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Fashion Photography as a Battleground

July 16, 2014 - 8:00am

Relatively recent films and television shows like Pret á Porter, Ugly Betty, and The Devil Wears Prada offer extreme views of publishing in the fashion world. Fraught with danger, conflict, and misadventures, the stakes seem unnaturally high for each glossy issue. And yet, aspects of Edward Steichen’s influential take on modern fashion photography could be said to have originated in the very real, international conflict of World War I. Sharp, Clear Pictures: Edward Steichen’s World War I and Condé Nast Years, a fascinating show now open in the Art Institute’s Galleries 1-4, maps the ways the artist’s outlook on photography changed after becoming deeply involved in establishing an aerial photography program for the U.S. military during World War I.

Steichen started out the early twentieth century as an Alfred Stieglitz protégé, perhaps most memorably photographing Auguste Rodin in Paris in an evocatively lit haze, sitting in profile opposite his statue of The Thinker. This image is nonetheless a key opening to Sharp, Clear Pictures, as Rodin had a connection to the important album of aerial photographs Steichen assembled after the war, and which makes up about half of the exhibition. Indeed, Steichen inscribed this book of over 80 views of artillery-damaged European towns to a friend whose family included some of Rodin’s major patrons.

The book has been disbound, so visitors can see all the album sheets with his handwritten captions in the order Steichen assembled them in 1919. This was just after he left his position as commander of the Photographic Section for the United States Army Expeditionary Forces Air Service. The approach varies, from comparisons between oblique and vertical shots of bombed-out locations with “practically not a roof left in the town,” to masked-out and collaged negatives honing in on specific enemy locations and airport installations. In several cases, the images have been juxtaposed and spliced together, often out of necessity to give the illusion that planes could fly high enough to take in larger expanses, with jagged edges rimmed with black borders. Although Steichen and his colleagues borrowed this technical approach from the French and British, he also seems to have utilized the same idea of image construction in publishing later on. In two intriguing instances in the show alone, he produced a double spread for a magazine by taking two separate pictures with a similar center, which allowed him to splice them together and crop the overall image to his liking. It also allowed him to reuse his favorite models on both sides of the page, or as in a fashion shoot from a biblical musical show, to double the size of the cast of singers by reorganizing them from the left to the right! Interestingly, one of the few sheets in the album that is not aerial photography taken under his command is a fashion plate of sorts, involving a caricature of officers making fun of each others’ uniforms. Its inclusion may have been arbitrary, or an attempt at comic relief, but it would be in fashion that Steichen found his next muse.

Similarly honing his skills, Steichen made several self-portraits over the years, including one from 1917 before heading to war-torn Europe.  Although he probably did not in the end act as a photographer on live missions, here he posed himself with his camera in a self-assured and more matter-of-fact manner than an earlier one developed gradually in painterly strokes. The result is also more cinematic, even bearing a striking resemblance to a 1990s Aidan Quinn and so to modern eyes, suggestive of his future in celebrity portraiture.

Many of the actors and playwrights he would portray had enlisted in World War I, even if they had not necessarily seen live combat. Nöel Coward was one of those given an early honorable discharge. Steichen poses him here in gloriously modern attire and a feline grace within a sleekly abstract architectural interior in 1932 for Vanity Fair. Coward was by then the successful playwright, actor, and songwriter of the titillating Private Lives, which had already been turned into a Hollywood film. Oozing glamor with each puff of his cigarette, Steichen’s evocation of Coward as the man of his age is absolutely seamless, just like his rethinking of photography.

Image Credits:

Photographic Section, US Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), and Major Edward J. Steichen, ASA. In Chateau Thierry Sector showing service bridges destroyed by retreating enemy forces, 1918. Gift of William Kistler. © 2014 The Estate of Edward Steichen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Edward Steichen, Self-Portrait with Camera, 1917. Restricted gifts of Brenda and Earl Shapiro and the Smart Family Foundation; Laura T. Magnuson Acquisition, Comer Foundation, The Mary and Leigh Block Endowment funds; restricted gifts of Sidney and Sondra Berman Epstein, Karen and Jim Frank, Marian Pawlick; Ethel T. Scarborough, Hugh Leander and Mary Trumbull Adams Memorial Endowment, Betty Bell Spooner funds; restricted gifts of Vicki and Thomas Horwich, Robin and Sandy Stuart; Samuel A. Marx Purchase Fund for Major Acquisitions, S. DeWitt Clough, Photographic Society, Irving and June Seaman Endowment, Morris L. Parker funds,  © 2014 The Estate of Edward Steichen/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Edward Steichen. Noel Coward, 1932. Bequest of Edward Steichen by direction of Joanna T. Steichen and George Eastman House. © 2014 The Estate of Edward Steichen/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Monet Goes Digital

July 9, 2014 - 2:07pm

On July 1, the museum quietly released Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, a scholarly catalogue covering 47 paintings and drawings by the famous French Impressionist. “No big deal,” you might be saying right now. “The Art Institute is known for their Monet collection, and they publish books all the time. This seems like normal news,” you might follow up with.

