Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Artifacts recovered from HMS Erebus dive

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

The recent ice dive to the wreck of the HMS Erebus recovered 15 artifacts, including brass buttons from a tunic, ceramic plates and one six-pounder cannon. Pairs of divers — one Parks Canada underwater archaeologist paired with one Royal Canadian Navy ice diving expert — explored the wreck in shifts for 12 hours a day for a week in the middle of April. The original schedule was for two weeks of diving, but weather delays reduced diving time by half.

The first plan was the remove the tall kelp that had grown around the wreck reducing visibility. With the initial weather delays making a time a factor, the team cut off the kelp only on the port side of the ship.

“It’s tedious, but all of a sudden you have a shipwreck that looks like a wreck site,” says Harris, noting that it was “extremely gratifying to see the shape of the hull as it turns up. You really get a better sense of how big the site is” and how it towers five metres over the sea floor.

“It is so well preserved of course that it does sort of look like a storybook shipwreck.”

They also identified Franklin’s cabin, although they weren’t able to actually enter it.

“We see that that cabin is still there,” says Harris. “It’s just largely crushed between the collapsed upper deck and the lower deck, but you can peer in through… these little spaces where we’re inserting a point-of-view inspection camera.”

Archaeologists saw where artifacts from his cabin fell onto the sea bed. Before they retrieved anything, they made sure to draw a virtual grid of the wreck site so the discovery spots can be documented. The 15 artifacts recovered include a copper alloy (probably brass) 6 1/4″ hook block which may have been part of the ship’s standing rigging or part of the mechanism that lowered the boats, and two illuminators — one brass and glass circular piece, one rectangular glass prism — that were miniature skylights of sorts, installed flush with the upper deck so sailors could walk over them without tripping while they allowed a little light to penetrate the darkness of the lower decks.

The three ceramic plates, which are in excellent condition, are fine earthenware pieces with Chinese motifs. One is the “Whampoa” pattern depicting China’s Whampoa Island; the other two are blue willow pattern marked “Royal Patent Staffordshire China.” Ceramic dishware was a common feature in the officers’ quarters of 18th century Royal Navy ships. This discovery fits with the testimony of an Inuk man named Puhtoorak who in 1879 told members of the search expedition funded by the American Geographical Society and led by explorer Frederick Schwatka that he had seen a ship trapped in the ice off the Adelaide Peninsula and found its contents, including china plates, in perfect order.

The largest object was a brass six-pounder, three of which were known to have been on the Erebus, recovered from the deck of the ship. Its foundry marks are well preserved. They identify it as having been cast by John and Henry King at the Royal Brass Foundry at Woolwich in 1812. A numerical mark “6-0-8″ indicates the gun’s weight was 680 pounds.

The smallest artifacts may reveal the most personal history: two brass buttons from a navy tunic. They are decorated with a crowned anchor encircled by rope, a laurel wreath and the inscription “ROYAL MARINES.” The last two elements are only present on Royal Marines uniforms, and there were only seven Royal Marines aboard HMS Erebus.

The artifacts were on display over the Victoria Day long weekend, May 14th through the 18th at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. They are now undergoing conservation at the Park Canada lab where they will be stabilized for eventual long-term display.

Many unanswered questions remain, most significantly what caused the ship to sink. Archaeologists are hoping that they’ll find pertinent evidence when they clear the starboard side during the summer dives. The summer expedition doesn’t just have the Erebus to contend with; they’ll also be searching for its companion ship, the HMS Terror. That’s a lot of ground to cover in the short window before the ice returns in September.

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Icon of the Madonna restored to former splendor

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

The 13th century icon of the Madonna in the Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexis on the Aventine Hill has been restored to glowing golden splendor. The restoration by experts at the Superior Institute for Conservation and Restoration (ISCR) took three years. The surface was cleaned, pollutants and paint from past retouchings removed.

This isn’t the first time the ISCR has worked on this icon. In 1951 it was restored by Cesare Brandi, ISCR founder and pioneer art restorer. The icon was in dangerously bad condition due to the decay of the wood panel on which it was originally painted. Brandi transferred the work to canvas and filled in areas of missing paint using a thin watercolor cross-hatching technique he had pioneered in the restoration of the frescoes in the church of Saint Mary of the Truth in Viterbo after they were reduced to rubble by an Allied bomb in 1944.

The next time the icon left the church was in 2012 for an exhibition of 14 of Rome’s medieval icons at the Palazzo Venezia. That’s where it became clear that Brandi’s retouchings had become problematic over the six decades. ISCR restorers removed paint from Brandi’s and previous interventions. The small gaps were then filled by being covered with tissue paper and painted with watercolor, the larger gaps by stucco and cross-hatch paintings. The technique Brandi used is still a staple of art restoration today; it’s the materials and analytic technology that have improved by leaps and bounds.

