Harry Ransom Center

Carson McCullers, Style Icon

This post was originally published, in slightly different form, on the Harry Ransom Center's blog, Cultural CompassMcCullers Cecil Beaton

Photo of Carson McCullers by Cecil Beaton, via Cultural Compass

It might seem funny that an author’s fashion sense would even be a topic of discussion. What does it matter what a writer wears, so long as she writes? And yet, clothes, accessories, and everyday objects give us tangible, direct links to the past and to the people who wore them, used them, and kept them in their homes.

Sifting through the "Spaceship Junkyard"

Bendiksen Russia 2000

Jonas Bendikson RUSSIA. Altai Territory. 2000. Image via Harry Ransom Center Exhibitions page.

Jonas Bendikson's photo, used in many of the Harry Ransom Center's promotional materials for their current exhibit "Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos in the Digital Age," caught my attention even before visiting the galleries. Before seeing it in person, the image reminded me, strange as it is to say, of the 1939 Technicolor version of The Wizard of Oz.

On Being an Observer of Elliott Erwitt's "Beauty Knows No Pain" (1971)

Image credit: videos.videopress.com

The Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibit “Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age” poses interesting questions about the ambiguity of the photographic medium in our present time, while simultaneously calling into question the status of the photographer as objective.

Framing Subjects: Arnold Newman’s Editorial Practice

Arnold Newman self portrait, posed next to a piano and his framed portrait of Igor Stravinsky

Image Credit: The Harry Ransom Center

Walking through the Harry Ransom Center’s Arnold Newman: Masterclass exhibit with a photographer friend helped me notice more than Newman’s numerous famous subjects. Creating a portrait requires more than just telling someone to smile or to stand in fair light; good photographers must understand how composition affects the final product. Framing matters, whether that’s done by putting wood around a picture or deciding where and how you crop the shot. The exhibit allows visitors to examine Newman’s artistic process, showing the evidence of how he edited his raw photographs into finished portraits. I want to look at in this post both his famous shot of Igor Stravinsky and his created “portrait” of Marilyn Monroe to think more about what we can learn about visual and non-visual editorial practice.

Arnold Newman's Photos...And Some Photos Thereof

Image Credit: Photo from Arnold Newman Exhibit, Harry Ransom Center, taken by author; protected under Fair Use.

On February 12th, the traveling exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass began a four-month stop at UT’s esteemed Harry Ransom Center.  As Newman was a prolific photographer with a strong belief in the instructional potential of photographs, the chance to see his life’s work first-hand was nothing short of spine-tingling to those of us with an unusually strong interest in visual culture and artifacts, especially when they have pedagogical implications!  (Pretty dorky, I know.)

Is the relatively frequent disappearance of important data a natural feature of human societies?

Da Vinci, The Battle of Anghiari

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been amazed that our ancestors lost copies of gospels we think existed, Ciceronian tracks we know were read, and Shakespeare plays we know to have been performed. How do such valuable things disappear? Who’s accountable for these losses? Who ever commissioned Vasari paint a fresco over da Vinci’s The Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Salone dei Cinquecento? (No one today would dare destroy the Vasari – a masterwork in its own right – to see if the da Vinci lay underneath; though we’re 95% sure the da Vinci lies under it, I’d say.) In truth, the real history of these lost artifacts is much more complex, and it’s kind of hard to hold anyone accountable for the losses. Different cultures in different times appreciate different treasures from our past. There exists a whole bookshelf’s worth of scholarship about Shakespeare’s only moderate popularity in his own day, explaining perhaps how Love’s Labour’s Won or Cardenio could have fallen through the cracks. Nor should Vasari feel bad for taking a da Vinci battle painting from us. Leonardo was experimenting with a new painting technique after a bad experience with variations of the fresco medium in The Last Supper, and in The Battle of Anghiari we think he used a thick undercoat of something (possibly a wax) to help preserve the finished product. But the medium used in The Battle of Anghiari was even more prone to decomposition than that of The Last Supper, and thus the painting remained damaged and unfinished for over 100 years before Vasari picked up his brush. The drawing above is a 1603 copy by Peter Paul Rubens.

