The “Gatsby at UConn” posts will explore UConn Reads programming and events this semester. Please consult the University calendar for complete information about events.
The William Benton Museum of Art, one of our campus treasures, has mounted “Millionaires and Mechanics, Bootleggers and Flappers: Speaking of The Great Gatsby,” a terrific exhibition focused on Jazz Age America as seen through the lens of the novel. Organized by Assistant Curator Ally Walton (MA ‘12), the exhibition will run through March 17. Last week I had an opportunity to view the exhibition and discuss the exhibition with Ally.
I asked her how she approached the exhibition. “I had read the book in high school and loved it,” she said. “And I had a lot of memories of it. I started a ‘soft’ checklist, focusing on images of New York City and parties in the Roaring Twenties. Rereading the book, there were new things that stood out to me.”
She organized the exhibition around several key themes: the changing nature of femininity in the early twentieth century, race and class tensions, the urban scene, and the visual culture of the time. The Benton’s collection is particularly rich in works by early twentieth-century American artists, and Ally noted that the exhibition could have been much larger.
As a viewer, I appreciated the very careful way the works of art were chosen to resonate with the book. I encourage visitors to spend time reading the labels that Ally wrote because she pulls references from the text and makes thoughtful and revealing connections to the images.
A case in point is Ilse Bing’s photograph of the Queensboro Bridge. German-born Bing was an avant-garde artist who lived in Paris in the 1930s and spent three months photographing in New York City in 1936.
When researching images for the exhibition, Ally noted that Bing’s photograph perfectly captures the famous moment in Gatsby when Tom Buchanan and Nick Carraway drive into the city over the Queensboro Bridge. Ally’s label quotes Bing’s description of her impression of the cityscape – “I did not find the New York skyline big like rocks. It is more natural than that, like crystals in the mountains, little things grown up.” – and connects it to Fitzgerald’s image in The Great Gatsby: “Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
I was especially pleased to see this photograph in the exhibition because it had been purchased for the Benton by my 2010 graduate seminar in museum studies. Over the past few years, with the generous assistance of Acting Director Dr. Thomas Bruhn, the class, as a curatorial exercise, has built a collection of pre-1950 photography for the museum, with the idea that these photographs could be relevant to many different exhibitions and classes at the university. Ally was actually a member of the seminar that purchased the Bing photograph, so it’s an image we both like and were pleased to see in this context – although we couldn’t have anticipated such an exhibition when the purchase was made two years ago.
A more troubling connection between text and image comes to the fore in Adolf Dehn’s We Nordics (like Fitzgerald, Dehn was born in Minnesota, but lived and worked in Europe and New York City).
The print shows a group of white patrons at a nightclub reacting with fear and uneasy fascination to the African-American performers on stage, who seem to hover above them like a nightmare. In her label, Ally draws a connection between the racism explored in this image and the white supremacy emphatically espoused by Tom Buchanan, who declares to Nick, Daisy, and Jordan Baker: “This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and… And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”
Ally notes that Dehn’s depiction of the performers shades into negative stereotypes of African-Americans. To make this point visually, she placed next to Dehn’s print a photograph by James Van Der Zee, an African-American photographer whose images documented the cultural fabric of Harlem and the emerging black middle class in New York City.
While I was in the galleries at the Benton, a class of ninth graders from Bloomfield High School arrived. I was very impressed by the way they listened attentively to the docents and then split up into small groups to study different works throughout the museum.
I had an opportunity to chat a bit with a group of young men viewing the Gatsby exhibition. One noted that this was his first time in the Benton, although he had visited campus on several other occasions – he said the museum was “intriguing” and made him think hard about the “purpose and message” of the art. These students noted that they hadn’t read The Great Gatsby yet (they expect to read it in eleventh grade) but were interested in the images of the 1920s for their historic value.
All in all, my visit was a perfect demonstration of the value of a university museum as a place to explore art, culture, and history in a scholarly and interdisciplinary way; as a professional training ground for students and young curators; and as an important educational and cultural resource for the community. It was especially nice to see UConn Reads working as a catalyst for bringing all these different elements into play.