Cesare Brandi also restored other famous icons in Rome, including the Madonna of Ara Coeli, an 11th century tempera on wood panel which replaced a masterpiece by Raphael on the high altar of the church of Ara Coeli on the Capitoline Hill, and the Madonna of San Sisto, now at the monastery of Santa Maria del Rosario in the Monte Mario neighborhood, which dates to the 7th century and is the oldest icon in the city.

The Madonna di Sant’Alessio icon was painted by an unknown Roman artist in the mid-13th century in the style of the Advocate Madonna, an iconographic type emphasizing Mary’s intercessionary role on behalf of humanity that was very popular in medieval Rome. For a few centuries before and after the first millennium, the Advocate Madonna type, depicted without the Christ child, her right hand raised, her left against her chest, was considered the quintessential Roman Madonna.

The church, originally dedicated to Saint Boniface of Tarsus alone, was expanded to include Saint Alexius in the masthead by Sergius, the Greek metropolitan bishop of Damascus who had fled the advancing Islamic forces and settled in Rome in 977 A.D. According to his legend Alexius was born and raised to a wealthy senatorial family in 4th-5th century Rome, but the cult venerating him started in Syrian where the saint was said to have lived as a beggar after abandoning his youth of privilege and comfort. After a church sexton had a miraculous vision of the Madonna which pointed to him as a holy man, Alexius fled his newfound fame and returned to Rome where his parents, who did not recognize him, let him live in a cubby under the staircase out of Christian charity. It wasn’t until his death 17 years later that his autobiography was found clenched in his hand and he was finally recognized as their long-lost son.

Sergius brought the cult of Saint Alexius to Rome with him where it found fertile ground since Romans love a native son. The site of the church on the Aventine even garnered an apocryphal association with Saint Alexius: it was said to be the location where his father Euphemianus’ home stood, the stairs under which he had lived in humility and poverty incorporated into the walls of the church. While he’s still a saint in the Latin Church, his cult has faded. It’s in the Eastern Church, particularly in Russia, where Alexius is one of the most venerated saints, a frequent subject of poems and stories and the reason Alexei was such a popular name for Tsars.

The newly restored icon plays into the legend of Saint Alexius as well. In the sexton’s vision where Mary identified Alexius as true holy man, she spoke through her icon. According to this tale, Sergius brought the icon from the church in Edessa with him when he went to Rome.

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Lost Reich Chancellery horses found in warehouse

Monday, May 25th, 2015

Two monumental bronze equine sculptures by Josef Thorak that once guarded Hitler’s Reich Chancellery in Berlin have been found in a warehouse in the southwestern German spa town of Bad Durkheim. The raid was one of 10 executed at the same time around the country. Art squad police raided properties in Berlin, Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein as well as part of an extensive multi-year investigation of eight men suspected of being a ring of illegal art dealers.

The raids also recovered three massive granite reliefs by Arno Breker called Waechter (“Guardians”), Raecher (“Avengers”) and Kameraden (“Comrades”) that were meant to adorn the Reich Chancellery but were never installed, and two sculptures of women, Galatea and Olympia, by Fritz Klimsch that once adorned the garden behind the Reich Chancellery. Berlin police spokesman Michael Gassen says they confiscated 100 tons of art in the raids. Thorak’s Walking Horses alone are 16 feet high and 33 feet long and weigh two tons each.

These sculptures survived the war and the destruction of the Chancellery building because they were squirreled away for their protection. When Berlin became the target of ever more frequent bombings in 1943, the horses were moved from their positions on either side of the Reich Chancellery staircase to the sculpture factory in Wriezen, a town 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Berlin. The Wriezen complex was used to produce large-scale Nazi sculptures and architectural features using a workforce of skilled and unskilled Italian and French prisoners of war. It also had storage sheds containing art treasures looted from Nazi-occupied territories.

The town was occupied by Soviet troops in 1945 and became part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The next time the statues were seen, it was 1950 and they were on the sports field of a Red Army barracks in the town of Eberswalde (Brandenburg). Thorak’s Walking Horses spent 38 years on the field and they saw some rough treatment. Damaged by bullet holes, the horses were painted over in gold. At some point their tales broke off and were reattached crudely.

