The River Road, Part Two

Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, Yellowstone River (photo credit: FishEyeGuy)

Yellowstone River

I learned this interesting fact as I started doing research for my trip to Yellowstone National Park: The Yellowstone River is the only river in the contiguous United States that is not damned. The 692-miles long river rises in Wyoming on the Continental Divide, flows through Yellowstone  National Park, runs northwards into Montana and finally flows into the Missouri River near Buford, North Dakota.

The River, a tributary of the Missouri, is known for its trout fishing. One of its forks was a favorite fishing spot of author, Ernest Hemingway. In 2011, an oil pipeline belonging to ExxonMobile ruptured in the river. Only with the passing of time will we understand the extent of the damage. No matter where in the world we are, we seem to manage to despoil our rivers.

Hudson River

Unlike the Yellowstone River which I only recently started learning about, I am quite familiar with the Hudson River. The Hudson was the site of many environmental studies and environmental activism during many of the years that I lived in New York. Along with the Long Island Sound, the river had been under severe stress. The details below are an apt description of the Hudson of the 1970s and ’80s, and perhaps, of the ’90s too:

“New York City was dumping 1.5 billion gallons per day of raw sewage into the River, the paint from Tarrytown’s GM plant dyed the River a new color each week, the Indian Point power plant was killing millions of fish each day, the National Guard was filling tidal wetlands at Camp Smith, and Penn Central Railroad was discharging oil from a pipe at the Croton Rail Yard. The oil floated up the Croton on the tide, blackening the beaches and making the shad taste of diesel.”

Man, business and government were killing the river. Today the Hudson has rebounded, thanks in part to a Riverkeeper boat that patrols the river in an effort to protect it from environmental lawbreakers. But other problems like the introduction of non-native invasive species (example, water chestnut and zebra mussels) have altered and impacted the aquatic animal populations. What will the river look like in ten years, fifty years, from now?

The Mississippi River on Exhibit

If you ever read the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, you will recall that one of the biggest stars in both books is the Mississippi River. Just like the Morant and Yallhas Rivers in Jamaica (See The River Road, Part One), the Mississippi held a special place in my childhood fantasies.  I read and re-read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and pretended that my local river was the Mississippi upon which steamboats ran and adventures were to be had. Now my old friend is on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Museum.

Tom and Huck rafting on the Mississippi
Tom and Huck rafting on the Mississippi

In an exhibition that runs until June 2013, photographer, Richard Misrach brings the Mississippi River to life in a way that is far different from Mark Twain’s version of it. Though invisible in some of the photographs, the river is still very much a presence in each of the twenty-one images. The larger than life scale of the photographs (each is about five or six feet high), makes it unlikely that the viewer will soon forget the subject matter. The title of the show? “Revisiting the South: Cancer Alley.”

Cancer Alley is an eighty-five mile stretch of the Mississippi River, from Baton Rouge through to New Orleans. There are innumerable industrial plants there. All are drawn to the region because of favorable taxation policies. The first photograph that the visitor encounters upon entering the gallery is to the immediate right. The photograph is striking for two reasons: First, there is an ethereal light beyond which the viewer cannot see and so, cannot imagine what it is that the woman in the photograph is looking at. The second striking thing about the photograph is that the lady doesn’t seem to belong inside this house. Is she standing in a museum looking outwards? Is she the owner of the house or merely a visitor? As you move closer to the photograph you learn from the wall tag that she is a tour guide. The plaque reads, “Tour Guide, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, 1998.”

Today’s Nottoway is a tourist destination. In yesteryears, it was a slave plantation. Not so long ago, this woman would have been a slave in this place. She may have been in the fields or she may have been in the house but either way, she wouldn’t have had time to stand around, looking out windows.

cancer alley
Tour Guide, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, negative 1998 (photo credit: Richard Misrach)

This show makes me Jim, the runaway slave (in Huck Finn) kind of sad.  Today there is destruction of communities, the river and the environment. The entire show is dressed in poverty, destruction and degradation. In Huck Finn there was hope — hope that Jim would be free, hope that he wouldn’t get sold down river, hope that he and Huck would remain on the island in the river, happy and undetected. If you read the book as a child, you know all about hoping, hoping, hoping, against all odds. Today, after viewing the show, I hope that the:

  • Mississippi River, poisoned and polluted as it is, will make a comeback
  • people, like the woman in the photograph, will be able to continue living there
  • petro-chemical factories that pollute the area be forced to stop degrading the environment and everything connected to the River (including the nearby communities)
  • cancer rates in the area will subside/lessen

As is the case of the pollution of the Yellowstone River, only with time, will one have answers to these questions.

