A war with an end

Massive crowds gathered around a replica of the Statue of Liberty near Philadelphia's city hall to celebrate news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918.
On this day, many nations pause to remember their war dead, the soldiers who have served and fallen, especially those who served in World War One.

What the US celebrates as Veterans Day began as a peace celebration on November 11, 1918, with the end of the pitiless conflict known as World War One.  The announcement that the war had ended with the signing of a multinational peace agreement, or Armistice, triggered massive spontaneous jubilees in many places worldwide.  In Europe, the States, Canada, even New Zealand and Australia, vast crowds gathered in the ceremonial centers of cities to cheer the end of a struggle that had cost the warring nations many millions of lives.

This marvelous photograph shows Philadelphians celebrating the word of peace that day.  Horrible as the war was, the photograph conveys a feeling of pride, even as it commemorates a sort of war unfamiliar to us today.  For World War One had a definite beginning and end.  When the United States entered the war on 4 April 1917, it was with a formal declaration of war from Congress.  President Woodrow Wilson had struggled to maintain a stance of neutrality toward the war for the previous two-and-a-half years, during which time public sentiment in favor of the war had gradually built.

Once the US had entered the war, there was a draft.  Over a million men were mobilized.  By the end of the war, 18 months later, American forces had suffered some 320,000 casualties, the majority being wounded, with tens of thousands being lost to death and disease.  Being at war demanded something from all society, taxing the economy to its limits and requiring sacrifice on the part of civilians, as the signs around the Philadelphia square suggest.

Hence the massive outpouring of joy when the war reached a definite end, and the blessed condition known as peace was attained for a time.

Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Click on the image to go to the source.

On Getty’s Mountain

Visiting the Getty Center in Los Angeles was one of the high points of the season now ending.  Although I’d read a lot about this museum and its architecture over the years, still I was unprepared for the aesthetic vision it embodies.

I’d never been to a museum where the building and setting so overwhelmed the art that it housed.  We all know that the Getty Center is a relatively recent creation of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and that the Trust, with an endowment of some $6.2 billion, is the world’s wealthiest visual arts institution.  The Getty Center is the younger sibling of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades—the classical pavilion that J. Paul Getty had built in the 1960s to house his personal collection of art and antiquities.  The Getty Center, nestled atop a mountain near Bel Air, opened its doors in 1997, by which time Getty had been dead some 20 years.

The buildings of the Getty campus rise above Interstate 405.
Wealth frees the Getty Center from many of the constraints and worries that plague other museums.  Transportation via tram up the hill to the museum, admission to the galleries, even audio tours are all free.  The Getty makes no effort to merchandise its art (its gift shop is minuscule) and has set up an ‘open content program‘ facilitating the sharing and circulation of digital copies of works in its collections deemed to be in the public domain or to which the Getty itself holds the rights.  In short, its art is not treated as property.

Visitors to the Getty Center in the tram pavilion.
For these and other reasons, a trip to the top of Getty’s mountain has the character of an elevating journey.  An unlikely one, too, for the visit begins in an unceremonious way, with cabs and cars circling an underground depot built into the bottom of a hill, where they disgorge passengers, as guards bark directions and urge them to keep moving.  A growing crowd mills around a severely plain open-air pavilion, looking for someone to pay, and filing into line when docents tell them they are to wait for a train.

The Getty Center's lower tram station, © 2014 Susan Barsy
The tram line and the gardens around it are elegant and spiffy.  There is a perfectly straight row of blooming crepe myrtle trees outside.  Metal gleams gold out in a sculpture garden that most of us are too excited and distracted to study.

Passengers board the Getty Center tram.
The train—a sleek pilotless funicular—arrives, and we all pile on.  We ascend, snaking quietly up the steep side of a manicured mountain, as the adjacent highway and bland everyday world fall away.

Getty tram plaza, © 2014 Susan Barsy
On foot now, visitors climb the broad stairs to the campus of monumental buildings.  An oddly communal feeling prevails as fellow-travelers disperse to explore the grounds, galleries, and terraces of what architect Richard Meier seems to have conceived of as a modern temple complex.  The museum, temporary exhibitions, Getty Research Institute, and the Trust’s administrative offices occupy several interlocking buildings that give onto courtyards, gardens, and walkways.  Everywhere are striking views of the landscape, gardens, ocean, and city.

Looking down onto the cafe and the vista beyond.

People looking out from the Getty, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Looking west from a terrace at the Getty, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Often, these views are peopled with, well, people looking, which is chiefly what makes the experience so charming.  It isn’t just the beauty of nature, or the splendor of the Getty itself, but the spectacle of humans instinctively engaged in a cultural quest.  A spirit of exploration and enjoyment prevails.

