Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A lesson in managing uncertainty: digitizing the First German Autumn Salon

Image: Jenny Anger, First German Autumn Salon Reconstruction Project.

Professor of art history, Grinnell College

A trio of international exhibitions defined the parameters of modern art ca. 1912-13: the Sonderbund (Cologne 1912), the Armory Show (New York 1913), and the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon (First German Autumn Salon, Berlin 1913). The Armory Show is by far the best known in the U.S., mostly because of the explosive effect it had on American art. Yet the First German Autumn Salon was arguably more international and more radical than either of the other shows. The Berlin show, for example, featured Italian Futurism and a broader range of German, Russian, and Eastern European art, much of which was more abstract than art in New York or Cologne. Another feature that has assured the Armory Show of fame is its thorough documentation. The legacy of the First German Autumn Salon, in contrast, suffers from the exhibit’s paltry records. Yet it was a major production of Herwarth Walden’s Sturm enterprise, so my book dedicated in part to Der Sturm (Four Metaphors of Modernism) had to address it somehow. The problem was how to do so with any degree of certainty.

Thanks to a grant from Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry, a collaboration between Grinnell College and The University of Iowa funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, students of mine and I constructed a three-dimensional digital reconstruction of the exhibition. (An IT expert, David Neville, was instrumental.) Given the limited documentary resources, we had to accept the provisional nature of the project. Still, our work led to some reliable and revelatory conclusions that we might not have reached if we had not ventured into this territory.

The most certain data point is the Berlin address, Potsdamerstrasse 75, which appears in multiple letters and journal entries. Walden rented a large hall, nearly 1200 square meters, on the fourth floor of a new commercial building just a mile away from Potsdamer Platz (home to Europe’s first electric traffic light in 1924). The building was destroyed in the war, but we located an original elevation—unfortunately without measurements—in a neighborhood archive (Museen Tempelhof Schöneberg Berlin). We found that the current building (renumbered postwar to #180) matches the general structure of the original, including a fourth floor arcade, so we cautiously made some decisions based on the current structure. Using Google Earth, my student James Marlow discovered that area behind the two street façades of the corner building combine to approximately 1200 square meters. We don’t yet know if the exhibition was in such an L-shaped area in the earlier building, but since the measurement matches our known figure so neatly, that is our working premise.

The next question was what was in the show. Fortunately, a catalog numbering 366 works survives: The titles are often imprecise, and sometimes a group of more than one work is listed under just one number, but the source appears to be reasonably reliable in listing which works were shown by which artist. The exciting feature is that a Roman numeral after each artist’s name designates one of nineteen temporary “rooms” installed in the open hall on Potsdamerstrasse. Those numbers were the key to our knowing which works were grouped together, even if we could not know the exact hanging in any given room. Adding to the uncertainty, some artists’ names are followed by more than one Roman numeral, but enough aren’t that we felt confident to proceed.

While some students worked long hours tracking down the sometimes little-known works (Rebekah Rennick is to be commended here), others began thinking about the hanging, comparing contemporary sources to determine probable exhibition design strategies. The one photograph that survives from the show—Filippo Marinetti standing between his lost portrait by Gino Severini and Carlo Carrà’s Simultaneity: Woman on the Balcony (1912)—proved invaluable. From it we could determine the value and texture of the sackcloth covering the portable wall as well as determine the structure of the latter. Also, it was clear to see that at least in this area, paintings were hung well below our now conventional eye-level. Although we don’t know if that technique was followed throughout the show, its use here was enough for us to generalize it with some confidence.

What did we learn? We learned that modern art in 1913 was still a very inclusive and greatly varied banquet. In particular, we learned that it was more feminine and decorative than it was to become. The largest room by far belonged to Robert and Sonia Delaunay. (To make that determination, my student Eliza Harrison carefully measured the widths of all the paintings assigned to Room XVIII.) Robert’s and Sonia’s paintings covered the walls, but this temporary room, unlike any other, also featured a large collection of Sonia’s decorative objects: curtains, scarves, pillows, lampshades, and book covers. Prior to the exhibit, Walden had written to Sonia: “I would like very much to exhibit your decorative works in the Autumn Salon, and am very happy that your Sturm covers met with such success.” The success that the collaged book covers allegedly met before the Sturm show, however, must have been private, because Sonia had never had the opportunity to exhibit these works prior to Walden’s international undertaking in Berlin in fall 1913. Reception there was profuse and wildly inconsistent—signaling just how revolutionary this decorative ensemble and its emphasis in the exhibition were.

My hope had been to host a website devoted to our model, but the copyright permissions for so many artworks proved prohibitive. Still, my student Sonja Spain has made videos of “walk-throughs” of many of the rooms, and we offer them to scholars interested in imagining a visit to the First German Autumn Salon. Please contact for more information.


Jenny Anger is professor of art history at Grinnell College. She is author of Four Metaphors of Modernism: From Der Sturm to the Société Anonyme and Paul Klee and the Decorative in Modern Art.

"Four Metaphors of Modernism is a tour de force demonstration of the centrality of metaphor to the modernist project both in Europe and America. Through comparative analysis, Jenny Anger charts the surprising aesthetic and philosophical continuities informing two key modernist ventures."
—Mark Antliff, Duke University

"The book not only brings together various strands of scholarship with brand new archival research, it is also the first major effort to systematically trace the connections between the German Der Sturm (gallery and journal) and the American Société Anonyme. Jenny Anger’s highly original and engaging instigation of connections between these two key modernist institutions is particularly noteworthy for the author’s nuanced discussion of gender, which builds on her earlier published work and will no doubt further cement her reputation as a major contributor within this area."
—Anna Brzyski, University of Kentucky

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Let's hear it for the bee.

Excerpts from the introduction to If Bees Are Few

It is said there are twenty thousand species of bees in the world, a genus fifty million years old, but in the fertile imagination of the world's poets, there is no beginning and no end to bee buzz. As Rilke wrote, poets are "bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible."

Sappho wrote of bees in the sixth century BCE ("neither honey nor bees for me"), as did Virgil, Rumi, Shakespeare, Bobby Burns, Clare, Coleridge, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, Emerson, Herrick, Issa, Machado, Mandelstam, Neruda, Dickinson prolifically, Whitman, Whittier, Tennyson, Yeats, Frost, and on into the distracting buzz of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from Sherman Alexie to Timothy Young.

Sylvia Plath's father kept bees, and while living in England she tried it, too. She got six jars of honey and the famous "bee sequence" of poems from 1962, later published in Ariel, which convinced her she was a real poet.

During the early seventies, when I ran an experiment in rural education, I kept bees. This fact relates me to Plath, but encounters with bees, whether in the guise of a bee-masked holy father or the mysterious swarms themselves, were indeed unforgettable to us both and worthy of praise in poems, if one can only figure out how.

I finally figured out how, and it is this anthology (the word, from ancient Greek, means a "gathering of flowers"). If Bees Are Few is a gathering of poems collected over the past decade that touch on, or are touched by, bees, including "To make a prairie" by Emily Dickinson:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.


Ross Conrad writes in Natural Beekeeping: "The bee is the only creature in the animal kingdom, that I am aware of, that does not kill or injure any other being as it goes through its regular life cycle. Apis mellifera damages not so much as a leaf. In fact, honey bees take what they need in such a way that the world around them is improved."

During much of human history, bees and human life have been intertwined, lured by more than durable sweetness. As early as 3000 BCE, one of Pharaoh's titles was "Bee King," and beekeeping had begun at least by the seventh century BCE. Hilda Ransome notes in The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore that one cathedral of the Middle Ages required thirty-four thousand beeswax candles annually for services planned during one year.

Rudolf Steiner, in a 1923 lecture on bees, goes so far as to say, "If you look at a swarm of bees, it is, to be sure, visible, but it really looks like the soul of a human being, a soul that is forced to leave its body. . . . You can really see, by looking at the escaping swarm of bees, an image of the human soul flying away from the body."

From sweet honey to practical wax to spiritual projection, the bees have been able to handle it all.

Until now. The age of synthetic fertilizers and monoculture farming creates bee food deserts, certain pesticides scramble their nervous systems, and pests such as the mite Varroa destructor sap their strength, all of which weaken or collapse honeybee colonies and wipte out wild bee species. That's our age. That's right now.

Poets do what we can, in our reverie, our observation, our listening, our metaphors, our occasional beekeeping, our outrage, our grief, to keep the sweetness and sting of these poetic companions alive. Scientists and citizens must do the rest.


This book is dedicated to entomologist Marla Spivak, whose pioneering work with bees has awarded her a MacArthur fellowship. A portion of proceeds from this anthology are dedicated to the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota, established by Dr. Spivak.


James P. Lenfestey is a former editorial writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has published a collection of personal essays, five collections of poems, the poetry anthology Low Down and Coming On: A Feast of Delicious and Dangerous Poems about Pigs, and coedited Robert Bly in This World, also from Minnesota. His memoir with prose and poems, Seeking the Cave: A Pilgrimage to Cold Mountain, Milkweed Editions, was a finalist for the 2014 Minnesota Book Award.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

On truthiness and trustworthiness: Why nonfiction is best defined as a literature of questions.

University of Cambridge

It’s a cliché that by the time one finishes writing a book, one hates it. Well, I have just finished a book—A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child—and if it’s not quite true that I hate it, it’s certainly true that this book continues to cause me no end of discomfort.

Unfortunately, the discomfort is the point.

Let me explain.

1. My book might—indeed, intends to—undermine that which is most comfortable about the genre: the idea that nonfiction is a literature of facts.

This idea that it is a literature of facts is not just comforting, but nearly inevitable. If a book is “not fiction,” then surely we are being asked to assume that it is true. Certainly, nonfiction might be structured with an eye to narrative shape, an ear to evocative language, a heart for the passions and trauma that spurred history, mathematical breakthrough, scientific discovery, or any of an infinite number of other aspects of learning. Those literary elements, though, according to the dominant understanding, must be subjugated to truth. Nonfiction tells the truth. It is a literature of facts; that’s the way we distinguish it from fiction.

As intuitive as this position is, though, it’s just silly. Nonfiction is written by human beings. Imperfections, mistakes, and bias are inevitable, which means that insofar as it is ever a literature of facts, it is a literature of facts laced with error. Indeed, what I have been finding is that nonfiction often seems to have been written with an awareness of where it is wrong, but—because we keep telling our nonfiction writers that what we want from them is authority—it is also written with a discernible effort to obscure places where its authors feel doubt in the conclusions that they have drawn.

For example, one of my chapters focuses on a famous work of nonfiction about astronauts. It’s a very good book, one that I like and often teach. Its author, following the common script for the genre, has said repeatedly that nonfiction should always be reliable. The problem is, though, that her book’s central piece of evidence brings to light questions that the book pointedly does not pursue, questions that, it seems to me, the book cannot pursue because its goal is to be reliable. When I started chasing those questions myself, I found that the book was full of bandages on top of bandages covering up cracks in the book’s authority, cracks that spread from one unanswered question to another. Trying to be reliable, trying to be a literature of facts, incentivized a lack of transparency throughout the book.

By insisting that nonfiction be a literature of facts, we have cultivated a genre that is less honest. Nonfiction, in striving for the authority we demand from a literature of facts, is less factual.

2. My book’s argument also asks us to do more work when we read nonfiction.

Implicit in the call for nonfiction to be authoritative is the very seductive suggestion that it if is authoritative, we can rest in that authority. If we find places—or, more likely, think we have found places—where we can rest in the authority of a book, what we have found are places, we tell ourselves, that we can lay down our responsibility to engage critically with what we read.

Naturally, that’s bad. Obviously, it’s irresponsible to ask a book to speak with an authority that allows us to be lazy. Similarly, it’s wrong to think of the entire field as a genre whose primary responsibility is to traffic only in answers that let us escape the responsibility of asking questions.

But it takes work to engage with a nonfiction that is honest about what it doesn’t know. Kadir Nelson’s 2008 We Are the Ship, for example, tells the story of Negro League baseball, and it highlights the truth that this is a history in which hard facts are a luxury. The narrator explains,

Occasionally, a local newspaper would send a reporter out to keep stats, but the papers wouldn’t pay them to do it very often. Sometimes those guys would come late and have to ask around, “What happened in the first inning?” “Who did what?” or they’d just make up the stats. (21)

A history underpinned by meticulous, objective facts is, as this passage reveals, a privilege. Reading a book about a history that cannot be verified requires a constant vigilance, a creative, critical engagement that asks not for an opportunity to absorb data but to navigate and take into consideration gaps in knowledge.

Such a literature requires work on the part of the reader who performs those acts of navigation, and it also requires work on the part of a writer. Such writers must resist the call of editors, reviewers, and readers to speak with unwavering authority. They must justify their conclusions, humanize their characters, and label the “seams,” as Joe L. Kincheloe has put it, where they have stitched together faultless narratives of knowledge.

3. For many readers, the most uncomfortable aspect of the book will be that in it, I study not adult nonfiction, but nonfiction for children.

Although adults can sometimes practice humility in communicating their ideas to one another, we frequently find ourselves clinging to authority when we try to tell our truths to young people. Perhaps our reasons are nefarious: we can stave off being replaced by them for a little longer if they think we know what we know without harboring any questions. Or perhaps we don’t want to do the work required by a literature of questions rather than a literature of facts. Or maybe we feel we are doing children a favor by presenting the world to them in terms that are simple, even if those terms are—we know even as we lie to them—untrue.

Too, if we think of books whose goal is to inform as defined by the questions they provoke rather than the answers they instill, then we’re going to have to rethink how we ask children to engage with information and how we assess that engagement. Dutifully recording authoritative data is an act for which standardized examinations can test very easily. Recognizing and struggling with information that advertises its imperfect reliability is much trickier. Assessing the creative, productive engagement invited by a literature of questions is more challenging yet.

For me, though, the most persistent source of discomfort about my own book has to do with the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. Two of the most resonant (and troubling) phrases of our moment—“fake news” and “alternative facts”—carry with them a legitimate anxiety about disinformation, and more than once, I have glanced longingly at the reams of discourse that valorize taut, confident nonfiction, a discourse that this book contests. I miss the security of thinking about information as uniformly trustworthy or untrustworthy.

Still, insisting that the goal of a work of nonfiction should be authority only soothes the anxiety; it doesn’t eliminate the potential for—or harm caused by—truthiness. It requires us not only to bury our questions but to bury our fear about those questions. The work necessary to a literature of questions is not only worth the effort, but ethically imperative.

Joe Sutliff Sanders is author of A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child and Disciplining Girls: Understanding the Origins of the Classic Orphan Girl Story and editor of The Comics of Herge: When the Lines Are Not So Clear. He is a university lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.

"A Literature of Questions is a groundbreaking work of criticism not only because it covers an area of children's literature that is largely unexamined but also because it provides the field with new language and a new set of critical lenses, which scholars, educators, and writers can use in the future to analyze, evaluate, teach, and create works of nonfiction for younger readers."
—Annette Wannamaker, Eastern Michigan University

"Not many courses about children’s literature that are offered in English departments include nonfiction titles on the reading lists. A Literature of Questions will irrevocably change this situation. In the wake of Joe Sutliff Sanders’s book, it will no longer be possible to teach an undergraduate or graduate course about literature for young readers without including a section on children’s nonfiction. Every individual working in the field will want to add a copy of A Literature of Questions to their campus library and even to their personal book collection. Additionally, they will want to assign this text their students. Sanders’s work is a new classic."
—Michelle Ann Abate, author of Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature