Category: Author Posts

Translating Trans-Atlantyk: Behind the Scenes with Danuta Borchardt

Trans-Atlantyk CoverMany consider Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz one of the greatest writers of the past hundred years and Danuta Borchardt is undoubtedly one of his finest translators. Her rendering of Ferdydurke won the 2001 National Translation Award given by the American Literary Translators Association, and her recent edition of Trans-Atlantyk has garnered praise as well. Trans-Atlantyk recounts the often farcical adventures of a penniless young writer stranded in Argentina, and it does so in the style of the gaweda, a tale told by the fireside in a language that originated in the seventeenth century.

Trans-Atlantyk is notoriously difficult to render in English, and Borchardt has written eloquently about the challenges she encountered while translating Gombrowicz’s novels. Borchardt’s account blends translation theory and memoir as she confronts generic questions of style and authenticity with necessarily personal approaches. Yale University Press is pleased to present, over the next few weeks, excerpts from Borchardt’s as yet unpublished memoir on translating Gombrowicz, beginning with her thoughts on Gombrowicz’s unusual language: a variation of Polish that resists description and lacks a straightforward English equivalent.

Danuta Borchardt—

Since Trans-Atlantyk’s previous translation published fifteen years ago, I have been mulling over how I would translate it in order to convey Gombrowicz’s most unusual language that he chose for this novel. I focused first on its deviation from the literary to the colloquial language of the less educated folk (yes, their language is different both in Polish and in English) and of the Polish peasantry. So what would be the English equivalents, more or less? Cockney? No, this is an English dialect and not for American readers. One of the American dialects? No. It seemed I was being clever in this line of thinking but something seemed out of kilter. Why did the previous translators use words like “fain”, “perchance”, “ergo” over and over again? Their translation seemed somewhat pompous.

Finally, after several months of this, I decided to ask Jerzy Jarzębski, my colleague and the Gombrowicz scholar, for advice. As you will glean from what follows, had I written to him sooner, I would not have been so inane in my thinking.

Jarzębski responded, in essence, that this was no simple matter, that Gombrowicz used a variety of the Polish language from the turn of the 17th century. Moreover, he filtered it through the language of the Polish gentry’s gawęda from the beginning of the 19th century. He also used a lot of peasant language, rather archaic, modeled on that of the Polish peasants who had arrived in Argentina from Poland in the 19th and 20th centuries. Furthermore, there was also the language of the Polish romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz. “In a word: quite a mélange, but try and see what you can do,” Jarzębski said. Clearly, Gombrowicz’s most untranslatable work.

Thus I arrived at and accepted the notion of Gombrowicz’s archaic language.

A few words about the gawęda. Historically, the gawęda was a tale, a mode of interaction at social gatherings of the sixteenth- to nineteenth-century Sarmatian Polish nobility in their country manors. This was reflected in seventeenth-century Polish literature and has persisted in some twentieth-century writings, as well as in fireside social gatherings. I have been unable to find an equivalent to the gawęda style in American literature. In Gombrowicz’s gawęda, the narrator chats directly with his listeners. Spoken mostly in the past tense, the narrative often reverts—awkwardly to the English speaker’s ear—to the present tense, thus insinuating the narrator into the present and among his listeners.

Having recently, by a fluke of fate, picked up and read Moby-Dick, I was becoming convinced that this was one of the varieties of English applicable to the translation of Trans-Atlantyk. Another book, a much earlier of course, was Gulliver’s Travels, as well as Tristram Shandy. All three novels, even though baroque, read easily. These works were important from the point of view of the period when gawęda has thrived, and for my ability to reproduce a “quick-read” of Gombrowicz’s spoken tale.

I was learning a new language.

However, I did not entirely surrender to the archaic because Gombrowicz did not throw contemporary language totally to the winds. I recalled the gawędas from my early adolescent years—campfire chats during my girl-scouting days, or rather evenings. This was well into the 20th century.

For further guidance into the language, I went to the author himself, who had written to his friend Dominique de Roux:

     “This Trans-Atlantyk always makes me laugh… It frolics without restraint, it is sclerotic, absurd, in the gawęda-style from one hundred years ago but mixed with another class of words, often with words invented by me.”

“Sclerotic” also referred to the way Gombrowicz used language. I read a critique of the previous translation by Jerzy Jarniewicz, the Polish poet and critic, published in a literary journal. The message I, the translator, gleaned from it was to forgo any fancy rendition of the Polish into English (except where Gombrowicz’s inventions make it necessary), and to adhere to his well-worn expressions and idioms, as yet another manifestation of that “sclerosis.”

In order to convey the archaic language appropriate to the gawęda, Gombrowicz used expressions and rhetorical devices typical of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Polish. For example, he sometimes reversed expected sentence order, moving the verb to the end of a clause. He also mimicked the use of uppercase letters common in earlier texts (in English as well). He also employed archaic orthography, spelling też as tyż (meaning “also”), in the older Polish style.

It is interesting to note that the Polish peasant language has retained some archaic forms that Gombrowicz used; many of these are of course untranslatable. Also, going to his eastern Poland roots (Kresy or Borderlands), Gombrowicz used some forms of language still typical of those regions.

The translation needed to convey, by the use of colloquialisms, an informal mode. It must flow quickly, easily. Yet it also needed to preserve the author’s use of repetition. However when the use of synonyms was appropriate I used what my OED denoted as Middle or Old English. My task was also to simulate as effectively as possible the beautiful lyrical passages that elevated the narrator’s spoken tale into a written work of art.

After Bannockburn—After the Referendum: Robert the Bruce and the difficulties of Settlement

Michael Penman—

Scotland’s medieval icons William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and their military encounters with England only occasionally reared their heads during the party leaders’ recent campaigning for and against Scottish independence. In January 2012, former Scottish Secretary and Stirling MP, Michael Forsyth, charged that SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, probably preferred June 24, 2014, the seven hundredth anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, as the date for the referendum vote—so as best to exploit “centuries old grievances and romantic mythology.” September 11 was in fact at first proposed with the Unionists and the press rounding on the SNP’s choice of the anniversary of Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297 in an attempt to allegedly launch a “second war” for Independence (even though the 1997 Yes-Yes Devolution referendum, which embraced many Unionist parties, had also been held on that date).

Thus September 18, 2014 was a compromise choice for the “Yes-No?” vote. But this was not enough to stop former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, from criticizing what he saw as Alex Salmond’s stoking of “anti-English sentiment” through proximity to the Bannockburn anniversary, allegedly detracting from commemoration of historic “British” military events like the anniversaries of the D-Day landings and the outbreak of World War One. Yet Unionist Ministers also played this game. The scheduling of rival events thus led to a very uncomfortable handshake between Mr. Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron at British Armed Services Day, held in Stirling on Saturday, June 28, 2014, clashing with the same weekend’s plans for the festival of Bannockburn Live! And just a couple of days later the Queen and PM hosted the launch of the British Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, Elizabeth, at Rosyth docks (in the constituency of former Labour PM and reinvigorated Union-campaigner, Gordon Brown). Then, almost at the death, on September 8, Mr. Salmond invoked the famous Bruce-era “Declaration of Arbroath” of 1320—a pithy statement of Scottish sovereignty sent to the Papacy in the name of Scotland’s nobility— and offered the Scottish people a “Declaration of Opportunity” with promises on the NHS, welfare, social justice, and the right “[to] choose a government to protect their interests.” In response, Unionist commentators only nibbled a bit at this bait, gently poo-pooing such “harking back to a very different world” as the fourteenth century, and then returned to contemporary policy rhetoric. This then was but a mere faint echo of the use which all parties had made of the Declaration of Arbroath as a touchstone of patriotism and political idealism during the 1997 Yes-Yes Devolution campaigns (with Sean Connery’s broadcast for the SNP deploying history from “Sheven Shenturies Ago…”).


Bannockburn: Bruce Reviewing His Troops Before the Battle via Wikimedia Commons

Admittedly, it is surely a positive that in 2014 all parties made a conscious effort of restraint not to mangle centuries-past historical events and figures in their efforts to persuade (with the SNP in particular having moved away after 1997 from such ploys as annual Bannockburn rallies calling for an Independence vote). But with the votes now cast and counted and 55% of the Scottish electorate in favor of retaining Scotland’s place in the Union in some form, the history of Robert Bruce’s reign might again be (cautiously) instructive. For after his triumph at Bannockburn, King Robert had to oversee a resettlement of lands and offices and to win back the territory and hearts-and-minds of several Scottish lordships, towns and regions still in English control or sympathy. The first parliament he called to do this after the battle, in November 1314 at Cambuskenneth Abbey outside Stirling (just a few miles from the battlefield), was by no means an easy affair. As much as the king and his ministers with their battle-mandate may have sought to control that assembly and its agenda, there is evidence of difficult debate on a number of issues: forfeiture of past opponents, lobbying for new lands and offices for supporters, a need to tidy and modernize Scotland’s laws, to rebuild her economy, and settle the royal succession.

This may have been a gathering which Robert sought to use for reconciliation and to avoid any mood of triumphalism and vindictiveness against both his Scottish and English opponents. Indeed, the assembly may have opened by marking All Souls day (November 2) with a procession and mass for the dead, remembering some of those who had fallen on both sides at Bannockburn. It is clear, too, that the key decision of this parliament—an act of November 6 to now forfeit those holders of Scottish lands who remained outside Robert’s peace—was a highly contentious issue for all concerned: the parliamentary record states that “it was finally agreed, adjudged and decreed by the counsel and assent” of the king and his subjects that these individuals should now be disinherited “although they had been often summoned and lawfully expected.”

Nevertheless, it is very telling that such was Robert’s continued need to win support and stabilize his regime that some key individuals still in English allegiance had their forfeiture further delayed, allowing them more time to submit to Bruce. Moreover, although the Bruce government clearly tried to tread carefully in this regard, upheaval and disfavor to past opponents was unavoidable. By 1318 this had provoked a crisis. With his last surviving brother killed in battle in Ireland and only an infant grandson as his heir, Robert was vulnerable and there was growing disquiet about his landed favor to key supporters. An emergency parliament called to Scone in December that year may have been an even more fractious, tense affair with uncomfortable questions and contingencies over patronage, the succession and law reform. Despite the royal regime’s attempts in this parliament to use statute to gag those spreading rumors about a rift between king and subjects there was clearly a substantial plot underway against Bruce, led by former Scottish opponents and in favor of Edward Balliol, a vassal-claimant of the Scottish throne then in Edward II’s court and pay. In 1320 this erupted as the so-called “Soules Conspiracy” with Bruce’s “Black Parliament” condemning those implicated in this sedition and his supporters moving to hunt them down throughout the realm.

So the great medieval turning point of Bannockburn heralded a rocky, often bitter period of settlement with quite partisan outcomes. The political and popular response in the wake of the majority “No” vote in 2014 will also surely be challenging and compelling.

Michael Penman is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Stirling and co-author of England and Scotland in the Fourteenth Century: New Perspectives. His most recent book is Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots.

Further Reading:

Angry Birds: Russian Censorship of the Arts

Janice Ross—

“Ballerinas dance anti-Putin Swan Lake in Odessa.”  The headline sounds like a set-up for a sketch comedy routine but it was deadly earnest. This past May, four Ukranian ballerinas donned tutus and pointe shoes and interlaced arms to dance the four little swans quartet from Swan Lake as an act of protest against Russian president Vladimir Putin.

“We are here to send a message that by unleashing aggression against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has made a fatal mistake,” regional lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko told Ukrainian television cameras when introducing the Swan Lake excerpt. “Today Odessa, as a cultural capital, performs for him this portentous composition.”

Staged outdoors, and with a military tank as the backdrop, the choice of Swan Lake was a deliberately satiric nod by the Ukranians to the Soviet-era tradition of televising the ballet Swan Lake to signal a change in the country’s leadership. In 1982, 1984, 1985, and 1991 the announcement of the deaths of Leonid Brezhnev, then Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and, finally, the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev,were all heralded by official silence and a TV broadcast—Swan Lake in its full-length, four-act, three-hour expanse, preempting all regular programming.

This pairing of Russian ballet classicism with Soviet power shifts through TV broadcasts of Swan Lake at crisis points may seem puzzling to outsiders. However, those who experienced it within the Soviet system say it rapidly came to trigger just what it was supposedly intended to defuse—heightened anxiety about an imminent political shift and the awareness that someone (or something) had died:

When seasoned lawmaker Sergey Filatov, a leader of a group defending the Russian White House from the August 1991 anti-perestroika coup, turned on the TV while relaxing at the southern resort of Zheleznovodsk on August 19, 1991 he recounts his rising anxiety: “[I] saw the swans dancing. For five minutes, ten minutes, for an hour. Then I realized that something had happened because we learned to read between the lines in Soviet times,” he said.[i] Those looping Swans made Filatov jump on the next plane to Moscow where indeed an anti-perestroika coup by Communist Party hardliners was in progress.

Russian censorship may be considered a vestige of the Soviet years and its use of a ballet to portend traumatic events may be dated, but this summer, not too long after the Ukranian Swan Lake protest, these practices came roaring back.

Last year Putin had banned the use of curse words in Russian media—primarily words describing male and female reproductive organs, copulation, and “women of loose morals” according to the BBC. On July1, new prohibitions were signed into law by Putin, censoring the use of curse words in the arts and restricting the freedom of speech, artistic expression and criticism of the Russian government. These newest censorship laws, in targeting artists, carry a particular chill.

The prohibitions were conceived in the shadow of the 2012 arrest of the punk protest group, Pussy Riot, whose members were incarcerated after they performed a song in Moscow’s main cathedral that was considered offensive.  Affecting books, films, music, theatre productions among other art forms, the new law punishes any artist or cultural institution that uses curse words with fines of $70 and $1400 respectively.

Dating from the Russian Revolution, the political force of the arts in Russia has been viewed by leadership as both symbolic and deeply practical. Through the reign of Stalin and into the present moment the arts, and particularly time-based art like film, theatre and dance, were considered important mediums of ideological persuasion.

Swan Lake was used as hedge against saying anything in a time of political emergency, but to the astute dance observer, Swan Lake actually did offer an explanation. Through the medium of dance a vision of idealized nationalism can be performed – a trigger for sentiments of kinship at the inherent “Russianness” of these bodies on that stage, in those formations. There are few stronger visceral images of social harmony on stage than an ensemble of bodies rehearsed into that tight unison of the corps de ballet and few more seductive images for the spectator that prompt the illusion of vicarious participation, than the assembly and dispersing of circles/lines and diagonals of identically costumed women in swan feathers. It is like some primordial flock to which we all secretly yearn to belong.

This rising censorship against the arts in Russia however, suggests artists there may do well to revisit the strategies that enabled their artistic predecessors to survive and make art under totalitarian rule in the previous century as they ponder the growing shadows.


Janice Ross, Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at Stanford University, is the  author of Like A Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, (January 2015), Yale University Press.

[i] Bratersky, A. (2011). Yeltsin Ally Saw ‘Swan Lake’ as Call to Arms. Moscow Times. Moscow, August 19. P. 5

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.

Every Pope a Saint? The Politics of Canonization

For our #YUPapr conversations this month about “Ancient Texts, Modern Beliefs”, a closer inspection of contemporary religious practices—and their comparative differences— is important for our consideration of changing beliefs in the greater context of world history. Here, Yale University Press author Michael Coogan discusses the upcoming April 27 canonization of two popes and the rapidly increasing rate of sainthood for modern Bishops of Rome, offering some perspective on the changing political nature of the Church in today’s society.

Michael Coogan—

On April 27, ornately robed clerics will celebrate the canonization of two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II. In the modern Roman Catholic Church until the last few decades, canonization­—declaring someone a saint—was rare and occurred only after a protracted process. Successive steps lead to canonization: first, one is declared “Servant of God,” then “Venerable,” then “Blessed,” and finally “Saint.” From the beginning of the fourteenth century to the mid-twentieth, only two popes were canonized and another three were declared “Blessed.” Not so any more: since the papacy of John Paul II a flurry of canonizations has been underway, not just for ordinary individuals deemed holy, but also for modern popes.

GWB LB DIGITAL 12:35 Statements with Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II

Remarkably, all of the popes since the mid-twentieth century, except of course for those still alive, are on the path to canonization: Pius XII (1939–1958, declared Servant of God in 1990 and Venerable in 2009), John XXIII (1958–1963, declared Servant of God in 1965, Venerable in 1999, and Blessed in 2000), Paul VI (1963–1978, declared Servant of God in 1993 and Venerable in 2012), John Paul I (1978, declared Servant of God in 2003), and John Paul II (1978–2005, declared Servant of God in 2005, Venerable in 2009, and Blessed in 2011). Why this sudden, almost automatic rush to sainthood for recent popes?

Part of the answer lies in nineteenth-century realpolitik. For more than a thousand years, the pope was not just the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, but also a monarch, the ruler of the Papal States in the central Italian peninsula. As sovereigns of this territory, popes engaged in diplomacy and war to maintain and expand their control. In the nineteenth century, however, the papal domain was virtually eliminated by the unification of Italy under Garibaldi and his successors, culminating with the capture of Rome by Italian forces in September 1870. All that was left of papal territory was tiny Vatican City. Only a few months before, when the fall of Rome was already inevitable, the First Vatican Council, at Pope Pius IX’s prompting, declared the doctrine of papal infallibility. If the popes could not be political sovereigns, it seems, they could at least have absolute spiritual authority, especially, as the official wording has it, when they say they are speaking infallibly on an issue of faith or morals.

Although there has been only one technically infallible pronouncement since 1870—Pius XII’s proclamation in 1950 of the doctrine of the Assumption, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had been bodily taken up to heaven at her death—papal authoritarianism has expressed itself in other ways, as when John Paul II asserted in an apostolic letter that women could never be priests, and then Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) subsequently called this teaching infallible, unchangeable, and binding on all Catholics forever.

By the second half of the twentieth century, even the popes’ spiritual authority was being eroded, because of flawed leadership. Pius XII’s silence about the Holocaust was moral cowardice, if not latent anti-Semitism. Paul VI’s insistence on banning artificial contraception in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, against the opinion of a majority of his advisors, effectively ended papal authority for many Catholics. John Paul II’s clericalism led to years of denial and coddling of predatory priest pedophiles and their episcopal superiors, which further diminished the Church’s authority as well as its coffers. Significantly, these last two issues concern what the current pope has called an obsessive preoccupation with sex and reproduction; it is of more than tangential interest that of the thousands of men and women put on the path to sainthood by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, only a tiny percentage were married. Most openly sexually active persons, it seems, can’t really be saintly.

The haste to canonize the last five deceased popes is an effort to shore up the diminished spiritual authority of the papacy. If every pope is a saint, who could dare disagree with them? Surely they are being elevated to sainthood not mainly because of their personal holiness but because they were popes, even though as popes most of them were deeply flawed. Is flawed leadership no bar to sainthood?

Among the popes whose canonization process John Paul II sped up was none other than Pius IX, declared Servant of God in 1907, but Venerable only in 1985 and Blessed in 2000: the most authoritarian pope of the nineteenth century was propelled toward sainthood by one of the most authoritarian popes of the twentieth. The Vatican is locked in a time warp of absolute monarchical authority, and popes canonizing their predecessors is an attempt to preserve and enhance it. The joint canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II—the first a darling of liberal Catholics, the second a favorite of traditional Catholics—is calculated to appeal to different constituencies. Even sainthood is political, and it is disingenuous to pretend that it is not.

Michael Coogan is the author of The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text, out this month from Yale University Press.


Michael Coogan



Protect Your Love Life! Valentine’s Secret Ink Guest Post from Kristie Macrakis

macrakisIn celebration of Valentine’s Day, we have a special guest post from Kristie Macrakis, author of the forthcoming Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qaeda. Read on for lovers’ secrets and be sure to watch the special Valentine’s Day video on secret writing techniques

Kristie Macrakis—

Ever feel bashful about expressing your feelings? Ever wish you could send your valentine an invisible message? Are you concerned that the NSA is reading your private thoughts?

Don’t worry anymore. For thousands of years lovers have used easily available materials to write secret messages written in invisible ink. Instead of sending an anonymous valentine this year, send it in invisible ink.

In ancient Rome, the love poet Ovid wrote a racy manual on the Art of Love and appears to be the first person to write about using milk to hide secret messages.  He tells us:

A letter too is safe and escapes the eye, when written in new milk:

Touch it with coal dust and you will read.

Well, you don’t need to use coal dust after pulling out the milk carton because you can simply heat the message and it will become visible. Of course, if you write the message on a body you might try a glutinous substance like ashes or dust to read the message, as you don’t want to burn your partner.

If you’d prefer to use lemon juice, that’s another very popular household invisible ink item. In case you didn’t know, by the 16th century many people used lemon or lime juice to write secret messages. Spies used it, prisoners used it and lovers used it.

I won’t tell you here when people started to use lemon juice to write secret messages (the answer is in the book…..), but I’ll give you a hint: it’s not when you might guess.

By the mid 17th century it was commonplace for “ladies to communicate their Amours” in secret writing as an anonymous author wrote in Rarities.

Other ordinary people could also  “order [their] private affairs with all imaginable safety and secrecy.”

So it wasn’t just the ladies that communicated their Amours, the gents were often bashful about expressing their thoughts and liked using invisible ink too.

Abraham Cowley, a royalist poet who lived amongst the intrigue and dangers of the English Civil War in the 17th century, penned a poem called “Written in the Juice of Lemon.”

Cowley was frustrated because could not see what he wrote (I have that problem too when I write invisibly), but at least he dared write the poetry precisely because he could hide it.

But his poem wasn’t just pitched at lovers. He had dark things to say about those “hypocrites” and “hereticks” that he had come across as the exiled Queen Henrietta Maria spy and cipherer and decipherer in Paris. In any case, fire lit up their despicable deeds, just as fire or heat chars lemon juice to a readable brown color.

Crowley was a famous poet in his day– as admired as Shakespeare, but later critics weren’t kind to him. Clearly, one critic didn’t understand the “written in lemon juice” poem metaphor as he claimed lemon juice wasn’t a very romantic substance because it was caustic!

If I can stick up for Cowley for a moment: the point wasn’t to pour lemon juice on your lover. The point was to write secretly in lemon juice and then warm it over fire.

In the poem Cowley waxes poetic about the way the invisible becomes visible, through heat, just as a heart can heat up. It’s like nature, when sun kisses trees and plants, buds blossom. Invisible letters also blossom when heated:

Strange power of heat! thou yet dost show

Like winter-earth, naked, or cloth’d with snow:

But as, the quickening sun approaching near,

The plants arise up by degrees;

A sudden paint adorns the trees,

And all kind Nature’s characters appear.

I don’t think that’s such a bad poem…

It’s not surprising that by the Victorian period using what they called “sympathetic ink” was quite popular. A shy, closet poet wrote a sympathetic ink poem and said he “writes the words” his love “dare not speak…in ink that can’t be seen.”

For those of you who’d like to write words you dare not speak in ink that can’t be seen, you can also try grape juice, orange juice, onion juice (better for a friend than a lover), vinegar, urine or even semen (but I won’t get raunchy here). Semen doesn’t show up with heat, but if you have a black light handy, the invisible writing should become visible.

But lovers ink got even more sophisticated and fun in romantic 18th century Paris with the discovery of cobalt chloride. Unlike milk and lemon juice, cobalt chloride appeared with heat and disappeared again when cooled. And it was readily available back then. Until recently, you could even get some of this lovers ink in a tiny bottle at the store through mail order or on the web. Pulp magazines advertised bottles of romantic ink:

“Write invisible love messages in passionate-red invisible ink which only you and your lover can make appear and disappear. Protect your love life.”

It is no wonder it began to be called “ink for the ladies.”

There must be thousands of letters written by lovers in secret ink but I’ve only found a couple of them. Please send me any developed invisible ink letters you might possess from the family attic!


Kristie Macrakis

Kristie Macrakis

Kristie Macrakis is professor of history, technology, and society at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is a historian of science as well as espionage and the author of numerous books and articles, including Seduced by Secrets. She lives in Atlanta, GA.

On the Space of an Exhibition: From Curator Anna Vallye


Edited by Anna Vallye; With contributions by Christian Derouet, Maria Gough, Stuart Liebman, Spyros Papapetros, Anna Vallye, and Jennifer Wild

Anna Vallye—

The exciting thing about any art exhibition is certainly the opportunity it provides to see a number of remarkable works in the same location at the same time—its event quality. But it is also in what might be called an exhibition’s phenomenal quality—a capacity to elicit aesthetic, historical, and conceptual relationships among works staged in space, thus making those relationships available to reflection through embodied experience.  The exhibition convention is made rich and challenging through these effects of spatial unfolding, which compress years and geographies into square feet and encode aesthetic experience with frameworks of meaning.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art show “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” demanded from the start that significant attention be devoted to the choreographing of spatial relationships. The painting at its center, Fernand Léger’s monumental post-cubist canvas The City (1919) in the PMA collection, springs from a revolution in the representation of space at the beginning of the twentieth century.  In breaking the laws of single-point perspective, modern painting challenged the “symbolic form,” as art historian Erwin Panofsky defined it, structuring all knowledge of the world in the West since the Renaissance. Cubism’s affront to humanist epistemology was so evident that the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire called cubist painting, in 1913, “inhuman”. This was great praise. Space in The City is not constructed as an intersection of Cartesian axes that converge in the eye of the beholder, but rather as a decentering accumulation of disparate signs networked through localized formal confrontations, contradictions, or tensions. The City above all, but likewise all of Léger’s best paintings, foreground the organization of pictorial space in a very sophisticated way. The artist’s painterly spaces, as Spyros Papapetros argues in the exhibition catalogue, create a structural analogy for the operations of thought, or a “conceptual architecture.”

