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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.

Celebrity Doppelgängers

POSTED BY , ON May 22, 2013, Comments Off

How many movie stars have been spotted in the Art Institute? Perhaps more than we think and in different ways than we might imagine . . . In fact, a portrait print with a surprising resemblance to Bill Murray will be on view until the end of October in hallway gallery 208a!

Bill Murray

No one has identified the sitter for this strikingly modern seeming, but in fact seventeenth-century Dutch chiaroscuro woodcut. The artist, Jan Lievens, was mainly a painter and etcher; most of his early portrait prints resemble the orientalizing designs of his close friend and studio-roommate, Rembrandt.

Lievens’ only woodcut, this work has great immediacy. He achieved this effect by contrasting a stark black outline block with an ochre tone block that highlights the glistening, balding pate. Even without a known sitter, the print was a  popular one, with at least one lithograph copy made in the nineteenth century.

The chiaroscuro technique (printing highly-contrasting color in multiple blocks to mimic drawings) became popular in the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic in the early seventeenth century. Another even more intricate portrait done in this technique by the Flemish artist Christoffel Jegher after Peter Paul Rubens is also on view in 208a, but this time the sitter is thought to be a member of the Venetian nobility.

Although we haven’t seen him in the galleries lately, our inaugural celebrity doppelgänger has some Chicago connections. Born in Wilmette, Illinois, Bill Murray was part of Second City troupe in 1973 before moving to New York for Saturday Night Live, and Los Angeles for the comedies and art-house films that followed.

Look for more posts on ARTicle featuring Art Institute artworks and their famous twins in the future! And special thanks to Mardy Sears, Conservation Technician in Prints and Drawings, who alerted us to this particular doppelgänger and who has been avidly collecting them since 2007.

Image Credits:

Jan Lievens (Dutch, 1607–1674)  Bust of a Man Facing Forward, 1630/40. Chiaroscuro woodcut from two blocks, in black and light brown ink on cream laid paper.  Restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus H. Adams, Frank B. Hubachek, and the Alsdorf Foundation, 1959.542

Bill Murray, in Lost in Translation, Focus Features 2003.

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I Ain’t Afraid of Noh Ghost!

POSTED BY , ON October 31, 2012, Comments Off

Active from 1790 until his death in 1849, Katsushika Hokusai was a renowned Japanese painter and printmaker in his day, perhaps most famous in the West for The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Lesser known is Hokusai’s series of prints One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari), based on a popular game of the Edo period thought to have been created by samurai as a test of courage. The game begins at nightfall, with participants lighting 100 candles in a dark room. They then take turns telling ghost stories (kaidan), many of which are traditional tales with a moral lesson. A candle is blown out after each story, making the room grow darker and darker. It is thought that spirits are conjured once the final candle is blown out and the room is pitch black. It is no wonder then that some players would leave the final candle untouched! Below are a few gruesome kaidan for your Halloween pleasure, as depicted by the master Housai.

The Home of Dishes (Sara Yashiki) tells the story of a young maid who accidentally broke some of her master’s precious kitchenware. The unforgiving nobleman murdered the young woman and threw her body in the well. Her ghost returned nightly thereafter to plague him.

According to the legend, Kohada Koheiji, depicted here, was a traveling actor murdered by his wife and her secret lover. Here, Koheiji pulls down a mosquito net bed canopy to torment his killers while they lie in bed together.

Hannya was originally the deity of smallpox in the Indian kingdom of Gandhara. In the Noh theatre tradition, she represents the lost soul of a jealous or tormented lover and her mask is often fitted with horns. Here, the demoness holds the decapitated head of a child in her upraised hand; blood oozes from the wounds she inflicts with her long fingernails.

This symbolic print features mementos of the dead in accordance with the usual customs: a bowl of water with a green leaf in it, a spirit table, and a tablet bearing the inscription of the Buddhist name of the deceased. The snake, not surprisingly, symbolizes malevolence but can also symbolize the spirit world. One assumes the snake is lingering around this shrine to the dead for less-than-benevolent reasons.

Happy Halloween!

Katsushika Hokusai. The Home of Dishes (Sara Yashiki), from the series “One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari)”, c. 1831–32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Katsushika Hokusai. Kohada Koheiji, from the series “One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari)”, c. 1831–32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Katsushika Hokusai. The Laughing Ogress (Warai Hannya), from the series “One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatarti)”, c. 1831-32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Katsushika Hokusai. Haunted Revenge (Shunen), from the series “One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatarti)”, c. 1831–32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Lichtenstein of the Week

POSTED BY , ON June 08, 2012, Comments Off

I really enjoy the Works on Paper section of the Lichtenstein retrospective because it helps me appreciate the origin and process of the paintings and sculptures throughout the rest of the exhibition. The studies and sketches provide a unique peek at the creative ideas-in-progress coming to form. In the case of Drawing for Entablature (above), graphite, colored pencils and paper-on-paper collage map out the composition for the much larger scale paintings on canvas.

Works on paper were an important part of Lichtenstein’s creative process. The artist almost always began by working out a study sketch to establish colors and compositional elements. He would then trace the drawing onto canvas with the aid of an opaque projector, continuing to make compositional adjustments.

Some of the drawings in the Works on Paper section have detailed notes and instructions for size, layout, and color combinations of dot patterns in the final painting—a paint-by-number-like guide. These studies help me more personally identify with where Lichtenstein was coming from and what he was trying to achieve.

You can compare Drawing for Entablature and its resulting painting, which had quite a few changes, by using the interactive slider on the exhibition’s Web site.

Image caption: Roy Lichtenstein. Drawing for Entablatures, 1976. Graphite, colored pencils and collaged paper on paper. ©Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Private Collection.