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.
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
POSTED BY Guest Blogger, ON March 13, 2013, Comments Off
Recent blustery conditions in our fair city—remember, Chicago’s moniker is the “Windy City”—has caused me to reflect on the weathervanes in the American Folk Art gallery. Weathervanes have been part of the American landscape for many years; originally, they were introduced by English colonial settlers as an instrument to reveal wind direction, or as decoration for a rooftop. But they were also coveted by American folk art collectors of the early 20th century because of their visual impact as silhouettes, appealing to collectors’ and artists’ modern aesthetic.
A wonderful newly acquired weathervane (top image, left side) by Henry Driehaus (1860-1943, in his studio immediately above) from this time period was recently installed in the Grainger Gallery of American Folk Art at the museum. Above four silhouetted fish bearing the four cardinal points, Driehaus crafted a hunting dog obediently waiting behind his master and a Native American wielding a bow and arrow, with the exaggerated spikes of his headdress complementing the form of his pants and the bush below him. Born in the United States to Prussian immigrants, rural blacksmith Henry Driehaus trained as a smith in the European cities of Essen, Basel, and Zurich and learned ornamental ironwork in a monastery before returning to Pennsylvania in 1880. A few years later he opened a permanent shop in Hendricks Station, Frederick Township, where he executed multifaceted ironwork—from shoeing and ironing wagons to ornamental ironwork (such as andirons, coat hooks and hinges). This hand-wrought weathervane, which is actually signed by the blacksmith, illustrates Driehaus’s predilection for and specialization in decorative ironwork.
Complimenting the weathervanes in the gallery is a whirligig (top image, right side) made by Lithuanian immigrant Frank Memkus (1884-1965). Whirligigs have been made in America since at least the early 19th century. Unlike weathervanes, which functioned as indicators of wind direction, whirligigs were mainly intended for fun and ornamentation, and therefore, tend to be more personally decorated. Naturalized as an American citizen on May 24, 1945, Memkus could have made the whirligig as a commemorative gesture toward his newly adopted country. As a new American, he might have been inspired by his recent naturalization, in combination with the Allied victory in Europe, to construct this overtly patriotic object. It employs the colors red, white, and blue to highlight the nation’s flag, and atop it stands a saluting seaman surrounded by airplane propellers, which, along with the flags, whirl and flutter in the wind.
These objects (and so many others) may be viewed in the Grainger Gallery of American Folk Art! But we apologize in advance for the lack of wind.
—Monica Obniski, Assistant Curator of American Art
Image Credit: Image courtesy of Guy Reinert files, Winterthur Library
POSTED BY Guest Blogger, ON March 12, 2013, Comments Off
The recently opened Picasso and Chicago will celebrate the long history of the artist’s relationship with the city. But 100 years ago this month, when the art of Picasso and his contemporaries was displayed at the museum for the very first time, it was met with shock, controversy, outrage. . . and record-breaking crowds. In 1913, the Art Institute hosted the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known today as the Armory Show. That revolutionary exhibit introduced the Chicago public to some of the most radical art of the day.
The Armory Show had such a huge impact on modern art in America that critics and art historians have continued to write about it for the last 100 years. To offer something new, we wanted to create an in-depth and interactive resource about how the exhibit came to be, what the public thought about it, and even what it looked like. This month we’ve launched a special online exhibition all about the Armory Show in Chicago and its legacy.
Just as the organizers of the Armory Show wanted to embrace the “new spirit” of the times, the online exhibition marks this important anniversary in a way that celebrates 1913 but belongs to 2013. A permanent part of the museum’s website, the Armory Show online exhibit will be a lasting tribute to the show that established the Art Institute as a venue for modern art and that changed the course of art collecting in Chicago. This project called for a museum-wide team, involving many different departments. Old newspapers were scoured, personal letters were brought to light again, and the original exhibition pamphlets were tracked down and digitized. Now you can tour the 1913 show on your phone or tablet while walking through the very same galleries today. Or read about the fate of “Henry Hairmatress” at home in your pajamas.
Possibly the most exciting part of the website is the gallery explorer. Looking at photographs of the exhibition found in our Archives, we went through each image trying to identify as many works of art as we could. High-res scans of the photos let us zoom in incredibly close, and we were able to recognize previously unidentified works. Now on the website, you can take a virtual tour of the Armory Show, wander through the museum galleries as they looked 100 years ago, and find out where many of the artworks can be found today. Try and spot the works that now belong to Art Institute’s permanent collection—many of which are currently on view in a special presentation in the third floor of the Modern Wing.
Visitors to the website will quickly learn that the Art Institute’s audience was not shy about voicing their opinions back in 1913, and we hope you’ll share your thoughts, too.
—Allison Perelman, Research Associate in Medieval through Modern European Painting and Sculpture
The halls of the museum and the School of the Art Institute are constantly refreshed with an influx of new work as special exhibitions open and close and the permanent collection rotates into the galleries. What most museum-goers and school-attendees don’t often get to see though is the driving force behind the institution itself: the creativity of the staff and faculty.
Interested in a peek behind the scenes—and into the minds of the Art Institute community? Then ArtWork 6 is your chance. This exhibition features new works in all media created by school and museum employees, from Security and Museum Education to Painting and Drawing and the Dean’s Office.
As I entered the packed opening reception last Friday evening, it struck me that while there were 160 of my colleagues participating in the show, I had only known that a few were artists. To come across a spoken word piece, a film projection, and a large-scale wooden sculpture created by people I see in weekly meetings was thrilling; art runs deep at this place in ways I hadn’t expected.
Patti Mocco—who’s just finishing her 15th year in the accounting department—confirmed the sentiment. She has exhibited work in the 2003 and 2008 shows, this time submitting an examination of a lotus pod, a drawing she made while looking at the abstract in nature.
“I’m in accounting, but I love using the other half of my brain. It’s so nice to speak to my fellow colleagues about my work, sharing my experience. It introduces the commonality that we have working here.”
Assistant Director of Academic Administration Jaclyn Jacunski agrees. “Though we all do so much here at the school and the museum and play so many different roles, the exhibition is an insight that I am working with artists every day. That beyond what we do at work, we leave this place making the choice to work more in the studio and to show those expressions and thoughts.
It is nice that in some formal way we recognize each other as artists and acknowledge our contributions.”
ArtWork6 is truly a product of common interest and effort. A do-it-yourself grassroots production from the first show in 1998, this rendition was organized by an all-volunteer committee from both sides of Michigan Avenue: the museum and the school.
To check out the exhibition (which is open to the public), visit the Sullivan Galleries located on the 7th floor of 33 S. State Street, Tuesday through Saturday from 11:00am to 6:00pm. Artwork6 is on view until February.
—Tricia Patterson, Marketing Coordinator