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Your field guide to the Ransom Center

By Richard Oram

Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
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.

Collection showcases hand-colored tintypes in period frames

By Nicole Davis

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.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

European popular imagery collection now accessible online

By Peter Mears

Spanning the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the Ransom Center’s European popular imagery collection is now fully accessible online via two sources: the Center’s finding aid and ARTstor’s nonprofit digital library.

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).

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

View Frida Kahlo portrait and learn about its world travels

By Jennifer Tisdale

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954). 'Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' (1940). Oil on canvas, 61.25 cm x 47 cm. Harry Ransom Center. © 2009 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtemoc 06059, Mexico, DF
Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954). 'Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' (1940). Oil on canvas, 61.25 cm x 47 cm. Harry Ransom Center. © 2009 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtemoc 06059, Mexico, DF

The Harry Ransom Center is displaying Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s Self–portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) through March 21.

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.

The painting was most recently exhibited in Frida Kahlo, a traveling retrospective exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth.

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.

In 1939, Kahlo was left heartbroken and lonely after the end of an affair with Hungarian-born photographer Nickolas Muray (1892–1965) and her divorce from artist Diego Rivera. But she produced some of her most powerful and compelling paintings and self–portraits during this time.

Muray purchased the self–portrait from Kahlo to help her during a difficult financial period. It is now 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 Kahlo’s Still Life with Parrot and Fruit (1951) and the drawing Diego y Yo (1930).

Later this year, Self–portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird will be on view in Berlin and Vienna.

Edward Gorey collection at the Ransom Center

By Patricia Bruckmann

Cover of ‘Dracula: The sets and costumes of the Broadway production of the play designed by Edward Gorey’
Cover of ‘Dracula: The sets and costumes of the Broadway production of the play designed by Edward Gorey’

Patricia C. Brückmann, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Toronto, recently spent time working in the Edward Gorey collection at the Ransom Center for a book she is writing about his work. Gorey (1925–2000) was a writer, illustrator, and a designer of books, sets, and costumes. Born in Chicago, Gorey attended the Francis Parker School (which also claims Ransom Center playwright David Mamet as an alumnus). He spent a semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later attended Harvard University, where he roomed with Frank O’Hara. He is well-known for animating the opening sequence of PBS’s Mystery! series, and he won a Tony award in 1978 for his costume design for the Broadway revival of the play Dracula.

The Ransom Center’s Gorey collection includes books, manuscripts, illustrations, correspondence, material related to Dracula

, and some material from Gorey’s college days.

Brückmann, whose research was funded with a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, shares her ruminations on her work in the Gorey papers.

 

“So I cannot come to your musicale…..love, Mildred.” This cryptic note, from Edward Gorey to Frank O’Hara, typifies their exchanges in the late ’40s when they shared rooms at Harvard in Eliot House. Although O’Hara’s musical, artistic, and literary talents were already manifest, Gorey’s mother was suspicious about her gifted only child’s friend, writing “I know nothing about this boy except what you tell me.”

Mrs. Gorey also worried about his future. Rejected by The New Yorker (the drawings were strange, they wrote, and the ideas “not funny”), she proposed that he send earlier work, perhaps more to their taste. The editor did suggest that he drop in, but said that he need not rush. The collection contains only two letters from his father, scrawled on Chicago City Council paper, the salutation “dear Son,” the sign-off “Ed.”

I can’t imagine anyone addressing Gorey with “Hi, honey,” but the birthday card in the collection, from a Chicago neighbor, I think, is real.

These, with tests of scansion and rhyme, scribbled all over yellow sheets (and on bills from the Harvard Coop) are among the papers found in three manuscript boxes at the Center. They include Gorey’s undergraduate essays, from a particularly suggestive one on La Rochefoucauld to a dull study on ship-building in Bath, Maine, and reveal the C+ Gorey received on the essay. The lively voice of his mother’s sister, Isabel Garvey, who shared and may have inspired his interest in dance, theater, and old books, leaps out—most often on 3 x 5 cards.

There are also many limericks, some printed later, and a large box of photostats (similar to a photocopy) from drawings for Dracula, these from a later time, and another box of sketches. The clippings in the vertical file, sent from home, often relate the engagements and marriages of his classmates at the Francis Parker School. The art master there, a Chicago painter, gave him, his mother says, “practically a major in art.” So he did have training in addition to the semester at the Institute. The saddest query, in a letter about Harvard, reads “Who was that professor who jumped out of a window?” The professor was F. O. Matthiessen. Harvard was not just pastoral in the ’40s. It was also, as Lillian Hellman said, “Scoundrel time.”