Léger is an artist who thought hard about space in his paintings. In the 1920s—the decade addressed in the PMA exhibition—Léger was also especially preoccupied with the relationship between painting and its surrounding environment.  This was, in fact, an overarching concern for many of the artists and designers featured in the show. If the traditional framework of pictorial space could be challenged, so could the conventional boundaries between works of art and other spaces and experiences. In pursuing diverse artistic practices—sometimes several at once—Léger and his avant-garde colleagues upended divisions segregating the conditions of reception for each art. They proposed that a musical composition could be watched, a poem could be looked at, a film could be framed on the wall like a painting, and a painting could be designed so as to be rushed by hurriedly like an advertising poster on a busy street. Hierarchies of spaces and experiences isolating the different arts—as well as art and everyday life—were being torn up and reconfigured in networks of new alliances and contradictions.

All of this presented a very interesting challenge for exhibition design and installation.  It was a question of how to activate the physical space of the exhibition so that it mobilizes this lively discursive traffic across artworks, in which each could be seen to approach the boundary of its expected conditions of reception and stage there a mutually creative or disruptive encounter with its fellows. First, there had to be a plan, a spatial diagram—what architects call a parti. So the Museum invited Christoff: Finio Architecture, a New York-based firm, to help devise a basic conceptual scheme for the show. This firm was chosen in part because it is rooted, through the training and work experience of the partners, in the approach to design first formulated by modern architects in the 1920s. We asked Christoff: Finio to direct at the Museum a one-day seminar or think-tank, with the participation of graduate students and faculty in exhibition design, architecture, and urban studies from Philadelphia-area academic institutions.[1] The architects presented for discussion several conceptual schemes. We wanted to use those proposals as a springboard for broader discussion about the relationship between urban space and the space of the gallery, and about the role of exhibition architecture in framing viewing experiences and curatorial decisions.

After this day of reflection, Christoff: Finio worked in collaboration with Jack Schlechter, the Museum’s Director of Installation Design, and me to work out the final exhibition architecture. The fundamental idea that emerged from our conversations was that of a protean space that unfolds experientially through movement by sequentially bringing multiple discrete and distant nodes into visual relationship. This was analogous to the effects of perceptual compression, layering, or density characteristic of the urban fabric as experienced at street-level. I was also reminded of the effects of “interpenetration” in modern architecture described by the architectural critic Sigfried Giedion in the 1920s—the perceived intermingling of disparate spaces realized through motion, in which the boundaries between inside and outside, building and city, are blurred.  This kind of a porous space, with distant corners brought into changeable alignment without being necessarily physically traversable, would enable me to activate the network of “floating relations” (Giedion’s words) among artworks on the checklist, encounters that were both aesthetic and conceptual.

Giedion saw prototypes of these “interpenetrating” spaces in the glass and iron structures of the late nineteenth century in Paris, such as bridges, arcades, and railway stations—and above all, the Eiffel Tower.  The main longitudinal axis of the exhibition became something of an homage to this vision. The show opens with a projection of the film taken by Thomas Edison in 1900 as he ascended up the elevator in the center of the Eiffel Tower, looking through its iron girders at the city beyond. As you walk around a floating screen that hosts this projection, you glimpse The City in parallel, off in the distance. The space of the painting—which is often thought to be cinematic—and the space of the film echo one another.  Bypassing The City, you see off in the distance a theatrical backdrop designed by Léger in 1922. It is a novel permutation of the compositional ideas of the painting. You see The City’s ambitions to a different scale and mode of reception, its spectacular theatricality; but you also see how the painting resists the decorative function of a backdrop.

In the main body of the show, the walls are treated as layered planes that slide past one another, so that any sense of enclosure is tentative and temporary. This allows for correspondences to be drawn across the different thematic areas of the exhibition, which are frequently visually permeable without being physically traversable. For example, a window-like opening placed between the areas of Publicity and Space enables a visual connection between two major paintings by Léger: Composition with Hat and Hands (1927) and The Large Tugboat (1923) across from each other. Each can be seen by turn in two contexts, foregrounding different aspects of the works. The monumental quality of the former is elicited when it is seen through the window, especially juxtaposed now with Theo van Doesburg’s mural-like Counter-Composition V (1924); while The Large Tugboat evokes the graphic language of print and advertising. Likewise, the poster by Jean Carlu for the Disques Odeon recording company falls within the line of sight of Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1926), a film of disks rotating like phonograph records, in an adjacent space. It is a reminder that the challenge to the practice of painting represented by the advent of audio and visual recording technologies was sister to that mounted by the mass-produced images of advertising.

While any exhibition relies, to some degree, on the implicit analogy between physical and discursive space, “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” really thrives on this confluence. The exhibition space enables the network of relationships across the diverse objects and projects on view to be eminently fluid, multivalent, and dialogical. Like the group of works gathered here, the show is a product of multiple and garrulous authorship. It puts the tentativeness of curatorial organization on display, in turn inviting unprogrammed encounters and discursive reconfigurations from its visitors.

[1] The exhibition design seminar was spearheaded for Christoff:Finio by Thomas Ryan. It included the participation of the following students and faculty from Bryn Mawr College, Temple University, the University of the Arts, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Design: Margo Angelopoulos, Daniel Barber, Louise Barrett, Ashley Geremia, Kristin Ionata, Elizabeth Malish-Olson, Anna Moblard Meier, Cathy Moore, Jessica Morris, Gosia Primavera, Patricia Roth, Yuhuizi Wang,  Anna Weichsel, Caroline Wineburg

Anna Vallye is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and editor of the catalogue accompanying the “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“Banksy’s Better Out Than In” by World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti Author Rafael Schacter

Rafael Schacter—

He’s not the most visually arresting of the so-called “street-artists”.[1] He’s definitely not the most conceptually astute.[2] He’s not the most innovative[3] or emotive,[4] nor the most site-specific[5] or materially prolific.[6] In truth, he’s not even the sharpest political commentator within the movement,[7] nor the character most wanted by the police.[8]

What Banksy is, however, is by far the most famous of all street-artists and, what’s more, undeniably its most media savvy. With an irrepressible ability to capture the zeitgeist, an acute understanding of theatre and spectacle, Banksy has become the figure whose work receives the most ‘likes’, the most re-tweets, that receives the most column inches and by far the most amount of visual documentation.[9] He is the artist, of all those who work independently within the public sphere, who knows just how to entertain and enthrall, how to produce works with an all-embracing public appeal. Neither possessing the cryptic “sophistication” of the high-art world nor the equally cryptic “grit” of art brut, Banksy has instead located himself in a quite self-consciously determined centre-ground, a position from which he is able to subject all sides of the art spectrum to ridicule and critique. From here he can satirize the strangely equivalent status of both graffiti and contemporary art, he can critique the comparable regulations and formalities they both possess. He can use a man-of-the-people modesty and a frank anti-intellectualism to deride all fakery and conceit, to subject all dogmas to dismissal and contempt.