Think again, wise guy. First of all, this is no standard book. It’s a digital scholarly catalogue accessible on any computer or iPad with an internet connection. Funded by the Getty Foundation and the David and Mary Winton Green Nineteenth-Century Research Fund, Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago is our first complete volume for the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI), started in 2009 by the Getty. At the end of July, we’ll release a volume on Renoir; volumes on Pissarro, Manet, Gauguin, and our Roman art collection will follow in 2015.

But back to Monet. Now, if this were a standard printed book (which we still love!), we estimate it would be at least 1,300 pages. Moving to an online platform isn’t just a matter of size, though. It also allows us to include a range of tools and features that would be impossible on a sheet of paper. Entries on each artwork include high-res imagery that readers can zoom into close enough to see the artist’s brushstrokes. “Slider” images allow a reader to move smoothly between, say, a standard view of Monet’s The Beach at Sainte-Adresse (the second image pictured above) to an infrared reflectogram of the same painting (the first image) to gain a deeper understanding of Monet’s process and techniques. With this technology, you can see that Monet once intended to have a group of people walking along the water near the bottom right corner of the painting. Those people were painted over in the final version.

Of course, we’ve also included everything you would find in a printed book—in-depth curatorial entries, impeccably-detailed conservation reports, an expansive glossary, loads of comparative and archival images, footnotes galore, and comprehensive biographies of the collectors who helped build the Art Institute’s collection. Plus, the volume is peer reviewed and fully citable (we don’t take the “scholarly” in OSCI lightly).

Finally, remember that theoretical 1,300-page book I mentioned? It would weigh at least 15 pounds and would probably cost hundreds of dollars. Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, on the other hand, is completely free and, as mentioned, available right now on your computer or iPad.* So, what are you waiting for?

*Use the latest versions of Chrome, Safari, or Firefox for best results!

Image Credit: Claude Monet. The Beach at Sainte-Adresse, 1867. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection.


Celebrity Doppelgängers

July 2, 2014 - 1:59pm

One thing you might not expect to find while browsing Rembrandt van Rijn’s prints is a doppelgänger for the veteran actor Paul Giamatti. But that’s just what I found in the midst of an intensive Rembrandt project!

The print in question is a 1641 etching depicting the Dutch Mennonite preacher and cloth merchant Cornelis Claesz. Anslo. A celebrated citizen of his time, Anslo was not only memorialized by Rembrandt in print form; he and his wife were the subjects of a 1641 double portrait painting, also by Rembrandt. In the print, Anslo is shown at a desk with several heavy tomes, looking up from his reading, perhaps addressing a congregant outside of the composition.

As far as the celebrity resemblance goes, it is easy to see something of Paul Giamatti, best known for his performances in The Truman Show, Sideways, and Cinderella Man, in the face of this 17th-century figure. Particularly, Paul Giamatti’s be-hatted, bearded look as Chief Inspector Uhl in The Illusionist (2006) is a pretty good ringer for the stoic, similarly attired Anslo.  Additionally, the intensity in their eyes and their close facial structures lend to this celebrity doppelganger comparison.

Though he doesn’t have the same Chicago pedigree as our first doppelgänger, Bill Murray, Giamatti has been recognized by our own Chicago Film Critics Association for many of his supporting roles.   Additionally, The Negotiator (1998), a thriller featuring Giamatti in a supporting part, is set in the Windy City.

Although Rembrandt’s “Giamatti” is not currently on display, there are other wonderful prints by the artist in Gallery 208A.  And anyone can book an appointment to come see this fascinating  doppelgänger etching, and many other works on paper in The Jean and Steven Goldman Study Center.

—Deborah Krieger, Summer Intern in the Department of Prints and Drawings

Members on Magritte

June 23, 2014 - 3:48pm

Members of the Art Institute can always count on being the first to explore every major exhibition, and Magritte: Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 is no exception. With three preview days (that are still going on as I write this!), members gain exclusive access to the first major museum show to focus on Magritte’s most profoundly inventive and experimental years. During the previews, we also host three exclusive Member Lectures for a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibition.