References:

http://museum.stanford.edu/news_room/misrach.html

http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=18694

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Degenerate Art Exhibition Revisited

This show runs from October 2012-February 24, 2013

The Nazis’ Entartete Kunst Show Revisited

The title of this current exhibition at The Cantor Museum is rather disconcerting: a war on modern art1

A better title for the show would have been, “A War on Modern Art: The Notorious Hitler/Nazi Purge of 1937,” or quite simply, “The Entartete Kunst Show.”

The infamous Nazi art exhibition of 1937, Entartete Kunst, sought to stamp out certain art forms, including abstraction. It had the opposite effect. By drawing attention to modern art, the Nazis helped to make it unforgettable.

Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter and theorist, has been credited with creating the first purely abstract Western artworks. He taught at the Bauhaus until the Nazis closed it in 1933. His use of colors, shapes and lines so offended their sense of beauty that in the Entartete Kunst exhibition, they declared his art to be “crazy at any price.” Included in the current Cantor exhibition are several Kandinsky pieces that are representative of the ones featured in the 1937 show.

Germany 1929-1938

In 1929, The Great Depression hit Germany hard. Over five-million Germans and Austrians were out of work. The “unacceptable” were blamed for infecting the society. Anything and anyone violating the Nazis’ sense of classical German beauty (Aryan) were deemed degenerate and therefore, to be destroyed. In defense of this destruction, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, is heard declaring on archival film, “Der Fuhrer liebt die Kunst, weil er selbst ist ein Kunstler” (The Feurer loves art. He himself is an artist).* Unfortunately, this love extended neither to abstract/modern art nor its creators.

Book Burnings

Book burnings began in Berlin in 1933: German and Austrian books were burned alongside books by “corrupting foreign influences.” This included books by Ernest Hemingway, H.G. Wells and the German playwright, Heinriche Heine. Heine, in his 1821 play, Almansor had written the following line:

“Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”)

Dubious Distinction

The 1937 Degenerate Art show featured many of Kandinsky’s works, including an edition of the book, Klange (Sounds), and the portfolio of twelve prints entitled, “Kleine Welten” (Small Worlds). None of the works in The Cantor’s exhibition were actually in the Nazi sponsored art exhibition but both shows feature(d) a copy of Klange and several prints from Kleine Welten.

wassily k photo book
Klange (Sounds), 1913 –illustrated book of poems and woodcuts by Wassily Kandinsky
wassily k photo
Kleine Welten, III (Small Worlds, III), 1922 — lithograph from a portfolio of twelve prints, by Wassily Kandinsky

Also on view at The Cantor is a reproduction of the 1937 Nazi exhibition catalog (in both German and English). This too, was disturbing and did what it was meant to: It shocks the visitor by its immediacy and also by its accessibility to the English-speaker.

Over one-hundred artists and six-hundred pieces of art (including illustrated books like Kandinsky’s) encompassed the Nazis’ 1937 art exhibition. When the Degenerate Art Law was passed a year later in 1938, the Nazis had confiscated more than 16,000 objects of art.

Julien Bryan’s Archival Films

Chilling and voyeuristic are apt descriptions of Julien Bryan’s 1937 short films. The documentary of the museum goers viewing the show is numbing, disturbing, evocative and sad. You wonder which attendees will become murderers  and who will be murdered. What are visitors thinking as they view the show? Is each visitor thinking for himself or has he allowed his thinking to be sanctioned by the State? Who, at that show, will help those in need and who will turn on “the other?” You wish you didn’t know how it ultimately ends.

Three links to various Bryan documentaries are embedded below. These are silent, black and white films. Because they are soundless, they are all the more harrowing. They have a certain magnetic pull, drawing the viewer in in a way that modern films do not. In their silence they force you to pay attention, to listen with your eyes.

About Julien

Who was Julien Bryan? He was an American photographer, filmmaker and documentarian who traveled throughout Europe in the 1930s. He tried to warn America of the dangers of Nazism and Fascism based on what he saw in his travels abroad, in Russia, Poland, Germany and Austria. His documentary films of the era are now part of the public domain. Access them here:

  • Munich Exhibition of Degenerate Art — Filmed by Bryan when he visited the 1937 Nazi exhibition.

http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/highlights/bryan/video/detail.php?content=germany_art

  • Pupils at Goldschmidt Jewish Private School in Nazi Germany — Bryan filmed the Goldschmidt Jewish private school shortly after Jews were no longer allowed to enroll in public schools in Germany. Again, you wish you didn’t know how this all turns out.

http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/highlights/bryan/video/detail.php?content=germany_pupils

  • Hitler Youth Girls –Here Bryan documents the indoctrination of German/Aryan school children, even during playtime.

http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/highlights/bryan/video/detail.php?content=germany_youth

———–

*”PBS Film Chronicles Nazi Art Suppression”, The Daily Gazette, (Tuesday, April 6, 1993) <http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1957&dat=19930406&id=XWlGAAAAIBAJ&sjid=LukMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1166,1427669>

Art, Seen?

The word, “Seen” with a question mark (as used in this title, “Art, Seen?”), in Jamaican vernacular translates to “Art, do you understand/agree?” I first heard the word used that way as a small child growing up in the eastern Jamaican parish of St. Thomas. It was used by the Rastafarians that I encountered on my way to and from school as I wandered along Lyssons Beach. Later on, the word caught on with many in the general population. The use of the word as a question means that you are always questioning and contemplating, seen?

Seen, June 2012
Nigerian Art at the Cantor Museum, Stanford University:

“Art” from the 650-mile long Benue River valley in central Nigeria recently opened at The Cantor. I say “art” in quotes because most of the pieces in the exhibition were created for utilitarian purposes. The more art I see, the more universal the creative process seems to be. Take for example, Munch’s, The Scream and Gaultier’s pointy bustiers — representations of both were seen in these early 20th century creations by the Benue River valley peoples.

“scream”, spirit vessel, clay, from the Ga’anda Spirit Pantheon
another scream, clay vessel
screaming, again

The objects presented are drawn from international collections, most of which seem to be from either Paris museums or private Parisian collections. I couldn’t help but wonder if Gaultier had seen these works in Paris and maybe, drawn inspiration from them. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Does it even matter?

doll-like leather figure, by the Tiv peoples

One of the two artists represented (who created art for others) was Soompa of Mapeo. He was of the Chamba peoples and was active during the 1920s-1940s. He created beautiful male-female double figures in wood.

Both of these figures were in the exhibition. The one to the left is owned by UCLA’s Fowler Gallery and the one to the right belongs to a private collector in Paris. Both photographs are courtesy of the Fowler. (https://www.fowler.ucla.edu/exhibitions/benue/)

Two of my favorites from the exhibition are:

  • a male wooden figure by the Yungur/Mboi/Bana peoples, believed to be created in the 19th century, or before. It too, is from a private collection in Paris. Its highly eroded surface suggests that it predates the 20th century; and
  • the rainmaking wands made of iron, used in, you guessed it, rainmaking ceremonies.
eroded wooden male figure
Rainmaking wand, iron, Mumuye peoples, mid-20th century
Of  Interest

In the video montage, “Introducing the Benue River Valley”, and also in the exhibition, there were photographs of people dancing in masks and wearing scarecrow-looking clothes of grass and various materials. These figures in all their regalia would be quite frightening to a child. I saw these same figures as a young girl, growing up in Jamaica. They were the Junkonoo that paraded around the Morant Bay town square at Christmas time. Even more fascinating was the mention of the Idoma and Jukun populations who were separated by the Tiv, relative strangers to the Benue River Valley. I wonder if the Jukun had anything to do with the transfer of Junkonoo customs to Jamaica? Hmmm.

Face mask on metal pole, probably by the Tiv peoples

For more on the Benue River Valley exhibition, visit: http://museum.stanford.edu/news_room/benue.html. The exhibit runs until October 14, 2012.

A good informative article on the Jamaican language is Hannah Appel’s, “Jamaican: Language.” http://www.globalexchange.org/country/jamaica/language

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