This Sunday marks the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, otherwise known as the shortest day of the year. And while you might not bat an eye as the day comes and goes, throughout history solstices have been considered auspicious times of transition.
This Chinese hanging scroll was inscribed with the text “On winter’s solstice of the year dingyou , painted by Yuan Jiang of Hanshang [Yanghou]” and features an aristocratic villa and its surrounding wintry landscape. Yuan Jiang was a professional artist most renowned for his “ruled-line painting” which employed both carpenter’s tools and a flexible brush. His meticulous draftsmanship is best seen in the contrast between the strong horizontal lines of the house and both the garden of craggy rocks in the foreground and the mist-shrouded mountains in the background.
But chin up, Chicago! The winter solstice just means that it’s all downhill from here. Summer is basically around the corner. Right?!
Image Credit: Yuan Jiang. Villa in a Wintry Landscape, dated 1717. Gift of Naomi Donnelley.
In the current issue of the Art Institute’s Member Magazine, the “Insider’s Look” section spotlights Sarah Alvarez and Robin Schnur, two directors from our Department of Museum Education. Sarah and Robin specialize in outreach to students, teachers, and teens. Here is a continuation of our discussion in the January/February issue:
What was the first museum you visited and when did you know that you wanted to work in museums?
SA: I visited museums from a very early age and I knew I wanted to work in museum education as soon as I visited the JFK Memorial Library in Boston while I was in college. It was such a formative experience for me. The objects on display engaged my curiosity for culture and history in a way that textbooks had never been able to do. I began to realize that working in a museum could be a way to marry my love of art and my love of learning.
RS: Museums have been a part of my experience for as long as I can remember. My family often visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and all the thrilling exhibitions and collections we visited when I was a child have merged together into one wonderfully rich memory. I didn’t know I could actually work in a museum until my senior year in high school when I took an internship at the Mystic Seaport Museum, just down the road from our house. For whatever reason, the head curator allowed me to write the labels for an exhibition about 19th-century whaling ship keels, to curate an exhibition of photographs of America’s Cup race winners, and to plan a show of needlepoint seascapes. It was all weird stuff, but what an empowering experience! I was 18 and the things I created were actually up and on view for the general public. Partly as a result of my own experiences, I feel strongly about creating opportunities for teens to engage in the life of the Art Institute. This is how aspirations are sparked and careers begin.
What is the most challenging aspect of engaging teachers and students through art?
SA: I can speak best to the experience of engaging teachers. The greatest challenge is that no one teacher is exactly the same as the next. It’s very common in our culture to make sweeping generalizations about teachers, but they are all individuals coming from different school contexts and with different motivations. As for engaging them through art, it can be particularly challenging for teachers who don’t really have a sense of the role that art can have across the curriculum—in science, math, or other subjects outside of art itself. A powerful and well-facilitated experience in our galleries is often the best way to break through that challenge.
RS: It’s challenging to figure out what is most interesting and relevant to a group of students who may come from vastly different places and experiences. When school groups arrive at the museum on the morning of their tour, we have only received limited information ahead of time about who the students are, what they’re studying, and what interests them. We have to ask ourselves how we can best use the one or two hours they’re here, making the experience relevant to their classroom studies and meaningful on a personal level. Our ongoing education program for docents, the volunteer educators who facilitate experiences for students in grades 1-12, prepares them not only to know about and be able to interpret the encyclopedic collection of the museum, but also to structure experiences in which students are encouraged to bring their own ideas, knowledge, and opinions into the conversation. Creating a space for an open dialogue about art with students you’ve just met, while at the same time taking into account the curricular needs of their teacher, and also sharing gallery space with other docents and their groups is a challenge, but it is a challenge that we enthusiastically undertake and satisfyingly meet daily here at the Art Institute.
Look for more in-depth interviews in upcoming issues of the Member Magazine. For a mobile-friendly reading experience, download the Member Magazine to your iPad today!
There are quite a few characters in the crèche who are probably instantly recognizable to most people—Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men—but because the crèche involves scenes of daily life, many of the figures might seem a bit more anonymous. But you can actually learn quite a lot about the Christmas story and life in 18th-century Naples if you look closely. Here’s some insider information to help you decipher some clues and learn more about the figures in the crèche:
The character of Benito—located in the far right recesses of the crèche—is actually quite common in Neapolitan crèches of the period. This figure is always dressed in blue and is always sound asleep. He is completely oblivious of the star and the announcement of the angel, symbolizing all of those who do not listen to the news of the birth of Jesus.
The name of this woman on the left is La Georgiana, referencing the fact that she hails from Georgia, located in the Caucasus. She’s dressed in Turkish attire, with billowing pants, a tight embroidered vest, and men’s pointy-toed red boots, and symbolizes the exotic ethnicities that have come to Naples. This outfit would have been meticulously crafted on a miniature loom and is most likely made from silk from the royal silk factory in San Leucio.
The jewelry worn by the figures was not made by miniature artists, but rather the same jewelers who bedecked the Neapolitan elite. Around this woman’s neck is a necklace made of real coral. Greek mythology holds that coral came from Medusa’s blood, which fell into the Mediterranean when she was decapitated. Neapolitans believed that coral had protective powers against evil and bad luck. If you look closely, you can see many of the ladies in the crèche wearing coral necklaces and earrings.
To see these figures in person, you can visit the crèche in Gallery 209 through January 6.
Image Credit: Crèche (details), mid-18th century. Naples. Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection, Ada Turnbull Hertle, Eloise W. Martin Legacy and Lacy Armour funds; restricted gifts of Mr. and Mrs. James N. Bay, Linda and Vincent Buonanno and Family, and Mrs. Robert O. Levitt.
The centerpiece of the museum’s current exhibition Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor is undoubtedly Ensor’s 1887 The Temptation of Saint Anthony. This drawing is nearly six feet tall and features the eponymous saint surrounded by a variety of temptations sent by the devil himself.
But as you look closely, the temptations depicted in the painting might not be those that you would expect to see being used to tantalize an ancient saint. In fact, Ensor’s Saint Anthony is seduced by vices that modern audiences would have recognized, including fast food and government corruption. Traditionally, portrayals of Saint Anthony—which are fairly common throughout art history—depict temptations related to lust, greed, and demons.
We took a look through our collection to see how artists from the 16th to the 20th centuries have explored this dark subject:
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.
Henri Fantin-Latour. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, from the third album of L’Estampe originale, 1893. The Charles Deering Collection.
Lucas Cranach, the elder. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1506. Gift of Mr. Potter Palmer, II.
Brassaï (Gyula Halász). Tentation de Saint Antoine (Temptation of Saint Anthony), 1934/35, printed 1967. Restricted Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gaylord Donnelley and Mr. and Mrs. Ralph J. Mills.
Giambattista Tiepolo. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, c. 1734. Helen Regenstein Collection.
When you enter into the exhibition Ethel Stein: Master Weaver you are faced with a sea of blue—indigo blue to be precise. The midnight hue has been used for centuries in textiles across the world from Japan to West Africa to Central and South America. In these complex weavings, Stein dyed threads of varying intensities so that when woven she could build subtle abstractions out of different hues of blue. One of the lovely additions to the exhibition is a video highlighting her working process of both dying and weaving. And dying with indigo is a magical thing—it actually transforms before your eyes. So, inspired by Stein’s use of indigo and in what may be one of the last opportunities before it gets too cold to work outside, I mixed up a vat of indigo dye.
When dying with indigo, the color oxidizes, meaning that it reaches its final color as it is exposed to air. From the dye bath, it emerges a yellow-green. But within minutes it turns a rich blue (the photo shows the same skein of wool yarn over a five-minute period). Rinse and repeat and you get a more intense blue each time, which is what makes Stein’s Indigo 23 and other weavings so lyrical. The repeated introduction to the dye and rate at which the natural cotton fiber “took” the dye makes for slight undulations of color in the individual threads that make up the complex weaving. Stein, however, isn’t just dipping yarn in a vat but using a resist-technique developed in Indonesia called ikat wherein parts of the threads are prevented from being dyed. We see a similar process in Japan called shibori or in Nigeria where the Yoruba use grassy raffia to tie, stitch, and bind fabric before it is dipped in the dye vat to create intricate patterns, as seen here in this detail from a woman’s wrapper in the Art Institute’s textile collection.
Indigo is a plant that for centuries was primarily grown in India—the name indigo means “from India” in Greek—and can be used as a pigment, dye, and was even long-held as having medicinal qualities. One of the earliest recipes is from a Babylonian tablet dated 2,700 years old. In Renaissance Europe, indigo was a sought-after commodity that was associated with the coffee and spices imported from the East. Most people would know the characteristic navy hue from the blue of their denim jeans.
The beauty of Stein’s works unfolds as your eyes follow her threads, the gradual coming and going of color and pattern, and the blended textures resulting from her refined weaving processes. You don’t have to be a weaver to appreciate that which can only be made by hand. And since the exhibition has been extended to January 4, 2015, you’ll have plenty of time to look closer.
—Terah Walkup, Research Associate, Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art
Ethel Stein. Indigo 23, 1988. Gift of Ethel Stein.
Woman’s Wrapper (Adire Eleso), Yoruba Nigeria, mid-20th century. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Hammer.