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Is life too fast? Too slow? Just the way it should be? — 2/20/14

Posted by Andrea Gollin, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

Putting aside our reverence for Superman, NASCAR, the Olympic slalom, and a faster commute, many of us live somewhere between anxiety and despair on the speed spectrum. And yes, we complain. Some of us complain a lot. Incessantly. Even speedily. Our lives flash before us on the screens of our smartphones. Being accessible 24/7 has triggered in some a chronic state of low-level (or not so low-level) discomfort, a suspicion that we’re sprinting faster than is sustainable, a certainty that any moment, we’re going to fall off the treadmill, and fall into the pit of…what? Slow food, because we don’t know how to eat anymore? Weekend breathing workshops, because we don’t do that right, either? Being kidnapped by a bevy of roving yoga teachers?

But what about our celebration of that aforementioned near-human whose defining characteristic (aside from his snazzy outfit) is being faster than a speeding bullet? And what is it with fast cars, and fast sports, and as long as we’re almost on the subject, the entire streamline aesthetic?

Do we hate speed or love it? Is it killing us or keeping us engaged and alert?

It’s got the makings of quite the dysfunctional relationship.

And by the way, it’s not just us. It was them, too, way back then. In between ambling around picking berries and tackling the odd tiger, prehistoric man bitched about speed. Just ask Jeffrey T. Schnapp, who curated the exhibition Speed Limits, on view at The Wolfsonian in late 2010 and early 2011 and drawn from the collections of The Wolfsonian and the Canadian Centre for Architecture. “Contrary to what many like to imagine about the cultural history of the idea of speed, it is not limited to the era of industry,” said Schnapp, a cultural historian who is an affiliate professor to the department of architecture and a professor of romance language at Harvard, and who spoke with me when the exhibition was on view. “The idea of speed has centrally shaped human experience going back to prehistoric times.”

Ideas about velocity are central to the belief systems of many religions, and Schnapp explained that “speed is a definite attribute of the Divine.” In particular, Judeo-Christian religions foster a “kind of cult of speeding up that is part of the apocalyptic vision, this sense that time is running out and that you better get on the right side before it’s too late,” he said. That’s right, the sand is rushing to the bottom of the salvation hourglass…but you already knew that.

Speed Limits was organized to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Italian Futurism, which was nothing if not pro-speed. The 1909 manifesto proclaimed that “the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” And while Speed Limits celebrated Futurism, Schnapp was careful to not align the show with either side of the speed debate. Instead, he sought to “tell the story, through material culture, about the ways in which the heroic culture of speed has invaded every aspect of life in the modern era and to show the reverse, to trace the rise of the sense that we are nearing or perhaps have even passed the limits of speed’s effectiveness, this ongoing critique that says there is something unnatural about this acceleration of life, that it disrupts the quality of life, of social interactions, and of our ability to function cognitively.”

Schnapp organized Speed Limits around five key areas of modern life: circulation and transit; construction and the built environment; efficiency; the measurement and representation of rapid motion; and the mind/body relationship.

It was his hope that viewers of the show—and readers of the companion catalogue—would reflect critically on some of the fundamental questions we face today as individuals and as a society. He didn’t seek to provide answers, but instead to offer entry points and frameworks into ways of thinking about our world.

To learn more about Speed Limits, you can: visit its webpage on The Wolfsonian’s website; view the online version of the library exhibition that complemented the gallery show; or purchase the exhibition catalogue from The Museum Shop.

How do you experience speed? Please share your thoughts on our digital complaints/solutions tool. Hurry over to the website’s homepage, sign up, and let loose. In too much of a rush? Give our Complaints Line a quick ring at 305.535.2633.

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

Caption: Print, People Work—Evening, 1937. Benton Spruance, artist. Lithograph. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Collection.  



Taking a Stand: Protests Against Lynching in the 1930s — 2/12/14

Posted by Francis X. Luca, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

While many people think of the civil rights movement as beginning in the 1960s, historical artifacts in The Wolfsonian’s collection are powerful visual reminders of earlier struggles for recognition of basic human rights. One such item is a lithograph print by Hugo Gellert for a portfolio of plates titled Comrade Gulliver: an illustrated account of travel into that strange country the United States of America. Gellert was a Hungarian-born American artist who put his talents to work for progressive causes in the service of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). The lithograph pictured here protests the all-too-common practice of lynching.

The depression decade (1929–1939) was a dark time for people of color in America. Nearly 200,000 black sharecroppers and tenant farmers were driven off the land in the mid-1930s, while half of all black “breadwinners” were thrown out of work. For those fortunate few not made homeless and/or jobless, Jim Crow laws and state-sanctioned discrimination doomed most of them to menial, demeaning, and low-paying employment in a hostile climate in which bigoted slogans proclaimed no jobs for “Negroes” until every white man was back to work.

Worse still, lynchings continued to light up too many dark nights in the South in horrific public spectacles of racist torture and murder, often attended by children and by local sheriffs unwilling to intervene. Only two groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) and the CPUSA, actively fought for civil rights and supported the Costian-Wagner bill, which proposed federal trials for law enforcement officials who failed to exercise their duties during a lynching incident. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a spirited advocate of the anti-lynching legislation and a tireless crusader for civil rights in general. While FDR was personally supportive, publicly and politically the New Yorker adopted a more cautious attitude. Believing the bill would not garner sufficient votes to pass in Congress and wary of alienating the southern conservative “Dixiecrat” wing of his party and jeopardizing other of his progressive programs and his political future, the president chose not to campaign for its passage.

After the anti-lynching bill died in Congress in 1935, the CPUSA tried to win over left-leaning liberals, progressives, and radicals, and to recruit African-Americans to the cause by making civil rights and black liberation part of its party platform. The party attempted to organize integrated unions of black and white sharecroppers in the South, put African-American James Ford on their national vice-presidential ticket, and secured the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys—nine African-American youths falsely accused of gang-raping two white women in Alabama and enduring what amounted to a “legal lynching.”

Hugo Gellert’s lithograph, ironically titled “Stake in the Commonwealth,” is an expression of righteous indignation. Its title implies that being “burned at the stake” in a lynching was the only “stake” blacks had in the Commonwealth of Virginia as well as other southern states that openly sanctioned racism, segregation, disenfranchisement, and even countenanced extra-legal murder.

The complaints and political pressure made by the first lady, the NAACP, the CPUSA, and African-Americans may not have achieved their goal of immediately ending discrimination and lynching, but they did help shape FDR’s progressive New Deal programs. Blacks were ten percent of the population, and Roosevelt insisted that an equal portion of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) jobs be reserved for African-American youths (although CCC camps in Southern states remained segregated and were staffed by white officers). An equal proportion of federal relief program jobs were mandated to go to African-Americans, and the federal government set an important precedent by insisting that regardless of race, these employees were to receive equal pay for equal work. The Federal Theatre Project pushed the envelope the furthest by enforcing the equal pay provisions, firing racist employees, and requiring integrated audiences for all federally funded theatre productions. Such provisions caused the defection of many southern Democrats and earned the Roosevelt administration the enmity of powerful politicians like Martin Dies of Texas. As head of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Dies spearheaded the attack against the New Deal at the end of the decade.

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: Portfolio plate, “Stake in the Commonwealth,” from Comrade Gulliver: An Illustrated Account of Travel into that Strange Country the United States of America, 1936. Hugo Gellert (American, b. Hungary, 1892–1985), author and illustrator. New York. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Bakelite and Beyond — 2/7/14

Posted by Peter Clericuzio, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

The Jumo lamp can be found in a group of small early-twentieth-century appliances in The Wolfsonian’s fifth-floor galleries that are all made partly out of the famous early plastic called Bakelite or its derivatives, without which none of them would have existed. Bakelite was invented in 1907 by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in response to several complaints about manufactured goods. Frequently, new electrical appliances of the era would break down due to poor insulation materials that allowed products to overheat or become dangerous to touch or adjust when in use. Complaints about the production costs and timely manufacture of naturally derived materials such as celluloid and shellac to protect exterior appliance surfaces from water, scratching, dents, and other wear also spurred Baekeland to seek a fully synthetic solution.

The Jumo lamp uses Bakelite-derived plastic in several key places. The base, outer shell of the lamp hood, and panels on each side of the lamp arm are all made of the material, allowing the user to adjust the height and position of the lamp when open and turned on without burning herself. When closed, the hood and base form a unified, streamlined, pod-like shape that hides the other components, reflecting the styling of the era and adding portability and ease of storage. Aesthetically, the plastic’s amber hue gives the components a warm, glowing color that appears jewel-like and yet technologically advanced. The color blends well with other popular furniture materials such as wood; ironically, complaints about Bakelite’s uniform brown tone due to the resins it contains helped prompt the development of similar kinds of plastics that were not as limited in hue.  

Peter Clericuzio is The Wolfsonian's academic programs manager.

Caption: Lamp, Jumo, 1945. Jumo Breveté, France, manufacturer. Molded plastic, metal. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection. 

A Solution? Not Quite — 1/31/14

Posted by Jon Mogul, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

Sometimes complaints lead to solutions. And sometimes those solutions make things worse. 

The leaders of the Soviet Union after the 1917 Russian Revolution had a complaint about the countryside. Most of these leaders were intellectuals. Some of them had working-class backgrounds. But very few of them came from the group that represented the overwhelming majority of the population—the peasantry. The leaders shared a view that the ways of life of peasants and, above all, their ways of working the land were a problem. A problem not just for rural people themselves, but for the entire country—which could not catch up with, let alone surpass, its capitalist rivals as an industrial power as long as agriculture remained unproductive.

This plate—one of many propaganda porcelains produced by the Soviet regime following the Revolution—depicts the countryside as Communist leaders hoped it would become. “They have swapped horses for steel steeds,” the text declares, a reference to the tractors that Soviet factories were beginning to produce and that the Communists believed would vastly increase grain production.

The same year the plate was decorated, 1928, the regime launched a campaign to realize this vision. The idea was to seize the land of rich peasants and encourage their neighbors to combine this land with their own allotments and make large collective farms, which could purchase tractors and make other improvements to production. The reality was massive resistance on the part of peasants of all classes and extreme coercion on the part of the state, including arrests, shootings, and deportations. The Soviet “solution” to agricultural backwardness brought social chaos, contributed to a famine that killed millions of people, and resulted in an agricultural sector that remained inefficient for decades to come.

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

Caption: Plate, They Swapped Horses for Steel Steeds, 1928. Trifon Zakharovic Podriabinnikov, designer. Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, maker. Glazed porcelain. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Collection.