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Director of Amon Carter Museum discusses concept of “westering”

By Jane Robbins Mize

Andrew J. Walker, Director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, presents “Westering America: Frontier Thinking and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art” for the 2013 Amon Carter Lecture on Thursday, December 5 at 7 p.m. at the Harry Ransom Center. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

 

In his talk, Walker will explore the concept of “westering,” which originated from the first director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art as an innovative approach to the institution’s process of collecting. Borrowed from Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous 1893 declaration that the West had been won, the idea suggests that there was always a “west,” a frontier, from the very early days of America’s establishment. “Settlement,” whether in New England or Cincinnati or the west as it exists today, has been a thread that, 50 years later, reveals a subtle historical point of continuity that has guided the growth of the museum’s collection.

 

Below, Walker shares his thoughts on “westering,” regionalism, and his museum.

 

CC: What is “westering?” How is the concept related to the collecting focus of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art?

 

AW: The concept of “westering” gave a focus to the early collecting patterns of the Amon Carter Museum, when it was actually known as the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art.  In those early years, the leadership at the museum attempted to find a way to preserve Amon G. Carter’s interest in the American West—largely in the work of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell—as his principle focus. To carry out his vision, there had to be some acknowledgement of the West as a guiding principle. However, at the same time there was an ambition to be more inclusive of the American experience generally. The solution came about in the notion of “westering.” To the early settlers of our nation, the East was the West and the frontier proved to be a concept that began, for instance, at Plymouth Colony and over time moved progressively across the territory of the United States. In this spirit, the Amon Carter would build on the existing holdings and enlarge its scope to include the whole of the term “western.”

 

CC: How has the Amon Carter Museum of American Art explored regionalism in the past, and how is the museum’s perspective on the movement unique?

 

AW: Regionalism as a concept is one that has been episodic but consistent. It has, however, defined its spirit of innovation. As noted in the concept of “westering,” the collection has grown with an understanding of the deep connection people (of diverse backgrounds) have to the land in which they live. But more narrowly, the museum has taken moments to explore that idea more deeply and relevantly to Texas and its impact in the artistic growth of the country. Sometimes it took the form of acquisitions, such as the magical group of watercolors that Georgia O’Keeffe made while teaching in West Texas. They were acquired by the museum in 1966, after being shown for the first time in a major re-examination of the artist’s career that year. My favorite moment, however, came in the late 1970s when the museum commissioned Richard Avedon to explore the identity of the modern American West. The result was the photographer’s transformative series, “In the American West,” which came about through the museum’s particularly assertive stance and is still powerful today.

 

In the past couple of years, the museum has taken a slightly different approach, recognizing the more specific importance of Texas artists, not only to art history but to the communities of collectors who are drawn to regionalism as a focus. As a continuation of an initiative begun with the 2008 exhibition, Intimate Modernism: Fort Worth Circle Artists in the 1940s, the museum is mounting exhibitions of works in local collections of the best Texas art from the 1880s to the 1950s. Not only is this about great American art, but it is also about relationships of those individuals who find collecting to be rewarding.

 

CC: How did your personal interest in regionalism begin? How has it expanded?

 

AW: My interest in regionalism really started through the relationships with various collectors, particularly when I lived and worked in St. Louis, and the inspiration they found in local artists who influenced their collecting. This drew me to names of local artists with whom I was unfamiliar but who had made remarkable achievements in the art world.  That ultimately led to a large and important study of the artist Joe Jones, a midwestern social realist who in his day achieved great importance nationally, whose reputation and significant achievement had become lost, forgotten even to his children. The exhibition and book made me realize how significant it is to balance the regional in the national story of American art.

 

Image: Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986). Light Coming on the Plains No. I, 1917. Watercolor on newsprint paper. 11 7/8 x 8 7/8 inches. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

Fellows Find: How Hollywood producers used Alfred Hitchcock’s weight to their advantage

By Casey McKittrick

Casey McKittrick is an Associate Professor of English at Western Michigan University. He spent June and July of 2012 researching the David O. Selznick and Myron Selznick archives at the Harry Ransom Center.  His work, which was funded by the Warren Skaaren Research Fellowship Endowment, produced the first chapter, and informed several others, of his forthcoming book Hitchcock’s Appetites: The Corpulent Plots of Desire and Dread.

