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Art Scene Investigation: Why Are You Angry?

POSTED BY , ON October 24, 2014, 0 COMMENTS

I am sitting in a white room with high ceilings, in deep silence. I am all alone. Only a slight humming is audible in the background. Right above me, unaware of this entire operation, hundreds of visitors are entering the glass doors of the Modern Wing. In front of me, a robotic arm, red and amber lights on, is going back and forth with a hypnotic rhythm. Outside, a yellow and purple X-ray warning sign is guarding the door.

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I have programmed the computer this morning, so now I only have to sit, wait, and watch while, dot after dot, tantalizing images the eye  cannot see trickle down the screen, like The Matrix with a splash of Warhol. In a few hours, the veil will be lifted.

The scene before me was painted by Paul Gauguin in Tahiti in 1896 and it is entitled Why Are You Angry?

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The painting shows two women sitting in the foreground, not making eye contact. Another woman, a magnetic presence, stands in the middle, and she is not happy. Although the title is evocative of some kind of narrative, the whole meaning of the scene remains mysterious. My colleague Kristin Lister, a paintings conservator, says that after looking at the painting inch by inch through a microscope, examining every brushstroke, she thinks perhaps originally this might have been a twilight scene. Perhaps there was fire, or light peeking through the doorway of the hut that is now pitch black. Today, over 100 years later, the colors are still bursting out of the painting, making the whole room vibrate (no, the vibrations are not just the effect of the cooling fan in the X-ray tube; this art is powerful).

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We cannot see through the dark, or through black paint for that matter, but X-rays can. And this new piece of technology—brilliantly designed by scientists Joris Dik and Koen Janssens with Bruker’s engineers—has been on a US grand tour to peer under some of the most important and enigmatic paintings in this country, after having its Cyclops eye trained on nothing less than Rembrandts back in Europe. It is important to remember that only a few years ago it was unthinkable to do what I am doing today, in the comfort and security of my own lab here at the Art Institute. This type of analysis was only possible at Synchrotrons, large-scale facilities like the one located 30 miles from here at Argonne National Lab. I don’t even want to start thinking about the hassle of having to transport this masterpiece there, arranging for security during transport, making sure the temperature and relative humidity are kept constant during the analysis and at values that are safe for the art. Instead, now that the technology is portable, it can travel to the art rather than the other way around. So, after the Getty in Los Angeles, and New York’s MoMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art, this instrument, called a macro-XRF scanner, has landed here in Chicago. Too bad I can only keep it for a few more days! I would love to own one of these.

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This amazing technology scans the surface of a painting with X-rays, exciting the painting materials without harming them. In response, at every spot probed, the atoms that make up the physical structure of the painting and its paint layers emit energy back in different packets so that we can tell precisely what the chemical elements are below the surface and, by inference, what pigments the artist has used. And instead of doing this for individual points, wielding a gun-like instrument—as seen in my post from June 27, 2011—we can now visualize the exact distribution of paints by sweeping through the entire surface of the painting. And this one is definitely big, at 37 1/2 x 51 3/8 inches!

It is going to be fantastic to be able to include this imagery in our forthcoming online catalogue on Paul Gauguin, part of our ongoing Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative which already includes richly detailed catalogues for Monet and Renoir.

So now under my eyes the magic of discovery begins: Below the veil of bluish-black paint there are two heads, not just the one we see, and red brushstrokes of vermilion (a pigment that contains mercury, whose symbol is Hg in the periodic table of elements) with touches of chrome yellow (a pigment containing lead [Pb] and chrome [Cr]), making for a very dynamic yellow-orange and fiery red backdrop for the seated figure.

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So, is there a glowing fire inside? Is it an orange curtain? Wait, is Paul inside? Are the women fighting over him? After all, he could be quite attractive, I think; perhaps not conventionally handsome, but I can definitely see a fire in him. He reminds me of the actor Jean Reno of “La Femme Nikita” fame.

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Whatever it is, after spending many hours in this room in close intimacy with his work, analyzing its every brushstroke, I feel somehow closer to Gauguin. And suddenly I am reminded of a recent article in the New York Times by Bill Hayes that definitely resonated with me. Its words are still echoing in my head now. In essence it says: When the world goes crazy, pick a work of art. Make it yours. Make it matter. Visit often.

Well, this is MY Gauguin today then. After a whole day with this painting, I feel exhilarated and very calm.

“Why are you angry?” asks Gauguin. “Why are you stressed?” we may sometimes ask ourselves. As long as we have great art that makes us dream and technology that makes us experience things we never thought possible, then we can have faith in this world. No need to be stressed, no need to be angry.

As spoken from my X-ray den. (And don’t worry, I wear a radiation dosimeter and, yes, this instrument is safe for me AND the art!)

 

—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist

 

Image credits:

[On view in Gallery 246] Paul Gauguin. Why Are You Angry? (No Te Aha Oe Riri), 1896. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

[On view at the Van Gogh Museum] Paul Gauguin. Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables) (detail), 1888. Van Gogh Museum , Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

 


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What May Come: Chicago and the Taller de Gráfica Popular

POSTED BY , 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.

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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.

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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

Image Credits:

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.

