Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Read and see what Darwin read and saw on the HMS Beagle

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

HMS Beagle by P.G. King, 1890Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle in December of 1831 as a self-funded gentleman naturalist (Josiah Wedgwood II, son of the potter/industrialist and Charles’ uncle by marriage, actually did the funding) on what was supposed to be a two-year survey of the South American coast. He wound up spending five years on board circumnavigating the globe. Darwin was 22 years old and fresh out of Cambridge when his epic voyage began. While the Beagle crew focused on surveying the coasts, Darwin’s job was studying the local flora, fauna and geology. Even though he was an amateur who had only ever put together a beetle collection before, he proved adroit at collecting specimens, over the years amassing a great quantity of them from plankton to Megatherium fossils.

On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, 23 years after the Beagle’s return to England, but the things he saw and the extensive notes and journal he wrote documenting his trip would be invaluable to his understanding that species are not immutable, but rather evolve over time through a process of natural selection. An essential element of Darwin’s growth from talented amateur to scientist was the research library on the Beagle. There were 404 books on board, mostly non-fiction (one exception Darwin is known to have read was a Spanish translation of a racy French novel by Antoine-Toussaint Desquiron de Saint-Agnan about the adultery trial of Queen Caroline, estranged wife of King George IV), almost all of them the property of the ship’s young captain Robert FitzRoy.

Diagram of poop cabin with Darwin's annotations labeling the bookcasesThe books were kept in cases in the poop cabin at the ship’s stern. Darwin was quartered in the poop cabin, which means for five years he lived in this library. Little wonder, then, that there are obscure notes in his journals that can only be explained by identifying the book referenced. However, the catalogue of the library was lost and the books themselves were dispersed when the Beagle returned home in 1836.

Now a team of researchers led by John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the National University of Singapore, have compiled and digitized every last known title from the Beagle’s library.

Among the titles are all 20 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, seven volumes of the Natural History of Invertebrate Animals by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and James Cook’s three-volume account of a Pacific Ocean voyage in the 1770s. [...]

Reconstructing the library provides a more complete picture of Darwin’s world during the expedition. “Darwin literally lived in the library for five years,” said van Wyhe. “The science of his day was already quite sophisticated. All these geology books and all these books on fossils. Darwin could build on what was already known and what had come before.” [...]

The books onboard were identified through a number of methods including letters sent between crew members and their families, lines in Darwin’s notebooks and his surviving book collection. The final number of books digitised for the project is close to a number stated by Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle. In a letter to his sister during an earlier voyage on 16 March 1826, FitzRoy wrote, “I flatter myself I have a complete library in miniature, upwards of 400 volumes!”

Here is the complete Beagle library catalogued by subject, here catalogued by title. There are a total of 195,000 pages in the library with more than 5,000 illustrations.

Montevideo from the anchored Beagle, Conrad Martens, 1833If you’d like to see some of the sights Darwin saw during his voyage, you’ll enjoy another digitization project: Cambridge University’s scanning of the sketchbooks filled by the Beagle’s artist, Conrad Martens. He documented the sights with lightning drawings, most of them quick pencil sketches with some watercolors, during his altogether too brief time on board the ship. He joined the Beagle crew in November of 1833 at Montevideo and left after they reached Valparaiso in August of 1834 due to budgetary constraints. Leaf through Sketchbook III here and Sketchbook I here. (Those are in date order, despite the counterintuitive numbering.)

 

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Canada museum buys world’s oldest hockey stick

Sunday, January 11th, 2015


The Canadian Museum of History has acquired the oldest known hockey stick for $300,000. The seller was social worker Mark Presley who saw it mounted on the wall of a barbershop and bought it from barber George Ferneyhough in 2008 for $1,000. Fascinated by the small, clearly old hockey stick, Presley traced its ownership history and had it tested extensively to determine its age. (You can read the documentation of his research here.) He discovered that the stick was hand-carved out of a single piece of (what else?) sugar maple between 1835 and 1838 in North Sydney along the northeastern coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The original owners were the Moffatt family, scions of Loyalist shipbuilder Captain James Moffatt, born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in 1737, who was one of the first settlers of Upper North Sydney’s Pottle Lake area.