 

When I learned of my Warren Skaaren fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, I had just begun work on a book-length project examining how Alfred Hitchcock’s experiences as a fat man influenced his filmmaking and the path of his career. After reading that Hitchcock had undergone a 100-pound weight loss upon moving from London to Hollywood in the 1940s, I became convinced that his relationship with David O. Selznick, the Hollywood “super-producer” who provided him with a seven-year contract, must have been partly responsible for this radical body change.  Thus, I approached the Selznick archive at the Ransom Center with the working hypothesis that Hitchcock lost weight under the auspices of Selznick (renowned for tightly controlling his employees) to conform to the rigid bodily standards that Hollywood visibility necessitated.

 

The archive told a completely different story. For five weeks, I not only revised my thinking, but through the marvelously kept records—memos, legal documents, publicity material, scripts-in-process—I developed a narrative about the Selznick-Hitchcock relationship that had never been addressed at length. To be sure, a lot of research has been done on this historically important and largely successful collaboration, but Hitchcock’s fatness had never been suggested as a meaningful factor in their negotiations or their relationship dynamics.

 

First of all, it became clear that Selznick marketed Hitchcock as Europe’s greatest export by focusing on his fatness.  Selznick capitalized on Hitch’s enormity to build a literally larger-than-life profile of the director. He was proud that he had managed to enlist the “Master of Suspense” in the face of great studio competition, and he wanted to ensure that Americans could look to Hitch as a celebrity figure—one belonging to Selznick International Pictures (SIP). The publicity photos for Hitchcock’s first American film Rebecca revealed this reliance on making Hitchcock a spectacle. For example, in one photo, Hitchcock holds a fake barbell while yawning; the photo caption reads: “Heavyweight in light mood.”  In four different pictures Hitch is captioned as either a “239-pound Englishman” or a “239 pound director,” and in yet another, the caption reads, “‘Hitch,’ who likes to talk about movies and himself, doesn’t mind allusions to his 239 pounds.” Thus, far from encouraging the director to lose weight, Selznick commodified his body and did so quite successfully. In fact, when Selznick heard of Hitchcock’s drastic weight loss, he became concerned and in a memo urged him to “Drink a Malted!”

 

Another guiding idea that I uncovered through careful examination of the archive was that Selznick and his cronies at SIP would often use Hitchcock’s size against him in a shaming capacity. For example, Dan O’ Shea, one of Selznick’s vice presidents, sent a scathing memo to Hitchcock that scolded him for his prima donna attitude, and he capped off the missive with the taunt, “How’s the metabolism?” In nearly every altercation between the director and producer, communications emerged that referred to Hitchcock’s greed, his “big appetite,” or the notion that he was getting “too big for his britches.” Even as Hitchcock complied with Selznick’s publicity strategies and realized that his popularity hinged on this kind of “body marketing,” he still retained a great deal of shame surrounding his size, and Selznick exploited this shame many times in an attempt to “manage” him—to control what cinematic projects he took on, how fast he completed them, his other collaborations, and what he said to the press.

 

My research in the Selznick archives generated the first chapter of my recently completed monograph Hitchcock’s Appetites: The Corpulent Plots of Desire and Dread, and the data I collected there is evident throughout the book. The book truly could not have been completed without this research. I look forward to using materials from the Center on future projects.

 

Related content:

The Ransom Center is now accepting fellowship applications for the 2014-2015 academic year

 

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Thanksgiving holiday hours

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center will be closed on Thanksgiving Day. Please be aware that the Ransom Center Galleries are open on this Friday, November 29, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 30, and Sunday, December 1.

 

Visitors can view the current exhibitions Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age and Eli Reed: The Lost Boys of Sudan. The First Photograph and the Gutenberg Bible remain on permanent display.

 

Docent-led gallery tours occur on Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (There will be no public tour on Thursday, November 28.) The public tours meet in the lobby, and no reservations are required.

 

Admission is free. Your donation supports the Ransom Center’s exhibitions and public programs. Parking information and a map are available online.

 

The Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Rooms and administrative office are closed on Thursday, November 28, and reopen on Monday, December 2.

 

Image: John Audubon’s illustration of a wild turkey from “Birds of America.” 1827.

