Winold Reiss: Painter of the Harlem Renaissance

And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countée Cullen by Charles Molesworth considers the extensive body of work and unpublished correspondence, as well as the life of Harlem’s legendary poet-citizen. Cullen’s volume Color (1925) was a watershed moment for the Harlem Renaissance; his translation of Euripides’ Medea was the first by an African American of a Greek tragedy; and his tumultuous existence, which included estranged ties with his mother, a short-lived marriage to the daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois, and an untimely death at the age of forty-two, shadowed his role as one of the chief voices of his generation.

A complicated life often demands more than simple illustration. This is evident in Molesworth’s biography, but also in the unattributed cover image gracing the book. The sketch of Cullen, credited to the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, is by German–American artist and designer Winold Reiss (1884–1953), who painted over 250 images of Native Americans (most notably the Blackfeet), traveled to Mexico to portray Aztec revolutionaries, and contributed dozens of portraits of Harlem Renaissance figures during the first-half of the twentieth century, when racial prejudice and tensions undermined much of American culture. His interior designs ranged from cafes at the Hotel St. Moritz to murals commissioned by the Cincinnati Airport, and his illustrations graced the covers of mainstream magazine’s like Scribner’s.

More on Reiss’s role in the Harlem Renaissance comes from an introduction by Jeffrey C. Stewart, Reiss scholar and author of o Color America: Portraits by Winold Reiss (Smithsonian Institution, 1989), and Winold Reiss: An Illustrated Checklist of His Portraits (Smithsonian Institution, 1990):

In 1921 he visited his native Germany on the only trip he made back to Europe. Here he drew many portraits of German and Swedish folk types and colorful characters. After his return to New York City in 1922, he was chosen by the editor of the social welfare journal Survey Graphic to portray the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance for a special issue entitled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro [March 1, 1925]. Dr. Alain Locke, Howard University philosophy professor and literary critic, was so impressed with Reiss’s portraits that he chose him to illustrate The New Negro: An Interpretation [1925], the most important anthology of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, Survey Graphic asked Reiss to illustrate a special Pacific issue with portraits of Asian Americans.

As Reiss wrote in the September 1950 issue of The Native Voice, “To understand life, we cannot have prejudice.” Many of Reiss’s most iconic images stem from his work for Locke’s The New Negro, including his portrait of Locke himself (below). Perhaps more fascinating, though, is the role played by this German immigrant artist in helping to visualize race at a moment when one of America’s most important black arts movements gave us the permission to truly see ourselves as a nation, which could, as Cullen wrote with anger and earnestness, “make a poet black, and bid him sing!”

This post by scholar Marcel LaFollette, the first in her series on television and the Smithsonian archives, perked our interest. LaFollette writes about the show-and-tell parlance of early morning talk shows, pulling up archival images from an April 1953 sit-down by Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael, his predecessor Charles Greeley Abbot, and aeronautics curator Paul Garber celebrating the fiftieth anniversary powered flight. The crew brought along related ephemera from the Smithsonian’s collection, including Charles Lindbergh’s flying suit and a map of the flight plan (along with an elaborate passenger plane-model prop).
WTOP announcer Bill Jenkins can be seen clutching the latest issue of Saturday Evening Post, which featured Part 3 of an article by Lindbergh himself. We did some digging in the internet archives and found a copy of the May 2, 1953 issue, which ran Part 4. The cover art, an illustration by Thornton Utz, is equally remarkable—Utz designed 50+ covers for the Post in his lifetime, along with some corporate ad design for Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Ford Motor Co. You can check out a post on the Mad Men meets B-movie dynamics of his work here and an overwhelming archive of his illustrations for The American Magazine here.

This post by scholar Marcel LaFollette, the first in her series on television and the Smithsonian archives, perked our interest. LaFollette writes about the show-and-tell parlance of early morning talk shows, pulling up archival images from an April 1953 sit-down by Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael, his predecessor Charles Greeley Abbot, and aeronautics curator Paul Garber celebrating the fiftieth anniversary powered flight. The crew brought along related ephemera from the Smithsonian’s collection, including Charles Lindbergh’s flying suit and a map of the flight plan (along with an elaborate passenger plane-model prop).

