On Book Exhibits and World War II Material Culture (#AHA19)

Megan Jones of The Pingry School offers one more post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  In this post, Megan reflects on her last day of the conference with a nod to the book exhibit and a panel on visual culture and the end of World War II. (Read all of Megan’s posts here).  Enjoy!  –JF

The book exhibit is one of the best parts of an academic conference, particularly for someone who does not have the time to keep up with book reviews in academic journals. A scholar browsing the exhibit hall for new titles is like a child perusing a candy store, and the feeling of ecstatic curiosity is probably about the same. Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) had a great GIF of the wizard from Disney’s “Fantasia” to represent his analysis of historians in book exhibits. I spent about two hours walking through the hall. Here’s a screenshot of my camera roll showing the books I found particularly appealing:

megan pics

I’m going to (hopefully) be teaching a course on American environmentalism, Atlantic World and modern European revolutions, and Modern World History in the future, so my selection is fairly broad. I even persuaded a few publishing reps to send me free samples. Score.

The best panel I attended on Day 3 was session #173, “Visualizing Victory, Visualizing Defeat: The Material Culture of Occupation in the Wake of World War II.” Two PhD candidates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave fascinating talks on the afterlives of visual artifacts in the postwar period. Abigail Lewis discussed the various uses and changing meaning of photographs taken by French photographers during the Vichy regime. These images depicted a relatively happy and peaceful France under Nazi occupation, which can be best explained by the fact that only photographers who agreed to abide by Nazi rules could obtain material with which to actually shoot photos. These images were used after the end of WWII to depict occupation in a blockbuster show at the Grand Palais in 1946, and also during a 2008 retrospective.  Jennifer Gramer spoke about German war art and the confiscation of such work by the American Captain Gordon Gilkey with the Roberts Commission, and the choices made to determine which art was deemed potentially capable of inciting violence in the future.

Both Lewis and Gramer discussed how the images and works they studied had different meaning for the French and Germans depending on the time under consideration. Both also questioned how the meaning of images changes depending on the context – should we look at an image divorced from its historical context and deem it “artistic” as in the case of German war art, some of which is objectively beautiful and clearly drawn by a talented artist? Do the images taken by French photographers indicate their complicity with the Vichy regime, or were they subversively collaborating with the idea that their images would serve as a documentary record for posterity? Who gets to determine the meaning of an image? The questions Lewis and Gramer posed, which I am probably doing no justice to, speak to a broader question of who owns history and who has the right to interpret historical artifacts.

Thanks, Megan!

Jane Kamensky Talks John Singleton Copley

KamenskyCheck out Mark Cheathem‘s interview with Harvard historian Jane Kamensky.  She talks about her award-winning book A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley.

Here is a taste:

For those who haven’t read your book, would you please provide a synopsis?

Jane Kamensky (JK): A Revolution in Color tells an off-kilter story of British America in the age of the American Revolution through the biography of the New England-born painter John Singleton Copley. Born on the eve of King George’s War, Copley came of age in a thoroughly British Boston, with streets named Queen and King, and book stores and coffee houses touting the latest news from London. He identified thoroughly with an imperial imaginary, dreaming of a world in color an ocean away. When Boston grew heated over taxes in the 1760s, he identified as a Son of British Liberty, and hoped for a return of the status quo ante. He painted men and women on all sides of the conflict–Paul Revere and Thomas Gage, Samuel Adams and Francis Bernard–who doubtless gave him an earful while they sat for their portraits. But when shouting turned to shooting, he, like Melville’s Bartleby, simply preferred not to. Copley’s life and work make visible, literally visible, the viewpoints of that large group of early Americans whose preferred side in Britain’s American War was neither. As Yeats would say of another revolutionary conflict more than a century later, he thought “the worst [were] full of passionate intensity.” He himself lacked political conviction, focusing his own intensity on art and family strategy rather than matters of nation or party. His rise and fall show both the terrors of revolutionary fervor, and the costs of passivity in an age where people insisted on forging their own destinies. Like the Revolution itself, it’s a very ambivalent story.

I would venture to say that many Americans have never heard of John Singleton Copley. What led you to choose him as the subject for this book?

JK: If they haven’t heard of Copley, they’ve seen his work. His Paul Revere is surely the second most famous face of revolutionary America, and we see a version of it every time we hoist a bottle of Sam Adams lager. And of course, Bostonians know Copley as written into the very landscape of the city: Copley Square, the Fairmont Copley Hotel, Copley T station. But the irony is, Copley’s life doesn’t support his use in contemporary culture, which follows a kind of New England nationalism. That gap was interesting to me. Plus, the evidence is very rich: in addition to his dazzling painted work, Copley and his kin left hundreds of letters, which is true for very few artists. Those letters allowed a muddled, middling character to emerge from the swirl of events in the age of revolution. Like a Copley portrait, he’s a well mottled character. We have too few of those in the literature of revolutionary heroes and villains.

Read the rest at The Republic Blog