Recently acquired Nancy Cunard typescript documents a dreamy connection to poet John Keats

By Emily Neie

On December 31, 1956, writer and political activist Nancy Cunard visited the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. She went there to contribute an account of one of her earliest, most intimate experiences as a young writer and to memorialize her connection with one of the most important figures of the Romantic period, John Keats. Although Keats had been dead for many years before Cunard was born, she vividly remembered meeting him—in a dream.

 

Cunard writes that the dream occurred when she was 15 years old, during “a summer of adolescence” when she was “troubled by her own lines and words.” She had read nearly everything Keats had written, “knew much of him by heart,” and believed herself “in love with him.” In the dream, the likeness of Keats told Cunard that she “should write, that [she] should be a poet.” Cunard was moved by the dream and continued to feel connected to Keats throughout her life. She signed off the piece she prepared for the Keats-Shelley House by writing, “thus, to the treasure of this house, I offer my small leaf… with love, and with a tear.”

 

Cunard’s dramatic prose reflects her own dynamic life and personality. The British writer and political activist was the daughter of a baronet. She attended private schools in London, Germany, and Paris, where she met the friends who would later call themselves the “Corrupt Coterie.” Despite her privileged upbringing, Cunard was quick to jump into the fray of political activism and regularly spoke out against fascism and racism.

 

The Ransom Center recently acquired several items relating to Cunard’s pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, including Cunard’s personal copy of Neville Rogers’s book Keats, Shelley & Rome: An Illustrated Miscellany. Other related materials were laid in the pages of the book, including a postcard sent to Cunard by Vera Cacciatore—then curator of the Keats-Shelley House and a friend of Cunard—and a letter sent by Cacciatore, thanking Cunard for a recent review on Byron and imploring her to visit again.

 

One highlight of this acquisition is the original typescript Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House, her four-page account of her childhood dream of Keats. These materials join the Ransom Center’s extensive Cunard collection, the bulk of which were acquired between 1969 and 1977. The collection includes manuscripts of her works, personal papers, and correspondence, as well as poems and essays by many of her friends and associates.

 

The Center also recently acquired Cunard’s library.

 

Related content:

Fellows Find: Scholar explores connections between Langston Hughes and other black writers around the globe

The Daily Beast: What can you learn about writers from their personal libraries?

The Daily Beast: Beautiful commonplace books by Lewis Carroll, Nancy Cunard, and more (slideshow)

Image: Page from the original typescript Nancy Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House. The document contains her four-page account of her childhood dream of John Keats.

Ted Spagna’s photography featured in new book, “SLEEP”

By Jane Robbins Mize

In 1975, photographer Ted Spagna (1943–1989) began his career-defining project that would revolutionize the artistic interpretation and even scientific understanding of sleep. Using a time-lapse camera, Spagna photographed a variety of sleeping subjects for an entire night. The results, now known as “sleep portraiture,” provided a unique bird’s eye perspective of his subjects’ movements, patterns, and interactions. Today, a collection of Spagna’s photographs and papers resides at the Ransom Center.

In 2009, Ron Eldridge and Delia Bonfilio, nephew and goddaughter of Spagna, formed the Ted Spagna Project. Aspiring to “awaken his work and carry it on,” Eldridge and Bonfilio launched a variety of programs highlighting Spagna and his work, including the recently published collection of his photographs titled SLEEP.

Rizzoli Publishing describes SLEEP as “an intimate, voyeuristic exploration into the private landscape of the unconscious from the Muybridge of sleep.” The full-color coffee-table book features Spagna’s photographs of children, adults, couples, and families exposed in the private act of sleeping. With text by psychiatrist Allan Hobson and additional photographs by Mary Ellen Mark, SLEEP has revived Spagna’s project alongside current information and innovation.

 

Please click thumbnails for larger images.

 

 

Notes in Norman Mailer archive shed light on Lee Harvey Oswald

By Jane Robbins Mize

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas shook America’s understanding of trust, security, and rational behavior. In the five decades following, a multitude of historians and writers have been moved to study the event, many with particular interest in the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald.

In 1995, Norman Mailer released Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, an 828-page biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Written three decades after the assassination of President Kennedy, Mailer’s account of the man and the events offers a unique, in-depth study of Oswald’s relationships and character with specific focus on his time in the Soviet Union.

