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Complaint: Modern Life — 3/28/14

Posted by Jon Mogul, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

This is a painting on view in our permanent exhibition, Art and Design in the Modern Age. It’s alternately called Suicide with Skyscrapers or Man on the Ledge. The artist is Stuyvesant Van Veen, a New Yorker who was best known as a mural painter.

This painting is remarkable in how strongly it invites the viewer to engage at the level of narrative. What’s going to happen next seems pretty straightforward. Either he’s going to jump or he’s not.

But how this young man got there is more of a mystery. And the painter makes it even more of a mystery by electing to portray face from an oblique angle. By obscuring the expression on his face, Van Veen deprives us of the kinds of psychological indicators that might help us figure out how he got to this place, what brought him to the ledge. The clues are found not in the way Van Veen rendered the human figure, but in how he painted the surroundings—in other words, in social psychology rather than in individual psychology.

In particular, the painting embodies a trenchant complaint about life in modern times, one most associated with the French social theorist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim’s wrote a book in 1897 called Suicide. In that book, he introduced the concept of anomie, as a way of getting at one of the more disturbing aspects he identified in urban, industrial societies. In such a society, the values, the ideologies enunciated by the larger community can lose their connection to the experience of individual people. And as a result the norms that govern behavior lose their hold over individuals. Where that happens, social deviance—crime, drug abuse, suicide—can flourish.

So here is my narrative. Look again at the painting. Here is a young man in the heart of New York, one of the biggest, most crowded cities on earth. Perhaps he’s moved there from a small town, a place where everyone knew everyone else, and where everyone was in everyone else’s business. Maybe the promises that brought him to New York—success or glamor or love or sex—have been broken. And here he is—not another soul in sight. An individual without community, a portrait of anomie.

Jon Mogul is The Wolfsonian's assistant director for research and academic initiatives.

Caption: Painting, Suicide with Skyscrapers [Man on the Ledge], 1940. Stuyvesant Van Veen. New York, New York. Acrylic on canvas. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.

Chair Man of Complaints — 3/26/14

Posted by Peter Clericuzio, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

The creation of the buxus chair currently on display in The Wolfsonian’s seventh-floor exhibition Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design grows directly out of a larger set of political complaints. In 1935, Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascist regime invaded and ultimately conquered Ethiopia, much to the chagrin of the League of Nations, which formally lodged a protest in the form of economic sanctions against Italy. Until that point, Ethiopia was one of the last territories in Africa that had managed to resist the grasp of European imperialists. The sanctions at first proved problematic for Italian craftsmen, who were unable to import the precious woods that were commonly used in furniture manufacturing. 

In response, Mussolini embarked upon a policy of autarky that strove to make Italy self-sufficient, no longer dependent on foreign goods. Italians created several alternatives to imported materials, one of which was buxus, a resin-infused paper veneer recently developed by paper manufacturer Cartiere Giacomo Bosso of Turin. Buxus’ name is identical to the Latin term for boxwood, a shrub commonly used in marquetry, musical instruments, tool handles, engraving, and cabinetry.

Probably the most enthusiastic supporter of this policy of autarky, and particularly the use of buxus, was the famous Futurist artist and designer Fortunato Depero, who may be better known for creating books bound together with nuts and bolts. Depero created a line of furniture that he called, appropriately, Autarchia, after Mussolini’s policies, which included this chair. Much of the piece consists of plywood and pine lumber, though the visible surfaces are covered with buxus, which could easily be colored in bright tones as well as left in an interesting, wood-grain-like pattern. On the underside of the chair one can see Depero’s mark, a red circle containing the “IRR” for the furniture line and “Sani” for the manufacturer, plus a “3NTO” for Trento, Italy, where it was made.

Trento, meanwhile, gives significance to the chair’s external motifs. Depero was based in northern Italy, and as a fervent nationalist, he was especially fond of Alpine winter sports as a mark of Italian heritage. The skis and ski pole imagery that he included on this chair are, along with the use of buxus, distinct markers of this sentiment. He may not have viewed the sanctions on Italy as punishment, but rather an opportunity to showcase the genius of modern Italian designers and craftsmen. 

Peter Clericuzio is academic programs manager at The Wolfsonian.

Caption: Chair for the Autarchia IRR line, c. 1939. Fortunato Depero, designer. Ditta Riccardo Sani, Trento, maker. Plywood, wood, buxus. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.


Why a Masterpiece of Romantic Nationalism was a Bummer — 3/22/14

Posted by Silvia Barisione, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

The so-called Geneva Window by Harry Clarke, one of the masterpieces in The Wolfsonian’s collection, was a bummer when in 1930 the Dubliner artist presented it to his client, the Irish government.

In 1926 Clarke was commissioned by the recently established Irish Free State to design a large stained glass window as a gift to the League of Nations, as a way to mark and celebrate its new independence. The window was to be installed in the newly built International Labor Office in Geneva.

A leading figure of the National Romantic movement in Ireland, Clarke had few rivals in the stained-glass field. Adapting the folk tradition to construct a country’s identity, Romantic Nationalism was expressed in Ireland by the Celtic Revival, which had its roots in the 1880s. Imbued with Irish mythology and folklore, it sought to evoke pride in the Irish people, their language, their stories, and their artistic heritage.

In his eight-panel stained glass window Clarke decided to represent scenes from the work of fifteen modern Irish writers, most of them—Yeats, Synge, AE, and Lady Gregory in particular—identified with the Celtic Revival. Yeats, who had just received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, helped him in the selection.

Because Clarke knew that both political and religious leaders would find some of his literary choices problematic, he attempted to be careful. For example, for Joyce, he avoided a quote from Ulysses, and chose the poem "Chamber Music" instead.

Nevertheless, when the window was presented, though the press and government ministers acknowledged it as a masterpiece, it was blocked. Some of his literary themes were considered of dubious moral character. For example, Joxer from Juno and the Paycock, the play by Sean O’Casey set in the working class dwellings of Dublin during the Irish Civil War period, was perceived as a representation of Ireland as a land of drunkards.

President Cosgrave wrote a letter to Clarke asking that the O’Flaherty panel, depicting Mr. Gilhooley, would need to be replaced. The main character, holding a glass of whiskey in one hand and a cigar in the other and leering at the sensuous half-naked female dancer, was considered offensive. The government could not afford to displease certain influential groups, such as the Catholic Church.

Instead of evoking pride in the Irish tradition and folklore, the window illustrated literary themes that did not correspond to the image the Irish government meant to project about its national identity.

The window was eventually rejected and never installed in Geneva.

Silvia Barisione is a curator at The Wolfsonian.

Caption: Stained glass window, commissioned 1926, completed 1930 (never installed,) for the International Labor Building, League of Nations, Geneva. Harry Clarke. Clarke Studios, Dublin, maker. Stained glass, lead cames. The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.


William Arthur Smith Benson: Pendant Lamp no. 1255/S — 3/22/14

Posted by Christian Larsen, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

In 1851, London opened the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, a showcase of the very best manufactures from across the globe. Much to the horror of the British exhibition commissioners, what was intended to demonstrate Britain’s awesome industrial might instead revealed the appalling state of their products. No formal training existed for designers. Technological dazzle trumped rational design criteria—things were being made and sold to the consumer simply because technologies allowed for extravagantly embellished, eye-popping, multicolored products. For Victorians, bad design was bad business, and that implied bad morals. Worse still, machines increasingly took the place of people, and in turn, turned people into machines. How to bring joy and pride back to labor? 

The Great Exhibition galvanized design reforms that spread across Europe and far abroad. Designers wanted to do away with ill-conceived, poorly made products, and instead create useful objects of great beauty and craftsmanship. It was this well-intentioned idea that spawned the Arts & Crafts movement, led by William Morris and a coterie of artists and designers who championed a return to handicraft in emulation of medieval models of artisanal production. In practice, the romance of handwork often resulted in small numbers of rarified, expensive objects for an elite. In truth, the Arts & Crafts dichotomy between hand and machine was largely rhetorical, as many mass-produced objects still relied on hand finishing, and much of Arts & Crafts production used machines when expedient. 

Primarily known for his metalwork and above all his copper and brass lamps, William Arthur Smith Benson bridged craft production’s humanist ideals with industrial production’s economic benefits. As an inventor, tinkerer, maker, and designer, Benson and his workshop cast their own metal components and used lathes and presses to produce standardized parts that could be recombined to make multiple designs. He was a master marketer, with a shop and studio in the fashionable district of Kensington. He took a calculated risk introducing his shiny, largely unornamented wares on New Bond Street, an upper-middle class shopping thoroughfare. 

With the introduction of electricity, Benson geared his production almost entirely to electrified lamps, a niche market that remained the prerogative of the wealthy long after its introduction. More importantly, Benson catered to changing tastes. Traditionally, plainness had been associated with less prestige. The more ornamented the ware, the higher the price. Benson elevated the virtue of simplicity for elite consumption.

Benson replaced the ornate trickery and sumptuous illusions found in many mass-produced wears with truth to the inherent qualities of materials and their appropriate uses. He used brass for rigidity, and copper for its warm, reflective, light-diffusing properties. These materials are perfectly suited to the construction of rigid brass structural components supporting thin, petal-like riveted copper sheets.  Moreover, the materials are aesthetically pleasing in their contrasting warm metallic tones. The electrical wiring itself is visibly structural as well as aesthetically appealing. The lamp may seem decorative by today’s standards. Our eyes recognize unnecessary forms in the face of a minimalism to which we’ve grown accustomed. At the time, the lamps were compared to the pared-down elegance of American bicycles, praised the world over as ingenious mechanical and aesthetic inventions.

Christian Larsen is a curator at The Wolfsonian

Caption: Chandelier, c. 1901. William Arthur Smith Benson, designer. W.A.S. Benson and Company, London, maker. Brass, copper, cord. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.


Harald Engman’s Menneske Pyramide [Human Pyramid]: A Courageous Artistic Complaint Against Invasion and Occupation — 3/22/14

Posted by Francis X. Luca, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

Note: Go here to link to a digital version of this image that lets viewers zoom in on details and allows for collective annotation

In early April 1940, just days before the Nazis would invade and occupy Denmark, an art exhibition opened in a Copenhagen gallery on Amager Square featuring the work of Harald Rudyard Engman (1903–1968). Engman was not a particularly famous or celebrated artist; he neither dabbled in the Danish folk tradition nor flirted with the modernist traditions of surrealism or abstraction, but he had gained some notoriety in the Danish capital. A few years earlier, Engman had begun showing his paintings in a venue below the Town Hall Square, coining the name “The Underground Painters” for his band of “spiteful” subversive artists with a social satire bent. His early work included sensitive depictions of society’s outcasts—prostitutes, people of the street, the impoverished, the unemployed, and Copenhagen’s bohemians.

The paintings in the 1940 exhibition revealed the artist’s obsession with dark themes, rendered in a palette perfectly suited to the dark times ahead for Denmark. At a time when the Danish government pinned its hopes on neutrality and the public dared not whisper Hitler’s name aloud for fear of provoking the restless German giant on their southern border, Engman was unveiling paintings that unabashedly ridiculed Herr Hitler and his Nazi thugs. In one painting from this period, Engman depicts Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Herman Göring as villainous characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with a young Jewish girl standing on the slave auction block.

The public that flocked to this exhibition had little time to reflect on the anti-Nazi message of this fearless (if foolhardy) artist. Just after 4:00 am on April 9, 1940, the German government simultaneously issued an ultimatum and sent a contingent of its huge army across the border into Denmark on the pretext of wishing “to forestall a British invasion.” Greatly outnumbered and ill-equipped, the Danish army was unable to marshal anything but the feeblest show of resistance against the German juggernaut. As Nazi bombers roared low over the skies of the capital, dropping propaganda leaflets calling for Danes to peacefully submit, the King, prime minister, and cabinet of the tiny nation chose to capitulate to the Germans rather than offer up a futile resistance. In return for promises that as a Germanic “brother” people, the Germans would “respect Danish sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Danish government recognized the de-facto occupation of the country and its status as a “model protectorate” for the duration of the war.

Needless to say, Engman’s exhibition was immediately closed down by the authorities that same day. Although the artist wisely left Copenhagen and went into hiding, he courageously continued to produce satirical anti-Nazi paintings in the secluded isolation of North Sealand, until safety concerns dictated his flight to Sweden. There he contributed to the anti-Nazi movement by publishing his drawings in several Swedish journals and publications, until the war ended and he was able to return to his homeland.

Engman’s Menneske Pyramide [Human Pyramid] was painted in 1941 during the German occupation and the artist’s internal exile. While the Danish government collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, Engman never reconciled himself to that expediency. His oil on canvas painting portrays the history of humanity from the “bottom up” and reflects the artist’s own Social Democrat and anti–National Socialist predilections. The bottom half, or base, of the pyramid lies under the dark and murky waters of the past, where prehistoric, Viking, Medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian elites dominate. Turning the social pyramid on its head, the artist celebrates working class types as it progresses upward, and tops it off with a boy with angel’s wings and a slingshot in hand—perhaps his nod to the dualities of human nature.

The artist also uses bilateral symmetry to suggest parallels between a shark (man-eater) and a submarine, and between an ancient ship sunk by pirates of old, and a modern wreck named Denmark sitting on the ocean floor. The ship of state, he implies, was sunk by the Faedrelandet [Fatherland], a submarine bearing Danish flags and the slogan “nationalism.” Faedrelandet was also the title of a pro-Nazi newspaper published in Denmark—thereby suggesting subversive propaganda and the nation’s complicity in her own destruction. The gloom of the past is dispelled by the inclusion of the New York skyline at daybreak. Together with the slingshot-wielding boy atop the pyramid, the sunrise suggests that with U.S. intervention and the resistance of Danes, the nation might someday— like the fearless David of biblical fame—topple the German Goliath presently occupying their nation.

Francis X. Luca is chief librarian of The Wolfsonian and an adjunct professor of history at Florida International University. He maintains the library’s heavily illustrated blog, providing regular updates on library happenings and holdings. Read it!    

Caption: Painting, Menneske Pyramide [Human Pyramid], 1941. Harald Engman. Copenhagen, Denmark. Oil on canvas. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.

Where They Burn Books — 3/22/14

Posted by Matthew Abess, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

The years following the First World War found the beer halls of Munich resounding with complaints. Chief among these were age-old grievances concerning sovereignty, spheres of influence, and self-determination, to which were added by members of the National Socialist (Nazi) party: Judaism, Communism, and the diffuse anomie of modern life. The highly discursive prose of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf catalogs these complaints in especially virulent terms, identifying the many pestilent forces that posed a mortal threat to the “historic destiny” of the nation. The text advocates aggressive territorial expansion—the annexation of Lebensraum [living space]—as a foremost solution; its jingoistic passages presage extermination.

Yet even before formalizing the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, culminating in the mass-murder of European Jews, the Nazi state set about cultivating virtue by more benign means. Counter to complaints about the spiritually fouling effect of experimental form—modernist art by then was recognized as a metonym for modernity’s contamination of the völkisch soul—the regime initiated a program showcasing art that demonstrated a “return from degeneracy to the healthy path of technical skill” (from the secret situation report by the SS Security Service, 1940). The Grossen Deutsche Kunstausstellungen (GDK) [Great German Art Exhibitions], held annually at the Haus der Deutschen Kunst [House of German Art] in Munich from 1937 to 1944, promised to purify blood and soil through selected arrangements in oil and stone.

This classically-inspired figurative painting by Austrian artist Ivo Saliger—a favored artist of the Third Reich whose work was often included in the GDK—is characteristic of National Socialist values as they manifested in the fine arts. While the approved paintings and sculptures presented each year at the GDK included few that explicitly announced their persuasive purpose—straightforward landscape and genre scenes predominated—the compositional harmony and historical precedent on view articulated clear moral messages. Saliger’s image of two nude women is characteristic of the regime’s attitude toward femininity, which privileged fit and fecund female bodies for bearing new generations of a master race.

How does all of this bear upon the present proceedings? The following is an excerpt from the Power of Design 2014 statement: "Complaints can get us from here to there, dissatisfaction to action, action to innovation . . . We're considering not only expressions of complaint, but constructive responses . . . [Would we have advances] without discontent?"

This account of progressive betterment is reckless, even dangerous. As our conversations on complaint and the designed environment continue, let us keep in mind Adolf Eichmann’s designation as the architect of the Final Solution—from the murmurings of the masses to mass annihilation.

—Matthew Abess is a curator at The Wolfsonian

Caption: Painting, Doppelakt [Double Nude], c. 1940. Ivo Saliger (Austrian, 1894–1987). Vienna. Oil on canvas. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation delivered for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.

The Kids Are Alright — 3/18/14

Posted by Silvia Barisione, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

The famous, streamlined Radio Nurse was the world’s first baby monitor. Like its many descendants, it was created to hear if the child—alone in her room—was complaining.

The monitor’s origins were apparently a response by Zenith’s president, Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., to the notorious kidnapping of the two-year-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1932. McDonald commissioned the device because he wanted a way to keep track of his young daughter when she was alone in her room. Zenith Radio Corporation created a two-part set consisting of a  transmitter, the so-called Guardian Ear, to be placed near the child, and a speaker, the Radio Nurse receiver, to be located near the caretakers.

The Japanese-American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, still at the beginning of his career, designed the Radio Nurse. He humanized the electric device by transposing the biomorphic shapes characteristic of his sculpture into the appliance, which was made from Bakelite. Incorporating organic and geometric forms, with the Radio Nurse Noguchi evoked the ovoid heads of Constantin Brancusi. Noguchi worked in Brancusi’s studio in Paris from 1927 to 1929, and was deeply influenced by him.

While the Radio Nurse was not a commercial success, it is now recognized as a triumph of good design. In 1939 the monitor was displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art's annual sculpture exhibition. Combining mechanical and human shapes, Noguchi succeeded in creating an excellent product of industrial design in Bakelite, which remains one of the most striking icons of American streamlining.

Silvia Barisione is a curator at The Wolfsonian.

Caption: Short-wave radio transmitter, Radio Nurse, 1937. Isamu Noguchi, designer. Zenith Radio Corporation, Chicago, manufacturer. Bakelite, metal, rubber. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Want more Wolfsonian? — 3/12/14

Posted by Andrea Gollin, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

If you’ve explored the blog, you know we’ve had several posts that consider objects from The Wolfsonian’s collection that relate to the theme of complaints. By now, we have little doubt that you’d like more Wolfsonian. Who wouldn’t? For anyone who is not in Miami and/or doesn’t have easy access to the physical collection, today we’re providing an introduction to the museum’s digital image catalog, a recent development that is continually growing.  

Thanks to the digital catalog, a significant portion of The Wolfsonian’s collection is now residing in cyberspace, with digital images and corresponding records that are searchable and can be saved, tagged, shared, and otherwise personalized. “It is pretty amazing and wonderful,” says Derek Merleaux, The Wolfsonian’s digital asset manager, who is not easily impressed.

Visitors to the digital catalog can create their own accounts and work with the collection in various ways, including, for example, setting up a “bookshelf” and putting saved objects on it, which can then be shared.

Among the more than seventeen thousand museum items in the constantly growing  digital catalog are hundreds of books and pamphlets that can be explored online through a robotic page turner.

Merleaux selected several recently added library materials as a way to introduce our blog readers to this very cool feature. There’s no organizing principle to this list, other than that these books are a lot of fun to view online.

Modern Ornamentation by Christopher Dresser, a compendium published in 1886 of original ornamental designs for textiles, wood, metal, pottery, and more.

Real Heroes, a comic book published between 1941–1946 that billed itself as “true comics about Franklin D. Roosevelt Winston Churchill Chiang Kai Shek and other leaders and heroes of the war.”

The Harmony Society in Pennsylvania, a Federal Writers’ Project book published in 1937 about a communal society in the 1800s.

An American Year: Country Life and Landscapes Through the Seasons by Hal Borland, a lavishly illustrated 1946 work—illustrations are by “distinguished contemporary artists.”

The Chinese Theatre by Chu Chia-Chien, illustrated by A. Jacovleff, a 1922 work that consists primarily of illustrations depicting scenes, costumes, make-up, and more.

Andrea Gollin is the writer/editor for special projects for The Wolfsonian, including the Power of Design website and blog.

Caption: Painting, Trimotori [Tri-Motor], study for Superando le vette [Rising above the Peaks], c. 1938. Tullio Crali, artist. Watercolor and graphite on paper. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.  

In Lieu of Mutiny, or, Break on through to the Other Side: The Panama Canal — 3/5/14

Posted by Rochelle T. Pienn, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

The tale of mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty in 1789 brings us the egocentric Captain William Bligh. An admiral in the British Navy, Bligh’s insistence that his complaining crew of malcontents round the precarious Cape Horn ended in his forced ejection from the ship. To this day, descendants of the mutineers live on the remote Pacific Pitcairn Island, where their ancestors hid to avoid the sure fate of hanging for treason to the Crown of England. 

Rounding the Horn was the popular though dreaded route, rife with coastal ridges, drowning currents, and powerful storms, which allowed a ship to circumnavigate the globe around the lush, unspoiled lands of the Caribbean and the Americas. The “super power” countries of the world, going forth with colonialism and trade, were ever in search of a quicker, less terrifying, and more convenient pathway to prosperity.

For hundreds of years, kings and explorers spied the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow remnant of land decidedly in the way of progress. Digging through the natural blockage and creating a manmade canal seemed an inspired plan. The monolithic engineering feat of the Panama Canal took several attempts by different countries, and many deaths of indigenous and imported laborers, to complete. In 1914 the United States built this eighth wonder of the world, allowing for peaceful and convenient passage of marine vessels between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Its complicated hydraulic system of gates, lakes, and locks makes the Panama Canal a unique technological solution to a rather enormous complaint.

This original albumen photographic print from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection in The Wolfsonian’s Library shows the U.S.S. Arizona entering the Panama Canal in 1921. This image of the ship, which served mainly as transport during the First World War, was taken before several huge overhauls and renovations that prepared her for battleship status in the Second World War. Today, her wreckage rests at Pearl Harbor, as part of the memorial to fallen American military in the Japanese attack.

—Rochelle T. Pienn is the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Museum Library Coordinator for The Wolfsonian 

Caption: Photograph, USS Arizona. Entering Pedro Miguel Locks, from Panama and the Canal Zone: As I Saw it, February 9th to May 4th 1921, c. 1921.  The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection.


The Double Life of Typewriters — 2/27/14

Posted by Nicolae Harsanyi, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

Some complaints have simple solutions, and some grievances can be addressed readily. Other situations, such as one involving a typewriter much like the one pictured above, and exactly like the one featured below, require radical, historical change when seeking solutions.

In 1981, while I was living in Romania, a decree was passed requiring every privately owned typewriter to be licensed by the communist authorities. Out of the blue!  Or not entirely without context, because anonymous typewritten anti-regime leaflets had appeared in the buses and streetcars of several cities in Romania. In order to identify the authors of these leaflets, the Securitate (Romania’s secret police) needed the imprints of all the typewriters existing within the borders of the country. At that time, other means of producing and reproducing the written word—the printing presses and the few photocopy machines—were already under strict control. 

Lists were drawn up, and, under penalty of law, typewriter owners had to bring their “machines” to the local police station for the annual sample taking. On my scheduled date I went to the municipal police headquarters and was brought to a large room where, at desks arranged in several rows, people were busily pounding at the keys of various sized typewriters—it sounded (more than it looked) like the editorial office of a large newspaper from an American movie of the 1930s. I was handed a sheet of paper with a text taken from a Romanian foreign policy magazine and had to reproduce it on my typewriter exactly like the original. From time to time an individual would walk in with a non-functional typewriter. The police official would register it and then hurl it out of the window down into a cement-covered inner yard. The location of our room on the fourth floor ensured the physical destruction of the typewriter—just as the decree stipulated.  In retrospect, I wonder how they might have dealt with the typewriter shown above—dynamite, perhaps. One month later I received the license for my typewriter in the mail. In other words, I was “legit”!
A few years later, as I was typing out a chapter of my doctoral dissertation (on Renaissance English history plays) my typewriter broke down and I could not fix it. I took it to a shop to have it repaired, but it could not be done before the deadline set by my advisor to hand in the manuscript. In despair, I called a good friend and colleague to see if I could borrow her typewriter. She reluctantly agreed, with the caveat that I not show the typewritten text to anyone else but my Ph.D. advisor, because she did not have a license for her machine and was afraid she would be found out.

The authorities had achieved the intent behind this repressive regulation: adding just one more dimension to the general fear whereby they ruled. And, since it was mostly intellectuals who used typewriters in their work, the typewriter license proved to be a very efficient way to keep them in check. Only the overthrow of the communist dictatorship of Ceausescu in late 1989 put an end to this restrictive practice.

As for me? I finished my dissertation and received my doctorate, thanks to typewriters both licensed and unlicensed. And as for my typewriter? It’s nearby…or a version of it, at least. While I was perusing The Wolfsonian’s digital image catalog looking for typewriters, I had the great pleasure of discovering that the museum’s holdings include a Remington typewriter from around 1928 that is the same model as my typewriter.  Only, of course, The Wolfsonian’s was not licensed to be operated in the 1980s Romania!   

Nicolae Harsanyi is The Wolfsonian’s rare books cataloguer and associate librarian.

Captions: (top) Postcard, The Giant Typewriter, Weight 28,000 Pounds. Writing Daily at the Underwood Exhibit, Palace of Liberal Arts, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, Cal., 1915. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

(bottom)Typewriter, Portable No. 3, c. 1928. Remington, New York, manufacturer. Metal, enamel, rubber, cotton. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.