Muses Gone Wild!

POSTED BY , ON October 02, 2015, 0 COMMENTS

The rock star god of classical antiquity, Dionysos reigned supreme over wine and theater, with maenad groupies and satyrs following in his wake. But what happened when his followers found a little too much inspiration in the grape? Come take a closer look at the Renaissance prints in Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints to find out!

The nine muses, who live placidly with the god Apollo on Mount Olympus, are usually content to inspire theater, poetry, and the other arts from a safe distance, or sometimes put hubristic challengers in their proper place. In the famous Raphael fresco in the Vatican (about 1511), they inspire the poets through song and music. Everything is tranquil, orderly and serene—in short, the perfect setting for creativity. Or so one would think from our Marcantonio Raimondi engraving after the fresco:

Raphael Raimondi

Shortly after this well-known print was published, however, a still-unidentified artist, the Master HFE, parodied the composition in such a visceral way that his version could only be known as Parnassus Profaned.

HFE Parnassus Profaned

In this version of Parnassus, the god of wine has left his intoxicating mark. Instead of perching on separate mounds, here the muses, poets, and even the trees are violently intertwined. The goats and sheep mingling throughout the composition demonstrate their legendary lecherousness even more clearly, and, as onlookers gasp, even Apollo’s trusty steed Pegasus flies away in disgust. The Art Institute’s Department of Prints and Drawings was very lucky to be able to acquire this exceptionally rare engraving earlier this year, but even this lusciously printed, deeply black impression on creamy paper does not tell the entire story.

Indeed, an even rarer-surviving impression of the print (now in the British Museum) pulled before the artist burnished out select details shows the extent of the drunken chaos. The muses and poets are indistinguishable in their fumbling, while some of the trees respond rather humorously to the carnal appetites of their woody neighbors. In the London impression, Dionysos has even intoxicated the forest, making Parnassus home to the world’s most botanical bacchanal.

muses and poets


Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael, Apollo on Parnassus, 1517/20, engraving. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer, Jr.

Master HFE, Parnassus Profaned, after 1520, engraving, second state. The Amanda S. Johnson and Marion J. Livingston Fund.

Master HFE, Parnassus Profaned, details from engraving, first state. © Trustees of the British Museum.

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Dionysos Across the Museum

POSTED BY , ON September 30, 2015, 0 COMMENTS


If our musings on Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculptures and Early Prints have left you wanting more, you’re in luck! Tributes to the intoxicating god of wine and theater appear throughout the museum.

Head to the Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art to see the stamnos (or mixing jar) pictured above, which would have been used for diluting wine with water. Each side of the vessel features three women preparing for a festival devoted to Dionysos. The woman on the left holds a rhyton (or drinking cup) and the woman in the middle holds a thyrsos (or ritual staff). The staff is topped with ivy leaves, which were sacred to Dionysos and often feature prominently in artwork that honors the god. . . like the coin below!

Dionysos Coin

This coin shows two different depictions of Dionysos. On the left, we see a young Dionysos, with elaborately styled hair and an ivy crown with berries on it. On the right, Dionysos is portrayed a bit older. He carries a bunch of grapes in his right hand and a cloak and rod in his left. Impress your friends by noticing that the Ancient Greek writing on the far right spells Dionysos.

We invite you to visit Dionysos Unmasked and then explore the rest of the collection to find even more portrayals of this much-depicted god. And if you have the inclination, honor Dionysos the way he would have wanted—with a drink in one of the museum’s cafés!

Image Credits:

Attributed to the Chicago Painter. Stamnos (Mixing Jar), about 450 B.C. Greek, Athens. Gift of Philip D. Armour and Charles L. Hutchinson.

Tetradrachm (Coin) Depicting the God Dionysos, mid-2nd Century B.C. Greek, minted in Maroneia (Thrace). Gift of Mrs. Emily Crane Chadbourne.

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Collaboration and Community: Similarities between Artists and Programmers

POSTED BY , ON September 24, 2015, 0 COMMENTS

Whistler Roussel Microsite

Whistler and Roussel: Linked Visions, an exhibition now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, features prints and drawings by James McNeill Whistler and Theodore Roussel. The exhibition shows that the work Whistler and Roussel produced during the late 19th century was not created in isolation, but was only possible in the context of their dynamic, thriving community. This community of artists, technicians, writers, publishers and models as well as their family and friends encouraged experimentation and created space for insiders and outsiders to explore a new world of artistic expression. 

