When the Greeks Ruled Egypt

POSTED BY , ON January 24, 2014, Comments Off

“This country has more marvels and monuments that defy description than any other.”

That’s Greek historian Herodotus’s account of Egypt in the 5th century B.C., then a land of wealth and exoticism that intrigued Greeks. A century later when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in his successful war against the Persian Empire, the fusion of the two cultures led to the creation of new gods and ways of showing them (which you can see for yourself in When the Greeks Ruled Egypt, on display in Gallery 154).


To represent the combined cultures, Alexander joined the Greek god Zeus and Egyptian god Amon to create (wait for it). . . Zeus Amon. Egyptians thought of pharaohs as gods on earth, so descent from this god, as Alexander and his successors claimed, was an important part of adapting to their new home. Wander through the exhibition and you’ll notice figures with distinctive head gear: ram’s horns. In this tetradrachm, for example, Alexander is shown with this distinctive feature curling around his ear—an image that unmistakably identifies him as the son of Zeus Amon and consequently the legitimate leader of Egypt.


On another coin, Zeus Amon himself appears. Not only is he a hybrid of faiths, but so is the way he’s shown: with the symbolism of Egyptian religion, but in a naturalistic, Greek style.


It’s fitting that an exhibition about cultures coming together is presented at the crossroads of the museum, which itself is at the center of a vast, global city. See the over 75 fascinating objects, including mummy masks, portraits, coins, and magical amulets for yourself, along with enlightening quotes printed on the gallery walls, through July 27.

Image Credits:

Installation view of When the Greeks Ruled: Egypt After Alexander the Great.

Greek, minted in Ephesus, Asia Minor. Tetradrachm (Coin) Portraying Alexander the Great. 306-281 B.C., Issued by Kind Lysimachus of Thrace. Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Martin A. Ryerson.

Greek, minted in Cyrene, North Africa. Stater (Coin) Depicting the God Zeus Ammon, about 322-308 B.C. Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Martin A. Ryerson.


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Ladies Who Lunch

POSTED BY , ON August 15, 2013, 1 COMMENTS

Luncheon on the Grass

Sorry to say, summer is fleeting. Summer fashion? It changes so fast it’ll make your top hat–covered head spin.

In 1863 Edouard Manet painted a scandalous work titled Luncheon on the Grass which showed voluptuous nudes striking classical poses in the company of men dressed in the fashions of 1860s Paris. In the minds of the public, making the outdoor scene contemporary corrupted the work in a shocking way.

Perhaps in a nod to Manet’s Luncheon, several years later Claude Monet began work on a group of figure drawings also named Luncheon on the Grass. Monet, like Manet, sought to use imagery of the Parisian middle class at leisure in the forests of Fontainebleau to push the envelope. While the ambitious goal of presenting this large project at the Salon of 1866 didn’t pan out, two large, life-sized panels (the central panel above and the left panel below), as well as a number of sketches and studies, show the scope of what Monet aimed to accomplish.

Standing atop the artificial grass among fashionable visitors from around the country and world, Monet’s groundbreaking explorations come into full focus.

Left Luncheon on the Grass

The middle-class crowd sprawled out in the woods is not organized according to some classical calculus. The faces of the figures are not the focus (you can’t even see the faces of three of the women!), nor are the food, drink, or trees. What does pop, however, is the fashion that most certainly was the very epitome of style at the very moment depicted. The brightly-colored accents on the dress on the left panel, the brilliant white of the dress at center, the complicated motion of the beige dress, and the cut and fit of the men’s suits are, in my mind, Monet’s tour de force. The ephemerality of these garments—very much alive in the panels—are sure to fall from favor at the end of the season just as the leaves will fall from the forest trees. What strikes me about this painting is that it’s timeless by not showing the timeless, classic by rejecting the classical. It, through fashion, shows how life really is: momentary, colorful, and always in flux.

Monet’s beautiful snapshot of modern life is still contemporary today even after 150 cycles of summer fashion have passed. And, just like hot summer fashions of 2013, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity will go off view at the end of September.

Image Credit: Claude Monet. Luncheon on the Grass, 1865–66. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, acquired as a payment in kind, 1987, RF 1987-12.

Work of the Week: In Free Fall

POSTED BY , ON January 18, 2013, Comments Off

Jets have complicated lives, too.

From first flight to plane graveyard, commercial jetliners have long careers with more than just figurative ups and downs. I’m a confessed airliner enthusiast, so Hito Steyerl’s In Free Fall (2010) piqued my interest because it lays out the life, death, and reuse of a Boeing 707. The moving-image work is separated into three chapters: Before the Crash, After the Crash, and Crash. When we join the main character, Boeing 707 4X-JYI, it’s in pieces in Mojave—the place where planes go to die. We’re told that 4X-JYI started its life at the glamorous airline TWA ferrying the trendy jet-set. The plane descended to serving utilitarian functions for the Israeli military in the 1970s, made an explosive cameo in the 1994 film Speed, and then was sent to China as scrap—its fuselage chewed up and, presumably, turned into products like pirated DVDs of American action films.

The story of the classic jetliner is told through appearances by Hito Steyerl, actor Imri Kahn, and even the cameraman. The production of In Free Fall also plays a role. So essentially, it’s telling the story of the airplane, but it’s also telling the story of telling the story of the airplane. Follow me?

Regardless, the plane’s many lives, shown in the immersive environment of the Donna and Howard Stone Gallery for Film, Video, and New Media, offer a visually compelling look at the processes of production, consumption, destruction, and reuse. This exhibition is on view through January 27.

Image Credit: Hito Steyerl. Still from In Free Fall, 2010. © Hito Steyerl. Courtesy of Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam.


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A Look Back at a Brilliant Year

POSTED BY , ON December 31, 2012, 2 COMMENTS

An election, an Olympiad, and Gangnam Style: 2012 was a momentous year, especially for the Art Institute. Blockbuster exhibitions, shiny new galleries, and big technology updates were the talk of the town.

One of the biggest happenings of the year was Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, which brought together nearly 170 iconic works like Brushstroke with Spatter (1966) and attracted nearly 350,000 visitors.

The new Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art also took shape around McKinlock Court. Designed by wHY Architecture, the new sun-drenched galleries now hold over 550 works from 4,000 years of life in the Mediterranean region. The location of the galleries—right at a crossroads in the museum—is definitely fitting considering the huge influence of the Greek and Roman world on Western art.

The Art Institute continued to go high-tech in 2012. Members can now show their member card on an iPhone, over 133,000 people like us on Facebook, and LaunchPads—specialized iPads chock full of info and fresh new perspectives on works—are now in two spaces (the Jaharis Galleries and the European Decorative Arts galleries).

As usual, the curators presented shows worthy of a blizzard of superlatives. Here’s just a small sample of the exhibitions that filled the galleries in 2012:

Rarely seen Renaissance and Baroque drawings showed the creative spark behind the work of prolific Italian painters.

A photography exhibition took a deeper look at the groundbreaking work of two highly influential surrealists.

1:1 scale copper replicas of pieces of the Statue of Liberty filled Pritzker Garden.

Moving, moving-image works by prominent artist Steve McQueen went on display in an innovative presentation in Regenstein Hall.

And exhibitions explored the cutting-edge designs of fashion houses Bless, Boudicca, Sandra Backlund; as well as the impressive accomplishments of Chicago architect Jeanne Gang.

Yes, it’s been a big year for the museum, but 2013 promises to be even more grand. More news in the New Year, but for now, we’re off to toast a great year and to ring in the next. Happy New Year!

Image Credits:

Roy Lichtenstein. Brushstroke with Spatter, 1966. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Art Institute of Chicago, Barbara Neff Smith and Solomon Byron Smith Purchase Fund.

View of the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art.

View of LaunchPad technology in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, called Il Grechetto. The Creation of Adam, late 1640s. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of an anonymous donor; restricted gifts of Dr. William D. and Sara R. Shorey, and Mr. and Mrs. George B. Young.

Installation view of Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2012.

Danh Vo. Installation view of We The People (detail), 2010–2013.

Steve McQueen. Installation view of exhibition Steve McQueen at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2012.

Installation view of Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, Sandra Backlund at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2012.

Studio Gang Architects. Installation view of Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago September 24, 2012–Sunday, February 24, 2013.

A Vote for Better Design

POSTED BY , ON November 06, 2012, Comments Off

Lizard people (ahem, Minnesota), butterfly ballots, and hanging, swinging, pregnant, and dimpled chads (here’s looking at you, Florida)—voting in American elections always comes with a healthy dose of anxiety. But as I voted this morning here in Chicago, I found myself reassured by the ballot before me. Easy-to-follow directions, an understandable layout, and readable text—the ballot let me focus on making important decisions rather than navigating impenetrable blocks of letters or deciphering a baffling design.

Ballots in Cook County are a great example of how graphic design can serve the common good. After voting debacles in 2000, the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) launched a project called Design for Democracy, which aims to make the process of voting easier and more efficient. AIGA worked with Cook County and the state of Oregon to revamp voting materials and in 2007, Marcia Lausen published Design for Democracy: Ballot and Election Design (University of Chicago Press/AIGA), which has become an invaluable toolkit for citizens and officials who want to make voting as straightforward as possible.

Displayed at the Art Institute this spring and summer as part of the exhibition Rethinking Typologies, Design for Democracy: Ballot and Election Design includes suggestions (that might seem obvious, but aren’t embraced as often as you might think) such as:

– Prioritize voter directions over administrative requirements

– Present concise text

– Use upper- and lowercase sans serif typefaces with left alignment for readability

– Don’t use all caps

– Print text in 12-point font or larger

– Use universally recognized icons

– Utilize color and contrast to highlight important information

Election administration is up to states and municipalities, so even though there are model cities, counties, and states, many polling sites around the country still have atrocious voter-experience. Voting is an important part of maintaining democracy (duh), but making the process easier, clearer, and less prone to electoral dysfunction is vital in reinvigorating our democratic institutions.

If you haven’t already, go vote! And if your ballot leaves something to be desired (we’re talking graphic design, here, people), talk to your local election officials about making better design happen in your community.

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