“Every person is more than just a person, but someone who also represents the unique, the very special, and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way, and never again.”
—Herman Hesse, “Demian,” 1919
That perspicacious observation by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Herman Hesse greets visitors to the Huntington’s “Nineteen Nineteen” exhibit, which runs through Jan. 20 in the museum’s Mary Lou and George Boone Gallery.
Perusing its collection of approximately 275 items from the Huntington’s prodigious art and library collections, including rare books and manuscripts, photographs, oil paintings, World War I German propaganda posters and US recruiting flyers, sheet music and sculptures, it’s striking to see how much history resonates in the present. And vice versa.
An absorbing experience, “Nineteen Nineteen” strives to illuminate the human reality of a year of enduring consequence. The Paris Peace Conference formalized the end of the first world war and, in its zeal to prevent any similar conflagrations in the future, tragically charted the course to World War II.
White supremacists traumatized America during the Red Summer with dozens of race riots. The first transatlantic flight landed in Ireland. Ex-President Teddy Roosevelt died. The Bauhaus art school and LA Philharmonic both came into being. Virginia Woolf published “Kew Gardens”; T.S. Eliot, his “Poems.” Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith founded United Artists film studio, giving artists groundbreaking control over their work. Eight Chicago White Sox players intentionally lost the World Series game in the Black Sox Scandal. And Henry and Arabella Huntington formalized their decision to turn their magnificent estate into a public institution. “Nineteen Nineteen” is the official launch of the Huntington’s Centennial Celebration.
The year 1919 was also distinguished by nationwide labor unrest. Per the exhibit, which includes cleanly printed accounting ledgers from Henry Huntington’s operations, the railroad tycoon was worth more than $69 million in 1919. In contrast, seasonal citrus workers or field laborers in his orchards earned 33 cents an hour, nine hours a day, six days a week. There’s a quiet balance to the way such information is presented. In one corner, Huntington’s business records; in another corner, Industrial Workers of the World fundraising leaflets, which list labor sacrifices and grievances that outline roads of progress made in the 20th century and how many of their calls still remain unanswered.
On a wall by the entrance, newspaper headline reproductions blare announcements of violent protests and lynchings. Delilah L. Beasley’s book “The Negro Trail Blazers of California” and volumes honoring African-American World War I infantry soldiers are given pride of place in a nearby display case. A few steps away, yellowed commitment cards and war prisoner records provide evidence of how non-naturalized Germans were arrested in LA County for the crime of not registering as “alien enemies” during wartime. They remained on parole until spring 1919.
Co-curators James Glisson, interim chief curator of American art, and Jennifer Watts, curator of photography and visual culture, only selected items created, altered, purchased or exhibited in 1919. Five organizing themes are spelled out in bold letters on the gallery walls: “Fight,” “Return,” “Map,” “Move,” and “Build.” “Map,” which includes a 39-foot linen Pacific Electric Co. map of routes and real estate parcels between downtown LA and Pasadena, charts the region’s burgeoning development and interest in the stars.
The “Move” sector chronicles how planes, trains and automobiles helped transform America into a “society increasingly on the go.”
“Build” recounts the meticulous creation and architectural foundation of the Huntington itself via photographs, plans and drawing.
World War I and the lingering “sense of helplessness” it instilled in soldiers and other survivors struggling to adapt to peacetime society are remembered in “Fight” and “Return.” “Fight” also pays significant attention to civil rights struggles.
Pasadena suffragist and Red Cross activist Clara Burdette is remembered with a handsome photo showing her writing at a desk laden with stacks of papers. Numerous illustrated covers of The Suffragist: Official Weekly Organ of the National Woman’s Party magazine are encased close by. (The 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was finally passed in 1920.)
Some items jar expectations, albeit for different reasons. Since Huntington “sought unique items fundamental to American history and the nation’s founding,” the exhibit is given context by life-size oil paintings of George Washington and Revolutionary War-era documents and maps sketched in exquisite calligraphy. Surprisingly, an original manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography” is marred by an enormous blot of brown ink.
Elsewhere, an autograph book belonging to T.E. Lawrence (popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia) displays signatures not of celebrities but participants in the Paris Peace Conference. Photographer Edward Weston’s deeply sepia-toned Palladium print of fellow artistic innovator Ruth St. Denis is one of only two known to exist.
Then there is Percy John Smith’s “Death Intoxicated” etching, which depicts a skeleton ghost seeming to dance giddily in air behind a bayonet-wielding soldier wearing a gas mask. Ink seems to slash across the brown background and suggested clouds; the effect is chilling, a dark reminder of the war that sent the world reeling even beyond its official end.
Rather than write an autobiography, Henry Huntington pointed anyone interested toward his library, insisting that it “represents the reward of all the work that I have ever done and the realization of much happiness.” Described as “120,000 volumes, 30 tons of knowledge” loaded into boxcars in New York and transported to California, that library does say much about Huntington’s personal story, at least the public-facing one. More importantly, 100 years later it also illuminates the narrative of one volatile year in history. n
“Nineteen Nineteen” runs through Jan. 20 at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino; $25-$29. Call (626) 405-2100 or visit huntington.org.