Cranbrook-LIFE

2020 marks ninety years of temporary traveling exhibitions at Cranbrook Art Museum. Perhaps one of the best examples that brings to life this aspect of the Museum’s programs is Cranbrook’s brief but wildly successful partnership with LIFE Magazine.

The Cranbrook-LIFE Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting opened in 1940, ten years after Cranbrook Art Museum hosted its first traveling exhibition, organized by the American Union of Decorative Artists and featuring contemporary interior design. The idea of temporary traveling exhibits at Cranbrook began the same year as the permanent collection was established by founder George G. Booth. It furthered Booth’s commitment to presenting contemporary art as foremost a learning tool for Academy of Art students. It was intended “to remind our students that art is a living thing and that the record of our times is being created from day to day by the artists of this age, and in so doing perhaps to stimulate the creative spirit among those who work here.”

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Judges examine paintings in New York, April 1940. Hansel Meith, photographer. Copyright Time Inc.

Cranbrook-LIFE was a celebration of contemporary U.S. art meant to symbolize “America’s increasing responsibility as a democratic world art center.” (Life, May 27, 1940) As such, LIFE invited sixty painters, living and working in America, to submit three paintings to be voted on by a jury of six. The painters included Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and Cranbrook’s own Zoltan Sepeshy. The jury, comprised of Sepeshy, two leading art museum directors, an editor at LIFE Magazine, a representative from the Federal Works Agency Section of Fine Arts, and a well-respected American painter and educator, convened in a New York City warehouse where they spent four hours whittling down 180 submissions to the final sixty paintings shipped to Cranbrook for the show. One of these was Grant Wood’s American Gothic! Loaned by the Art Institute of Chicago, the already famous painting appears to be the only piece in the exhibition to come from another art museum.

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Opening night attendees arrive. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

If you’re at all familiar with LIFE, you may be asking yourself why a popular weekly magazine, known for its photographic general-interest stories, would make a foray like this into the art world? According to a 1940 TIME Magazine article, in the previous three years,  “the No. 1 U.S. source of popular knowledge of U.S. art has been LIFE, which has reproduced for the man-in-the-street’s weekly dime some 452 paintings (usually in full color) by U.S. artists.” Your next question might be why it was held at Cranbrook, as opposed to, say, the newly constructed Museum of Modern Art building in New York City? Florence Davies of the Detroit News may have answered that, when she wrote at the time: “Life Magazine picked Cranbrook not only because of the enchanting setting of the place as a whole, but more particularly because it found there ‘work in progress—an atmosphere of creative activity.’”

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Academy of Art students parade through the opening night gala reminding attendees of the student exhibition simultaneously on display at the Cranbrook Pavilion. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The exhibition drew an estimated 2,500 national and international visitors in the short two weeks it was on display from May 17-June 2, 1940. Because of the size of the show, it could not be held in the current museum building on Lone Pine Road and Academy Way (Eliel Saarinen’s museum building began construction during the exhibition). And, as the Academy student exhibition was currently occupying the Cranbrook Pavilion, the decision was made to utilize the Academy’s Painting Department Studios. Opening night was a festive gala. Attendees, including George and Ellen Booth, Loja and Eliel Saarinen, Edsel B. Ford, Albert Kahn, and “1,000 Detroit socialites braved wintry winds” in formal attire. (Time, June 3, 1940)

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Marianne Strengell, Charles Eames, and Richard Reinhardt. Richard A. Askew, photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Coming on the heels of the Great Depression and during the beginning months of the War in Europe, pro-American sentiment was high, as evidenced by the placement of potted American-grown tomatoes in windowsills as decoration. According to TIME Magazine, the music for the evening was by U.S. composers and refreshments included “Rhine wine flavored to taste like U.S. new-mown hay.” (!?)

Cranbrook-LIFE marks the beginning of the Cranbrook Art Museum Exhibition Records, which illuminate thirty-six years of temporary traveling exhibits, and are rife with names of renowned artists that have exhibited at Cranbrook throughout its history.

It’s not all in the past, though! Don’t miss Cranbrook Art Museum’s current traveling exhibition,  In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969, on view until March 8, 2020.

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist

A Delightful Trip in a White Swedish Ship

Between 1925 and 1939, the Saarinen family made annual trips to Europe, always stopping for a time in Finland. They travelled by sea, usually departing from New York and arriving in Southampton, England or Gothenburg, Sweden. When they sailed directly to Scandinavia, they were abaord the MS Gripsholm.

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The MS Gripsholm in New York City, c. 1951. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Gripsholm was built in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, in 1924 for the Svenska Amerika Linien/Swedish American Line (SAL). The SAL was founded in 1914 as a direct Swedish-North American cargo and passenger shipping line, and the Gripsholm was the company’s first luxury liner. She was also the first diesel-engine transatlantic passenger liner, which is why she is the MS (or Motor Ship) Gripsholm. After 1929, all the SAL fleet was painted white, giving rise to the moniker “A delightful trip in a white Swedish ship.”

Aboard the MS Gripsholm, first class passengers enjoyed all the traditional features of luxury transatlantic liners (libraries, writing rooms, gyms, a pool, garden rooms, smoking parlors, bars, etc.), along with distinctly Nordic options, like folk dancing, Swedish foods, and a fully Swedish crew.

Along with the port of Gothenburg’s closer proximity to Helsinki, it was perhaps these northern-European comforts that led the Saarinens, who were Swedish-speaking Finns, to repeatedly choose the Gripsholm for their summer journeys. Aboard the Gripsholm in 1929, this photo was snapped on deck showing Eliel, his son-in-law J. Robert F. Swanson, months-old Bob Swanson, and Eliel’s daughter Pipsan Saarinen Swanson. The family captioned the photo “Last Dash Before the Crash.”

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Eliel, Bob, Bobby, and Pipsan aboard the MS Gripsholm, 1929. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In 1934, Eliel, Loja, Pipsan, Bob, and their now five-year-old son Bobby were again aboard the Gripsholm. On the SAL stationery, Loja wrote a letter back to George and Ellen Booth at Cranbrook. She writes, “I wanted tell you again how happy Eliel and I have been at Cranbrook and how thankful we are to you because you want us there.” She continues:

“So far we are well off although neither Pipsan nor I knew what we took over us in taking Bobbi along. He is like a firework. He is nowhere and everywhere. He hasn’t climbed up the smoke stack yet neither has he ridden on a whale’s back, but he has done other things enough to worry us.”Letter from Loja Saarinen to George Booth_GGB Papers 19-4

On this same trip, a photograph of Pipsan and little firework Bobby was sent back stateside and ran in the local papers here in Oakland County. Pipsan is shown in a fashionable dress and hat, quite possibly of her own design, as at the time she was head of the Academy of Art’s short lived Fashion Department. Pipsan, like her mother, made many of her own clothes throughout her life.IMG_3206

In the Cranbrook Cultural Properties collection, we have the Saarinen’s steamer trunks and suitcases that they used aboard the Gripsholm and other ships. One of the suitcases has its stickers from the MS Gripsholm, still prominently called out in the Swedish pale blue and yellow.

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The Saarinen’s steamer trunks and suitcases. On view now in “Saarinen Home: Living and Working with Cranbrook’s First Family of Design”

During World War II, when the Saarinen’s remained in the States aiding the U.S. war effort and organizing the Finnish Relief Fund, the Gripsholm was charted by the U.S. as a repatriation ship. It carried German and Japanese citizens to exchange points for U.S. and Canadian citizens. Gripsholm (and her neutral Swedish crew) made these exchanges at neutral ports, including Stockholm, Lisbon, Portuguese Goa, and Lourenço Marques. Over 12,000 Americans who had been in enemy territory at the outbreak of war or were prisoners of war returned home aboard the Gripsholm in this diplomatic capacity.

In 1954, SAL sold the Gripsholm to a German company. She was rechristened the MS Berlin and entered into service as a Canadian immigration ship, sailing from points in Europe to Pier 21 in Halifax (the Ellis Island of Canada). The ship was retired and scrapped in 1966, but an image of the Gripsholm (in her Berlin livery) lives on in the Canadian passport!

Copies of the Saarinen’s letters sent from the Gripsholm, photographs of the family about the ship, and the trunks and suitcases used by the family are all currently on view in “Saarinen Home: Living and Working with Cranbrook’s First Family of Design” in Saaarinen House, open for tours Friday and Saturdays at 1pm and Sundays at 1 & 3pm through the end of July. Tonight is our last Finnish Friday, where there is an open house at Saarinen House and games and cake in its courtyard, also, the Cranbrook Art Museum will be open; there are Finnish-related treasures out in the Archives Reading Room; and a cash bar on the Peristyle. Come on by for our last Finnish Friday!

Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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