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Insider’s Look: Museum Education

December 17, 2014 - 11:39am

In the current issue of the Art Institute’s Member Magazine, the “Insider’s Look” section spotlights Sarah Alvarez and Robin Schnur, two directors from our Department of Museum Education. Sarah and Robin specialize in outreach to students, teachers, and teens. Here is a continuation of our discussion in the January/February issue:

What was the first museum you visited and when did you know that you wanted to work in museums?

SA: I visited museums from a very early age and I knew I wanted to work in museum education as soon as I visited the JFK Memorial Library in Boston while I was in college. It was such a formative experience for me. The objects on display engaged my curiosity for culture and history in a way that textbooks had never been able to do. I began to realize that working in a museum could be a way to marry my love of art and my love of learning.

RS: Museums have been a part of my experience for as long as I can remember. My family often visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and all the thrilling exhibitions and collections we visited when I was a child have merged together into one wonderfully rich memory. I didn’t know I could actually work in a museum until my senior year in high school when I took an internship at the Mystic Seaport Museum, just down the road from our house. For whatever reason, the head curator allowed me to write the labels for an exhibition about 19th-century whaling ship keels, to curate an exhibition of photographs of America’s Cup race winners, and to plan a show of needlepoint seascapes. It was all weird stuff, but what an empowering experience! I was 18 and the things I created were actually up and on view for the general public. Partly as a result of my own experiences, I feel strongly about creating opportunities for teens to engage in the life of the Art Institute. This is how aspirations are sparked and careers begin.

What is the most challenging aspect of engaging teachers and students through art?

SA: I can speak best to the experience of engaging teachers. The greatest challenge is that no one teacher is exactly the same as the next. It’s very common in our culture to make sweeping generalizations about teachers, but they are all individuals coming from different school contexts and with different motivations. As for engaging them through art, it can be particularly challenging for teachers who don’t really have a sense of the role that art can have across the curriculum—in science, math, or other subjects outside of art itself. A powerful and well-facilitated experience in our galleries is often the best way to break through that challenge.

RS: It’s challenging to figure out what is most interesting and relevant to a group of students who may come from vastly different places and experiences. When school groups arrive at the museum on the morning of their tour, we have only received limited information ahead of time about who the students are, what they’re studying, and what interests them. We have to ask ourselves how we can best use the one or two hours they’re here, making the experience relevant to their classroom studies and meaningful on a personal level. Our ongoing education program for docents, the volunteer educators who facilitate experiences for students in grades 1-12, prepares them not only to know about and be able to interpret the encyclopedic collection of the museum, but also to structure experiences in which students are encouraged to bring their own ideas, knowledge, and opinions into the conversation. Creating a space for an open dialogue about art with students you’ve just met, while at the same time taking into account the curricular needs of their teacher, and also sharing gallery space with other docents and their groups is a challenge, but it is a challenge that we enthusiastically undertake and satisfyingly meet daily here at the Art Institute.

Look for more in-depth interviews in upcoming issues of the Member Magazine. For a mobile-friendly reading experience, download the Member Magazine to your iPad today!

The Crèche’s Cast of Characters

December 16, 2014 - 7:00am

There are quite a few characters in the crèche who are probably instantly recognizable to most people—Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men—but because the crèche involves scenes of daily life, many of the figures might seem a bit more anonymous. But you can actually learn quite a lot about the Christmas story and life in 18th-century Naples if you look closely. Here’s some insider information to help you decipher some clues and learn more about the figures in the crèche:

The character of Benito—located in the far right recesses of the crèche—is actually quite common in Neapolitan crèches of the period. This figure is always dressed in blue and is always sound asleep. He is completely oblivious of the star and the announcement of the angel, symbolizing all of those who do not listen to the news of the birth of Jesus.

The name of this woman on the left is La Georgiana, referencing the fact that she hails from Georgia, located in the Caucasus. She’s dressed in Turkish attire, with billowing pants, a tight embroidered vest, and men’s pointy-toed red boots, and symbolizes the exotic ethnicities that have come to Naples. This outfit would have been meticulously crafted on a miniature loom and is most likely made from silk from the royal silk factory in San Leucio.

The jewelry worn by the figures was not made by miniature artists, but rather the same jewelers who bedecked the Neapolitan elite. Around this woman’s neck is a necklace made of real coral. Greek mythology holds that coral came from Medusa’s blood, which fell into the Mediterranean when she was decapitated. Neapolitans believed that coral had protective powers against evil and bad luck. If you look closely, you can see many of the ladies in the crèche wearing coral necklaces and earrings.

To see these figures in person, you can visit the crèche in Gallery 209 through January 6.

Image Credit: Crèche (details), mid-18th century. Naples. Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection, Ada Turnbull Hertle, Eloise W. Martin Legacy and Lacy Armour funds; restricted gifts of Mr. and Mrs. James N. Bay, Linda and Vincent Buonanno and Family, and Mrs. Robert O. Levitt.

Saint Anthony Across the Collection

December 9, 2014 - 7:00am

The centerpiece of the museum’s current exhibition Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor is undoubtedly Ensor’s 1887 The Temptation of Saint Anthony. This drawing is nearly six feet tall and features the eponymous saint surrounded by a variety of temptations sent by the devil himself.

