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Robert Alter shares insight about the King James Bible

By Kelsey McKinney

A page from the Book of Moses in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center
A page from the Book of Moses in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center

In conjunction with the current exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, Robert Alter speaks this Thursday about “The Question of Eloquence in the King James Version.” The event, which is co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, takes place in Jessen Auditorium and will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

Alter is a professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature, who has taught at the University of California at Berkeley since 1967. Alter’s 23rd book Pen of Iron: American Prose in the King James Bible was published in March 2010. Cultural Compass spoke with Dr. Alter about his own translations of the Hebrew bible and the influence of the King James Bible today.

In several interviews you have stated that you appreciate the King James Version. You have also created your own translations of many books of the Hebrew Bible. Are your goals in translating different from  the King James Version translators’?

For me, the power of the Hebrew Bible is inseparable from its stylistic virtuosity—its strong, compact rhythms; its expressive use of syntax; the subtlety and liveliness of its dialogue; the fine precision of its word-choices; the purposeful shifts of levels of diction. Though the King James Version often has its own stylistic beauty (though not as consistently as people tend to remember), the 1611 translators paid attention to none of these considerations and probably were unaware of most of them. Their goal was to provide as exact an equivalent as they could, according to their own understanding, of each word in the original. I share their commitment to a certain literalism but as part of a tight weave of stylistic effects in the Hebrew.

In your book Pen of Iron you examine the influence of the King James Bible on famous American writers such as William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Do you see the same influence in the work of any contemporary American writers?

Fewer American writers now, for rather obvious cultural reasons, are drawing on the King James Version, but its influence has far from disappeared. Two contemporary novelists I discuss in Pen of Iron who reflect the language of the King James Bible are Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy. Another is the late Barry Hannah.

With so many new translations available, is the King James Version still important and relevant today?

Translations that cast the Bible in up-to-the-minute American English are definitely cutting into the constituency of the King James Version because they are easier to read and seem more “accessible.” My own sense is that such translations lack any literary grace and distort the feeling and the meaning of the Bible. Though we are distanced from the 1611 version now because of its archaic language, its beauty is undiminished, and I think it will always have readers as a great literary achievement that altered the course of the English language.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Banners are installed on the lamp posts in the Ransom Center plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Banners are installed on the lamp posts in the Ransom Center plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Laurel Dundee, photo archivist at the Ransom Center, shelves newly cataloged negatives from the “New York Journal-American” collection in the cold-storage room. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Laurel Dundee, photo archivist at the Ransom Center, shelves newly cataloged negatives from the “New York Journal-American” collection in the cold-storage room. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Danielle Sigler and Ryan Hildebrand, co-curators of “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” speak about the exhibition at KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR affiliate. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Danielle Sigler and Ryan Hildebrand, co-curators of “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” speak about the exhibition at KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR affiliate. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Ransom Center staffer Bob Fuentes moves a pallet of materials that recently arrived to supplement the London Review of Books collection. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Ransom Center staffer Bob Fuentes moves a pallet of materials that recently arrived to supplement the London Review of Books collection. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

'Arnold Newman: Masterclass' Opens in Berlin

By Jennifer Tisdale

Arnold Newman. 'Pablo Picasso, France, 1954.' Arnold Newman/Getty Images.
Arnold Newman. 'Pablo Picasso, France, 1954.' Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

Organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) in collaboration with the Harry Ransom Center, the exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass explores the career of Arnold Newman, one of the finest portrait photographers of the twentieth century.

The exhibition opens March 3 in Germany at C|O Berlin, and the Ransom Center will host the exhibition’s first U.S. showing in February 2013.

This exhibition tour was created under the auspices of the American nonprofit organization FEP. The show highlights 200 framed vintage prints, covering Newman’s career, from the Arnold Newman Foundation archive and the collections of major American museums and private collectors. Twenty-eight photographs from the Ransom Center’s Newman collection are featured in the exhibition.

A bold modernist with a superb sense of compositional geometry, Newman is known for a crisp, spare style that cleverly situates his subjects in context. Artists delighted in sitting for Newman, knowing that he would find a way to convey their sensibility in dramatic, but always appropriate, fashion. Though Newman is celebrated today for his great portraiture, his still lifes, architectural studies, and earliest portraits, often of anonymous people in the street, are far less known, though they can well compare with the best in these genres.

The exhibition takes stock of the entire range of Newman’s photographic art, showing many fine prints for the first time.

The company she keeps: Frida’s work among women surrealists at LACMA

By Jennifer Tisdale

Frida Kahlo’s 'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' (1940) on display in LACMA’s 'In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.'  ©2012 Museum Associates/LACMA.
Frida Kahlo’s 'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' (1940) on display in LACMA’s 'In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.' ©2012 Museum Associates/LACMA.

The Ransom Center recently loaned Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for the exhibition In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.

Co-organized by LACMA and the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) in Mexico City, In Wonderland is the first large-scale international survey of women surrealist artists in North America. On view at LACMA through May 6, In Wonderland features about 175 works by 47 artists, including Kahlo, Lee Miller, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Louise Bourgeois, and more.

Vogue highlights some of the works of the “beautiful dreamers” that can be seen in the exhibition.

Co-curated by Dr. Ilene Susan Fort, LACMA’s Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art, and Tere Arcq, MAM’s Adjunct Curator, the exhibition will also travel to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, from June 7 to September 3; and the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, from September 27 through January 13, 2013.

Kahlo (1907 – 1954) taught herself how to paint after she was severely injured in an accident at the age of 18. For Kahlo, painting became an act of cathartic ritual, and her symbolic images portray a cycle of pain, death, and rebirth.

Kahlo’s affair in New York City with Hungarian-born photographer Nickolas Muray (1892 – 1965), which ended in 1939, and her divorce from artist Diego Rivera at the end of the year, left her heartbroken and lonely. She produced some of her most powerful and compelling paintings and self-portraits during this time.

Muray purchased Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird from Kahlo to help her during a difficult financial period. It is part of the Ransom Center’s Nickolas Muray collection of more than 100 works of modern Mexican art, which was acquired by the Center in 1966. The collection also includes Still Life with Parrott and Fruit (1951) and the drawing Diego y Yo (1930) by Kahlo.

Kahlo scholar and biographer Hayden Herrera spoke about “Frida Kahlo: Her Life and Art” at the Ransom Center in June 2009, referencing sources of inspiration for Kahlo’s art.