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Haunting Dreams and Sinister Echoes

POSTED BY , ON October 22, 2013, Comments Off

Opening just in time for everyone’s favorite spooky holiday, Dreams and Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture from the David and Celia Hilliard Collection features 115 drawings, prints, and sculptures spanning five centuries. Extraordinarily generous with strong ties to the Art Institute over the years, the Hilliards have already given or promised 61 of the works on display, which bolster areas of weakness in the Art Institute’s collection and develop areas of strength. The exhibition’s title, Dreams and Echoes, refers to the thematic threads that weave through the collection, from the broad selection of French and British landscape drawings, to important groups by Edgar Degas, Jean-François Millet, and Odilon Redon, and a stunning array of fantastical, psychological, and macabre works from nineteenth-century Symbolist artists.

A Foregaterhing of Witches

The array of charming landscape drawings that make up the beginning of the exhibition takes a turn for the sinister, dark, and stormy in George Romney’s A Foregathering of Witches, a Scene from “Macbeth” (above). Two figures whirl around a bonfire, casting their dark magics. The drawing illustrates a moment in Act 4, scene 1 of Macbeth, where the witches rattle off their revolting recipe. Romney’s swirling brush strokes throughout the drawing evoke the frenzy of the witchcraft and invokes the fear of the unknown.

1 WITCH.  Round about the caldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—

Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1

The eldritch and eerie theme continues into the spectacular works of Odilon Redon, James Ensor, and Jan Toorop. European Symbolist artists were fascinated with sex and sexuality, life and death, spirituality and myth. Their works are populated by figures ranging from delicate, virginal women to femme fatales, masked beings, and skeletal harbingers of death—in other words, zombies.

The Servants of Death

The two figures in the opening work by William Degouve de Nuncques, The Servants of Death would not be especially out of place in any of today’s zombie movies, despite being put to paper in 1894. These shambling servants are busy sawing planks over a grave-like hole in the ground, the purpose of which is unknown—but with a title like The Servants of Death and complexions like theirs it can’t bode well for anyone. The dying embers of the fire and the blood red of the setting sun add to the sense of a turn-of-the-century Belgian horror movie about to happen.

Mask of Death

Rounding out the collection’s spectral, skeletal elements is a group of masks from Symbolist sculptors, the most recently acquired of which is the skull-like Mask of Death. Presiding over a case of masks with a grin, the Mask of Death by Jules Desbois, seems to shift from benevolent to malignant with a step to either direction. The sunken, decaying features and moldering colors of the ceramic glazes stir up the sensation that this is a head that until recently resided somewhere below ground—possibly excavated from the zombies’ hole. Unlike the crowned skull of the nearby bronze sculpture Nothing!! (Rien!!) by Jean-Baptiste Clésinger, the Mask of Death still appears to have skin and flesh, though it’s not necessarily an improvement.

Dreams and Echoes opened to the public last weekend and runs until February 16. The accompanying catalogue is available in the Museum Shop, so you can gaze upon the Mask of Death or call up your own Foregathering of Witches, whenever you like.

—Melissa L. Gustin, Research Associate

Image Credits:

George Romney, A Foregathering of Witches, a Scene from “Macbeth,” early 1790s. Brush and brown and gray wash, over black chalk, on off-white laid paper, laid down on blue wove appear with an added border of ivory laid paper around the drawing; 381 x 538 mm. The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Celia and David Hilliard, 2013.

William Degouve de Nuncques, The Servants of Death, c. 1894. Pastel on gray wove paper prepared with a greenish-gray ground, perimeter mounted to canvas, wrapped around a strainer; 930 x 730 mm. David and Celia Hilliard Collection.

Jules Desbois, Mask of Death, 1904. Enameled stoneware; 300 x 220 mm. David and Celia Hilliard Collection.

Naked or Nude?

POSTED BY , ON June 26, 2013, Comments Off

How many artfully-draped centaurs, bacchantes, and nymphs does it take to make a dirty magazine? Only one early 20th-century periodical has the answer: The Aesthetic Nude (Le Nu Esthétique), an amazing period piece culled from the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries for the Department of Prints and Drawings’s Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy.

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Illustrated entirely with unclothed models enacting quasi-mythological imagery, the covers alone range from a rapturous Leda and the Swan to a centaur’s semi-consensual abduction of a nymph. Inside each issue appear even more views of studio models in increasingly far-fetched poses, all of which were ostensibly meant to supplant the live model in studio practice.

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It’s not clear that anyone ever copied these compositions in paint, but the effort that went into cutting out the photos in lively shapes, and the publication’s run of several years (c. 1902-06), suggests a market existed for it!

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These ‘aesthetic nudes’ beg the question of what constituted nudity, as opposed to nakedness in the late 19th and early 20th century. Was it simply the academic and mythological guise that made these images acceptable, even collectible?

In Undressed’s adults-only Prostitution gallery (127A), less is definitely more. In fact prices increased inversely to the amount of clothing removed by skilled Parisian courtesans in the 19th century! While those often-raucous images must be experienced in person, the nearby gallery with the Aesthetic Nude (127B) focuses on the purer nude. Full of academic studies of (mainly) male models, this space offers a curious contrast to the scores of women caught in the act of undressing elsewhere in the exhibition. Drawing from the nude was a necessary step in artist training, for only after apprentices had mastered copying from sculpture casts and engravings could they attempt the live model. The emphasis remains on classical form; indeed, these figures are so detached from the context of clothing, the final result is hardly provocative. Even discounting the novelty of photography, these ‘aesthetic nudes,’ however, are something else entirely.

