Sunday, May 15, 2022

Banned Book Clubs

I am writing this just before we are heading to Miami for the university graduation of a grandson. I have had this fantasy of Governor DeSantis greeting us at the airport and at first, I thought I would spit in his face for his autocratic rule. Then I thought that may not be the most diplomatic thing to do!

Why not thank him for his banning books in his state’s schools. Why, you might ask. Simple answer: if you have ever had or interacted with children you know that there is no better way to motivate a child to do something than telling them not to.

I am sure you have read the HEADLINES:

The New York Times:
Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.

The Wall Street Journal:
More Than 1,000 Books Banned from Schools Since July 2021, Study Finds

Newsweek Magazine: 
Recent Surge in Banned Books Targets Titles, With Focus on Race, Sexuality

From the Miami Herald:
Banning Books in America is a Sorry Vote for Ignorance

Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald

I could go on and on. Thank goodness it has made so many headlines. People say to me that is not as extreme as burning books. True, but all the books could not be burned: a few always survived. There are so many issues regarding autocratic censorship but at this point, the backlash has resulted in ameliorations of the problem.

Did you know there has been a Banned Books Week since 1982? In 2022 the dates of the event will be September 18-24. By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship.

Banned Book Clubs are nothing new, they have just had impetus from recent actions of state governments and parents who want to decide what students and the general population should read and learn. If you think about it there are so many people who want to tell you what is good and bad for you. But I won’t go down that rabbit hole.

Bookstores have started Banned Book Clubs. You might think that banned book clubs in bookstores have commercial motives but do not believe it. If you start a book store it is not to make a fortune but because you enjoy books and think it is an important contribution to the community and society in general. King's Books in Tacoma, Washington started a Banned Book Club a decade ago that has been meeting monthly ever since. Needless to say, it has garnered a lot more interest lately.

It is not just bookstores that have Banned Book Clubs. The American Library Association keeps lists of challenged and banned books in order to inform the public about censorship efforts that affect libraries and schools. In 2021 there were 729 books on their list which a person or a group was trying to suppress and eliminate from public libraries. I am sure that list has grown since then and governments are one step away from that mostly addressing l libraries in schools.

Happily, individual libraries and librarians are at the forefront of keeping freedom to read what you wish alive and encouraging young people to learn history and societies priorities through reading. The Brooklyn Public Library is offering free digital library cards to young people ages 13 to 21 across in the U.S.

To my delight I now know that teens themselves are starting these clubs, not just to read the banned books but most importantly to discuss them. What better way to learn than by hearing what others think about what has been read? In-school clubs, however, need to be run by the students themselves without teacher involvement as teachers could be in danger of losing their jobs or worse. If you think I am exaggerating Governor Glenn Youngkin has set up a tip line for people in Virginia to report educators who are teaching critical race theory.

An encouraging example of a youngster taking things into her own hands is the story of a 14-year-old 8th grader, Joslyn Diffenbaugh. Learning about the efforts in Texas to remove some books from school libraries. She got together with her local bookstore the Firefly Bookstore in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and started their Banned Book Club which now meets every other week to discuss books that have been contested.

Progress depends on young people being curious and reading opens the world to them.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Imagining Native Americans

If you are a passionate collector, you often purchase more works of art than you can fit into your home and that is what closets are for!

I was doing a little spring cleaning and came across this engraving we bought many years ago when we visited a London drawings dealer. It neither fit into his inventory nor in our collection but the image of an imaginary Indian in headdress we found amusing. The print is signed Albert Welti fec, the artist, and Hch. Wetteroth impr., the printer. Title translated from the German, “The Poor Sinners’ Entry into Heaven”. Albert Welti (1862-1912) was a painter and etcher, born in Zurich and died in Bern. Except for some studies in Munich it seems he did not travel and presumably had never seen a native American.

The print inspired me to look into the subject of Indians seen through the eyes of non-Native artists.

What is believed to be the earliest rendering of Native Americans was discovered only a decade ago in the collection of the Vatican in a fresco by the Renaissance artist, Pinturicchio (1454-1513). Between 1492 and 1494 the artist was working in the Borgia apartments. During the restoration of the fresco an indistinct detail began to emerge of two naked men with headdresses. The director of the Vatican Museum, Antonio Paolucci posited that these were Native Americans as its date coincides with Christopher Columbus’ description of the inhabitants after his first trip to America. Here is an image of the entire fresco and the detail referred to.

In 1975-76 in celebration of our bicentennial the National Gallery in Washington D.C. together with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux de France in Paris, put on a traveling exhibition called, “The European Vision of America”. In it there was a tapestry over 11 by 16 feet designed by two Flemish artists and woven in Brussels in the late 17th century. Here you see the image of the Indian Princess mentioned below who became the standard symbol of the Americas for Europeans.

The Metropolitan Museum, which came rather late to collecting Native American Art, did an exhibition in 2018-19 called, “Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America.” The Museum’s description of the show states “European artists invented a visual vocabulary to depict America, creating long-lasting stereotypes such as the ‘Indian Princess’ and the ‘noble savage”. Of the 45 works from the Met collection in the show, this one seems very appropriate for our time. It is a drawing by an Anglo- American artist, Frederick Styles Agate (1803-1844) titled “Indians Lamenting the Approach of the White Man” ca.1830.