But as you look closely, the temptations depicted in the painting might not be those that you would expect to see being used to tantalize an ancient saint. In fact, Ensor’s Saint Anthony is seduced by vices that modern audiences would have recognized, including fast food and government corruption. Traditionally, portrayals of Saint Anthony—which are fairly common throughout art history—depict temptations related to lust, greed, and demons.

We took a look through our collection to see how artists from the 16th to the 20th centuries have explored this dark subject:

Image Credits:

James Ensor. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1887. Regenstein Endowment and the Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.

Henri Fantin-Latour.  The Temptation of Saint Anthony, from the third album of L’Estampe originale, 1893. The Charles Deering Collection.

Lucas Cranach, the elder. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1506. Gift of Mr. Potter Palmer, II.

Brassaï (Gyula Halász). Tentation de Saint Antoine (Temptation of Saint Anthony), 1934/35, printed 1967. Restricted Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gaylord Donnelley and Mr. and Mrs. Ralph J. Mills.

Giambattista Tiepolo. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, c. 1734. Helen Regenstein Collection.

In the Know: Indigo

December 8, 2014 - 11:55am

When you enter into the exhibition Ethel Stein: Master Weaver you are faced with a sea of blue—indigo blue to be precise. The midnight hue has been used for centuries in textiles across the world from Japan to West Africa to Central and South America. In these complex weavings, Stein dyed threads of varying intensities so that when woven she could build subtle abstractions out of different hues of blue. One of the lovely additions to the exhibition is a video highlighting her working process of both dying and weaving. And dying with indigo is a magical thing—it actually transforms before your eyes. So, inspired by Stein’s use of indigo and in what may be one of the last opportunities before it gets too cold to work outside, I mixed up a vat of indigo dye.

When dying with indigo, the color oxidizes, meaning that it reaches its final color as it is exposed to air. From the dye bath, it emerges a yellow-green. But within minutes it turns a rich blue (the photo shows the same skein of wool yarn over a five-minute period). Rinse and repeat and you get a more intense blue each time, which is what makes Stein’s Indigo 23 and other weavings so lyrical. The repeated introduction to the dye and rate at which the natural cotton fiber “took” the dye makes for slight undulations of color in the individual threads that make up the complex weaving. Stein, however, isn’t just dipping yarn in a vat but using a resist-technique developed in Indonesia called ikat wherein parts of the threads are prevented from being dyed. We see a similar process in Japan called shibori or in Nigeria where the Yoruba use grassy raffia to tie, stitch, and bind fabric before it is dipped in the dye vat to create intricate patterns, as seen here in this detail from a woman’s wrapper in the Art Institute’s textile collection.

Indigo is a plant that for centuries was primarily grown in India—the name indigo means “from India” in Greek—and can be used as a pigment, dye, and was even long-held as having medicinal qualities. One of the earliest recipes is from a Babylonian tablet dated 2,700 years old. In Renaissance Europe, indigo was a sought-after commodity that was associated with the coffee and spices imported from the East. Most people would know the characteristic navy hue from the blue of their denim jeans.

The beauty of Stein’s works unfolds as your eyes follow her threads, the gradual coming and going of color and pattern, and the blended textures resulting from her refined weaving processes. You don’t have to be a weaver to appreciate that which can only be made by hand. And since the exhibition has been extended to January 4, 2015, you’ll have plenty of time to look closer.

—Terah Walkup, Research Associate, Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art

Image credits:

Ethel Stein. Indigo 23, 1988. Gift of Ethel Stein.

Woman’s Wrapper (Adire Eleso), Yoruba Nigeria, mid-20th century. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Hammer.

Work of the Week: The Christmas Story

December 2, 2014 - 7:00am

Shortly after completing his training as a painter, a young artist named Baccio della Porta met the charismatic Dominican Friar Giralamo Savonarola and was compelled to give up his artistic career and join Savonarola’s monastic order. Several years later in 1504, the young artist—now known as Fra (or Friar) Bartolommeo—returned to painting with a new, intensified spirituality.

That religious devotion is apparent in Bartolommeo’s The Nativity, created in 1506/07. This delicate rendition of the nativity scene features the Virgin humbly kneeling and looking upon her child, while Joseph assumes a pose of wonderment, as if newly aware of his son’s divine nature. A trio of angels floats above, while another pair of angels stands behind the holy family and seems to reflect on both the birth of Christ and on the piece of wood that’s visible just above the child’s head, which perhaps alludes to his eventual death.

To learn more about paintings, etchings, and illuminated manuscripts from the museum’s collection that focus on the Christmas story, join us on December 4 in Fullerton Hall at 12:00p.m. for a richly illustrated lecture. Free with museum admission.

Image Credit: Fra Bartolommeo (Baccio della Porta). The Nativity, 1506/07. The Art Institute of Chicago, Ethel T. Scarborough Fund; L. L. and A. S. Coburn, Dr. and Mrs. William Gilligan, Mr. and Mrs. Lester King, John and Josephine Louis, Samuel A. Marx, Alexander McKay, Chester D. Tripp, and Murray Vale endowment funds; restricted gift of Marilynn Alsdorf, Anne Searle Bent, David and Celia Hilliard, Alexandra and John Nichols, Mrs. Harold T. Martin, Mrs. George B. Young in memory of her husband, and the Rhoades Foundation; gift of John Bross and members of the Old Masters Society in memory of Louise Smith Bross; through prior gift of the George F. Harding, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson, and Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester collections.

 

 

Decking the Halls

November 28, 2014 - 7:00am

One of the Art Institute’s most popular holiday attractions is our decorated Thorne Miniature Rooms. Each year, a selection of rooms (12 this year!) are bedecked in tiny, period-appropriate holiday decorations.

But similar to your decorations at home, the carefully considered décor doesn’t just magically appear. Each year, the trees are meticulously trimmed by Thorne Rooms caretaker Lindsay Mican Morgan, who spends the days leading up to the holiday season installing the tiny pieces.

In these images, you can see her installing the English Drawing Room of the Victorian Period. This room dates from the mid 1800s, when many of the traditions we associate with Christmas now were just gaining popularity. Queen Victoria, who was married to the German Prince Albert, adopted the German tradition of Christmas trees and when a picture of the royal family around the tree was posted in the newspaper, Christmas trees became very trendy.

There are also a number of toys under the tree, which would have been a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, children had been largely left out of holiday festivities, which included balls and plays. However, with the rise of wealth in this age, children were increasingly doted upon and given gifts like the dolls and train that you see here.

The decorated Thorne Miniature Rooms were unveiled last week and will be up for your viewing pleasure through January 6.

Puppets! Preview

November 26, 2014 - 4:20pm

Looking to interact with art? Like to play with puppets? Do we have a show for you! Opening December 6 in the Ryan Education Center, Puppets! is an experimental collaboration between the Departments of Education and Prints and Drawings. There is no entry fee, and no limits to your creativity. Puppets! lets visitors of all ages get their hands on whimsical renditions of art from across the museum collection, which we’ve transformed into shadow and hand puppets. They can use them to tell their own stories. The deeply weird creatures that populate the Belgian symbolist James Ensor’s Temptation of Saint Anthony take pride of place (tapeworms, anyone?) during a major exhibition on the artist and his enormous Art Institute drawing appearing concurrently in Regenstein Hall.

In fact, when we held a Creator Party in August to make the puppets for our show, we gave our willing volunteers (staff members, artists, actual puppeteers, and several children) details from Ensor’s amazingly dark and detailed drawing as inspiration. Here’s this tapeworm puppet in process. Simply composed of a papier mâché head, acrylic paint, and a cardboard tube, all that remains to add is the soft, movable body for maximum maneuverability and storytelling prowess. Others started with knee socks, or were cut out of posterboard with x-acto knives, and accented with glue guns. Some of the puppets that were made that day can already be seen in cases in Classroom 5, but visitors won’t be able to perform with them until the show opens.

Another of our tapeworm puppets recently appeared in action, dancing madly away inside the famous Chicago Puppet Bike while we were filming part of the instructional video for the exhibition space. Ensor’s crazy creatures didn’t seem all that out of place in this context, surprisingly enough. You’ll have to come see Puppets! for the video, but be sure to expect the unexpected.

In addition to the hand puppets we’ve developed several shadow puppets by lasercutting designs taken from other works in the collection. Look for a separate blog post about that process next month. The shadow stage will be large enough that puppeteers can use their own bodies as part of the shadow play as well. Start practicing your shadow rabbits coming out of hats now!

 

Visitors will even be able to make their own puppets in the library and maker space across the hallway from the exhibition. The experimental gallery, where Puppets! will be seen recently housed a do-it-yourself installation exploring the idea of still-life painting. The dextrous can use their drawing skills to copy the still lives they construct out of plastic fruit, vases, and other items, while the camera-savvy can upload photographs of their ephemeral creations to a hashtag which populates an ever-changing monitor display in the space. Puppets! will do something similar, by collecting short Instagram videos, a selection of which will appear on a screen nearby.

If all this low- and high-tech puppetry sounds intriguing, come for the puppets, and stay for the movies. We’ll be hosting a screening of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal in Fullerton on the evening on January 15, and a slate of related contemporary short films appropriate for teens and adults on select Friday afternoons from January to April in the Ryan Education Center. And you never know when the Puppet Bike might be putting in a live appearance!

—Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Curatorial Fellow, Department of Prints and Drawings

 

Altered States: Conservation of the Ayala Altarpiece

November 14, 2014 - 5:06pm

Painted in 1396, this Spanish retable and frontal, collectively known as the Ayala Altarpiece, are among the oldest paintings in the museum’s collection. The monumental pair of works, depicting the life of Christ and the Virgin, is impressive for its visual beauty, historical importance, and sheer size (the large retable measures 99 3/4” high x 263 ¾” wide). It was commissioned in 1396 by Pedro Lopez de Ayala and his wife, Leonor de Guzman, for the Ayala family funeral chapel in the Castile region of northern Spain. An educated man of many achievements, Pedro Lopez de Ayala (1322-1407) was chancellor of Castile, a chronicler of his times, and a poet. The altarpiece remained in the family chapel for over five hundred years until financial considerations led to its sale in 1913. Chicago industrialist Charles Deering, an avid collector of Spanish art, bought the artwork and displayed it in his mansion in Sitges, Spain. Shortly thereafter, Deering died and his daughters donated the altarpiece and many additional artworks to the Art Institute in 1928. Since then, it has graced the walls of the museum and it didn’t take long for this awe-inspiring piece to become a favorite among visitors and staff alike.

To make way for the Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, the altarpiece was taken off view several years ago and put in storage. Now, in preparation for a new installation of Medieval and Renaissance art, scheduled to open in March 2017, the altarpiece is undergoing a comprehensive conservation treatment that will address both structural and aesthetic issues. The main challenge of the treatment is the removal of a thick, tan overpaint applied to mask paint loss in the cream-colored background.

The overpaint was liberally, but unevenly, applied in several restoration campaigns prior to arriving at the Art Institute and it covers almost all the background of the retable. As you can see in the above detail from the Pentecost episode, small spots of the much brighter and lighter original cream paint are visible through the tan overpaint. Little effort was made to match the overpaint to the original paint color and the restoration paint is much darker and warmer in color. The effect is a dramatic darkening of the tonality of the artwork and a decrease in the brilliance of the jewel-like tones used in the composition.

It is not known when the overpaint was first applied, but the majority of it may have been added to “spruce up” the painting before its sale in 1913. Analysis of the various paint layers by the museum’s Conservation Science Department confirmed the binder of the original paint layer is egg tempera while the overpaint is oil-based. This was good news for conservation, as the use of different media allowed us to devise a cleaning solution that solubilizes the oil paint without affecting the underlying original tempera paint.

With a successful system in hand, treatment is progressing full force on the altarpiece. The dramatic improvement gained by removing the dark overpaint is clearly visible in the photograph above. Without the dark, muted overpaint, tonal harmony is restored and the brilliance of the original paint is once again allowed to shine.

Stay tuned for updates as the artwork continues its amazing transformation.

—Julie A. Simek, Paintings Conservator

 

Image Credits: Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece), 1396. Gift of Charles Deering.

Details from Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece) showing multiple applications of overpaint.

Detail from Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece) showing overpaint partially removed from the background.

Work of the Week: Walker Evans

November 3, 2014 - 7:00am

You may be surprised to discover that one of Walker Evans’s most iconic images (Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, pictured above) was rejected by the first publisher it was submitted to. In fact, in 1936 Fortune magazine sent James Agee (as the writer) and Evans (as the photographer) to Hale County, Alabama to document the effects of the Great Depression on tenant farmers. They spent time with three poor families, including the Burroughs family. Evans took this photo of Allie Mae Burroughs during his stay.

Ultimately, Fortune passed on the article and accompanying photos due to length, but Agee later published an adapted version of his writings—with Evans’ photographs—as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. The straightforward Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife quickly became the most famous image from the book, showcasing the subject’s quiet dignity mixed with an expression that can be alternately read as shy, bored, or annoyed.

Today marks what would have been Walker Evans’s 111th birthday. Click here to see more of Evans’ images in the Art Institute’s collection.

Image Credit: Walker Evans. Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, 1936. Restricted Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

Tales from the Crypt

October 31, 2014 - 5:25pm

I have many roles in my stewardship of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Research is one of the largest areas, encompassing everything from the locations Mrs. Thorne replicated to the history and practice of miniature-making to Mrs. Narcissa Thorne herself. One avenue that has sparked my interest lately was Mrs. Thorne’s collaborations with a well-known metal craft artist, Marie Zimmermann… leading me to a long overdue visit to the Thorne Family crypt.

Mrs. James Ward Thorne, creator of our beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms, was a serious patron of the arts. Not only did she collect wonderful miniature works but she had an impressive collection and library of decorative arts—most of which she donated to the Art Institute’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries—and a collection of early American street photography, also donated to the museum. You could say she lived a life full of art; you could also say she died by it too…

Art filled Mrs.Thorne’s life so she took it upon herself to be well versed in historic as well as contemporary artisans. Marie Zimmermann was one of these artists. A member of the prestigious Arts Club in New York City, she was considered one of the greatest craftspersons in America. Mrs. Thorne commissioned her to create the ironwork for the miniature room E-29: English Roman Catholic Church in the Gothic Style and Zimmermann was commissioned to design and create the Thorne Family Memorial gates for the family crypt.

As it is the time of year many celebrate the dead I thought it a wonderful time to honor two amazing women artists by visiting Mrs. Thorne’s resting site as well as seeing the gorgeous metalwork of Mrs. Zimmermann. This pilgrimage led me to Rosehill Cemetery on the far north side of Chicago, where not only lies the Thorne crypt, but also those of John G. Shedd, Richard Warren Sears and many other Chicago notables. The Roeshill Cemetery Mausoleum, designed by Sidney Lovell, dates back to the Victorian era and has many beautiful stained glass windows set in marble, but—and this might be a personal bias—the gates for the Thorne Family crypt are truly the stars. Mrs. Thorne’s impeccable taste and Zimmermann’s stunning skills come together for a gracious end to the life of one of the grand dames of Chicago.

—Lindsay Mican Morgan, Department Technician, Thorne Rooms

What Were You Doing Exactly 36 Years Ago?

October 31, 2014 - 8:00am

Whenever you see any one of On Kawara’s so-called “date paintings,” you already know the exact day that he created it. Kawara started the series in 1966 and the rule was that he had to start and complete the painting on the date written on the canvas. If not, the painting was destroyed.

The paintings also come with a newspaper, which acts as a verification of the day and location it was painted. And for the diligent viewer, you can also receive some clues about where it was painted by how the date is written. Kawara always wrote the date using the method that people in that country would use. So, for example, if the day comes before the month, the painting is not from the United States.

The series includes over 2,000 paintings and each serves as a reminder of a very particular moment in time. Perhaps this makes you wonder something like, “I wonder what the artist was doing on this day?” Just know that while you’re thinking about that, I’m narcissistically wondering, “what was I doing on that particular day?” Normally, there’s no way of knowing, but since this is Halloween, you might not only know, but you might also have photographic proof! So if you can remember, tell us in the comments what you were doing on October 31, 1978. That is. . . if you were born yet! Happy Halloween, everyone!

Image Credit: On Kawara. Oct. 31, 1978 (Today Series, “Tuesday”), 1978. Twentieth-Century Purchase Fund. © On Kawara. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

Art Scene Investigation: Why Are You Angry?

October 24, 2014 - 2:10pm

I am sitting in a white room with high ceilings, in deep silence. I am all alone. Only a slight humming is audible in the background. Right above me, unaware of this entire operation, hundreds of visitors are entering the glass doors of the Modern Wing. In front of me, a robotic arm, red and amber lights on, is going back and forth with a hypnotic rhythm. Outside, a yellow and purple X-ray warning sign is guarding the door.

I have programmed the computer this morning, so now I only have to sit, wait, and watch while, dot after dot, tantalizing images the eye  cannot see trickle down the screen, like The Matrix with a splash of Warhol. In a few hours, the veil will be lifted.

The scene before me was painted by Paul Gauguin in Tahiti in 1896 and it is entitled Why Are You Angry?

The painting shows two women sitting in the foreground, not making eye contact. Another woman, a magnetic presence, stands in the middle, and she is not happy. Although the title is evocative of some kind of narrative, the whole meaning of the scene remains mysterious. My colleague Kristin Lister, a paintings conservator, says that after looking at the painting inch by inch through a microscope, examining every brushstroke, she thinks perhaps originally this might have been a twilight scene. Perhaps there was fire, or light peeking through the doorway of the hut that is now pitch black. Today, over 100 years later, the colors are still bursting out of the painting, making the whole room vibrate (no, the vibrations are not just the effect of the cooling fan in the X-ray tube; this art is powerful).

We cannot see through the dark, or through black paint for that matter, but X-rays can. And this new piece of technology—brilliantly designed by scientists Joris Dik and Koen Janssens with Bruker’s engineers—has been on a US grand tour to peer under some of the most important and enigmatic paintings in this country, after having its Cyclops eye trained on nothing less than Rembrandts back in Europe. It is important to remember that only a few years ago it was unthinkable to do what I am doing today, in the comfort and security of my own lab here at the Art Institute. This type of analysis was only possible at Synchrotrons, large-scale facilities like the one located 30 miles from here at Argonne National Lab. I don’t even want to start thinking about the hassle of having to transport this masterpiece there, arranging for security during transport, making sure the temperature and relative humidity are kept constant during the analysis and at values that are safe for the art. Instead, now that the technology is portable, it can travel to the art rather than the other way around. So, after the Getty in Los Angeles, and New York’s MoMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art, this instrument, called a macro-XRF scanner, has landed here in Chicago. Too bad I can only keep it for a few more days! I would love to own one of these.

This amazing technology scans the surface of a painting with X-rays, exciting the painting materials without harming them. In response, at every spot probed, the atoms that make up the physical structure of the painting and its paint layers emit energy back in different packets so that we can tell precisely what the chemical elements are below the surface and, by inference, what pigments the artist has used. And instead of doing this for individual points, wielding a gun-like instrument—as seen in my post from June 27, 2011—we can now visualize the exact distribution of paints by sweeping through the entire surface of the painting. And this one is definitely big, at 37 1/2 x 51 3/8 inches!

It is going to be fantastic to be able to include this imagery in our forthcoming online catalogue on Paul Gauguin, part of our ongoing Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative which already includes richly detailed catalogues for Monet and Renoir.

So now under my eyes the magic of discovery begins: Below the veil of bluish-black paint there are two heads, not just the one we see, and red brushstrokes of vermilion (a pigment that contains mercury, whose symbol is Hg in the periodic table of elements) with touches of chrome yellow (a pigment containing lead [Pb] and chrome [Cr]), making for a very dynamic yellow-orange and fiery red backdrop for the seated figure.

So, is there a glowing fire inside? Is it an orange curtain? Wait, is Paul inside? Are the women fighting over him? After all, he could be quite attractive, I think; perhaps not conventionally handsome, but I can definitely see a fire in him. He reminds me of the actor Jean Reno of “La Femme Nikita” fame.

Whatever it is, after spending many hours in this room in close intimacy with his work, analyzing its every brushstroke, I feel somehow closer to Gauguin. And suddenly I am reminded of a recent article in the New York Times by Bill Hayes that definitely resonated with me. Its words are still echoing in my head now. In essence it says: When the world goes crazy, pick a work of art. Make it yours. Make it matter. Visit often.

Well, this is MY Gauguin today then. After a whole day with this painting, I feel exhilarated and very calm.

“Why are you angry?” asks Gauguin. “Why are you stressed?” we may sometimes ask ourselves. As long as we have great art that makes us dream and technology that makes us experience things we never thought possible, then we can have faith in this world. No need to be stressed, no need to be angry.

As spoken from my X-ray den. (And don’t worry, I wear a radiation dosimeter and, yes, this instrument is safe for me AND the art!)

 

—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist

 

Image credits:

[On view in Gallery 246] Paul Gauguin. Why Are You Angry? (No Te Aha Oe Riri), 1896. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

[On view at the Van Gogh Museum] Paul Gauguin. Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables) (detail), 1888. Van Gogh Museum , Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

 

Ghosts in the Galleries

October 24, 2014 - 8:00am

Just in time for Halloween, the museum’s Asian Art Department opened a creepily appropriate exhibition called Ghosts and Demons in Japanese Prints. The display showcases some of the most special works in the collection, including images from Hokusai’s series One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari), from which the woodblock print above is drawn.

According to urban legend, Koheiji, a traveling kabuki actor, was murdered by his wife and her secret lover. After his death, he sought revenge and went on to haunt the pair incessantly. This print features the ghostly spectral of Koheiji pulling down on a mosquito net bed canopy and peering down on the couple. . . or maybe on us.

The tale of Kohada Koheiji was a well-known one and was featured in Japanese fiction and theater, and this image by Hokusai is the most famous version of the story. Although best known for his images of Mount Fuji, Hokusai was no stranger to supernatural themes. In One Hundred Stories, he explored a variety of ghosts, demons, and witches from Japanese tradition.

Happy Haunting!

Image Credit: Katsushika Hokusai. Kohada Koheiji, from the series One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari), c. 1831–32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Work of the Week: Eastman Johnson

October 10, 2014 - 8:00am

Eastman Johnson and his wife were riding through Nantucket when they happened upon a scene much like this one, seeing “the yellow corn and husks, the bright chickens running about [and] the old sea captains with their silk hats of better days.” Their excursion inspired this romanticized view of rural life, celebrating hard work, community spirit, and the harvest during a husking bee. Towards the right you can see a young woman holding up a red ear of corn in her right arm. According to folk tradition, this allowed her to kiss the person of her choice.

But what this painting doesn’t show is that scenes like this were becoming more and more rare. Industrialization was revolutionizing American agriculture and small farmers were increasingly being forced to abandon their land and seek work in cities. However, we’ll cut Johnson some slack because the timing of this painting does allow for a bit of nostalgia. Johnson made it in 1876, the year that marked the United States’ centennial, a time when people were celebrating democracy and the American spirit.

Image Credit: Eastman Johnson. Husking Bee, Island of Nantucket, 1876. Gift of Honoré and Potter Palmer.

On View Now: Sarah Charlesworth

October 3, 2014 - 8:00am

In 1980, photographer Sarah Charlesworth exhibited a new body of work called Stills, a collection of photographs collected from news wire services and the New York Public Library that showed nearly life-size images of people jumping or falling from great heights. The series was originally limited to seven photographs for a variety of reasons—the cost of printing, the size of the exhibition space—but Charlesworth amassed a much larger collection of these archival images and in 2012, expanded the series to 14 photographs. This exhibition marks the first time all 14 photographs will be shown together.

These images bring up a range of questions: Are the subjects jumping from something? To something? Are they falling? Did they have suicidal intentions? Who are they? What happened to them? We don’t know all of the answers to these questions, but we do know that the outcome is not always as dire as it appears to be.

For example, the image above shows a 15 year old named Patricia Cawlings who jumped (for unknown reasons) from the top of a Zen mission building in Los Angeles. She fell about 20 feet and somewhat remarkably only suffered minor injuries. But because of how Charlesworth has cropped and scaled the source photographs, it’s impossible to tell this by looking at her image. In the words of exhibition curator Matthew Witkovsky, this “absence of closure can seem unendurable” for the viewer.

We invite you to see this exhibition in the Art Institute’s Modern Wing through January 4.

Image Credit: Sarah Charlesworth. Patricia Cawlings, Los Angeles, 1980, printed 2012, No. 10 of 14 from the series Stills. Krueck Foundation and Photography Gala Funds. © Estate of Sarah Charlesworth. Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone.

 

 

Mondrian’s Evolution

September 26, 2014 - 2:49pm

You might be surprised to discover 1) that these two paintings were created by the same artist and 2) that they were inspired by the same thing. They were in fact both painted by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian within just five years of each other and were both inspired by the landscape in his native Holland.

If you’re familiar with Mondrian’s work, you probably recognize the aesthetic of the top canvas: horizontal and vertical lines and a limited palette including black, white, and primary colors. Also, in this case, Mondrian has rotated the square canvas by 45 degrees to create even more contrast between the lines in the painting and the diagonal lines of the canvas. But these spare, geometric compositions reflect more than just an interest in abstraction; they represent a reduction in natural forms to create a pure new visual language. And often, the natural forms that were the jumping-off point for Mondrian’s work came from Holland’s flat geography.

But as he and other artists were experimenting with relationships between abstract lines, shapes, and colors, Mondrian was also creating more representational work, including this painting from 1916 called Farm near Duivendrecht. This is one of 20 views of the same farm that he created over about 14 years. In part, this was to please his patrons, many of whom preferred a more naturalistic style. But it also gave him an opportunity to balance his new abstract interests with the more straightforward approaches to landscape that he had worked on early in his career.

Make sure to visit (and compare) both of these works on your next visit to the third floor of the museum’s Modern Wing.

Image Credits:

Piet Mondrian. Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray, 1921. Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International, Warrenton VA.

Piet Mondrian. Farm near Duivendrecht, c. 1916. Gift of Dolly J. van der Hoop Schoenberg. © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International, Warrenton VA.

What May Come: Chicago and the Taller de Gráfica Popular

September 17, 2014 - 3:30pm

Some of the realist and expressive visual language employed by the artists of the progressive, mid-century printmaking collective, the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), and currently displayed in the exhibition What May Come: The Taller de Gráfica Popular and the Mexican Political Print, may seem familiar to Chicagoans. With the 55th Street Metra underpass panel reproductions of works by Margaret Taylor-Burroughs (pictured above) and the countless Works Projects Administration-funded murals featured throughout the city, one is hard-pressed not to notice a very real connection in visual language between the Mexican printmaking collective and the Chicago artists of the time. It was the state-sponsored murals of José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siquieros, and Diego Rivera after all, that inspired the WPA federal-funded murals seen throughout Chicago and cemented a real interest in intercultural exchange and collaboration among artists, galleries, and arts-based institutions in Chicago and in Mexico.

The over 100 works on display in What May Come represent only a fraction of the Prints and Drawings Department’s rich collection of TGP prints, drawings, ephemeral handbills and newspapers, and portfolios. And since for the most part these works were collected and exhibited at the Art Institute during the 1930s and 1940s, What May Come seeks to not only bring the art of the influential collective to Chicago’s attention, but to also delve into the strong connection between the Mexican collective and Chicago artists, gallerists, and curators. This connection emphasized the intercultural exchange made possible by the opening up of Mexico in the post-revolutionary 1920s and 1930s, as well as the shared anti-fascist and pro-worker sentiments of the artists.

It is in looking through hundreds of letters of correspondence, departmental and board meeting minutes, bills of sale, and more from the Art Institute’s institutional records that the TGP’s international relations and activity truly came to life for the exhibition staff. Although a previously understood notion, these archives further illustrated the attraction that the TGP artists’ progressive, leftist politics, collective approach to work, and promotion of the democratization of information for all peoples held for an international assortment of artists and thinkers of the time. Famed Swiss Bauhaus architect Hannes Meyer and French-born artist Jean Charlot are just two of the many individuals to actively involve themselves in the cooperative workshop, with a number of Chicago artists finding similar reasons to visit or seek out work with the TGP.

One of the galleries in the exhibition explores this connection explicitly, featuring works by Eleanor Coen, Max Kahn, Elizabeth Catlett, Mariana Yampolsky, and John Wilson. There were all individuals who had a strong connection to Chicago and who sought artistic stimulation and political refuge in the collective at some point during the mid-twentieth century. Their works further illustrate the aesthetically and politically informed dialogues taking place at the time between the Chicago-based and Mexican artists, with the TGP having a profound influence on much of the art produced. This influence was a direct result of the Chicago artists’ visits and correspondence with the TGP, as well as the collective nature of the TGP’s working environment. One example, Catlett’s And a Special Fear for My Loved Ones from the I Am the Negro Woman series (immediately above), first executed between 1946 and 1947 during her time in Mexico, echoes some of the more politically and socially engaged themes of the TGP. Though the topic of racially driven lynchings is more culturally specific to the United States, the TGP-shared message against oppressive violence is clear. There is also a shared visual language that was distinctly influenced by the expressive realism found in the dynamic and sculptural lines of TGP founder Leopoldo Méndez.

It is just across the gallery from these works, that visitors can explore the TGP’s strong connection to the Art Institute of Chicago that was initially sparked by the various Chicago artists’ interactions with the collective as well as the enthusiasm of museum curators Carl Schniewind and Katharine Kuh. Kuh acquired and exhibited modern Mexican art, further solidifying Chicago’s role in the intercultural exchange between Mexico and the United States. Additionally, exhibitions such as the 1946 TGP group show at the Art Institute cemented the TGP’s broad oeuvre for the United States public as not only politically engaged ephemera, but rightfully so, as works of fine art. A letter exhibited here from Méndez to Schniewind, found in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries’ institutional archives, expresses the collective’s great appreciation for the TGP show held at the museum in 1946. The letter goes on to address the curator’s desire for additional prints, with Méndez gladly offering Schniewind new editions from the workshop for the museum’s collection. It is this letter, placed among works by Chicago artists in What May Come, which provides visitors with an intimate insight into the amicable working relationship of the Art Institute and the TGP—a relationship which played a large role in not only the history of the TGP, but in Chicago’s own art history.

Overall, this period of time was marked by great cross-border correspondence, cooperation, and exchange among American and Mexican individuals and organizations. And although McCarthy-era politics unfortunately slowed this exchange down during the 1950s, it is with great thanks to the largely positive Chicago-TGP relationships of the 1930s and 1940s, that the Art Institute is so fortunate to currently have on view such a rich collection of one of the most influential, politically engaged artist collectives of the twentieth century.

—Chloe Lundgren, Exhibition Intern

Image Credits:

Leopoldo Méndez, What May Come (Mexico, 1945), 1945.  The Art Institute of Chicago. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico City

Elizabeth Catlett.  And a Special Fear for My Loved Ones, from The Black Woman [formerly The Negro Woman] (published 1946-47), 1947, printed 1989.  Restricted gift of The Leadership Advisory Committee.

 

Feathered Knights in Shining Armor

September 10, 2014 - 2:01pm

You’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t noticed a certain level of Medieval mania within pop culture. Renaissance Faires and LARPs (live action role playing games) increasingly abound, not to mention the overwhelming popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, which has resulted in at least one “reality show.” And here at the museum, we’re completely on board with some German Romantic escapism (with more than a touch of nationalism). The museum’s new Medieval and Renaissance galleries are still in the early stages of development, but until December, the nineteenth-century prints in Gallery 221a will be enthusiastically reenacting their own Renaissance.

Sadly, there isn’t room for a full-sized set of caparisoned jousters careening down the second floor hallway on their mounts, lances in hand. But the noblemen in this liminal space, (who could be students escaped from Lucas Cranach the Younger’s Art of Wrestling), parade by with swords, steeds, and armor nonetheless. Using the new medium of lithography, artists such as the Senefelder brothers and Ferdinand Piloty enthusiastically copied extant Germanic treasures including a manuscript of jousts held at the court of Wilhelm IV in Munich between 1510 and 1545, and invented others entirely. Piloty’s early nineteenth-century Saint George in Armor lithograph (below left) for instance, closely referenced a 1506 woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder (below right), but the lithographer outfitted his warrior saint in a glowing haze and simpler armor. Omitting Cranach’s ostrich-feathered helmet and adding a shock of corkscrew curls, he enhanced the figure’s soft, contemplative demeanor.

Even more than Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer’s art was considered a vital part of the distant Germanic past.  For one enormous Dürer woodcut coat of arms, only a single damaged impression had survived, and so the artist completed the missing lower right part of the composition himself.  The dozen peacock feathers atop this imposing crest also alluded to current tournament fashions suggesting prowess through luxury, exaggerated size and bright, distinguishing coloring.  The surviving print in fact remains brightly colored, though its copyist only reproduced the woodcut lines.

Feathers assume an even more active (or perhaps, proactive) role in the double-page Senefelder Jousters facsimile (above) showing a festive combat in Munich around 1545.  The Art Institute’s partially colored proof was never filled in with the blue and whites diamonds of the Bavarian arms or lavish hues of the combatants’ house colors from the original manuscript. Yet the contrast of shining metals (golden bells, silvery armor, brass fittings) make more of a statement about the types of materials on display without the distraction of color. The distinct metals suggest the ringing of the bells and the sliding of the armor’s lames (overlapping plates) in motion. These contrast with the quiet softness of the feather-tufted helmets and horse armor (detail below). Most functional of all is the pillow-like feather cover wrapped diagonally around the fallen lances at the bottom of the image. In tournament settings, these were used to keep the wood from shattering in all directions on impact, saving lucky nobles from splinters.  The soft, sketch-like touch of lithography makes these feathery accessories even more tactile than they would be in a woodcut, and draw the viewer into a vibrantly re-imagined, if slightly glorified past.

Image Credits:

Top left: Ferdinand Piloty after Lucas Cranach, the elder. Saint George in Armor, n.d. Gift of Dorothy Braude Edinburg to the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection.

Top right: Lucas Cranach, the elder. Saint George Standing, 1506. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Bottom: Clemens Senefelder and Theo Senefelder. Joust, from the Tournament Book of Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria, 1817. Joseph Brooks Fair Fund.

Final Days: Josef Koudelka

September 5, 2014 - 3:51pm

Josef Koudelka is perhaps best known for images of gypsies and the Soviet invasion of Prague from the 1960s, but over the last 25 years, he’s been making photographs for publication exclusively with panoramic cameras. These large images (most are 4 to 6 feet wide) focus on landscape and are nearly devoid of people. But the evidence of people is everywhere. Whether it’s Greek ruins or mining infrastructure or barbed wire, the photographs illustrate a merging—for better or for worse—of the man-made and natural worlds. And because they are so large, they invite the viewer into the desolate landscapes, as if through a window.

Below are some installation images to get a sense of the scale. But to see them in person, you will need to get here soon. Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful is on view only through September 21.

Image Credit: Josef Koudelka. Jordan (Amman) from the series Archaeology, 2012, printed 2013. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

 

Work of the Week: Labor Day Edition

August 29, 2014 - 1:48pm

 

It’s easy to consider Labor Day, and the three-day weekend it allows, as our given right: a reward at the end of summer prepping us for the coming winter, and a logical bookend complementing Memorial Day. We barbecue, sleep in on a Monday, and get back to work. Backyard parties aren’t really a great justification for a holiday, though, and Labor Day’s roots are much more serious. I won’t go into events like Chicago’s Haymarket Riot or the tradition of child labor, but we have it better than our ancestors—three-day weekends or not.

Which brings me to our Work of the Week: a photograph by Simpson Kalisher, A Brakeman Rides a String of Cars Down a Hump. “What does this have to do with my pool party?” you’re asking. Well, employers could once set the length of their workers’ days—twelve hours was common. In 1916, though, with a railroad workers’ strike looming, Congress negotiated with a committee of railroad labor brotherhoods and enacted the Adamson Act. We have the Adamson Act to thank for the concept of the eight-hour workday and time-and-a-half overtime pay. The idea of capping workers’ hours was not new—the “short-time movement” goes back to the Industrial Revolution—but this was the first time the U.S. Government regulated by law the hours of private workers’ days.

Give that some thought when you get back to work on Tuesday, whether you sit in an office or hang off the back of train cars.

Image Credit: Simpson Kalisher. A Brakeman Rides a String of Cars Down the Hump, n.d. Restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Galter.