It was a Moffatt, Charlie Moffatt, who had given George Ferneyhough the stick thirty years earlier. Presley tracked Charlie Moffatt down. Then 92 years old, Moffatt told Presley that while he never used it himself, he remembered the old handmade stick hanging on the porch of the family’s homestead on Pottle Lake until the farm with its two acres of waterfront property was expropriated by the government in the 1960s when the lake watershed became the protected potable water source for surrounding municipalities. Charlie’s father Warren told him he and his father Thomas had used the stick to play on Pottle Lake when they were young, and Thomas was born in 1837, so Presley realized this stick could well be very old indeed.

Initials “WM” carved into the blade of the stick when it was still new before any of the many layers of paint were applied indicate that the first owner was William “Dilly” Moffatt, Thomas Moffatt’s brother and Charlie’s great-uncle. Thomas and Dilly’s father John Mumford Moffatt probably carved the stick for his sons, and he did an outstanding job of it, starting with the lumber selection. Experts at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, studied the wood and found the direction of the pith indicates it was taken from a small tree growing outward and upward from a cliff or creek bank. This growth pattern gave the tree’s lumber a natural J-shaped curve. That made the stick easy and fast to carve and extremely strong since the blade was part of the natural sweep of the wood.

The Mount Allison researchers were also able to date the stick by its tree rings. No other antique hockey stick has been able to be dendrochronologically dated because you need a certain number of rings to establish a pattern that can be matched with a previously known chronology and hockey sticks don’t generally have usable ring groups. The experts determined the minimum number of rings they would need was 30. The butt of the Moffatt stick turned out to have 43 rings, a remarkable number for the small diameter of a hockey stick. Matched against a sugar maple chronology established from Pottle Lake trees and adjusted for additional rings and knots, the date the wood was cut determined to be between 1835 and 1838. The paint evidence supported that conclusion, with the first of the five layers being a natural “red earth” pigment based on iron oxides ground up with charcoal that was in common use in Cape Breton between 1800 and 1850.

That makes the Moffatt stick a good 20 years older than any other hockey stick known to survive. The stick previously thought to be the oldest was made between 1852 and 1856 by Glasgow-born Alexander Rutherford who carved it out of hickory at his farm outside Lindsay, Ontario. His son, Alexander Rutherford Jr., played with it before handing it down to his own son Melville Rutherford. Melville gave to his nine-year-old grand-nephew Gord Sharpe who kept it for three decades before putting it on display at Wayne Gretsky’s Toronto restaurant for a few years and then auctioning it off on eBay in 2006. It sold for $2.2 million Canadian. Sharpe gave the profits to a charity he founded and the buyer put the Rutherford stick on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Given that enticing precedent and needing money to fund his return to college, Mark Presley chose to follow in Sharpe’s footsteps and put the Moffatt stick up for sale on eBay in March of 2014. Excitement was rife with talk of millions of dollars (Mr. Ferneyhough was pretty disgruntled at the prospect) but the highest bid was $118,000 Canadian which failed to meet the reserve.

The Canadian Museum of History, provisioned with moneys from the donor-supported National Collection Fund, was able to make a deal with Presley to secure the world’s oldest known hockey stick for the nation, and boy are they happy about it.

“Hockey is Canada’s game — we developed it and we cherish it like no other country in the world,” said Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History. “The Moffatt stick is a unique and powerful link to the sport’s earliest days in this country, and is an example of the national treasures Canadians will see in their new national museum of history.”

“Our Government is proud that the Canadian Museum of History has acquired this important part of our history,” said the Honourable Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages. “Through its acquisitions, the Canadian Museum of History provides Canadians with greater access to our rich and diverse history. As we approach Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, this is an opportunity for all of us to appreciate our great heritage.”

The Moffatt stick will go on display in the museum’s new Canadian History Hall on the 150th anniversary, Canada Day (July 1st) of 2017.

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The Mauritshuis at a movie theater near you

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

When the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Netherlands, closed for two years so the 17th century palace that houses the exceptional collection of Dutch Golden Age masterpieces could be restored and expanded, a selection of the museum’s most famous pieces went on tour. The Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis exhibition kicked off in Japan with 48 works and it was a smash hit. The show at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum was the world’s most visited exhibition of 2012 with 758,724 total visitors.

When it moved on to the US in 2013, the traveling exhibition stopped at the de Young in San Francisco, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and The Frick Collection in New York City where hundreds of thousands of people went to see Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Paulus Potter’s The Bull and Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, among other treasures. Early last year the show moved to Italy for its last stop at the Palazzo Fava in Bologna and then returned home to The Hague. Over the year and a half the exhibition was on the road, more than 2.2 million people in Japan, the US and Italy saw Girl with a Pearl Earring and friends.

On June 27th, 2014, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands officially reopened the Mauritshuis with much pomp and ceremony, including a living human Girl with a Pearl Earring’s symbolic return to the museum accompanied by six cavalrymen from the Cavalry Escort of Honour. The renovation doubled the museum’s space, thanks to the acquisition of the Sociëteit de Witte building, an Art Deco building across the street, and the construction of an underground tunnel between the old building and the new. The new building, unfortunately named the Royal Dutch Shell Wing after its sponsor, has a new restaurant, gift shop, educational workshop and will host temporary exhibitions. The original museum, built in 1641 as the residence of count John Maurice of Nassau, was extensively refurbished with new systems installed to secure and conserve the paintings in the collection.

So now the collection of almost 850 objects, mainly paintings, is up and running again after two years when 50 of the most prized pieces were traveling and only 100 of the other works in the collection were on display in a temporary Highlights Mauritshuis exhibition
at the Gemeentemuseum modern art museum. For those of us who haven’t had a chance to see the refurbished museum and its superstar with a pearl earring, the fine folks at Exhibition on Screen have made a movie about Girl with a Pearl Earring and the restored Mauritshuis.

Enjoying unparalleled exclusive access to this historical exhibition, the film takes the audience on a journey as it seeks to answer many of the questions surrounding this enigmatic painting and its mysterious creator, Vermeer. Using the recently completed and highly complex makeover of the museum as its starting point, the film goes on a behind the scenes detective journey to seek out the answers that lie within the other masterpieces housed in the collection.

To find a theater screening the movie near you, check this list. Showings begin on January 13th. Until then, here’s a quick preview. (Keep your eyes peeled at the 42 second mark for a quick glimpse of The Goldfinch, the small 1654 panel painting that became the surprise break-out star of the exhibition’s last American leg at the The Frick thanks to the success of the Donna Tartt novel named after and starring the wee bird portrait.)

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Digitized Freer|Sackler collections up and running

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

As promised, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s digitized collections went live on January 1st, 2015. The new website is called Open F|S and is populated with high resolution images of the museums’ 40,000 works of Asian art. You can search by keyword or browse by object type, topic, name, culture, place, date and whether it’s currently on display.

Just to take the database for a quick spin, I did a keyword search for “peacock” because I am thoroughly obsessed by the Peacock Room, originally a dining/Chinese porcelain display room in the London home of shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland that was lavishly decorated by James McNeill Whistler in 1876-7. The entire room was purchased in 1904 by future museum founder Charles Lang Freer who had it installed in his Detroit home. It was moved to the new Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after Freer’s death in 1919. All that moving wasn’t good for the room. Attempts to repair structural damage in the late 1940s neglected much of Whistler’s work, leaving colors darkened and patterns obscured. The room was returned to its early splendour by a punctilious cleaning and conservation in 1993 and is now on display in all its glory.

The Peacock Room exhibition page has a nice image gallery, but the photographs are too small to feast upon the details to my satisfaction. Those dark days are over now. The Open F|S entry on the Peacock Room has four huge pictures that you can click on to zoom in or that you can download.

