THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

16 May 2018

Over There, All Over Again: American Sheet Music, World War 1 and Nostalgic Musicals

It is always a great pleasure when you find your research coinciding with that of your colleagues. There has been a recent spike in discussions around American music and World War I in the Eccles Centre as Jean Petrovic is currently developing an online exhibition showcasing the British Library’s excellent collection of American sheet music, whilst I am researching American musicals of the early 1940s which looked back at World War I and vaudeville. 

As part of her project, Jean has been focusing on World War I, which saw an explosion in printed music. At the turn of the twentieth century – prior to the rise of radio and the phonograph – pianos were still the main source of home entertainment. Recent innovations in production had bought about a sharp decline in prices and an inevitable rise in demand. Not surprisingly, this was a boom-time for song-writers and music publishers. Print runs of top-selling songs frequently exceeded hundreds of thousands and between 1900 and 1910 more than 100 songs sold over one million copies.

More than 10,000 songs about World War I were published in the United States during 1914-18. In the early days, many of these songs echoed the non-interventionist stance of President Woodrow Wilson and most Americans.

Within days of the US declaration of war in 1917, George M Cohan, already one of the country’s most successful songwriters, penned ‘Over There’. With its patriotic call to arms, its optimism and its references to liberty and the American flag it went on to become the nation’s favourite war song. It was performed and recorded by many artists and eventually sold more than two million copies.

Over There - LOC photo

Above: George Michael Cohan. Over There. New York: Wm Jerome Publishing Corp., c1917.  British Library shelfmark a.318.(5) (other versions, h.3825.z.(52); h.1562; H.1860.i.(8); h.3825.ff.(7)); image courtesy of the Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010518

In 1936, President Franklin D Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his contribution to US morale during World War I.  He was the first person in an artistic field to receive this honour.

And this is where I come in. During America’s participation in World War II, a notable body of musical films were produced which reflected on the current crisis through the historical metaphor of America’s role in World War I. By binding these wartime stories with settings concerned with vaudeville and performance, these films conveyed patriotic messages and made entertainment culture central to American values. 

Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_poster

Above: promotional poster for Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942, Warner Brothers)

In 1942, director Michael Curtiz made Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic about Cohan’s life. The narrative is framed by Cohan, in the present day, going to visit President Roosevelt at the White House where he discusses his career and receives the Congressional Gold Medal (despite the award actually being made 6 years previously). In the urgent context of World War II the film places Cohan (but also by extension Hollywood itself) as vital agents in America’s cultural mythmaking: the inclusion of his famous, popular songs (‘Over There’, ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’, ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ and ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’) and production numbers involving a lot (and I mean A LOT) of flags, allow the fictional President Roosevelt to comment to Cohan that “your songs were weapons as strong as cannons and rifles in World War I."

Interesting, whilst the film was certainly an important part of Warner Brothers Studio’s commitment to the war effort, aimed partially at legitimizing their own work in the context of the war, the unashamedly patriotic film also served an interesting purpose for its star, James Cagney, who had personally struggled to deny Communist links.

Cagney had initially been opposed to making a Cohan biopic as he’d disliked Cohan since the Actor’s Equity Strike in 1919 when Cohan had sided with the producers. However, during the late 1930s and early 1940s Cagney had run-ins with the Dies Committee (the House Un-American Activities Committee): in 1940 he was named along with 15 other Hollywood figures in the testimony of John R Leech (an LA Communist Party leader) and the New York Times printed the allegation that Cagney was a Communist on its front page (August 15, 1940).

Although Cagney refuted the allegations and Martin Dies made a statement to the press clearing him, his brother, William Cagney, who managed his business affairs is reported to have said that “we’re going to have to make the [most] goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made. I think it’s the Cohan story.”[1] The film certainly achieves this aim: Cagney went on to win an Oscar for the role (and the film was a huge box office success for Warners).

For those interested in learning more about the American sheet music collection at the British Library, Jean’s web exhibition will go live later this summer.  In the meantime, an older incarnation of the project can be found here.

I will be discussing ‘American Film Musicals and the Reimagining of World War I’ as part of the British Library’s Feed the Mind series on Monday 21 May at 12.30 in the Knowledge Centre. I can promise clips of Gene Kelly, which must rate as one of the best ways to pass a lunch break. I hope you’ll be able to join me.

By: Dr Cara Rodway, Deputy Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, with thanks to Jean Petrovic, Bibliographical Editor.

 

[1] Patrick McGilligan, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur (New York & London: Tantivy Press, 1975), pp145-8 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection X.981/20794]

09 May 2018

Spring news from the Eccles Centre

North America (John Rocque)

Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]

Our colleagues from the Americas Collections have kindly allowed us a slot on the blog, so we thought we would let you know about some changes that are coming to the Eccles Centre. Spring is a particularly exciting time of year for the Eccles Centre as we welcome our new Visiting Fellows. Our Fellows are drawn from across the UK, Europe and North America and the Centre provides them with a financial award to support research using the North American collections of the British Library, plus a one-year membership of the Library.

Our Visiting Fellowships announcement marks the end of our 2018 awards and so our attention is now turning to calls for applications for our 2019 cohort. An invitation to apply for the Centre’s Fulbright Scholarship is now available on the Fulbright website and we will soon be advertising the next round of our Writer’s Award. Those of you who read The Bookseller will have seen Catherine Eccles’s recent piece about the award and noted that the scope of works eligible will stretch across the whole Americas during 2019. Watch this space for more details.

Further changes to our awards will be obvious when our call for 2019 Fellows comes out this summer. We are keen to help applicants see the potential of the Library’s collections more clearly and so from 2019 there will be a series of research priorities championed by the Centre. These are not meant to be exclusive, we still want to hear about all research the Library’s North American collections can support, and instead provide a window into areas where the collections are particularly strong. The priorities will also shape the Centre’s events schedule for the coming year and, hopefully, create a cohort of fellows working in similar areas. With this in mind the priorities for April 2018 – April 2019 will be:

  • North American and Caribbean Indigenous Studies
  • Literary, theatrical and artistic connections in Canada, the Caribbean and the US
  • Book history and arts in North America
  • Pacific politics and geopolitics
  • Migration in/from/through Canada, the Caribbean and the US
  • LGBTQ histories and culture in Canada, the Caribbean and the US

Should anyone wish to discuss possible research projects, collaborations or events that tie in with these priority areas please get in touch with us at eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Evidence of our research priorities can be seen in the Centre’s upcoming events for the spring and summer, with ‘Buffalo Bill Goes to China’ and ‘The Death of Captain Cook’ speaking directly to our new priorities. So too does the Centre’s support of the British Library’s, ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ and the season of events that accompanies the exhibition. We are also excited to be supporting an, 'In Conversation' with The Last Poets; Sarah Churchwell’s critical history of ‘America First’; and our two Black Lives Matter events, ‘From Black Lives Matter to White Power Presidency’ and ‘Black Lives Matter in the US and UK Today’, amongst our packed schedule

We hope the changes to the Centre excite you as much as they do us and we look forward to seeing you at one of our events soon.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies

01 May 2018

L is for Labor

May Day is celebrated in most of the world, including the US, on May 1st (in the UK, it falls on 7 May this year, due to the tradition of holding national holidays on Mondays).  It is now of course associated with International Workers' Day.  The date was chosen in commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, following the deaths of civilians and police at a rally for an 8-hour work day.

Amongst the many May Day related materials in our collections are these recently acquired pamphlets. 

May Day 2
Shelfmark YD.2017.b.496 and YD.2017.b.497

Published in 1938 and 1939 by the Communist Party of the United States, they draw direct correlations between the activities of workers and the struggle against fascism. 

"In the democratic countries, the workers will marhsal their forces in parades, demonstrations and meetings.  In the fascist countries, workers will gather in small groups, hidden from the police and fascist murder-bands, and once again will tell the story of May Day, and prepare for militant struggle to restore democracy."

Additionally, they point to the rise of fascist groups across the Americas, thereby making the call for labor unity more immediately urgent for their US audience. 

Sold at 1c, these pamphlets were aimed at a broad audience, some of whom may not have been familiar with the histories discussed within or the language of labor movements.  For those, the following publication would have been of use:

L is for Labor
shelfmark YD.2017.b.499

Published by the League of Women Shoppers in 1937, L is for Labor: a glossary of labor terms introduced its readers to the "new language" of labor, a language with the "color and vitality of great human movements."  This was a clever strategic move by the League who aimed to educate consumers on the rights of shop-workers, and encourage them to support union organising in the shops that they patronised.  Listing such terms as 'blacklist', ' boycott', 'collective bargaining', 'industrial accident', 'paternalism', and 'preferential shop', it provided a rapid education in the underlying principles and actions of labor movements that May Day exemplifies.

- F. D. Fuentes Rettig

15 February 2018

Researching American political pamphlets

Pamphlets have for centuries been an important medium for disseminating news and ideas and rallying public opinion, but their typically subversive nature made them a thorn in the side of rulers in Early Modern Europe. Pamphlets were notoriously vulgar and unreliable, and as such, the term ‘pamphlet’ and ‘pamphleteer’ were often used in a pejorative sense –– at one point even used as a synonym for a prostitute.1 But what of the pamphlet in 20th century America? How did new and improved technology and a radical, modern political landscape alter the nature of the pamphlet?

Having carried on much previous research on the radical politics of the interwar period, I was very excited at the prospect of exploring American political pamphlets from 1920-1945. This project is an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between the British Library and the University of Sussex, which makes use of the extensive collection of American political pamphlets held at the Library. The full scope of the pamphlets available is not yet known, and one of the major aims of the project is to produce a coherent and comprehensive digital database of the pamphlets for the Library, making them more accessible for both researchers and the public.

I feel extremely privileged to be given the opportunity to work with these pamphlets, many of which feature wonderful illustrations and photography. For example, this pamphlet issued by the Friends of the Soviet Union is filled with photos of working life in the Soviet Union, intended to display the ‘tremendous achievements’ of the first Five Year Plan.

YD.2007.a.2167
Page from Soviet Pictorial: Forging Ahead, published by the Friends of the Soviet Union in 1931. Shelfmark YD.2007.a.2167

 

This pamphlet by Pioneer Publishers (publishing house of the Socialist Workers Party, formerly the Communist League of America) is just one example of the some of the striking, politically-charged artwork to be found within many of these publications. This example features work by Laura Gray, who often produced illustrations for the Socialist Workers Party. Other notable radical illustrators to be found in the collection include Hugo Gellert, Robert Minor and William Gropper.

8287.cc.106.
American Workers Need a Labor Party, Pioneer Publishers (1944). Shelfmark 8287.cc.106.

  The history of pamphlets is not a topic that has been researched extensively, and what has been written focuses more on their uses in early modern Europe. This project hopes to bring to light the significance of the political pamphlet in modern America, eventually contributing to a more comprehensive history of the pamphlet overall. Some of the questions I will be asking include:

  • Where were the centres of pamphlet production, and how did changes in press restrictions impact the production of pamphlets and the radical publishing house in general?
  • Likewise, where were the main distribution centres for political pamphlets?
  • How many of these American political pamphlets found themselves in the hands of groups across the Atlantic? If so, how, and what kind of influence did they have?

With regards to the content of the pamphlets, I am especially interested in exploring the interaction through pamphlets between the Left and conservative and fascist anti-communist groups and organisations. For example, how either side dealt with the other as a respective threat. The interwar period was marked by increasing ideological polarisation across the world, and America was no exception. On the one hand, this period saw the creation of the Communist Party of America along with many other left-wing organisations that had been inspired and strengthened by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and on the other hand new fascist-inspired groups were formed while older far-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan saw its membership reach its peak of 4 million in the 1920s. The raison d’être for the majority of the far-right became fighting the supposed international threat of Jews and Communists. At the same time, political repression on federal, state and local levels was overwhelmingly justified on anti-communist grounds. I want to explain how pamphlets were used by the Left and civil liberties groups to counter these threats, and how successful they were in doing so.


To be a PhD student with the British Library is an invaluable experience – from the extensive access to important resources, the support and expertise of staff, and the many opportunities available. I have enjoyed every moment and I am excited to unlock all the potential of this project.

 

[1] Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 8, 9.

 

By Jodie Collins,

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library and University of Sussex

 

13 February 2018

Diplomacy and bibliophily: a gift from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Grenville?

Thomas Grenville (1755-1846)  is best known in the British Library as the owner of a library of some 20,000 volumes, which he bequeathed to the BM thanks to the negotiations (some say machinations) of Anthony Panizzi.

Born in 1755 into a political Whig family (his brother, Lord Grenville, was Prime Minister from 1763-65), Grenville retired from public life in 1818 to devote himself to his library, which he kept in his residence at Hyde Park Corner.  Now demolished, it has been replaced with an up-market hotel.

Thomas-Grenville
Thomas Grenville by and published by Charles Turner, after John Hoppner mezzotint, published 18 November 1805 (1805) NPG D34934 © National Portrait Gallery, London

But prior to retirement he had been a diplomat. He represented Britain at the conference in Paris in 1783, which negotiated the independence of the United States of America.

Among the American negotiators was the multi-faceted Benjamin Franklin.

Grenville’s copy of Franklin’s edition of Cicero’s Cato, on Old Age (G.17543), bears in a bold hand on the fly-leaf: Grenville. The small and neat hand above it is Grenville’s.

Cato Major G.17543
Shelfmark G.17543.

A large proportion of Grenville’s library was devoted to the Classics, as was to be expected of a connoisseur of his time. Grenville’s academic credentials went further than that: he and his brother produced an edition of Homer, with the aid of their old Oxford tutor William Cleaver. So great was Grenville’s attachment to this project that he kept the proofs and working papers.

Among his other talents, Franklin was a printer, and his work is praised in the highest terms in a Library of Congress online exhibition [https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/franklin/franklin-printer.html]:

  1. T. Cicero’s Cato Major, Franklin’s personal favorite from his press, is considered to be the finest example of the printing art in colonial America. Furthermore, this work of the Roman philosopher statesman [remind you of anyone? BT] is the first classic work translated [by James Logan] and printed in North America ...

In his ‘Printer to the Reader’, Franklin explains that he has printed this piece ‘in a large and fair Character, that those who begin to think on the Subject of old-age ... may not, in Reading by the Pain small letters give the Eyes, feel the Pleasure of the Mind in the least allayed.’

What better gift for the book-loving Grenville?  If our copy of Cato was indeed presented by Franklin to Grenville on the occasion of the Congress of Paris, he could be sure that it was going to a good home.

 

Barry Taylor, ‘Thomas Grenville (1755-1846) and his books’, in Libraries within the Library: The Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections, ed. Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (London, 2009), pp. 321-40

- Barry Taylor

09 February 2018

“Why can’t we study ourselves?”: The case for Caribbean history in the West Indian Gazette

‘A community, like an individual, to grow in wisdom needs to know and accept its own past.’[1]

 Writing in the West Indian Gazette in 1961, Shirley Gordon put forth the case for a reinvigoration of West Indian history in her article ‘The Teaching of W.I. History’.[2] Founded in 1958 by Claudia Jones a Trinidadian-born political activist and commentator, the West Indian Gazette was the first Black newspaper to be sold on the British high-street. Shirley Gordon was a life-long advocate of, and activist for the development of West Indian history, recognising the problems that arose out of historical neglect and distortion.

WestIndianGazette

West Indian Gazette, May 1961

My current research at the library looks into the multiplicity of ways in which history manifested itself in Caribbean popular culture in 1960s and 1970s Britain. At the moment, I am focusing on history segments in British-Caribbean publications such as the West Indian Gazette and Flamingo, with an emphasis on the moment of Caribbean independence across the 1960s. Whilst searching through the West Indian Gazette ‘Know Your History’ features I stumbled across Shirley Gordon’s article. Although not part of the ‘Know Your History’ feature, Gordon’s writing about history teaching encapsulates what history segments in journals and newspapers were trying to achieve.

Using an analogy of the human life-cycle she compared the trauma of slave society to ‘the long and unhappy childhood of the community’, and ‘the post-emancipation society’ as a form of ‘adolescence’ which suffered ‘under its prolonged colonial tutelage’.[3] Moving into the present, for Gordon this represented the ‘problems and challenges’ associated with ‘human as well as political adulthood.’[4] These problems and challenges included overcoming the historic imposition of European colonial history, which had overshadowed a much needed locally-oriented yet transnational West Indian narrative. Through this life-cycle analogy, Shirley Gordon depicts history as part of a personal, or rather communal, search for identity. In this case, history is the nation.

TheTeachningOfWI

West Indian Gazette, May 1961, p.6

The profundity of remedying West Indian history-telling was no doubt connected to the dawning of independence on the region; ‘a new nation must have a history to refer to’.[5] Although a ‘new nation’, the assertion of a unique West Indian history at this moment in time, was deeply focused on evidencing historicity and diversity. Commonly found among the pages of British-Caribbean newspapers and journals were reconstructions and stories of the native peoples of the Caribbean – the Arawaks, Caribs and Taínos – and of its powerful and regal African roots and connections. My drive to research the meaning and expressions of history is no doubt boosted by Gordon’s implication that history is integral to national development, especially in the post-colonial context. It seems that history, in its countless forms, shapes and styles was critical for exploring the Caribbean’s identity, strength, and ability to imagine and build a future. Such cultural manifestations of the region and its diaspora’s history will be explored and displayed in the upcoming ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ exhibition, opening on 1 June 2018. The Caribbean’s historical tapestry has been woven out of novels, music and political movements amongst other things; from Andrea Levy’s Small Island to Lord Kitchener’s calypso tunes, this renegotiation and reimagining of the Caribbean will be made visible in the exhibition’s diverse offerings.  

 

Naomi Oppenheim

@naomioppenheim

 

Naomi Oppenheim is a PhD candidate on a CDP at the British Library and UCL. She is currently researching British-Caribbean popular culture and the politics of history in the post-war period.

 

 

[1] West Indian Gazette, May 1961, p.6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

12 January 2018

Resources for engaging Māori contemporary culture and politics

Following on from my last post were I outlined some resources I have found useful for learning about contemporary Indigenous Australian issues; I have turned my attention to Māori resources in this post. As with the previous post, I have tried to provide resources that are written by Māori people, in some cases this is easier said than done as it is certainly not up to me to decide who is Māori and who is not. I am an outsider to Māori culture and this collection of resources is only intended to skim the surface in order to provide a few avenues for further research. If you think there is anything I have overlooked in this post or have other suggestions for me, I encourage you to tweet me: @JoannePilcher1

 

Carving
"The tools of the masters" #nzmaci #TeWānangaWhakairoRākauoAotearoa’. A carving from the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute shared on their Facebook page. They post many beautiful examples of Māori art and design.

