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.
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.
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.
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