The peacock search results pointed me to a wealth of other beautiful objects. The textiles are particularly fantastic to view in high resolution because you can see the details of the stitching and fabric, like in this late 18th century painting on silk by Mori Sosen. I also love seeing ceramics, like this gazelle vessel made in 12th-14th century Syria that is part of Freer’s ceramic collection on display in the Peacock Room, in extreme close-up because the cracks and flakes give you a whole new perspective on the glazing and design.

If you plan to enjoy this resource for browsing or to make art work of your own using the Freer and Sackler collection images, consider signing up as a beta tester. They are looking people willing and eager to go down the rabbit holes of this vast digital wonderland and report back on any issues. So far I’ve encountered a couple of minor weirdnesses — the zoom feature cutting the picture in half, difficulty clicking between the different Peacock Room images — but they were quickly resolved by refreshing. The only actual feature that I reported as questionable is that you can zoom past the native resolution which gives you a close-up view of a lot of pixellated, blurry edges. I think the zoom should max out at the highest res. Beta testers will also be given early access to future closed test versions of Open F|S which sounds like good clean fun to me.

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Købke’s romantic sunset is actually a sunny day

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) have discovered that View of Lake Sortedam, an 1838 landscape by Christen Købke that was thought for decades to depict a romantic sunset reflected in the russet lake waters, is in fact a bright sunny day over blue lake waters. Two women standing on a jetty seeing off a party in the rowboat on a summer evening at sundown is a wistful, melancholic scene. Make it high noon and the romantic theme of separation is distinctly less emphatic.

The artist painted the lake, which was then outside the old city of Copenhagen in a liminal suburb between the city and the rural country, with the express goal of getting it into the yearly exhibit of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Rumor had it the Danish King was interested in acquiring the painting for the Royal Picture Gallery (now absorbed into the National Gallery of Denmark), and indeed, after the landscape was exhibited at the Royal Academy show in 1839, it was purchased by the monarch. View of Lake Sortedam was the first painting by Christen Købke in the Royal Picture Gallery.

That proved to be the pinnacle of his career during his lifetime. At the end of 1838, flush with a travel stipend from the Royal Academy, he traveled to Italy. Upon his return in 1840, he abandoned the romantic nationalism of his earlier work in favor of scenes based on sketches from his travels. These were not well received. He submitted one of those Italian landscapes in his application to become of a member of the Academy in 1846 and was rejected. Two years later he died of pneumonia at the age of just 37.

The importance of View of Lake Sortedam, in terms of subject matter, execution and period, was not recognized for more than a century after his death. In 1841 the King had the painting moved to his private apartment in Christiansborg Castle where it remained for 25 years. It only went on public view in 1864 when it was returned to the Royal Picture Gallery. When the National Gallery was established in 1896, Lake Sortedam moved there with the rest of the Royal Collection of Paintings, but as recently as the 1970s it was hanging above a door, not a location commensurate with its significance.

In the 1980s, art historians began to recognize the piece was one of Christen Købke’s most important paintings and it took a prominent place in exhibition of the artist’s work at home and abroad. It is now considered one of the signature Danish Golden Age paintings in the collection.

With little attention paid to it for a century and a half after it was painted, View of Lake Sortedam changed without people noticing it. The contrast between the pale blue of the sky and the red of the lake had caused some art historians to wonder if it was a natural phenomenon — the sun setting out of frame to the right could make the lake red while the sky was still light — or if perhaps the color had shifted over time.

Conservators at the SMK took small samples of paint from the lake and sky both in areas where they had been protected from the sun and exposed to it. The samples were analyzed using X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy to identify the chemical components of the paints Købke used.

The colours have changed due to a chemical reaction in the blue pigment, which is known as Prussian blue. The colour changes have been exacerbated by 176 years of exposure to light.

The sky has become paler and lighter. And the lake, which was painted using a mixture of red, blue, and white pigments, was originally a bluish grey. Now, however, it has taken on a reddish, purplish hue. The frame in which the work is set has protected the original colours out at the very edge – and this difference in colour piqued the conservator’s curiosity.

Kasper Monrad, senior researcher at the SMK, states that this new discovery completely changes how we should look at this painting. Up until this point the work was believed to be a romantic sunset scene. In the mid-1830s Købke painted many romantic artworks – and this work has been regarded as part of that group. In light of the new knowledge – that the scene actually shows a bright summer’s day – the work must be regarded as far less romantic in scope.

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Ode on the animation of a Grecian urn

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

I’m a devoted fan of the Greek vase animations made by Panoply. Computer animator Steve K. Simons and Greek warfare expert Dr. Sonya Nevin work together to develop moving parts from the static images on Greek pottery, much of it in the extensive collection of the University of Reading’s Ure Museum. They collaborate with ancient music experts to create soundtracks that wouldn’t sound out of place in one of the symposia depicted on the vases. It’s a full-spectrum historical immersion achieved through modern technology.

The project is focused on education and community outreach. Each animation provides additional resources for teachers to use the animations in class, and many of Panoply’s videos are storyboarded by local schoolchildren who get to enjoy an exceptional opportunity to learn about ancient art and history by studying a vase and then get to express their own creativity in the creation of the animated version of the scene. Sometimes they’re more serious treatments, sometimes lighthearted, but either way, the results are consistently wonderful. One of my favorites in the lighthearted category is this brilliant Dance Off storyboarded by the pupils of the Maiden Erlegh School and Kendrick School in Reading.

That 6th century B.C. Etruscan black figure oinochoe vase just GOT SERVED.

A more serious treatment is this animation of a combat sequence from 6th century B.C. lekanis vase made on the Greek island of Euboea.

The only thing I don’t like about it is that there isn’t more of it, which is why I was so excited to see Panoply’s latest effort, Hoplites! Greeks At War, a much longer and more detailed animation of the practice of ancient war from religious sacrifice to the thrust and parry of battle to the final victory.

I think it’s a masterpiece: the way the music and action are in perfect rhythm, how that blow creates the crack in the vase, integrating the condition of the vase into the scene, the addition of figures to form a little army instead of using the individual images alone. I feel like starting a petition demanding that all cheeseball reenactments of ancient history on television be replaced with Panoply animations.

Because I can’t resist them, I’m going to embed a couple of other favorites below, but you should go through all of the animations. They’re very short — Hoplites! is the exception length-wise, Dance Off the rule — so it won’t take you long to watch them.

Clash of the Dicers, created for a conference at the University College Dublin, features Achilles and Ajax playing a game during a lull in the Trojan War. It’s from a 6th century B.C. black figure amphora signed by potter Exekias now in the Vatican Museum. I love how the background glows like lava.

Medusa, storyboard by pupils from Addington School in Reading, was created pulling characters from three different vases: the gorgon is from a 6th century B.C. black figure kylix cup, her stoney victim from an Apulian 4th century B.C. red figure alabastron, and the warrior is from the Hoplites! lekanis.

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Freer, Sackler to release entire collections online

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have completed a digitization project whose scope is unprecedented in the United States. Come January 1st, 2015, their entire collections, more than 40,000 works of Asian and American art, will be released online. Most of these works have never been on display so they will be seen by the public for the first time as high resolution images.

In the initial release, each work will be represented by one or more stunningly detailed images at the highest possible resolution, with complex items such as albums and manuscripts showing the most important pages. In addition, some of the most popular images will also be available for download as free computer, smartphone and social media backgrounds. Future iterations plan to offer additional functionality like sharing, curation and community-based research.

“The depth of the data we’re releasing illuminates each object’s unique history, from its original creator to how it arrived at the Smithsonian,” said Courtney O’Callaghan, director of digital media and technology at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “Now, a new generation can not only appreciate these works on their own terms, but remix this content in ways we have yet to imagine.”

The museum’s masterpieces range in time from the Neolithic to the present day, featuring especially fine groupings of Chinese jades and bronzes, Islamic art, Chinese paintings and masterworks from ancient Persia. Currently, the collection boasts 1,806 American art objects, 1,176 ancient Egyptian objects, 2,076 ancient Near Eastern objects, 10,424 Chinese objects, 2,683 Islamic objects, 1,213 South and Southeast Asian objects and smaller groupings of Korean, Armenian, Byzantine, Greek and Roman works. In addition, the Freer Study Collection — more than 10,000 objects used by scholars around the world for scientific research and reference — will be viewable for the first time.

To enable the widest possible usage, fully 90% of the images will be free of any copyright restrictions for noncommercial use. The museums hope this will engender wider study of Asian art as well as new artworks inspired by the pieces in their galleries and archives.

Very few museums in the US have digitized their entire collections, and none of them are museums specializing in Asian art. The Freer and Sackler are also the first of the Smithsonian museums to have complete online collections. It’s not surprising that they would be pioneers in this area. The Freer and Sackler are the only museums to have been in on the ground floor of both the Google Art Project digitization initiative and the Google Cultural Institute. Google did the heavy lifting on those, though. The Smithsonian staff spent nearly 6,000 work hours this year photographing and digitizing the Freer/Sackler collections.

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Yorkshire Hoards on Google Art Project

Friday, November 7th, 2014

The Google Cultural Institute and the York Museums Trust have joined forces to create an exhibition of hoards discovered in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Hoards exhibition gives audiences the chance to view buried treasure from the Bronze Age (1000 B.C.) to the Civil War (1650 A.D.). The entries are arranged in chronological order so you can take a virtual trip through Yorkshire history, and descriptions are accompanied by high resolution photographs and video.

Hoards were buried for different reasons in different periods. Bronze Age axe hoards, for example, were buried near bodies of water which suggests there was a ritual purpose behind it. Iron Age and Roman coin hoards are often indicators of unrest, earthly goods buried to keep them safe from danger until the owner could return. Some of them were clearly savings, however, the ancient version of stuffing it in your mattress. Valuables were added to over time, in those cases, instead of being buried in one fell swoop.

Hoards are a great way to explore a region’s history, therefore, because they’re concrete evidence of how people dealt with external threats, their religious practices, the geographic range of their connections, what kind of containers they used, etc. It’s also just cool to be able to zoom in on a great many beautiful artifacts and coins that haven’t previously been photographed in high resolution.

The York Museums Trust is also collaborating with Google to present an online highlight reel of one of their museum’s exhibitions: 1914: When the World Changed Forever, a World War I display currently enjoying great success at the York Castle Museum. Objects include a horse’s gas mask, weapons and an ingenious Zeppalarm device that connected to a home’s gas line and lit a light bulb and sounded an alarm when the gas company turned down the supply to dim the lights and warn of an impending dirigible raid.

The Google exhibitions are just the tip of the iceberg. The York Museum Trust has embraced digitization on a grand scale, placing 160,000 objects in its collections, thousands of which are not on public display, in a freely accessible online database. More than 50,000 of the entries include high resolution images of the objects, all of which are in the public domain so you can download them and use them as you wish. More photographs will be uploaded as they are taken.

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MoMA finds lost 1913 film with all-black cast

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

New York City’s Museum of Modern Art has discovered footage of a previously unknown 1913 film with vaudeville and Broadway pioneer Bert Williams starring in a cast of all black actors. It’s not a completed film that a movie theater would have received, but rather seven reels of unassembled daily rushes, multiple takes from each scene, that the director and editor would later edit together into the finished picture. The museum discovered the footage in its collection of 900 negatives from the Biograph studios that were rescued from destruction by MoMA’s first film curator, Iris Barry, when the company’s Bronx warehouse closed in 1939.

It is the earliest surviving film to feature an all-black cast, and is among the earliest ever shot. The Foster Photoplay Company, a Chicago film production company founded in 1910 by theatrical promoter and entertainment journalist William Foster, released what is thought to be the first all-black picture, The Railroad Porter, in June of 1913. MoMA researchers discovered that the Bert Williams film was shot in September of 1913. None of the early Foster Photoplay movies have survived. (Unrelated but interesting coincidence: William Foster worked as a publicity promoter for Bert Williams and his partner George Walker’s groundbreaking 1903 musical In Dahomey, the first full-length musical comedy written and performed by African-Americans to be staged in a Broadway theater, and its equally successful 1906 follow-up Abyssinia.)

