Archive for February, 2009
Just after I posted the previous article about vintage postcards of Grand Army Plaza, “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard” exhibition at Met has gone into its second week. Thanks to Lon Black, with whom I talked in the Dumbo Flea Market yesterday, I learned the basic eras and milestones of American postcards.
Like collecting other things, postcard collecting needs not only passion but also knowledge. On one hand, the anonymity of the real photographer behind each design, or the absence of names of the women artists who hand-colored some postcards in an assembly line workshop, makes collecting less complicated since postcards collection are not centered around artists. On the other hand, there are postcards of almost every subject. Selecting a right perspective (subjects such as cities, parks or railroads, printing techniques and material like B&W, hand-colored, linen, etc) thus is critical to form a well-curated collection without being lost in the abundant availability.
Postcards have been inexpensive from the very beginning and most of the vintage postcards are affordable and their price ranges from equivalent to a McDonald meal to a fancy Italian Bistro dinner. But Lon said some early postcards (dated in 1870′s) can fetch thousands of dollars due to its scarcity.
Rosenheim, the curator at Met who organized the current exhibition “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard“, said “Postcards are a democratic form. They are about everywhere in particular. And there was no nostalgia about them. They show the new banks, the new factory, the new school. They were a clear expressions of the present.”
If identification of the specific location in each postcard can be challenging, the identification of the era of each postcard is easier thanks to the dated events for format change or technology breakthroughs.
Here is a summary of milestones with respect to changes in American postcards based on the article “American in 3 by 5” by Thomas Hine in February issue of Magazine Antiques and the conservation with Lon Black yesterday.
|1873||Pre-stamped postal cards||First time postcards on US markets||Plain, only address allowed in the front|
|1898 (May)||Private Mailing Cards||Private Mailing Card Act passed by Congress. Beginning of increased popularity||Undivided Back, with title “Private Mailing Card” on each card|
|1901 (Dec)||“Postcard” can be used by privately printed cards||“Private Mailing Card” title began to disappear||Writing was still only allowed on the front of picture side of the card|
|1907||Divided Back (The back of cards were used for both the address and for any message)||Beginning of Golden Age of postcards||The majority of the print was done in Germany for the best printed method|
|1908 June 30||677,777,798 postcards mailed in the fiscal year||US Population was 88,700,000||Public addition of postcards of everything|
|1915||WW1 brought the supply of postcards from Germany to an end||Quality dropped. Telephone began to replace postcards as a way of communication||Some cards published in England or US|
Back in Pittsburgh, I never thought I would have a thing for postcards. After all, they were products of mass production (to some degree). It was after I moved to Brooklyn that I discovered the pleasure of reading vintage postcards.
Perhaps there is no other place than New York that vintage postcards hold the wonderful collectible values. For a city which has been rebuilding itself so many times, postcards provide an extravagant visual experience of “then and now” in indefinite scale. Not only that one can find the great rendering of the vanished buildings such as Penn Station, the Wardorf-Astoria Hotel, the Vanderbilt mansions, but also some less known architecture or statues in other boroughs including Brooklyn and Queens.
My personal experience brings my attention to the so-called the cultural mile of Brooklyn: the Eastern Parkway (the world’s first parkway) stretching from the Grand Army Plaza (GAP) to the Brooklyn Museum, both of which can be found in plenty of vintage postcards.
A lot of early postcards of GAP dated between 1892 and 1902. The relative abundance from this period indicates that Broolynites’ pride and joy in the grandeur of the park entrance and the arch designed by McKim, Mead and White. Devoid of automobile traffic, the plaza is reminiscent of European neoclassicism; yet the large empty space around the arch declared it American: Here, with enormous growth in wealth and confidence of the late Gilded Age, the order, dignity, and harmony of the old civilization still hold, but on a bigger and more ambitious scale.
I always have a vision that someday the GAP would be changed back to its original design of the last 10 years of the 19th century. There are several points which makes this postcards version much more attractive.
First and most importantly, there was no “traffic” as we know it in the early days of the Plaza. The American grandness became deadly with the advent of automobile. Unlike the European plazas which were squeezed into a smaller space, the undeveloped land around GAP made it a victim of traffic. As early as in 1927, a “Death-O-Meter” was installed at the plaza to track the automobile fatalities. Since the 1950s, the GAP has been a sea of cars and traffic lights. The plaza circular traffic pattern makes it a suicidal adventure for anyone wants to enter the plaza which is an island surrounded by endless traffic flow.
Second, there were no dominating buildings around.
The Eastern Parkway was a patch of green at that time. A water tower of the Mount Prospect Reservoir dominated at the southeast corner of Flatbush and Eastern Parkway where the Brooklyn Central Library is. It was on that corner where August Saint-Gauden’s Henry Maxwell Tablet was originally located. One of the postcards show the tablet with the background of the reservoir water tower. In 1912 the monument was moved to the east side of the plaza. It reportedly took a week and ten horses to move the boulder over 400 yards distance. Due to repeated vandalism in the past, the restored tablet is now at the ground level (staff entrance) of the Brooklyn Museum, where Henry Maxwell sat on board for 6 years. A reproduction tablet is now mounted on its original boulder at St. Johns and Plaza Street.
The relocation of a giant boulder did’t change the overall structure of the plaza, but a few buildings did. The central library, started in 1912, took almost 30 years to finish. Although the entrance recalls the colonnades of the park entrance designed by Sanford White, the rest of the building, with its simplistic geometric form, reflected an Art Deco influence. Richard Meier’s On Prospect Park has a less damaging effect, partially because the colored glass can be absorbed in the sky or works as a smooth textureless backdrop for statues around the plaza.
Third, the early postcards show that the group statues of “The Spirit of the Army” and “The Spirit of the Navy” by MacMonnie was not mounted. Geo always comments on a desire for the monument to be in a simpler form. The two statues, although heroic, intense and storytelling, break the elegant lines of the arch designed by John Duncan. With additional two relief sculptures of Lincold and Grant by William O’Donovan and Thomas Eakins (Eakins only did the horse part), the arch was much more a show piece of the historical sculpture than a grand piece of architecture alone.
Another late addition to the sculpture group around the GAP is the MacMonnie’s General Henry Warner Slocum. The statue was located at Bedford Ave and Eastern Parkway when it was dedicated by Teddy Roosevelt. One postcard shows it facing westward, an integral part of the ornamented parkway that leads to the park. It was moved to its current small slope in the late 1920′s. In my opinion, it was a successful move that united the works by MacMonnies together (Quagriga, The Spirit of the Army, the Spirit of the Navy, Park Commissioner James Stranahan) and linked General Slocum in the context of civil war (His funny nickname was slow come for his Gettysburg performance). On any sunny day, the statue resolves into or emerges from the glass backdrop of On Prospect Park depending on the cloud conditions. The general rides his horse in his commanding pose, toward the direction of the Green-wood cemetery where he is buried.
I have not seen a postcard with Henry Kirke Brown’s Lincoln statue in GAP. The 8-foot tall statue was regarded as too imposing during the transformation period of the 1890′s and relocated to the concert grove. Similarly, postcards with the gas lit fountain designed by Calvert Vaux are also rare since the fountain was regarded as too rusty and was replaced by an electric fountain in 1897. Interestingly, not many postcards can be found with this spectacular fountain which drew more than 100,000 people on its opening night with its shifting colors and every-changing spouts. Possibly this is because the fountain was shortlived (only 18 years later the BMT and IRT subway lines construction necessitated the removal of the fountain.), possibly because the beauty of its color at night could hardly be fully captured in the early postcards. The current Bailey Fountain was built in 1932. The restrained curve and elongated body forms of the pair of nudes figures are quintessentially art deco style.
The last myth of the GAP was the missing statue of John. F. Kennedy on the north part of the plaza. I have seen a postcard with the statue which was erected in 1965. It was only recently removed (Oct 2003) that even the New York Department of Park and Recreation still lists the statue in its website. In fact it is in the Picnic House of the Prospect Park now.
Here is a short version of the complicated story. Neil Estern, a Brooklynite sculptor, hated the pedestal JFK was put on from the very beginning. By the time the granite pedestal was done in 2003, Mr. Estern’s old JFK was no good. Based on a Smithsonian Institution survey, graffiti stained so deep that scrubbing them off had worn away the inscriptions which has the famous saying: “Ask not what your country can do for you as what you can do for your country.” The bust itself looked like it had been whacked by a bat. Instead of having a new one cast, Estern saw some places sculpture could improve. Now his work is complete and all the city has to do to put JFK on the plinth is to find a $70,000. Will that happen in 2009?
If you are interested in collecting the vintage postcards, stop by at Brooklyn Flea in Dumbo every weekend. Lon Black, a knowledgable dealer has a variety collections of vintage postcards covering almost every aspect of New York City.
“We’re all scrambling to come to terms with how to deal with the weakening financial situation in a way that inflicts the least short- and long-term damage to our institutions,” says Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum. “There really are no bright spots I can see at this time.”
Hit with steep cuts in public funding, as well as declines in earned income and corporate and foundation grants, museums throughout the city are slashing budgets, laying off staff and doing everything else they can to operate with dwindling resources. For New York culture hounds, that will mean their favorite museums will have fewer—and less ambitious—shows and special programs, as well as shorter hours.
Read more from their website:
On a visit to an apartment in Crown Heights, I noticed a big poster of Aaron Douglas from Fisk University. “My dad used to serve as president of the alumni association, so I am proud of this.”
Aaron Douglas, the founder of the Art Department at Fisk, was the central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Among his most celebrated works there is “Building More Stately Mansions” (BMSM) which is now treasured at Fisk University. Another smaller version was auctioned by Swann Auction Galleries of New York and sold to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for half a million dollars (hammar price).
BMSM, from every aspects, tells vividly the central role of Egyptomania in Harlem Renaissance: It is a painting that honors the contributions black laborers made to great civilizations of the past.
Here is the RISD newsletter excepts.
Douglas’ unique Modernist style emerged during intense engagement with other African-American artists, writers, and musicians whom he encountered when he moved to Harlem in 1925. His work celebrated the intellectual and artistic achievements of Africans and African-Americans, which were brought to life by Douglas in an impressive series of mural commissions. Building More Stately mansions symbolizes the labor of black men and women in the creation of great architectural monuments, silhouetting their active figures against a utopian background. Concentric bands of muted color suggest waves of history and knowledge, linking the builders of pyramids, temples, and churches to the skyscrapers of the present and anticipating future achievements.
Then came the touchy question? Can blacks rightly claim the Egyptian cultural heritage?
Dr. Zahi Hawass commented that “Egyptians are not Arabs and are not Africans despite the fact that Egypt is in Africa”.
From what we understand now, Egyptians had no concept of racism, although they did look down upon the world outside of Egypt. For them, the world of Egypt is small and in peace and harmony. Chaos lay outside. Thus at times there were Nubian (African) kings ruling Egypt by being Egyptianized, but Nubia was a different country. What Aaron Douglas depicted, thus may only partially ring true: African came to ancient Egypt to work as soldiers, slaves or other careers. Certainly they contributed to the ancient civilization, but cannot lay sole claim to it.
Interestingly, there is a painting by Aaron Douglas in the upcoming auction by Swann Auction Galleries. This is a lovely pastel portrait of Aaron’s wife Alta. It is estimated between 15,000 to 20,000 dollars.
In an attempt to attract more visitors, MOMA has started a new project inside Atlantic and Pacific Subway Station in Brooklyn.
More than 50 reproductions of works in MOMA’s permanent collection is now on display inside the subway station. MOMA described the project as “a gift to the city’s subway riders”. By displaying them in one of the busiest station in Brooklyn, it reminds Brooklynites that the real MOMA is only a short ride away (especially along the B/Q line).
On the way to 2/3 line transfer yesterday, I stopped to look at one reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s works even though I was on a tight schedule of an appointment. New York subway stations are always a place of quintessential New York in that the natives waste a second to step out of it while the tourists get lost easily among the crowd. Having something to behold and breathe, at one of the most unexpected site of New York city, is a real gift to enjoy.
PS: If you happen to pass the station with a camera, have some fun to take some pictures. MOMA welcomes visitors to take pictures through flickr.com with tag “MoMAAtlanticPacific”.
See the slides from urbanartantiques
Perhaps inspired by the tabletop stereocard viewer won at Dargate Auctions the day before, I had a few hours to explore Pittsburgh on foot and turned my camera setting to sepia. Pittsburgh has a good variety of architecture and includes buildings from notables including henry Hobson Richardson and Phillip Johnson.
I recently saw a survey saying the locals are more likely to want to move than the residents of other cities. I can’t imagine why. They must only focus on crime and sports, the topics the local newspapers are known for reporting most on. I suggest they get out of their cars, turn off the television and take a walk around the downtown. Certainly it is an attractive place to be, and in terms of art and architecture, it belongs to an elite group of North American cities.
You can see more of Pittsburgh in Sepia by clicking on the image.
Not to be confused with Paths to Impressionism, a recent show at the Newark Museum of Art, The Road to Impressionism opened today at The Frick in Pittsburgh and features Barbizon paintings from Baltimore’s Walters Art Gallery. Also in the show is the rarely displayed collection of works on paper by Millet, which are part of the collection at The Frick.
It was by chance I was in Pittsburgh on the first day of the show. It was also helpful that I was able to see the Newark show around the same time. I had the American Barbizon paintings fresh in my mind as I wandered the French countryside on the walls of the Pittsburgh museum.
The relationship between the French and American Barbizon was brought into the discussion during a guided tour when Hui asked a question related to the treatment of the human figure, particularly peasants in French and American works. The tour guide responded relating American Barbizon to the Hudson River School saying that American painters preferred to focus on glorifying the landscape. I almost injected the simpler answer “because there are no peasants in America!”
My favorite works in the show didn’t include human figures, however. The Forest of Fountainebleau, Autumn by Diaz La Peña recalled works by George Inness, except I think Inness is more restrained in his use of color. Diaz mixed greens and other colors into the trunk of a tree. Painted in the 1870s, I wondered if it was completed near the end of his life, as it shows a dying tree still sprouting new green branches. My favorite Barbizon works often don’t include figures, and Diaz is a good example of this, and probably the result of the figures he included are generally allegorical and not well suited to conveying mood. I find his forest scenes, deviod of human life, much more enticing.
A Bright Day by Jules Dupré also absorbed me for a good portion of my time there. It’s a warm painting, using the light, trees and cows, just to convey the mood of the day. Dupré spent time in England, and certainly Constable might see some familiarities in it, although if anything at the show recalled Constable, it was this painting by Theodore Rousseau. If Dupré were an American, A Bright Day would be a California landscape.
Another Walters work, The Storm by La Peña uses a figure in the way Innes might, dark and mysterious, crossing the landscape.
Paintings by Barbizon artists were highly sought after by American collectors like Henry Clay Frick and William Walters, who, in their Gilded Age mansions, could experience the reverence for the countryside as espoused by Rousseau, who “heard the voices of the trees and wanted to put his finger on the secret of their majesty.”
Some Barbizon paintings can be seen adorning the walls in Clayton, Frick’s mansion a few steps from the museum. American Barbizon paintings in a period setting can be viewed at Newark’s Ballentine House. It was who initially Hui commented that the Dupré painting could as easily be a California landscape. After visiting the show at the Frick, don’t be fooled into thinking good Barbizon paintings can’t come from outside of France. Like wine, it’s for sure they can. It could be America that brought an end to Barbizon, however. Without the American invention of the paint tube, we may never have arrived at Impressionism.
On an unrelated quest, I came upon this comical episode of Hogan’s Heroes. I have to admit walking through contemporary art galleries, I’ve sometimes felt the fool for daring to ponder the why of them.
The Frick Art & Historical Center will present The Road to Impressionism: Barbizon Landscapes from the Walters Art Museum. This exhibition of thirty-two paintings includes works by all of the major Barbizon figures, as well as examples by Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley, the Impressionist painters most deeply influenced by them.
The exhibition opens to the public on February 7 at the Frick (in Pittsburgh), providing visitors with the opportunity to celebrate spring at the Frick by enjoying these wonderful representations of nature. The Road to Impressionism will remain on view through May 24, 2009.
In my previous post about Honor Roll Monument at Prospect Park, I suspect that the two missing bronze plates were victims of vandalism or theft in the 50′s or 60′s.
Afterwards, I sent an inquiry email to the archive department of the Prospect Park. The archivist, Amy replied today with a surprising answer:
Thank you for your inquiry about the Honor Roll Monument in Prospect Park. I don’t have details about when or why the plaques were removed but I understand they are in storage with the Parks Department. I have included a link to the Parks Department write up about the memorial
It is somewhat puzzling because from the online pictures, those bronze plates have been removed for at least half a year or even longer. If cleaning all six plates sequentially is a systematic project, why to choose two which are not even adjacent?
But I am glad to know that they are still in good hand. For those of you who are keen to know the answer to the removal, please keep following this post.
PS: Based on the book “Complete Illustrated Guidebook to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens”, it is said that several of the panels come loose and now are in storage with the Park Department, awaiting restoration.
The book was published in 2001. Perhaps those plates have been in the storage rooms for quite a while.