Category: american history

IT’S JUNETEENTH!

 

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The Juneteenth Flag, created in 1997 by activists associated with the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation.  On June 19, 1865, over two months after the surrender of the main Confederate army in Virginia, the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, learned that they were freed.  This event has come to symbolize the effective end of slavery in the United States.

It’s very heartening to Janakay that 2020’s Juneteenth is being given such wide notice, much more, it appears to her, than in previous years.  In part, of course, this is due to its coinciding with one of those pivotal moments of social protest and, hopefully, social change.  In part — and this is perhaps saying the same thing in a different way — it’s due to the growing awareness among white Americans of a holiday that has been given little attention or prominence by white institutions or a white-dominated media.  Janakay is not proud of the fact, but she was largely unaware of Juneteenth until a few years ago.  But then, Janakay has spent most of her adult life unlearning the version of the American Civil War that she was taught as a child.  The mythology of the “lost cause” and its fantasy of a civil war fought over tariffs and states’ rights rather than freedom and human dignity had no room for a day commemorating the end of a horror that had tainted the country from its beginning.  Could it be that after a century and a half we in these (theoretically) United States are finally willing to lay aside our comforting blanket of false history and recognize the pain and injustice inflicted so long on so many of our fellow citizens?  To acknowledge that all of us are entitled to justice and to ensure that all of us actually receive it?

Well, enough of the soap box!  Let’s observe Juneteenth 2020 with one of Janakay’s favorite formats, the miscellany!

MISCELLANY FIRST:  A New Type of Equestrian Statue

Any fans of Kehinde Wiley out there?  Without being particularly knowledgeable about it, I’ve loved his work since I first saw it in one of my basic art history courses.  Wiley, of course, is best known for his official state portrait of a certain American political leader . . . .

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Born in South Central Lost Angeles, Wiley was the first African American artist to paint an official presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley is particularly known for his portraits of young urban Black men, clad in contemporary dress but posed in the manner of the elite of western culture while holding centuries-old symbols of status and power.  It’s a powerful way to bestow dignity and respect on a frequently marginalized group, as well as a slyly subversive comment on how western art has traditionally excluded or marginalized Blacks.

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Haarlem cloth merchant Willem van Heythuysen, painted in 1625 by Frans Hals.
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Wiley’s 2006 depiction of an equally stylish resident of a far different Harlem

Have any of you, dear readers, traveled through the eastern and/or southern United States?  If so, you will no doubt have noticed the multiplicity of monuments to various leaders and notables of the lost cause, not to mention the omnipresence of their names on streets, parks, buildings and military bases.  For those of you who have successfully avoided current news (congratulations on that, by the way), many of today’s protesters have demanded the removal of these glorifications of the U.S.’ slave-holding past.  Wiley’s elegant and powerful solution (a commission from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art) was the creation of a gigantic bronze equestrian statue that acknowledged the past while creating an image for the present:

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Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War,” temporarily installed in New York City’s Times Square.  Inspired by an early 20th century statue of the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart, Wiley portrays a young African American male wearing dreads, torn jeans, sneakers and a hoodie.
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Another view, showing the full pose.

By sheer chance my visit last November to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (located in Richmond) coincided with the permanent installation of Wiley’s great statute in the plaza in front of the museum.  Although they’re not as detailed as I would wish, my photos do give some idea of the scope and scale of Wiley’s wonderful statue:

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Virginia has more memorials to the Confederacy than any other state in the union.  Wiley’s bronze is a direct response to the critical question of “who matters?”

 

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The human figures give some idea of the statue’s scale; it’s 27 feet (approximately 8.2 meters) high and weighs nearly thirty tons

“Rumors of War” stands only a few blocks away from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which contains five giant statues of Confederate leaders and is located almost directly across from the Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy.  Well done, Kehinde!

MISCELLANY SECOND:  Remembrance

Have any of you, dear readers, seen “The New Yorker’s” June 22 cover?  The magazine has had some fabulous covers over the years, but this one by artist Kadir Nelson is something exceptional.  Titled “Say Their Names,” it’s a closeup examination of the violence inflicted upon black people in America.  The magazine’s website has an interactive feature that gives you factual information about each of the figures contained within George Floyd’s body, from Floyd himself to Medgar Evers (assassinated in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan) to Emmett Till (a fourteen year-old lynched in 1955) to “the Unnamed,” the enslaved people who were buried in unmarked graves.

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For a more all encompassing examination of slavery’s legacy in the U.S., the New York Times 1619 Project is an incredible source of information; it was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia.

MISCELLANY THIRD:  Hope

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Langston Hughes, a leading 20th century poet and one of the first African American writers to win mainstream acceptance.  This 1925 portrait by Winold Reiss is one of my favorites.  Don’t you love the way the poet’s dreams are portrayed in the background?

The poets always say it best.  What better way to end Juneteenth 2020 than with the hope that Hughes’ plea will, someday, be answered:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

(excerpt from “Let America Be America Again”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

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The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, in Washington, D.C.   The keen-eyed among you may spot the flowering cherry trees just visible to the right (the photo was taken during a visit last spring).  Despite the change in season, I decided to go with this photo, as the trees do convey something of the monument’s huge scale.

Well, dear readers, here we are in cold, chilly east coast North America on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the U.S.’s national holiday to honor one of the very greatest of its citizens.  The day has put Janakay in a reflective, if not weepy mood.  What would Dr. King make of today’s America?  Would he see progress from the days of Jim Crow and legalized apartheid, or a steady diminishment of the civil and voting rights laws he and others fought so hard to enact?  Does a national decision to honor his greatness by a day of service outweigh its dismemberment of the fragile protections for its poorest citizens and its increasing celebration of material excess?  Can Dr. King’s teachings of tolerance and justice survive in the face of  increasingly ugly and divisive racial rhetoric?

I continually struggle in what I regard as very dark days indeed to answer my own questions; my answers vary depending on my level of hope.  Janakay’s mood was darkened by the fact that, on a day honoring a national hero who celebrated non-violence (and who died by an assassin’s bullet), a few miles away a huge “gun rights” rally is being conducted under the aegis of a group associated with a resurgent white supremacist movement.  I click away on the internet, searching for comfort, and happen upon clips from a speech given by Barack Obama honoring the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march at Selma, Alabama.  If only for this MLK Day, because in my own little way I want to honor a man who continued the struggle while knowing he’d never reach the Promised Land, I decided to reject despair and agree with Obama that the American experiment is not yet finished and that we still hold the power to remake our nation to align more closely with our highest ideals.

Monday Miscellany: Back to School, Movies, Books & History (not in that order)

Those of you who check out my blog now and again may have noticed that it’s been quite some time since my last post.  Three weeks!  How can that be?  Where has all that time gone?  My fall semester classes officially begin tomorrow, but I’ve actually been at it for most of August, frantically working on the second part of a two semester project that I began last spring, on 16th century Italian portraits of children.  I’ve spent several months doing research and I’m now at the point where I simply MUST begin writing!  I’ve made outlines, collated notes, requested ten more books from the interlibrary loan department, read many interesting art history articles (some even tangentially related to my topic), went to the movies, went shopping for novels on Amazon, made banana bread, went to more movies, bought more novels, made cranberry bread, started this post  . . . . . wait! wait! Something’s wrong!  I simply must begin writing about Italian Renaissance portraits!  Oh well, I think I’ll do this post instead (then check out the movie schedule and catch up on some book blogs).

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Well, maybe my class rooms don’t look quite like this, but the idea’s the same . . .

MISCELLANY PART  I: BACK TO SCHOOL READING

Since this is Monday, my post will be a miscellany that’s more of a “mess–allany” than usual!  It’s in several parts, so if you get bored (now, honestly, how could that be? Please do realize I am being sarcastic here!) you won’t lose content by scrolling through the dull parts.

Since this is a book blog, I’ll begin with – – – reading!  Although I’ve done a tremendous amount of it this month, most of my reading has been very narrowly focused —- of the “I simply must begin writing my paper but first I’ll skim another article” type  — which is not to say it’s been dull (if I weren’t the type to find Renaissance Italy interesting, I wouldn’t have used August to read about it!)  I am stuffed, positively stuffed, with interesting factoids about the Italian Renaissance!  Did you know, for example, that families in 16th century Florence recorded their sons’ births in the family account books but often didn’t bother recording the daughters’?  That children of both genders were farmed out to wet nurses almost immediately after birth and only rejoined their biological families around the age of three or so (some even stayed with the nurse until age seven)?  That couples who wanted to conceive a son were advised to tie the guy’s left testicle with string and to eat lots of hot food (I’ll spare you the theory behind this)?  Did you know that some scholars estimate that half of the children born during this period died before their first birthday, and that half of these survivors died before age thirteen?  Although scholars only begin studying the history of “childhood” around 1960 or so,  they’ve produced some incredibly interesting and very accessible work since that time on families, marriage, childhood and women’s roles in Renaissance Italy.  If you’re up for non-fiction, some of these are definitely worth reading, such as  . . .

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Described (accurately) by one reviewer as an “elegant and accessible” survey of ideas about childhood in western culture … but … illustrations are in black and white!
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Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous! Painting, furniture, clothing, interiors, sculpture, musical instruments! And, oh yeah, a highly readable text by one of the English-speaking world’s great Renaissance scholars . . .

As for my own particular Renaissance woman and her depictions of certain Renaissance kids (the topic of my paper and my excuse for all that reading about childhood and family life):

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Sofonisba Anguissola, the first generally acknowledged female artist of the Italian Renaissance (there have always been woman artists, they just haven’t been acknowledged).  Sofonisba painted this self-portrait when she was about twenty years old.

And — here’s the kids!

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Little Massimiliano Stampa, aged twelve or so and already the ruler of a small town in northern Italy.  I just discovered a few days ago that Massimiliano grew up to have ten children himself and ultimately renounced his title to become a monk!  His portrait was one of Sofonisba’s first commissions.

 

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Not a great deal is known about this painting, including the identity of the sitters.  Most likely they’re siblings from a rich Florentine family whom Sofonisba painted in the 1580s, towards the end of her career.