 


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Unthinking Admission

POSTED BY , ON August 13, 2014, 2 COMMENTS

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A teacup set too close to the edge of a table, bumping into a teacher at the grocery store, walking into a room and forgetting what you were supposed to be doing there. . . these situations can evoke a feeling of strange unease. The teacup might fall and break! Teachers exist outside of the classroom? Why am I here again?

And I find that looking at a Surrealist artwork can give a similar uncomfortable sensation. Which is kind of the point. Surrealists strove to present absurd, fantastic, unreal ideas to people. They wanted to put all of the crazy thoughts and images floating around in people’s minds out into the world, which resulted in strange, weird, and even unnerving images.

In this spirit of surrealism and inspired by the museum’s current Magritte exhibition, we wanted to invite people to engage in an activity fitting the theme of Magritte’s paintings: Surrealist Pricing. Instead of paying for a ticket to the museum, we asked guests to bring in objects of surrealism in exchange for free admission to the museum’s Magritte exhibition.

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On July 24th, people were (ma)greeted at the Monroe entrance by museum interns and Teen Council members ready to accept their items. Some people brought in art, some brought in cans. One person gave a giant beach ball! At the end of the night, there were carts full of knick knacks, art, and various everyday items that had been exchanged for tickets to the exhibition.

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Then last Thursday night, all of the objects we received (all 490 of them!) were put on display during a one night pop-up event. The Teen Council members worked with the Magritte exhibition’s curatorial team to set up and arrange the objects. Some of my favorite pieces included: foreign currency, a cat’s bed, a wallet complete with ID, credit cards, and $23 (the price of regular museum admission), a broken cookie jar, decorated shoes, a ladle, a shovel, and a stuffed bear made into a musical instrument.

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And at the end of the night, all these seemingly ordinary objects combined together for one very surreal display.

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—Stephanie Zhao, Museum Education Intern


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Celebrity Doppelgängers

POSTED BY , ON July 02, 2014, 1 COMMENTS

Rembrandt Giamatti

One thing you might not expect to find while browsing Rembrandt van Rijn’s prints is a doppelgänger for the veteran actor Paul Giamatti. But that’s just what I found in the midst of an intensive Rembrandt project!

The print in question is a 1641 etching depicting the Dutch Mennonite preacher and cloth merchant Cornelis Claesz. Anslo. A celebrated citizen of his time, Anslo was not only memorialized by Rembrandt in print form; he and his wife were the subjects of a 1641 double portrait painting, also by Rembrandt. In the print, Anslo is shown at a desk with several heavy tomes, looking up from his reading, perhaps addressing a congregant outside of the composition.

As far as the celebrity resemblance goes, it is easy to see something of Paul Giamatti, best known for his performances in The Truman Show, Sideways, and Cinderella Man, in the face of this 17th-century figure. Particularly, Paul Giamatti’s be-hatted, bearded look as Chief Inspector Uhl in The Illusionist (2006) is a pretty good ringer for the stoic, similarly attired Anslo.  Additionally, the intensity in their eyes and their close facial structures lend to this celebrity doppelganger comparison.

Though he doesn’t have the same Chicago pedigree as our first doppelgänger, Bill Murray, Giamatti has been recognized by our own Chicago Film Critics Association for many of his supporting roles.   Additionally, The Negotiator (1998), a thriller featuring Giamatti in a supporting part, is set in the Windy City.

Although Rembrandt’s “Giamatti” is not currently on display, there are other wonderful prints by the artist in Gallery 208A.  And anyone can book an appointment to come see this fascinating  doppelgänger etching, and many other works on paper in The Jean and Steven Goldman Study Center.

—Deborah Krieger, Summer Intern in the Department of Prints and Drawings

Image Credit:

Rembrandt van Rijn. Cornelius Claesz. Anslo, Preacher, 1641. Clarence Buckingham Collection.


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Members on Magritte

POSTED BY , ON June 23, 2014, 1 COMMENTS

Magritte Member Previews

Members of the Art Institute can always count on being the first to explore every major exhibition, and Magritte: Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 is no exception. With three preview days (that are still going on as I write this!), members gain exclusive access to the first major museum show to focus on Magritte’s most profoundly inventive and experimental years. During the previews, we also host three exclusive Member Lectures for a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibition.

Since members are some of the museum’s best ambassadors, it’s always exciting to see how they’ll react to a new exhibition. Starting on Saturday, they made their way through the unconventionally-designed galleries filled with René Magritte’s extraordinary and indelible works and the response was both positive and surreal. “The galleries are so lush and amazing, the dark rooms really draw you in,” one member described. Many members also took advantage of the member lectures given by Senior Lecturer, Annie Morse, and Exhibition Research Associate, Elizabeth McGoey. One member said she “loved Annie’s sense of humor which made the concept of surrealism very approachable.” Members really embraced the theme of the weekend, offering us some of their favorite surreal sayings, like “the earth is blue, just like an orange.”

Our member previews end today, but the perks don’t stop here. Members have the chance to catch mid-exhibition lectures on Thursday, August 28 and Saturday, August 30, as well as closing lectures on Sunday, October 5, Tuesday, October 7, and Thursday, October 9. Click the dates above to make your reservations now. Want to take part in these member exclusives? Join today!

— Courtney G., Manager of Events and Programs for Member Experience


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