WTOP announcer Bill Jenkins can be seen clutching the latest issue of Saturday Evening Post, which featured Part 3 of an article by Lindbergh himself. We did some digging in the internet archives and found a copy of the May 2, 1953 issue, which ran Part 4. The cover art, an illustration by Thornton Utz, is equally remarkable—Utz designed 50+ covers for the Post in his lifetime, along with some corporate ad design for Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Ford Motor Co. You can check out a post on the Mad Men meets B-movie dynamics of his work here and an overwhelming archive of his illustrations for The American Magazine here.


KUHNFEST

“One is not one’s own historian, let alone one’s own psychoanalyst.”—Thomas Kuhn, via a 1991 profile in Scientific American 

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, making good on an earlier monograph that ran in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. 50 years later, “paradigm shift” is a ubiquitous reference for pomo and post-structuralist thinkers tinkering at the edges of science and culture, and we get our staid facts straight in deciphering one “Bad Newton” from another. For Kuhn, the drama of the paradigm shift really begins to unfold in times of crisis, when revolutionary science unveils challenging alternatives to then-dominant models, introducing a period of uncertain allegiances until the new paradigm is able to assert itself.

The initial publication climate for Kuhn’s signature work was tenuous—the nation was soon-to-be knee-deep in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and had already weathered Federal Marshalls escorting James Meredith to classes at the University of Mississippi. Other soon-to-be cultural memes blotted the radar:

  • the debut of The Incredible Hulk #1
  • Students for a Democratic Society’s draft of the “Port Huron Statement”
  • John Lennon’s under-the-radar marriage to Cynthia Powell
  • Johnny Carson’s semi-permanent takeover ofThe Tonight Show
  • The Wizard of Oz’s last December telecast until the mid-1990s
  • The birth of Motel 6

In the next half-century, the book would go through four editions, including Kuhn’s initial postscript to detractors in the Second Edition (1969), where he defended against charges of relativism and the distinctions between normative and descriptive analysis.

By the time of the book’s Third Edition, published in 1996 (Kuhn had passed away earlier that year), the book was reportedly the most cited of any in the fields of art and the humanities, by the creators of the Arts & Humanities Citation Index, and “paradigm shift” was fodder as an emptied-out buzzword high-brow comics and other satirical media.

Now in a 50th Anniversary Edition printing, with an Introduction to all things Kuhnian by Ian Hacking, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions still generates its fair share of admiration—and controversy.

As Hacking writes:

ONE THING IS NOT SAID often enough: Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, like all great books, is a work of passion, and a passionate desire to get things right. This is plain even from its modest first sentence: “History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed.” Thomas Kuhn was out to change our understanding of the sciences—that is, of the activities that have enabled our species, for better or worse, to dominate the planet. He succeeded.

In celebration of the book’s anniversary publication, symposia and conferences are starting to creep up on the blotter. Among them? Kuhnfest, at the Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science, which unfolds a series of interest group-affiliated readings and keynote lectures over the course of the next three months.

What would Kuhn—once a young physics student with Midwestern roots—have to say about all the fuss? “As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice—there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.” Seems apt.

"Rather than seeing the public sphere as initially bourgeois, we should see it as made bourgeois by the expulsion of dissident voices. And thus expulsion, moreover, was on grounds of political radicalism as well as class position. The closure of the public sphere supported the distinction of a realm of legitimate but also limited politics."
—Craig Calhoun, The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements

"Rather than seeing the public sphere as initially bourgeois, we should see it as made bourgeois by the expulsion of dissident voices. And thus expulsion, moreover, was on grounds of political radicalism as well as class position. The closure of the public sphere supported the distinction of a realm of legitimate but also limited politics."

