Eastman Johnson and his wife were riding through Nantucket when they happened upon a scene much like this one, seeing “the yellow corn and husks, the bright chickens running about [and] the old sea captains with their silk hats of better days.” Their excursion inspired this romanticized view of rural life, celebrating hard work, community spirit, and the harvest during a husking bee. Towards the right you can see a young woman holding up a red ear of corn in her right arm. According to folk tradition, this allowed her to kiss the person of her choice.
But what this painting doesn’t show is that scenes like this were becoming more and more rare. Industrialization was revolutionizing American agriculture and small farmers were increasingly being forced to abandon their land and seek work in cities. However, we’ll cut Johnson some slack because the timing of this painting does allow for a bit of nostalgia. Johnson made it in 1876, the year that marked the United States’ centennial, a time when people were celebrating democracy and the American spirit.
Image Credit: Eastman Johnson. Husking Bee, Island of Nantucket, 1876. Gift of Honoré and Potter Palmer.
In 1980, photographer Sarah Charlesworth exhibited a new body of work called Stills, a collection of photographs collected from news wire services and the New York Public Library that showed nearly life-size images of people jumping or falling from great heights. The series was originally limited to seven photographs for a variety of reasons—the cost of printing, the size of the exhibition space—but Charlesworth amassed a much larger collection of these archival images and in 2012, expanded the series to 14 photographs. This exhibition marks the first time all 14 photographs will be shown together.
These images bring up a range of questions: Are the subjects jumping from something? To something? Are they falling? Did they have suicidal intentions? Who are they? What happened to them? We don’t know all of the answers to these questions, but we do know that the outcome is not always as dire as it appears to be.
For example, the image above shows a 15 year old named Patricia Cawlings who jumped (for unknown reasons) from the top of a Zen mission building in Los Angeles. She fell about 20 feet and somewhat remarkably only suffered minor injuries. But because of how Charlesworth has cropped and scaled the source photographs, it’s impossible to tell this by looking at her image. In the words of exhibition curator Matthew Witkovsky, this “absence of closure can seem unendurable” for the viewer.
We invite you to see this exhibition in the Art Institute’s Modern Wing through January 4.
Image Credit: Sarah Charlesworth. Patricia Cawlings, Los Angeles, 1980, printed 2012, No. 10 of 14 from the series Stills. Krueck Foundation and Photography Gala Funds. © Estate of Sarah Charlesworth. Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone.
You might be surprised to discover 1) that these two paintings were created by the same artist and 2) that they were inspired by the same thing. They were in fact both painted by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian within just five years of each other and were both inspired by the landscape in his native Holland.
If you’re familiar with Mondrian’s work, you probably recognize the aesthetic of the top canvas: horizontal and vertical lines and a limited palette including black, white, and primary colors. Also, in this case, Mondrian has rotated the square canvas by 45 degrees to create even more contrast between the lines in the painting and the diagonal lines of the canvas. But these spare, geometric compositions reflect more than just an interest in abstraction; they represent a reduction in natural forms to create a pure new visual language. And often, the natural forms that were the jumping-off point for Mondrian’s work came from Holland’s flat geography.
But as he and other artists were experimenting with relationships between abstract lines, shapes, and colors, Mondrian was also creating more representational work, including this painting from 1916 called Farm near Duivendrecht. This is one of 20 views of the same farm that he created over about 14 years. In part, this was to please his patrons, many of whom preferred a more naturalistic style. But it also gave him an opportunity to balance his new abstract interests with the more straightforward approaches to landscape that he had worked on early in his career.
Make sure to visit (and compare) both of these works on your next visit to the third floor of the museum’s Modern Wing.
Piet Mondrian. Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray, 1921. Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International, Warrenton VA.
Piet Mondrian. Farm near Duivendrecht, c. 1916. Gift of Dolly J. van der Hoop Schoenberg. © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International, Warrenton VA.
POSTED BY Guest Blogger, ON September 17, 2014, Comments Off
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.
POSTED BY Suzanne K.S., ON September 10, 2014, Comments Off
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.