Yet whilst this defiantly anti(art)establishment work has brought him many admirers (including myself), Banksy has also explored many issues from outside of the art-world – from global warfare to animal welfare, from child labour to political failure – through an equivalently catch-all, anti-elitist style. He has used his skill in creating very candid visual statements (through both a formal and narrative simplicity) so as to provoke an immediate identification and empathy from his viewers. And this, for me, is where the quandary lies. Whilst Banksy’s political works may at first seem so subversive, their success emerges from their firmly placed presence in the centre, from their populist political standpoints as much as their populist visual appeal. Set with the ‘people’ and against the ‘elites’, they aim to take power back but instead, like their party political counterparts, serve to further stymie true progress. They refuse to allow for complexity or paradox, to acknowledge the instability and open-endedness so present within our contemporary world. And rather than making us think, pushing us into active analysis rather than passive acceptance, what Banksy’s political works can be understood to promote are simply the superficial sentiments we all want to hear, the easy answers which we so readily rely on. What they provide us with is the gratifying reinforcement of ‘our’ already present ideals, the warm, fuzzy feeling of self-affirmation.

Banksy, NY

Banksy, NY

Better Out Than In, Banksy’s recently completed one month “residency” in New York, illustrates this duality perfectly: Whilst the works of self and institutional critique do succeed in challenging the authority present both graffiti and high-art (as well as pointing out many of the hypocrisies they are subject to), the more overtly political works present us with a more awkward story. The Lower East Side piece from October 9th is one such case in point: Set within a graffiti covered lot, we are shown two stencil covered vehicles, one depicting a set of goggle wearing (possibly computerized) horses, the other a group of skyward looking, fearful and cross-hair lined humans (depicted in a classical sculptural style). Set aside three cylindrical barrels, one conspicuously marked “oil”, and with an oil-like material also copiously covering the area, we are already being pushed toward the closed meaning of the piece before we listen to the accompanying audio-guide; with this, an audio extract taken directly from the WikiLeaks sourced video “Collateral Murder”, Banksy unequivocally points us towards the singular meaning of his work. It is a piece espousing a direct message of opposition to armed conflict, a message decrying the wars for oil which the US has become embroiled within. Likewise take Banksy’s travelling Ronald McDonald sculpture from October 16th. Here we are presented with a life-size sculpture of the company’s mascot complete with huge, clown-sized shoes, shoes being continually polished by an adjacent shoe-shine boy (here played by a living and breathing actor). The audio guide again: “The result is a critique of the heavy labor required to sustain the polished image of a mega corporation. Is Ronald’s statue as posed indicative of how corporations have become the historical figures of our era? Does this hero have feet of clay and a massively large footprint to boot”? Leaving no room for divergent interpretations, Banksy’s McDonald sculpture has one meaning and one meaning only. It takes its target and makes its contention clear, exposing the corporate monolith as an evil taskmaster rather than affable friend.

Unlike Banksy’s more open-ended examinations of the art-world (as seen in particular in Blocked Messages and Ghetto 4 Life), these overtly political works present us with a radically reduced possibility for interpretation. And my fear, my anxiety, comes from the all too agreeable, populist narratives they promote, the comfortable acquiescence they seek. Who could truly disagree with the facts they present? Who could say that war is not bad, exploitation not evil? Yet rather than requiring the viewer to think for themselves, the simple sentiments they provide merely pacify us through the reassuring refortification of our ideals. They do not force us to act, they compel us to agree. They do not force us into doing, they consign us to inertia. Of course, I am not suggesting that the intentions from which these works emerge should themselves be condemned. The basic ethical principles they declare – those of anti-war and anti-exploitation – can only be lauded, are only ever honorable. Yet they do not lead us to protest against McDonalds poor working conditions and poor wages: They make us smile and nod our head in agreement (and then go grab a Big Mac). They do not impel us to seek a move away from the present political system: They bring a tear to our eye and a unanimous shake of the head (and tacit permission to continue as is). They shore up our sense of right or wrong without ever changing the world around us, charming us, comforting us without forcing us to ponder the more uncomfortable truths.

Certainly, one can still use popular culture to address these crucial political issues. The Yes Men and PERP’s recent satirical ‘Three Strikes You’re In!”[10] campaign showed how one can incisively yet comically explore these critical subjects, cleverly aligning the targeting of low-income communities of color in the NYPD’s stop and frisk campaign with McDonalds targeting of the health and well-being of this same community. But Banksy’s work simply fails to get past stock formulas and stale truisms, a failure that is an immediate danger, that actually contains rather than initiates change. The increased public participation so prevalent within Better Out Than In, the evolution of Banksy’s anti-elitist desires into a state where his viewers seem to consummate his works through their presence (as seen most clearly in his ‘Balloon Girl’ image, the female character in the original work here being fulfilled by his devotees), can itself be seen to show how this capacity for containment functions. Unlike the critical engagement with an active public that occurs in the socially motivated art of figures such as Thomas Hirschhorn,[11] in the ‘enabling’ graffiti projects formed by Akim Nguyen[12] or the audience produced art instituted by Eltono,[13] the participatory style of Better Our Than In is participation only in its weakest sense. It is the viewer as the passive object of the artwork rather than its active subject, the viewer compliantly completing rather than dynamically participating in the works. Participation here is not about action or change, but about the gratifying feeling of unanimity and belonging with our fellow citizens, the delight in our joint beliefs which mean that we need not act, need not think further. It is a direct example of what Milan Kundera famously called ‘the second tear’, the tear we shed not merely from our being moved (this being the first tear), but from the recognition, the self-satisfaction of being moved, from the shared bond of the sentimental and banal.

