Spin doctoring—the art of turning bad news into good and scoundrels into saints—goes back a long way. How far back is subject to debate: To the bust of Nefertiti? Roman bread and circuses? Jacques-Louis David’s heroic paintings of Napoleon? An exhibition of photographs from the dawn of the 20th century, now at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, provides a look at spin, Qing dynasty-style.

The photographs’ primary subject is Empress Dowager Cixi, the dominant figure in the Qing court for more than 45 years until her death in 1908, at age 72. The photographer was a diplomat’s son named Xunling. Though not a charmer, even by the somber photographic portrait standards of the day, the empress dowager seemed to like the camera and imagined that the camera liked her, says David Hogge, head of archives at the gallery and curator of the show. “She thought about self-representation, and—out of the norm for Chinese portraiture—she sometimes posed in staged vignettes that alluded to famous scenes in court theater. Sometimes she looked like a bored starlet.”

Vicki Goldberg, a New York-based historian of photography, points out that Xunling’s style was a bit behind the times, though “there was still plenty of traditional portrait work being done.” In the West, she says, group portraits were often made for family albums; a Xunling photograph of, say, Cixi and attendants at the top of some steps in a palace garden “may have been the photographer’s way of putting the empress dowager on a pedestal.”

By 1903, the year Cixi posed for Xunling, she needed a boost. True, she had been the de facto ruler of China since 1881, maneuvering her way out of concubinage by bearing Emperor Xianfeng a male heir and then engineering a palace coup. But the imperial court was isolated from both its subjects and the foreign powers then building spheres of influence in China, and eventually she made a miscalculation that brought her grief.

In 1900, Chinese insurgents known as the Righteous Fists of Harmony (and dubbed the Boxers by foreigners) rose against both the Qing dynasty and Western influences. Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians were slain, as were foreign diplomats and their families. To blunt the Boxers’ threat to the dynasty, Cixi sided with them against the Westerners. But troops sent by a coalition of eight nations, including England, Japan, France and the United States, put down the Boxer rebellion in a matter of months.

Cixi survived, but with a reputation for cruelty and treachery. She needed help dealing with the foreigners clamoring for greater access to her court. So her advisers called in Lady Yugeng, the half-American wife of a Chinese diplomat, and her daughters, Deling and Rongling, to familiarize Cixi with Western ways. With them came their son and brother, Xunling, who had learned photography in Japan and France. He began making a series of glass-plate negative portraits.

The empress dowager probably directed the photographer, not the other way around. Archivist Hogge says she may have taken the camera-friendly Queen Victoria as her role model. Sean Callahan, who teaches the history of photography at Syracuse University, agrees: “Xunling’s pictures bear little evidence of his having much feeling for Chinese art history traditions”but resemble those of the court of Queen Victoria, “to whom...Cixi bore a certain physical resemblance.”

Cixi used the portraits as gifts for visiting dignitaries—Theodore Roosevelt and his daughter Alice received copies. But soon, Hogge says, they showed up for sale on the street, which happened more commonly with photographs of prostitutes and actresses. How the portraits leaked is not known, but Hogge says, “it’s possible that the Yugeng family, having lived abroad, had a different idea of how images could be used.”

If their intent was to rehabilitate Cixi’s reputation, they failed. In the Western press, she was portrayed as something like the mother of all dragon ladies, and the impression remained long after she died in 1908, having appointed China’s last emperor, Puyi.

After Xunling’s sister Deling married an American who worked at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, she moved to the United States (where she was known as Princess Der Ling). When she died, in 1944, the Smithsonian Institution purchased 36 of Xunling’s glass-plate negatives, the largest collection of them outside the Palace Museum in Beijing, from a dealer for $500. Of the 19 prints on display, two are originals and 17 are high-resolution images made from scans of the negatives.

Xunling remained in China, suffering from ailments probably brought on by the photographic chemicals he used. He died in 1943, during World War II, when he may have been unable to get necessary medicine. He was in his early 60s.

“Xunling’s photographs are significant less because they are important historical documents of the last regent of China, but more because of what they say about the willful use of photography to shape history,” says Callahan. “The Dragon Lady may have been behind the curve when it came to political reform, but she was ahead of it when it came to using the medium to control her image.”

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions .

Q and A: Mark Newport

Flashy capes and skintight garments are the usual accouterments of comic book superheroes. But artist Mark Newport has some fun with these larger-than-life characters with his soft, hand-knit costumes, which are on view through January 3 at the Renwick Gallery’s “Staged Stories: Renwick Craft Invitational 2009.” He spoke with the magazine’s Jordan Steffen.

When did you get interested in superheroes?

When I was a kid I would draw and paint stuff. Sometimes I would copy images out of comic books. I read comic books, but I wasn’t a big collector. In 1997, I started using them in my work. First it was the real materials like the comic book pages and their covers. There’s one of the pieces from that group of work in the show, the “Freedom Bedcover” piece, where I embroidered over several pages of a comic book, and then put them together in the quilt. The piece deals with the idea of the role model and protection.

You have a degree in fine arts from the Kansas City Art Institute, and a master’s degree in fine arts from the Art Institute of Chicago. Along the way, who inspired you as an artist?

When I was in school my teachers were the most inspiring people. In Chicago, Anne Wilson and Joan Livingstone and in Kansas City, Jane Lackey all made work I was interested in. As teachers they were challenging and really committed to their work. That was very inspiring.

Superheroes are symbols of strength, but your costumes are knitted.

Knitting is a very slow technique. That contradicts the idea of a superhero as a man or woman of action. The superheroes that I make are generally male superheroes. I like the contradiction that most people think about knitting as related to women. Also there’s a practical reason: a knit garment stretches more than a woven textile. It’s more functional.

Who taught you how to knit?

I learned to knit twice. The first time was when I was a kid and my grandmother, who was a first grade school teacher, taught me. I think I was ten or something. I probably forgot because there were no knitting needles or yarn at home. In 2000, I wanted to include knitting in some undergraduate classes I was teaching. My wife is a knitter. She gave me a couple books and said, “Here get to it.” The first thing that I had to do was learn how to make a couple of different things. I could knit and create cables and stuff, but I hadn’t made any functional garments. So I made a pair of socks and a pair of gloves. Once I learned to knit in the round, it all made sense.

You display your costumes hanging loosely, instead of on mannequins?

Knit costumes stretch and sag. They take on a completely empty look that challenges the image of the big muscular superhero body. And by displaying the costumes on a hanger, it’s like they’re in a closet. Anybody can imagine putting on the costumes and taking on that superhero role. What does that mean and how does that affect who you are and what you do?

Do you have a favorite?

Batman. For the most part, I identify more with the “make-yourself” type of hero as opposed to the ones who have their powers thrust upon them or magically given to them. That’s more interesting to me. It mimics the idea of how we can take care of the people around us through mundane, human roles.

Do you have a favorite original costume?

Sweaterman is the one I return to the most. Usually that’s because that series explores the different textures and patterns of knitting. He is an easy, open-ended kind of superhero. In reality, my favorite costume is usually the one I’m working on. That’s what I’m most obsessed with and interested in.

Out Where the West Begins

Westerns were ubiquitous when I was growing up. On television and radio, in movie theaters, even at birthday parties, cowboys and their ilk ruled over everyone else. We couldn’t tell at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of Westerns’ cultural dominance.

You can trace that dominance back to the 17th century, when for young colonials the frontier signified everything from an evil unknown to a chance for a fresh start. Into the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School and Manifest Destiny all pointed to what would become the defining characteristics of Westerns. We went West to find ourselves, to erase our past, to escape the law. We discovered a world of mountains and deserts, mysterious cultures, and stark moral choices. The genre became so popular in part because it was so adaptable, because it could address the central issues facing the nation. In Westerns, right and wrong could be cut-and-dried or ambiguous; Native Americans, enemies or victims; law, a matter of principle or an untenable burden.

From its earliest days, cinema turned to the West. In the 1800s, the Edison Studio filmed Annie Oakley and other stars of Wild West shows. The country’s first bona fide blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western, albeit one filmed in New Jersey. Some of the industry’s best directors started out making low-budget Westerns. John Ford for one, but also Victor Fleming, William Wellman, and even William Wyler. By the 1920s, every major Hollywood concern relied on the income from Westerns, and the genre later helped studios like Universal survive the Great Depression.

We tend to forget that for early filmmakers, the West was still real and not yet a nostalgic fantasy. An exciting new DVD set from the National Film Preservation Foundation makes this vividly clear. With over 10 hours of material on 3 discs, Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938 provides an unparalleled look at how filmed helped shape our concepts of the frontier.

The forty films in the set range from newsreels to features, with travelogues, sponsored films, documentaries, and promotional movies all providing unexpected insights into Western life. You’ll see the first cowboy stars, like the winning Tom Mix, famous for performing his own stunts; as well the expert comedienne Mabel Normand and the “It” girl herself, Clara Bow. Directors include slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett, W.S. Van Dyke ( The Thin Man ), and Victor Fleming ( Gone With the Wind ).

Equally as intriguing are the set’s lesser known titles, like Romance of Water (1931), a government-sponsored short that in 10 minutes encapsulates the political background to the great 1970s film noir Chinatown . Or Last of the Line (1914), which finds Asian star Sessue Hayakawa battling Native-Americans. Personally, I loved travelogues promoting sightseeing spots like Yosemite National Park. The women and children in Beauty Spots in America: Castle Hot Springs, Arizona (1916) are unexpectedly and appealingly giddy at the prospect of riding ponies and diving into pools. Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916) still conveys the excitement travelers must have felt at encountering the area’s incredible vistas.

Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The Better Man , a 1914 film recently repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive . “ The Better Man is fascinating because of its treatment of ethnic themes,” she said in an interview. The story contrasts a Mexican-American horse thief with an Anglo father and husband, with unexpected conclusions. “When it premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival it was greeted with cheering,” Melville recalled. “It was kind of wonderful, really, no one expected that such a modest film could pack such a wallop.”

The Better Man was produced by Vitagraph, a studio considered the equal of any in the industry during the early twentieth century. Comparatively few Vitagraph titles survive, however, which is one of the reasons why The Better Man was included in the set. “We want to introduce audiences to films that there is no way on Earth they’d be able to get a hold of otherwise,” Melville said.

As Melville points out, Treasures 5: The West 1989–1938 presents a different version of the West than the one found in the classic Westerns of the 1950s. “It was more of a melting pot and had more variety,” she said. “In our set, the West was still being used as a backdrop in industrial films and travelogues to incite business and tourism. Like Sunshine Gatherers , a film about the canned fruit industry that likens the beginnings of the orchard industry to the Father Junípero Serra’s founding of missions. In the story, the fruit becomes an embodiment of California sunshine that can be put in a can and shared with people all over the world. Of course with an understated Del Monte logo because it was put out by the Del Monte company to make every girl and boy want to have their canned fruit.”

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