Archiving the Past, Archiving the Future

A stylized image of Bel Geddes' _Futurama_ exhibition.

Image Credit: Laura Thain

Archives are by definition past-oriented.  The very act of “archiving” renders an object an artifact of a specific past, although its orientation within that past depends on the disciplinary practice of the archivist.  20th century archival studies have made considerable movements toward standardization, and alongside this standardization of archival methodologies comes an expansion of that which we consider worthy of being archived.  Thus, we no longer operate under the assumption that 20th century archives will be composed exclusively of objects from a distant, exclusively white Western patriarchal past—we compose queer archives, postcolonial archives, feminist archives, and, perhaps, in the case of Bel Geddes, even archives of the future.   Join me as I explore the idea of a future archive and its relationship to the archival ethos of the Harry Ransom Center, in part by exploring exhibition visitor’s own “visions” of the future.

Bel Geddes, Surprising Office Buildings of the Early Twentieth Century, and an American Work Ethic

Toledo Scale Factory Machine Shop

(Image credit: Harry Ransom Center)

The other day I was walking through the Harry Ransom Center and noticed some very cool designs for office buildings that Bel Geddes penned in the late 1920s (pictured above). I wasn’t surprised that he had come up with such things, of course – the ongoing Bel Geddes exhibition at the Center, “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,” features an exceptional range of content, from baseball stadiums to cruise ships to Worlds Fair exhibits. By I did stop for a second and wonder “Why an office building?” It’s Bel Geddes design for the Toledo Scale Factory Machine Shop. What’s so striking about the design is its focus on aesthetics. This isn’t surprising, of course, given that in most everything Bel Geddes ever designed, function follows form. But this notion is quite contrary to the Modernist architecture of the period, and I couldn’t help but think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building. Aesthetically the structures are similar, but Wright’s focus is on his building’s interior, which he made into a temple of work. The exterior of Wright’s building is completely in the service of its interior. But somehow Wright’s trademark consideration of lighting resulted in a building that looks like Bel Geddes’. Yet they are vastly different structures, despite appearances. Except for cost considerations. When Toledo Scale’s president presented Bel Geddes plans to the company’s board of directors, he warned that the building “would cost lots of money and be extremely different, even weird looking.” Wright’s plans inspired a similar response.

New Forms for Old Needs in Norman Bel Geddes’s "House of Tomorrow"

This image is the floor plans for Norman Bel Geddes's House of Tomorrow

Image Credit: Metropolis Magazine

Walking through the Harry Ransom Center’s excellent Norman Bel Geddes exhibit, one thing that struck me is that while Bel Geddes is particularly famous for his large industrial designs—radios, cars, cities, and stadiums, for example—he also directed his talents towards the intimate spaces of the American home. Before Bel Geddes designed prefabricated homes for the Housing Corporation for America in 1939, or published his 1932 book Horizons, he wrote an article called “The House of Tomorrow” for the April 1931 issue of the Ladies Home Journal. The “twentieth-century style” he describes is one that he sees uniting form and function anew for the needs of the twentieth-century individual—or rather, what he imagines the twentieth-century individual to be.

The Lesser Known Bel Geddes: An Assessment of the Harry Ransom Center Exhibit

The Divine Comedy, scene rendering: In a path of blue-white light Beatrice steps down from her chariot to meet Dante, 1921-1930

Image Credit: Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation

The Divine Comedy, scene rendering: In a path of blue-white light Beatrice steps down from her chariot to meet Dante, 1921-1930

Norman Bel Geddes lived a sixty-five years that connect two worlds, the Victorian past of 1893, the Atomic Age of 1958. His work reflects and resists that trajectory. The current exhibit on Bel Geddes at the Harry Ransom Center (UT Austin) divides his career into phases or stages of development. A highly creative childhood segued into a successful career as a stage and costume designer for New York Theater. Of all his work—in industrial design, in architecture, in “futurism”--his set and costume design remains my favorite. But in an important sense, Bel Geddes never left the theater.

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