Two American Photographers at Home

This post is co-published with the Getty Iris.


Paul Caponigro (b. 1932), Tralee Bay, County Kerry, Ireland, 1977, gelatin silver print, 9 5/8 × 13 1/4 in. © Paul Caponigro



Paul Caponigro (b. 1932), Tralee Bay, County Kerry, Ireland, 1977, gelatin silver print, 9 5/8 × 13 1/4 in. © Paul Caponigro


It may come as no surprise to you, savvy reader, that the years spent preparing for a major exhibition are fraught with considerable challenges and no small amount of pain. An elusive loan, an uncooperative colleague, an intransigent donor, an unanticipated expense are only a few of the obstacles strewn along the curatorial path. In most cases, the outcome is worth all the trouble. There is deep satisfaction in bringing new or long-forgotten work to light.

As an example, photographer Minor White (1908–1976) was a giant in the field, but he is known today by only a relative few. The breathtaking retrospective now finishing its run at the Getty—which also includes work by White’s former students Paul Caponigro and Carl Chiarenza—introduces the artist to a generation that has never owned a film-loaded camera or printed a picture by hand. White’s deep dedication to his craft and luminous photographs inspire anew.

Exhibitions can also offer the singular pleasure of getting to know a living artist in a meaningful way. Such has been my recent good fortune with not just one legendary photographer, but two. Preparations for “Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland,” an exhibition co-organized by the Yale Center for British Art and The Huntington (where it opens November 8) began in 2009. Over the past five years, Yale curator Scott Wilcox and I have made at least one annual trip to visit Bruce and Paul at their respective homes.

Yale curator Scott Wilcox (background) with Bruce Davidson at Davidson's home in New York City, 2010.

Yale curator Scott Wilcox (background) with Bruce Davidson at Davidson’s home in New York City, 2010.

Now in their eighties, Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro are exact contemporaries whose paths had crossed but never converged. Each man blazed a distinct trail within the medium. Bruce was a photojournalist whose celebrated projects have ranged from teenage gang members to the Civil Rights movement, to Spanish Harlem and beyond. Paul’s illustrious career produced a ravishing body of black-and-white photography centered on the natural world.

While the temperamental and stylistic differences between the two are stark, the similarities proved, for me, all the more profound. As boys, they struggled in school and felt personally at sea.  Each got a first camera at age ten. More sophisticated cameras came as a rites of passage when they turned thirteen: Paul for his Catholic confirmation and Bruce as a bar mitzvah gift. They remembered photography, even then, as holding out the promise of a happier life.

Bruce Davidson, Wales, 1965, gelatin silver print, 8 3/8 × 12 1/2 in.,Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Henry S. Hacker, Yale BA 1965, B2009.13.20. © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Bruce Davidson, Wales, 1965, gelatin silver print, 8 3/8 × 12 1/2 in.,Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Henry S. Hacker, Yale BA 1965, B2009.13.20. © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Both men got swept up in the Korean War’s compulsory draft. The Army sent Paul to San Francisco in 1953, where he met Ansel Adams and his West Coast crowd. The group included the aforementioned Minor White, who invited Paul to visit him in Rochester, New York, where he was relocating to teach. In the years that followed, White became Caponigro’s mentor, teacher, colleague, and friend.

The military was equally pivotal in setting Bruce’s artistic course, sending him in 1956 to Paris, where he met famed street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. That important introduction ultimately opened the door for Bruce to join the elite Magnum agency, the photographers’ cooperative that Cartier-Bresson helped found.

Beginning in the 1960s, Davidson and Caponigro were deeply influenced by periods of creative exploration in the British Isles. It was this temporal and regional overlap that generated the idea for pairing the two in an exhibition.

Me with Paul Caponigro at his home in Maine, February 2014.

Me with Paul Caponigro at his home in Maine, February 2014.

Early on, Scott Wilcox and I discovered—somewhat incredulously—that despite award-winning, six-decades-long careers, Bruce and Paul had never met. But perhaps this was not as strange as it first seemed. For forty years, Bruce has lived in a comfortable, rambling apartment in New York City, where he has thrived amid the urban scene. Paul favored the wide-open spaces of the Southwest before finally settling more than a decade ago in a snug Maine cabin surrounded by trees. The two finally came face-to-face in mutual admiration at the Yale opening in June of this year.

There is something intimate and lovely about getting to know someone in the context of a home surrounded by a lifetime of things. The experience with these two accomplished artists over a period of years has far outweighed any of the predictable bumps in the road. It became the most satisfying part of the project by far. On the eve of the Huntington opening, I can honestly say (and I’ll speak for Scott here as well): Bruce and Paul, what a joy and a privilege it has been.

Scott Wilcox (center) with Paul Caponigro (left) and Bruce Davidson (right) as they meet for the first time at the opening of "Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro, Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland" at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, June 2014.