Undressed:  The Fashion of Privacy is an exhibition of works on paper (open through September 29 in the Prints and Drawings Galleries) complementing the Art Institute’s summer extravaganza, Impressionism, Fashion, & ModernityUndressed strips the veneer of fashionable public clothing and shows European and American women and some men from the 18th into the early 20th century anywhere from a state of nature to fashionably deshabillé.

Image Credit: Selections from Émile Bayard, Le nu esthétique: l’homme, la femme, l’enfant,  (The aesthetic nude:  man, woman, child), no. 36 (September 12, 1905).  Ryerson and Burnham Libraries.

Morell Meets Homer

POSTED BY , ON June 21, 2013, Comments Off

Abelardo Morell, whose retrospective The Universe Next Door opened June 1, has become known for making pictures that get to the heart of photography. He has turned entire rooms into cameras, employing a phenomenon that has been known since antiquity: that light entering a darkened room (“camera obscura”) through a small aperture will project an image, upside-down and reversed, on the opposite surface. More recently, he has been making pictures with the tent camera, a kind of portable camera obscura he designed himself. A lens in the top of the tent projects the outside scene onto the ground—whether rocks, sand, grass, or city sidewalk—and he then photographs the combination of the two.

Morell’s influences, however, are not strictly from the field of photography. In fact, he finds himself looking more to painting for models. When he was a student at Bowdoin College in Maine, he discovered Winslow Homer, the 19th-century painter who so famously depicted the New England landscape, especially the sea. One of the foremost scholars of Homer, Philip Beam, taught at Bowdoin, and Morell—who had dropped out of college but remained in town working at the university art museum—ended up photographing numerous paintings and book reproductions for the professor.

With his tent camera, Morell says he now feels more like a painter. In the Modern Wing’s Bucksbaum Gallery, where the tent camera pictures are on view, you can see how gravel on a Manhattan rooftop starts looking like pointillist dots, or how cracked earth along the Rio Grande begins to mimic thick flourishes of paint. He took his tent camera to Winslow Homer’s home and studio in Prouts Neck, Maine, an isolated stretch overlooking the ocean, where the painter lived and painted seascapes for much of his last 25 years. Morell positioned the tent over a patch of sandy grass and directed the periscope lens onto the sea. The resulting picture shows wisps of clouds over the ocean’s horizon, rendered more abstract through the tangled mesh of plants. In an homage to an artist he admired, Morell merged the present and the past and combined painting and photography.

Take a look at this watercolor from the Art Institute’s collection (above) and Morell’s tent camera photograph (below):

Homer, Breaking Storm

Morell, Tent Camera Image

—Elizabeth Siegel, Associate Curator of Photography

Image Credits:

Winslow Homer. Breaking Storm, Coast of Maine, 1894. Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

Abelardo Morell, Tent Camera Image on Ground: View of Sea from Winslow Homer’s Studio Backyard, Prouts Neck, Maine, 2012. High Museum of Art, gift of the artist in honor of Daniel W. McElaney, Jr., 2012.218.

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Opening Tomorrow: Abelardo Morell

POSTED BY , ON May 31, 2013, Comments Off

You have two choices:

You can click on the video above to hear photographer Abelardo Morell talk about his work, inspirations, and his parents’ dancing skills.

Or you can visit the museum tomorrow to hear from the artist himself. In celebration of the opening of Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door, the artist will be giving a talk in Rubloff Auditorium. The talk is free with museum admission and begins at 12pm.

Either way, you’re in for a treat!

Works of the Week: Cut it Out!

POSTED BY , ON April 26, 2013, Comments Off

Kara Walker’s Antebellum cutout installation at the Art Institute pushes the boundaries of what black and white silhouettes can do to combat stereotypes. Here’s a look at some of the more curious nineteenth century silhouettes in the Art Institute’s permanent collection that came before Walker’s bold racial re-envisioning of the medium.

Silhouettes based on shadows have been called the origin of the art of painting since antiquity. By the modern era, the most popular function for the silhouette was for single or family portraits in profile, possibly due to theories that the profile and the soul were visibly connected. Valentines with silhouetted imagery and memorial cards were similarly popular. These were made from black paper cut out and adhered to a white background, or white paper laced with holes on a black background. The unknown maker of a nineteenth-century scene from an album in Prints and Drawings narrowly avoided turning their work into a full-fledged doily. Thankfully, instead, they provided the contrast of a bright blue backing to its floral image of a woman tending a funerary urn.

blue silhouette

The overhanging tree suggests the cutter might have been German, or familiar with the German Romantic tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. A prominent theme was the melancholy over premature death (as in the suicide of the lovelorn protagonist in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther), which became a craze.

Another album in Prints and Drawings was compiled around 1837 by the German-born Queen Adelaide of England (1792-1849), who enlisted her female friends at court to provide drawings of children, landscapes and costume balls. One of them, Elizabeth, Landgravine of Hesse-Homburg (1770-1840), was apparently English by birth, but traveled with her German husband through the Vogelsberg part of his territories. Her contribution was two black cutouts of peasants she saw working in those fields. The figures wear traditional peasant garb, but some abstracted details have become ambiguous to the modern eye.

Peasants 2

Peasants 1

Elizabeth has focused on several family interactions coinciding with the workday tasks. A father may be keeping a toy away from his dancing child, or perhaps shaking a tambourine for her during a rest. The children on the ground may be working the fields, or simply playing dangerously with abandoned scythes. In contrast, the child on a leash significantly predates modern apologetic attempts to tether the young. Age-old feudal attitudes seem to remain in full swing when Elizabeth described the figures below the cart as “Group I saw in the field as I visited the Vogelsberg (and) struck me as lovely.” Was the main purpose of these peasants simply to form a charming tableau vivant for the entertainment of the nobility? Perhaps we should have exhibited these two cutout gems near Walker’s, as they so clearly display the assumptions the aristocracy made about the picturesque workers of their farmlands!

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