Born in New Orleans in 1939, Oswald spent his childhood in Dallas, Fort Worth, and New York City before joining the United States Marine Corps at 17. Throughout his life, Oswald was reprimanded for temperamental and reckless behavior, traits that repeatedly manifested themselves in spontaneous and rash decisions. Three years after enlisting, Oswald abandoned the Marine Corps and—having developed an increasing interest in Socialism—moved to the Soviet Union, where he expressed his desire to renounce his United States citizenship. There he met Marina Prusakova. They married within six weeks of meeting and had their first child within a year. After three years in the Soviet Union, Oswald returned to the United States.

Mailer’s archive, which resides at the Ransom Center, contains the author’s preliminary research for Oswald’s Tale—his 28th book—as well as drafts of the manuscript throughout the publishing process. Mailer’s notes include handwritten annotations, Russian vocabulary flashcards, and interview transcripts with a variety of Oswald’s acquaintances, including Marina Pursakova herself.

One early note, scrawled sometime between 1992 and 1993, reads, “It will be noted that this book is called a mystery… Let me propose that a mystery… creates a form of its own between fiction and non-fiction.” He asserts that “the author did his best to make up no dialogue,” and to “attribute no private motives to his real characters.” “Still,” he writes, “it is a most peculiar form of non-fiction since it requests the reader’s collaboration.”

Oswald’s Tale provides the reader with an in-depth perspective of the events, motivations, and emotions that ultimately drove Oswald to murder. The author undoubtedly makes his own speculations about the subject’s character, but his depiction of the facts encourages the reader to develop their own understanding of Oswald. Thus, Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale—and the collection of associated interviews, notes, and manuscripts—exists as an interactive reflection on the unforgettable tragedy of November 22, 1963.

 

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Editor of “Reading Magnum” explores Magnum Photos collection

By Steven Hoelscher

Steven Hoelscher, editor of Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World, will discuss the book at The Contemporary Austin tonight in an event hosted by Austin Center for Photography, University of Texas Press, and The Contemporary.

 

The arrival in December 2009 of some 200,000 press prints from Magnum Photos’s New York bureau represented a remarkable opportunity for scholarship—and a substantial challenge. Although Magnum’s photographers had received considerable individual attention and lavish coffee table books have reproduced their iconic images, no scholarly work to date had assessed the photo agency’s visual archive. Important retrospectives have been published, but their textual brevity and the fact that the photo agency itself produced them suggested the opportunity for a critical, independent study.

 

Thus, the time seemed ripe to dig into the collection, to see what’s there, and to consider how the photographs fit into a larger cultural history. Here, of course, is where the challenge arises. How to approach the photo collection? What sort of organizational frameworks would seem to be most appropriate? What should the resulting publication look like? I spent roughly six months combing through the 1,300 archival boxes to find answers to these questions.

 

During this preliminary research, several things occurred to me.  First, while nearly limitless possibilities of scholarly frameworks existed, a half dozen themes kept emerging as I studied the contents of the archival boxes. War and conflict, of course, was important, but so too was portraiture and geography. What’s more, cultural life, social relations, and globalization stood out as recurring themes.

 

Second, it became immediately evident that three years would not be nearly long enough for me alone to take on such a project, and it was always my intention for the volume to be published in conjunction with the current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, which was curated by Jessica S. McDonald and Roy Flukinger. The book would necessarily be one of collaboration. Here, I was fortunate to be joined by seven distinguished scholars for this project. They are trained in a range of academic fields—art history, journalism, literature, cultural history, geography, cultural studies, communications, and visual studies—for the simple reason that no one perspective can adequately encompass the Magnum archive’s reaches. Each contributor spent considerable time with the collection at the Ransom Center, and each brings his or her unique point of view to the collection’s materials.

 

What each chapter shares is a concern for historical and cultural context that is so often missing when photographs are disconnected from their original settings.

 

Finally, I wanted the book to reflect the dual nature of photographs: that they were both physical objects and the bearers of compelling imagery. With this in mind, two sets of works—bookends, if you will—surround each chapter. I included a set of “Notes form the Archive,” which emphasizes the materiality of the photograph and traces its trajectory, from annotated press prints to distribution to eventual publication. A “Portfolio” then follows each chapter, illustrating something of the depth and range of the images carried by a photograph.

 

Putting this book together has been a real labor of intellectual love. The deeper I dug into the Magnum Photos collection, the more impressed I was by the depth, range, and artistry of the contents. It’s my hope that Reading Magnum reflects something of the collection’s power.