In March of 1988, art historian Magdalena Busshart found the horses on the sports field and identified them as Thorak’s monumental bronzes. In January of 1989 Busshart published an article about the horses in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a Frankfurt daily newspaper. A few weeks later, a reader told her that the horses were gone. Experts believe they were sold by the GDR government which in 1989 was facing its imminent demise and was in dire need of hard currency. They disappeared from the record at that point only to reappear again in mysterious online sales postings.

The investigation began in 2013 when an informant told the Berlin police that someone was attempting to sell the pair of horses online. Last year, Arthur Brand, who runs a private firm that researches the ownership history of artworks with a specialty in tracing art the Nazis stole from Jews, saw photographs of the horses in a sale offer seeking 8 million euros ($8.9 million) for the pair. At first he thought the pictures had to be fakes, that the horses were long gone, destroyed in the death throes of the GDR. After following the trail through German archives, old newsreels, his contacts in the Russian military and even satellite images, Brand came to believe the photographs showed the genuine article. In late 2014, Brand relayed his information to the Berlin police.

One of the eight suspects claims he is the legitimate owner of the tons of art in the Bad Duerkheim warehouse. According to his attorney, Andreas Hiemsch, the man lawfully acquired the art from the Red Army more than 25 years ago and even offered to loan some of them to museums. Sorting out legal ownership is going to be a challenge. The Red Army/GDR sale may be hard to document; the Federal Republic of Germany has a claim as the successor of the GDR; the artists’ heirs might have a viable ownership claim. It could be years before it’s all sorted.

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Medieval panels looted from Devon church found

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Two 15th century painted oak panels ripped out of Holy Trinity Church in Torbryan, Devon, almost two years ago have been recovered by police. A sharp-eyed and damn decent collector spotted them in an online sale and notified the authorities who traced them in a property in south London. The place was raided by detectives from the Metropolitan Police Art & Antiques Unit in January and the panels recovered. A 50-year-old man from Wales has been arrested for the theft.

The panels were part of a rood screen, a tracery partition separating the nave from the chancel, built between 1460 and 1470. Inset in Gothic arches that mimic the design of the church’s stained glass windows are a series of 40 oak panels painted with figures of God, Mary, the Apostles and a panoply of saints. They are of extremely high quality, “cathedral quality,” according to the art historian Dr. Neil Rushton of the Churches Conservation Trust. Painted by a top artist of the period at the same time the church was constructed, the rood screen panels are colorful evidence of how much money, mainly from the wool trade, was in the area in the second half of the 15th century. They are the country’s best surviving examples of this kind of art from the late Middle Ages, almost all of which was destroyed in the Reformation, and therefore of national importance.

The panels that were stolen depict St. Victor of Marseilles and St. Margaret of Antioch, lesser known saints which make them rarer than the panels with more common iconography. Because of their rarity, there was speculation at the time of the theft that it may have been commissioned by an underworld collector who coveted these specific pieces, but the commissioned theft idea always gets deployed after these sort of crimes and it usually turns out to be a lot more Keystone Cops and a lot less Thomas Crown. This case is no different. Commissioned thefts don’t wind up for sale online.

Churches have increasingly been frequent targets of thieves, often for the scrap value of their architectural materials like lead roof tiles or even paving stones and grave markers. Art is a riskier proposition since it’s more likely to be recognizable, but that hasn’t stopped thieves from taking the chance before at the Holy Trinity Church. Four of the original 40 panels were stolen in the 1990s and three more were taken in 2003. Those seven panels are still missing which makes the recovery of the two most recent thefts even more significant.

West Mercia Police are now leading the investigation into the theft as part of Operation Icarus, which has also recovered a treasure trove of other church artefacts, including stonework, friezes, statues, paintings, brasses, misericords, stained glass and bibles. The police are appealing for help in identifying the artefacts, which include the misericords from St Cuthbert’s Church at Holme Lacy in Herefordshire, also in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust.

In response to the original theft, The Churches Conservation Trust conducted a thorough audit of security at Holy Trinity, Torbryan and a new alarm system is now in place at the church to protect its contents in future. A new scheme of interpretation is also being developed to explain the artworks and the history of this unique Grade I listed church to visitors. A service at the church on 30th May will give thanks for the return of the panels.

The 45 cm (17.7 inches) by 15 cm (6 inches) panels were stolen between August 2nd and 9th of 2013 when the church was open to the public. They are believed to have been pushed out of their casing from the front, but a panel of an unknown female saint to the immediately left of the stolen pieces was seriously damaged in the process. It was punched through and a large shard from the top of the panel to the saint’s legs broke off. Now that the missing panels have been recovered, it’s clear there was damage done to them as well during the theft. The restoration is expect to cost £7,000 ($10,843) and the Churches Conservation Trust has launched a campaign to raise the funds.

