SOME RECENT ADDITIONS TO THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY GIFTED BY MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR.
This past April, I had the pleasure of meeting up with museum founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. at the 52nd New York Antiquarian Book Fair—where rare book dealers gather from across the globe to exhibit their wares at the Park Avenue Armory. Although it is possible today to find and purchase even the rarest of books online via various rare book consortia and websites, one generally has to have a specific title in mind to do that sort of browsing. And while it is possible to conduct “subject” based searches in Ebay and other web databases, it is difficult to discern the true nature and condition of those offerings. In contrast, my visit to the annual book fair, and the concurrent Manhattan Vintage Book & Ephemera Fair (or “Shadow Show”) provides me with the opportunity to visit and speak with hundreds of dealers, pick their brains and browse their stalls, and to rummage through thousands of books and paper ephemera that I might never have known existed.
And it was in the pursuit of such elusive “treasure” that Mr. Wolfson and I went off hunting—looking for gems that filled in gaps in the collection or built upon the strengths of our holdings. Given the current climate of economic recession and ever-shrinking state university budgets, I was thrilled that Mr. Wolfson had decided to immediately gift to the library the items we picked out together. Now that we have had a chance to process and digitize some of those materials, I thought that I would take this opportunity to provide my readers with a small sampling of the many items that have been deposited with us in the wake of the fairs.
As I began to pull together some of the items we had selected at the fairs, I first thought of a couple of lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”:
Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. …
If there does appear to be a randomness to the recent acquisitions, it is probably only because the Wolfsonian’s collecting parameters do cast a wide net. Although we focus primarily on the period 1850 to 1945, our thematic concerns more than occasionally pull us beyond those rigid dates in our pursuit of art, architecture, and design in the service of ideas, and their influence in the making of the “modern” world.
World’s Fairs and national and international expositions are an area of great interest as in the pre-television and pre-internet age, these globally shifting “theme parks” were extraordinarily influential in educating the public and disseminating ideas. Through the venue of the fair, inventors, artists, industrialists, and architects were all able to reach mass audiences and market their products and aesthetics. The nation-state, imperial powers, and corporations also recognized the importance of world’s fair in selling patriotism, colonialism, and consumer goods and spent considerable sums to promote their particular products and points of view.
Of course, designers and architects were not content to market themselves solely at international and trade fairs, and so Mr. Wolfson and I also browsed the booths in search of rare printed furniture and housing catalogs. Among the many brochures, advertisements, and catalogs we perused, these two caught our eye and interest. The first is a catalog put out by the Heywood-Wakefield Company that not only tried to sell potential customers on the specific furniture produced in its factory in Gardner, Massachusetts, but also to educate them as to the ways their furnishing might be most tastefully arranged!
We were also able to find a catalog produced by architect Arthur L. Weeks with illustrations and plans of homes designed specifically for the tropical climate and living conditions that prevail in Florida.
There was even a book uniting the themes of architecture and design published in January 1949 that we had to have given our important ocean liner holdings. This amazing catalog showcased the work of the naval and associate architect George G. Sharp and his firms’ designs for post-Second World War reconversion of troop ships into luxury liners.
The Wolfsonian is interested in great public works projects as well, and we managed to snap up a couple of books along those lines. The first was a work published by the Mississippi River Power Company concerning their hydro-electric dam under construction in Keokuk, Iowa.
Interestingly, this item (published in 1913) employs a Herculean figure similar to one that I remembered from a piece already in our collection that celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, Calif., in 1915.
Mr. Wolfson and I also found and acquired at the fair a book dealing with the building of the Detroit International Bridge—the longest-span highways bridge in the world at the time of its construction.
The Wolfsonian museum and library is also world-renowned for its collection of political art and propaganda collections, and we also happened upon some rare items that added to that particular strength. A future Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Art will focus on modern Turkey, and happily we were able to find an extraordinarily rare work of poetry and pictures celebrating Turkish nationalism and declaring its unequivocal intentions to defend its borders against its Italian “neighbors.”
In fact, the Turkish poet and artist provides a lampoon of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio who was politically influential in the formation of the Fascist movement and has been dubbed by one historian as the “John the Baptist of Italian Fascism.” In this particular work, D’Annunzio is depicted as Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.
Another rare item acquired at the fair was a children’s propaganda book created by the Vichy (collaborationist) government in France installed during the German occupation in the Second World War. This book tells the story of a group of young French children who are eager to meet with Maréchal Petain and to lay stars at his feet!
Immediately following the victory over the Fascists, Nazism, and Japanese militarism, the United States moved away from its wartime alliance with the Soviet Union and towards a domestic and international Cold War crusade against Communism. Reflective of these times, we were able to pick up a post-war publication of excerpts from The Communist Manifesto with illustrations by leftist artists who used their art to advocate and agitate for an end to Capitalism and in favor of a working class revolution at home.
The Wolfsonian is in the planning stages of preparing for an exhibition of World War I materials in time for the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of that conflict. Consequently, we also looked for (and found) a number of items that might be included in that exhibit. We were thrilled to have found a very rare portfolio of artist-illustrated periodicals published in Germany early on during the war. Kriegszeit contains reproductions of artwork by prominent German artists, including: Peter Behrens, Erich Büttner, Valér Ferenczy, August Gaul, Georg Greve-Lindau, Rudolf Grossmann, Otto Hettner, Willi Jäckl, Carl O. Petersen, Waldemar Rösler, Helmuth Stockmann, Alice Trübner, Max Unold, Karl Walser, Hedwig Weiss and others. The periodical was published weekly and semi-monthly between September 1915 and March 1916 and features prints and lithographs appealing to German nationalism and lampooning the enemy nations. Germany’s Entente enemies (France, Britain, and Russia) were most often depicted in the work by caricatures of the animals often associated with those nations.
Rather than use a noble lion to represent Great Britain, the German artists most often rendered the great naval power as a sea-lion, in this instance parodying her global imperial pretensions by having it trying to balance the globe on its nose!
France is often derisively represented as a strident Gallic rooster.
Russia is most often depicted as a slow-witted, lumbering bear.
Italy is caricatured as a lone wolf or wolf pack. In one instance, the German artists referenced the legendary She-Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, depicting them as ridiculous babes in arms.
These same German artists, of course, represented the fatherland with iconic images of the imperial eagle, fearlessly driving back these other timid animals.
These are but a small sampling of the materials that have come in through the generosity of Mr. Wolfson, and future blog posts will reveal some of the other gifts that have recently been added to the collection.