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(Bleeding) Hearts and Hummingbirds

POSTED BY , ON February 14, 2013, Comments Off

Many people may have spent $50 or more on their Valentine today. But how many would shell out that much for a card with a dead bird on it? In 1860s London, a decorative box with an intricately designed, three-dimensional valentine inside could cost half a guinea ($50 in 2013) with no aphrodisiacs, champagne, or chocolate in sight. The Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute holds an amazing and extensive, but little-seen collection of early Valentines. Its star may well be one of these very expensive three-dimensional items. This little white satin pillow is studded with artificial flowers (feather fronds, sprays of wax baby’s breath, acorns, and pink cloth rosebuds), surrounded with perforated printed lace in white edged with gray, and topped with  . . .  a real taxidermied hummingbird!

While some stuffed-bird valentines from this period have seen better days, and look roughly like something the cat dragged in, this particular specimen was given to the museum relatively early by an Illinois resident in 1937. It was evidently kept free of moisture until then in a box—which, if not necessarily original, afforded it plenty of protective clearance—and so the hummingbird retains its glossy blue, green, and brownish red feathers in their initially sleek, careful arrangement. Its eyes were replaced with beads in the stuffing process, and so lack a little life, but not surprisingly so considering how delicate the task of preparation and preservation must have been for such a small creature. A colorful printed label at the bottom of the pillow (showing musical instruments and even more flowers) marks the concoction as “A tribute of my Love.” Unfortunately, there are no other inscriptions that might give us a clue as to the 19th-century giver or recipient. The care with which the object was maintained, however, suggests the gift was happily received!

Birds, particularly lovebirds, have been tied to romantic love and the selection of a mate as far back as the poetry of the 13th century. Hummingbirds were native only to the Americas, but found immediate appeal overseas once the New World served as a viable trading ground, and the tiny birds became part of costuming and even hairstyles, as well as ostentatious gifts. However, by the 1890s, this style would become not only outdated, but even offensive to certain members of the public, especially those engaged in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in England or in various Audubon Societies in the United States. The painter George Frederick Watts created his Sorrowing Angel around 1899 to aid an anti-plumage campaign, which he inscribed with the words: “A Dedication to all who love the beautiful and mourn over the senseless and cruel destruction of bird life and beauty.” Reproduced several times, and quite poignantly in the case of the Art Institute mezzotint with white chalk heightening, this image shows an angel weeping over the bodies of several birds crushed on an altar with a relief design denoting the pure evil of those who would mindlessly buy or sell these bright feathers.

So, this Valentine’s day, consider the full historical significance of the iconography of the birds and the bees, including the comedic bird-themed valentine, whether angry, lovey-dovey, or sophomoric (Owl be Yours?). If your Valentine disappoints, appreciate the fact that their gifts are at least taxidermy-free.

Image Credits:

British, possibly Jonathan King (active 1845-1869), Hummingbird Valentine, 1845/69, 1937.1118

Sir Frank Short, after George Frederick Watts, The Sorrowing Angel, 1901, 1991.622.

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The End of Days

POSTED BY , ON December 21, 2012, 1 COMMENTS

The alleged end of the world prompted us to look deep in our collection to see how artists have interpreted doomsday throughout the centuries. Take a look below…

Image Credits:

Albrecht Dürer. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from The Apocalypse, c. 1496–98. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Jerry Uelsmann. Apocalypse I, 1967. Restricted gift of People’s Gallery.

José Guadalupe Posada. The End of the World is Approaching, n.d. William McCallin McKee Memorial Collection.

Honoré Victorin Daumier. “- Adelaide, Adelaide.. I think I can see the comet coming!!… – Oh my God… this is the end of the world…. how annoying. They promised it wouldn’t come until June 13!,” plate 31 from Croquis Parisiens, 1857. Gift of Charles E. Worcester.

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The Origins of Oktoberfest

POSTED BY , ON September 17, 2012, 2 COMMENTS

Chicago is a town with deep Germanic roots, which should be especially obvious every September. Perhaps you’ve frequented the Brauhaus in Lincoln Square sometime over the last forty years, or wandered into the Berghoff’s early outdoor Oktoberfest party last week underneath the refurbished Alexander Calder sculpture at the corner of Adams and Dearborn, or purchased a pretzel sandwich at Hannah’s Bretzel. Yet the true harvest festival of rigorously-brewed, and copiously-quaffed Bavarian bier, gargantuan bretzels, endless bratwurst, ancient oompa-bands, and gloriously kitschy folk outfits from Dirndls to Lederhosen runs from September 22 to October 9 in Munich, Germany.  In honor of this august tradition, the Art Institute coffers have revealed two prints that celebrate these same simple, Germanic pleasures. Both predate Oktoberfest, but still herald cultural and culinary icons that would become central to the festival.