On this point present day Native Americans can agree. Note this canvas by Cochiti artist and cartoonist, Ricardo Caté.

The self-taught American artist George Catlin ((1796-1872) took a documentary approach. He had practiced law briefly and became interested in Native America when a delegation of Plains Indians arrived in Philadelphia on their way to Washington D.C. in 1828. Two years later he decided to move out west to St. Louis to record the Native American heritage before it disappeared in the rapid advance of the Anglo-American frontier. In 1839 he took his paintings and artifacts on tour through European capitals. British engravers created hand colored lithograph of the Catlin paintings that were disseminated far and wide feeding the fascination with a culture that was strange and new to Europeans.

In 2018-2019 the St. Louis University Museum of Art did an exhibition, “Race and Representation: Euro-American Depictions of Native Americans and Their Culture.” It included “The Buffalo Hunt, Chase” and “The Buffalo Hunt Surround” from Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio, engraved by the British artist John McGahey in 1844. Did Catlin foresee that Indian hunters would be replaced by Anglos firing from trains for sport and decimating the herds?

Most people, even in this country, are unaware of the rich culture of Native America. We left New York in ignorance, since the Indians represent just .2% of the population in the entire state; to live in New Mexico where they represent 10% and there are 8 pueblo tribes living within an hour and a half of our house. You do not have to leave this country to learn about another culture, and leave the fantasies behind.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Drama of Dust & Sandstorms

The other day in Santa Fe we got an Emergency Message on our phones from whomever sends out these things. It said, “High Winds and Dust Storms. No visibility. Pull over to the side of the road. Turn off your engine and turn off your headlights.” Happily, we were at home. We just closed our windows, though the temperature outside had reached 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and marveled at the swinging trees, hoping no branches would fall on the house. The only difference between our “high desert” dust storms and desert sandstorms is the size of the particles the wind picks up from the surface of the dry earth.

There are so many threats these days from environmental phenomena in different parts of the United States, but they are not new nor unique to this country. The first thing I thought of was “The Dust Bowl” of the 1930’s caused by high winds during an excessively dry period. The winds carried dust in the region from Texas to Nebraska asphyxiating people and livestock, and ruining crops.

The dust bowl offered a great subject for artists. I discovered on line a record of the painting “Drought” by Joseph Paul Vorst (1897-1947) sold at auction in 2014. It illustrates the devastating impact of a dust storm in Boise, Oklahoma in 1935. Vorst has been credited as the most significant Latter-day Saint painter of his time. He was born and educated in Germany and came to the States in 1930. His work has been exhibited in many major American museums including the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the White House!

The drama of dust storms has attracted artists from other countries as well. A Hungarian artist, Peter Zelei captured a dust storm in a photograph taken in 2017. Though the image may be manipulated, as its dimensions of 27.56 inches square, it must envelope the viewer in the actual experience. I might start out with this photo as the introduction to my imaginary exhibition.

A pen, wash and chalk drawing In the Metropolitan Museum by the British artist William West (1801-1861) ”A Column of Oriental Travelers Scattered by a Dust Storm” suggests his biblical scene of Israelites passing through the wilderness preceded by a pillar of clouds. Looking at details there seem to be people and a camel running from the whirlwinds termed dust devils.

Desert sandstorms provided a popular subject for Orientalist painters.
Ludwig Hans Fischer (1848-1915) was an Austrian artist who received a grant in 1875 to travel to the Middle East and Palestine where he recorded his impressions in watercolor sketches. This watercolor that was sold at auction in 2019 titled “The Khamsin” (1891), evokes the effect of that dry, hot, sandy wind of the Middle East.

Hermann David Salomon Corrodi (1844-1905) an Italian artist was very well connected. He knew Queen Victoria and received commissions from the British Royal family. His extensive travels included Egypt and Syria and offered the opportunity to view and paint its sandstorms like this “Camel Train in a Sandstorm.” His work can be found in the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the Dahesh in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago as well as museums in Qatar and Rome.

Switching continents, Andres Vivo (1955-) is from Uruguay where he still lives and works. He studied there with several well-respected Uruguayan artists. I found no evidence of his travel and there are no deserts in Uruguay, so I assume that this scene is from his imagination. He does say, “Painting the sea and sky provides me with the perfect excuse to express myself in my love of color and bold strokes.” I found this image in the Saatchi Gallery in Los Angeles.

Returning to the U.S. there is a work I wish I could have owned, an oil on paper by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) in the Detroit Institute of Arts. It symbolizes the westward expansion when people travelled for opportunity, from the Louisiana Purchase making swathes of land available for settlement, to the gold rush. In the process buffalo herds were decimated. Bierstadt made several trips out west, his first was in 1859 with Colonel Frederick Lander along the Oregon trail to South Pass, which is today in Wyoming. He found the land so exiting and painted great panoramic works to record the newest part of our relatively new country. Although he painted two large-scale canvases of the subject, “The Last of the Buffalo” 1888, this single figure “Buffalo in a Sandstorm” is a more poignant icon.

Depictions of the dust and sandstorms are romantic representations of a world one would rather not experience first-hand.