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Victoria Olsen Posts

A Life in Books

For Henry.

When my father-in-law passed away in January he left behind a life in books: written, read, collected. There were stacks of psychology studies in his office, sea yarns in the living room of the beach house, and poetry anthologies in the guest bedroom. But most were in the built-in bookcases in the family room on the second floor of the house he lived in for forty years, sequentially and topically arranged to span his interests as he crisscrossed literary borders. It was this room that I was indirectly put in charge of processing when my mother-in-law decided to move out of that house. “Thank goodness you’re here,” she’d say whenever I arrived on a weekend to help clear. “You can deal with the books.”

books on a shelf

Over the course of the next few months we gradually dismantled the room, sorting everything into piles of Keep, Sell, Donate. There were classics I’d read in familiar and unfamiliar editions: that high school Signet Classic Wuthering Heights (50 cents) with the brooding Heathcliff emerging from a dark tree in the background, in contrast to the simple orange Penguin edition with its British price tag of 2/6. George Orwell’s 1984 (35 cents) turned up with a lurid cartoonish cover boasting a tale of “Forbidden love…Fear…Betrayal.” We sold a few first editions to the Strand Bookstore but we gave away hundreds of well-loved volumes: to friends, to professional colleagues, to our community book swap, and many more in weekly stops at Goodwill. They left in clear recycling bags, cardboard banker boxes, and paper bags from Trader Joe’s, hauled by hand.

cover of Wuthering Heights

The earliest books, at the far left of the room, were hardbound volumes inherited from his parents and parents-in-law (his mother-in-law had annotated hers with notes like “very good!” on the flyleaf). Here were the multi-volume Library of America classics, the histories of the Jews, the Anchor Bible, and the Tao Te Ching. It was a corner little used, I think, but foundational: like a rock upon which the rest of the collection was built, with gifts inscribed from early teachers or saved from courses at City College. There were books like these scattered throughout the room, familiar to me from the home I grew up in and those I visited as a child. Everyone I knew on the Upper West Side of Manhattan had some of these same books: Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization, Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in its own slipcase, and important relics of the 1970s, like All the President’s Men and Silent Spring. And, somewhere, you’d find the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Freud (the classic Strachey translation in 24 volumes) along with Ernest Jones’s three-volume biography, its gilt numerals bright against the rigid spines.

cover of 1984

Those were books to be owned and displayed more than read, although the psychologists in my circles (including my father-in-law) knew Freud deeply and could quote him like a Bible. But these were the common elements of a generational identity. The distinct chapters of my father-in-law’s life appeared in the waves of books as you turned the corner of that family room: the fat, yellowing Russian novels bleeding into rows upon rows of contemporary fiction from Roth to Lahiri. His life path could be traced careening through the multi-shelf section on Shakespeare, which his mother used to teach, on an eclectic route through Homer and Herodotus, Beowulf, and Don Quixote. He read at a breakneck pace—to learn and to travel vicariously through Ireland, African deserts, South Sea islands. And he read to write, writing books and professional papers in his field as well as essays on metaphor in poetry and psychology. He self-published his own volumes of poetry, as well as transcribing and editing his immigrant grandfather’s journal.  All of that output seemed to require a massive input of raw material. Or maybe it was the other way around. His appetite for words filling him up until it overflowed onto his own pages.

Books were a bond between us, though sometimes a vexed one. He had strong opinions before I could frame my own, and I often hid mine from him. But I recognized the way his reading had shaped him, how much he had invested himself in them, because I did the same. Sorting the books became a way of continuing and deepening a conversation that had always been somewhat indirect and also a way of processing his loss, as the books moved through my hands and disappeared. It enacted a metaphor he would have loved to have talked over, thought through, written about. “What do your books say about you?” I might have asked, wondering whether there was a book or an essay there. And he would have replied with an example and a quote from something I hadn’t read, urging me to write something on “library as metaphor.” He would have smiled at the ironies of turning this lens on himself, a little abashed.

It’s no surprise that books are always physical objects as well as abstract representations of something bigger and baggier. They create the volume (or volumes over time, in my father-in-law’s case) of a life, shaping the inner contours of the mind as well as the walls of a living room. The life visible in this collection was both a particular generation’s (Abba Eban and Arthur Schlesinger) and his own, inflected by authors he knew (Gerald Stern and William Zinsser): it was thoughtful, engaged, and endlessly curious. He would have been pleased to be part of another kind of reading—his books read to reveal their reader—in a context he hadn’t foreseen.

When the sale of that house finally closed my mother-in-law instinctively returned to the connection between houses and lives and books and how they live on in memory: “It’s more like a book is closing than a chapter,” she emailed. “But what a memorable book!” That closing had been long delayed and evoked all the poignant associations with “closure”—along with the reassuring reminder that “to close” can mean both to end and to bring nearer (a paradox my father-in-law would have enjoyed). It’s an adjective for proximity and connection, here kept alive in memory and on the page.

The Fantastic Four: Victorian Photography in London

Clementina Hawarden, “Clementina Maude and Isabella Grace,” 1861. Wikimedia Commons.

The “Victorian Giants” show now at National Portrait Gallery in London through May 20th begins with a small room where each wall introduces one of the four photographers in the show: Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Clementina Hawarden, and Oscar Rejlander. This feels auspicious — they face each other in some interesting way that will be revealed or complicated, presumably, and they are equal like a square. There’s a welcome symmetry to this composition of two men and two women (I’m writing this during the week that the UK grapples with the mandatory reporting of gender equity in pay to men vs. women. The national average favors men by 17-18% and it seems likely that the NPG chose equal representation intentionally as equity in art history isn’t a given, which wikipedia edit-a-thons aim to address.)

But it’s not clear what the exhibit wants to make of the foursome, especially since they are not actually “equal.” Rejlander is probably the least known of the four but the exhibit makes him seem like the central figure because he was the only one who interacted with all of the others both personally and professionally. Carroll and Cameron also interacted (and disparaged each other’s work, though the exhibit doesn’t mention that). But, surprisingly, Cameron and Hawarden had no known direct connection, despite exhibiting in the same organizations and circulating in the same aesthetic and aristocratic circles. What to make of this? Nothing, apparently, because it’s not even mentioned in the show. In general, this exhibit emphasizes sameness over differences, connections over gaps, which is predictable but disappointing. There are other stories to tell, or at least questions to ask here. Rejlander, Cameron, and Carroll often collected each other’s photographs in albums and the attributions of who made which image are often hard to pin down — and then switch back and forth. That would have been interesting to examine: how do you know who made what image? And even more surprisingly, why might it matter?

Cameron's portrait of Herschel
Julia Margaret Cameron, “Sir John Herschel with Cap,” 1867. Wikimedia Commons.

This is not to deny that the connections aren’t often interesting and fruitful. It’s nice to see some groupings around the same model (for example, Tennyson portraits by Rejlander and Cameron side by side) but what does that suggest? These photographers knew the same people and lived at the same time: why wouldn’t their work be similar? What instead, maybe, to make of their differences? The women, especially, were particularly artful in their compositions — neither pretended to make conventional studio portraits. Cameron got so close to her subjects that their faces completely fill the frame, even sacrificing focus for intimacy. Hawarden posed her daughters in deshabille, leaning against walls and mirrors in carefully composed tableaux. Whereas both Rejlander and Carroll were interested in representing specific people, Cameron and Hawarden were more concerned with symbolic representation of ideas and characters. Inevitably, male and female artists’ portrayals of bodies are “read” differently too and the eroticism of these images is dealt with here in an oddly prim and defensive way, especially with the men: Carroll, we’re told, never photographed Alice nude and “nearly always” had adult chaperones during the sittings. Rejlander, we’re assured, took nude portraits of women purely as anatomical studies for artists. The exhibit’s patroness, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge, emphasizes the innocence of childhood in her commentary on the images.

Rejlander’s Tennyson Family.
Oscar Rejlander, “Alfred and Emily Tennyson with their sons at Farringford,” 1862. Wikimedia Commons.

There are curious gaps too: Rejlanders’ best known image of Tennyson is probably the sun-lit family grouping outdoors, with the parents and two sons all holding hands. It’s a rare outdoor image and much reproduced as evidence of their idyllic life at Farringford. Nor does the show reproduce the images Rejlander and Cameron were presumed to have collaborated on at her home on the Isle of Wight in 1863: where Cameron and her maids posed outside her door for narrative scenes with titles like “Greeting the Post” or “Maids at the Well.” These photos were part of a bigger narrative about Cameron’s transformation from colonial matron into art photographer: she was given a camera and took “her first lessons” from professionals like Rejlander (as the wall text asserts). That sounds a little too much like the old speculation about “who taught Julia how to use a camera?,” which has been complicated by research into her friendship with the scientist Sir John Herschel, who experimented with photographic chemicals in the 1840s, and her years of composing private photo albums for her sisters. Cameron’s famous portrait of Herschel is in the show but the exhibit’s suggestion that Cameron was “trained in part” by Rejlander makes those images (that weren’t shown) seem less of an equal partnership. I wrote a biography of Cameron fifteen years ago that grappled with that sturdy myth and maybe I’m over-sensitive to it. But as a biographer I was also put off from the start by the huge introductory wall text that said “BORN IN CEYLON (NOW SRI LANKA), JULIA MARGARET CAMERON…”.  And that’s just plain wrong. She was born in Calcutta and died in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). (All the wall text and captions can be downloaded from the NPG website here.)

Carroll’s “Alice as Beggar Maid”
Lewis Carroll, “Alice Liddell as Beggar Maid,” 1858. Wikimedia Commons.

So I value any exhibition of Cameron’s work, or Victorian photography, and the best treat in the show was simply viewing Rejlander’s private photograph album (seventy-one prints collected from 1856-1866, now in the NPG’s own collection) which has been digitized to scan through. But overall this exhibition was a missed opportunity. The influences between these four “giants” (code for that favorite Victorian word, “genius”?) could have been more complicated: less biographical, less gendered, less one-directional. Still, you do get to see the images in person and at scale.

Here is one of my favorites, Cameron’s portrait of Carroll’s famous Alice Liddell, grown up and looking back at us through the looking glass. The exhibit displayed a variant, called “Alethea,” in which Liddell is in profile instead.

Julia Margaret Cameron, “Pomona” (Alice Liddell), 1872. Wikimedia Commons.

Compare Cameron’s Alice to Carroll’s, from fourteen years earlier. The gesture, the background, even the bold gaze back at the viewer, all suggest that Cameron knew Carroll’s photo and was consciously re-viewing it. Where Carroll called his “Alice as Beggar Maid,” Cameron’s revision associates Alice with Greek deities of truth and fertility. These are the sort of overlapping symmetries and asymmetries (of representation and power) that could have been explored in more depth.


Transformation, digital and personal
Our first publication!

I’ve spent the past few months since leaving my full-time teaching job diving into the world of self-publishing and small presses. The result is an exciting new venture: Sense & Respond Press, which publishes short business titles on digital transformation and innovation. My partners, Josh Seiden and Jeff Gothelf, and I started from scratch and needed to set up an LLC, design covers and logos, create accounts with all the print and ebook distributors…, so I’ve learned a lot. Our first book is now out (woo!), our next is available for pre-order, and we have several others queued up over the next few months.

At the same time I’ve been writing case studies on higher education for Google’s blog. (Here’s one recent example I worked on about the innovative use of virtual reality for teaching at Brown.) That’s been eye-opening too as I research projects and interview academics to understand how they use technology to teach and collaborate in new ways. Even higher education, one of the slowest-moving institutions around, is transforming itself. It’s been fascinating to have a window into the process.

It’s been an immersive experience and a big shift from teaching writing to first-year college students. I attended the Business of Software in Boston in September and Lean Startup Week in San Francisco earlier this month — and wrote about both on Medium here. Stay tuned!


Biennial Impressions

Here are a few excerpts from this morning’s viewing of the Giardini at the Venice Bienniale:

I admired the simple and surprising, like the pavilion of books (though there was some irony there in the inflated wall texts). Above is a beautiful troupe l’oeil painting by Liu Ye. Look, no words!

Mark Bradford, "Niagara" 2006

Another really simple and really moving piece called “Niagara” by Mark Bradford in the U.S. Pavilion: it’s three minutes long and my sister and I watched it over and over marveling at the painterly flatness of the setting, while the young man, larger than life then smaller and smaller as he walks away, just walking, compels attention. Here the catalogue text quotes Zadie Smith: “he does more than is necessary with less than he needs.” Exactly.

Canada pavilion, Venice Biennial 2017

Finally, I was glad to see that the national pavilions had a sort of consistency and modesty that I hadn’t expected. The Biennial looks like a World’s Fair but it doesn’t exactly seem to be about competition. I’m clearly not in the art world, but as a visitor all the pavilions seemed the same size, of the same importance etc. My favorite, though, has to be Canada’s, which was so understated (I know, cliche) that I couldn’t even find the label that identified or described it. There was just this really interesting, dynamic space that actually had some relationship with its location: the water and light and wood in an unexpected composition.

More disappointing:

  • France’s pavilion, where various musicians enact their routines by setting up, rehearsing, performing at random. Just not that interesting to watch, though when the music finally starts it’s a nice break from the visual.
  • The over-sized, over-decorated stuffed sculptures by Phyllida Barlow in Great Britain’s pavilion. Admittedly not my thing.
  • Olafur Eliasson‘s over-complicated social project “Green Light,” which was not engaging despite its good intentions and despite my usual appreciation for his work.

Overall, though, lots to think about and admire, with more work stretching all across the city.

On (Not) Reading a Romanesque Altarpiece

Day Three. I’m sitting in an anteroom of the Cathedral San Martin in Lucca. Called a sacristy, it’s a side note off the huge main cathedral space with its stained glass and frescoed ceiling, its tessellated floors and soaring archways. The exterior of the cathedral is known for its striped pattern and the stripes show up here too in the corner columns holding up the ceiling. It’s a language I don’t know how to read.

Cathedral. Lucca

Here in this room are the duomo’s greatest hits: a funeral monument by Jacopo Della Quercia and an altarpiece by Fra Filippino Lippi and Domenico Ghirlandaio. But I can’t figure them out. The altarpiece itself is a vertical mishmash of seemingly unrelated ideas: a semicircle on top of a square bound by a horizontal ribbon of separate pictures and anchored by a marble slab. The horizontal band, called a predella, seems to be a series of non sequiturs lined up next to each other like a proto-storyboard. The altarpiece as a whole is held together by its rigid geometry: the columns on either side of the main tableau serve as bookends. But what’s going on inside? What are you trying to say? I’d ask of my students. Indeed, I’m reminded of an essay I used to teach– E.M. Forster’s “Not Looking at Pictures” in which he does exactly this: he struggles to understand how to “read” a painting of St. George and the dragon, finally enlisting help from an art historian.

Here’s what I could see for myself. The central image by Ghirlandaio is astonishingly beautiful: the gilt haloes shine brightly, delicately etched, as four saints gather around a madonna and child. The baby Jesus stands with a finger poised as if instructing his elders from his mother’s lap. The image is a symbolic window into the church itself, reflecting its architecture and patterned floor. Like the cathedral, the deep perspective draws the viewer/worshipper into the interior, up the carpeted steps, behind the central figures, and past the theatricality of those parted golden curtains. If the painting is a church, the vertical lines of saints flank the madonna to form each nave, and the madonna’s halo, appropriately, is the altar. The composition, then, has a logic that the content doesn’t…for me, which is no surprise since no one imagined me as its audience.

Luckily I have an art historian at hand too–in my sister, who wrote a dissertation on Romanesque art. When I relayed my confusion she shrugged. The connections between the parts of an altarpiece were subtle and complicated, she explained, but there would have been something there even if we may not be able to discern it any more. Sometimes the relationship was of part to whole: the narrative of the predella might refer to a character in the painting, just as the altarpiece echoes the church itself. Sometimes there were implied relationships about donors or saints’ days or doctrine…. There could be lots of connections between the parts, she said, but the composition was never random. The cathedrals were living documents to be read and embodied by parishioners. Even the facades were designed to reinforce the messages within.

There weren’t many parishioners in the cathedral today. I saw one woman praying but everyone else seemed like a tourist, wandering vaguely through the space, peering at inscriptions and snapping photos. But the sacred imposed upon us and no one spoke or interacted. With everyone left in their quiet solitude, I could sit on a pew and type this out on my phone, glancing up to look some more. If it seemed like I was just texting, no one cared. Random mournful sounds emerged from the organ, as if it were being tuned.

I look again, still reaching for some understanding of the room as a whole. There are blank spaces on the wall where something was moved and other wall paintings arranged higgeldy piggeldy around the main attractions. The other focus of attention is the tomb of a young noblewoman, Ilaria Del Carretto, preserved in Carrara marble by Jacobo Della Quercia. (I admired the snow-like white-tipped hilltops of Carrara on the drive to Lucca but couldn’t get a good photo from my phone). What is she doing here, this anachronistic teenager, her dog devotedly stretched out at her feet for all eternity? Her flesh is oddly creamy; her features barely register in profile. Her head rests on two hard pillows. Life-size, she watches impassively, eyes closed, while the infant Jesus is circumsized in a huge tableau over her head. Quercia spent two years on this work, immortalizing this girl in 1407. She was moved here to this room in 1995 after restoration. Her survival into the 21st century seems utterly random.

Jacobo Della Quercia, tomb of Illaria del Carretto
Illaria’s tomb, in a different location. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Incoherence. These stories are elusive and their forms unfamiliar. There is no “original” art here and no authentic experience that hasn’t been altered ad infinitum. This location was consecrated in the 800s, the church begun in the 1100s, then continually and continuously restored, with interruptions like the plague of 1348. Those frescoed ceilings made their Pre-Raphaelite appearance in the 1800s. My experience today, though, clearly meant something to me because I’ve spent hours writing and thinking and conversing about it. It began as a jumble of loosely-related ideas, but it was the strongest impression of my first three days in Italy. I’m traveling with my sisters and their teenage children, reminiscing about our trips to Europe together as adolescents and how foreign it all felt. It was like being pushed into a deep lake, a shove into the unfamiliar. That has not been our own childrens’ experience today though, we noticed. Blame globalization or iPhones or their generation, but they know this place before they get here. To be fair, this medieval walled city seemed familiar to me too. The boutiques, the cobblestones, the trattorias…. I’ve seen them elsewhere. Inside the cathedral was my first return to that welcome sense of utter confusion and novelty, which is what we travel for in the first place.