How many movie stars have been spotted in the Art Institute? Perhaps more than we think and in different ways than we might imagine . . . In fact, a portrait print with a surprising resemblance to Bill Murray will be on view until the end of October in hallway gallery 208a!
No one has identified the sitter for this strikingly modern seeming, but in fact seventeenth-century Dutch chiaroscuro woodcut. The artist, Jan Lievens, was mainly a painter and etcher; most of his early portrait prints resemble the orientalizing designs of his close friend and studio-roommate, Rembrandt.
Lievens’ only woodcut, this work has great immediacy. He achieved this effect by contrasting a stark black outline block with an ochre tone block that highlights the glistening, balding pate. Even without a known sitter, the print was a popular one, with at least one lithograph copy made in the nineteenth century.
The chiaroscuro technique (printing highly-contrasting color in multiple blocks to mimic drawings) became popular in the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic in the early seventeenth century. Another even more intricate portrait done in this technique by the Flemish artist Christoffel Jegher after Peter Paul Rubens is also on view in 208a, but this time the sitter is thought to be a member of the Venetian nobility.
Although we haven’t seen him in the galleries lately, our inaugural celebrity doppelgänger has some Chicago connections. Born in Wilmette, Illinois, Bill Murray was part of Second City troupe in 1973 before moving to New York for Saturday Night Live, and Los Angeles for the comedies and art-house films that followed. Look for more posts on ARTicle featuring Art Institute artworks and their famous twins in the future!
Jan Lievens (Dutch, 1607–1674) Bust of a Man Facing Forward, 1630/40. Chiaroscuro woodcut from two blocks, in black and light brown ink on cream laid paper. Restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus H. Adams, Frank B. Hubachek, and the Alsdorf Foundation, 1959.542
Bill Murray, in Lost in Translation, Focus Features 2003.
They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910–1950 showcases art that speaks to artists’ journeys to Chicago in the first half of the 20th century. Whether it was Mexican immigrants coming north for better work opportunities or African American migrants moving from the rural South toward more industrialized cities or Europeans crossing the ocean to escape persecution, every newcomer to the city had their own story of how they arrived.
But the fact of the matter is that all of us have migration stories, tales of how we ended up in Chicago instead of San Antonio or Stockholm. To showcase that diversity of experience, the museum has created a Tumblr where you can share your story. You can write text or upload videos or images in which you describe you or your family’s path to Chicago. We currently have examples from places as diverse as Peru, Russia, and Iowa. The Tumblr also includes some of the (adorable) drawings created by children in our Ryan Education Center over the last few weeks.
Image Credit: The Ochieng Family
Most of the time when I read about science and art in the newspaper, the story involves forensics and fakes. Now, I hold no grudges to CSI (after all, they’re the ones who made science look riveting), but analyzing art is so much more than fake-busting.
For example, one thing we are always very interested in here at the museum is where things come from, or “provenance” in art-speak. Frequently, the museum’s records can easily show the path of ownership from the artist to the museum. But when that path is not so clear, curators determine provenance by combing through papers and archives: letters, diaries, photos, newspaper clips, exhibition reviews, catalogues, contracts etc. Nothing escapes their peering eyes. But in situations when archives might not hold the answer, we look to science.
The bronze sculpture Head of a Woman (Fernande) (image below left)—which you can find surrounded by arresting works on paper in one of the galleries of Picasso and Chicago—has a rock-solid provenance. It was once part of the collection of Alfred Stieglitz, the famous pioneer of all things photography and champion of avant-garde art. He bought it directly from Ambroise Vollard, to whom Picasso had sold the plaster version and rights to cast.
But unlike Fernande, Jester (image above right) has a more fragmented paper trail. So where are these sculptures really from? Where were they made?
If you look closely at bronze sculptures of the period (But not too close! Or a guard may rightly offer a reprimand. Nobody wants nose-prints on their collection…) you will notice foundry marks like the ones below.
A bit like cowboys do with cattle in fact, the different Parisian foundries would imprint their names on the sculptures they cast. But not all the time. To complicate the situation further, unlike today when an artist may issue a limited numbered edition of his or her work, in the early 1900s dealers like Vollard would have a bronze cast made only when they had a definite client for it. And we don’t have good records of all these different casts for Picasso. Also, to complicate things even further, you have to take in account when the casting occurred. Sculptures that are cast later are less valuable than very early editions.
So what does the art detective do? Interrogate the sculptures themselves!
We first took a look at the materials and specifically the composition of bronze or brass. (Bronze is made primarily of copper, tin, and lead and brass is made of copper, zinc, and lead.) We used a portable elemental analyzer (or x-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer ) to test the type and amount of these components on all the sculptures (68 total) we could get our hands on that were cast in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. The good news is that, just like your aunt’s favorite brownie recipe, which she would not give away even if you bribed her, foundries had their secret mixtures that allowed the molten metal to flow better, produced fewer casting flaws, reduced the filing work after the cast, took up the patina better, etc.
This is good for us, because then the composition of the metal becomes the sculpture’s DNA that we can trace all the way down to the original foundry. And so we were able to rejoin Jester with his family of bronzes, some of which had a foundry mark of the firm Bingen and Constenoble (whose foundry mark is pictured below).