Click here to donate online. Your title (I recommend His Tremendousness), name, email and street address are required fields. You have to type in the amount you wish to donate and check the boxes to opt out of them spamming you via email, post or phone. The last field asks you to confirm or deny whether you’re an UK taxpayer and then when you click donate you’ll be taken to a secure credit card donation form. The amount is already fixed so if you change your mind about how much you want to give you have to go back to the previous page.

You can also donate by calling 0800 206 1463 or you can quickly donate £20 by texting TORB15 £20 to 70070.

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Le Brun’s Jabach Family restored and on display

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Charles Le Brun’s monumental portrait Everhard Jabach and His Family purchased last year by the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been restored and is now on display in the museum’s European Paintings Gallery alongside other French works from the 17th century. Feast your eyes upon this pair of very satisfying before and after pictures:

The painting is 7.6 feet by 10.6 feet, so even getting it the Met from London was a task as monumental as the portrait. It couldn’t be padded to the gills because if the crate got too big it wouldn’t fit on the cargo plane. Thankfully there was no damage in transit.

Once it arrived safely, conservator Michael Gallagher’s first task was to remove the varnish applied in the late 19th or early 20th century. It was discolored and darkened, giving the painting a yellowed tint. Using cotton swabs and a solvent custom blended to remove this particular varnish without damaging the paint underneath, Gallagher painstakingly cleaned the whole surface revealing Le Brun’s rich hues and previously invisible details like baby Heinrich’s adorable pink toes. That delicate pink and white skin is even more evident in figure of Jabach’s daughter Anna Maria whose skin, hair and clothes look completely different with the varnish gone.

That was child’s play compared to the work Gallagher and his team had to do to repair damage to the top of the painting. That big horizontal line you see running across the width 18 inches below the top is a fold mark. It’s not clear when the canvas was folded over, but there’s a picture published in an 1969 issue of Country Life of the painting hanging in Olantigh Towers, the Kent stately home where it lived from 1832 until the 2014 sale, that shows the painting folded. Olantigh Towers burned in 1903 and was rebuilt on a far more modest scale. It’s possible the monumental painting was reducing by folding so it would fit in the smaller space of the new home.

It was a drastic, some might call it insane, choice. The top foot and a half of the canvas was folded over a smaller stretcher and hammered into place with tacks driven through the painted surface. It was finally liberated from its Procrustean prison in 2012 when the painting was flattened out and a temporary strip-lining attached around the perimeter with wax-resin adhesive. This was good enough to show prospective buyers, but it wasn’t conservation. It was up to the Met’s team had to address the fold and the tack holes.

First they had to flip the painting onto its face, remove the stretcher, strip-lining and wax residue. You can see the team in action in a series of videos posted in this blog entry by Michael Gallagher. Then they had to flatten out the fold and bring the surface in plane. Again Gallagher posted a series of short and sweet videos to demonstrate the process. Before they could deal the holes, they had to flip the painting right-side up and work from the surface. That was ingeniously done as well.

Tubes, man. Handy with a giant Picasso curtain; handy with a giant Le Brun canvas.

After reattaching the canvas to its stretcher, conservators added canvas insets and fills to areas of paint and canvas loss. A coating of fresh varnish was next to prepare the filled areas and other faded parts for retouching.

All that was left was putting it in the new frame, custom-made by Parisian framers who have been in business since the 1800s and shipped to New York in four sections. That turned out to be a fortunate coincidence because the painting is so huge it was barely able to squeeze through the gallery doors naked. The elaborate gilded frame was assembled and installed in the gallery where the painting now hangs in all its restored glory.

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TCM’s summer film noir festival and online course

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015


Clear off your DVRs because they’re going to need all the space they can get this summer. Turner Classic Movies is running a film noir festival every Friday of June and July called, appropriately, Summer of Darkness. A full 24 hours of films noir will air starting at 6:00 AM each Friday. It begins on June 5th with Fritz Lang’s chilling 1931 masterpiece M and ends on August 1st at 3:00 AM with Hitchcock’s 1956 based-on-a-true-story mistaken identity picture The Wrong Man. In between are iconic films you’ve probably seen many times — The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, The Big Sleep, The Third Man, Blue Dahlia, Strangers on a Train — others you’ve heard of but not seen, ones you’ve never heard of and a smattering of modern classics like LA Confidential and Blue Velvet. Browse the full schedule here (pdf). The grand total by my count is a pantagruelian 121 movies.

But wait, there’s more! TCM is leaning into the fact that it’s already to all intents and purposes a film school that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year, 366 on leap years, and will be airing this treasure trove of film noir in conjunction with a massive open online course The Case of Film Noir.

