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Hemingway and the Art Institute

July 20, 2015 - 2:35pm

Have you ever thought about who, living or dead, you would invite to your dinner party? What about who would you take to the museum with you? What new insights and discoveries might these “friends” bring to you? I love to think about this and while my imaginary guests may change over time, a name that comes up frequently is Ernest Hemingway. I’ve always been interested in both his writings and his life and would jump at the chance to take a stroll through the galleries with this larger-than-life author.

And while this might be impossible, since Hemingway had a lot to say about everything (including art), we’re able to make some educated guesses at what he might have been drawn to at the museum. So in that spirit, tomorrow I’ll be leading a tour that will not just seek out works that Hemingway explicitly spoke of, but also connect with those that embody the spirit of his work. What can you expect to see? We’ll see some works he saw as a young boy from Oak Park. We’ll see modern masters that he personally knew while living in Paris. We’ll consider what the connection was between his eye and his pen, when he said things like “I can make a landscape like Cézanne.”

If you’re interested in hearing more about connections between Hemingway and the museum, the gallery talk starts at 12:00p.m. tomorrow in the museum’s Modern Wing. It, like all of our daily gallery talks, is free with museum admission.

—P.D. Young, Production Coordinator, Imaging Department

Paul Cézanne. The Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L’Estaque, c. 1885. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

 

Celebrity Doppelgängers: Whistler Edition

July 17, 2015 - 3:14pm

The Department of Prints and Drawings is always an exciting place when an exhibition is being installed. The physical and mental demands of making sure that the art is displayed to perfection, while meeting relentless deadlines is an intense time for the staff. Despite this tension, there is a moment of breathtaking awe once a show is ready to open. It never fails. And so it is also for the newly opened Whistler and Roussel: Linked Visions. The exhibition illustrates the decade-long professional collaboration of James McNeill Whistler and Theodore Roussel and includes 175 etchings, lithographs, drawings, and paintings. The exhibition is also complemented by works from the artists’ networks, including the painting above.

When I saw images of Whistler, I found myself saying out loud, “I feel like I know this guy! There is something so familiar about him!” Sure, he is quite fashionable for his time, possessing that je ne sais quoi, but the personality is one I felt I knew intimately. I could hear him cracking wise while he struck a bold pose, being a show-off, yet the glint in his eye told me he knows he is a bit ridiculous. “I know this guy! But how?!” It finally came to me when standing in front of the Walter Greaves portrait of the artist. . . he is Frank Zappa!

What a relief to finally understand my reaction to Whistler’s likeness. “Frank Zappa is Whistler’s doppelgänger!” I declared it to all who would listen, with great satisfaction. Alas, I was not alone in finding Whistler familiar. A fellow staff member overheard a museum visitor saying, “Who does Whistler remind me of? Hmmm… I think it’s Johnny Depp!” Maybe, although I would argue Depp is missing the edginess of Whistler and Zappa. One of our Conservation Fellows brought some friends to see the exhibition, and offered me full validation when unsolicited, one of the friends, seeing Whistler’s portrait exclaimed, “He looks like Frank Zappa!” Another visitor, with a French accent, was heard saying of Roussel’s portrait, “He looks like Jeremy Irons.”  

The familiar appeal of these two gentlemen is apparently global and this celebrity “sighting” has reignited a trend in our department, with previous sightings including Bill Murray and Paul Giamatti. So the pursuit of more doppelgängers is now in full swing. Happy hunting, and be sure to share what you snag!

—Judith Broggi, Department Coordinator of Prints and Drawings

Image Credit: Walter Greaves. James McNeill Whistler, 1869. A.A. Munger Collection.

Insider’s Look: Russell Collett

July 8, 2015 - 11:09am

Russell Collett, the Art Institute’s Associate Vice President for Protection Services describes the museum’s multi-layered security approach as “both overt and covert.” And he should know. In addition to his years at the Art Institute, he spent 25 years with the Secret Service.

Russell was recently profiled in the museum’s Member Magazine and discusses what it’s like to ride on Air Force One and if the museum has any plans to reinstate the German Shepherds that used to help guard our building. Here is an excerpt from his interview, as well as a few additional fun facts. . .

You have had high-profile jobs in the past, such as working for the Secret Service. How has that prepared you for working at the Art Institute of Chicago?

I was trained from my first day at the Secret Service to build a prevention-based environment. We always look at preventing crime and preventing an attack on our people or assets. Today, that same goal is on my mind every day—to empower my team and all museum staff to build that prevention-based, forward-thinking, collaborative model. Security is everybody’s responsibility.

There are actually a lot of similarities between the Secret Service and the museum in terms of tradition, history, the mission of the people who work there, and collaboration. I spent 10 of my 25+ years with the Secret Service at the White House. It’s a museum in and of itself, and it is constantly hosting dignitaries and events. Here at the museum, we host 1,300 events a year. Being able to work collaboratively with the folks who plan these successful events is similar to the work I did at the White House.

It’s also similar from a facilities standpoint. The White House has its own curator, engineers, electricians, painters, housekeeping, gardeners, and contractors. All those folks work together on the daily operations of the White House, just as we do here.

What would surprise people about working for the Secret Service?

It’s not always as glamorous as it seems. You’d be surprised at how boring it is sometimes. It’s a 24/7/365 job, and no matter where you are, there’s somebody standing outside a door in the middle of the night protecting a president or dignitary, walking a patrol, or manning a command center. It’s similar to what we do here—our department secures our people and facilities the same way.

What’s one of your favorite perks of being an Art Institute staff member?

Being able to walk through the museum alone before the doors open to the public and to be in the presence of history. Our department brand is “protecting history.” Each of us has this ability and obligation to play a part.

What’s the most important security tip for people’s homes?

Lock your doors. Keep an emergency supply kit and have a plan. Check on your elderly neighbors and trust your gut.

What’s a movie or television show that gets the security profession totally wrong? The West Wing? Homeland? Night at the Museum? White House Down? First Kid?

No profession is ever portrayed with complete accuracy, but when it comes to accuracy in the White House, The West Wing got it totally wrong with all the walking. The White House isn’t that big. The characters would walk for minutes going from the Oval Office to the Cabinet Room exchanging rapid-fire conversation, and the two rooms were actually steps from each other. Also, the White House press room is a lot smaller than it appears on television.

You are the proud father of triplet daughters. Is working at the Art Institute more or less challenging than raising triplets?

It’s about the same. Our girls were born literally one minute apart but they are so different. So are the people who come through our doors. I get to interact with a diverse group of people—members and guests with various stages of knowledge about art. It’s all about the customer experience.

 

On Wall Colors and Wine

June 19, 2015 - 10:12am

Museum visitors may be wondering what’s coming next in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman and Byzantine Art. Here’s a peek behind the screens where Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections was recently deinstalled.

Our next exhibition, Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints, opens on July 11 and these deep red walls will host not only the ancient Greco-Roman sculpture that usually frequents this space, but also artworks from the Department of Prints and Drawings based on ancient sculptural sources, some with a gap of 1,500 years between them!

For this innovative, interdepartmental collaboration, we chose the wall color, evocatively titled “cranberry cocktail,” to celebrate the hero of our exhibition, Dionysos, god of wine and theater. And here Dionysos is, in an amazing Hellenistic or Roman bronze sculpture from 100 BC to 100 AD. This fantastic long-term loan appears front and center at the crossroads between the Michigan Avenue building, the Rice Building, and the Modern Wing.

The construction you see behind Dionysos is the building of a large temporary wall that will control the natural light so we can include 15th and 16th-century prints in all galleries of the Dionysos Unmasked exhibition. While the space looks much different than it did with windows backing the sculpture, we hope this temporary change will make our visitors curious about other ways of looking at our encyclopedic collection across departmental boundaries.

With the epically-proportioned and classically-inspired Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014 exhibition down the hall in the Modern Wing until October 4, we’ll have plenty to compare.

Paintings Make the Best Tour Guides

June 5, 2015 - 2:12pm

In the wildly popular HBO television series Game of Thrones, the dramatic landscapes match the high drama that plays out on screen. Many of the show’s most memorable scenes are shot on location in Northern Ireland—its rugged terrain, remote beaches, romantic ruins, and tempestuous weather offer the ideal setting for the often grim but always thrilling fantasy. Fans of the show from around the world have taken note and are flocking to key film sites, spurring a robust tourism industry.

That seeing a beautiful vista on screen might make you want to experience the place for yourself is hardly surprising, and thanks to success stories like Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland and The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies in New Zealand, travel marketers and tourism boards the world over are looking to brand through television and movies. But long before the advent of film, savvy artists and entrepreneurs marketed Ireland’s scenic beauty to well-heeled travelers through paintings, engravings, and even cartographic board games, examples of which can be seen in Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840.

Early views of Ireland in art were generally detailed drawings of major cities and ports made by draftsmen and mapmakers, but by the mid-eighteenth century, a growing appreciation for nature and a rising interest in landscape aesthetics saw an increase in site-specific works of the Irish countryside.

Landowners often commissioned paintings depicting the scenery around their stately homes. In the case of the view of Killarney shown above, local landowner Lord Kenmare and the self-taught artist Jonathan Fisher collaborated to produce a series of large paintings, which Fisher then turned into a book of engravings called A Picturesque Tour of Killarney. The book included specific instructions on how to view the lake from the best possible vantage points and was in high demand with both wealthy sightseers and those who could not make it to Killarney but sought a vicarious experience.

Another tourist locale in eighteenth-century Ireland made more popular by picturesque engravings was the Giant’s Causeway, a geological wonder on the island’s northeast coast in what is now Northern Ireland. The engravings seen below are based on paintings by Irish artist Susanna Drury, who is said to have spent three months living in the Causeway area while she completed her meticulous pictures. The equally-detailed engravings by François Vivares received wide European circulation.

Ireland’s popularity as a tourist destination was made manifest when Walker’s Tour through Ireland: A New Geographical Pastime was published in 1812. This map board game had players take turns progressing around the country from Dublin by spinning a top-like device called a totum and following a carefully constructed route of what were deemed the island’s must-see towns, estates, and landscapes. To win, a player had to land directly on place number 113, the “bold and romantic” Giant’s Causeway.

Whether eighteenth-century painters or twenty-first-century filmmakers, artists and in turn, tourists, have been inspired by the Irish landscape for centuries. If a trip across the pond is not in the cards, come be inspired by Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design before it closes June 21.

Image Credits:

Thomas Sautelle Roberts. Stormy Landscape with Anglers, c. 1820. Private Collection.

Jonathan Fisher. A View of the Lakes of Killarney from the Park of Kenmare House, c. 1768. Private Collection.

Francois Vivares (Engraver). The East and West Prospects of the Giant’s Causeway, Co. Antrim, May 1, 1777. Rolf and Magda Loeber.

Published by William Darton Jr. Walker’s Tour through Ireland: A New Geographical Pastime, Published March 9, 1812. Rolf and Magda Loeber.

Go Hawks!

June 3, 2015 - 4:30pm

The first game of the Stanley Cup Final is tonight and the lions are ready!

As always, when a Chicago sports team makes it to the championship game/series, our mighty lions are adorned with helmets or jerseys in support of our hometown team. This morning, the lions were outfitted with Blackhawks helmets and as you can imagine, it’s quite a process. Scroll below to see images of our south lion getting dressed for the big series. Go Hawks!


First scaffolding is put into place. . .

The helmet is placed on a lift. . .

It’s lifted above the height of the lion. . .

Then carefully placed on the lion’s head. . .

It’s adjusted and secured. . .

And after a few finishing touches. . .

Installation is complete!

Fun Facts: Paris Street; Rainy Day

May 22, 2015 - 2:17pm

Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day is not only one of the museum’s foremost Impressionist masterpieces, it’s also a visitor favorite. And while many are familiar with the very Impressionist focus on light and weather and the modern subjects, there are probably a few bits of trivia that have escaped even our most devout followers. Read on for some fun facts and behind-the-scenes information:

– It was painted in 1877 and purchased by the Art Institute in 1964. In the years between, it was primarily owned by Caillebotte descendants, but was acquired in the 1950s by Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., the son of the scion who founded the Chrysler organization and financed New York’s Chrysler Building.

– The painting was first exhibited at the Impressionist exhibition in 1877, which Caillebotte largely organized and financed. The Art Institute’s own Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare by Monet also appeared in the exhibition.

– In 2014, Art Institute conservator Faye Wrubel began to remove varnish that was added some time in the mid-20th century. Check out our video to see her process and some surprising results, including the realization that what we thought was a pearl earring, we now believe to be a diamond.

– Caillebotte was not only one of the foremost Impressionist artists, he was also an esteemed collector. In fact, when he died, he gave his collection to the French nation and the pieces now form the backbone of the Impressionist collection at the Musée d’Orsay.

– The couple walking in the foreground of the painting is strolling down the rue de Turin, which intersects with the rue de Moscou immediately behind them. This intersection still exists today and looks remarkably similar.

– Caillebotte owned property in this neighborhood and his friend and fellow artist Edouard Manet lived less than five minutes from this intersection.

This monumental painting currently greets visitors when they enter the museum’s Impressionist galleries, but it’s about to leave Chicago for a short time for an upcoming exhibition devoted to the artist. In advance of its departure in mid-June, we invite you to revisit this masterpiece and test out some of your new knowledge on your friends/family/fellow visitors!

Image Credit: Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877. Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection.

 

Powerful Prints: Warrior Saints and Holy Kings

May 20, 2015 - 10:40am

In the Buddhist Japanese and Christian European traditions, historical religious figures could be just as effective miracle workers after their deaths as when they were alive. Posthumous miracles due to a saint’s intercession were in fact required for Catholic canonization. The touch of a relic torn from their martyred bodies could cure illnesses, but sometimes even the sight of a modest printed image of a holy person could do the same.

Two prints illustrating this idea appear side-by-side for the first time in the interdepartmental Asian Art and Prints and Drawings exhibition Spreading Devotion: Japanese and European Religious Prints (on view in Gallery 107 until June 21), showing how the fascination with holy figures extended far beyond their lifetimes, and well beyond anyone remembering their true likenesses. Though sometimes said to have intrinsic healing powers, these powerful images did not always celebrate healing, instead glorifying righteous, bloody conquests. Warrior saints and kings could be equally renowned for their tactical prowess, real, or imagined.

The tall print above is a 17th-century woodcut of the sword-wielding Heavenly King Indra, which was printed much later, around 1845, and mounted as a hanging scroll. The other, horizontal composition (below) is a detailed engraving from 15th-century Germany showing Saint James the Greater—who is also armed to the teeth—routing a Turkish army in an imaginary battle in Spain 800 hundred years after his death around AD 44.

The woodcut is said to have originated from the hand of the monk Nichiren, founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism in the thirteenth century. According to legend, he carved a woodblock with a crude image of his patron deity, the god Indra, holding a sword. The block was rediscovered at Daikyōji temple in Shibamata near Tokyo in 1779; during a famine in 1783, ninth-generation head priest Nikkyo carried this woodblock around in the streets, and it had healing effects. The image became famous, with smaller versions sold to pilgrims to the Daikyōji Temple.  Many versions of the print exist. The Art Institute’s print is believed to have been made from the oldest surviving woodblock of the image from the 17th century, and carries the signature and ciphers of the 12th generation head priest Nikki (1800-1859), and the next priest Nittei, who became the head priest in 1845.

In contrast, the engraving showing Saint James in the middle of a battle that never occurred was itself not known to have performed any miracles. Yet the scallop shell on James’s hat refers to the pilgrimage his many devotees made to visit his relics at Compostela, Spain, after making their penitent way through much of Europe. The saint initially became the patron of Spain in part because of his supposed role in driving the Turkish army out of that country. While this print lacks the personal seals of its printers as seen in the Indra print, the signature at the bottom, M+S, suggests it was made by the famous German engraver Martin Schongauer (active 1470s-90s). This association, like the fictitious subject matter, is not entirely trustworthy; in fact most scholars agree that it was done by others in Schongauer’s workshop, who adopted his style and signature.

Whether medieval, 17th, or even 19th century in origin, these rare prints show us the fervor of belief in both cultures, as well as the common desire to be able to own a piece of the history of these charismatic, dangerous, and above all, holy, individuals.

Spreading Devotion: Japanese and European Religious Prints was curated collaboratively by Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, and Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings.

After Nichiren. Heavenly King Indra, 17th century, printed around 1845, gift of Martin A. Ryerson.

School of Martin Schongauer, Saint James at the Battle of Clavijo, late 15th century, bequest of Mrs. Potter Palmer, Jr.

Insider’s Look

May 18, 2015 - 2:55pm

James Rondeau, is the Art Institute’s Dittmer Chair and Curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art and the exhibition curator of the recently opened Charles Ray: Sculpture, He recently spoke with our Member Magazine about some of his earliest artistic memories and why you shouldn’t be intimidated by contemporary art.

Do you remember when you were first drawn to art?

My mother was a Sunday painter, so I remember growing up with her paintings around the house, and I have strong memories of the occasional visit to Boston or New York museums for “blockbuster” exhibitions of Egyptian or Impressionist art. But it was not until college that I was alerted to art history as a discipline.

If you could pick one piece from the Art Institute’s collection for your office, what would it be?

Impossible. One of the great things about my job is that the quality and depth of our collection makes any such game of favorites truly beside the point. Yes, we are proud of our singular masterpieces, but our greatness comes as a whole that is more than the sum of its individual parts.

What were some of the installation challenges with “Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014″?

Every challenge presents an opportunity to learn more about the artist’s work and about our own museum, its incredible possibilities, and its occasional limitations. In this case, the extreme weight of some of Ray’s sculptures presented real challenges. Working with our colleagues in the Department of Design and Construction alongside a team of outside structural engineers, we were able to solve most every issue.

The Art Institute has been committed to collecting contemporary art since its founding. When the museum was first established, Monet was a contemporary artist. Do you feel any kind of pressure given this legacy, being responsible for finding the Monets of today?

Not pressure per se, but a great sense of responsibility. It’s useful to remember that all great art was once contemporary. To be sure, part of our mandate is to embrace the experimental and not to be afraid of risk. That said, we know who we are as an institution, we know our history, and we know the context we provide to artists and objects. All of this makes us different from many of our peer institutions that only collect contemporary art. Hopefully an understanding of these distinctions informs the decisions we make in the most positive sense.

You get to work with living artists. What’s one thing that would surprise people about the foremost artists of today?

Surprise? Not sure. But almost without exception, I am struck by the confluence of great artistic talent with incredibly agile, open, challenging minds and kind and generous personalities. That said, great artists can also be tough. They keep us on our toes.

You curated a major exhibition of the work of the artist and director Steve McQueen the year before he won the Oscar for Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave. Is this a rare crossover or the shape of things to come?

Steve is one of the great artists of his generation working with the moving image. We have presented his work twice here, first in a small exhibition in 2002 and then again with the survey we organized in 2012. I am proud that we recognized his talent early and then showed it in depth. Increasingly, artists who work with media move between formats (film, video, digital) and modes of distribution (the art gallery, the museum, the movie theater, television, the Internet). This fluidity makes things exciting but also makes identifying the differences between “art” and the “everyday” more of a challenge, possibly even irrelevant.

Some people try but struggle with contemporary art. What is your response to that?

Go with your instincts, but most contemporary art emerges from a basic paradox: because it sometimes does not look like traditional forms of expression, we find it alienating or off-putting. But precisely the opposite is intended. The revolutionary freedom inherent in contemporary art—the expanded set of possibilities for what a work of art can look like, how it can function, who can make it, and for what purposes—is meant to be both liberating and welcoming. Hopefully, we can find such an open field exciting rather than vexing.

Which would go best—a hearty red or crisp white wine—with work by the following artists: Roy Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, Ed Paschke, Jackson Pollock, and John Chamberlain?

At least one glass of each.

Orange and Green and Everything in Between

May 6, 2015 - 2:44pm

In March, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 opened at the museum. While the century and a half the exhibition covers is noted as one of relative peace and stability in Ireland, the era was not without its conflicts. About a hundred years after the Battle of the Boyne, an unexpected group of revolutionaries led a major uprising against British rule.

But first, some background. Despite the adage that nothing is black and white, when it comes to historical conflict, we tend to divide those involved into distinct oppositions rather than consider the innumerable subtleties. Such is the case with Ireland, where popular perception of the political and religious division is not black and white, but green and orange.

This cut and dried dichotomy is embodied in Ireland’s national flag (first introduced in 1848), with green representing republicanism, or the tenet that all of Ireland should be an independent republic, and orange representing the supporters of William of Orange and those who felt Ireland should remain subject to Great Britain. Similarly but less militantly, green is also tied to Irish nationalism—the advocacy of a united Ireland and the promotion of Irish culture and language—and orange to unionism, or the belief that Ireland should retain political ties to Great Britain. Each color is also associated with the majority religion on either side—green for Catholics and orange for Protestants. The white at the flag’s center signifies the hope for lasting peace between the two groups.

Green versus orange, republican versus loyalist, nationalist versus unionist, Catholic versus Protestant—these are the dualities that have come to define Ireland’s divisive past, but as the Irish Rebellion of 1798 demonstrates, no conflict is so straightforward.

The 1798 rebellion was a major bid for Ireland’s independence first set in motion not by the Catholic majority but by a group of liberal Protestants who sought to “abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen.” Founded in Belfast in 1791, they were fittingly called the Society of United Irishmen, and their membership crossed religious and class divides to include Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and even some members of the Protestant Ascendancy (those Anglican aristocratic families whose authority in Ireland was solidified by William’s victory at the Boyne).

Inspired by the recent revolutions in France and America, the Society’s main ambitions were radical reform of the Irish parliament and Catholic emancipation. The British government—at war with France and increasingly concerned with the prospect of invasion—felt the United Irishmen’s progressive principles and brazen veneration of the French posed a dangerous threat. Society membership was made illegal, and the United Irishmen were forced underground where they began to plan an armed revolt for independence with French support.

Fighting broke out in May of 1798, but due to a series of mishaps and divided leadership, the rebellion was swiftly and ruthlessly defeated. In response, the Act of Union was passed in 1800, which officially united Great Britain and Ireland, closed Irish parliament, and returned all governing decisions to Westminster in London..

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was very much a “green”—i.e. republican—cause, but its leaders were almost entirely Protestant; a fact that was obscured for many years in Ireland to suit popular versions of history. Several men of this period who defy the color categorization appear in our exhibition:

Charles Cornwallis was a decorated British general who was appointed lord lieutenant—the highest post in Ireland —in the wake of the rebellion. Cornwallis helped pass the Act of Union but pushed King George for Catholic rights. He resigned when his requests went unheeded, but his actions laid the groundwork for future emancipation movements.

Henry Grattan was a Protestant aristocrat, Irish politician, and renowned orator who devoted his career to Irish legislative freedom and Catholic emancipation.

Visit the exhibition to see these men’s likenesses and learn more about the whole spectrum of Ireland’s colorful history.

—Anna Decatur, Assistant Director of Principal Gifts

Image Credits:

Dublin, Ireland. Dublin Castle Pattern 1769 Short Land Musket with Bayonet, 1770-75. Walnut, iron/steel, and brass. Private Collection.

Hugh Douglas Hamilton. Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, 1772. Pastel and chalk on paper. Private Collection.

Peter Turnerelli. Henry Grattan, 1820. Marble. Private Collection.

Conservation FAQs

April 30, 2015 - 9:59pm

Earlier this week, painting conservator Allison Langley began working on Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl in full view of the Art Institute’s visitors. And as you might imagine, our visitors have LOTS of questions. So to ensure that Allison can get some work done over the next few months, we’ve included some FAQs below.

Please feel free to add any additional questions you might have in the comments and click here for details about the conservation of this monumental painting.

Q. How many conservators are there at the Art Institute?

A. It’s a large department, in part divided by categories of artworks. There are 17 conservators, 3 conservation scientists, and a team of interns and fellows. The conservators are spread across 6 different areas: paintings, objects (sculpture), works on paper, photography, books, and textiles. They examine, research, and restore the works in the collection, and generally monitor the condition of the artworks in the museum’s galleries and storage to ensure their long-term preservation. The conservation scientists work across all the departments, and they study the materials, processes, and techniques used by artists, right down to the analysis of individual paint samples and particles. It’s helpful to think of the conservators as surgeons and the conservation scientists as the pathologists. Of course all of the conservators and conservation scientists work closely with the curators on the research and treatment.

Q. What sort of training and background do museum conservators have?

A. Very extensive and very technical! Conservators are first required to have studied studio art, art history, and chemistry at the undergraduate level as a pre-requisite for entering a graduate program to study art conservation. There are 3 such programs in the United States and several in Europe and Canada from which conservators receive a postgraduate Master’s degree. The programs are small—5-10 people per year—and it generally takes 3 or 4 years to complete the degree, depending on the program. Multi-year internships, and hands-on experiences, are the critical last steps for a conservator’s training.

Q. How do you decide which artworks need to get treated?

A. These decisions are the result of an ongoing dialogue among the museum’s conservators and curators in which a variety of factors come into play. Treatment priority is generally given to stabilization and structural treatments to extend the life of the artwork. In other instances the decision to treat a painting may be driven by aesthetic issues.  The schedule of the work is often determined by exhibition priorities, such as another institution requesting the painting for an exhibition (as is the case with Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl).

Q. How long does the treatment of a painting usually take?

A. The time of treatment varies widely and really depends on the size and condition of the work of art and the type of treatment needed. For example, research on and treatment of Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River took a few years, as is our current work on a medieval Spanish altarpiece [link to that post]. Sometimes simple treatments last just a few hours or days, like the work on Magritte’s Time Transfixed. The cleaning [link to video] of Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, which was done in preparation of that painting’s loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. lasted for about a year.

Q. How often are paintings treated and/or cleaned?

A. The goal is to treat a painting as infrequently as possible. And we do lots of upkeep—for example, we regularly dust the works in the galleries, just as you would dust the objects in your house. But anything more than that is done on an as-needed basis. When a work is cleaned and treated, we aim to have the treatment last 50-100 years, or more.

Q. Where do you take the x-rays and other technical images?

A. We actually have an x-ray unit—just like at the hospital—here at the museum, and conservators using it stand behind lead screens. We also use medical and industrial x-ray film that we process and develop in-house. We then scan the film and make composite images as a road map for the treatment of a particular work. The Picabia painting, for example, required 96 sheets of 14×17 x-ray film and 5 hours to complete. Many additional hours will be required to digitize the images and assemble a seamless mosaic composite.

Q. Do the x-rays harm the artwork?

A. No, they don’t. The x-rays have very low levels of radiation.

Q. What is varnish?

A. Varnish is a clear resin coating applied to the surface of a work of art. Artists from the medieval era through the 19th century have used varnish on their paintings. Medieval artists used an egg mixture as a “finishing” layer; and resin-based (and now synthetic resin) varnishes came into more common use in later eras. The Impressionists were among the first artists to stop using varnish regularly, though collectors and dealers often varnished their works afterward. Varnish is applied mainly to achieve a particular aesthetic effect. It deepens and intensifies colors and usually adds gloss to the surface.

When it comes to Impressionist and Modern paintings, much of the work of the conservator is focused on removing varnish from paintings that were never meant to have it. Varnish can change color and contrast relationships, throwing them out of balance and subverting the artist’s intentions.  Removing varnish in these cases helps to re-establish the correct relationships and returns the surface to a more matte appearance. This is especially important with large paintings because a less reflective surface enables the viewer to see the whole of the painting without the interference of reflections.

Q. Isn’t the daylight bad for the painting?

A. It’s actually the UV light in daylight that is the most harmful for paintings, as it is for your skin. As a result, we use UV-blocking film on the windows throughout the museum to filter out the harmful light, and actively monitor light levels throughout the museum.

Q. How long will the painting be in this gallery?

A. We estimate that the work will be done in late September.

Q. Where will it go when it is finished?

A. When Allison has completed the painting’s treatment, it will return “home” to the third floor galleries of the Modern Wing. In the summer of 2016 it will travel to Zurich and then New York City as part of a major Picabia retrospective exhibition.

Q. How long has the treatment been going on?

A. Since the fall of 2014. The first phase, which required a ventilation system for the use of cleaning solvents took place in the conservation labs from September 2014 to March of this year. In April we moved the painting to its current location.

Q. Why is the conservator not here all day long?

A. Conservators have many projects and the Picabia treatment is one of several that Allison is currently working on.  She also performs regular preventive care for other works in the collection.

Q. How will the conservator reach the top half of the painting?

A. We will turn the painting upside down. We promise that Allison will not be suspended from the ceiling to work on the painting!

Q. What are those weird glasses on her head?

A. They are magnifying glasses that are referred to as “head loupes,” like a jeweler would wear.

Q. What is the small machine with nozzles and vents next to her?

A. That’s an air purifier to ensure that the solvents and pigments that she’s using do not spread beyond the workspace.

Image Credit: Painting conservator Allison Langley working on Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic), 1913. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Armand Bartos.

On the Move: Picabia

April 29, 2015 - 2:40pm

Painting conservation usually happens in the museum’s conservation studios, but this spring and summer, museum visitors are in for a special treat. In a first-of-its-kind public demonstration, conservation work on Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl (pronounced ed-town-easel) will be performed in full view of museum visitors at the base of the spiral staircase in the Art Institute’s Morton Wing.

Now don’t get us wrong, we love making our visitors happy, but that’s not why we’re staging conservation in this location. Rather, this step of the extensive conservation treatment calls for natural light—lots and lots of natural light. So the painting moved today from the Modern Wing to one of the museum’s most sun-drenched spaces, Gallery 135, just outside the gallery of Indian art of the Americas.

We’ll have much more on the conservation of Edtaonisl in the coming weeks, but for now we wanted to take you on the painting’s journey through the museum as it moved to its new temporary home.

It began its trek through the Modern Wing’s Griffin Court. . .

then carefully rolled through the Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan Art. . .

made its way through the Asian Art galleries. . .

until it reached its light-filled home in the Morton Wing.

Now Open—Chatter: Architecture Talks Back

April 24, 2015 - 5:08pm

Chatter: Architecture Talks Back, open now in the Modern Wing’s Architecture and Design galleries, explores the work of five contemporary architects and their responses to the history of the practice. As you explore the exhibition, you’ll discover the compound meaning of its title: first, and most presently, chatter describes the impact of modern communication on the practice of architecture. Architects are using (and trying to make sense of) Twitter, Instagram, texting, Yik Yak, Snapchat, Whisper, and Yo* just as much as the rest of us. The open-ended conversation they create is what’s featured in the exhibition (you won’t find too many of the standard models and plans you might expect to see in an architecture exhibition here—come to see video, drawings, photography, and application design instead). Chatter documents the exploration of these modes of communication as they impact and interpret current architectural thought.

The next meaning of chatter describes how these practitioners respond to the history of architecture—a conversation across generations. For instance, Jimenez Lai of Bureau Spectacular uses cartoon-like drawings to directly reference the content and style of legendary Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman. Erin Besler confronts unorthodox methods of representation by interpreting Peter Eisenman’s seminal Fourteen Transformations using robotic drawing and 3D modeling. A number of works from the Art Institute’s holdings of Architecture and Design are on display to emphasize and illustrate this dialogue with the past.

The Chatter galleries also house an installation by Iker Gil of the journal MAS Context, featuring the work of a global array of design thinkers. Visit the exhibition on Saturday, May 16 to participate in a roundtable discussion of how we communicate about architecture. I.e., chat about Chatter. *Full discosure: Yo, Yik Yak, Snapchat, and Whisper are not actually mentioned anywhere in this exhibition. Full disclosure, part 2: I am not sure what all of these services do.