In order to bring this idea to life, I was part of a team at the Art Institute that created the Linked Visions interactive, an application that allows the user to visually explore the social and personal connections between individuals in Whistler and Roussel’s circles. As we developed the application, I was struck by the parallels between Whistler and Roussel’s network of relationships and my own rootedness in open source software. New software today is often described as “built from scratch” or “from the ground up,” offering romanticized visions of teams of programmers huddled around laptops with blank text documents. In much the same way the idea of the artist alone in a studio ignores the communal and historical context of their work, these images of start-up culture ignore the decades of systems and developers who came before us, whose work are part of histories of incremental collaborations that have resulted in the frameworks we all base our work on today. One project allows developers to work out a common problem, which then allows space for others to push those ideas further, a process accelerated in recent years by services like GitHub that offer tools to open source communities. As developers, we would be remiss to ignore our participation in this collaborative building process and its history, whether or not we actively contribute to open source code.

The Linked Visions interactive wasn’t built from scratch. We started with a copy of code from the developers of Linked Jazz, a project that visualizes dynamic relationships between jazz musicians over its history. Linked Jazz wasn’t built from scratch, either. Both applications extensively use D3, a project that helps developers provide dynamic, interactive data visualizations in web browsers. D3 is built in JavaScript, a language meant to provide rich user interactivity in web browsers. JavaScript derives its syntax from C and adopts methodologies and ideas from a number of languages that came before it. And so on. I believe art in Whistler and Roussel’s community, and arguably art in general, developed and evolved in much the same way, through the intersection of iterative collaboration and time. 

As the exhibition shows, tools alone don’t create the circumstances for communities to grow–and for our ideas and ourselves to evolve. We need community and deep relationships to move forward, and these histories reflect that as they include the work of people from many different life experiences. None of these communities are homogeneous groups, and it’s only through their diversity that they thrive, grow, and are able to push boundaries further and further.

I invite you to visit the online interactive, but to get the full experience, the exhibition is open at the Art Institute through September 27.

—Nikhil Trivedi, Senior Systems Analyst, Department of Information Services


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Designing the Hidden Network between Two 19th-Century Artists

POSTED BY , ON September 22, 2015, 0 COMMENTS


A prolific and innovative painter, draughtsman, etcher, and lithographer, James McNeill Whistler had a strong influence on the art and exhibition design of his time. Whistler’s less-established contemporary, Theodore Roussel, was, on the other hand, a self-taught painter who later became known for his landscapes and mastery of color etching. But Whistler was impressed by the younger artist’s work and requested an introduction. Their subsequent meeting led to more than a decade of artistic collaboration and friendship.

More than a century later,  as we zoom out in time and space,a common network of collaborators and colleagues, families and friends comes into view. That invisible network, however, is not self-evident. For the Whistler & Roussel: Linked Visions exhibition, we needed to find a way to visualize that network. Traditional wall labels wouldn’t be able to tell the story we wanted to communicate.

Rather than building a platform from scratch, we started with a foundation of open-source code (built by Pratt and NYPL). Working with New York City-based interaction designer Michael Yap, we wanted to show the complex network while keeping the design interface intuitive and hyper-minimal. The following schematic shows an early approach to the interface design.

1-30 Design approach_Page_21

Visualizing the web of artists is interesting, but we wanted to go one level deeper and show how these artists were related to one another. Rather than go for a design feature that would clog up the network, we adopted an approach that used a filtering paradigm. Visitors filter down based on type of relationship. It’s a design solution that kept the interface clean and accessible.

While the artists may have emerged from the gilded age, we didn’t want the web graphics to explicitly cite Victorian England. We went with a minimalist design language inspired equally by Massimo Vignelli and Edward Tufte. One particular quote from Tufte provided inspiration — “Make all visual distinctions as subtle as possible, but still clear and effective.”

For a geometric motif, we borrowed a simple feature already built into the exhibit — slightly rounded corners from vintage Roussel frames. For the color scheme, we first explored a palette with five color options. It was four too many. We narrowed down the colors to a few critical selections — white, black, salmon. The salmon color was inspired by one of Roussel’s printed mounts and became a motif in both the digital catalog and the Linked Visions microsite.


Visit the Linked Visions microsite to see how all the design elements come together to share the story of Whistler and Roussel’s interwoven artistic network. In our next post, we’ll look closer at the technical infrastructure underpinning the design.

—Michael Neault, Director, Digital Experience & Access


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Coming Soon: David Adjaye

POSTED BY , ON September 16, 2015, 0 COMMENTS


Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye opens on Saturday, but we wanted to give you a little sneak peek of the exhibition. The image above shows just a tiny corner of the model for one of Adjaye’s most prestigious projects—the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—which is set to open in 2016.

And below, check out a detail of Horizon, a life-sized pavilion that visitors are welcome to enter. Click here to learn more about the exhibition from the curator and see a time-lapse installation of Horizon.


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