Scott Wilcox (center) with Paul Caponigro (left) and Bruce Davidson (right) as they meet for the first time at the opening of “Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro, Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland” at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, June 2014.

Jennifer A. Watts is curator of photographs at The Huntington.

Which Witch?

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), The Three Witches or The Weird Sisters, ca. 1782, oil on canvas, 24 ¾ x 30 ¼ in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Purchased with funds from The George R. and Patricia Geary Johnson British Art Acquisition Fund.

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), The Three Witches or The Weird Sisters, ca. 1782, oil on canvas, 24 ¾ x 30 ¼ in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Purchased with funds from The George R. and Patricia Geary Johnson British Art Acquisition Fund.

The Huntington’s recently acquired The Three Witches or The Weird Sisters, painted by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) in about 1782, goes on view tomorrow in the Huntington Art Gallery. It’s one of three full-size color versions that the artist made. The others are at the Kunsthaus Zürich and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. All three paintings depict the trio of witches from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth who foretell his fate.

Looking for a wicked good time? Compare The Huntington’s version of Fuseli’s Three Witches (above) with the two other versions below. Scholars believe The Huntington’s is a study for the two that followed. Which witch is your favorite?

The Kunsthaus Zürich’s Witches (1783):

Henry Fuseli, The Three Witches, 1783, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 36 in. The Kunsthaus Zürich.

Henry Fuseli, The Three Witches, 1783, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 36 in. The Kunsthaus Zürich.

And the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Witches (ca. 1783):

Henry Fuseli, 'Macbeth', Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters, ca. 1783, oil on canvas, 29 1/2  x 35 ½ in. Royal Shakespeare Company Collection.

Henry Fuseli, ‘Macbeth’, Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters, ca. 1783, oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 35 ½ in. Royal Shakespeare Company Collection.

Why do you think Fuseli made the changes he did? He re-cast and re-costumed the characters for one thing. But there’s more. Look closely at the upper left corner of the Kunsthaus Zürich painting. What is that winged-skull-demon thing haunting the upper left?! (It’s also in the Royal Shakespeare Company version, but just harder to see.) Hint: It’s on the movie poster for the 1991 thriller “Silence of the Lambs.” Well, it’s a Death’s-head Hawkmoth, a real insect with markings uncannily similar to a human skull. As an element of the painting, it serves as a portentous symbol of the fate awaiting Macbeth.

Death’s-head Hawkmoth (Image from Wikimedia Commons. Acherontia atropos MHNT by Didier Descouens. File is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Death’s-head Hawkmoth (Image from Wikimedia Commons. Acherontia atropos MHNT by Didier Descouens. File is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Thankfully, we don’t have any Death’s-head Hawkmoths in North America. Happy Halloween!

Thea M. Page is director of marketing communications at The Huntington.

A Legacy in Silver

Hudson Roysher at work in his studio in this undated photo.

Hudson Roysher at work in his studio in this undated photo.

“I ask myself: ‘Will this thing last for at least 100 years?’” Hudson Roysher told the Los Angeles Times in 1967. “My work has to be of the best quality that I am capable of at the time.” Roysher, a renowned silversmith whose work is displayed in The Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, died in 1993, leaving behind a legacy of exquisite craftsmanship—from Buffalo to Syracuse to Los Angeles. Much of his work was created expressly for churches: chalices and candelabras, for instance. In fact, the only existing collection of Roysher’s secular silver now resides at The Huntington, and it is sublime. Said Harold B. “Hal” Nelson, The Huntington’s curator of American decorative arts, “These pieces, along with his papers, embody his lifelong association with The Huntington.”

The silver was a gift from Roysher’s children, Martin Roysher and Allison Wittenberg. It came to the institution in 2012 along with his archives, a treasure trove of material documenting his extraordinary life and career.

A born natural, Roysher was largely a self-taught silversmith who began honing his craft as a teenager and took first prize in the annual Cleveland Art Museum show of 1934 at the age of 23. In the 1940s, Roysher’s architecturally sophisticated and contemporary secular works were sold at Gump’s, the famed San Francisco luxury retailer, while his ecclesiastical works were commissioned by numerous Southern California churches from the 1950s through the 1970s. He led the metals program at California State University, Los Angeles, for several decades and became chairman of the art department in 1971, thus influencing generations of silversmiths through his teaching, writings, and workshops.

Hudson Roysher, Decanter Set, ca. 1948, silver and Sumatra cane. On view in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.

Hudson Roysher, Decanter Set, ca. 1948, silver and Sumatra cane. On view in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.