 

Websites

Te Ara – The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand has been an invaluable resource for me, the website splits into themes that contexualise contemporary Māori life such as The Bush, The Settled Landscape and Economy and the City. It is possible to browse around topics based on these themes or it is an excellent place to go to read up on a specific issue but simply searching key words. They also feature stories and articles, for example this week’s featured story is Deep-sea Creatureshttps://teara.govt.nz/en

Maori.org.nz – This website provides useful summaries of elements of contemporary Māori culture and their historical context. I particularly enjoyed looking at the section on Korero O Nehera (Stories of Old), which is a collection of traditional Māori stories written by Māori authors. It also includes a selection of further links to learn more about each of the themes it addresses. http://www.maori.org.nz/

Māori Television has a news section on their website that covers current affairs from a Māori perspective. The Headlines section gave an interesting overview all news and I found the Politics section really useful for understanding how Māori issues are represented within the political structures in New Zealand. http://www.maoritelevision.com/news/headlines

While New Zealand History is not a specifically Māori focused website, it has been recommended by other Māori sites as a useful resource for providing historical context on Māori culture. It provides a Brief pre-history of how Māori peoples came to settle in New Zealand as well as going into a lot of detail on key dates in Māori history. It also has a really useful section on the various wars that took place between different Māori tribes and the Pākehā (non-Māori New Zealanders) and how this shaped the treatment of Māori peoples in New Zealand today. http://history-nz.org/maori.html

Online Journals

Mai Journal website, http://www.journal.mai.ac.nz/

He Pukenga Korero – A Journal of Māori Studies website http://www.hepukengakorero.com/

Facebook Pages

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s page discusses equality and human agency more broadly and often shares information relating to Māori issues.  https://www.facebook.com/NZHumanRightsCommission/

New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute shares a wide array of Māori art and design for anyone interested in learning more about traditional Māori visual culture. https://www.facebook.com/nzmaci/?ref=br_rs

Māori Rights in NZ shares a range of posts, from more political think pieces to more community-based information. https://www.facebook.com/MaoriRightsInNz/?ref=br_rs

Podcasts

Te Ahi Kaa – this podcast provides a bilingual discussion of various Māori experiences from the past, present and future. https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/teahikaa

Books

There is a very wide selection of books on Māori New Zealand in the British Library collections. In this list I have outlined ones that provide a more general context of Māori beliefs and culture, I will be revisiting some of these titles in future blog posts.

Rawinia Higgins, Poia Rewi and Vincent Olsen-Reeder eds, The value of the Māori language /Te hua o te reo Māori, Wellington : Huia Publishers, 2014, [shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa YP.2014.a.6419] A  bilingual collection of essays in Te Reo and English that discuss the importance of preventing the Māori language from dying out.

Tracey McIntosh and Malcolm Mulholland ed, Māori and social issues, Wellington, N.Z. : Huia Pub., 2011 [shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa YD.2012.a.4357] This book is part of the same series as The value of the Māori language, it aims to highlight social issues faced by Māori people from their perspective and suggests solutions that are Māori-centred.

Cleve Barlow, Tikanga Whakaaro : key concepts in Maori culture, Auckland : Oxford University Press, 1991 [General Reference Collection YC.1991.a.5030] Written by a Māori man who comments that his combination of Māori upbringing and western style education has inspired the book's structure. He focuses in on key Māori themes, selecting ones that are most relevant to contemporary Māori life. Each entry is bilingual.

Tania Ka'ai, Ki te whaiao : an introduction to Māori culture and society, Auckland, N.Z. : Pearson Longman, 2004 [shelfmark: Document Supply m04/30485] This book is structured so that the first part focuses on the Māori world, Te Ao Māori, and the second, Ngā Ao e Rua (The Two Worlds), looks at how the worlds of the Māori and Pākehā have interacted and existed alongside each other throughout time.

Auckland Art Gallery, Pūrangiaho: seeing clearly: casting light on the legacy of tradition in contemporary Māori art, Auckland, N.Z. : Auckland Art Gallery, c2001 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YA.2002.a.20895]. There is often a risk of associating the traditional art of First Peoples of any country as historical or anthropological objects. While they can be both historical and anthropological (like all artworks) they can also be considered as great pieces of contemporary art. This exhibition catalogue looks at how contemporary Māori artists have utilised traditional techniques in their work.

 

By Joanne Pilcher

PhD Placement Student

British Library and Brighton University

08 January 2018

The Garden of Good and Evil

Several months ago, I was privileged to see a preview of ‘The Garden of Good and Evil', Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s latest exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  Trained as a filmmaker and architect, Jaar’s work crosses mediums yet is consistently concerned with the human experience of political repression and socio-political power.  As such, he labels his work ‘public interventions’: they are direct confrontations to how we see the world and act in it, challenges to engage intellectually and respond ethically.

Having in the past dealt with such large and difficult subjects as Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship in 'Are You Happy', the Nicaraguan Civil War, the Rwandan Genocide in 'The Rwanda Project', US ethnocentrism in 'This Is Not America', and migration to the EU in 'One Million Finnish Passports', 'The Garden of Good and Evil' powerfully explores the space of so-called CIA ‘black sites’ of rendition and torture in a meticulous arrangement of steel cells amidst a tranquil copse.

Alfredo-jaar-at-yorkshire-sculpture-park-courtesy-the-artist-new-york-and-ysp-photo-©-jonty-wilde
Alfredo Jaar at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Courtesy the artist. Photo credit Jonty Wilde.

The retrospective work collected in the indoor gallery is similarly political in nature but by contrast is more directly concerned with two other recurring motifs in Jaar’s work: the ethics of representation and the value of the written word.  These concerns are perhaps best encapsulated by the poster ‘You Do Not Take A Photograph.  You Make It.’ (a phrase attributed to US photographer Ansel Adams) which visitors are invited to take home.  Variously referencened throughout the exhibition are also Antonio Gramsci, Samuel Beckett, and E.M. Cioran whose words have been transformed into glowing neon installations.

Alfredo-jaar-be-afraid-of-the-enormity-of-the-possible-2015-courtesy-the-artist-new-york-and-ysp-photo-©-jonty-wilde
Alfredo Jaar, Be Afraid of the Enormity of the Possible, 2015. Courtesy of the artist, New York and YSP. Photo credit Jonty Wilde.

Taken from Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran's On The Heights of Despair (Pe culmile disperării), 'Be Afraid of the Enormity of the Possible' is exemplary of Jaar's artistic practice which works across forms, is robustly intellectual, and speaks to and of the world.

P1090957
Shelfmark YF.2016.a.22972

Jaar's art is always in dialogue, and in being so it is lifted beyond a superficially nihilistic exploration of trauma.  Read in conjunction with the photographic and film works that form the remainder of the exhibition, these pieces act as a model for an alternative mode of viewing and interpreting the photojournalism of suffering and violence.  Indeed, he has said that he has been heavily influenced by photojournalist Koen Wessing, particularly the photobook recording the Chilean military dictatorship Chili September 1973.

P1090810
Shelfmark RF.2017.b.37

Jaar engages directly with Wessing's photographs in his piece 'Shadows'.   In it, we see several photographs of two young women mourning their father who was murdered by the Nicaraguan National Guard.  The final enlarged projected photograph of their twisted bodies, faces pained with trauma is literally burnt onto the viewer's retina as the image fades leaving just their outlines in blinding white light: we are forcefully made aware of our relationship to these people, the damage that is caused by viewing, and the requirement to view.

Alfredo-jaar-shadows-2014-courtesy-the-artist-new-york-and-ysp-photo-©-jonty-wilde
Alfredo Jaar, Shadows, 2014. Courtesey the artist, New York and YSP. Photo credit Jonty Wilde.

The Library holds a number of Jaar's monographs which detail his career spanning several decades, and you can also find many of the literary, philosophical and photographic works referenced in his art in our collections.

P1090813
Shelfmarks (L-R) YD.2006.a.7442; YF.2008.a.27629; YC.2014.a.260; m04/28398



 'The Garden of Good and Evil' runs at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 8 April 2018.

- Francisca Fuentes Rettig