—Craig Calhoun, The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements

"More than any of his peers, Hofstadter was sensitive to the increasingly urban and ethnic character of American life. Eager to embrace the future rather than commemorate the past, he rejected the conventional signposts that had for so long given direction to American civilization—a culture of capitalism, individualism, and isolationism. These established values, he knew, had long served Americans eager to define themselves as a Protestant, farming people. But the times no longer supported this vision—nineteenth-century liberalism collapsed in the 1930s. Its failure to solve either that decade’s industrial crisis or the ideological schisms that prefaced fascism’s war on the West and communism’s hold in the East elicited from Hofstadter a sharp intellectual response. His criticisms frequently drew blood and aroused strong opposition from both conservatives and progressives. And they had good reason to worry. Unencumbered by deep roots in the native soil of his immigrant father’s adopted country, Hofstadter enlisted the past to reveal the failings of a time-worn political tradition and by inference highlight the promise of what he believed was a more humane, cosmopolitan, and pluralistic postwar liberalism. Anglo-Saxonism and agrarianism were out. Ethnic diversity and modernity were in. As the old codes gave way, America’s need for fresh heroes and new perspectives encouraged Hofstadter to rewrite its history as a prelude to moving its culture."
—from David S. Brown’s Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, cresting the wave of Michael Dirda’s recent revisitation of Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

"More than any of his peers, Hofstadter was sensitive to the increasingly urban and ethnic character of American life. Eager to embrace the future rather than commemorate the past, he rejected the conventional signposts that had for so long given direction to American civilization—a culture of capitalism, individualism, and isolationism. These established values, he knew, had long served Americans eager to define themselves as a Protestant, farming people. But the times no longer supported this vision—nineteenth-century liberalism collapsed in the 1930s. Its failure to solve either that decade’s industrial crisis or the ideological schisms that prefaced fascism’s war on the West and communism’s hold in the East elicited from Hofstadter a sharp intellectual response. His criticisms frequently drew blood and aroused strong opposition from both conservatives and progressives. And they had good reason to worry. Unencumbered by deep roots in the native soil of his immigrant father’s adopted country, Hofstadter enlisted the past to reveal the failings of a time-worn political tradition and by inference highlight the promise of what he believed was a more humane, cosmopolitan, and pluralistic postwar liberalism. Anglo-Saxonism and agrarianism were out. Ethnic diversity and modernity were in. As the old codes gave way, America’s need for fresh heroes and new perspectives encouraged Hofstadter to rewrite its history as a prelude to moving its culture."

—from David S. Brown’s Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, cresting the wave of Michael Dirda’s recent revisitation of Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

"Things started happening because there were major crowds. The tourist thing was so much bigger. There were a hundred thousand people on any given weekend. You couldn’t even walk. I mean you’ve seen those pictures of Venice when it was crowded like sardines. It was like head to head, body to body. And from Monday through Friday and sometimes on the weekends, but especially during the week, people even brought their stuff out and had yard sales all out on the boardwalk… . People would put stuff out there and sold it for a dollar fifty. It was sort of like a funky thrift store with lots of neighborhood people. That went on for a couple of years. Three or four years maybe. And then were were a lot of street performers tarting out. It was pretty funky."
—from Andrew Deener’s Venice: A Contested Bohemia in Los Angeles

"Things started happening because there were major crowds. The tourist thing was so much bigger. There were a hundred thousand people on any given weekend. You couldn’t even walk. I mean you’ve seen those pictures of Venice when it was crowded like sardines. It was like head to head, body to body. And from Monday through Friday and sometimes on the weekends, but especially during the week, people even brought their stuff out and had yard sales all out on the boardwalk… . People would put stuff out there and sold it for a dollar fifty. It was sort of like a funky thrift store with lots of neighborhood people. That went on for a couple of years. Three or four years maybe. And then were were a lot of street performers tarting out. It was pretty funky."

—from Andrew Deener’s Venice: A Contested Bohemia in Los Angeles

“Put another way, tradition and community are not mere inheritances passively received form the past and certainly not merely fetters on human freedom. Tradition, to early nineteenth-century workers, included both their craft skills and the rights they claimed for this “human capital” against the incursions of inhuman capital. Tradition is in part the process by which successful claims to rights are reproduced in each generation. Some of these rights may be encoded in formal law; all are underpinned by transmissions of culture and understanding. Not only does the reproduction of tradition require action (and therefore always involves the production of new culture at the same time). It may also require struggle, when the claims posed within tradition—to justice, for example, or fairness or food when hungry—are attacked by other ideas—say of efficiency or one-sided revisions of property rights. Likewise, community is both an achievement and a capacity. It constitutes a field of action within which people can pursue the objects of their lives. It may be more or less egalitarian but usually empowers some more than others. It constrains more than enables. But is also incorporates investments made—sometimes over generations—in building it. It is not only a ground for individual and family projects but also the basis for much collective action. And communities were basic to the struggles of nineteenth-century workers against the incursions of capitalism, perhaps more basic than class, though the two are not contradictory.”