“The relationship between Hudson Roysher and The Huntington goes back many years,” said Nelson. “While completing a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Southern California, he spent time researching and writing his master’s thesis here. Furthermore, his wife, Alli, was an art teacher in Pasadena and brought her students to The Huntington on field trips. She later became a docent at the nearby Gamble House and served as one of the first consultants to The Huntington’s special gallery of early 20th-century Pasadena architects Charles and Henry Greene.”

In a few years, Nelson plans to curate an exhibition at The Huntington of Roysher’s work. In the meantime, to get a sense of Roysher’s prowess, make your way over to the American art galleries; on display in the room with the Edward Weston photographs is a spectacular decanter set (pictured above), crafted from silver and rattan. Fans of Roysher were continually astonished by what he was able to do with metal: he was an alchemist extraordinaire. He is said to have once remarked, “Looking at a piece of silver is like looking into a pool of clear water. There is a depth to it that other metals do not have.” Surely one could say that about the artist himself.

Bonnie Taylor is assistant director for donor engagement at The Huntington.

Picturing a Bloom

There were cameras, cameras everywhere for the big bloom.

There were cameras, cameras everywhere for the big bloom.

It bloomed, it smelled weird, and then, within hours, the much-anticipated show was over. And while the excitement surrounding the bloom may have passed, the images of it remain, some already superseded by other images we’ve taken since, some still waiting to be looked at, and some continuing to circulate.

The flowering of an Amorphophallus titanum (a.k.a. titan arum, “Corpse Flower,” or, around here, “Stinky”) is a pretty amazing and beautiful process to witness, and the recent occurrence here at The Huntington (our fifth bloom since 1999) was no exception. Swarms of people flocked in to catch a glimpse (or a whiff) of this crazy plant. And the large majority brought cameras. Smartphones, DSLRs, handheld video cameras, point-and-shoots, you name it. Everywhere. Including mine.

Instagrammers captured a range of views of the plant, the excitement, and themselves. Photos clockwise from top left were snapped and shared with The Huntington by @airontee, @amleon13, @rachelbitan, and @maeva_yunive.

Instagrammers captured a range of views of the plant, the excitement, and themselves. Photos clockwise from top left were snapped and shared with The Huntington by @airontee, @amleon13, @rachelbitan, and @maeva_yunive.

But why? Why this impulse to photo-document? Why the need to “capture”? And what were we even capturing anyway while we were snapping? The “moment” (what does that even mean)? The plant itself? Hardly. Proof to our friends and ourselves that we were there? Some sort of visual souvenir that we hope will help trigger a memory somewhere down the line? Do we even know?

I happened to engage in a few different types of photo-documentation over the course of the big bloom, and had different reasons for each. And there are undoubtedly some reasons that I haven’t yet figured out how to articulate.

Getting to focus on frames like this through my DSLR made it nearly impossible for me to drag myself away from this fascinating plant.

Getting to focus on frames like this through my DSLR made it nearly impossible for me to drag myself away from this fascinating plant.

In setting up a timelapse camera, I wanted to get a better sense of how the plant changed over long periods of time, to be able to find out what changes were happening overnight when none of us were here to keep tabs, and to get some sort of visual record of the human context of the bloom by being able to watch crowds fluctuating. Results are here, here, here, and here in animated gif form, and at the end of this post as a 30-second video. There was one day when it grew a whopping 4 inches in height. You can see the tip of the spadix (the tall middle part) reaching higher and higher in the timelapse. It’s insane. (By the way, final height at bloom was 5’ 6”.)

The detail shots I couldn’t stop taking with my trusty DSLR were a different bag of worms. On the one hand, I was making images that The Huntington’s communications team could share online and so I was trying to tell some sort of visual story that would give people some sense of the plant as a whole and up close. But there was also something deeply personal and moving in engaging with the camera’s views that was quite different from the non-mediated experience. Was it the lens showing me things my eyes couldn’t see? Was it the shift from consuming to creating, the sheer act of making something that got me processing it differently? Was it just a way to force myself to slow down and focus? I can’t really tell you.

The borsecope allowed views of plant parts we wouldn't have otherwise been able to see.

The borsecope allowed views of plant parts we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see.

For the botanists involved in hand-pollinating the plant, other tools and motivations for imaging entered the mix. To get a better view of the teensy female and male flowers hidden away in the base of the plant, they lowered a borescope (tiny camera at the end of a long tube) into the ruffled spathe (the fancy crimson part) and were able to get a sense of when they should pollinate. A thermal imaging camera gave image-based readings that showed which parts of the plant were heating up—and how hot things were getting—as it neared pollination time. And though some of the reasons for this kind of imaging were along more pragmatic lines, the spectacular images being produced by these devices were also contributing to an undeniable image-fueled air of excitement and curiosity.

The heat imagery was useful for studying botanical processes and for just being beautiful to look at.

The heat imagery was useful for studying botanical processes and for just being beautiful to look at.