Unlike the Foster pictures which were created, shot and performed by black artists, only the actors in the recently discovered footage were black. They were employed by the famed Biograph Company, the film production company which launched the careers of D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Mabel Normand and Lionel Barrymore. Biograph hired Bert Williams, who by then was hugely famous for his vaudeville routines, musicals and best-selling song recordings, to star in their all-black comedies. He had to wear blackface, which is as incongruous as it is gross considering that none of the other actors (that I can see in the stills, at least) are in blackface.

Even though it includes elements of minstrelsy, the general subject matter and approach does appear to be more in keeping with the “race films” that Foster and other black producers made to counter the ugly stereotypical caricatures of on-screen minstrel pictures.

Of historical relevance is the display of adult romantic feelings between black performers, which was largely considered unacceptable to white audiences into the first two decades of the 20th century. In the film, a repeated, lengthy kiss between Williams and his costar appears to be the earliest surviving portrayal of a serious romantic relationship between black characters on film. The film also features a lengthy early example of African American vernacular dance, with a nearly two-minute, full-cast performance of a cakewalk, the dance that Williams and partners George Walker and Aida Overton Walker had made an international sensation with theater audiences and the white upper class around 1900.

Although no main title, intertitles, script, or production credits have survived with the film, MoMA’s curators tried to reconstruct the film’s narrative, ultimately piecing together what appears to be a middle-class comedy centered on the membership of Williams’s character in a black social club, with an additional plotline concerning Williams and rival suitors vying for the hand of the local beauty after a day of fairground activities, a bit of larceny, and a night of exhibition dancing.

The plot and characters of the film aren’t the only historically significant elements of this find. There’s also behind-the-scenes footage of the black cast interacting with the white crew on set in New York City and on location in what curators believe is Englewood, New Jersey.

The unedited rushes and MoMA’s research will go on display at the museum’s 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History exhibition on October 24th. The assembled footage will be screened at MoMA’s 12th annual film preservation festival To Save and Project on November 8th.

Meanwhile, here’s a 1916 Biograph picture starring Bert Williams that has survived intact. As with the cakewalk scene in the recently discovered film, A Natural Born Gambler features one of Bert Williams’ most famous vaudeville routines. It’s the final scene of the picture (beginning at 19:30) in which Williams pantomimes an entire poker game alone.

The Internet Archive, bless its generous heart, has an impressive collection of Bert Williams’ music. His recordings were wildly successful, selling in the hundreds of thousands back when a record that moved 10,000 copies was considered a best-seller. His most famous was probably Nobody, but my favorite is 1920′s When The Moon Shines on The Moonshine both because it’s catchy and because it’s such a perfect little window into the first year of Prohibition.

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The Roosevelts: An Intimate History debuts tonight

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History premieres tonight at 8:00 EST on your local PBS station. It’s a seven episode, 14-hour series that covers the life and times of three Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor — from 1858 (the year Teddy was born) to 1962 (the year Eleanor died). Tonight’s episode follows the family from 1858 to 1901, the births and childhoods of all three of the main players and the early travails and successes of Teddy Roosevelt through his ascension to the presidency after the death of President William McKinley on September 14th, 1901, 113 years to the day ago.

I loves me some do-rag-era TR, so I’m looking forward to tonight’s show. The next episode is sure to deal with another of my favorite TR stories, the time he got shot in the chest but refused to get treatment until he finished the speech he had been scheduled to give.

A later episode will include the extremely rare footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt walking on his iron leg braces filmed by Jimmie DeShong, the Washington Senators pitcher who recorded the president with his 8mm home movie camera at the All-Star Game in Griffith Stadium, Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1937.

PBS has made a half-hour preview of the first episode available if you want a sneak peek. There are lots of short clips on the website already, and the full episodes will be uploaded after they air.

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