Inside the Getty, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Inside, the Getty is like any other museum.  My priority was to see the painting collection, which is arranged chronologically in a chain of second-floor galleries.  Since its inception, the Getty Trust has had a reputation for building its collections by being the top bidder for masterpieces, acquiring many gems to fill out the collections its founding patron bequeathed.  The collection still has a thin institutional feel.  It doesn’t convey the intimate thrill one gets from viewing the Phillips Collection in DC; nor does it offer the quirky bricolage of the best larger museums, where the passions of many individual collectors have given the collections distinctive shapes and strengths over time.

    Detail, "The Deposition," by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden (circa 1490), The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photograph by Susan Barsy.

Detail, “The Deposition,” by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden (circa 1490), The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photograph by Susan Barsy.

That said, the Getty’s holdings reward careful looking.  Many of the paintings are glorious—the religious paintings, old Dutch and Flemish works, and some of the French paintings, particularly.

Detail of Jacques-Louis David's "The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte," at The Getty Center Los Angeles.

Detail of Jacques-Louis David’s “The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte,” at The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photograph by Susan Barsy.

The painting collection is strictly European and ends abruptly around 1870—just when art and society got interestingly messy.  It is strange to see the story of painting told without anything modern or American.  As it is, the permanent collection comports with the Center’s larger identity as a steward of an idealized world of order and beauty.  Meanwhile, out in the garden, life goes on.

Kids playing on the Getty grounds.

Bougainvillea arbors by the Getty's Central Garden, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Human journey, © 2014 Susan Barsy

The real stuff of history

Woman's shoes circa 1845 from the blog "In the Swan's Shadow"

Woman’s shoes, circa 1845, featured on “In the Swan’s Shadow.

As a result of the internet revolution, the historian (whether armchair or professional) has better materials to work with than ever before.  Museums, libraries, antique dealers, auction houses, even private collectors are increasingly sharing images of their holdings online, giving the material culture of the past a prominence and visibility that it lacked formerly.  Hidden away for centuries in cellars and attics, History’s shoes and dresses, waistcoats and wallpapers, jewelry, love letters, paintings, and furnishings are suddenly everywhere, courtesy of digital photography.

The impact of these items can be surprisingly revolutionary, correcting and revitalizing the past that has come down to us through historical writing.  Architecture, photography, and other vestiges of material culture together impart a more accurate and sophisticated view of earlier cultures.  Rather than growing dimmer, views of nineteenth-century America, for instance, are growing more vivid each day.

Dipping into that past is the business of “In The Swan’s Shadow,” a blog that’s been around for about 5 years.  The unidentified blogger who puts it out is amazingly dedicated and prolific, posting 1,560 items in 2013.

The site is a trove of images of items surviving from the era of the American Civil War, documenting the lives of women (and children) in particular.  There are laces and shawls, bonnets and gloves, cameos, fancy dresses, portraits big and small, genre paintings, fashion illustrations, Victorian earrings and bracelets made of jet and turquoise, old photographs of women, hair-do designs, crinolines—you name it.  I love the items the “ebon swan” features.

Popular interest in the Civil War period, about what women wore and how they looked, has been stoked by historical re-enactment and its sister art, historical costuming, both of which are the focus of innumerable blogs.  A desire to re-create and re-inhabit the past, however briefly, has proved a powerful motive for taking history apart at the seams.

Fashion plate from the 1850s

1859 fashion plate featured in a post on “In the Swan’s Shadow

Thanks to an unsung army of hobbyists, curators, shopkeepers, and bloggers, two great gains for history are being achieved.  First, the scrim of drab sentimentalism that formerly enveloped the antebellum and war period is being torn away. The era’s clothes, jewelry, and pictures bring back a culture that was sumptuous, passionate, colorful, and edgy.  The heavy clothes that, in fashion plates, look only imprisoning can now also be appreciated as opulent expressions of female power and dignity.

Antebellum dress with black buttons.

Dress with black buttons in the Kentucky Historical Society‘s collection. Featured in a post on “In the Swan’s Shadow.”

Second, nineteenth-century America’s participation in a trans-Atlantic culture has never been more plain.  Many Americans lived in primitive conditions in the early national and pre-Civil War periods, but others had access to goods that were dazzling.  Lacking a fully developed sensibility, upper-class Americans continued to rely on Europe for luxury goods and ideas—for the glamour distilled in a fine silk damask, or in the light flutter of a lady’s fan.

Ladies fan in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Click to go to the source.

Feathered fan in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, featured on “In the Swan’s Shadow.”  Click here to go to the MFA site.

Yes, the real stuff of history is piling up at a crucial intersection of proof and inspiration, offering its mute truths as a feast to our vision.


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