Since members are some of the museum’s best ambassadors, it’s always exciting to see how they’ll react to a new exhibition. Starting on Saturday, they made their way through the unconventionally-designed galleries filled with René Magritte’s extraordinary and indelible works and the response was both positive and surreal. “The galleries are so lush and amazing, the dark rooms really draw you in,” one member described. Many members also took advantage of the member lectures given by Senior Lecturer, Annie Morse, and Exhibition Research Associate, Elizabeth McGoey. One member said she “loved Annie’s sense of humor which made the concept of surrealism very approachable.” Members really embraced the theme of the weekend, offering us some of their favorite surreal sayings, like “the earth is blue, just like an orange.”

Our member previews end today, but the perks don’t stop here. Members have the chance to catch mid-exhibition lectures on Thursday, August 28 and Saturday, August 30, as well as closing lectures on Sunday, October 5, Tuesday, October 7, and Thursday, October 9. Click the dates above to make your reservations now. Want to take part in these member exclusives? Join today!

— Courtney G., Manager of Events and Programs for Member Experience

Calling All Artists!

June 20, 2014 - 2:34pm

René Magritte’s unexpected treatments of ordinary objects in the first half of the 20th century influenced the next generation of artists, including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Ed Ruscha. And now. . . you.

We’ve once again teamed up with Threadless to create a design challenge inspired by our upcoming Magritte exhibition. We’re asking you to reach deep into the darkest recesses of your imagination and create an original—and very surreal—t-shirt design.

And did we mention there are prizes? In addition to your shirt being printed by Threadless, you’ll also receive $2,000, a $500 Threadless gift card, and the ultimate art book library. Plus, your t-shirt will be showcased at an upcoming event at the Art Institute.

For Chicagoans, we invite you to check out the exhibition for some inspiration. Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 opens to members tomorrow and to the public on Tuesday.

Happy creating!

The Sun Never Sets on Magritte

June 12, 2014 - 5:42pm

When Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 opens in less than two weeks, it will include some of the Art Institute’s best known works by Magritte—like Time Transfixed—but it won’t include many others—like The Banquet, pictured above—painted in the decades after 1938.

Magritte developed his artistic vocabulary in the 1920s and 30s, but even 20 years later, you can still see some of the artistic hallmarks that he carried forward to his later career. Similar to much of his early work, this was painted in a straightforward, realist style. You can recognize all of the elements of the painting—an architectural balustrade, a dense forest, and a sun—but in typical Magritte fashion, everything isn’t where you might expect it to be. If you were in fact standing on this terrace, this looming red sun would be hidden behind all of the trees. This is a twist on a Surrealist idea called displacement, or moving something from its proper place.

This painting was part of a larger series in which Magritte experimented with varying qualities of light at different times of day. In one painting, a crescent moon fills the sky and in another, the sky is gray-blue. In this version, the orange-red sky and the strong glow of the setting sun contrasting with the landscape combine to create what Magritte himself referred to as a “charge of strangeness.”

We invite you to the museum for this exciting exhibition, but then we hope you’ll take a walk through the rest of our Modern galleries to see The Banquet and continue the dialogue on Magritte and surrealism.

Image Credits: René Magritte. The Banquet, 1958. Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection. © 2014 C. Herscovici, London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Hearing from the Horse’s Mouth

June 6, 2014 - 3:51pm

It’s always a treat to hear directly from an artist. But the experience is even better when the artist—in this case, Josef Koudelka—is so remarkably candid about his process, inspirations, and what makes good art.

Last night, Czech-born French artist Josef Koudelka—with Matthew S. Witkovsky, the Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and Amanda Maddox, assistant curator at the Getty Museum—spoke to a packed house in the Art Institute’s Fullerton Hall. Visitors were welcomed by lively gypsy music, in direct reference to Koudelka’s early photographic series Gypsies (example above), for which he visited Roma populations for weeks at a time in his home country and later abroad over the course of years. Koudelka said that he’s often asked why he chose to photograph gypsies and that he hoped that the entrance music provided the answer to that question.

He also spoke extensively about what makes a good photograph—one that gets into your head and speaks to different people for different reasons—and his process for determining good photographs. He is an incredibly discerning editor of his own work, evaluating each image on a contact sheet and circling images that are the best or images that might have potential. He only publishes and puts his full name on his best images—the ones he eventually wants to be remembered for. In his words, there are “no great photographers, only great photographs.”

And for all of you aspiring photographers, he offered some great final advice: discover what you love, photograph it, and buy good shoes. Now those are words to live by.

Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful opens tomorrow to the public and runs through September 14.

Image Credits:

Josef Koudelka. Romania, from the series Gypsies, 1968, printed 1980s. Promised gift of Robin and Sandy Stuart. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

Josef Koudelka. (Student on tank, eyes crossed out), from the series Invasion, August 21/27, 1968. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

For Serious Art Addicts

May 28, 2014 - 2:42pm

Has anyone told you not to play with your food? How about with your art? For all of us tactile learners, the Art Institute has cooked up a treat! We aren’t suggesting a hands-on policy in the galleries (though some fake news sites have!). Instead, we’re debuting a new game for anyone who has ever visited the Art Institute of Chicago, is planning to visit, or would like to do so someday! We’ve arranged some of our greatest treasures as the pieces in a sliding tile game built like the 2048 game that recently proved so hard to stop playing.

If you’re going to spend excessive amounts of time on your computer or phone merging tiles, why not look at some amazing art while you’re at it? Check out our game here. Let us know on this blog, or on our Facebook page if you can figure out each of the pictures. There are eleven different artworks standing for each of the doubled numbers from 2 to 2048 in the original game.

And did we mention it’s addictive? Don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Acquiring Nighthawks

May 23, 2014 - 3:49pm

The Art Institute has always collected the art of its time. Which means that since the museum opened in the late 1800s, it has always put a priority on acquiring art that was recently created. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, one of the museum’s most well known paintings, takes that to another level, as it joined the museum’s collection in 1942, the very year that it was painted.

In May of that year, Hopper himself wrote to Art Institute director Daniel Catton Rich that he was “very much pleased that you like my Nighthawks well enough to acquire it for the Art Institute. It is, I believe, one of the very best things I have painted. I seem to have come nearer to saying what I want to say in my work, this past winter, than I ever have before.”

This pared down painting—notice the lack of trash in the street, as well as the empty counters in the diner—has a timeless, universal quality that transcends its particular locale. Fluorescent lights had just come into use in the early 1940s, and the all-night diner emits an eerie glow, like a beacon on the dark street corner. Hopper eliminated any reference to an entrance, and the viewer, drawn to the light, is shut out from the scene by a seamless wedge of glass. The four anonymous and uncommunicative night owls seem as separate and remote from the viewer as they are from one another. (The red-haired woman was actually modeled by the artist’s wife, Jo.)

Fun fact: What other famous—and often parodied—painting was acquired by the museum the year it was painted? None other than Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Image Credit: Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. Friends of American Art Collection

Happy Birthday, Modern Wing!

May 16, 2014 - 8:00am

Where does the time go? Today is the Modern Wing’s fifth birthday. Happy birthday, Modern Wing! (It’s a date that holds an extra-special place in my heart, because it’s also MY birthday.) I thought this might be a good opportunity to pause, reflect, take a breath, light some votives, consider where we were, where we are, and where we’re going—live, laugh, love, learn. Here are some highlights from the Modern Wing’s first five years.

Cy Twombly: The Natural World
Opening day: May 16, 2009
Weather in Chicago: 54ºF, overcast
#1 on the Billboard Hot 100: Boom Boom Pow by the Black Eyed Peas

We kicked things off with a boom boom pow indeed. Occupying the Abbott Galleries on the first floor of the Modern Wing, The Natural World memorably featured series’ of Twombly’s expansive, lush canvases. Along with other recent work in sculpture and photography, the exhibition explored the artist’s late-career fascination with travel and the natural beauty of the world.


Opening day: December 10, 2010
Weather in Chicago: 30ºF, light rain
#1 on the Billboard Hot 100: Raise Your Glass by P!nk

Raise a glass to contemporary architecture and design. Hyperlinks featured recent projects (in some cases, so recent they were still in concept stages) from over 30 cutting-edge architects and designers. The exhibition contained nearly all media (from conceptual architectural models, urban interventionism, takeaway print design, interactive virtual spaces, and much more) to emphasize the extreme connectedness and fading boundaries between different realms of design and interaction. The show both questioned and answered how we perceive, and create, the world around us.

Pae White: Restless Rainbow
Opening day: May 21, 2011
Weather in Chicago: 63ºF, mostly cloudy
#1 on the Billboard Hot 100: Rolling in the Deep by Adele

Out on the Bluhm Terrace in the summer of 2011, Pae White had us rolling deep—in color. Using the Modern Wing less as a container for her art than a surface for it, White covered the outdoor space in colorful, immersive, disorganized rainbow patterns. While the Modern Wing is a beautiful building, its surroundings—the Chicago Skyline, Lake Michigan, Millennium Park—definitely competes for attention. Restless Rainbow brought our attention back in from those vistas and asked us to consider a newly restless and engaging space.


Allen Ruppersberg: No Time Left to Start Again/The B and D of R ‘n’ R
Opening Day: September 21, 2012
Weather in Chicago: 54ºF, moderate to heavy rain
#1 on the Billboard Hot 100: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together by Taylor Swift

I’d get back together with this exhibition. Allen Ruppersberg, the conceptual artist known for hopping boundaries both artistic and political, constructed No Time Left to Start Again/The B and D of R ‘n’ R as a survey of American vernacular music. Filling the Modern Wing’s first floor with records, posters, and other laminated musical paraphernalia, Ruppersberg created the sort of spectacle so rife with detail and minutiae that one needs to consider it at a distance before approaching it. By including his own snapshots and a soundtrack of songs dating back to the early 20th century, we considering not just the music itself, but how it enhances and structures our experience of it.

Here’s what we’ve learned: Chicago never gets above 70ºF, Americans love pop music, and the Modern Wing accomplished more than I did in its first five years. Now for some candles to blow out, courtesy of Gerhard Richter!

Image Credits:

Cy Twombly. Note II, 2005-2007. The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection © Cy Twombly. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Installation view of Hyperlinks: Architecture and Design Installation view of Pae White: Restless Rainbow Installation view of Allen Ruppersberg: No Time Left to Start Again/The B and D of R ‘n’ R Gerhard Richter. Two Candles, 1982. Twentieth-Century Discretionary Fund. © Gerhard Richter.


Collection Connections

May 15, 2014 - 5:17pm

In addition to displaying our permanent collection, the museum’s contemporary galleries also showcase smaller exhibitions. Through June 1, those galleries will feature two of Dayanita Singh’s photographic series, including one recently acquired by the Art Institute called Myself Mona Ahmed. The series was inspired by Singh’s meeting the outcast eunuch Mona Ahmed (a combination of female and male first names) on assignment in 1989. The two, who became fast friends and remain very close to this day, have together endeavored to think through and explain what it means to be truly unique in the world. “She wanted to tell the story,” writes Singh, “of being neither here nor there, neither male nor female, and finally, neither a eunuch nor someone like me.”

Other artists in the museum’s collection have also featured eunuchs, but more often delve into their unique historic positions. Read on for more examples. . .

Both Rembrandt (above) and Sir Edward Burne-Jones (below) depicted the biblical story of an Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism and conversion to Christianity. In the ancient world, eunuchs were trusted at the highest levels of royal courts, as their name translates from Latin as “bedroom guard.”

A eunuch can also be seen in our upcoming exhibition Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor (coming in November!). The drawing below shows Ensor’s depiction of Queen Parysatis, whose story is told by Plutarch’s Life of Artaxerxes. After “winning” the court eunuch from a round of gambling intended to resolve a marriage conflict, Queen Parysatis seeks vengeance on her husband Artaxerxes by having the eunuch, Masabates, flayed alive. Yikes!

—P.D. Young, Production Coordinator, Imaging

Image Credits:

Installation shot of Dayanita Singh

Dayanita Singh. When Chaman took Ayesha from me, I could not bear the pain, so I would come to the graveyard to tell my pain to the dead people and my only friend, Dayanita, who liked the old Hindi film songs that I sang for her, from the series Myself Mona Ahmed, 1998, printed 2008. Photography Associates and Contemporary Art Discretionary Funds. Courtesy of Dayanita Singh and Frith Street Gallery.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1641. John H. Wrenn Memorial Collection.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Saint Philip Baptising the Eunuch, 1853/98. The Charles Deering Collection.

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.

James Ensor. Queen Parysatis, 1899. Gift of Mrs. Marjorie B. Kovler. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.


Judging a Book by Its Cover

May 9, 2014 - 10:45am

After much longing, anticipation, and innumerable people asking where all the Matisse went, we reopened the third floor of our Modern Wing in mid-April. Our world-renowned collection of modern art spent a sunny winter in Ft. Worth, Texas on loan to the Kimbell Art Museum while we made a few necessary improvements to the building (ranging from painting and floor work to recalibrating the lighting system to ensure consistent light levels in all galleries). While having all that art available to Chicagoans again is joyous enough, we hate to let a good homecoming go to waste. So we decided to mark the occasion with the publication of The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Art at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Our Modern European holdings were long overdue for the proper catalogue treatment all good art deserves, and this is it. The book kicks off with a history of the collection written by curator Stephanie D’Alessandro, starting with the 1913 Chicago presentation of the International Exhibition of Modern Art (aka the Armory Show). Inspired by the presentation, Chicago businessman Joseph Winterbotham provided the funds for the Art Institute to buy thirty-five works by contemporary European painters. And so it began. (You have to buy the book to read the rest.)

A quick skim through the catalogue hints at the rest of the story, though—150 paintings and sculpture by Klee, Léger, Brâncusi, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Ernst, Cornell, Chagall, Malevich, and oh so many more (like Picasso and Matisse, if the title of the book wasn’t enough of a giveaway).

Available now in the Museum Shop, The Age of Picasso and Matisse is a perfect companion to the Art Institute’s new iOS App, Closer, available in the App Store! Get both, and get yourself to the third floor of the Modern Wing ASAP!

Image Credit: Art installers prepare to hang Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River, 1909–10, 1913, and 1916–1917. Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

World’s Highest Standard of Living

May 7, 2014 - 5:31pm

First published in Life Magazine’s February 1937 issue, World’s Highest Standard of Living became instantly recognizable to many Americans during the Great Depression for its starkly ironic juxtaposition of an idealized America alongside the grimmer aspects of everyday reality. Often thought to be an unemployment line, the photo was actually taken in Louisville after the flooding of the Ohio River, which killed almost 400 people and displaced about a million more across four states.

I can vividly remember my first encounter with World’s Highest Standard of Living in a book my parents owned called The Best of Life. Published in 1973, The Best of Life chronicles life in the 20th century through photographs taken around the world. I became fascinated with the photos in this book and looked through it countless times; it became an early source of cultural and historical literacy for me. Selected from past issues of Life, the photographs varied between the celebratory, the joyous, and the violently horrific, providing me with my earliest impressions of how great and how terrible people could be to one another.

The photographer Margaret Bourke-White took World’s Highest Standard of Living along with many other iconic photos featured in The Best of Life. Other easily recognizable photos include Gandhi and his spinning wheel, families during the Dust Bowl, and prisoners of war during World War II, among others. Bourke-White’s contributions to photography in the 20th century were considerable by any standard. She was Life‘s first female photojournalist; she even took the photo on the cover of the first issue. She was the first Western photographer allowed to take pictures of Soviet industry and she later became the first female war correspondent during World War II.

Though many of Bourke-White’s photographs hold iconic status in our pictorial history of the 20th century, World’s Highest Standard of Living remains one of her most famous. I can think of few other photographs that juxtapose prosperity and poverty in America in such black and white terms, literally and figuratively. Its implicit criticism of race and class seems to have enduring resonance in American culture. It was appropriated for the cover of Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 album, (There’s No Place Like) America Today. It inspired a similar billboard in the future dystopia of the film Brazil as well and was recreated by graffiti art pioneer Freedom (AKA Chris Pape) in one of his murals in the eponymous Freedom Tunnel inhabited for years by New York City’s homeless population.

If you think Margaret Bourke-White’s World’s Highest Standard of Living is one of best works of American art, vote for it to be displayed on billboards nationwide as part of the Art Everywhere campaign. Today is the final day to vote! Final selections will be announced June 20.

Image credits:

Margaret Bourke-White. World’s Highest Standard of Living, 1937. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Boardroom, Inc. © Time Inc.

Album cover for Curtis Mayfield’s (There’s No Place Like) America Today.

Still from the movie Brazil.

Photos of graffiti by Freedom (AKA Chris Pape).



Art Every-Wear

May 2, 2014 - 11:20am

When Ready-to-Wear was painted in 1955, one of the prevailing artistic styles was Abstract Expressionism. And at first glance, it’s easy to see how this painting might be grouped with the works of Pollock or Rothko. But as you look a little closer and learn more about Stuart Davis’s intentions, you’ll begin to recognize his distinctive modernist style and understand how this painting fit into his artistic agenda of portraying real life in modern America and reflecting the everyday experience.

The title refers to ready-to-wear clothing, a phrase that was introduced in a Montgomery Ward catalogue in 1895 and referred to clothing that was made in factories in standard sizes, as opposed to clothing that was tailored specifically for the wearer. The development of ready-to-wear made store-bought clothing imminently more accessible.

Knowing his inspiration, you can begin to read the the different shapes of color as scraps of fabric on a black table. In the top right, you’ll see an ‘X’ shape that perhaps indicates a pair of scissors. The vibrancy of the colors also contribute to a sense of movement that might represent the energy of the burgeoning fashion industry.

The Art Institute acquired this painting in 1956, just a year after it was painted, from Davis’s New York dealer. At the time, Art Institute curator Katharine Kuh wrote about her excitement in adding it to the museum’s collection:

[Director] Dan Rich is crazy about the picture and, as you know only too well, I am too. Naturally, we have to put it through our Committee meeting but I foresee only delight on their part.

If you feel similarly, you can vote for this painting on Art Everywhere and it could be chosen to be a part of the largest outdoor art exhibition ever. Click here before May 7 to vote.

Image Credit: Stuart Davis. Ready-to-Wear, 1955. Restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sigmund W. Kunstadter; Goodman Endowment.

All the Museum’s a Stage

April 29, 2014 - 5:41pm

On the occasion of William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, WTTW, Chicago’s local PBS station will be airing a documentary about Shakespeare in Chicago. As the Bard of course never set foot in the New World, it relies on our city’s subsequent interpretation of his plays. But while much of the broadcast includes footage of Chicago Shakespeare Theater performances from the 1980s to the present, the filmmakers also decided to look more broadly at the Bard’s influence on the arts in Chicago. In the process, they came to the Art Institute to look at a few of the over 200 artworks in our collection with a Shakespeare connection and spent several hours filming me speaking about these little-seen theatrical items in the Glore Print Study Room. Here is a sneak peek at some of our objects that may or may not be included in the final broadcast.

From the Ryerson and Burnham Library Archives Century of Progress Collection, we have photographic proof that Shakespeare was here in Chicago after all! Or at least a life-size recreation of his Globe Theatre was here in the Windy City. The postcard below shows the threatre constructed for the “Merrie England” section of the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress exposition.

There are ceramic busts of Shakespeare and chess pieces curiously resembling Lady Macbeth in our department of European Decorative Arts, and portraits of actors playing famous roles in Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture as well as Photography, and even an Anne Lemieux sculpture in Contemporary that took a Richard II quote as its inspiration.

The Department of Prints and Drawings includes by far the most Shakespearean items, although no illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays contemporary with the first performances survive. However, the Bard became all the rage a century later in eighteenth-century Britain, when the penchant for grand tragedies ensured that one out of every six plays performed in London was one of his. The actor, director, and theater owner David Garrick turned celebrity casting (usually of himself, with his biggest role as the villainous Richard III) for these performances into big business, and we have the collectible prints to prove it.

Our City, Our Shakespeare will begin airing on May 1. Click here for more complete listing information.

Image Credit:

John Dixon after Nathaniel Dance. Mr. Garrick in Richard the Third, published April 28, 1772. The John H. Wrenn Memorial Endowment Fund and the Stanley Field Fund.

Not Kyra Sedgwick

April 25, 2014 - 1:46pm

When I was in school studying art history—wait, no I swear this is not THAT kind of story—I was as captivated by what I was learning outside of class as what I was learning in a dark slide lecture. A footnote or a random parenthetical comment would send me down a rabbit hole, which wasn’t easy to do in the days before the internet. If I read that Marcel Duchamp gave up art for chess, the next few days would find me at the photocopier so I could squirrel away diagrams of famous chess matches. A brief mention of the odd life of Joseph Cornell—who lived at home, worked in his garage, and dreamily read movie star magazines—had me buried in the library stacks flipping through bound issues of Look magazine and thinking about a world in which winter coats were advertised for $3.99 at department stores.

This weirdly curious frame of mind applied to all of us who worked on the Art Institute’s new app, “Closer,” which was launched last week. Did I mention the app was free? We know that music was integral to Kandinsky’s thinking, but what was he actually listening to? We’ve seen Picasso’s famous muse Marie-Thérèse Walter a million times in his paintings, but what did she really look like? What’s on the back of a Joseph Cornell box? The new app was fueled by these sorts of questions and gave us an opportunity to put some cool stuff in your hands.

You can read in the app that Duchamp said he considered “working for a living slightly imbecilic.” Some days we might be inclined to agree. But not the days we were working on the app, reading the transcripts of the famous Brancusi “Is it art?” trial or combing through our archives for pictures of the curators and collectors who laid the foundation of our modern collection.  Download the free app—available only on iOS devices via the app store—and let us know what you think. Our verdict: not imbecilic at all!

[Ed. note: For all of you wondering about the title of this post, click here.]

Still a Paris Street, But a Less Rainy Day

April 18, 2014 - 3:20pm

When first-time visitors ascend the Grand Staircase and enter Gallery 201, they are drawn immediately to the monumental Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte. The painting—a perennial visitor favorite since it joined the collection in the 1960s—shows the (then) new boulevards of Paris and the modern, fashion-conscious crowd attempting to stay dry. The picture seems both real and choreographed, dreary yet optimistic. It’s no wonder so many find it magnetic.

The painting made a special appearance in Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity in 2013, and then went off view to undergo conservation. But it was what happened next that landed it a special profile in the Wall Street Journal and its very own video.

Conservator of paintings Faye Wrubel began work on conserving the painting last fall after its big cameo. Her routine conservation and cleaning turned into something much larger once Ms. Wrubel removed the varnish and discovered the painting took on a different tone: the skies are now more blue and dynamic, there are more pronounced contrasts, and there’s more light—almost like the rain is ending and the sun is about to break from the clouds. So you can better see the change, our “before” image is immediately below and the “after” image is below that.

The conservation team used x-ray, infrared, and ultraviolet analyses to survey the painting. The ultraviolet photos told a story different than what most assumed about the painting—she learned that sometime between when Caillebotte finished the work and it joined the Art Institute’s collection, the work had been retouched to make the sky more consistent. After examining painted sketches and the ultraviolet photos, Ms. Wrubel concluded that Caillebotte painted a sky of greater complexity than what most of us were accustomed to.

The conserved work has elicited “wow”s from those who have seen it. There’s definitely more sparkle to an already beloved Art Institute piece. And to decode what that means, we invite you to see the painting for yourself. Paris Street; Rainy Day will be back on view in Gallery 201 on April 23.


Want to See This Everywhere?

April 11, 2014 - 3:40pm

And by everywhere, we really do mean everywhere. In fact, we mean Art Everywhere, the largest outdoor national art show ever conceived. Starting in August, approximately 50 masterpieces of American art from the five participating museums—the Art Institute of Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art—will pop up on as many as 50,000 displays nationwide, including billboards, subway platforms, and on bus shelters, and the selection will be curated with the help of an online vote. Which is where you come in. Currently there are 100 artworks that will be culled down and every day through May 7, you can vote for 10. Over the years, we’ve highlighted a number of our paintings in contention, but we thought we’d take a look at one of the lesser known works, Winslow Homer’s The Water Fan.

This painting depicts a young black man intently searching for coral using a glass-bottomed bucket. Referred to as a “water glass” or “sponge glass,” this device was used to stabilize the surface of moving water in order to improve visibility. Homer may have been attracted to the subject because it draws attention to the constantly moving surface of the water as well as its transparency, aspects of the sea that especially intrigued him in the Bahamas. This work originally had more visible red washes in the water, hinting at the pink coral beneath the surface. While these areas have faded over time, the fluid strokes of darker blue over layers of transparent turquoise are effective in suggesting the play of light, both direct and reflected, over water.

So start thinking now about your summer road trip and what you might want to see along the way. And as they say in Chicago, vote early and often!

Image Credit: Winslow Homer. The Water Fan, 1898/99. Gift of Dorothy A., John A., Jr., and Christopher Holabird in memory of William and Mary Holabird.


Our Very Own Game of Thrones

April 7, 2014 - 4:46pm

Full disclosure: there are quite a few of us here at the museum who are big fans of (or mildly obsessed with) the HBO series Game of Thrones, which premiered its fourth season last night. And while you might think that it’s a bit of a stretch to discuss the show here, there are actually quite a few connections we could make between aspects of Westeros and the museum’s collection.

But we decided to start with the titular throne. The Iron Throne that Joffrey Baratheon currently sits on does not look very cozy. Made from the blades of one thousand swords, it is the seat of ultimate power, but also the seat that makes you the biggest target in Westeros. In fact, in the words of Ned Stark, “it is a monstrous uncomfortable chair. In more ways than one.”

And while all thrones do indicate some kind of power, not all thrones are quite so forbidding. We took a closer look at the museum’s holdings to find some examples:

This 15th-century Netherlandish print illustrates a story from the life of King Solomon, who was renowned for his wisdom. He’s seated on a throne at the top of this dramatic print and judges a case case of two children, one of whom had recently died, and two women claiming to be the mother of the survivor. He threatened to divide the child between them (using the sword held by a servant at left) in order to determine the truth. With this clever ruse, he easily identified the child’s mother, who would rather her child live with another woman than be killed.

In this composition of four figures, the king is not the largest, but as the only person who is seated and crowned, he is seen as the most powerful. His senior wife stands prominently behind him, her imposing height conveying the powerful role she plays in maintaining his power. But her position behind him indicates her support for and loyalty to him. The two smaller figures represent a junior spouse and another attendant. This vertical piece would have served as an architectural embellishment in a palace and would have projected the authority, prosperity, and power of royalty.

This statuette is thought to depict Concordia, the Roman personification of harmony, one of the four principal virtues of the Roman Empire. Concordia sits on a high-backed throne and wears an ornamental headband, a long tunic tied above her waist, and a cloak, which drapes over her left shoulder and lap. The figure likely held a libation dish in her extended right hand and a cornucopia (horn of plenty) in her missing left hand.

The materials that make up this throne are a bit more atypical. The crowned Buddha is seated in the pose of meditation on a throne formed by the coils of the serpent king Muchalinda, whose own seven heads form a sheltering canopy around the figure.

If this hasn’t dissuaded you from coveting the Iron Throne, you can purchase your very own replica for a mere $30,000. But a final warning from Cersei Lannister: “when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

Image Credits:

The Judgment of Solomon, c. 1475–1500. Netherlands. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Olowe of Ise. Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife (Opo Ogoga), 1910/14. Major Acquisitions Centennial Fund.

Statuette of an Enthroned Figure. 1st century A.D. Roman. Wirt D. Walker Endowment.

Buddha Shelttered by Muchalinda, 11th-12th century. Cambodian. Samuel M. Nickerson Endowment.