The 'Life' (and Death?) of Objects: Reuse and the Biographical Metaphor

A couple of months ago I participated in a thought-provoking conference at Brown University that reconsidered 'reuse' in a broad cultural context. Revisiting my presentation for writing now, I find myself again grappling with one of its central metaphors: the 'life,' and afterlife, of architecture, objects, and design.

For a Gilded Age scholar, the discussion of reuse is unavoidable: Gilded Age architects drew regularly, often directly, on historical styles and treatises; dealers amassed volumes of historical and other objects from declining European estates (already full of 'reused' things) for redistribution in the US; and patrons adopted and adapted freely the elements of high cultures past that most suited their contemporary ambitions as a new social elite. As part of this discussion, objects are often considered in terms of 'lives' and 'afterlives,' denoting, generally speaking, their roles in the contexts for which they were originally created and the roles that they assume in other contexts later.

But as I struggle to unravel the 'life' of a tub that was based on ancient Roman designs adopted by the French in the eighteenth century and rediscovered in turn-of-the-century America by way of Victorian England, quarried and carved from 'antique' stone ca. 1880, installed in a Renaissance-style mansion on modern Fifth Avenue and dispersed with the rest of its contents in the 1920s (you get the idea), I can't help but wonder: Is the biographical metaphor the most efficient, or the most appropriate? Why do we use it in the first place? And what are its benefits and drawbacks?

The life of objects: the human aspect and the historian aspect

The most obvious explanation for the biographical metaphor is, simply: we're humans. We're born, we live, we die, we ostensibly live again in alternative form or meaning, and this is our readiest framework for the understanding (and creation) of other things. And it is useful in many ways.

For historians, and particularly art historians, the biographical metaphor serves as an organizational device that helps to define and contextualize periods of significance and change. This, in turn, helps us to understand the meaning and value of objects for individuals, groups, and cultures over time. We recognize, for example, that objects are experienced differently in different settings, and that objects, designs, spolia, etc., take on new meaning (or, in common phrase, are 'given new life,' in an architect-as-demigod sort of way) when removed from their original context.

It also calls attention to the agency of objects and their impact on social interaction and history. By interpreting objects according to human qualities, we position them as active players in the continuous definition of sociocultural structure and symbology. For me, this is the nuts and bolts of my Goffmanian approach to Gilded Age collecting and design: social identity is created through symbolic interaction in carefully staged settings, in which objects act as props for the performance of specific and socially exclusive roles and rituals. Their histories and provenance are part of their value and usefulness as such. (See also: Mimi Hellman's 1999 "Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France," in which objects are interpreted as actors rather than props.)

For all its advantages, however, the biographical approach to objects and architecture also has significant shortcomings, some of which can be fatal (no pun intended, but there we are) to well-rounded scholarship.

The death of objects: the limitations of biography 

The first flaw in the biographical metaphor is the first flaw of all interpretive categorical devices: it inherently prioritizes certain periods and elements over others, creating false boundaries and giving naturalized authority to manmade schemata. Is Boucher's The Toilette of Venus any more or less significant in the Metropolitan Museum of Art now than it was in Madame de Pompadour's bathing pavilion in 1751, or in Alva Vanderbilt's boudoir in 1880? Which is its life and which is its afterlife?

The second is that it can give rather too much agency, imbibing inanimate objects and structures with a sort of Hegelian spirit or Vasarian genius that distracts, again, from the fact that they are crafted and given meaning by humans. Do things have lives if we don't delineate them? Does the stonework from the A. T. Stewart mansion now incorporated into Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church 'live' in the same way if no one knows, or cares, that it's there?

And this begs the final question of: When do objects die?

I for the most part have been considering physical objects, but what about the memory of objects, or, to use an example from my current work, descriptions of objects for which there is no physical evidence? How do we interpret these as elements of an object's or building's story? And what about cast, copied, or misattributed objects? If Salvator Mundi turns out not to be a Leonardo, what happens to the biography we're writing for it now?

The practical has taken a bit of an abstract turn here....




Exhibition Opening: 'World War I and American Art' at Frist Center for the Visual Arts

 John Singer Sargent,  Gassed , 1919, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museums, London, as installed in  World War I and American Art  at Frist Center for the Visual Arts (photo: Author)

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museums, London, as installed in World War I and American Art at Frist Center for the Visual Arts (photo: Author)

This week I attended the preview and opening of World War I and American Art, the first major exhibition to explore American artists' involvement in and representation of the First World War, at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville.

100 years after US entry into the war, the exhibition, organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), brings together more than seventy artists and a range of media—from grand manner paintings to digitized memoirs—to examine the impact of 'The Great War' on American art, and vice versa. It coincides with a number of other centennial exhibitions and symposia (SAHGB 2018 Annual Symposium: Architecture, the Built Environment, and the Aftermath of the First World War; World War I Centennial: Smithsonian Commemoration) designed to expand and reframe conversations about the war, and addresses a significant gap in what curator Robert Cozzolino called the "conventional wisdom" of American involvement, namely, the idea that the war didn't affect Americans or American art very much "because we weren't 'in it' very long." 

One of the strengths of the exhibition is its scope: organized loosely chronologically to follow a thematic progression from Prelude to Celebration and Mourning, it invites viewers to consider a range of experiences, interpretations, and perspectives, from personal and memorial to professional and documentary to political and propagandistic. It also highlights significant and little-talked-about aspects of several major artists' careers. 

The exhibition begins with John Singer Sargent's Gassed (1919), on rare loan from London's Imperial War Museums. Displayed on its own, the work confronts visitors with a near life-size scene of soldiers blinded by mustard gas (a new technology) being led through a field of other wounded toward a suggested medical tent against an eerily beautiful sunset backdrop. While New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, in his review of the show in its premier installation in Philadelphia, referred to this beauty as Sargent's "big weakness" in regard to this work, I find it to be a vital point of entry for contemplation of the theme: far from "soften"-ing tragedy or "glamorize"-ing damage, the subdued rendering and monumental composition that liken the painting to aggrandizing historical works also facilitate a profoundly intimate interaction with decidedly un-glamorous and un-mythologized (i.e. human) elements and actions, the beauty and rhythm that draw you in also forcing you through a succession of injury, fatigue, thirst, nausea, blindness, dependency, and hope. (Note: One might also consider the very different experiences of standing in front of this work now and reading it in newsprint then.)

The juxtaposition created by Sargent's work is reiterated as you follow the soldiers' visual march, not into a dressing station, but into the next room of the exhibition, where the first view is of Winsor McCay's black-and-white animation The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). Around the corner from this (in the Tenuous Neutrality section), works by Marsden Hartley and Childe Hassam raise questions about personal intention and public reception, the former's abstract portraits of Karl von Freyburg, highly politicized, facing latter's flag-filled street scenes, often overlooked as mere 'Impressionism.' 

Lesser-known works by George Bellows, more easily recognized for his urban street and pugilistic scenes, open the section on Debating the War. For me, the most interesting debate touched on in this room is that of 'authenticity.' (While Cozzolino pointed out that Bellows was criticized for his 'imagination' in creating these works, which include etchings along the lines of Francisco de Goya ca. 1810, I wonder how much difference, and when, there is between 'real' and 'imagined' experiences of war.)

Perhaps the most recognizable image in the exhibition is James Montgomery Flagg's I Want YOU for U.S. Army poster of 1917. Here we get into the more familiar historical territory of propaganda and America-to-the-rescue. While highlighting the romanticizing nature of art designed to bolster support for the war and encourage recruitment, however, the exhibition also makes note of another important facet of propaganda in this period: the visualizing of an 'Other' as part of a national identity formation. Harry R. Hopps's Destroy This Mad Brute—Enlist (ca. 1917) plays on fears of immigrant "dilution" of American social and moral structure by depicting Germany as a violent gorilla that has abducted a distressed, bare-breasted maidena reference to both the idealized middle-class woman, whose virtue (real and imagined) was considered to be threatened by proximity to 'rogue' immigrant and working-class men, and to the Classically garbed Liberty, symbol of American civilization and enlightenment. (The savage v. civilization theme is one that reoccurs throughout the exhibition and is introduced in the very first line of wall text, which describes the war as an example of modern civilization's ability to "descend" into violence.) Other works in this section deal with the negotiation of changing gender roles, and the definition of an 'appropriate' space for women in war efforts.

Technology is another important theme addressed in the exhibition. Watercolor, photography, airplanes, and barbed wire are among the innovations whose contributions to both battle and recovery, reconnaissance and remembrance are explored. A nod to current technology is also made in the digital installation of Horace Pippin's memoir of experiences (ca. 1921), from the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art. 

 James Van Der Zee,  Looking Backward ,  ca . 1929, Donna Van Der Zee, David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD

James Van Der Zee, Looking Backward, ca. 1929, Donna Van Der Zee, David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD

Modernist Reactions is a somewhat peculiar section in its separateness, but calls significant attention again to overlooked aspects of familiar oeuvresa strength of the exhibition as a whole. (The bathroom scholar in me is also always pleased to see Marcel Duchamp's Mott/Mutt Fountain in a new context.)

The final rooms of World War I and American Art, dedicated to Celebration and Mourning, deal with the immediate and continued aftermath of the war and how we go about remembering it at various times. Arthur Beecher Carles's The Marseillaise (ca. 1918) invites a thought-provoking comparison (and contrast) with Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830), while other works lead me to consider the benefits and drawbacks of the tendency to interpret the First World War as a precursor of the Second. My personal favorites in this section are a pair of photographs by James Van Der Zee of "doughboys" Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson, entitled Two Soldiers (ca. 1919) and Looking Backward (ca. 1929).

Overall, World War I and American Art is a highly stimulating exhibition that opens up significant and well-timed avenues of discussion of this 'forgotten' war, its embeddedness within modern American cultural and artistic development and discourse, and its relevance in light of current political dissidence. Its installation in Nashville, and the South in general, offers a particularly pertinent opportunity for meditation on the nature of memory and representation. Go, go again, spend time with the whole exhibition, and then spend more time with individual works.


World War I and American Art, curated at the Frist by Trinita Kennedy, is open now in the Ingram Gallery until January 21, 2018. (#WWIFCVA)




New Event: SESAH Annual Conference, October 11-14, 2017

Interpreting the Historic House Bathroom: Gilded Age Design, Decoration, and Distinction

Next month, I will be presenting on the Gilded Age bathroom and issues surrounding bathroom preservation and interpretation in the historic house museum at the Annual Meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (SESAH) in Lynchburg, Virginia.

See Events page for more details.

Event Announcement: Fellows Lectures Pt. I, Maison Félix & Gilded Age Lighting

This Wednesday, July 26th at 11 a.m., two of my fellow Fellows at The Preservation Society of Newport County will be presenting their research at Rosecliff. Anna Rose Keefe will be presenting on Félix, the dramatic and largely forgotten French couturier who clothed such iconic Gilded Age figures as Sarah Bernhardt, Virginie Gautreau (John Singer Sargent's 'Madame X'), and Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. Amber Wingerson will be discussing the technologies and etiquette of Gilded Age interior lighting, from 'brilliant' ballrooms to dimly lit dining tables.

Advance registration is required, and is available through The Preservation Society's website (here). 

The New Gilded Age Bathroom: 3 Turn-of-the-Century Trends That Are Making a Comeback in Luxury Design

When plumbing first made its way indoors around the mid-nineteenth century, the bathroom was hardly a luxurious place: technology was iffy, space and decor were limited to the strictly necessary, and individual bathrooms were shared by multiple members of a household. By the end of the century, America's first millionaire class had transformed the bathroom into the place of refinement that it remains in much high-end design today—a place for privacy, relaxation, rejuvenation, and, most importantly, style.

Drawing on eighteenth-century French Classical models, bathrooms were elaborated into sophisticated multi-room suites that included sizable dressing rooms and closets for individual use, with porcelain and marble tubs installed in niches or near windows to provide picturesque views (both of bathers and of their delightful settings), and every conceivable comfort—many of which we take for granted today, e. g. warm running water—provided for. The concept of the 'master bath,' as distinct from the 'guest' and other baths was invented, and how one bathed became as indicative of one's social 'character' as how one dressed or dined.

With the decline of the Gilded Age and the rise of apartment living in the early twentieth century, this historicized luxury bed-bathing suite fell out of favor to be replaced by more modern(ist) styles and trends. Now, 100 years later, in what has been called the 'New Gilded Age,' some of its characteristic features are creeping back into luxe design.

1. Exposed plumbing & hardware

The rise of germ theory in the 1890s led to a shift in bathroom design from the wood-encased and heavily textiled style popular in the 1880s to a supremely 'sanitary' aesthetic. Pipes and other fittings and fixtures were exposed for ease of repair and wood floors and paneling were replaced with more durable, waterproof, and fashionable Classical materials such as tile and marble. 

The slab sink

The Waterworks 'Henry' washstand, with its marble slab, porcelain basin, and industrial metal fittings, recalls late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century designs by manufacturers such as J. L. Mott (left), and its style has recently made appearances in chic London locales such as The Ned (center), The Hoxton (right), and Soho House.

The free-standing tub

The bathroom of Meg Ryan's recently renovated New York loft (right) by architect Joel Barkley (Ike Kligerman Barkley) and interior designer Monique Gibson features a free-standing Water Monopoly tub with fittings by Waterworks, complete with white 'Subway' tile (see below) and Mott-esque slab-basin sinks, an arrangement not unlike that found in Mrs. Edward J. Berwind's Newport bathroom of ca. 1900 (left).

2. 'Subway' tile

In the 1890s-1900s bathroom, tile was praised for its efficiency, cleanliness, and durability, as well as its decorative diversity. White 'subway' tile, so named because of its usage in the then-newly developed urban railway systems, was especially popular for its ability to expose dirt. Now generally associated with Modernist simplicity, in the Gilded Age, white tile was often paired with more conventionally luxurious materials and appointments such as gilt-wood furniture and cut glass chandeliers to create bathing spaces that were at once modern and historical, efficient and opulent. Leanne Ford (right) is among the many designers making use of this subway tile in the bathroom today.

3. Marble everything

In the most luxurious Gilded Age bathroom examples, marble and onyx were the materials of choice for tubs, sinks, floors, and even walls. White Italian 'Statuario' (or statuary, sculptural marble—denoting the highest grade of Italian import stone) was particularly prized for its exceptional quality and its aggrandizing historical and mythological associations. According to interior designer Ferris Rafauli, Carrara and other "authentic" Italian marbles are once again "in high demand." C. P. Hart has identified marble as one of the chief design trends of 2017, emphasizing its ability to create a "timeless feel" when paired with warm metals, and Waterworks's Barbara Sallick (The Perfect Bath) has similarly emphasized its "elegance and sophistication." A bathroom at the recently renovated Le Meurice, Paris (right) features marble throughout.

What's next?

If time is any indication, the next bathroom trend on the horizon will be the bold and colorful glamor made popular in the 1920s and 30s. Pink tubs, black toilets, geometric light fixtures, and mirrored surfaces will replace the airy windows and all-white Beaux-Arts modernism of the early century. This fashion is already on the rise in the so-called 'power' powder room, where young, contemporary firms like House of Hackney are re-inventing bold, historically-informed prints and accessories for statement design. Think: Hollywood.


(For more period bath photos, see the online collections of Library of Congress & MCNY.)