The first print, a tiny, anonymous Last Supper metalcut with hand coloring from a booklet chronicling the Passion of Christ probably dates to the early 1460s. It was unquestionably made in Bavaria, however, because of the idiosyncratic nature of what Christ and his Apostles are eating. While most depictions of this scene, (including those currently on view in Blood, Gold and Fire) depict the bread as a generic roll, or a crust taken from it as a communion wafer, here it is unquestionably a Bavarian bretzel, the heartiest pretzel known to man! The suggestion that this robust German staple was present at the symbolic first communion elevates it far above normal baked goods.

The second print, a charming 1779 etching by the prolific Daniel Chodowiecki, Pilgrimage to the Französisch Bucholz Spa near Berlin, is said to be a family portrait, if also a caricature. While fully intending to visit a popular relaxation spot near their home, they never actually did. Instead, the artist devised this amusing and somewhat sacrilegious image of how the party would have looked as they finally set out on the much-anticipated journey. As the title teases, the expedition would have become a full-blown pilgrimage, with all its religious associations subverted. Indeed, the foremost woman carrying a staff over her shoulder is shepherding along five sausage casings, and an enormous pretzel at the very tip, again, lifting this German specialty up to the heavens. The eyes of the rest of the party are inescapably drawn to it as they march forward. In contrast, the hidden bagpipes at the right behind the jugs of wine and Bundt pan suggest hanky-panky will ensue at their destination. In the center, the most obvious topsy-turvy note of all is the defecating donkey, a humble beast of burden that Christ himself rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Horses would be more closely linked to Oktoberfest, but all beasts of burden could easily transport beer barrels.

While pretzels, sausages, and beer were important to all German cities, not just Berlin and other Bavarian centers like Nuremberg and Munich, Oktoberfest proper originated in Munich some years later than Chodowiecki’s print. On October 17, 1810, it began as a civilized celebration the wedding of the crown prince Ludwig (later Ludwig I) to the princess Theresa von Sachsen-Hildurghausen. The meadow (Wies’n) that was used for a thirty-horse race is still the location today, and is called the Theresienwiesen in honor of the bride. A dinner banquet was spread on the field after the race, which offered a first taste of the crush that awaits the unsuspecting Oktoberfest visitor today who lacks a seat reservation in one of the fairground’s many tents. According to a soldier who published the first account of the original event in 1811, one Andreas Michel von Dall’Armi, “In a few blinks of the eye, the entire raceway, which had been nearly empty up to that point, was overflowing with people.” Although he does not specify the total number of pretzels and beer consumed, Dall’Armi needed a separate addendum to list the many toasts given in honor of the king, queen, crown prince and his bride.

–Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Curatorial Fellow in the Department of Prints and Drawings

Image Credits:

The Last Supper and Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles, 1460–65. Artist unknown, Bavarian, 15th century. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki. Pilgrimage to the Französisch Bucholz Spa near Berlin, 1779. Gift of Alfred E. Hamill.

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What Was Lichtenstein Doing on May 13, 1977?

POSTED BY , ON September 10, 2012, Comments Off

Extracted from the comprehensive exhibition catalogue, explore our new—and incredibly detailed—online timeline of Lichtenstein’s life and work. Some fun facts I learned from a quick perusal of Lichtenstein’s early life:

– In the Summer of 1937, he was hard at work on “romantic watercolors” of the forest and lake of his Maine summer camp.

– In 1940 he took Reginald Marsh’s painting class at the Art Students League.

– While stationed in Europe during World War II, he saw exhibitions about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Cézanne. He also had a rather dashing photo taken in front of the Eiffel Tower.

– Lichtenstein taught at Ohio State University after finishing his BFA and MFA there. But in 1950, he was denied tenure due to lack of “substantial growth.”

– In 1951 he started bringing his paintings to gallerists in New York…strapped on top of his car.

Oh, and in case you’re still wondering, on May 13, 1977 he was awarded doctorate of fine arts from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

Image credit: Lichtenstein, age eleven, at Lake Buel, in Massachusetts, 1933. Photographer unknown. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Archives.

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Art Scene Investigation: What’s in the Dots?

POSTED BY , ON August 29, 2012, 1 COMMENTS

When you come to see our Lichtenstein exhibition (And hurry if you haven’t! The show closes on September 3.) you’re likely to be swept away by the bold colors, crisp lines, and strong visual power of the imagery of this exciting show. But what about the labels? Most people just take a quick glance, if at all.

But if you are one of those who did, I want you to know that at the Art Institute we take great care in everything we do, including museum labels and what in museum-speak is called the media description. And no, we are not talking about social media. A medium is an artist’s alphabet: the stuff the art is made of. For many of the paintings in the show, the media description reads “oil and Magna.” Now, we all know oil paint, but Magna? If you have some Italian in you like me, you will know magna means “eat up.” But that’s not the point here, and I suspect the name has more to do with the Latin word for greatness anyway. Magna was the first acrylic paint developed by pioneering colourman Leonard Bocour, who worked with artists to develop a new medium for them. Acrylic paints, so ubiquitous these days, were developed as artists’ paints only in the late 1940s. Magna, a type of acrylic paint thinned with solvents (like good-old, smelly turpentine), was the first to appear, and since the heyday of its marketing it was touted as “the first new painting medium in 500 years.”

Magna paints acquired rock star status with many artists, but Roy Lichtenstein was so loyal to it that he once said “I could paint with something else, but I’d have to learn to paint all over again.” Magna produced the smooth, matte, commercial, pop-art look he liked. With it he could emulate mass-produced, popular art like advertisements or comic books, abandoning the thick, expressive brushstrokes and nuances of Abstract Expressionist painting that held premier position at that time. So, when Magna went out of production, Lichtenstein immediately seized up all the available stock and contacted another paint manufacturer (Golden artists colors) to talk them into making a paint of similar formula. So that’s why if you look at those museum labels in the show, we don’t say oil and acrylic, but, more specifically, “oil and Magna on canvas.” But why both? Well, differently from the latex emulsions you can buy today at the store, acrylic paint remains soluble if you go back to it with a loaded brush and the appropriate solvent. Also, acrylic paint dries fast, much faster than oil, and Lichtenstein needed an alternative medium to paint his famous Ben-Day dots. Lichtenstein used a stencil and either rolled or dabbed the oil paint over it to create the dots. Had he done it with just Magna early on when he was using an aluminum stencil, the paint would have dried up immediately and would have pulled away when removing the stencil. Later on, though, Lichtenstein started using paper stencils for the dots, and masking tape for the lines, and so perhaps he could use both oils and Magna for the dots and lines, or just oil. Or maybe there are even some works where he experimented with different media.

So that’s when the art detective got curious. Yeah, we say that the solid areas of colors are Magna, and the dots are oil, but is it really true? We write it on the labels and in the catalogues because this is the 20th century and we have photos and interviews and radio and television and Lichtenstein himself told us it is oil and Magna…but what’s REALLY in the dots? And this is where science can come to the rescue. If we want to be 100% sure where the artist’s brush laid down oil or Magna, we do not need a time machine, but only some tech toys. In the past, in order to answer the question we would have had to take a small surgical scalpel and, under a microscope and with a steady hand, maybe from an edge of the painting where nobody would ever be able to see, we’d have to chip away a small fragment of the paint and bring it to our CSI-style lab to be analyzed. But now, thanks to our technological world that never sleeps, we can take a miniaturized instrument with a small source of infrared  light inside, shine a little beam of light on the surface of the paintings and…bam! We know the answer, incontrovertibly, for sure: oil is in the dots here, Magna on the solid areas of color. And thus we are able to note it correctly on the labels.

To add to the thrill, we have to do all of this early in the morning, when the museum is still closed. Like Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair, we wheel our instruments in, silently disable the elastic rope of the stanchions and…this is where the analogy ends, because we then very legitimately and carefully start to analyze the paints under the watchful eye of one of our security guards.

As the instrument buzzes, I cannot help but think that here’s something magic and moving—being here in the galleries alone, in deep silence, in front of these monumental paintings. Red dot…done, yellow stripe…done, blue triangular wedge…done. It’s 10:20 a.m. and time to pack up. The room echoes with the click clack of our black cases, and then we smoothly wheel them out. A staffer gets into position at the podium at the entrance of the exhibition; we nod politely, and off we go. As if we were never there. Another mystery solved.

—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist

Image Credit: Roy Lichtenstein. Mirror #3 (Six Panels) (detail), 1971. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Anstiss and Ronald Krueck Fund for Contemporary Art, facilitated by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

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