 

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San Diego’s Museum of Art, where this painting is now located, calls it  “Portrait of a Prince at the Spanish Court.”  Isn’t he adorable, in his little miniature hunting costume?  This was painted around 1562, when Sofonisba was a lady-in-waiting at the court of Philip II of Spain.  Again, lots of unknowns; the child’s identity is disputed and at least one major scholar thinks the painting is by someone other than Sofonisba.

 

MISCELLANY PART II: AUGUST MOVIES

Does anyone besides me like movies?  Although I’m really not addicted (honestly, I can go weeks and weeks without a hit), in times of stress they’re my go-to drug of choice, especially when combined with potato chips!  Like most sane people, I generally watch movies at home, but when piles and piles of (unread) Renaissance art books are staring at me, I resort to a conveniently located local theater, which specializes in current art house, repertory and foreign films (fortunately, it also has a great bonus program, which has come in really useful this month).  In August I hit the jackpot, so to speak — my local guys were celebrating the 1970s, one of my favorite periods for “old” American movies.

I did go current, however, at least at the beginning, by kicking off August with Quentin Tarantino’s latest, “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.”  Has anyone else seen it? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts, particularly as I’m not a Tarantino fan (I generally think he’s a bit over-rated, and his movies normally are far too bloody for me).  In a sense, I liked this one despite myself, but it was good! (although it is pretty violent).  Anyway, August movie month had what I considered an auspicious beginning:

 

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I followed this current release with lots and lots of repertory, seeing, in no particular order:

“You Only Live Twice” (1975):  Didn’t date well and don’t bother, unless you really, really want to see Sean Connery masquerading as a Japanese fisherman, complete with skin makeup (don’t ask).  I didn’t and left halfway through, as life is short.

“The French Connection” (1971):  I wasn’t a fan when I first saw this, oh so many years past, but it’s held up surprisingly well.

“The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968):  A heist movie totally devoid of suspense; even Steve McQueen couldn’t save it.  High point was Faye Dunaway in a lavender hat (she was lovely).

“Chinatown” (1975):  One of the all time greats; saw this one twice!  Who could forget that closing scene?

“Nashville” (1975):  I love Altman’s movies and this is one of his best.  Surprisingly (and depressingly) still relevant to our sad political times.

“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971):  another Altman (told you I love his movies).  Saw it twice this month, once solo and once with Mr. Janakay (it was necessary for his cultural development!).

“Diary of a Mad Housewife” (1970):  Carrie Snodgress won a Golden Globe (and was nominated for an Oscar) for her work in this comedy-drama.  She is good (makes you wonder what her career might have been had she never met Neil Young) and, despite being a bit of a period piece, the movie still works.

“The Last Picture Show” (1971):  How could I have forgotten how great this was?  Cloris Leachman deserved three oscars!

Does my list include anyone else’s favorites?  Or not-favorites, as the case may be?  Any recommendations?  (I still have lots of Renaissance art to get through, so movie going in the near future is a distinct possibility.)  Has anyone seen “The Farewell”?  If so, please share your opinion, as I’m dying to see whether Awkwafina lives up to her reviews!

MISCELLANY PART III: FUN READ

Humanity has perished, victim of a zombie plague; all that’s left are the animals.  The tale is (mostly) narrated by S.T., a formerly domesticated crow who’s spent his life with his beloved Big Jim, a junk-food eating, beer-drinking redneck, and Dennis, a slobbery but good natured bloodhound.  Aside from being hysterically funny (yes, it is!), there’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple little story.  Take my word for it, this is NOT just another post-apocalypse zombie novel (and if you don’t believe me, check it out on NPR).

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MISCELLANY PART IV:  THE 1619 PROJECT

You may or may be aware that in August 1619 a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans landed in the British colony of Virginia.  The unfortunates aboard were sold to the colonists and “American” history (at least, of the United States variety) was off and running.  To mark the 400th anniversary of this momentous event the New York Times compiled its 1619 Project, which explores the history of slavery (a history that was certainly never taught in any school I attended) and the way in which it’s affected every aspect of life in these sort-of-United States.  The Project uses historical objects from the National Museum of African American History and Culture as a starting point for its scholarly essays and journalistic pieces, and interspaces its factual material with poems and short stories by noted black artists.  Not to be missed; here’s the link to get started.

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A photo from the 1619 Project, showing prisoners from the Ferguson prison (for young men ages 17 to 21) in Huntsville, Texas.  This is 1968 and they’re still picking cotton.

MISCELLANY PART V: CONCLUSION

Did I mention that I have a paper to write on “Changing Concepts of Renaissance Childhood: Three Portraits by Sofonisba Anguissola”?  (note: title is subject to change)  Clearly, it’s time to call in someone who’ll keep me focused  . . .

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He-who-must-be-Obeyed says “follow my example and get back to work!”

 

P.S.  The old-timey school room shown at the beginning of my post is an 1871 painting by Winslow Homer, called, appropriately, “The Old School Room.”  You can see it at the St. Louis Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri.