Watch Opera Legend Marian Anderson’s Historic Performance on the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial (1939)

Nearly every Civil Rights icon becomes more of a symbol than a complex human being over time, a consequence of iconography in general. This has certainly been the case with opera singer Marian Anderson. “If Americans know one fact about the legendary African-American contralto Marian Anderson,” Kira Thurman writes at The New Yorker, “it’s that she sang in defiance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in 1939.”

We probably also know that Anderson took to the steps of the monument again in 1963 to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington. In her official portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, she stands regally before the Lincoln Memorial’s columns in her fur coat, gazing resolutely into the middle distance, her hair gray with age and wisdom. It’s the defining image of an artist whose defiance has come to overshadow her art.

The image is an undoubtedly powerful one, a key moment in the seemingly unending struggle for justice in the United States, as well as “one of the most important musical events of the 20th century,” Anastasia Tsioulcas writes at NPR. Anderson “had never faced such an enormous crowd” — 75,000 people of all races and backgrounds. “She was terrified,” and later wrote, “I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.” She may have confessed to stage fright that day, but some characterizations do not do justice to her professionalism. Anderson did not fear crowds or bigotry.

When she sang at the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson was 42 years old and very much an international star. Four years earlier, she had returned from Europe “as one of the most revered people on the planet” and performed at the White House for Eleanor Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt who arranged the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert — after resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution when the all-white group refused to rent the 4,000-seat Constitution Hall to Howard University for their annual concert event for Anderson.

Roosevelt had and would continue to intervene in many such instances of racism, using her power for democratic good. Anderson, while not an activist, was not new to musical protest. In 1935, her application to sing at the Salzburg Festival in Austria had been similarly rejected, on the heels of a Nazi riot over Black baritone Aubrey Pankey’s performance in the city earlier that year. “What Anderson did next illustrates a pattern of behavior that she would deploy as a weapon throughout her career,” Thurman writes. “She showed up anyway.”

Anderson held a small concert for a few devoted listeners at Mozarteum concert hall, then a few days later in a hotel ballroom for “hundreds of elite musicians, who applauded her act of defiance,” and shared in it themselves. After this concert, famed conductor Arturo Toscanini met her backstage and said, “What I heard today one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years.” Anderson, “became an international superstar overnight.” She built a reputation through bold acts of defiance, but her greatest contributions were always to music.

The “dignified, stoic, middle-aged Black woman” who appeared at the Lincoln Memorial was young once, writes Thurman, and as much a sensation in Europe as Josephine Baker. She’s been characterized as “modest” and self-effacing, but she was also ambitious, an incredibly talented child prodigy who knew she would find too many doors closed in the U.S. Like many Black artists of the early 20th century, she became a confident, celebrated ex-pat: “Walking down Salzburg’s hilly cobblestone streets during her first day in the Alpine city, in the summer of 1925, Anderson was trailed by a cadre of journalists everywhere she went.”

Ten years later, Anderson would find things very much changed in Europe, and find herself feeling as alienated in formerly welcoming Austria as she had in her home country. (She was mourned by her Austrian fans. One critic wrote of her last performance, “[her] music makes those people happy who have not yet given up their belief that all men are equal.”) By 1939, Anderson was a veteran not only of opera and music hall stages around the world, but of facing up to racism and discrimination.

“A quiet, humble person,” writes NPR’s Susan Stamberg, “Anderson often used ‘we’ when speaking about herself,” referring to the “many people whom we will never know,” she once said, but who make our lives possible. In the first song she sang at the Lincoln Memorial, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she changed the words of the third line from “of thee I sing” to “to thee we sing,” a move that “can be heard as an embrace, implying community and group responsibility.” It could also imply Anderson’s consciousness of herself and her community as marginalized outsiders in the country of their birth, or her sense of herself as addressing an integrated nation in that chilly, November outdoor crowd.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Invented Psychological Horror Film & Brought Expressionism to the Screen (1920)

Even if you’ve never actually watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you’ve seen it. You’ve seen it throughout the century of cinema history since the film first came out, during which its influence has manifested again and again: in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley — not to mention much of the filmographies of auteurs like David Lynch and Tim Burton. These are just some of the films referenced by Tyler Knudsen, better known as CinemaTyler, in the video essay above, Dr. Caligari Did More Than Just Invent Horror Movies.”

