Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) is on display for only three more days at the Harry Ransom Center. This Sunday is the last day visitors can view the work before it travels to its next destination.
The painting, one of the Ransom Center’s most famous and frequently borrowed art works, has been on almost continuous loan since 1990. During that time, the painting has been featured in exhibitions in more than 25 museums in the United States and around the world.
You can view an interactive map that illustrates the travels of Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.
Later this year, Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird will be on view in a three-venue exhibition In Wonderland: The Surrealist Activities of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The exhibition will be on view at LACMA from January 29 through May 6; at the Musee National des Beaux-arts du Quebec in Quebec City, Canada, from June 7 to September 3; and at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, Mexico, from September 27 through January 13, 2013.
A bearded and robed figure, whip in hand, chases well-healed bankers and brokers in top hats down Wall Street. Their retreat, a frenzied stampede of cash, coins and streaming ticker tape, is followed by ranks of protestors carrying signs and banners reading, “Democracy,” “Racial Equality,” “Social Security,” and “Right to Work.” Elizabeth Olds’ lithographic print, 1939 AD, a modern reinterpretation of a famous biblical story, resonates today as it did almost three-quarters of a century ago during the Great Depression when millions of American workers struggled to make ends meet in a decaying economy. Olds’s satirical print, along with 11 other lithographs of the same time period (1934–1939), were reissued in 1986 as A Celebratory Portfolio to commemorate the artist’s 90th birthday. Her portfolio, a potent reminder of a dark period in America’s economic history, serves as a graphic example and tribute to the innovative arts programs established by President Roosevelt’s New Deal government under which Olds created and produced her prints.
Born in Minneapolis in 1896, Elizabeth Olds studied architecture at the University of Minnesota beginning in 1916 and later attended the Minneapolis School of Arts on scholarship. In 1921, she was awarded her second scholarship to attend the progressive Art Students’ League where she studied under painter George Luks, who became her mentor. Guided by Luks, Olds honed her drawing skills while on sketching trips throughout New York City’s ethnic neighborhoods. She also learned how to execute a portrait on these trips in the direct, vigorous style of the Ashcan School of which Luks was a member. In 1925, Olds traveled to Europe with financial assistance from friends, and in 1926, she became the first woman to secure a Guggenheim Traveling Fellowship, which enabled her to continue her studies in Europe until 1929.
An internship at a commercial printing company in the early 1930s—a time of transition for the artist—gave Olds the opportunity to become proficient in lithography. Inspired also by the Mexican muralists of the time, particularly José Clemente Orozco, Olds aligned her subject matter and style to make art that she considered “vital” and purposeful. In an interview with the Omaha World Tribune in 1935, Olds explained her artistic intentions:
“American artists have lately chosen to portray our own life. We find our subject on the streets, in the factory, the machines and workers of industry and on the farm. We aim to picture truly the life about us as the people we are in reference to the forces that make us. We choose all sides of life, searching for the vital and significant. What the artist says through his pictures is the important thing, not how it is done. …”
Thanks to the support of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935 and its special programs such as the Federal Arts Program and the Public Works of Art Program, Olds maintained steady employment and utilized her printmaking skills to produce a number of deeply moving images, many of which are included in A Celebratory Portfolio. Olds focused primarily on the labor movement of the time period. Meat processing workers, coal miners, and steel workers were some of her favorite subjects as their working class ranks harbored many of the unemployed. Giving a gentle nod to the art of caricature, other more humorous works in the portfolio comment on the various social stereotypes found in Sidewalk Engineers, The Nun’s Union Demands Shorter Hours for Prayer, and the regimented ranks of the White Collar Boys. In A Sacred Profession is Open to College Graduates, Olds, a college graduate, fully sympathizes with the fears and trepidations of all college students confronting a weak job market.
Elizabeth Olds maintained a productive career throughout her long life before her death in 1991. Her pioneering work in printmaking showed how commercial lithography and silkscreen printing had the potential to become fine art forms. Over time, her interests, always socially conscious, focused more and more on the natural world as she moved from representation to abstraction and back again as easily as she could ride a horse (while studying in Europe she was a trick bareback rider in a Parisian circus). Olds has been the subject of critical essays on modern art and the women’s movement in art. Her work is found in the collections of The Brooklyn Museum; The Museum of Modern Art; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Minneapolis Museum of Arts; the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; and the Ransom Center.
Bethany Johnsen is an undergraduate intern at the Ransom Center who has been working with Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg to gather materials for students for a visit on Halloween.
For the students in University of Texas at Austin English Professor Janine Barchas’s freshman honors seminar, a Ransom Center visit on October 31 will bring more than the usual bag of treats: a Halloween-themed presentation introducing students to the Center’s resources.
I assisted Ransom Center Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg in putting together the presentation, and this process revealed the provocative connections that such a subject affords, and will, we hope, suggest to these students ways they might use the collections over the remainder of their time as students. With so many items relating to the supernatural, morbid, or just plain unusual to choose from, limiting the presentation to a manageable size was perhaps the most difficult part of the process.
With a topic as huge as Halloween and all its creepy associations, where does a curator begin? We wanted to pull from various collections to display the richness of the Center’s holdings. So while hours could be spent on the objects of horror from just, say, film, we restricted ourselves to the torso model of Robert De Niro’s makeup for his role as the monster in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation of Frankenstein and the mask of (imitation) human skin from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Of course, the modern scary movie invokes a tradition long predating the twentieth century. The presentation will highlight older examples of fascination with the occult, from a sixteenth-century book entitled The discouerie of witchcraft,: wherein the lewde dealings of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected, the knauerie of conjurors, the impietie of inchantors…, (and so forth) to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Ouija board. And in case such historically important artifacts lack a certain flavor of whimsy, we were sure to include a blood-stained handkerchief from the personal effects of printer T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, accompanied by a note reading “Dickie’s first cut sometime in November 1885.”
But many of the picks were not as immediately obvious candidates as century-old child blood. Following a suggestion to investigate the Edward Gorey collection, given the American illustrator’s enormous influence on the contemporary Gothic aesthetic, I combed through his manuscripts to and came across a page that had—in addition to such phrases as “gothic,” “flamboyant,” and “arc cassé”—the words “danse macabre” scrawled across it. This page was not immediately remarkable in a series of brittle papers covered by Gorey’s doodles, but we were intrigued by “danse macabre” anyway. The dance of death, as we call it in English, is an artistic and literary genre that arose in the late medieval period to represent allegorically that death unites everyone, regardless of station or class; we must all dance with death. This symbol must have had special resonance in an age when death, and the harshest class distinctions were so ubiquitous. The Center holds wonderful examples of “dance of death” iconography from many periods, images that can be rather jarring.
Like Halloween traditions themselves, the Center’s holdings span many nations and centuries, and it is this diversity that allows the researcher to pursue unexpected links, like those that arise between twentieth-century artists and late medieval allegories.
It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.
Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.
According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.
“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”
If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.
For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.
Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”
In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.
The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.
In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.
Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”
Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”
Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”
Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”
Student (angered): “I’m serious.”
Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”
John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s Self–portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) has returned to the Ransom Center and is on display in the lobby beginning today, which is Kahlo’s 104th birthday, and runs through January 8, 2012. The painting, one of the Ransom Center’s most famous and frequently borrowed art works, has been on almost continuous loan since 1990. During that time, the painting has been featured in exhibitions in more than 25 museums in the United States and around the world.
The painting was most recently on loan as part of a Kahlo retrospective tour with stops at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, Germany; the Kunstforum Wien in Vienna, Austria; and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, Spain. View a map of where the painting has travelled in the past 20 years.
The painting returned to the Ransom Center briefly in 2009 and went on display for several months in the lobby. Watch a video documenting the painting’s return, unpacking, and conservation assessment.
A plaster maquette of a bust of W. E. B. DuBois has been donated to the Harry Ransom Center. The bust, which was sculpted by Walker Hancock (1901–1998), documents a step in the creative process for the final marble sculpture, which resides in Memorial Hall at Harvard University.
A plaster maquette is a model for a finished sculpture that enables the artist to visualize and test shapes and ideas before producing a full-scale sculpture. (It’s analogous to a cartoon or sketch for a painter.)
The DuBois bust was commissioned in 1993 by the Harvard University president and fellows and the Department of Afro-American studies. DuBois was the co-founder of the NAACP and the first African-American student to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895.
Walker Hancock was an American sculptor who was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1989 and the Medal of Freedom in 1990. His notable works include the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial (1950–1952) in Philadelphia and additions he created for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., including Christ in Majesty (1972), the bas relief over the High Altar.
The plaster maquette was donated to the Ransom Center by Hancock’s daughter, Deanie Hancock French.
The Center holds busts of many writers, including Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T. E. Lawrence, Tom Stoppard, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and many more. Several busts can be seen in the lobby of the Ransom Center and in the reading room on the second floor.
A completely revised Guide to the Collections has appeared on the Center’s website, superseding one based largely on the published edition of 2003 (now out of print). The Guide does not replace standard cataloging but supplements it, emphasizing topical access across the collections.
Changes in scholarship since the first edition of the Guide was published in 1990 are reflected in the new version. For example, there wasn’t a Gay and Lesbian chapter in the 1990 guide; one was added in 2003, and in 2010 it has expanded into a long section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer (LGBTQ) studies. The history of the book was just finding its way as a discipline back in 1990 (when it was “Book Arts”). The current version includes a much wider variety of resources. A full-blown chapter on African Studies has now grown out of a small section on African literature.
The Guide also spotlights some so-called “hidden collections” that are so much a part of the charm of special collections. Every large library has them. These are collections that are uncataloged or for various reasons hide in the recesses of the stacks, biding their time. To take one example: the elegant set of uniformly bound European letter-writing manuals (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) assembled by a collector named H. M. Beaufroy. These are easily overlooked in the online book catalog (and difficult to find, even for me!) but now have a niche in the Guide.
Few people will understandably have much interest in browsing the full text of the Guide, but for those who do, surprises await. Who would have thought that we have a large collection of “squeezes” (papier-mâché pressed into classical inscriptions in stone) of interest to scholars (epigraphers) who study such things? Or that we own the correspondence of the Duke of Wellington with a young religious zealot that “portrays the aging general’s generosity and patience.” Or a group of Franz Liszt’s letters to his daughters, Blandine and Cosima (later Richard Wagner’s wife), “expressing his concern over their education and their intellectual and artistic development.” Not to mention the tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music used by the piano players of the Interstate Theater chain to accompany silent films.
The entire Guide text is searchable using the website’s search feature. Another notable improvement to the website is a new “portal” to the finding aids for archival and visual collections, which allows easy browsing by collection name and type of material as well as keyword searching.
Click on the four-way arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the slideshow to convert into full-screen mode.
The Stanley Burns tintype collection is a remarkable and rare assemblage of unusually large, hand-colored, American tintypes in period frames. With more than 130 items, this is one of the largest collections of its kind.
Portraiture in America has a long tradition. In the colonial era, painted portraits provided a historical record of prominent figures, while miniatures and silhouettes provided more intimate records of family members. As the middle classes prospered in the early nineteenth century, painted portraiture flourished. With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the face of portraiture started to change. The daguerreotype required one- to three-minute exposures, which were hard for people to hold, but as other photographic mediums were developed, such as ambrotypes and tintypes, photography began to replace painting as the standard technique for portraits.
Tintypes, like daguerreotypes, are one-of-a-kind photographs. There is no negative, as the image is exposed directly onto the substrate. The word “tintype” is, in fact, a misnomer, as iron, not tin, was used as the substrate. The tintype process was faster, cheaper, and produced a more accurate depiction than a painting, which led to its rise in popularity, especially with the middle and working classes. The necessary equipment and chemistry were portable and thus allowed photographers to travel, providing access to people in rural areas and to Civil War soldiers.
The Burns collection consists almost entirely of portraits, many of which are of individuals, including paired sets of husbands and wives. Additionally there are family portraits, some of which are “composite” images where the photographer reproduced earlier portraits of individuals into one group portrait, a method often used to include deceased family members. There are also many portraits of children, including post-mortem photographs of infants. Portraits of African-Americans and people in trade uniforms exemplify how photography helped democratize art by making it accessible to lower and working class citizens.
The tintypes in this collection are all painted, either with oil paints or watercolor. Some are painted heavily in a folk-art style while others have only minimal colorization. Tintypes were not usually painted, but doing so placed them within the tradition of painted portraiture and thus closer to being fine art. Painting them also made up for the poor contrast of tintypes and could make them appear more life-like. Most commonly, tintypes measured about two by three inches and were housed in paper display folders, but the ones in this collection measure six by eight inches or larger and are displayed in elaborate frames, another practice that helped raise the status of the photograph to fine art.
The frames in the collection are of equal importance to the photographs, and they represent a variety of styles—from the plain to the elaborate—and date from 1840 to 1910. Renaissance revival and federal revival styles are simple and elegant; rococo revival frames include scrollwork and flower motifs. Many frames in the collection are Eastlake style, named for the nineteenth-century British architect and tastemaker Charles Eastlake. These consist of ebonized or marbleized wood with incised geometric patterns. Aesthetic style frames, also well represented in this collection, are distinguished by the clarity of their molded designs with motifs inspired by nature. The collection also includes frames in tramp art and rustic styles, which are more simply decorated, carved-wood designs. The range of styles from simple wood constructions to elaborate gilt moldings reveal the social status of each photograph and, by extension, the subjects.
The Ransom Center’s online finding aid includes descriptive text derived from collector’s notes and a lengthy subject index. Each record in the finding aid also includes a link to the related image. ARTstor’s digital library provides advanced search functions and the ability to group selected images for PowerPoint display in classrooms, with images at high resolution.
The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century and the resultant cultural phenomenon called “Popular Imagery” is a perfect example of cause and effect. Like printed words, unlimited reproductions of images helped bring about the development of a new visual language in early European society and a burgeoning cultural renaissance. The broad scope of the collection, whose origins include nine European countries, illustrate this fact. Prints make up the bulk of the popular imagery collection, with 686 intaglios (including 17 mezzotints), 115 woodcuts, one wood engraving, and six lithographs. Researchers will find an abundance of subjects, from political satire on kings, rulers, revolution, and war to social satire on gender, marriage, and domestic life; from religious studies and their allegorical themes on vice and virtue to numerous motifs on “The Ages of Man,” and “The Dance Macabre” or “Dance of Death.” Great moments in science and technology are visually well-represented in the collection, as are entertaining designs for buildings, board games, and signs of the Zodiac.
While some of the works in this collection were created anonymously—often to protect the creator from ridicule, incarceration, or worse—the collection also includes imagery by many significant artists of the time period, including Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), Hans Holbein (1497–1543) and Lucas Cranach, the Younger (1515–1586).