrity trivia game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which players try to prove that any actor or actress can be linked to Kevin Bacon in fewer than six steps of film roles, the “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon” exhibit creators hoped to show how a relatively unknown but well-connected artist was linked through archival documents to many of art and society’s most influential people.
“We wanted it to be surprising,” says Mary Savig, the exhibit’s curator and an archives specialist at Archives of American Art. “We chose Peggy Bacon because we knew nobody would know who she is.”
On display June 27, 2012, through November 4, 2012, in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, demonstrates how artists inform and inspire each other. “They don’t just work alone in their studios,” Savig said.
The exhibit is also intended to demonstrate the “shrinking world theory.”
The advent of radio technology, telecommunications and most recently, social media, has vastly increased the connectedness among the world’s inhabitants. In fact, Savig says, a study conducted last year by Facebook and the University of Milan demonstrated that social media has reduced the average degree of relatedness between each person on Earth to a mere 4.74 degrees.
“These documents show exactly how people are personally connected,” Savig says, pointing to a layout of correspondence and photographs connecting Bacon to artists like Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Janice Lowry, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Archival letters and materials provide paper trails to document each of the connections in Bacon’s web of six degrees.
The incredible ability to present such detailed documentation stems from the concerns of former Director of the Detroit Institute of Art E.P. Richardson and art collector Lawrence A. Fleischman. Richardson and Fleischman founded the Archives in 1954 in Detroit as an effort to address the lack of archival material documenting American art and artists. The Archives of American Art became a part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1970, and today holds more than 16 million items in the world’s largest collection of primary resources relating to the history of American art.
The Archives’ fastidious documentation and research of their collection is what allowed for the success of “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon.”
In fact, on the exhibit’s opening day, a member of the public was shocked to find her former babysitter incorporated into Bacon’s web of relatedness.
“The woman pointed to the picture of Mary Chapin Carpenter and said, ‘She used to babysit me,’” Savig explains. Carpenter, a folk and country music singer, is bubbled into Bacon’s web as a sixth-degree connection.
Carpenter is included on the web for her connection to Joseph Cornell, who was the inspiration for her 1996 song “Ideas Are Like Stars.” Cornell is connected to Ad Reinhardt for their shared Christmas Eve birthdays and the fact that both artists’ works were displayed in art dealer Peggy Guggenheim’s 1943 Collages exhibit. Reinhardt described in a memoir how in 1938 he listened to loud jazz music carrying through the walls of the neighboring studio to his, occupied by Stuart Davis. Davis was represented by art dealer Edith Halpert who represented his work at The Downtown Gallery for close to four decades. Halpert opened her gallery in 1926 at which time she displayed the works of Japanese-born Yasuo Kuniyoshi. And Kuniyoshi developed a friendship with Peggy Bacon while the two attended classes together at the Art Students League.
The visitor’s relationship with Carpenter drives home the entire point of the exhibit, Savig says. “We all really can connect to Bacon.”