And to be fair, this frenzy of hyperdocumentation also brought with it some issues, the very same ones that many of us have dealt with at events where we can’t seem to get a decent view (or good camera angle) because there’s so much camera-pointing and selfie-shooting going on around us. Visceral impact upon our own comfort and desires aside, the ever-present camera and the perceived need to photo-document everything from a Corpse Flower to a bowl of soup does raise some great questions about what the presence of these devices (our own or others’) means for how we experience…well, anything anymore. And we will continue to ask and wrestle with such questions for a long time, I’m sure.

But regardless of the varied reasons we camera-wielders had for photo-documenting this bloom—helping us see features that our eyes couldn’t otherwise apprehend; giving us information we could use to further process or understand what was happening; serving as “proof” that it did happen and that we were there; inscribing ourselves into a larger cultural history; participating in the now-ubiquitous cultural ritual of documentation without questioning why; performing curiosity—the acts of photo-documentation were in full bloom right along with the A. titanum. This flowering of community, of inquisitiveness, of celebration of fleeting life was, for me, as beautiful and overwhelming as that of the plant itself.

Where to see images of the recent bloom:
Flickr: We’ve posted an assortment of detail shots, borescope pics, and thermal images.
Instagram: Scroll back through to see a mix of views. And for Instagram users, you can find lots of great visitor snaps if you search #AtTheH, #CorpseFlower, and #StinkyPlant.
Tumblr: Find animated gifs, beauty shots, pollination pics, and some awesome visitor selfies.

Kate Lain is the new media developer at The Huntington.

An Eclectic Collection of Orchids

Dylan Hannon oversees The Huntington's tropical collections, which include thousands of orchids. Here, he inspects Zygonisia Cynosure 'Blue Birds' in one of the greenhouses. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

Dylan Hannon oversees The Huntington’s tropical collections, which include thousands of orchids. Here, he inspects Zygonisia Cynosure ‘Blue Birds’ in one of the greenhouses. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

In October, The Huntington will host the annual Southland Orchid Show and Sale. As in previous years, exhibitors will display orchids from around the world, a reflection of the passion among collectors for the vast and diverse Orchidaceae family. The event also reflects The Huntington’s own dedication to orchids, plants that are well represented in our tropical collections.

How is an orchid collection assembled?  When a plant family is so vast that it includes some 880 genera and more than 25,000 species, how are certain orchids chosen for the collections while others are not? Here, in brief, is some insight into these questions.

Paphiopedilum wardii. Photo by Dylan Hannon.

Paphiopedilum wardii. Photo by Dylan Hannon.

Prioritizing the development and content of the orchid collections at The Huntington means weighing institutional considerations such as educational, scientific, conservation, and display value against practical considerations like availability of plants and their amenability to growing conditions here. These limiting factors, combined with chance opportunity and curatorial preference, have resulted in an eclectic and dynamic assemblage of orchids over the years. The Huntington conserves one of the most significant orchid collections to be found among American botanical gardens today.

Approximately 900 orchid species and more than 2,000 unique hybrids currently are growing here in The Rose Hills Conservatory for Botanical Science and in our greenhouses. In both categories there are two main areas of focus: generalized, representative collections and more specialized, in-depth collections. The purpose of the first is to give visitors a glimpse of the staggering range of variation found in the orchids: the shapes, colors, sizes, and fragrances of their flowers as well as the expression of growth habits and leaf characters. This variability across the Orchidaceae family corresponds to the defining characteristics of different groups— subfamilies and tribes—of orchids: vandoid, angraecoid, and oncidioid orchids, among others. By carefully selecting from these groups, representative diversity can be presented without maintaining exhaustive collections of every group.

Acineta mireyae. Photo by Dylan Hannon.

Acineta mireyae. Photo by Dylan Hannon.

In contrast, a specialized effort involves seeking a measure of diversity within some number of these groups. Examples of this approach would be the genera Paphiopedilum, Acineta, and Lepanthes in our case. These more narrowly themed collections allow us to exhibit the evolution of orchids where similarities are readily discernible. Such simultaneous specialized and generalized collecting is common to other areas of The Huntington’s living plant collections as well.

For display and education purposes, and sometimes for horticultural benefit, it is advantageous to display orchids in a naturalistic way, such as mounted in trees. (Many orchids in the wild grow on trees as epiphytes, plants that grow non-parasitically on other plants.) This context is important, yet it limits the number of orchids we can keep on public view. In the greenhouses that house the collections, many more orchid hybrids and species serve as a pool from which plants can be brought into the Conservatory on a permanent or temporary basis. A parallel can be drawn here to the treasures in Library collections, which are exhibited only a few at a time.

The tiny flower of Lepanthes fiskei measures less than 3/4" in length. Photo by Dylan Hannon.

The tiny flower of Lepanthes fiskei measures less than 3/4″ in length. Photo by Dylan Hannon.

Visitors to the Conservatory can thus enjoy a wide range of plants, especially orchids, that are shown on a changing basis. Some extraordinary specimens have been displayed there over the years, several of which are pictured in this article and in the accompanying photoset on The Huntington’s Tumblr.

Mark your calendar for the annual Southland Orchid Show and Sale at The Huntington, coming up Oct. 17–19, 2014. A number of blooms from The Huntington’s orchid collection will be among the entries. Hours on Friday are from noon to 4:30 p.m. and on the weekend from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  The event will be held in the Brody Botanical Center and is included with general admission.

Dylan P. Hannon is curator of the Conservatory and tropical collections at The Huntington.

The Gift of Time

matt-stevens

Matt Stevens, Managing Editor at The Huntington for the past ten years.

Every now and then a coworker comes along who is absolutely made for the job. They live it, breathe it, are the essence of the work—so much so that you think the job is them. In fact, you don’t know which came first; it’s a sort of workplace chicken and egg phenomenon.

Here’s how it all began with Matt Stevens: For a long period of time, The Huntington did its thing quietly. People knew it as a lovely place for tea, the spot where Pinkie and Blue Boy lived, the “museum” your grandmother brought you to.

But by the early 2000s, more emphasis was being placed on communications and outreach, on telling our story. And very rightly so; it turns out that with a library collection of more than 9 million objects, a spectacular art collection, and 120 acres of botanical gardens, there were a lot—a LOT—of stories to tell.

Enter Matt Stevens. Bookish and earnest with a wry sense of humor, Matt came to The Huntington to start a magazine. “You want to hire me,” he stated, in the most matter-of-fact manner I think I’ve ever encountered in an interview. And hire him I did!

huntington-frontiers

The inaugural issue of Huntington Frontiers, 2005

Brought in as the founding editor of Huntington Frontiers, Matt sought good stories like a bloodhound pursues forensic evidence: focused, perspicacious, selective. He befriended scholars, curators, and security guards alike in his search for the good stuff. He sidled up to anyone with a penchant for writing: staff, volunteers, renowned scholars who’d done research here. From Yale’s Edmund Morgan to Pulitzer Prize winners Alan Taylor and Daniel Walker Howe, Matt corresponded with all of them, winning their trust, editing their work, making it sing.

Almost to a person, people reacted with delight to the final product—their bylined stories, edited by Matt, running in the magazine. Most writers will tell you (especially writers with egos) that if they don’t absolutely abhor being edited, they certainly chafe at the process. But not with Matt. “A pleasure!” people would say to me, time and time again. “He’s amazing!”

In fact, he became the go-to person for much of the institution’s copy. Until, that is, buried under a mountain of unedited work, he hollered, “Uncle!” (Since then, we’ve brought on a bit of freelance editing help and tried to share the burden a bit.) Meanwhile, he took on the Annual Report, making it a triumph of a publication. He mastered our podcasting effort, editing, polishing, and uploading lectures and related materials to our iTunes U site, which he helped develop. He upgraded our style guide and created a higher quality standard for everything from event invitations to exhibition label copy. And he helped create Verso, the Huntington blog. And that’s just scratching the surface.

And now he’s leaving. Matt heads to USC to work his magic there as managing editor in the school of education; today is his last day at The Huntington. But what a gift the last 10 years have been. In fact, they passed in such a flurry of activity, I was stunned when he announced he would be leaving exactly a decade after he began.

In doing so, Matt made a single, final request of his colleagues: “Please, please, I ask of you,” he began, at a farewell luncheon the other day. “Please. It’s one space after a period. Not two.” And so I have tried. I even took out a pica ruler and measured this. But, geez, can I just say: that’s one bear of a habit to break!

And with apologies to Dickens (whose material, by the way, The Huntington holds a lot of—and, so sorry, Matt, about that dangling preposition, but you didn’t get to edit this piece, I’m afraid): It was the best of times, and the best of times.

Susan Turner-Lowe is vice president for communications at The Huntington.

The Library Tomorrow

library-on-dislpay

A selection of books on display in the “Library Today” gallery of the Library.

The next time you walk into the Library’s main exhibition hall to see “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times,” be sure to stop into “The Library Today” gallery. Several remarkable videos will vie for your attention—one projected onto a table and five others on view on iPads. But don’t overlook the display of recent books published by scholars who have conducted research at The Huntington. Virtually all of them mention The Huntington in their acknowledgments. These books—and their authors—are the hidden treasures of The Huntington.

Each year, nearly 200 professors and graduate students receive funding to conduct research here through fellowships ranging from one month to a full year in residence. The grants total $1.7 million, with about 30 percent of the awards going to scholars from outside of the United States. The recipients for 2014–15 are listed here and include scholars who specialize in literature, the history of science, and the American Civil War, among other fields. Many grantees have been arriving throughout the summer and are busy at work in the Ahmanson Reading Room of the Munger Research Center.

readers-in-munger

Readers busy at work in the Ahmanson Reading Room of the Munger Research Center. (Photo courtesy of Martha Benedict, www.marthabenedict.com)

One such researcher is Susan Brigden of Oxford University. She’s the inaugural Mary L. Robertson Visiting Fellow in Tudor Studies and will be the featured guest at the opening seminar of the Early Modern British History group on Sept. 13, one of the oldest seminar series among the more than a dozen that take place here every year. Then on Sept. 22 she’ll kick off the lecture season with a talk titled “Reformation Diplomacy: Henry VIII and His Ambassadors.” You can check out the entire slate of lectures here, not to mention the rich conference programs listed here. Lectures are free but often require reservations; conferences carry a modest fee.

The Huntington posts audio of many of these programs as well. On iTunesU you can find more than 150 talks, including Alan Taylor’s lecture about the book he was working on during his fellowship in 2012–13. (The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in history.) Most of the talks from the 2013–14 season are now available for download, including Louis Hyman’s Haaga Lecture about “Entrepreneurs of the New Deal,” in which he managed to work in a mention of Scrooge McDuck and tell a joke about the efficient market hypothesis. (Yes, it got a lot of laughs.)

So history is never dead at The Huntington. And, according to Frederick Hoxie, it isn’t even past. “If we as Americans have a special story to tell,” he said last year during his lecture about Native American history, “we won’t find it in the past. We will best tell the story in the future about the society that we will all make together. A story that will be informed by our past but will not reproduce it. That society—that new society—will be one based on accepting our complicated history and acknowledging the different perspectives it has produced.”

This was Matt Stevens’ final post as editor of Verso, but was bumped to make way for a tribute to him. 

Matt wrote as a postscript to this piece:  “Special thanks to Kate Lain for her invaluable work on Verso and also to the many volunteers who have helped sustain Verso, Huntington Frontiers magazine, and The Huntington’s audio programming, including Linda Chiavaroli, Nicole Fanning, Virginia Lawson, Bob Pierpoint, and Joyce Schlaker. You, too, are hidden treasures of The Huntington.”

Matt Stevens was editor of Verso and Huntington Frontiers magazine. He left The Huntington last week to join the staff of the USC Rossier School of Education.

A Stinky Family Tree

This shot from earlier today shows the relative size of the plant.

This shot from earlier today shows the relative size of the plant.

The newest flowering of the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum, or “Corpse Flower”) at The Huntington has generated good questions about the origin of this plant at our institution. This wonder of the vegetable kingdom has now flowered for us five times, including 1999, 2002, 2009, 2010, and the latest this year.

This iconic photo of a visitor from 1999 says it all.

This iconic photo of a visitor from 1999 says it all.

The first bloom, in 1999, caused the greatest sensation of all five events for visitors and staff alike. It was obtained in March of that year from longtime friend of the gardens, Dr. Mark Dimmitt of Tucson, Ariz. Mark in turn had obtained it from the Index Seminum of the Palmengarten in Frankfurt, Germany. This plant was given the accession number 85000, which means it’s the 85,000th plant to be recorded in The Huntington’s living collections. This reference number makes it easier to distinguish it from our other titan arums.

In 2002 we were treated to a second blooming of 85000. This helps answer the question “When will it bloom again?” This species has been known to bloom in successive years and also to delay a subsequent flowering for 10 years or more. A variety of factors are involved in this “decision” by the plant to flower. Size is not an absolute criterion since the current (2014) plant has a corm that weighs only about 30 pounds, while corms have been recorded weighing upwards of 300 pounds. It is safe to say that the larger the corm, the larger the inflorescence, or “flower” (For more on this see my note at the bottom of this post.)

The flowering in 2009 was unusual in several respects. This plant, one of a batch assigned the number 87333, was grown from seeds produced from the 1999 flowering. John Trager, curator of desert collections for The Huntington, found a way to manipulate the anthers to obtain pollen and hand-pollinate the female flowers of the same inflorescence. Ordinarily the female flowers would be past their receptive stage when the pollen is shed by the male flowers, a mechanism that helps ensure out-crossing and genetic diversity in wild populations of titan arums. This successful “selfing” resulted in a number of vigorous specimens and gave rise to two flowering events.

The 2009 bloom put on quite a colorful display.

The 2009 bloom put on quite a colorful display.

