SAN MARINO, Calif. — When the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, it officially ended World War I. But peace did not follow the pen. Instead, conflicts between old and new, past and future continued to rage. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens exhibition, Nineteen Nineteen is a portrait of this tumultuous year.
In an interview at the exhibition’s press preview, co-curator James Glisson summarized, “there’s a recognition when people come home that things are never going to quite be the same again. You can’t hit the rewind button, yet there’s a desire for that.” To a large degree, this push and pull is encompassed within the exhibition’s 250 objects drawn from the Huntington Library’s archives that were made, edited, or acquired in 1919.
Placed to the right of the entrance, three books published in 1919 encourage returning African American soldiers to participate in the democracy they had just risked their lives to preserve. Nineteen Nineteen does more than just display these groundbreaking historical documents beneath glass vitrines, though. It amplifies their real-world implications by surrounding them with super-enlarged newspaper articles of the time. Many address the unwillingness and inability of white Americans to accept the right to equal representation, often with violent consequences.
This tragic yet all too familiar reality is depicted on the opposite wall covered with a black-and-white photograph of African American soldiers marching with rifles casually slung over their shoulders. Above them is the headline “Riot Sweeps Chicago,” and beneath it are the words, “List of slain in four days rioting.” Far from an isolated incident, racially charged riots, better described as mass lynchings, were perpetrated by white supremacist terrorists across the United States, taking the lives of hundreds of African Americans during what came to be known as the Red Summer.
Designed by Julia Luke, these vinyl wall coverings appear throughout the exhibition, largely taking the place of lengthy expository text — to great effect. Rather than bog viewers down with academic interpretations, Luke’s designs both capture and communicate the sense of immediacy and urgency of the exhibition’s objects, bringing them out of an otherwise impenetrable past and into a narrative that continues into our present day.
In addition to early advancement in the Civil Rights movement, 1919 also saw the beginning of what would become the modern labor movement. This emergent discourse is represented in several pamphlets written by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union whose organizing efforts were often violently suppressed by corporate-hired cronies as well as police officers employed by business friendly, anti-worker municipal governments. The enormity of these events — both on those who lived through them and in our own time — are once again underscored by Luke’s treatment of the days’ news surrounding the IWW’s activities.
However effective, this strategy could have steered the exhibition toward pedantic hyperbole. Luckily, there are quieter moments within the gallery, such as those detailing the activities of T.E. Lawrence directly after the war. As a British officer, Lawrence became famous for fighting with the Hashemite clan against the Ottoman Empire that had allied itself with the Germans. After the war, he continued to support Arab independence. The exhibition features two letters, one by and one about Lawrence, and both rescued from the plane crash he survived in 1919 en route to Cairo after advocating for a sovereign pan-Arab nation at the Paris Peace Conference. Though he survived the crash, his vision for an equitable map did not. National boundaries were instead drawn along the lines of Western colonial interests. Clashes for territory and resources quickly ensued and continue to resonate 100 years later.
Artists and writers were among the first to pick up on the seismic waves rippling around the globe and Nineteen Nineteen includes numerous examples of their radical aesthetics. Among them are a self-published, hand pressed edition of Virginia Woolf’s short story, “Kew Gardens.” This early example of her stream-of-consciousness style conveys the era’s new understanding of time that was forever altered by telephones, trains, planes, and radios, in addition to a global war; it seemed like a ceaseless flow in which everything happened everywhere at the same time. That Woolf was able to publish and distribute this book on her own further emphasizes the age’s sense of immediacy driven by technological advancement. Never before could writers afford to print and mail out their own work, a reality made possible by increasingly affordable printing methods.
All of this is backgrounded by the founding of the Huntington Library in 1919 by Henry and Arabella Huntington. Railroad baron and prodigious real estate investor, Henry Huntington shrewdly combined his two industries by creating a network of trolleys that drove development toward his land holdings. A map of this early public transportation system occupies the entire back wall of the main gallery and, to a large degree, still reflects that socioeconomic boundaries of Los Angeles. As with many instances in this era, what was progress for some in terms of increased mobility and therefore access to economic opportunity, meant the opposite for many others, most of whom were minorities, as Huntington’s famed Red Cars never reached anywhere near their doorstep.
With all of these disparate threads, Nineteen Nineteen runs the risk of either collapsing in on itself with too many nodes or spinning off kilter with a surfeit of unrelated ideas. Yet somehow the exhibition manages to weave together a loose narrative, connected somewhat paradoxically by the year’s myriad points of rupture and the space for change created within.
Nineteen Nineteen continues at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens (MaryLou and George Boone Gallery, 1151 Oxford Rd, San Marino) through January 20, 2020. The exhibition was curated by James Glisson Jennifer A. Watts.
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I’m not sure about the accuracy of “Never before (1919) could writers afford to print and mail out their own work, a reality made possible by increasingly affordable printing methods.” My understanding is that writers in the West commonly printed and distributed their own work during the 18th century; perhaps this was also the case elsewhere.
Very well written article. I’m happy to read the often overlooked experience, more specifically, terror that Black American soldiers endured when they returned “home.”
Hey, that’s like a hundred YEARS ago.
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