Monday, November 09, 2015

Leon Von Ossko: Part 2

Who would have thought that Lancaster, Pa. is a haven for Orientalist drawings? Back in February, I had posted about the Hungarian baron Leon Von Ossko, who fell in love with a prominent Lancasterian in Florence and moved to Pennsylvania. Franklin and Marshall College's Phillips Museum has one of his drawings in its possession, through the college's Breneman/Peart/Brockius family donations.

The beauty of blogging is that it allows you to be a temporary expert on a topic that little has been written about. While cataloging her art and thinking about framing some pieces, Bettina Heffner of Lancaster came across a drawing that a friend had given to her family in the 1970s. Since the artist's signature was hard to decipher, Bettina asked her friend Joanne Stephen, a calligrapher, to help her out. Joanne made out most of the letters of Von Ossko and simply googled the name to get more information, and lo and behold my posting "Leon Von Ossko: Lancaster's Orientalist" came up. Bettina then contacted me and we started communicating over email.

Today, we finally had a chance to meet. Bettina came to the Phillips Museum with Joanne to see the Von Ossko in our collection and brought her Von Ossko to show us (shown above). This chance meeting turned into a fabulous art-historical seminar, joined in by Lindsay Marino (the museum's collections manager). The Heffner Von Ossko is vividly similar to the Phillips Museum Von Ossko. Both depict a street scene in Cairo although illustrating a different mosque. The style is similar (pencil drawing and water color) and clearly belongs to the same group. The ingenious Ben Anderson, professor of art history at Cornell University, has identified the monument as the mosque of Amir Aytmish al-Bajasi. When I asked Ben, how he identifies these Mamluk mosques so well, he modestly said "every dome is different."

Whereas only a few months ago, we had an odd Orientalist work at our museum, we now how a family. Two drawings do not a show make. Nevertheless, they give promise of a line of Orientalist inquiry to be further developed in Lancaster studies.

Thank you Bettina and Joanne for sharing your work. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

Keat's Fancy Mantel

The Anglo-American fireplace is tightly intertwined with literature. It locates the act of reading while dislocating the domestic belonging. A collegiate fireplace at the University of Pennsylvania inscribes that tension in stone. Two youngsters William C. Hays and Milton Medary designed the oldest American student union with their professor Frank Miles Day. Houston Hall is a Tudor Revival building (modeled on the 17th-century Peacock Inn, Rowley). Its main hall is flanked by two large fireplaces carved in limestone. A band runs over the eastern fireplace that contains a running stanza from Keats 1820 poem Fancy.

"Sit thee by the ingle, when
The sear faggot blazes bright,
Spirit of a winter's night"

The heavy mantel becomes a didactic device for escaping the home through fancy. "Ever let the Fancy roam, Pleasure never is at home" is the poem's central message. Stuffy as this collegiate gesture may seem today, it contains an element of dislocation. The meaning of faggot has greatly changed over the last century from its original medieval French import into the English language. A bundle of sticks burns below a bundle of ripples. The blazing reality around which the readers bundle generates a conversation or an exit strategy.

The inglenook (literary "a corner of fire") became an obsession in British domestic architecture. Is it possible that the British hearth imaginaire could be transported to Greece? This blog, remember, explores the vernacular associations of Greek villages. If not directly, British domestic ideals would have passed to Greece through Germany, specifically through Hermann Multhesius. Published by Wasmuth press in Berlin in 1904, Multhesius's monograph The English House put British vernacular at the center of modernism. Just five years later, Wasmuth would publish Frank Lloyd Wright's famous folio that made him an instant celebrity among modernists (while still hated by Americans). While admiring the English house immensely, Multhesius cannot help himself but make fun of the British for insisting on fireplaces even as they all understand how totally inefficient they are.

I could not resist making a quick sketch of this literary marriage in stone at Houston Hall, a space that I have passed a thousand times. For more information on the building, see George Thomas and David Brownlee, Building America's First University (Philadelphia, 2000), p. 171.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Holman Bible Iron

Steel Beam Vernacular has been generally interested in the incorporation of metal into vernacular architecture. With Frank Furness as a pioneering figure, Philadelphia is well endowed. But I think I have ran into the grandest iron installation. It carries the masonry load of the whole facade (four stories) and opens up the first story in order to reveal the merchandise to the viewer. In this case, the merchandise is .... bibles. Philadelphia used to be the publishing capital of the U.S. before New York took over in the 20th century. The most profitable best seller was naturally the Bible, and Andrew J. Holman was one of its manufacturers. The Holman Bible Factory was designed by the Wilson Brothers in 1881 and located at 1222-26 Arch St (see here for details). The cast iron piers incorporate decorative elements from the brick facade (rosettes, mouldings, rustication, etc.) and dramatically express the pneumatic forces (notice Furness's trick of double-piled columns that refer to steam machinery). The iron facade is unique also in that they taper in at the base, making the building tilt towards the street. I had to stop for and take stock of the piers' complex elements.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Texas (inside) versus North Dakota (outside) man camp insulation

The North Dakota Man Camp Project had a productive research trip a couple of weeks ago, where we documented evidence of abandonment and scaling-down (see here). This phenomenon corresponds with other oil fields, where the decrease of oil prices, exaggerated further by the Iran deal, has caused a clear decline. It's in this general context that Karnes County, Texas, made the news this Sunday: Clifford Kraus, "Sinking Oil Prices Are Lowering Boom in Texas," The New York Times (Aug. 15, 2015), A1, A3.

The article included a photo of an oil worker walking out of his RV. See photo hereThis has become a standard oil boom image, partially canonized by Kyle Cassidy (landscape view, right frame cuts through the middle of RV, resident walking or standing at entrance). 

Beyond its human content, the New York Times photograph highlights strategies of vernacular architecture. I did a sketch above to illustrate a subtle detail from the photo, the use of reflective insulation on the windows (marked in black). Whereas in North Dakota this material is placed on the outside of the RV, in Texas it is placed on the inside of the RV. The same material (available at any construction store) insulates against the cold in North Dakota and the heat in Texas. This is one among many regional variations.

I quote some relevant passages by Clifford Kraus below that make the man camp situation in Texas similar to that of North Dakota.

Workers whom migrated from far and wide to find work here, chasing newfound oil riches, are being laid off, deserting their recreational vehicle parks and going home. Hey farmers who became instant millionaires on royalty checks for their land have suddenly fallen behind on payments for new tractors they bought when cash was flowing. Scores of mobile steel tanks and portable toilets used at the ubiquitous wells are stacked, unused, along county roads. 'Everybody is waiting for doomsday,' said Vi Malone the Karnes County treasurer.

Just five years ago, Karnes County was a speck in the oil patch, its production a rounding error in a state historically tied to oil. Then came hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and teh sure in oil production it unleashed. Crumbling towns here reinvented themselves with new restaurants, markets and hotels as money and jobs poured in....

Friday, August 14, 2015

Ouranis Fireplace

After surveying many fireplaces in deserted Greek houses, I have been thinking about the representation of desertion in Greek literature. After the iconic fireplace of Papadiamantis (see here), I turn to one of the clearest expressions of fireplace nostalgia from a posthumously published piece by the poet Kostas Ouranis. I had blogged on Ouranis's poem "Frangissa" back in 2009 (see here). "The Fireplace" was written sometime in 1928-29. At that point, Ouranis had spent a large period of his life abroad, at Davos Switzerland recovering from tuberculosis, or as Greek Consul in Lisbon. In "The Fireplace," he revisits his locked up paternal home in Leonidio, Arcadia. In some ways, the fireplace of his youth is the same as the hundreds of abandoned fireplaces in our survey. The essay was published posthumously by his wife (under a pseudonym) in 1956, and I give the original Greek below. Below I translate it loosely in English. The piece confirms a sentimental reading of this architectural feature. As a modernist poet, Ouranis' expresses the great space that separates the space of the rural Greece of his youth and the alienated cosmopolitanism of his modern Greek existence. The essay is sentimental and it offers a reflection of an eloquent poet who returned to the space of his youth. 

The Fireplace

It's winter outside, and I sit by a miserable stove that is stingy with its heat. I reminisce nostalgically over the fireplace, the heart of happy houses and the source of tranquil joy.

The fireplace belongs to my paternal home in provincial Arcadia! Long winter nights, the rain burst on the paving of the courtyard, a mad wind shook the windows, and the terrifying sound of the flooded river could be heard outside. But the fireplace shone brightly, illuminating with its luster both my face and my soul. Cross-legged, I once sat by the fireplace and listened to my grandmother's fairy tales, while the chestnuts crackled on the fire. By its light, I read my first Arabian Nights full of fear and seduction, as I grew older. In its flames, I saw genies and Sinbad come to life. 

Poetry woke my soul next to the fireplace. I lamented the withering flowers in the garden, the dead cicadas, and the poor who felt cold throughout the world. I had my first dreams at the fireplace, always dreams of migration. I pondered large hyperborean seas, always deserted and turbulent. I pondered distant lands that had green and rosy borders in my geography. I pondered snow covered forests where fairy princesses hunted deer with golden horns. And I pondered foreign ports, where I would one day embark as a ship's captain, pipe in mouth and a tame red-green parrot perched on my shoulder. 

Years later, every time that I returned from aboard, I would bend over and stir the hearth of the paternal house. And I would stir those early memories and stir the melancholy felt earlier. I would feel the warmth around me as an armor protecting me in life, or as a forgotten pier in the seas, where the waves serenaded the boats into sleep.

The grandmother who once told those tales and the mother who once kept the fire are now buried underground. The house is locked and the fireplace is extinguished forever. I remember those old days of warmth as the winter now rages outside. The wind outside stirs my heart like a scrap. I am cold. I ponder my life that has passed, the closed house, and the dead under the snowed earth.

Το τζάκι (1928-29)

Χειμώνας έξω κ΄ εγώ, μπροστά σε μιάν άθλια σόμπα που φιλαργυερεύεται τη ζέστη της, συλλογιέμαι νοσταλγικά την ψυχή των ευτυχισμένων σπιτιών, την πηγή της γαλήνιας χαράς : το τζάκι ...

Τζάκι του πατρικού σπιτιού, στην αρκαδική μας επαρχία! Μεγάλες χειμωνιάτικες νύχτες, όταν στις πλάκες της αυλής έσκαζε με δύναμη η βροχή, και τράνταζε τα παράθυρα ο φρενιασμένος άνεμος κι ακουόταν η τρομερή βοή του πλημμυρισμένου χειμάρρου – και το τζάκι φεγγοβολούσε, φωτίζοντας με τις ανταύγειές του το πρόσωπο και την ψυχή μου ... Καθισμένος σταυροπόδι πλάϊ του, είχα ακούσει τα πρώτα παραμύθια της γιαγιάς, ενώ τρίζαν στη χόβολη τα κάστανα που ψήναμε. Αργότερα, είχα διαβάσει στο φως του, όλος τρόμο και γοητεία, τη Χαλιμά – κ’ είχα δει να χοροπηδάν στις φλόγες του τα τελώνια κι ο τζουτζές του Σεβάχ Θαλασσινού.

Πλάϊ σ’ αυτό ξύπνησε η ψυχή μου στην ποίηση, ενώ θλιβόμουν για τα μαραμένα στον κήπο λουλούδια, γιά τα πεθαμένα τζιτζίκια και για τους φτωχούς που κρύωναν μέσα στον απέραντο κόσμο. Από κει ξεκίνησα τα πρώτα μου όνειρα – όνειρα αποδημίας πάντα. Συλλογιόμουν τις μεγάλες υπερβόρειες θάλασσες, έρημες και φουρτουνιασμένες· τις μακρυνές χώρες, που είχαν πράσινα και ρόδινα σύνορα στη Γεωγραφία μου· χιονισμένα δάση, όπου παραμυθένια πριγκιπόπουλα κυνηγούσαν ελάφια με χρυσά κέρατα – και ξενικά λιμάνια, όπου θα ξεμπάρκαρα μιά μέρα καπετάνιος με την πίπα στο στόμα κ’ έναν κοκκινοπράσινο, ήμερο, παπαγάλο στον ώμο...

Χρόνια αργότερα, κάθε φορά που γυρνούσα από τα ξένα και, σκυμένος μπρος στή φωτιά του πατρικού τζακιού, ανάδευα, μαζί με τη χόβολη, τις αναμνήσεις μου και τις μελαγχολίες μου, ένοιωθα τη ζεστασιά γύρω μου σα μιά πανοπλία ενάντια στη ζωή και τη φωτεινή του ειρήνη σαν ένα λησμονημένο από τους ανέμους μώλο, όπου νανουρίζονται απαλά τα θαλασσοδαρμένα καΐκια ...

Σήμερα όμως η γιαγιά που έλεγε τα παραμύθια κ’ η μητέρα που φρόντιζε τη φωτιά κείτονται από καιρό μέσα στο χώμα και το σπίτι είναι μανταλωμένο και το τζάκι σβησμένο – γιά πάντα. Και γι’ αυτό, τώρα που έξω είναι χειμώνας κ’ εγώ συλλογιέμαι περασμένα εκείνα, νοιώθω να κουνάει σα ράκος την ψυχή μου ο αέρας και να κρυώνω – και για τη ζωή μου που πέρασα και για το σπίτι που έκλεισε και για τους πεθαμένους κάτω από τη χιονισμένη γη ...

Ouranis, Kostas. 1956. Αποχρώσεις, ed. Eleni Ouranis[= Alkis Thrylos], Athens: Estia, pp. 148-149.

Monday, August 03, 2015

O Young Building, Grand Forks ND

Cast iron transformed commercial architecture in 19th-century American cities. Affording greater span for less footprint, they increased the space for windows and window-shopping. In corner properties, the iron column was capable of supporting the entire weight of the residential upper floors and open up the corner to the public, placing the entrance diagonally to the corner, and allow passage and view from both streets. Cutting the corner gave back space to the public street (experientially but not legally) and literally syphoned the shopper into the store. Decorative detail on the prefabricated iron post, moreover, attracted attention the store.

The "corner store" is, thus, an iconic installation in any19th-century American city. But since this paradigm does not work anymore, many of the old corner stores have closed their original public offering to increase their private real estate. When American cities went into depression in the 1960s, the iron posts stopped being maintained, rusted, and generally proved inefficient. So few of them actually survive in situ.

This morning, I took a walk through Grand Forks' beautiful main street (3rd Street) to see a beautiful iron corner post on 2 S 3rd Street and Demers. Originally the "O Young Building" it sat on a prime location with Demers Street crossing the Red Rive into Minnesota. The post had no information about the foundry that produced it (sometimes they are stamped) but, I would guess, it was manufactured in Minneapolis. It is divided into two parts with triple fluting, a base, capital, and a simple middle block decorated with disks. The pier is decorated on only two of its four sides, which suggests that originally the corner was not fully open but must have had some adjacent framing.
The entrance to the upstairs residential floors is on the other side of the facade and it is framed by decorated piers that match the iron post. From the distance, it looks like they are iron, too, but they are not. They are made out of wood, but carved so to match the iron prototype in the corner. This is pretty interesting. The carpenter (surely local) is completing here an architectural composition whose vocabulary was established by the foundry. Painting both white makes them indistinguishable. I was excited to discover this bi-materiality. On the East Coast and other midwestern cities, decorative details of this period are made in pressed zinc and do away with the carpenter altogether.
The Young store had an iron post on its other back corner, but it has been replaced with a newer steel column. A staircase leading to the basement on Demers Street features another iron element, a beautiful post for the railing, most likely manufactured by the same foundry (below):

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Papadiamantis Fireplace

The fireplace is a central component in Greek vernacular architecture. The Deserted Greek Village project surveyed many fireplaces constructed in stone (left, from Aigition, Phokis) or plaster (Penteskouphi). Hearths are typically found on the second floor of a house, dedicated to human residence as distinguished from mixed usage (storage, livestock) on the first floor. This internal distinction of upper and lower floors corresponds to the increasing specialization of domestic space throughout Europe and the U.S. in the 18th century. In contrast, the medieval Greek house would have had unitary spaces of mixed usage without fireplaces. 

The centrality of the fireplace in the social imagination of rural Greece is evident in how it is discussed in literature, particularly in the short stories of the late-19th-century school of Folk Realism. At another level, the village fireplace takes on a higher topical significance representing literature. This is a common topos in European literature, since most people actually read books in front of their fireplace (up until the advent of forced air heating in 1885). The Greek fireplace began to represent the location of oral culture. Kostas Ouranis, for example, describes his childhood memories of sitting by the fireplace and listening to his grandmother's tales.

I have begun a more systematic survey of 19th-century literature for its architectural references. The survey begins with the stories of Alexandros Papadiamantis. The edition of Papadiamantis that I have access to is the 1970 edition of Seferli (thank you University of Pennsylvania libraries for not [yet] taking Papadiamantis to off-site storage). Right at the opening of the first volume, we have a woodcut of Papadiamantis's own fireplace drawn by Nikolas Paulopoulos (1909-1990).

Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911) spent most of his life in his native island of Skiathos. He lived in a house built in 1860 that has been transformed into a popular house museum. For the many literati (like Stratis Myrivilis) who would have visited Papadiamantis, the fireplace would have remained as an iconic image. I don't know when Nikolas would have made his woodcut, but I would guess in the 1950s or 1960s. The print of the woodcut illustrating the Papadiamantis edition belonged to Myrivilis. Nikolas' woodcut follows the Expressionist tradition charging the space with high contrast psychological tension. The provenance of the image connects the contemporary reader to Papadiamantis via Myrivilis and a chain of tradition. The Seferli edition becomes itself a visual document, as each of the stories is illustrated by a woodcut commissioned by the press. Nikolas's woodcut makes a nice introduction to the literary spaces of Greece's deserted villages.

It will be difficult to escape the sentimentalism surrounding the Greek fireplace. I hope it is still possible to excavate beyond the nostalgia and assess its materiality. Can we do a history of the Greek countryside in the footsteps of Raymond Williams?  Peter Mackridge has paved the way for such a study in "The Textualization of Place in Greek Fiction, 1883-1903," Journal of Mediterranean Studies 2 (1992), pp. 146-168. And I suspect that Ecocriticism will eventually have an impact on modern Greek literary studies.

Monday, July 27, 2015


Last summer, I made a pilgrimage to a house that served as an epicenter of the Anglo-American avant-garde, the house of Eva Palmer and Angelos Sikelianos in Sikya, 25 km west of Ancient Corinth (see here). Last week, I've been having terrific web-conversations with Artemis Leontis and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan about this house. What I didn't know in last year's visit is that Kostas Karyotakis also had a summer house in the area. I have a little theory I'm developing in an upcoming essay that, in the 1920s, Corinth became a topos for the Greek avant-garde, in par with better known sites like Delphi, Mistras, or the Aegean. I argue this through poetry, Angelos Sikelianos's "Acrocorinth," Odysseus Elytis's "Drinking Corinthian Sun," and through paintings, Georg von Peschke's "Acrocorinth."

This summer, I spent two weeks with my students surveying ruined villages in Corinthia, Argolid, and Phocis. After an intensive week of surveying at Lidoriki, we spent a night at Delphi with the students, where I showed them the location where Greek folk arts (like the ones we studied) would have first been displayed to an international audience (at the 1927 Delphic Festival, curated by Angeliki Hadjimihali. The next day, we continued our research collecting comperanda for our museum study at the Hadjimihali House in Plaka. Looking at a map of the Gulf of Corinth, it became clear to me how close Sikya and Delphi are. They are not visible to each other because Mount Helicon blocks the view. By boat, however, Xylokastro to Itea are only 45 km apart, a distance that could be travelled by sailboat in one or two hours. The vista below, taken from the terrace of the Sikelianos house shows the proximity of the two coasts and Mount Helicon. Hotels from the 1970s that crowd the beach have unfortunately blocked the vistas of the Sikelianos house.

After last year's visit, I put my photos and notes of the Sikelianos house aside, but Artemis is helping me make sense of them now. After posting Karyotakis's poem "Sleep" on Facebook, Artemis had me completely hooked. The poem inspired the title Green Shore, one of the best recent novels about Greece by Natalie Bakopoulos. The poetic conversation (thank you Facebook!!!) sent me to the library to revisit Sikelianos's poem "Thalero," named after an agricultural village just 5 km upland from the coastal Sikya. It would have taken Sikelianos less than 45 mins to walk there. He took that walk in the middle of summer, accompanied by a shepherd dog. He was offered lunch by a hospitable family and took a siesta.

In "Thalero," Sikelianos explores the erotics of a Greek village, expressed in the crops, the house, the clothes, and most importantly the body of a young girl that served him food and wine. It is a loaded and powerfully erotic poem, you can listen to it here, read it here, and find its translation here. Rereading this poem after a year, it dawned on me that Sikelianos was responding to a place very similar to the nearby village of Penteskouphi that we surveyed this summer. The survey of Penteskouphi will be featured in the paper "An Abandoned Mud Brick Hamlet at Penteskouphi near Corinth: Its Condition, Educational Potential and Natural Environment," by Guy Sanders, Isabella Sanders, and Miyan Yoo at the 2016 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America

The village house in Greece has been described and poeticized by writers as early as the mid-19th century. I have this crazy idea of surveying Greek literature and sampling those architectural descriptions. The natural place to start is in the folk realist prose of Alexandros Papadiamantis. I say this is a crazy idea because Papadiamantis's short stories alone number to the 300s. Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Pine Door 1770

Pine, painted decoration, iron
Made in Pennsylvania
Titus C. Creesy Collection
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Summer is here, tenure has been granted, I rush to finish a sleuth of over-due articles, while also getting ready for another season of The Deserted Greek Village Project. After a hiatus, I feel compelled to return to blogging.

I have been thinking a lot about vernacular culture across Pennsylvania and Greece. This year has been the year of Pennsylvania fraktur with three exhibitions, Drawn with the Spirit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, A Colorful Folk at Winterthur, and Framing Fraktur at the Philadelphia Free Library.

What has also become clear to me is that Franklin and Marshall College had been a pioneer in the study of Pennsylvania fork arts, a specialty that we have mostly left to the wayside. Before moving on to the University of Pennsylvania and establishing the discipline of Folklore and Folklife, Yoder was teaching at FandM. Generally speaking, the study of American folk arts seems to have become co-opted by heritage. Pennsylvania German art has been co-opted by the heritage industry most aggressively. Walking through the fraktur exhibition, it becomes clear an elderly white Christian group is the target audience. In engaging younger contemporary artists, the Free Library has tried to break that mold. In similar ways, Greek folk arts have lost the critical edge that they had in the 1960s.

The most important story to be (re)told about the arts of the Pennsylvania Germans is that it's radically different from the art of the English Protestants. What the Germans brought to Pennsylvania is the rich visual culture of the Baroque. Their Quaker hosts (William Penn, etc.) had a fundamental mistrust of art and architecture. Even if some of the German groups were radically anti-art, a great majority of them brought continental visual traditions to the U.S. German Baroque is absolutely wild and has nothing to do with the reserved nature of its British equivalent.

I strongly recommend Don Yoder's 2001 “The European Background of Pennsylvania’s Fraktur Art,” and “The Fraktur Texts and Pennsylvania-German Spirituality,” in Bucks County Fraktur (Pennsylvania German Society 23) [I can send you PDFs]

The door above is in the permanent collection of the PMA. I sketched it because I wanted to figure out the parts and sequence of its construction. Note that the two vertical boards are primary with the three horizontal boards as secondary and the painted panels are tertiary. The panels are painted and decorated by curved shaped that stand out in such a way as to negate the architectonic logic of the door. The painted panels, in other words, float into space. They are served by the door as frames. Within each panel, we have the figure of the heart. Iconographic scholars have beaten the symbolism of the hear to death, as a reference to Christianity. What I see instead, is a smart game of transformations. What might look like a heart at the first upper panels is flipped in the second upper panel to create a dual composition. The heart stops being a "heart" and it becomes a formal game that can lead to imaginative connotations. The upside-down heart, for instance, begins to look like a fruit. It touches its parent shape at the tip adding a sense of visual tension and fragility. At the lower panel, the shapes melt into a third shape. I don't know about you, but to me the final derivations is suggestive of the human body. I see a torso and a posterior with the breast or shoulder shapes above. Anatomically suggestive of the human body, I interpret this as a sexual transformation.

The architectural challenge of any door is to counteract the weight of its material, greater at the bottom than the top. The two iron hinges act quite differently, the top hinge is in tension, the bottom hinge is in compression.  The shapes at the lowest panel, it seems to me, hint on the horizontal striation of any door. The concave and convex shapes address gravity towards the earth and the aspiration of ascent above.

One group of people that loved Pennsylvania folk arts were the Modernists. The 1770 door makes it clear why someone like Charles Sheeler used Ephrata Cloisters as a source of inspiration in the 1930s. Looking at folk art with fresh eyes, even through the spectacles of modernist formalism, makes them provocative once again.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Leon von Ossko: Lancaster's Orientalist

View of Funerary Complex of Qaytbay, Northern Cemetery, Cairo

By Leon von Ossko (1859-1906)

The Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin and Marshall College is a treasure-trove of artifacts that we are in the process of cataloging. 

In December 2012, our then collections manager Maureen Lane discovered a drawing in the vaults with obvious orientalist subject matter. As I was teaching Islamic Art, she naturally asked my advice. This year, I teach Islamic Art again, our collections manager Lindsay Marino is installing the work for public view and has asked me to include some scholarly context. So here is the story of this fabulous drawing.

Leon von Ossko (1859-1906) was a Hungarian nobleman. The baronial title was bestowed on the von Osskos, interestingly enough, for fighting the Ottomans in the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars. Although Hungarian, Leon was raised in Germany and attended university at Heidelberg. After his graduation, he traveled through the United States for two years with a cadre of European aristocrats, exploring the Wild West. Between Denver and the Pacific Ocean the group encountered conflicts with native American tribes and von Ossko was wounded. During that American journey, von Ossko met Ella Louisa Breneman, the daughter of Christian Herr Breneman, a prominent citizen of Lancaster county. Their courtship lasted for two years across two continents. They were married in Florence in 1884. 

Von Ossko became an accomplished artist studying in Florence and at the Academy Julian in Paris. After his marriage to Ella, he moved to Lancaster. Little is known of his artistic production. In a biographical note (Breneman 1912), we read that his oils and water colors were exhibited widely across New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and Cincinnati. The drawing found at the Phillips Museum has an orientalist subject, the Mamluk funerary complex of Qaytay, in the Northern Cemetery in Cairo (15th century). I thank Emily Neumeier and Christy Gruber for making the precise identification. I also thank Benjamin Anderson for identifying a particular fascination of this monument by German viewers. In his blog post "A Piece of the Orient on the Elbe,” Stambouline (July 17, 2015), Anderson offers a similar view published in  Émile Prisse d’Avennes, L’art arabe (1869-77), shown left.

It is so intriguing to think of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as an epicenter of German Romantic Orientalism through some newcomers, like von Ossko. The drawing is dated 1901 at the bottom right. As early as the 17th century, Germanic colonists in Lancaster County had direct exposure to the Islamic world through the Ottoman Empire, which reached Vienna. A current exhibition on Pennsylvania German Fraktur at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for example, includes a drawing depicting Ottomans drawn in Pennsylvania. Some of the iconographic motifs in Pennsylvania German art (tulips, etc.) have Ottoman origins. But this larger question of German orientalism transplanted in Pennsylvania is a fascinating unstudied topic.

It is interesting to note that Lancaster's current City Hall (left) makes references to Islamic architecture (the Alhambra). Originally designed as a Post Office by Philadelphia architect James Windrim (1891), Lancaster's City Hall would have gone up just ten years before Von Ossko had done his drawing [On Lancaster City Hall, see here, p. 8]

Unfortunately, there is very little historical coverage on Lancaster's orientalist painter. We do not even know how Franklin & Marshall College ended up with this drawing. The Brenemans were related to Caroline Peart, a little known but important American Impressionist. Our college has received Peart's archive and von Ossko's drawing might have come as part of that package. On the subject of Caroline Peart, make sure to see her painting currently hanging at the Nissley Gallery of the Museum and look forward to a massive retrospective curated by our Kate Snider

In trying to put together the urban topography of Lancaster and its prominent citizens, I did some research on the house where this drawing might have originally hung, the house of Leon von Ossko and his wife Ella Louisa Breneman. It is a beautiful Greek Revival townhouse built in 1852, located at 47 North Lime Street (SE corner of Lime and Orange).

The house's most outstanding feature is its marble porch with classically correct decoration that stands out among the Palladian wooden porches common to Lancaster. The house has its original iron work.

Von Ossko died in 1906 in Saint Augustine, Florida, where he had moved for health reasons. He was survived by two sisters that lived in Florence. One was married to a Count. I have not done any research on Anna Louisa Breneman and the Breneman family. The house seems to have been sold in 1937. In 1987, Tabor Community Services bought the house and converted it into Beth Shalom, or "House of Piece," an interim housing facility for women in need. 


Marble neoclassical porch with Tuscan capitals and acanthus frieze

Neoclassical iron work on exterior fence

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Monday, February 09, 2015


Wil Hylton's "The Shame of America's Family Detention Camps" in The New York Times Magazine this weekend (Feb. 4, 2015) came while editing our own essay on the man camps of North Dakota. June Carlos Llorca's photo "Children entering a dormitory at Artesia Family Residential Center in New Mexico last September," in particular, made me think of the similarities between the man camps we are studying and the federal detention center. The photograph gives enough factual information of the residential unit. I tried to extract a ground-plan and elevation from the photograph in order to turn photography into architectural evidence. Given the standardized sizes of windows and cladding, one could easily replicate the exact dimensions of the residential unit.

After speculating on the unit's ground plan, I thought it might be possible to produce an entire camp map using Google Earth. Adrian Meyers has given some guidelines on using Google Earth as an archaeological tool, see his pioneering remote sensing of Guantanamo Bay:

Meyers, Adrian. 2010. “Camp Delta, Google Earth and the Ethics of Remote Sensing in Archaeology,” World Archaeology 42, pp. 455-467

I confess that I didn't go very far with the remote sensing exercise, partially because I didn't have enough corroborative information to fine-tune the coordinates. After half an hour of browsing the landscape north of Artesia for images of a camp, I gave up on Google Earth. But I do hope someone takes ti up from here.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States