Kara Walker’s Antebellum cutout installation at the Art Institute pushes the boundaries of what black and white silhouettes can do to combat stereotypes. Here’s a look at some of the more curious nineteenth century silhouettes in the Art Institute’s permanent collection that came before Walker’s bold racial re-envisioning of the medium.
Silhouettes based on shadows have been called the origin of the art of painting since antiquity. By the modern era, the most popular function for the silhouette was for single or family portraits in profile, possibly due to theories that the profile and the soul were visibly connected. Valentines with silhouetted imagery and memorial cards were similarly popular. These were made from black paper cut out and adhered to a white background, or white paper laced with holes on a black background. The unknown maker of a nineteenth-century scene from an album in Prints and Drawings narrowly avoided turning their work into a full-fledged doily. Thankfully, instead, they provided the contrast of a bright blue backing to its floral image of a woman tending a funerary urn.
The overhanging tree suggests the cutter might have been German, or familiar with the German Romantic tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. A prominent theme was the melancholy over premature death (as in the suicide of the lovelorn protagonist in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther), which became a craze.
Another album in Prints and Drawings was compiled around 1837 by the German-born Queen Adelaide of England (1792-1849), who enlisted her female friends at court to provide drawings of children, landscapes and costume balls. One of them, Elizabeth, Landgravine of Hesse-Homburg (1770-1840), was apparently English by birth, but traveled with her German husband through the Vogelsberg part of his territories. Her contribution was two black cutouts of peasants she saw working in those fields. The figures wear traditional peasant garb, but some abstracted details have become ambiguous to the modern eye.
Elizabeth has focused on several family interactions coinciding with the workday tasks. A father may be keeping a toy away from his dancing child, or perhaps shaking a tambourine for her during a rest. The children on the ground may be working the fields, or simply playing dangerously with abandoned scythes. In contrast, the child on a leash significantly predates modern apologetic attempts to tether the young. Age-old feudal attitudes seem to remain in full swing when Elizabeth described the figures below the cart as “Group I saw in the field as I visited the Vogelsberg (and) struck me as lovely.” Was the main purpose of these peasants simply to form a charming tableau vivant for the entertainment of the nobility? Perhaps we should have exhibited these two cutout gems near Walker's, as they so clearly display the assumptions the aristocracy made about the picturesque workers of their farmlands!
1 day 6 hours ago The Art Institute of Chicago NOW OPEN—Abstract Experiments: Latin American Art on Paper after 1950
During the mid-20th century, Latin American artists were active in the evolving international discourse on modernity, at a time of industrial expansion and political transformation in South America.
Abstract Experiments provides an illuminating complement to Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium and reflects the Art Institute’s recent efforts to expand its holdings of Latin American painting, sculpture, and works on paper.
2 days 28 min ago The Art Institute of Chicago NOW OPEN—Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium
The Art Institute presents the first U.S. retrospective of this groundbreaking Brazilian artist. A relentless innovator always pushing the boundaries of art, Oiticica is arguably the most influential Latin American artist of the post–World War II period and is recognized for inspiring Tropicália, a powerful movement that influenced art across media in Brazil.
In addition to viewing his early works on paper, visitors are invited to take off their shoes and walk through immersive sand-filled installations, view Amazonian parrots, and try on wearable objects designed by the artist.
2 days 1 hour ago The Art Institute of Chicago Whitney will be taking over our Instagram for the next 24 hours. Follow along to see posts from Max and Julien’s visit to the museum.