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 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 Research Intern
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.
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.
And if this leaves you wanting even more from medieval times, we’re launching a behind-the-scenes video series on our Arms and Armor collection in this very space later this month. Stay tuned!
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.
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.
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.
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.