In this episode of Houghton75, we speak with Christie McDonald, Smith Professor of French Language and Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature, about a fascinating painting by her aunt, Anne Eisner Putnam, entitled “Beauty Salon.” Putnam lived and worked with the Bantu and Mbuti peoples in the 1940s and 1950s in the Belgian Congo (what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at http://houghton75.org/hist-75h
Transcript and detailed music notes: http://wp.me/p7SlKy-nX
From Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, recorded by Colin Turnbull and Francis S. Chapman. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1992. Catalog number SFW40401.
Podcast Transcript and Music Notes
[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]
Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.
James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.
Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.
JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.
HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit houghton75.org for more information.
[background music: Mbuti Dance in Bantu Village, Track 11 from Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, recorded by Colin Turnbull and Francis S. Chapman. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1992. Catalog number SFW40401.]
JC: If you’ve been listening to Houghton75, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve spoken with many professors who have shared their personal and professional connections to Houghton Library. Items from the collection have been the basis of important research and have stood at the center of formative undergraduate experiences.
HF: Today, we will explore an even more intimate connection between professor and object, a bond of family.
JC: We spoke with Christie McDonald, Smith Professor of French Language and Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature, about a painting by her aunt, Anne Eisner Putnam, entitled “Beauty Salon.”
HF: You can see this painting in person here at Houghton or online at houghton75.org. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to view this remarkable work, here is a brief description from Professor McDonald.
Christie McDonald (CM): What you see here are two Bantu women in what Anne Eisner called their beauty salon. The woman on the left is braiding the hair of the woman who is seated on the right. The woman on the left is wearing, presumably, a European textile dress. Many of these textiles were adopted by the Bantu women. And the woman on the right, it’s not clear exactly what she’s wearing but it’s some kind of textile, presumably not from the area.
In many of her depictions, both watercolor and oil from that period, she draws a line. And the line is generally a line between the inside, which would be either the forest or the inside of a building – in this case I think it’s the inside of a building, and the outside. When it’s the forest it’s the agricultural outside, outside the forest, and the inside which would be inside the forest where the Pygmies were. So in this case, both women straddle the line, and that was very much what she ascribed to these women, that they were able to bridge the world of the colonialists and the world of their own tribes. That they were able to bridge their agricultural life with the life of the Pygmies, who were hunter-gatherers. She very much wanted to be, and was, a part of this inside/outside or outside/inside society.
JC: It really is a wonderful piece. When you have an opportunity, be sure to look it up! Words can’t quite capture the details.
HF: So who was Anne Eisner Putnam? How did she come to live on the edge of the Ituri rainforest among the Pygmy and Bantu peoples? What role did she play in their society?
CM: Anne Eisner lived for nine years in the Belgian Congo, now Democratic Republic of Congo, an experience that took her across both spatial and cultural boundaries. She arrived at Camp Putnam, founded by Patrick Putnam, a Harvard graduate who had gone out to Africa in the 1920’s and stayed. She arrived in 1947 and lived there from the late 1940’s to the late 1950’s, in the period before the collapse of Belgian colonial rule and independence.
Women were of compelling interest to Anne Eisner as she lived there because not only did they include her in what was called the “Network of Mothers,” she was given three Pygmy babies who had lost their mothers to bring up with the Network of Mothers. The Mothers includes grandmothers, aunts, neighbors, and she was very much a part of this network. She became very interested in the lives of the women, and she had for a long time been very interested in everyday life in this area.
The people of the Ituri rainforest became of compelling interest to researchers and tourists, but before that happened Anne lived there amongst at least two groups of Bantu and Pygmies who inhabited the area. She painted during the time she was there and then later, when she returned to New York, painted from memory.
[background music: Lukembi and Voice, Track 12 from Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, recorded by Colin Turnbull and Francis S. Chapman. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1992. Catalog number SFW40401.]
HF: Camp Putnam was a center of anthropological study. Tourists and scholars stayed at the camp to observe and study the Bantu and Pygmy people living in the nearby rainforest.
JC: It was also home to its founder, Patrick Putnam, a charismatic man and eventual husband of Anne Eisner.
CM: Patrick was a student here in the 20’s. I believe he graduated in 1927. And he went on an expedition following graduation to Africa, and jumped ship from the expedition and stayed. And then he went and got a certificate from the Institute for Infectious Diseases in Antwerp, which allowed him to actually have a dispensary or a clinic sponsored by the Belgian government, and he did that. He was quite a character! And the older generation of people who had either been missionaries or doctors out in the Congo, some of them are still around and I was able to interview one doctor who actually did not know Patrick personally, but knew him by reputation, and was able to speak about how well known he was, how much of a maverick he was known to be. He was very charismatic.
[musical interlude: Lukembi and Voice, Track 12 from Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, recorded by Colin Turnbull and Francis S. Chapman. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1992. Catalog number SFW40401.]
CM: She met him at the end of World War II, in 1945 on a nude beach (laughs) in Martha’s Vineyard, and fell madly in love with him. They then lived on and off together for a year in the States, and she followed him out there to the Congo and to his place and decided to stay there, and they eventually married. Unfortunately, he was already a little bit ill and became more ill, and he died prematurely at the age of 49 in 1953. She came back in 1954 when she published a book, My eight years amongst the Pygmies, and then she went back out again in 1957. Unfortunately, she broke her hip and had to come back in 1958. And then 1960 was independence, and that really ended, for a time, people going out into the region.