In this nine-week course, we’ll go back in film history to investigate the “The Case of Film Noir” — the means, motives, and opportunities that led Hollywood studios to make these hard-boiled crime dramas, arguably their greatest contribution to American culture.

This course will run concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” programming event, airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July 2015. This is the deepest catalog of film noir ever presented by the network (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”

Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of the film noir phenomenon — from the earliest noir precursors to recent experiments in neo-noir. You will be able to share thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of film noir students and fans.

Taught by Ball State University film noir and online education expert Dr. Richard L. Edwards, the course will provide links to public domain films noir so if you don’t have Turner Classic Movies, you can still participate. (Seriously though, get TCM if you can. In terms of sheer consistency and density of material, it’s the greatest channel on cable, bar none.) There will be live discussions on social media, but if you can’t attend you’ll be able to view recordings of them.

This is an amazing opportunity to explore a genre of film in the kind of depth that even college film classes can only dream of. Click here to enroll in the course.

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Picasso curtain unfurled at NY Historical Society

Monday, May 18th, 2015

On Sunday, May 17th, Le Tricorne, the 19-by-20-foot theatrical curtain painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 was unfurled at its new permanent home, the New-York Historical Society. It’s the culmination of a long battle between the New York Landmarks Conservancy which has owned of the curtain since 2005 but does not own the landmark Mies van der Rohe Seagram Building where the curtain has hung since 1959. The building is the property of RFR Holding and its art collecting co-founder Aby Rosen. He wanted the largest Picasso in the United States gone and would have had it spirited it out in the middle of night if the Conservancy hadn’t gotten an injunction in the nick of time. The dispute was resolved last summer when the Conservancy agreed to take down the curtain and loan it permanently to the New-York Historical Society for public display.

The curtain was taken down from its home of nearly 60 years during the weekend of September 7th, 2014. It took a team of technicians from Art Installation Design 12 hours to remove the curtain from the travertine wall and roll it from bottom to top around a 23-foot-long tube using a hand crank. They had to start rolling it before they even knew the exact mechanism that was keeping the curtain on the wall. That turned out to be hundreds of staples attaching to the curtain to two pieces of wood that were screwed to the wall with 19 stainless steel screws. The New York Landmarks Conservancy experts were concerned that the paint or canvas might crack or, in a catastrophic scenario, that the top of the curtain — the most brittle section — would tear from the weight of the rolled up bottom before the process was complete. You can get a glimpse what a nail-biter of a long night it was in this video from the New York Times:

Thankfully the curtain was entirely cooperative and once it was rolled all the way up, the tube was lowered to a steel rig to keep it stable for transport. Wrapped in bubble wrap, the tube was loaded onto a truck by a team from Auer’s Rigging & Moving and moved to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where it was cleaned and conserved. Conservators found that the curtain is still “in excellent structural condition.” Other than repairs to a few small surface tears and removing some 1970s-era overpainting, all the curtain needed was a thorough cleaning. The front was cleaned by Conservancy exports when Vivendi deeded it to them in 2005, but the back was a different story. The last time it was cleaned was during the 1970s conservation, and a lot of grime had accumulated in the four decades since.

Once cleaned and conserved, the mighty curtain was again rolled up around its tube and trucked to the New-York Historical Society building on West 77th St. It was lifted to the second floor with a crane and then slipped in through the window.

With the curtain inside on Sunday morning, the installation got underway even as visitors came and went elsewhere in the museum. The riggers and art handlers climbed in and out of the shell of scaffolding surrounding the spot on the wall, painted pale blue, where the curtain would hang.

When the wall was ready, Tom Zoufaly, the lead technician for the art handling company, Art Installation Design, took over.

“It’s got to be slow,” he said. “I don’t want it to go slap against the wall. It will crack.”

The tube was rolled up to the wall. Some riggers pulled, hand over hand, on a chain-link pulley, and the tube began to creep up the wall with a sound like an ascending roller coaster. When it reached the top, others were waiting to slide the wooden slat at the top of the curtain into mounted brackets on the wall.

Once it was secured, they all shouted “Down! Down! Down!” and as some men cranked at either end of the tube, and others gently pulled it down, the curtain unfurled. A painted face peeked out, a woman in a black veil. Then the entire scene appeared: spectators at a bullfight.

When the curtain was freed from the roll, and hung flush against the wall, the crowd applauded.

Le Tricorne goes on display in second floor gallery of the New-York Historical Society starting May 29th.

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George Takei helps save internment camp artifacts

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

Thanks to the efforts of George Takei, his legion of fans and thousands of people around the round, a collection of 450 artifacts from Japanese American internment camps have been saved from the auction block and acquired by the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles. The collection had been consigned to the Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey, for sale on April 17th, but on April 9th Japanese Americans and heritage organizations including the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation came together to start a Facebook page and Change.org petition protesting the auction.

The Japanese American History: NOT for Sale campaign quickly garnered thousands of supporters, among them actor and activist George Takei. Takei, long before he became famous for playing Star Trek‘s Hikaru Sulu, spent three years of his childhood imprisoned in internment camps with his family — first the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, and then the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California. He now serves as chairman emeritus on the JANM’s Board of Trustees. He publicized the efforts to halt the sale and contacted David Rago to work on a solution that would spare the artifacts of Japanese American internment from being dispersed to the highest bidders. Takei negotiated on behalf of the Japanese American National Museum and personally wrote a check to ensure the collection was kept together in the public interest.

On April 15th, Rago announced the lots were being removed from sale. On May 2nd, at a gala event where Takei was given the museum’s Distinguished Medal of Honor For Lifetime Achievement, JANM announced that they had acquired the collection for an undisclosed sum.

“Taking the auction off the calendar was a great victory for the Japanese American community and its friends,” said Sacramento resident Yoshinori “Toso” Himel, an organizer of the “NOT for Sale” campaign. “A second victory was the announcement that now the items will be in a community institution.”

When Himel and his wife, Japanese American historian Barbara Takei (no relation to George Takei), saw an unlabeled photo of Himel’s mother earlier this year in one of the 23 lots up for auction, the couple joined forces with other Sacramento Japanese Americans, including the Florin Japanese American Citizens League, to oppose the public sale. [...]

Himel, also the founding president of the Asian/Pacific Bar Association of California, said the artifacts need to be interpreted and placed in their proper context. He said his mother’s photo, which shows her smiling while her eyes are downcast, was used as propaganda by the War Relocation Authority “to mask the tragedy suffered by her and an entire racial group of innocent people.”

The collection was first amassed by folk art expert Allen H. Eaton. Eaton had wanted to document the art produced by the internees as early as 1943 and in 1945 he visited five of the camps in person. He also dispatched colleagues to photograph the works made at four other camps. During his travels through the camps, he collected a unique group of artworks, furniture, photographs and other items, most of them gifts from the internees at Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. In 1952, his seminal book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, was published. In it Eaton wrote: “This evacuation, regardless of its military justification, was not only, as is now generally acknowledged, a great wartime mistake, but it was the most complete betrayal, in one act, of civil liberties and democratic traditions in our history, and a clear violation of the constitutional rights of seventy thousand citizens.”

Eaton originally intended to put the artifacts he had received on display in an exhibition that would do justice to the 120,000 Japanese Americans, 60,000 of them children, interned during the war. The internees who gave him their artworks and personal belongings did so with the understanding that they would speak for them in this exhibition, but it never happened.

Ten years later Eaton died and his collection went to his heirs who later passed it on to Thomas Ryan, a contractor who worked for the Eatons and was also a family friend. Thomas Ryan bequeathed it to his son John, a Connecticut credit-card marketing executive. Ryan felt he wasn’t in a financial position to give away the artifacts which Rago had valued at $27,000 but he hoped museums and internment camp organizations would successfully bid for the lots. As large groups of internment artifacts don’t come up for sale often, the auction would have established commercial value benchmarks, a notion that itself was deeply offensive to the Japanese American community, as was the idea of pitting private collectors against non-profit organizations and the families of internees whose likenesses, names and artworks were being sold.

“I believe that through understanding comes respect, and JANM continues to take major steps forward to increase the public’s understanding of a grievous chapter in American history,” said Takei, chairman emeritus of the museum’s Board of Trustees, and the fifth recipient of JANM’s Medal of Honor. “All of us can take to heart that our voices were heard and that these items will be preserved and the people who created them during a very dark period in our history will be honored. The collection will now reside at the preeminent American museum that tells the story of the Japanese American experience.”

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Early Canadian canal lock unearthed in Dartmouth

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

Archaeologists in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, have unearthed a section of the town’s old canal system under the corner of Prince Albert Road and Pleasant Street. Lock 3 is a microcosm of the canal’s construction history, with parts dating to the 1820s and the late 1850s, early 1860s.

The Dartmouth locks were part of the Shubenacadie Canal, one of Canada’s first canal systems which connected Halifax Harbour to the Bay of Fundy. The 70 mile-long system linked a network of rivers and lakes that had been used to transport people and cargo since the Mi’kmaq traveled the waterways by canoe at least 4,000 years ago. Nova Scotia’s governor Sir John Wentworth (in office 1792–1808) first conceived of deepening the Shubenacadie River and adding locks connecting it, Shubenacadie Grand Lake and other waterways. This would give ships a direct route through Nova Scotia, sparing them from the dangerous trip around Cape Sable and cutting travel time for the voyage from a week to a matter of hours.

Construction didn’t begin until 1826, six years after Wentworth’s death. The Shubenaccadie Canal Company, formed by a group of wealthy merchants including shipping magnate Samuel Cunard, engaged civil engineer Francis Hall to design the system. Hall was from Scotland where he had worked as a surveyor on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal. He and his family emigrated to Canada in 1823 where he soon found work surveying and designing canals and bridges. Construction began with the arrival of 44 stone masons from Scotland and Irish labourers who had extensive experience constructing granite locks in the British style. The company even imported granite from Aberdeen to build the locks.

Hall’s plan was for a system of almost 20 locks. As each one being hugely expensive in imported materials and specialized labour, work ground to a halt in 1831 when the Shubenaccadie Canal Company ran out of money with only 13 locks either finished or begun. More than 20 years passed before the project was revived. In 1853 a new company was formed, the Inland Navigation Company, and it approached the construction of the canal with far more modest (and cheap) goals. Engineer Charles W. Fairbanks tailored the canal to two specific kinds of ships made by the Inland Navigation Company, both smaller than the merchant ships Hall had designed for, which allowed him to forgo the expensive imported granite locks in favor of American-style locks made of local stone and wood, replace several of Hall’s planned locks with inclined planes and reduce the draft depth from eight feet to four and a half.

Sections of the new canal system were in use by 1856 and the whole thing was completed in 1861. It transported carried sheep, cotton, linen, rope, fish, coal, gold and people, enough goods and passengers to make a modest profit. In 1862, Hall’s Scottish marble locks in Dartmouth were closed in to create a chamber in which a turbine was installed to power a marine railway that carried boats through the canal via pulley, but the clock was already ticking by that point. The Nova Scotia Railway had begun construction in 1853 — shipping iron for the railroad was actually one of the canal’s most significant revenue streams — and it soon became the preferred conveyance for freight shipments. By 1870, the railroad had replaced the draw bridges built over the canal with fixed rail bridges which blocked canal access to ships of even modest height. Commercial operations on the canal came to an end.

Meanwhile, in 1864 Dartmouth’s Lock 3 was taken over by Starr Manufacturing. Founded by hardware merchant John Starr, Starr Manufacturing built a factory on the site and used the original marine railway turbine to power its plant. The plant first produced cut nails and other iron goods, but it soon turned to the production of spring steel skates invented by Starr employee John Forbes. By 1868, Forbes was general manager of the company and the Forbes Spring Skate was internationally renown. The growth of the railway that had killed the canals came full circle in the 1870s when Starr Manufacturing began to produce coal cars, railway spikes and even made a heavy iron railway bridge, designed by John Forbes and built in Elmsdale.

The plant building was destroyed by fire in 2000, but the canal lock underneath survived. It was filled with gravel to help protect it. Now the site is being excavated as part of the Dartmouth Canal Greenway project, which will integrate the historic canal engineering into an open green space through downtown Dartmouth. The turbine chamber was found to be in good condition, with the east and west walls from Lock 3 of the first canal dating to 1828-1830 still standing. The north and south walls that meet in an arch are from the 1860s construction when the canal was closed in, the turbine chamber created and the turbine installed to power the rail.

Contractors and engineers craned their heads to take in the arches in the turbine pit during Wednesday’s visit as Stewart pointed out the original Irish mason’s markings of asterisks and the letter H carved into the grey rock.

During the excavation, Stewart said they’ve found architectural pieces of interest as well as multiple skate blades, which would have come from the Starr Plant. [...]

Part of the reconstruction will include historical interpretation where a clear covering could protect the historic site, while allowing people to peer into the chamber and see a computer-generated example of the original canal turbine.

For more about the history of the Shubenacadie Canal, watch this half hour documentary:

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Museum acquires Empress Sisi’s silk ankle boots

Friday, May 15th, 2015

A pair of white silk ankle boots worn by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as Sisi, was acquired at auction by the Sisi Museum in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. Bidding at the auction, held by the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna on May 7th, 2015, was so fierce that the shoes, estimated to sell for $9,200 – 16,000 wound up costing the museum $86,000. The shoes were worn only once by the Empress and were given to one of her chambermaids in April of 1899 when Elisabeth’s closets were cleaned out after her death.

Other Sisi-related items sold far higher than expected. A beautiful red morocco leather travel writing and sewing box given to Elisabeth when she was an 11 years old Bavarian princess, just five years before she would marry her cousin Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, was estimated to sell for $11,500 – 23,000, but a furious bidding war erupted over this piece too. In the end it went to a phone bidder who paid $86,000 for it. In a fitting bookend to her life, Sisi’s death certificate issued in Geneva on September 13th, 1898, three days after her assassination by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, sold for $17,500, 15 times the low estimate of $1,150.

On the other hand, her personal traveling chamber pot, a lovely white glazed ceramic vessel along with its lockable wooden doeskin-lined travel box engraved with her monogram and the Austrian imperial crown, went for a comparatively modest $5,800, on the low end of the pre-sale estimate of $4,600 – 9,200. I hope the museum bought it because it’s such an incredibly intimate object it belongs in their permanent collection of her belongings.

The Sisi Museum inhabits rooms in the Hofburg Palace that were once the empress’ suite. The objects on display tell the story of her life, starting with her unusually unstructured youth in Bavaria where her circus-loving father avoided the restrictions and formalities of court in favor of his country estate of Possenhofen where the family lived an outdoorsy, free-spirited life of horseback riding and travel. A shy, timorous girl, she was ill-prepared for the exigencies of her new role when she wed the 23-year-old emperor. The rigidity of the imperial court was a heavy burden on her. Pressured by her formidable mother-in-law/aunt Princess Sophie of Bavaria to produce the male heir, Sissy had three children in three years until her son Rudolf was born. All three of these children were removed from her care immediately after their birth; Princess Sophie raised them, not their mother.

Elisabeth had numerous health problems — coughing, insomnia, anemia — exacerbated by what today we would likely consider disordered eating. She was obsessed with maintaining her slim figure, fasting and dieting to ensure her weight never went past 50 kg (110 lb), a very low figure considering she was 5’8″. She exercised assiduously, converting the Knight’s Hall of the Hofburg into a gymnasium and riding horses and walking for hours at a time. Her profound dislike of court life played a role in her illness as well. When she traveled to spas to take the cure, or to Corfu or to Madeira, her symptoms quickly disappeared only to return with a vengeance as soon as she neared Vienna.

Considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe, Sisi spent hours a day on her beauty regimen. Her ankle-length hair took two to three hours a day to arrange. She used all kinds of nostrums and creams to preserve her youthful good looks. Here’s a tip for you from Empress Elisabeth: wear a pounded filet of raw veal on your face underneath a leather mask. Keeps the skin supple, donchaknow.

As she got older and most self-assured, she spent more and more time away from court, traveling and avoiding imperial duties as much as possible. She also avoided politics, only getting involved in Franz Joseph’s decision-making once but to great effect. She was a very vocal advocate for the recognition of Hungary’s political rights and played a significant role in persuading her reactionary husband to agree to the Compromise of 1866 which established the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were crowned King and Queen of Hungary in 1867. The next year Sisi gave birth to their last child, the Archduchess Marie-Valerie. The timing was generally believed not to have been a coincidence, ie, she let Franz Joseph into the bed she’d spent a decade keeping him out of as a reward for the Compromise.

It was a one-time deal. The imperial couple grew increasingly estranged as Sisi continued to travel on her own and avoid the settled domesticity (albeit a massively glamorous version) of life in Vienna that her husband wanted. When their only son Rudolf killed himself in his hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889 after the death of his 17-year-old mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera (we don’t know how she died; it could have been a murder-suicide but the authorities covered everything up and modern examinations of her bones have been inconclusive), Franz Joseph and Elisabeth’s marriage splintered irrevocably. They lived separate lived from then on, although their later letters indicate they eventually developed a genuine friendship.

Ten years later, Sisi was visiting Geneva under an assumed name. She had refused police protection and dismissed her attendants when Luigi Lucheni, aware of who she really was thanks to the newspaper headlines identifying the “Countess of Hohenembs” as the empress, stabbed her in the heart with a sharpened file. Her tight corset slowed her blood loss enough to keep her alive for a few hours before her pericardium filled with blood and her heart stopped beating. Franz Joseph, who had been madly in love with her since she was 15, was devastated by her death. While she had received relatively little press coverage and public attention in the empire during her increasingly withdrawn life, after her death the legend of the beautiful but miserable queen, the open-hearted innocent stifled by imperial etiquette but beloved by the people, sprang into being. A trilogy of films in the 1950s starring Romy Schneider as Elisabeth sealed that image in the modern imagination.

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