Of course, with all this critique, I could be charged for missing the bigger picture. Banksy’s work does not all take the political edge which I am so concerned with. It does not all carry the dangerous potentiality of the kitsch. His efforts to make people re-assess their environment through Better Out Than In, his ability to reinvigorate the public imagination with art on the street can only be given the upmost respect. His sheer work ethic, the ability to produce a new work almost everyday for a whole month is something that all graffiti artists (and all artists period) should be shamed by. He has done it and you have not, whether you like the work or not. Yet for me, the feeling still lingers. Whilst much of Banksy’s may just elicit a light-hearted chuckle, his political work – which crucially I feel has come to implicitly encompass his oeuvre as a whole – still leaves me with this sense of unease (for all the wrong reasons). It is not about the transformation of thought. It is not about the rejection or deconstruction of our contemporary culture. It is simply about the pleasant validation of the status quo, the pleasant validation of what we all already know: War is bad. Politicians lie. Supermarkets suck.

schacterRafael Schacter is honorary research fellow at the Department of Anthropology at University College, London. He is the author of The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, recently published by Yale University Press.


[1] That accolade could go to Os Gemeos (, Momo (, or Sixe Paredes ( perhaps.

[2] For this, I would suggest one look at artists such as Les Frères Ripoulin ( or Wermke & Leinkauf (

[3] Evan Roth ( or Katsu ( would most likely stake a claim here.

[5] Brad Downey ( surely take this award.


[7] I’d suggest Escif ( for this position.

[8] This dubious honor going to Oleg Vorotnikov, the founder of the Russian Voina group ( who is currently, and unbelievably, on Interpol’s most wanted list.

[11] See his recent “Gramsci Monument” in the South Bronx, 2013

[12] Such as his work “Bringing Ugly Back” at the Names Fest in Prague, 2008.

[13] Such as in “Mała 4” in Warsaw 2012 or “Branco de España” in A Coruña, 2010

A Little Fish Offers a Perceptive Window on the World

snaildarterZygmunt J. B. Plater—

It has been called The Most Extreme Environmental Case Ever, the two-inch long “snail darter” endangered fish “mis-used” by radical environmentalists to block completion of “a huge hydroelectric dam” in Tennessee. The snail darter is still today referenced as an example of extreme leftist environmentalism barring important social progress. This past summer, Tea Party Rep. Louis Gohmert used the snail darter to disparage a civil rights bill amendment that he perceived to be designed protect environmental interests; Fox’s Sean Hannity referred to the darter’s defenders as “fringe lunatics.” [Fox News, Hannity's America, 9:00 PM EST, December 7, 2008]

In the six years my students and I spent fighting the case, however, the story came across in a very different light. My recently published record of the experience, The Snail Darter and the Dam, reveals that the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Tellico Dam, the last of 69 dams in the region, was relatively small with no electric generators, a “pork” project justified by the TVA as a recreational lake surrounded by 40 square miles of private farmlands condemned for resale by the Boeing Corporation.

Hardly rabid environmentalists, the dam project’s opponents were mainly displaced farmers and fishermen who brought the little fish into the Tellico case as their only means to slow down the project and draw attention to its economic flaws, to protect their land and save the river. The snail darter, extinguished throughout the rest of the river system dams, survived in the Little Tennessee River as a vivid indicator of human, as well as ecological, resources at risk—a “canary in the coal mine.”


The little fish from Tennessee offers the reader a small window onto a very much wider national landscape, as my students and I doggedly carry our quixotic case through scientific scrutiny and all the corridors of power in American governance—the media, multiple federal agencies, two White Houses, three Congresses, courtrooms up through a dramatic success in the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally unanimous economic vindication in the God Committee, the first-ever governmental inquisition with the power of extinction. We did everything right, creating a dramatic demonstration how Good Ecology Is Good Economics. That we ultimately lost in a late-night congressional pork over-ride of their successful legal and economic verdicts provides a final piquant and perceptive twist for our understanding of current troublesome patterns of government.

The Snail Darter and the Dam is an instructive civic saga with enough political twists and turns to intrigue and infuriate just about anyone.

It’s much more than a little fish.

Zygmunt J. B.  Plater is professor of law and director of the Land & Environmental Law Program at Boston College Law School. He chaired the State of Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s Legal Research Task Force, is lead author of an environmental law casebook, and has participated in numerous citizen environmental initiatives. He lives in Newton Highlands, MA.

Lina Bo Bardi: Points in Narrative

BoBardiZeuler R. M. de A. Lima—

The fact that Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992) has so far received less critical and popular recognition in the US than in the rest of the Western world perhaps reveals more about the architectural culture in this country and elsewhere than about the architect herself.

Let’s remember that Lina Bo Bardi left Italy at the beginning of her career and that she remained, for a long time, marginal to the prevalent architectural discourse in her adopted country, Brazil.

Part of the long disregard, in Brazil, toward Lina Bo Bardi’s career had to do with the diversity and unevenness of her production, which escaped modernist categorizations, and part of it had to do with her uncompromising disposition, nuanced by the fact that she was a woman and a foreigner.

Lina Bo Bardi’s idiosyncratic work only started to receive wide recognition in Brazil at the end of her life, in the 1980s, especially due to the success of her project for SESC Pompeia leisure center in São Paulo.

Not only is SESC Pompeia leisure center Lina Bo Bardi’s most complex and accomplished work, it also introduced new vitality to the debate about modern architecture at the height of its ideological crisis.

Lina Bo Bardi proposed to reconsider the ethical principles of the modern movement during a period in which Brazil struggled with both political and economic crises amidst the international restructuring of capitalism, which enhanced the challenges faced by architects.

Lina Bo Bardi’s enduring praise of aesthetic simplification, lived experience, and historical awareness expressed in hybrid projects and thoughtful programs offered critical alternatives to the standardization of high modernism, the pastiche of postmodernism, and the aestheticization of minimalism.

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By the time Lina Bo Bardi’s career was celebrated in Brazil, the country’s architectural production—similar to that of much of the southern hemisphere—had vanished from the focus of the narrow and competitive debate established between the two sides of the north Atlantic.

Between the 1980s and the early 2000s, the logic of neoliberalism dominated the international architectural culture, with the ascendance of celebrity designers and critics at the service of a high-end symbolic economy, the devaluation of cultural resistance, and dismissal of ethical-social concerns, all of which were antithetical to Lina Bo Bardi’s belief system.

As the world and especially the US entered a new economic and cultural crisis in the late 2000s, the claims, the cynicism, and the extravagances by the design star system have found a dead end, yielding visibility to practices and values that had been neglected for the last few decades. Perhaps these changes help us understand the increased interest in the US in the career of an architect such as Lina Bo Bardi.

Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima is an architect and associate professor of history, theory, and design at the School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Lina Bo Bardi, recently published by Yale University Press.

Jackie Kennedy: Warhol’s and Richter’s Painted Spy

John J. Curley—

curleyWith his assassination fifty years ago, President Kennedy became the Cold War’s most famous victim. Befitting the conflict’s secret ruses and double agents, the assassination was, from the start, rife with proliferating conspiracy theories. It is in this context of interpretative fancy that we must consider two paintings featuring Jacqueline Kennedy created in the aftermath of November 22, 1963: Andy Warhol’s Thirty-Five Jackies (Multiplied Jackies) and Gerhard Richter’s President Johnson Consoles Mrs. Kennedy. While ostensibly legible, both of these portraits are not what they seem; like spies, Warhol’s and Richter’s painted Jackies also misdirect and dissemble. If the Cold War, as Marshall McLuhan suggested in 1964, was an “electric battle of information and of images,” then these two canvases demonstrate a hidden struggle over interpretation.

Warhol’s Thirty-Five Jackies is made up of thirty-five small canvases arrayed in a grid, each with the same silkscreened visage. The artist selected a famous source image associated with the Kennedy assassination: Jackie in a blood-stained dress, looking on as Lyndon Johnson is sworn-in aboard Air Force One. Through tight-cropping and repetition, Warhol drains the emotional power out of Cecil Stoughton’s original image, and the widow becomes part of a larger decorative scheme. Additionally, Warhol’s technique – a roughly rendered silkscreen – barely registers the particulars of Jackie’s countenance. Viewers recognize her only because of the iconic and highly visible nature of the source photograph. The painting, in many ways, fails as a likeness of the former First Lady.

Andy Warhol, Thirty-Five Jackies (Multiplied Jackies), 1964.  Silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas, 100 2/3 x 113 in. (255.7 x 286.8 cm). MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, former collection of Karl Ströher, Darmstadt. © 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Andy Warhol, Thirty-Five Jackies (Multiplied Jackies), 1964. Silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas, 100 2/3 x 113 in. (255.7 x 286.8 cm). MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, former collection of Karl Ströher, Darmstadt. © 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In my new book, A Conspiracy of Images, I discuss Richter’s Woman with Umbrella, which also features Jacqueline Kennedy. However, here I want to focus on a second Jackie painting about which I have recently uncovered new material: President Johnson Consoles Mrs. Kennedy. In this small and understated work, Richter also chooses to paint a Stoughton photograph, but one taken just after the moment of Warhol’s source image. Crudely realized by hand, Richter’s picture also renders the slain president’s widow (and LBJ) as an ambiguous collection of painted marks. For instance, the painterly flourish of Jackie’s hair obscures half of her face, and, at the bottom, the bodies of the new President and former First Lady are confused in a mass of black paint. But just in case a German viewer could not recognize the depicted scene, Richter provides a painted caption (which is also the work’s title) identifying the protagonists and action.

Gerhard Richter, President Johnson Consoles Mrs. Kennedy, 1963.  Oil on canvas mounted on card, 5 x 3 1/2 in. (12.7 x 8.9 cm).  © Gerhard Richter 2013, courtesy Atelier Gerhard Richter, Cologne.

Gerhard Richter, President Johnson Consoles Mrs. Kennedy, 1963. Oil on canvas mounted on card, 5 x 3 1/2 in. (12.7 x 8.9 cm). © Gerhard Richter 2013, courtesy Atelier Gerhard Richter, Cologne.

In these two works, Warhol and Richter depict and obscure Jacqueline Kennedy.  While at first glance each painting seems clear, a sustained viewing renders the ambiguity of their common subject. It is only when these respective works are considered as paintings, as pictures arrested from the torrential flow of the mass media and subsequently transformed into works of art, that their strangeness as images emerges. Considering the mystery surrounding JFK’s murder, which immediately inspired tales both plausible and far-fetched, Warhol’s and Richter’s paintings of Jackie thus thematize their own conspiracies of looking. It is strange still today how the wide distribution and visibility of their source images, trick us into overlooking their unintelligibility.

When we consider the original press context of Stoughton’s historic images, the conspiracy may go deeper. Likely transmitted by phone lines and then hurriedly printed on cheap paper for popular magazines and newspapers, the images were already unclear in their “original” published state. I recently discovered the precise (and, to my knowledge, previously untraced) source for Richter’s painting, a special issue of Berliner Illustrierte rushed to the stands after the events of late November 1963. (While this photo was widely published, the matching captions secure this example as Richter’s source.) The presence of Warhol’s image choice in this same page spread highlights the global reach of photographs at this moment. After seeing the image degradation in this media source and others in Life or the New York Times, Warhol’s and Richter’s respective painted blurs are not necessarily additive; instead we could say that they are approximating, through different techniques of painting, the ambiguous quality of the original published images. By re-transmitting an already published (or already-transmitted) photo, these works demonstrate how the very act of media dissemination degrades the image and allows it to work against the certainties usually associated with press photography.

jc-34 monate liegen zwischen diesen fotos1113-blog

Page spread from Berliner Illustrirte, Special Issue 1963 (December), featuring United States Army Signal Corps photograph (top) and two photographs by Cecil W. Stoughton (bottom).

It is important to note that Stoughton’s original photographs were not just sensational images, but also ideologically important for Cold War America; they showed the world an orderly and respectful transfer of presidential power.  (LBJ, according to Robert Caro, was adamant that Jackie be present at the swearing-in for just this photographic proof of regime continuity.) During these particularly tense years of the Cold War – in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis – any signs of domestic chaos or perceived uncertainty about who was in charge could prove disastrous to U.S. creditability. Warhol’s and Richter’s sources were ideological photos hiding under the guise of topical and spectacular news.

Both artists knew all about making ideological images that appeared otherwise. In the 1950s, Warhol was a commercial (i.e. capitalist) artist in New York, and Richter painted official murals in socialist East Germany, before he escaped to West Germany in 1961. Considering their antithetical backgrounds, their mutual turn toward fashioning blurry versions of found media photographs in 1962 is significant. Both artists recognized that mass media images constituted a vital front in the Cold War and used their work, as with their paintings of Jackie, to intervene, however stealthily, into the conflict’s interrelated battles of images, ideology, and art. While Warhol and Richter are, without a doubt, two of the most important individual artists of their generation, isn’t it time to bring their paintings in from the cold?


John J. Curley is assistant professor of art history at Wake Forest University.