Wednesday, December 05, 2007

1930s Facebook

Archaeological fieldwork offers many hours of concentrated labor and intellectual activity but also presents seemingly endless hours of boredom. Evening leisure time can be expended by limited means especially in remote settings with few social offerings for the outsider. With digital media, this is less of a problem today through the Internet, iPods, and DVDs (in Greece, these are often pirated, sold by itinerant peddlers). Yet even in our media saturated times, students still find the need to socialize around a computer screen to watch a popular movie, sharing some necessary R & R.

Field directors (older in age than their students) may be horrified by such insular forms of entertainment; so we encourage the students to go out there, practice the language, socialize with the natives, live the culture. But if contemporary archaeological practices are so integrally tied to the computer (digital notebooks, photography, databases, GIS, graphics, project websites, electronic field reports, etc.), how surprised can we be that entertainment uses the same tools of labor?

Forms of archaeological entertainment seem to be most indicative of forms of archaeological thinking. Turning back, once again, to the 1930s, I want to reveal one fascinating form of entertainment: creating silhouettes. It became clear to me coincidentally, while reading the catalogue of a current exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington,
The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson (Washington, D.C., 2007).

In her essay "Quick, Casual, Modern 1920-1939," Sarah Kennel discusses the emergence of a new photographic form promoted by Kodak through advertisement, the making of silhouettes (left,
The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978, pp. 77-79). By placing a light source behind the photographic subject, the amateur produced a compelling black figure framed by the white background of a sheet or a white wall. This became extremely popular, a combination of "theatricality and youthful sociability." Kennel uses the example of an album, "Silhouettes, Ooh! Phi-Oh Meeting" from August 7, 1931. College-age men and women take humorous and often sexually suggestive poses. I show you one snapshot where a young lady poses with a Greek vase (at the beginning of the post). The photographic practice was based on a slightly older drawing tradition, projecting a silhouettes onto a sheet of paper and tracing it by hand.

How does this connect with American archaeology? Last summer, the American School's archivist Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan showed me a set of silhouettes that have not been identified. I was researching the drawing collection of George Peschke, and Natalia wanted to check whether Peschke may have been responsible for them. The silhouettes are clearly the product of the same youthful and theatrical entertainment popularized by Kodak, but executed with older graphic medial. The silhouettes were made by the ASCSA's 1930s youngsters stuck in Ancient Corinth with nothing to do after hours. What proves the connection is a passing reference made by Doreen Canaday Spitzer in the obituary of her dear friend Gladys Davidson Weingberg: "Evening entertainment at the excavation house was simple: tracing by lamplight the profiles of resident Corinthians and the visitors" (
Akoue, Winter 2003, p. 18).

The conceptual implications of silhouetting are intense. It is a form of entertainment that seeks to inscribe the physical identity of the player onto a permanent record (drawn or photographed). It allows the players to optically caress the bodies of their friends, while maintaining a safe social distance. It is a form of autobiography, created by highly visual individuals who have devoted their lives to the graphic duplication of a buried, invisible, secret world. Their books become their faces and their faces become their books. And let's not forget that this is the 1930s, when the documentary mode overtakes all creative forms in American life from the WPA photographs, to Dos Passos
U.S.A. See William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (New York, 1973)

Overwhelmed by the power of these silhouettes, I try to organize my thoughts into six directions that I share with you below.

1) The youthful Corinthian archaeologists spent much of their work drawing precise profiles of the material culture they were excavating. Whether studying architecture, sculpture, or pottery, the technical medium of representation involved the tracing of objects (the world) into inked outline, thus guaranteeing orthographic truth and numerical measure (though which the archaeological reader could reproduce the world). The extension of a work-habit into a leisure-habit, bonds the object of scholarship (the pot) with the subject of scholarship (the face of the archaeologist). Think how the modern student seamlessly navigates from digital documentation to digital identity-making, in the websites of social networking (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) This doesn't seem much different than silhouetting.

2) Silhouetting means less to us today, but in the 1900s it reverberated with the experimentation of Isadora Duncan, the celebrity dancer who un-knotted classical ballet with movement copied from ancient vase painting. Isadora Duncan's dances imitated the flat representations of antiquity, a process that liberated the body into a more natural predicament. I'm sure that many of the contemporary American Schoolers had seen Duncan perform her silhouetted dances in the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, where she would unravel her "happenings."

3) The relationship between ancient vase painting and the visual arts has an even longer and fascinating history. We cannot speak of silhouettes without mentioning the art of the Enlightenment. Artists such as John Flaxman (1755-1826) used the simplified flattened graphics of Greek vase painting or (freshly excavated) Pompeiian frescoes to devise a new pictorial space. In the hands of David, Ingres, or even Canova, Flaxman's silhouetted space was radical. See Thomas Crow's excellent survey in
Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History, ed. Stephen F. Eisenman (London, 1994), pp. 14-50. A newer edition of this book is out, but not yet available, I'm lucky to have received a review copy. It's a MUST for all visually literate classicists. Another great new book on Pompeii/Herculaneum and modernity, is Antiquity Recovered: The Legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum, ed. Victoria C. Gardner Coates and Jon L. Seydl (Oxford, 2007). Look out for Jon Seydl, a dear friend, who has left the Getty and is now Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I mention him gratuitously because he is responsible for getting me hooked on . . . Facebook!

PS. After reading this post, Jon Seydl brought to my attention the "Corinthian maid" tale, which was intensely popular in the 18th c, in the discussions over the origins of art, etc. The story originates in Pliny the Elder's
Natural History:

"Dibutades, a potter of Sicyon, first formed likenesses in clay at Corinth, but was indebted to his daughter for the invention. The girl, being in love with a young man who was soon going from her into some remote country, traced out the lines of his face from his shadow on the wall by candle-light. Her father filling up the lines with clay formed a bust, and hardened it in the fire with the rest of his earthen ware

Our young Corinthians were reenacting the origins of art.

4) Silhouetting should also be seen as a necessary prerequisite to collage and the aesthetics of fragmentation. Since I just read the novel, I cannot resist sharing the opening scene of Virginia Woolf's
To the Lighthouse (1927), where Mrs. Ramsey's young boy cuts away pictures and collages them: "James Ramsey, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores." Of course this is a technical metaphor for Woolf's own collaged narrative, but in this opening scene the cutting promises the future success of adulthood: "his mother, watching him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator, imagined him all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs." (Harcourt paperback edition, New York, pp. 3-4). Sorry about the literary digression.

5) Even more specifically, the leisure of silhouettes provide some additional context in understanding Piet de Jong's famous caricatures of the archaeological scene, beautiful published in Rarchel Hood's
Faces of Archaeology in Greece: Caricatures of Piet de Jong (Oxford, 1998), and recently revisited in John Papadopoulos ed., The Art of Antiquity: Piet de Jong and the Athenian Agora (Princeton, 2006). The caricatures are hence a masterful extension of the leisure activity. We might even wonder whether de Jong began his drawings by actual silhouettes. That would make his caricatures the equivalent of death masks.

6) Silhouetting reminds me of another related medium of scholarly documentation, racial profiling. In his study of skeletal material from the Agora, Larry Angel published an eerie morphological catalogue of Modern Greek skull types with frontal and profile viees, J. Lawrence Angel, "Skeletal Material from Attica,"
Hesperia 14 (1941), pp. 279-363, pl. XL. This may appear shocking to us today, but racial typology was a standard practice in 1930s physical anthropology. One cannot but wonder, whether the silhouetting of the Corinthian students implied some kind of racial recognition. This would be particularly sensitive, I presume, with the Jewish minority of the ASCSA, with Gladys Davidson Weinberg, for instance, whose father was an important scholar in New York's Jewish Theological Seminary. We cannot forget that the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany began in 1933.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States