“A case can be made that Caligari was the first true horror film,” writes Roger Ebert. In earlier cinematic scary stories, “characters were inhabiting a recognizable world. Caligari creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy. In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.”

The techniques employed to that end have also convinced certain historians of the medium to call the picture “the first example in cinema of German Expressionism, a visual style in which not only the characters but the world itself is out of joint.” Knudsen places this style in historical context, specifically that of Germany’s Weimar Republic, which was established after World War I and lasted until the rise of the Nazis.

Politically unstable but artistically fruitful, the Weimar period gave rise to a variety of new artistic attitudes, at once enthusiastic and overwhelmed. “Whereas impressionism tries to depict the real world, but only from a first glance or impression instead of focusing on details,” Knudsen says, “expressionism tries to get at the artist’s inner feelings rather than the actual appearance of the subject matter.” Hence the bizarre sets of Caligari, whose every angle looks designed to be maximally unconvincing. And yet the film is entirely faithful to its particular reality: not the one occupied by Weimar-era Germans or anyone else, but the one it conjures up in a manner only motion pictures can. 102 years later, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a haunting viewing experience — and one expressive of the sheer potential of cinema. You can watch it above.

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From Caligari to Hitler: A Look at How Cinema Laid the Foundation for Tyranny in Weimar Germany

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

RIP Jean-Luc Godard: Watch the French New Wave Icon Explain His Contrarian Worldview Back in the 1960s

For almost forty years, we’ve been losing the French New Wave. François Truffaut and Jacques Demy died young, back in the twentieth century; Henri Colpi, Éric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol followed in the early years of the twenty-first. The last decade alone saw the passings of Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, and Agnès Varda. But not until yesterday did la Nouvelle Vague‘s hardiest survivor, and indeed its defining figure, step off this mortal coil at the age of 91. Jean-Luc Godard didn’t launch the movement — that distinction belongs to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, from 1959 — but in 1960 his first feature Breathless made filmgoers the world over understand at once that the old rules no longer applied.

Yet for all his willingness to violate its conventions, Godard possessed a thoroughgoing respect for cinema. This perhaps came from his pre-auteurhood years he spent as a film critic in Paris, writing for the estimable Cahiers du cinéma (an institution to which Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette also contributed). “It made me love everything,” he says of his experience with criticism in the 1963 interview just above.

“It taught me not to be narrow-minded, not to ignore Renoir in favor of Billy Wilder.” A contrarian from the beginning, the young Godard disdained what he saw as the formalized and intellectualized products of the French film industry in favor of viscerally crowd-pleasing pictures made in the U.S.A.

“We Europeans have movies in our head, and Americans have movies in their blood,” says Godard in the 1965 British television interview above. “We have centuries and centuries of culture behind us. We have to think about things. We can’t just do things.” To “just do things” is perhaps the prime artistic desire driving his oeuvre, which spans seven decades and includes more than 40 feature films as well as many projects of less easily categorizable form. But this went with a lifelong immersion in classical European culture, evidenced by a filmography dense with references to its works. The weight of his formation and ambitions took a certain toll early on: “I’m already tired,” he says in a 1960 interview at Cannes, where Breathless was screening. Did the permanent revolutionary of cinema suspect, even then, how far he still had to go?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Hidden History of “Hand Talk,” the Native American Sign Language That Predated ASL by Centuries

No one person can take credit for the invention of American Sign Language. Its history reaches back to the early 19th century, when forms of sign developed among Deaf communities in New England. Early attempts at a signed form of English that replicated phonetic sounds gave way to a pure sign language with no reference to speech, combining forms of sign used by Deaf communities in New England with LSF (Langue des Signes Française), a French system invented in 1760. By 1835, ASL had become the standard language of Deaf instruction. 20 years later over 40% of teachers were also themselves deaf users of ASL.

The “origins of the American Deaf-World” — as Harlan Lane, Richard Pillard, and Mary French write in an article for Sign Language Studies – has “major roots in a triangle of New England Deaf communities.” Here, the first school for the Deaf that used ASL was founded by Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc; annual conventions brought together Deaf students and educators from all around the country; periodicals were founded; and, at one time, a Deaf commonwealth was proposed and “debated at length at the 1858 meeting of the New England Gallaudet Association.”

However, as the Vox video explainer points out, there’s another, far deeper history – notably the previous existence of Indigenous sign languages all over North America. One form of “Hand Talk” called Plains Indians Sign Language (PISL) represents “one of the oldest languages in North America.” It was not only a system of sign for the Deaf but also operated as a lingua franca among different language groups. PISL “was the means for commerce,” says PISL educator Lanny Real Bird. “It was the means for economics…. Plains Indian Sign Language was the medium for communication of intertribal nations.”

Melanie McKay-Cody, Professor at the University of Arizona and member of the Cherokee Nation West, shows how many of the gestures of Hand Talk more generally — or “North American Indian Sign Language” — can be found in ancient rock writing. Hand Talk has regional variations all over the continent, including a Northeast Indian Sign Language covering what is now New England, the upper Midwest, and the Mid-Atlantic. Researchers like McKay-Cody believe that this variant significantly influenced ASL through Native American children forced to attend the American School for the Deaf, which was then called the American Asylum for Dead Mutes.

The video presents compelling evidence for North American Indian Sign Language’s influence on ASL, and on American culture more generally, including a 1930 film of the Indian Sign Language Grand Council, “one of the largest gatherings of intertribal Indigenous leaders ever filmed.” Organized by General Hugh L. Scott, the purpose of the council was to preserve PISL. Concerned that “young men are not learning your sign language,” as he signed to the tribal leaders, Scott worried “it will disappear from this country.”

It so happened that ASL itself might have disappeared in the 1870s and 80s when fierce opponents of sign language — called “Oralists” and lead by Alexander Graham Bell — attempted to ban ASL and force Deaf students to communicate with speech and lip-reading. Graham’s mother was Deaf; his father invented a system of symbols called “Visible Speech” which Graham himself taught at a private school. Despite his efforts, ASL thrived.

As you’ll learn in the video, however, Scott and the tribal leaders he gathered had reason for concern all the way back in 1930. Few users of Indigenous sign languages remain after the generation of students forced to assimilate “were told,” McKay-Cody says, “that ASL was superior to whatever their Native sign was.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Beauty & Ingenuity of the Pantheon, Ancient Rome’s Best-Preserved Monument: An Introduction

Asked to name our favorite concrete building, many of us would struggle to hold back a sneer. Though the copious use of that material by mid-twentieth-century style known as Brutalism has lately gained new generations of enthusiasts, we still more commonly hear it lamented as a source of architectural “monstrosities.” But as a building material, concrete goes back much further in history than the decades following World War II. To find a universally beloved example, we need merely look back to second-century Rome. There we find the Pantheon, looking much the same as it does in twenty-first century Rome today.

The best-preserved monument of ancient Rome, the Pantheon (not to be confused with the Greek Parthenon) has remained in continuous use, first as “a temple to the gods, then sanctified and made into a church. Now, of course, it’s a major tourist attraction.” So says scholar Steven Zucker in the Khan Academy video above, a brief photographic tour he leads alongside his colleague Beth Harris.

“As soon as you walk in, you notice that there’s a kind of obsession with circles, with rectangles, with squares, with those kinds of perfect geometrical shapes,” says Harris. “Because of the Roman use of concrete, the idea [obtained] that architecture could be something that shaped space and that could have a different kind of relationship to the viewer.”

You can go deeper into the Pantheon (built circa 125 AD) through the tour video by Youtuber Garrett Ryan, creator of the ancient-history channel Told in Stone. Calling the Pantheon “arguably the most influential building of all time,” he goes on to support that bold claim by examining a host of structural and aesthetic elements (not least its sublimely spherical rotunda) that would inspire architects in the Renaissance, a time dedicated to making use of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge, and in some sense ever after. This may come as a surprise to viewers with only a casual interest in architecture — more than it would to the Emperor Hadrian, commissioner of the Pantheon, who seems not to have been given to great doubts about the durability of his legacy.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” Scandalized the Art World in 1884

Anyone who’s ever walked the red carpet or posed for a high fashion shoot would count themselves lucky to create the sort of impression made by John Singer Sargent’s iconic portrait of Madame X.

Though not if we’re talking about the sort of impression the painting made in 1884, when the model’s haughty demeanor, plunging bodice, and unapologetic use of skin-lightening, possibly arsenic-based cosmetics got the Paris Salon all riled up.

Most scandalously, one of her gown’s jeweled straps had slipped from her shoulder, a costume malfunction this cool beauty apparently couldn’t be bothered to fix, or even turn her head to acknowledge.

Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the New Orleans-born Paris socialite (social climber, some would have sniffed) so strikingly depicted by Sargent, was horrified by her likeness’ reception at the Salon. Although Sargent had coyly replaced her name with an ellipses in the painting’s title, there was no doubt in viewers’ minds as to her identity.

John Sargent, Evan Charteris’ 1927 biography, shows Madame Gautreau very little mercy when recounting her attempts at damage control:

A demand was made that the picture should be withdrawn. It is not among the least of the curiosities of human nature, that while an individual will confess and even draw attention to his own failings, he will deeply resent the same office being undertaken by someone else. So it was with the dress of Madame Gautreau. Here a distinguished artist was proclaiming to the public in paint a fact about herself she had hitherto never made any attempt to conceal, one which had, indeed, formed one of her many social assets. Her resentment was profound.

Sargent, distraught that his portrait of the celebrated scenemaker had yielded the opposite of the hoped-for positive splash, refused to indulge her request to remove the painting from exhibition.

His friend, painter Ralph Wormeley Curtis, wrote to his parents of the scene he witnessed in Sargent’s studio when Madame Gautreau’s mother rolled up, “bathed in tears”, primed to defend her daughter:

(She) made a fearful scene saying “Ma fille est perdu – tout Paris se moque d’elle. Mon genre sera forcé de se battre. Elle mourira de chagrin” etc. 

(My daughter is lost – all of Paris mocks her. My kind will be forced to fight. She will die of sorrow.) 

John replied it was against all laws to retire a picture. He painted her exactly as she was dressed, that nothing could be said of the canvas than had been said of her appearance dans le monde etc. etc.

Defending his cause made him feel much better. Still we talked it all over till 1 o’clock here last night and I fear he has never had such a blow. He says he wants to get out of Paris for a time. He goes to Eng. in 3 weeks. I fear là bas he will fall into Pre-R. Influence wh. has got a strange hold of him, he says since Siena.

As Charlotte, creator of the Art Deco YouTube channel, points out in a frenetic overview of the scandal, below, Sargent came out of this fiasco a bit better than Madame Gautreau, whose damaged reputation cost her friends as well as her queen bee status.

(In her essay, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau: Living Statue, art historian Elizabeth L. Block corrects Charlotte’s assertion that the painting “destroyed Madame Gautreau’ life”. Contrary to popular opinion, within three years, she was making her theatrical debut, hosting parties, and was hailed by the New York Times as a “piece of plastic perfection.”‍)

Sargent did indeed decamp for England, where he found both creative and critical success. By century’s end, he was widely recognized as the most successful portrait painter of his day.

The portrait of Madame Gautreau remained enough of a sore spot that he kept it out of the public eye for more than twenty years, though shortly after its disastrous debut at the Salon, he did take another swipe at it, repositioning the suggestive shoulder strap to a more conventionally acceptable location, as the below photo, taken in his studio in 1885 confirms.

In 1905, he finally allowed it to see the light of day in a London exhibition, with subsequent engagements in Berlin, Rome and San Francisco.

In 1916, when the portrait was still on display in San Francisco, he wrote his friend Edward “Ned” Robinson, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, offering to sell it for £1,000, saying, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”

“By the way,” he added, “I should prefer, on account of the row I had with the lady years ago, that the picture should not be called by her name.”

Even though Madame Gautreau had died the previous year, Robinson obliged, retitling the painting Portrait of Madame X, the name by which it and its glamorous model are famously known today.

Read Elizabeth L. Block’s fascinating essay, “Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau: Living Statue” here.

Read about the discoveries Metropolitan Museum of Art conservationists made during X-radiography and infrared reflectography of the portrait here.

Completionists might even want to have a gander at Nicole Kidman done up to resemble Madame X for a 1998 Vogue spread shot by Steven Meisel.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The First Transit Map: a Close Look at the Subway-Style Tabula Peutingeriana of the 5th-Century Roman Empire

The first subway train, as we know such things today, entered service in 1890. Its path is now part of the Northern line of the London Underground, itself the first urban metro system. The success of the Tube, as it’s commonly known, didn’t come right away; the whole thing was on the brink of failure, in fact, before creations like 1914’s Wonderground Map of London Town aided its public understanding and bolstered its public image.

At the time, Britain still commanded a great empire with London as its capital; the Wonderground Map placed the London Underground in the context of the city, making legible the still fairly novel concept of an underground train system with copious whimsical detail.

Nor was the Roman Empire anything to sneeze at, even during the fourth and fifth centuries after its decline had set in. Though it came up with some still-impressive inventions, including long-lasting concrete and monumental aqueducts, the technology to build and operate a subway system still lay some way off.

But that didn’t stop Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a general, architect, and friend of emperor Augustus, from commissioning a map of the empire that read more or less like Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 map of the New York subway. That ambitious work of cartography, historians now believe, inspired the Tabula Peutingeriana, which survives today as the only large world map from antiquity. The video above from Youtuber Jeremy Shuback approaches the Tabula Peutingeriana as “the first transit map,” despite its dating from the thirteenth century, and even then probably being a copy of a fourth- or fifth-century original.

While the Roman Empire didn’t have electric trains and payment cards, they did, of course, have transit: the word descends from the Latin transire, “go across.” Many a Roman had to go across, if not the whole empire, then at least large stretches of it. In theory, they would have found a map like Tabula useful, with its simplification of geography in order to emphasize city-to-city connections. But that wasn’t its primary purpose: as Shuback puts it, this oversized map of all lands dominated by the Romans was “made to brag.” Whoever owned it surely wanted to imply that they possessed not just a map, but the world itself.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Hear Queen Elizabeth II Give Her Very First Speech to the British People, During World War II (1940)

“Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say,” sings Paul McCartney on the Beatles’ “Her Majesty.” That comic song closes Abbey Road, the last album the band ever recorded, and thus puts a cap on their brief but wondrous cultural reign. In 2002 McCartney played the song again, in front of Queen Elizabeth II herself as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations. Earlier this year her Platinum Jubilee marked a full 70 years on the throne, but now — 53 years after that cheeky tribute on Abbey Road — Her Majesty’s own reign has drawn to a close with her death at the age of 96. She’d been Queen since 1953, but she’d been a British icon since at least the Second World War.

In October 1940, at the height of the Blitz, Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked King George VI to allow his daughter, the fourteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth, to make a morale-boosting speech on the radio. Recorded in Windsor Castle after intense preparation and then broadcast on the BBC’s Children’s Hour, it was ostensibly addressed to the young people of Britain and its empire.

“Evacuation of children in Britain from the cities to the countryside started in September 1939,” says, with ultimate destinations as far away as Canada. “It is not difficult for us to picture the sort of life you are all leading, and to think of all the new sights you must be seeing and the adventures you must be having,” Princess Elizabeth tells them. “But I am sure that you, too, are often thinking of the old country.”

In the event, millions of young and old around the world heard the broadcast, which arguably served Churchill’s own goal of encouraging American participation in the war. But it also gave Britons a preview of the dignity and forthrightness of the woman who would become their Queen, and remain so for an unprecedented seven decades. As Paul McCartney implied, Queen Elizabeth II turned out not to be given to prolonged flights of rhetoric. But though she may not have had a lot to say, she invariably spoke in public at the proper moment, in the proper words, and with the proper manner. Today one wonders whether this admirable personal quality, already in short supply among modern rulers, hasn’t vanished entirely.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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