HF: Professor McDonald and her family became the stewards of the papers of both Patrick Putnam and Anne Eisner Putnam. Fortunately for us here at Harvard, and thanks to the generosity of Professor McDonald, these papers are now housed at Houghton.
JC: Each collection builds on the strengths of the other, and collectively they provide a close examination of life and research in the African rainforest.
CM: The Patrick Putnam papers constitute a history not only of someone who went to Harvard, but of an entire era. There are letters that go back to 1927. Then when he establishes what he called Camp Putnam, it became a crossroads for tourists, for anthropologists. There was a lot of infrastructure in place at the time. People could actually go out there. They were trying to attract people to the area, so it’s very different, of course, today.
Anne’s papers were the other part of this. Patrick knew everything about the Pygmies. He had sort of encyclopedic knowledge. But the only things he ever wrote seem to have been lost during a flood. Anne, on the other hand, did, really, sort of ethnographic work of two kinds. One was she took notes extensively, and kept those notes. She also wrote back to her family every single week about what was happening, and all of that is here. So there is a kind of written history from 1946 on that is quite extensive.
And then she took notes through her drawings. There are hundreds of drawings that she did. They travelled for a year through Africa before they came to Camp Putnam, and she drew and sketched everywhere they went. [She] did watercolors. [She] didn’t do any oils because she didn’t have the equipment with her. So I feel as though her archive complements his and really enriches his in ways that, unfortunately, his was lost. And by the time she was out there, he was really beginning to decline and so was living his experience out there but not writing it out.
[background music: Lukembi (Mbuti), Track 13 from Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, recorded by Colin Turnbull and Francis S. Chapman. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1992. Catalog number SFW40401.]
HF: We’ve heard a few references to the illness and decline of Patrick Putnam. It must have been an incredibly difficult situation for everyone at the camp, but particularly for Anne Eisner, his wife.
JC: Professor McDonald claims that Anne Eisner’s papers were instrumental in comprehending her aunt’s reactions and experiences during this trying time.
CM: One of the things that I really needed to understand was it was a very difficult situation out there when Patrick became ill and he became very mentally unstable. Yet, the work that she did following that was all very joyous and very much about community. Her letters express some of the difficulty, yet she was fully engaged in this community, and fully engaged in the richness of the community and the way in which these networks functioned. I think that comes through in the artwork much more strongly than it does in the letters in particular, where she’s quite agonized by the situation with Patrick. This was a very meaningful world to her. That’s one of the reasons I like this particular watercolor so much, because there’s something very caring and very connected about these two figures.
JC: In addition to illustrating the deep connection between Anne Eisner and the local community, Eisner’s paintings may reflect local aesthetics. Professor McDonald believes that a type of artwork practiced by the Pygmy people influenced Eisner’s work.
CM: The only artwork done in the area was done by the Pygmy women on what was called bark cloth. Bark cloth was hammered out from, literally, the bark of trees and then made into a kind of cloth. The designs on them have been studied. They’re geometrical and not figurative, and so there’s been a lot of work done over the past couple of decades on that. One of, I think, the hypotheses is that Anne and the Pygmy women (because it’s the men who make the bark but the women who decorate the bark with dyes and with also embroideries), that there was a connection between Anne’s art and what was going on amongst the Pygmy women who were decorating these bark cloths. Now, it’s very hard to find a one-on-one, but in a number of her paintings and watercolors, what you see is this kind of figuration that’s on this textile here. Because it’s in two parts, it’s got a top, it’s got a blouse, it’s got a bottom which is a long skirt, that would have been what the European textiles would look like. But the figuration on the textiles, along with the newspaper coming through, gives a very different sense of what can be expressed by these textiles. In other words, she was echoing to some extent, I believe, the kind of decoration that the Pygmy women were using on their own bark cloths.
[background music: Honey-Gathering Song, Track 6 from Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, recorded by Colin Turnbull and Francis S. Chapman. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1992. Catalog number SFW40401.]
JC: We’d like to thank Professor Christie McDonald for joining us and sharing her insight into her aunt’s artwork. It’s always fascinating to talk with someone so intimately connected to a collection.
HF: And we especially thank her for donating this painting and the rest of the Anne Eisner Putnam collection to Houghton.
JC: The music you heard throughout the podcast were recordings made in the same part of Africa, what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that Anne Eisner Putnam lived. They were recorded in the 1950s by Colin Turnbull and Francis S. Chapman, and document the sounds and music of the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest. Thanks to Smithsonian Folkways for keeping these recordings alive and accessible.
HF: To see Anne Eisner’s Beauty Salon and other exciting faculty selections, stop by our current exhibit HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library. But be sure to come visit soon, as the exhibit will be closing on April 22.
JC: Can’t make it to Boston by the 22nd? The exhibit is also available now and in the future on the Web at houghton75.org.
HF: Podcast transcripts and detailed musical notes can also be found online, at houghton75.org/podcast
JC: Thanks so much for listening, and whether you’re joining us from near or far, we hope you’ll tune in for the next episode of Houghton75.
[music continues to end]