—Craig Calhoun, The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements

Robbins Barstow was a pioneering maker of home movies—Disneyland Dream (1956), which you see above, is one of literally hundreds of films he completed from 1929 (when he first received a camera) until his death in 2010, many of which star his immediate family. Disneyland Dream was named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2008, with the following citation:

"The Barstow family films a memorable home movie of their trip to Disneyland. Robbins and Meg Barstow, along with their children Mary, David and Daniel were among 25 families who won a free trip to the newly opened Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., as part of a “Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape” contest sponsored by 3M. Through vivid color and droll narration (“The landscape was very different from back home in Connecticut”), we see a fantastic historical snapshot of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Catalina Island, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios and Disneyland in mid-1956. Home movies have assumed a rapidly increasing importance in American cultural studies as they provide a priceless and authentic record of time and place."

I watched the 35-minute film (which features a cameo by a very young Steve Martin at the 20:20 mark, wearing a top hat and hawking guidebooks) for the first time yesterday and was struck by its seeming perversion of techniques later perfected by the experimental video artists of the 1970s—or highbrow art in general, in this most quotidian form of hamming-it-up for the camera. Part of that is probably triggered by the instant nostalgia now, more or less obviously, shopped around by our contemporary culture—indeed, there’s a lot to say about Barstow’s 16mm-amateur outtakes that lines up with issues of public vs. private intimacy, the ubiquity of the non-place (Marc Augé’s ever determinate/indeterminate anthropological positioning), and the secular pilgrimage. But there are also moments in the film that directly echo the verité techniques of filmmakers like Shirley Clarke and the Maysles brothers, including carefully choreographed segments of glee-struck family members fainting (which would not be out of place alongside the Merce Cunningham-sanctioned movements in Nam June Paik’s TV Garden), along with a 60-second series of Barstow’s children diving in reverse back out of the pool that channels the later well-known photograph of artist James Turrell’s Heavy Water installation.

How to make sense of the mix of tradition, future-past idealization, the cultural mode of home-movies in the twentieth century, and the place of Disneyland in the middle of all of this—that capitalist holy land? I’ve been toting a copy of Craig Calhoun’s The Roots of Radicalism in my bag for weeks, and by pure coincidence, reached a point very near its conclusion today that did the job for me. I think about what Calhoun says about traditions as repeated claims to certain rights reproduced by generations—and what it might mean to put establish the pressure of reproduction in these films as a double-bind (the domestic family structures so often a material subject for the camera’s lens in 1950s amateur-film documentation—literally, the reproductive ties that bind—conjoin with the technologically mediated reproduction of time and place). All of that is a kind of academic double-talk, though, and what’s really happening is something closer to the tindersticks of human and inhuman capital rubbing against each other, igniting memories that then become not quite real.

Disneyland Dream is certainly scripted, but via a sort of “real time” script that (again) precurses reality television—Barstow is so assured of his family’s success in 3M’s Disneyland giveaway that he films events as they unfold with the finesse of a carefully paced sitcom. Though the voice-over narration wasn’t added until many years later—Barstow used to live-narrate the film in a yearly backyard screening—there is something happening, moment-to-moment, where the filmmaker seems to possess an uncanny instinct about how his film will later be received as a cultural artifact from a defunct time, place, and sensibility. Part of this is specific to the genre of home-movies—or their cinematic counterparts, as in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life—mortality, in these intimate testaments to limited duration, is intensified.

But back to Disneyland: I don’t think we need to resurrect Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard to consider that part of what lends an aspect of preternatural knowing to Barstow’s film is the after-image of capitalism, haunting us with its soon-to-be decay at just the moment of its fervor (I’m thinking in particular of Barstow’s slow-take at his ivy-drenched, brand-new Pasadena hotel, or the carefully traced elation on his children’s faces as they enter the gates of the freshly minted Magic Kingdom). And in a moment of necessary voyeurism into one family’s carefully preserved adventure, my how that after-image can glow.