Flowers in a Vase, also in the exhibition, grouped very well with the lost wax casts of the Valsuani foundry, one that produced many other works by Picasso. And Fernande? She proudly remains isolated, with a unique alloy of which, to this very day, we have found no equals. Only more analysis on more sculptures will help us nail down the foundry that made it. In the meantime I am pleased that with the help of science we have finally rejoined the Jester with its own makers.
Believe it or not, the whole story is told in the graph below. Now, after a tale of molten metal sparks, industrial secrets, and the mystery of the missing stamps, who can say science is boring?
—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist
Pablo Picasso. Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909. The Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Pablo Picasso. Jester, 1905. The Art Institute of Chicago, Kate L. Brewster Collection. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Minotaurs (half-bull, half-man hybrids from Greek mythology) and horses are fairly common characters in Picasso’s work. In addition to the painting above, the wounded horse makes an appearance in Guernica, one of Picasso’s most famous paintings. Both figures also pop up elsewhere in the exhibition in prints that Picasso made in the 1930s.
Bulls would have been recognized as emblems of Spain, but minotaurs represented man’s irrational impulses and perhaps appropriately can be found in other works in the exhibition in orgy-like scenes. Some suggest that Picasso himself identified with this character.
In this painting, the minotaur acts as torero and aggressor, having just gored the horse in the middle of a crowded bull-fighting ring. But the turmoil in this painting might be a little more complex. It was painted at a time when Picasso was struggling with both his wife Olga and his mistress Marie-Thérèse, as well as unrest brewing in his native Spain.
Image Credit: Pablo Picasso. Minotaur and Wounded Horse, 1935. The Art Institute of Chicago, Anonymous gift. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Quiz of the week: what’s a 7 letter word starting with P that identifies the last name of an artist who used paint from cans to make his pictures?
If you guessed Pollock, it’s a good guess.
But did you know that Pablo Picasso started using ready-mix paints from cans (we call it enamel) well before the dawn of action painting, as early as 1912? Picasso was by far the most influential of the early adopters of this brand new and unconventional medium. If standing in front of rows of paint cans at the hardware store doesn’t seem so revolutionary today, one has to realize that a hundred years ago the fact that you could paint your house or your furniture yourself without having to hire a professional painter who would mix the colors in the base paint was quite extraordinary. After all, the invention of the collapsible metal paint tube as we know it today dated only to a little over a half century prior (around 1840s).
In the early 1900s in France the brand Ripolin was all the rage. The name originated from Riep, its inventor, and lin, which is shorthand in French for linseed oil, the binder of the paint, or, in other words, the stuff that makes it stick to the wall. The brand boasted superior quality and attractive advertising, vestiges of which are still seen all around France today (immediately below is a picture I took one summer in Marseille, in the south of France, with a vintage one below that).
Ripolin was so famous that, much like “to google” today, very soon the verb “to ripolin” (or “ripoliner” in French) was coined. The famed architect Le Corbusier went as far as to say that it was a moral imperative to cover all surfaces with a coat of white Ripolin, for love of purity, and he called this “the law of Ripolin.”
We still don’t know exactly why Picasso picked up the stuff in the first place. Certainly an avant-garde interest in unconventional materials played a role, as well as the possibilities opened by a new kind of paint that dried into a hard, glossy enamel in hours, unmarred by the marks of the brush, but prone to creative “accidents” such as dramatic wrinkling and dripping.
“You don’t tell someone miserable to wipe his tears,” he said to his friend and poet Jean Cocteau in 1953 when Cocteau commented on the numerous drips in the murals for the Chapel of War and Peace in Vallauris.
Ripolin paint also came in a range of very bright colors and dried fast, allowing free range to Picasso’s insatiable creativity without fear of smudging what was already on the canvas.
I cannot help but think that at the beginning the material also responded to an anti-establishment “angst,” or at least that’s how I read his letter of 1912 (Picasso was in his early 30s then) to his dealer Kahnweiler referring to his Ripolin paintings: “Perhaps we will manage to shock and disgust the whole world and we will not have said it all.”
Identifying exactly in which pictures Picasso used Ripolin (he continued to use it until the end of his life together with artist’s tube paints and many other painting materials) is a big deal. So much of a big deal that we, at the Art Institute, have made it a research priority for our team of art detectives (aka museum scientists) to figure out what’s in the paint. We even went on eBay to buy 100 years old cans of paint for reference (yes, you can find that too, and it’s for sale!).
After all Ripolin, together with Magna (used by Roy Lichtenstein among others) and Duco (used by David Alfaro Siqueiros), is one of the very few brand names of paint that is actually noted on labels and exhibition catalogues, as opposed to a generic identification of media.
If you are curious, go see The Red Armchair in the exhibition Picasso and Chicago at the Art Institute until May 12 (tip: it’s painted with Ripolin and oil). Or, to close with another challenge, go find a lid of a Ripolin can stuck to one of the Picasso sculptures in the exhibition.
If you need more visual clues of what to look for, watch the videos and look at the display cases that hold some of those eBay finds. Hopefully you won’t be shocked and disgusted, but perhaps a bit entertained.
—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist