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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.

Work of the Week: French Anteroom of the Empire Period

August 22, 2014 - 4:37pm

This Thorne Miniature Room was designed in the haute Empire style, reflecting the lavish and elaborate Neoclassical tastes of Napoleon, the reigning emperor. The green Roman columns on the walls, the use of materials like marble and simulated gilded bronze, and the stately severity of the lines were all hallmarks of this architectural and decorative style.

And there are Napoleonic references everywhere. Emblems related to the emperor—like eagles, bees, laurel wreaths, and the letter “N”— were often included  in rooms like this one. In this case, check out the laurel wreaths in the ornamentation above each set of doors. A bust of Napoleon also watches over the room from the mantle and as you look down the fireplace in the detail below, you’ll see images of the sphinx, which also pop up on chairs and tables throughout the room. According to Mrs. Thorne (who conceived of the rooms) herself, Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt resulted in “a perfect orgy of Egyptian design.”

The bold colors also reflect the prevailing style of the early 19th century. Color schemes that included gold, black, and crimson were popular and in this room, the niche is painted in Pompeiian red and the chairs and curtains in a shade of green called “Empire.” The rug was also copied for a portfolio of designs for rugs that Napoleon commissioned for the palace of Fontainebleau.

But style often comes at a price. As Mrs. Thorne said, “It lacks [a] livable quality, but it is 100 percent Napoleonic, and that is what I was striving for.”

Image Credit: Mrs. James Ward Thorne. E-26: French Anteroom of the Empire Period, c. 1810, c. 1937. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

A View from Below, Part Four

August 20, 2014 - 11:05am

Sophie and I are now in our fourth year of touring the Art Institute’s galleries together. It’s my favorite annual event because she continues to force me to see something I’ve already seen a hundred times in a new way. . . which is exactly what the Surrealists—and especially Magritte—strove to do in their own work.

Magritte wanted to—in his own words—make “everyday objects shriek out loud” and encourage the viewer to continually question the world around them. One of the ways he accomplished this was by keeping some mystery around the narratives in his paintings and letting the viewer use their own ideas, associations, and opinions to develop a story. Sophie loved the fact that Magritte didn’t give anything away and had no problems imagining what might be taking place. She told me tales of acrobatic mangoes and flying turtles and candles turning into snakes.

She also extended her narratives outside the art. In The Secret Player (home of the aforementioned flying turtle), she invented a character off the left side of the painting who was throwing a ball to the men pictured. This makes complete sense as you look at the painting—the figures in white are looking off in that direction, tensed as if they’re waiting for something—but I had never thought to go outside the canvas, to think about what else is out there in Magritte’s strange world.

And so as you visit Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 this summer, I encourage you to think like Sophie and let your imagination run wild. It’s what Magritte would have wanted, after all.

Renaissance Wrestling Matches and Colorful Codpieces

August 15, 2014 - 12:16pm

In early 16th-century Germany, the elite youth turned to wrestling coaches for necessary life skills including lessons in dexterity, elegance, and sportsmanship, not to mention the helpful ability to break arms when actual weapons weren’t at hand. A recent gift to the Art Institute of Chicago from the drawing, book, and print collector Dorothy Edinburg celebrates all these things, and you can page through it in its entirety online here! The book will eventually be on permanent display near the arms and armor in our upcoming reinstallation of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries.

Lucas Cranach the Younger’s masterful woodcuts from 1539 delight in showing grappling bodies in motion in this exceedingly rare Renaissance wrestling handbook, Ringerkunst, or The Art of Wrestling. Fabian von Auerswald, the then seventy-five year old wrestling master of the Duke of Saxony (whose arms appear on the title page) wrote the text. He refers to the images as “artistic and amusing paintings,” and presumably oversaw the production of these designs for the woodcuts of the eighty-five different wrestling holds, given their specificity and accompanying step-by-step instructions. Even at his advanced age, Auerswald is shown subduing significantly younger opponents through his superior footwork and knowledge of advanced techniques. An ode to the nobility of unarmed combat, the aristocratic youths seeking to learn this art appear well-heeled and expensively garbed. None appear to have suffered the last resort Auerswald described on the verso of page D1, the “not very companionable” option of stressing or even breaking the occasional limb to get out of a stranglehold (such as the one seen on the verso of page C6). Indeed, he reasserts at the end of the introduction that the book (and the wrestling moves it teaches) are guaranteed to please, stating, “A good fellow who ventures to wrestle boldly and well cannot fail.” This particular copy was bound later in seventeenth-century leather, but is otherwise almost unblemished, a pristine (if not heavily consulted) and beautifully printed testament to Auerswald’s art.

In contrast, at least one copy of the book survives in resplendent color (Walker Library, Connecticut), though it is not known whether the color was applied by the seller or the purchaser.  Given the sumptuous outfits the wrestlers sport in each successive contortion, it seems only fitting to imagine their doublets, leggings, and even codpieces arrayed in jewel tones.  Indeed, amateur colorists were rampant in the early sixteenth century.  A didactic woodcut showing ways to measure distances on foot in an example of Peter Apian’s Cosmographia of 1524, which now resides here in Chicago at the Newberry Library, demonstrates the care with which the book’s owner colored in the codpiece and other details:

While the Art Institute’s gift shop is unlikely to offer an Art of Wrestling reprint as a coloring book to a new generation, screenshots of the digital version can serve in a pinch.  If you can stay within the lines, send us a picture.  Or even better, have fun recreating some of the poses, bearing in mind the immortal words of the girl who “Cain’t Say No” in Oklahoma!:  “Every time I lose a wrestling match, I get a funny feeling that I’ve won!”

Colorful codpieces optional.

Image Credit: Courtesy The Newberry Library, Chicago. Call # Vault 7 .A7 1524.

Unthinking Admission

August 13, 2014 - 3:12pm

A teacup set too close to the edge of a table, bumping into a teacher at the grocery store, walking into a room and forgetting what you were supposed to be doing there. . . these situations can evoke a feeling of strange unease. The teacup might fall and break! Teachers exist outside of the classroom? Why am I here again?

And I find that looking at a Surrealist artwork can give a similar uncomfortable sensation. Which is kind of the point. Surrealists strove to present absurd, fantastic, unreal ideas to people. They wanted to put all of the crazy thoughts and images floating around in people’s minds out into the world, which resulted in strange, weird, and even unnerving images.

In this spirit of surrealism and inspired by the museum’s current Magritte exhibition, we wanted to invite people to engage in an activity fitting the theme of Magritte’s paintings: Surrealist Pricing. Instead of paying for a ticket to the museum, we asked guests to bring in objects of surrealism in exchange for free admission to the museum’s Magritte exhibition.

On July 24th, people were (ma)greeted at the Monroe entrance by museum interns and Teen Council members ready to accept their items. Some people brought in art, some brought in cans. One person gave a giant beach ball! At the end of the night, there were carts full of knick knacks, art, and various everyday items that had been exchanged for tickets to the exhibition.

Then last Thursday night, all of the objects we received (all 490 of them!) were put on display during a one night pop-up event. The Teen Council members worked with the Magritte exhibition’s curatorial team to set up and arrange the objects. Some of my favorite pieces included: foreign currency, a cat’s bed, a wallet complete with ID, credit cards, and $23 (the price of regular museum admission), a broken cookie jar, decorated shoes, a ladle, a shovel, and a stuffed bear made into a musical instrument.

And at the end of the night, all these seemingly ordinary objects combined together for one very surreal display.

—Stephanie Zhao, Museum Education Intern