Sunday, February 25, 2018

A visit to Frederick Douglass's home in Washington, D.C.

"Frederick Douglass" and his aide welcome hundreds of visitors to his home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth/Photo by Patricia Leslie

His birth date is uncertain since he was born a slave, but it is often listed as February 14, 1818. 

On the occasion of the 200th birthday celebration last weekend of Frederick Douglass, I ventured out to his home, Cedar Hill in Anacostia in Washington, D.C., where I joined hundreds of others to learn more about the man and his legacy.
Visitors climb the steps to Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C. on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth/Photo by Patricia Leslie

The National Park Service was out in full force with many park rangers on hand to guide and direct visitors, and although the Park Service budget is too low for all it does,  the people of the United States and visitors are grateful to the Park Service for its preservation and protection of our historic places.
Visitors climb the steps to Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C. on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C./Photo by Patricia Leslie

I was led to Cedar Hill by Mr. Douglass's first book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,  An American Slave, published in 1845.  I read it recently, stunned by his eyewitness accounts of treatment received by him and others at the hands (and tools) of slave masters who beat and tormented their slaves. 

The book is an eye-opener and much of it takes places right outside Washington at St. Michael's in and around Talbot County, Maryland where Mr. Douglass was born.  If I were in charge, I would make this short book required reading for all high school students.

A National Park Service ranger presents the history of Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C. to visitors waiting in line to enter the home on the 200th birthday celebration of the abolitionist and former slave/Photo by Patricia Leslie
One woman standing in line at Cedar Hill told me she had been waiting about 40 minutes/Photo by Patricia Leslie

What drove Mr. Douglass to want to learn how to read?  He knew education would open doors and offer opportunity.   How did he learn this?

Until her slave master husband made her stop, a woman began teaching Mr. Douglass how to read.  Even after the private lessons ceased, Mr. Douglass knew enough to keep going, teaching himself and other slaves how to read. During Sunday school classes he led where he taught reading, he took a huge risk that the slave master would find out and beat him.
Visitors climb the steps to Cedar Hill/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The south side of Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia, Washington, D.C./Photo by Patricia Leslie
The view from Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass's home in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. looking towards the U.S. Capitol, in the distance/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The dome of the U.S. Capitol can be seen in the distance from the front of Frederick Douglass's home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia, Washington, D.C./Photo by Patricia Leslie

In the Narrative, the first of three autobiographies he wrote, Mr. Douglass refused to tell exactly how he made his way to freedom, fearful the information would impair escapes for other slaves. 

He was an abolitionist, an orator, a supporter of women's suffrage, a builder of rental housing for blacks, presidential appointee, the first black to receive a vote for president of the United States from a delegate at the Republican National Convention (1888).
On display in the small museum at Cedar Hill are items which Frederick Douglass and his wife, Helen Pitts, may have collected from their trips to Italy, England, France, Ireland, and Greece in 1886 and 1887/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The Bible of Frederick Douglass on display in the small museum at his home, Cedar Hill/Photo by Patricia Leslie
On June 17, 2015 Loretta Lynch used Mr. Douglass's Bible when she was sworn in as the first black woman to be appointed U.S. Attorney General.  The photograph is on display in the museum at Cedar Hill/Photo by Patricia Leslie
A display case of Mr. Douglass's Bible and other items/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The death mask of Frederick Douglass by Ulric Dunbar made on February 21, 1895, the day after he died.  Before the advent of photography, death masks were an important remembrance for loved ones. Visitors to Cedar Hill immediately after Mr. Douglass's death included Susan B. Anthony/Photo by Patricia Leslie

Until he died of a heart attack at his home in 1895,  Mr. Douglass lived at Cedar Hill from 1877 with his first wife,  Anna Murray who died in 1882, and then, his second wife, Helen Pitts, a white lady and his employee whom he married in 1884.

More history of the house, its price, acreage, and a photo from 1887 are here.  

I waited too long in the afternoon to stand in the 40-minute line to see the interior of the house before I had to leave for the concert opera, but I did have time to stop by the small museum and walk around the grounds.   

The postcards I bought in the tiny gift shop I sent to family members, writing that Cedar Hill would be on the agenda the next time they come to visit.   

Black History Month is celebrated in February because it is the birthday month of Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.  The NAACP was founded on the centennial of Mr. Lincoln's birthday, February 12, 1909.

Today at 2 p.m. in the East Building auditorium at the National Gallery of Art, a free lecture and book signing on Mr. Douglass will be presented by Celeste-Marie Bernier, professor of black studies and personal chair in English literature, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, University of Edinburgh, and coeditor in chief, Journal of American Studies, Cambridge University Press. 

What:  Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass

When:  Open every day, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Where:   1411 W Street SE, Washington, DC, 20020

Getting there:  Parking is limited in the area and in the small, free parking lot.  

The best way to get there is via Metro.  Take the Green Line and disembark at the Anacostia station.  Take Bus #B2 to Mt. Rainier or Bladensburg Rd. V St., NE or Bus #V2 to Minnesota Avenue or Capitol Heights Station. The bus stops directly in front of the site at the corner of W and 14th Streets.
Or walk from Metro, about 3/4 mile. Take a right on Howard Road and walk a block. Turn left on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue  and walk three blocks. Turn right on W Street and walk four blocks to the Visitor's Center.

Cost:  Admission is free, however, reservations to tour the house (only permitted with a park ranger) are encouraged ($1.50).

Monday, February 19, 2018

'Aubergine' serves up rough fare at the Olney

From left, Glenn Kubota (Ray's Father), Eunice Bae (Cornelia), Tony Nam (Ray), and Song Kim (Uncle) in Julia Cho's Aubergine at Olney Theatre Center/Photo: Stan Barouh

Hats off to the Olney Theatre Center for joining 25 other regional theatres to present works by female playwrights, Women's Voices Theater Series, some on stages through March 14.  (Olney's entry, Aubergine by Julia Cho, closes March 4.) 
Tony Nam (Ray) and Eunice Bae (Cornelia) in Julia Cho's Aubergine at Olney Theatre Center/Photo: Stan Barouh 

What is an aubergine?

Why, an eggplant, of course.  

In this almost flawless production, Olney delivers everything you'd want on a play menu: excellent lighting (by Harold F. Burgess II), set (Misha Kachman), acting (Vincent M. Lancisi, director), staging, music (excluded from the program unless it's by the sound designer, Roc Lee), everything expected to serve an appreciative audience, except for one important ingredient
From left, Tony Nam (Ray) and Glenn Kubota (Ray's Father) in Aubergine by Julia Cho at Olney Theatre Center/Photo: Stan Barouh

Artistic director Jason Loewith writes in the program that Ms. Cho originally wanted to make the show "light and breezy" about food (and several lines do produce loud audience laughter), but while in preparation, the "recipe" produced an unexpected result.

The eggplant and other foods are a sidebar to the meat of the drama dominated by a son, Ray (Tony Nam, recently a leading character in Olney's Our Town), who wrestles with his relationship with his father (Glenn Kubota) who lies dying, literally, on stage.

The dad's  motionless body, the set centerpiece, groans and moans every so often, binding the production. He lies in exposed state, as you will, with a sickly presence which casts a pall on the surroundings. (If you have ever lived through a family illness like this, it's not something you want to repeat, unless it's to make viewers realize tempus fugit.)

In-between scene changes, in a flashback the father leaps from the bed to become an angry dad confronting his son. Although he has to maintain sleep with eyes closed most of the show, bedridden that he is, Mr. Kubota does so effortlessly, and the few lines he speaks exude strength and strong character.

While his father's health rapidly declines, Ray tries to pick up the pieces and forgive himself before the end. A woman Ray left behind, Cornelia (Eunice Bae from Olney's In the Heights and The King and I),  enters to add balance and perspective.  

Song Kim is an estranged uncle who arrives on scene to "forgive and forget" in a standout role.  He speaks always in Korean (with subtitles on the backdrop).

The lines for the male hospice nurse, Lucien (Jefferson A. Russell, a man of much education and a former Baltimore police officer) I hope are not realistic since his insensitive manner makes one wince to see him treating family members callously at a tragic time, and gives one pause that not all hospice nurses are like Lucien.  (Since Ms. Cho wrote Aubergine soon after her father's death, one surmises she observed and was a part of similar dialogues.)

Megan Anderson, also in Olney's Our Town, provides the author's introduction and is a hospital worker, too.

Electric, effective music adds mood to the production, but credit for it was not found

Other creative crew members are:  Zachary Borovay, projections; Zach Campion, dialect coach; Ivania Stack, costumes; Cat Wallis, stage manager; and Debbie Ellinghaus, managing director

What: Aubergine

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832

When: Now through March 4, 2018, Wednesday through Sundays at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2 p.m. and a 2 p.m. matinee Wednesday, February 28.  If requested, a performance for the visually and hearing impaired will be performed March 1 at 8 p.m.

Tickets: Begin at $47 with discounts for groups, seniors, military, and students.

Ages: Recommended for ages 15 and up. Olney's parental guide says if this were a movie, it would be rated R due to mature themes and adult language. The play centers on impending death due to cancer and includes the impending slaughter of a turtle onstage (for turtle soup).

Duration: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Refreshments: Available and may be taken to seats

Parking: Free, nearby, and plentiful on-site

For more information
: 301-924-3400 for the box office or 301-924-4485

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A book political junkies can skip

I read it so you don't have to.

Junkies:  We have so much to read, you'll be happy to learn this is one you can pass up, Marian Cannon Schlesinger's  I Remember:  A Life of Politics, Paintings and People.

I learned of the book from her obituary last fall when she died at age 105.  This is the second volume of Mrs. Schlesinger's memoirs,  the first titled Snatched from Oblivion: A Cambridge Memoir which I have not read.

Since I wanted to find out more about Mrs. Schlesinger's experiences, I got this volume from interlibrary loan through the Fairfax County Public Library.

Mrs. Schlesinger was married to Pulitzer-Prize winner, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., confidant of JFK and RFK, and author of biographies about each. Mr. Schlesinger is barely mentioned in I Remember,  perhaps because they divorced after 30 years' marriage, and he remarried the following year.

For junkies, the book is a huge disappointment, poorly written and edited, with only half of it devoted to politics, the Kennedys, and Mrs. Schlesinger's favorite candidate, Adlai Stevenson.

The rest of it is about her trips to China, Guatemala, India, and her life in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she spent most of her life.

The publisher of I Remember was TidePool Press in Cambridge where Mrs. Schlesinger likely knew staff members. (Little, Brown published her first volume in 1997.)

Mrs. Schlesinger knew the Kennedys and their wives well, and she was a hearty campaigner for all their presidential quests. Robert Kennedy personally asked her to go on the road for him in 1968 which she did. 

Still, that doesn't restrain her critical remarks about every one of them, save Jackie, "so self-centered that if something happened to them, then it had to be of overwhelming importance to everyone concerned" (pages 166-67)
On these pages, she comes across as catty, shallow, and with a "chip on her shoulder."

Snide remarks about the size of someone's torso, Scottie Fitzgerald's knack for  messing up statistics on the campaign trail, and Ethel Kennedy having fun are a few examples of her descriptions. 

I Remember may be self-edited.  Two examples: "The fact of a newspaper unread before she went to sleep was unthinkable for her" (171,  referring to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgeralds' daughter, Scottie, on the campaign trail for Robert Kennedy). "Even the president of Harvard on one occasion was seen to have attended" (193).

The book includes boring pieces she wrote for the Washington Post which is surprising that the newspaper carried them, but given who she was, maybe not so surprising.   

Little or no mention is made of the Schlesingers' children and what they were doing at the time she was writing. (The book was published in 2011.) 

Mrs. Schlesinger guesses it was her less than "worshipful" oral history project she gave the Kennedy Library that drew Kennedy authors to her, seeking interviews which she found odd they would want to talk with her.

Some of the interviewers "asked questions and if you waited long enough they answered their own questions," and if you waited even longer, "the whole history of their lives came tumbling out" (144-145).
On pages 143-144 she effusively praises Washington's Phillips Collection:  "THE aesthetic resource...I always thought those rooms provided a perfect setting for a tryst, a romantic spot in this strangely sexless city (despite all the goings-on...)." 

The book includes many samples of her art work which strike me as amateurish (spoiled by D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, and more, that I am) but since she was commissioned to draw portraits of many celebs' children (including the Kennedys), they saw talent I don't. 

And that's all she wrote!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Edvard Munch has left the building

Edvard Munch, The Vampire, 1895, color lithograph and woodcut, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund and Gift of Lionel C. Epstein. Munch's original title for this was Love and Pain and may mean to convey an embrace, rather than an act of violence. The theosophist's color for high intellect was yellow, found on the arm of the woman and the man's face, but hard to see on her arm in this photograph.

Edvard Munch's works are no longer on view in Washington, D.C. at the National Gallery of Art where an exhibition of his prints closed last week, so why do I write about him now?

I cannot resist. His work is haunting and leaves me desolate, sad, exhausted, and untrusting. Who wants to write about that? Maybe, by my writing, I can transmit his "spell," his mystique, to you, the reader, and it will leave me. Read no more or, at your own risk.

Edvard Munch, Man's Head in Woman's Hair, 1896, color woodcut, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Rosenwald Collection. Is the man part of the woman's thoughts or the woman, part of the man's? The theosophist's color palette connects the woman's orange and brown to selfishness and sensuality, so it's unlikely the woman is the artist's mother or favorite sister who died when Munch was only five and 13 years old, respectively.  Note Munch's triangular head.  

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was only five years old when his mother died of tuberculosis, her death and presence to inhabit his life.

His aunt and his father, a goodly man though besot by religious fervor, raised Edvard and his siblings. On cold nights in Norway, Edvard's birthplace, his father would read stories by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and tell his children ghostly yarns, warning them that their mother was looking down upon them from heaven, mindful of their misbehaviors.

Later, Edvard wrote about his father: "From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by side since the day I was born." (Wikipedia)

At age 18 Munch abandoned his study of engineering at a technical college, much to the disappointment of his father and neighbors who sent him hate mail (even then!). He enrolled, instead, at an art school, partially started by a distant relative. 
Edvard Munch, Anxiety, 1896, color lithograph, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Epstein Family Collection.  Another with the same title is below.
Edvard Munch, Anxiety, 1896, color woodcut, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Epstein Family Collection

Edvard drew subjects which pervaded his mind and soul, with heavy imagery and symbols, a state of his mind and "external reality." He wrote: "In my art I try to explain life and its meaning to myself."

It is believed that his father confiscated several of his son's nude portraits, destroying at least one. And like Edgar Allan Poe's foster father who stopped supporting Poe when Poe refused to follow the life path his stepfather desired for him, Munch's father stopped supporting his son.
Edvard Munch, Crowds in a Square, 1920, color woodcut, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of the Epstein Family Collection

An 1889 solo show of almost all Edvard's works led to a two-year scholarship and a move to Paris where the blossoming artist was smitten by the works of Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, and their uses of color to depict emotions. Later, Munch toyed with the pointillist style, made famous by Georges Seurat.

It became hard for Munch to give up "his children," his art works, but the controversies they produced delighted him.

His reputation and talents gradually took root and his career took off. He spent the last 20 years of his life at his estate near Oslo where he died.

Munch and Paul Klee (whose exhibition, Ten Americans: After Paul Klee, opened last weekend at the Phillips Collection), were two of the modern artists whose art the Nazis had labeled "degenerate."  They seized, burned, buried, hid, and sold more than 16,500 "degenerate" art works, according to Wikipedia.  

When the Germans arrived in Norway in 1940 to take over the government, they came calling on Munch who feared they would take his collection stored on the second floor of his home. Collectors had already returned to Norway 71 of Munch's pieces, earlier seized by the Nazis (including The Scream) and 11 were never recovered.

An art historian has named Munch's The Scream one of four best-known paintings in the world. (Which do you think the other three are?*)

Now, information about the show you missed: It contained 21 of his prints, all from the National Gallery, and most from the Epstein Family Collection. The exhibition was dedicated to the  memory of Lionel Epstein who died in 2017, said Earl A. Powell, III, the National Gallery's director, at the opening of the show.

The National Gallery's Jonathan Bober and Mollie Berger, were the curators. Below is a portion of the National Gallery's description of Munch and some words from a transcript from Ms. Berger's introduction to the presentation.
Some of the prints in the National Gallery's show had never been on view while others had not been on display for a while.

Munch considered print making as experimental. "Art is supposed to communicate something to the viewer" Ms. Berger said, "and I think that's what's happening here."
Munch wrote in 1929 that he was attempting to dissect the soul, unlike Leonardo da Vinci who dissected the human body.

Munch was a follower of theosophy "which believes that hidden knowledge or wisdom from the ancient past offers a path to enlightenment and salvation." (Wikipedia) 

He was especially interested in how color was perceived.

Theosophists claimed that thoughts generated auras of colorful shapes, or “thought-forms,” that could move through space: bright yellow connoted “highest intellect,” dark purple suggested “devotion mixed with affection,” and bright blue indicated “pure religious feeling.”

A friend confirmed that Munch claimed he could see auras around people.

And from the press announcement: 

In the second half of the 19th century, advances in physics, electromagnetic radiation theory, and the optical sciences provoked new thought about the physical as well as the spiritual worlds.  Edvard Munch: Color in Context, considers the choice, combinations, and meaning of color in light of spiritualist principles. Informed by popular manuals that explained the science of color and by theosophical writings on the visual and physical power of color, Munch created works that are not just strikingly personal but also are charged with specific associations."

This is the eighth Munch exhibition the National Gallery of Art  has presented.
"Early in his life, Munch was exposed to spiritualism and aural concepts that became popular on an international scale at the end of the 19th century. His childhood vicar was the well-known spiritualist Reverend E. F. B. Horn. Additionally, as a young artist in Oslo, Norway, Munch would meet his friends directly across the street from traveling medium A. Stojohann's "Scientific Public Library." Given such exposure, Munch would have been open to the notion of spiritual power, four-dimensional planes, and invisible forces. It is known that he believed he could see energies radiating from specific colors.

"Many of Munch's contemporaries, including Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Maurice Denis (1870–1943), and Odilon Redon (1840–1916), were well aware of these new philosophies, and their work bears some general relation to them. In Munch's use of color, which intensified psychological and expressive meaning, the correlation with theosophical theories and ideas is specific."

*1. Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503-1506 and until c.1517
 2. James McNeill Whistler, Whistler's Mother, 1871
 3. Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930

Visit: The National Gallery of Art, open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sunday.

Where: The National Gallery of Art, between Third and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. On the Mall.

Admission charge: Always free at the National Gallery of Art.

Metro stations for the National Gallery of Art:
Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, or L'Enfant Plaza

For more information: 202-737-4215