The inflorescence of the 2009 blooming was preceded by a very large leaf: the leaf stalk (petiole) was about 12 feet tall and about 10 inches in diameter. This leaf remained viable for a year and a half. The size and vigor of a leaf can be an indication of flowering capacity. Besides being the result of self-pollination, this plant was also unusual in that it was planted in an open bed in The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science here at The Huntington. This allowed the root system to develop freely and help the corm store up more energy than it might be able to in a pot. This placement also provided a scenic venue resembling its forest habitat in Sumatra. After a leafless dormancy of a few months, this plant pushed up an inflorescence nearly seven feet tall, the largest of the five blooms at The Huntington.

The flowering in 2010 was also produced on a plant growing in the ground in the conservatory. Its inflorescence was much smaller, probably owing to root competition from a nearby fig tree. This plant is one of a crop of seedlings grown from a cross between a plant at the University of California, Santa Barbara (the female parent) and pollen from 85000 (the male parent). This group was given the number 89999. On The Huntington website there is a photo sequence showing the early to late stages of this plant’s flowering. Of the several dozen plants of A. titanum in our collections, most are from this cross.

The current flowering titan arum is a sibling of the plant that flowered in 2009. It also bears the number 87333 but with a different clone or individual designation.

Other titan arums in The Huntington’s tropical collections are expected to reach flowering size in the next few years. We hope to be able to offer a display of several plants flowering simultaneously that will delight and amaze visitors sometime soon.

A view into the 2010 bloom.

A view into the 2010 bloom.

The “flower” of the titan arum is actually an inflorescence comprised of an outer whorl, or bract (the spathe), with a flower-bearing axis (the spadix) at the center. The spathe and spadix construction is common to all members of the Araceae, or aroid family. The longest portion of the spadix, from the tip downward, is the appendage, a nearly hollow structure that resembles a loaf of French bread. Below the appendage is a zone of male flowers, and below this are the female flowers. Technically, A. titanum has the most massive unbranched inflorescence of any flowering plant; other plants have a much larger inflorescence (e.g., the Talipot Palm, Corypha umbraculifera) that is branched, or an unbranched structure that is taller (e.g., some aloes and agaves).

Dylan P. Hannon is curator of conservatory collections at The Huntington.

Three Musicians Sharing in the Chinese Garden

Wu Man (center), playing alongside Kojiro Umezaki (left) and Dong-Won Kim (right), delivered the inaugural performance at the Chinese Garden’s Clear and Transcendent pavilion on June 18, 2014. Photos by Martha Benedict.

Wu Man (center), playing alongside Kojiro Umezaki (left) and Dong-Won Kim (right), delivered the inaugural performance at the Chinese Garden’s Clear and Transcendent pavilion on June 18, 2014. Photos by Martha Benedict.

Few things are more relaxing than live musical performances at The Huntington during the summer. Don’t forget that every Wednesday from 1 to 3 p.m., you can enjoy traditional music in Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance. In fact, an early summer performance in the garden’s Clear and Transcendent pavilion is still reverberating. You can now watch a video of Wu Man, the renowned virtuoso of the pipa (or Chinese lute), whose performance of a specially commissioned work on June 18 capped off her residency as the Chinese Garden’s first visiting artist.

The concert kicked off the Chinese Garden’s Clear and Transcendent pavilion as a new venue for cultural programs. Native oaks arched over the audience seated in the adjacent courtyard. In the evening’s introduction, Chinese Garden Curator June Li said the pavilion’s name alludes to “music reaching every crevice of the garden and across the water.” The garden is modeled after classical Chinese gardens of Suzhou. During the 16th and 17th centuries, merchants of the busy trading center prospered and built enchanting private retreats. Their gardens were a world of refinement and harmony as pavilions became stages for music and dance.

In front of the pavilion’s blond gingko wood screen, with intricate carvings of traditional musical instruments on one side and scenes from the Chinese play The Peony Pavilion on the other, Wu strummed the pipa and was joined by Kojiro Umezaki, who played the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, and Dong-Won Kim, who beat the jang-go, an hourglass-shaped Korean drum. Since there’s no extant music written for all three instruments combined, original arrangements comprised the heart of the program. Wu composed Three Sharing because she felt inspired by the garden’s Three Friends pavilion, which represents the pine, bamboo, and plum during early spring in China.

Wu Man playing the pipa, or Chinese lute.

Wu Man playing the pipa, or Chinese lute.

Wu has traveled extensively during her musical career, appearing with major symphony orchestras, playing in the world’s great concert halls, and performing with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. In the case of the music, as Wu pointed out, the cultures of China, Japan, and Korea meld to become a distinct sound that reminded Li of jazz improvisation. “Wu Man not only cares about traditional Chinese music,” she observed, “but also how that music connects with contemporary life.”

The concert culminated Wu’s five-month residency, which inaugurated The Huntington’s Cheng Family Visiting Artist Program and utilized her musical talents as a teacher and communicator. As part of the residency and The Huntington’s partnership with Eliot Middle School in Altadena, Wu visited a 7th grade band class at the school. Audrey Durden, The Huntington’s school programs and school partnerships manager, said students were initially skeptical about the pipa, an instrument they had never seen before. “But Wu Man just charmed them,” she said. By the end, a couple of the students wanted to skip lunch and join in with their own instruments.

As for future events in the Chinese Garden, Li said next year’s musician-in-residence could be someone who plays the music of Chinese composers in Western orchestration. She also envisioned presenting Kun opera, an ancient form from the Suzhou region. And perhaps one day those Peony Pavilion scenes that are carved on the panel in the Clear and Transcendent pavilion will spring to life in the Garden of Flowing Fragrance.

Click here to watch video of the June 18th performance of Wu Man, Kojiro Umezaki, and Dong-Won Kim. Also on YouTube is video of a Huntington concert from May 20, 2014, featuring Wu Man and Gamin, performing on the Korean saengwhang and piri.

The three performers take a bow at the conclusion of the concert.

The three performers take a bow at the conclusion of the concert.

Linda Chiavaroli is a volunteer in the office of communications at The Huntington. She is a Los Angeles-based communications consultant.

A Study for Gassed

The men depicted in John Singer Sargent’s Study for Gassed, ca. 1918–19, are rendered in the final painting (below) third and fourth from the left. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The men depicted in John Singer Sargent’s Study for Gassed, ca. 1918–19, are rendered in the final painting (below) third and fourth from the left. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Since the opening of The Huntington’s exhibition of spectacular World War I posters in the West Hall of the Library, we’ve taken note of a very different and sobering depiction of World War I currently on view in the Chandler Wing of the Scott Galleries.

The World War I posters on view through Nov. 3 were created to energize and excite: bold, colorful, and graphically pungent, they encouraged enlistment, investment in the war effort, and other patriotic behavior. The war effort was a good thing.

A close-up view of Gassed (below) shows the pair of soldiers from the study, now among their injured comrades.

A close-up view of Gassed (below) shows the pair of soldiers from the study, now among their injured comrades.

But an artwork in the Chandler Wing provides more of a reality check on the heinousness of war—from the experiences of the renowned portrait artist John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), no less. In a corner of the gallery, tucked among an exhibition of American prints, is one of Sargent’s studies for his monumental painting Gassed, completed in March 1919, and now at the Imperial War Museum in London.

The study shows two soldiers together: one appears to be doubling over or stumbling from the effects of mustard gas exposure as the other man holds him up with one arm. In the final 7.5-by-20-foot painting, the men depicted in the study are in a line of injured soldiers, their eyes bandaged after being blinded by gas. Led by orderlies, they make their way forward while holding on to one another. In the foreground lie dozens of dead and wounded soldiers. These images are in stark contrast to the background, where an almost imperceptible group of uninjured soldiers play soccer as the ravages of war are so close at hand.

The British War Memorials Committee of the British Ministry of Information commissioned Sargent to document the war showing Anglo-American cooperation. In July 1918, the artist visited the Western Front to spend time with British and American troops. A recent New York Times article mentioned that Sargent “originally envisioned painting a homage to gallantry. But in France, he visited a field hospital crowded with soldiers who had been exposed to mustard gas, a poison that burned the body inside and out.” The experience in August 1918 so affected Sargent that he immediately changed the theme of the commissioned work.

Fellow artist Henry Tonks had travelled to France with Sargent. Recalling the event later in a 1920 letter (and quoted in the Imperial War Museum’s label for Gassed), Tonks wrote, “After tea we heard that on the Doullens Road at the Corps dressing station at le Bac-du-sud there were a good many gassed cases, so we went there. The dressing station was situated on the road and consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. Gassed cases kept coming in, lead along in parties of about six just as Sargent has depicted them, by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal, chiefly from their eyes which were covered up by a piece of lint. Sargent was very struck by the scene and immediately made a lot of notes.”

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Gassed, 1919, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museum, London. © Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM ART 1460).

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Gassed, 1919, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museum, London. © Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM ART 1460).

Sargent’s painting reminds us of the number of fallen soldiers in World War I: the war claimed the lives of some 9 million combatants. The Huntington’s study for the painting is but a tiny portal into that experience, and yet it is haunting and dramatic in and of itself.

For two very different World War I experiences at The Huntington, take a look at the posters in the Library and then check out the Sargent drawing. They provide fascinating juxtapositions: war as romance, nationalism, and industry on the one hand; war as pain and suffering on the other. And while they seem remarkably contradictory, in fact, they are ultimately pieces of the same story told over, and over, and over again.

Study for Gassed is on display in “Highlights from the American Drawings and Watercolors from The Huntington’s Art Collections” in the Susan and Stephen Chandler Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. The exhibition is on view until Jan. 5, 2015, although many works will be rotated in October 2014.

Susan Turner-Lowe is Vice President for Communications at The Huntington.