Publicity: From painting to poster

By Alicia Dietrich

Finished film poster for 'Kidnapped'
Finished film poster for 'Kidnapped'
The star system emerged around 1910 when film producers began noting the public’s preference for individual actors. People wanted to know who the “Biograph Girl” was (Florence Lawrence) and the real name of the girl with the golden curls they knew as “Little Mary” (Mary Pickford). They also wanted their photographs.

The studios quickly learned the value of controlling their own publicity. By establishing their own photography studios, they could create a consistent look for their stars that the public would associate with the studios themselves. They hired teams of publicists to control the dissemination of those images to newspapers and magazines, especially the all-important fan magazines. At one point there were more than 300 motion picture fan magazines in print.

These publicity departments planted stories with gossip columnists like Ed Sullivan, Hedda Hopper, and Louella Parsons and set up “publicity stunts” to attract attention. David O. Selznick’s head of publicity, Russell Birdwell, once flew the entire population of Zenda, Ontario, Canada to New York for the premiere of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

But perhaps most importantly, the publicity departments created movie posters and “campaign books” or “press kits.” Press kits were prepackaged sets of advertising layouts, film stills, plot synopses, star biographies, and other tools and ideas for use by the movie theaters to attract local attention to the movies they were playing. Press kits are still in use today, although they are now almost always delivered digitally.

Unfinished painting that served as basis for 'Kidnapped' poster.
Unfinished painting that served as basis for 'Kidnapped' poster.
Here you can see an unfinished painting by F. C. Madan that served as the basis for the poster design for the film Kidnapped (1938).

The finished poster is just one item from the “Publicity” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens tomorrow at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Update on the "Victorian Blood Book"

By Alicia Dietrich

This large, oblong decoupage book contains more than 40 collages consisting of carefully assembled engravings from books. The decoupage has been embellished with hand-colored drops of “blood” and handwritten religious commentaries. The emphasis throughout is on images of the Crucifixion, birds, and snakes, all dripping with blood.

The album, familiarly known to us as the “Victorian Blood Book,” has been an object of fascination, horror, and mystery since it arrived with the rest of the Evelyn Waugh library in 1967.

Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram wrote an article about the book for a prior issue of eNews. Since then, he has unearthed some new information about the book’s origins, which he discusses in a new audio slideshow, where you can see slides of each page of the book.

Celebrating Day of the Dead

By Elana Estrin

Artist José Guadalupe Posada’s graphic legacy is as recognizable today as it was in turn-of-the-century Mexico, and his distinctive skeleton print calaveras have become synonymous with the traditional Day of the Dead celebration, which is November 1.

In Jesse Cordes Selbin’s article, “José Guadalupe Posada: Printmaker to the Mexican People,” learn more about the man who ushered in Mexico’s golden age of printmaking and inspired the work of fellow artists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.

Hector Dominguez-Ruvalcaba, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portugese at The University of Texas at Austin, gives an overview of the traditions behind the Day of the Dead:

There were nine levels in the Mesoamerican afterlife. Tlalocan was a paradise reserved for those who died of contagious diseases, while those who died in war walked with the sun to the zenith. The relatives of these dead would lay offerings near their bodies so they could accomplish this task. These offerings would be left for four years, until the dead transformed into hummingbirds and began to nourish themselves by drinking the nectar of local flowers. The final—and darkest—level was called Mictlan, the place of no return. To reach this place, the dead would have to journey for four years.

Relatives would place offerings of food and leave the tools for working in the same job the dead had used in their jobs in life. In this sense death was then an endless cycle of traversing, going through different dimensions of existence. Offerings were the main resource that allowed the dead to reach the next level in their journey beyond the grave. There were particular different dates in the year to honor one or another group of dead, a religious calendar that was completely altered after the Christianization of America.

These offerings survive as a result of the syncretic religions that were established during the Spanish Conquest. Today, offerings to the dead are made on All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) of the Christian calendar.

In rural areas of Mesoamerica, November 1 is dedicated to dead infants (which in pre-Columbian times was celebrated in August), while November 2 is dedicated to dead adults. In many areas leaving an offering for deceased loved ones is a dutifully fulfilled obligation. Family comes together, bringing the dead to the reunion through nostalgic conversations.

The Day of the Dead is the day of filial love, but it is also the day of celebrating the harvest in the agricultural calendar. November is the month of bountiful harvest, and generously sharing food is the most sincere expression of gratitude. The altar of the dead is then a cornucopia of fruits, flowers, candies, drinks, and the most precious objects of beloved family members. The colorful ornaments, the saints of family devotion, the elaborate cooking, and even the delicate sugar skulls make death not a terrible image, but the core of human communion.