Explicit Characters: Putting Asian Art Online

POSTED BY , ON March 20, 2013, Comments Off on Explicit Characters: Putting Asian Art Online

  street scene

What do Japanese accent marks and opportunistic online pornographers have to do with each other, and with the Art Institute of Chicago’s rich collection of pre-20th-century Asian art? While raucous behavior (including at least one eye-catching display of bodily function) lurks within the two Chinese painted hand scrolls and one Japanese woodblock printed book that are now available online, nothing truly untoward seems to be happening on the surface.


These three artworks (above and immediately below) reflect an interest in everyday public life—whether in a 14th-century painted scroll of a bustling street, a book of playful woodblock prints of common people going about their business c. 1800 (that was meant for artists to copy), or an important, 13th-century painting of a scholar moving with his family to a new city (viewable in extreme, zooming detail). All of these artworks benefit from the animated movement of the Art Institute’s Turning the Pages™, a roster now thirty fascinating objects strong.

handscroll Yang Pu

For the first time on our website however, the movement goes from right to left. For the street scene (the top image) in particular, the scrolling motion creates the illusion of actual movement down a real street, whether the figures are parading by, or the viewer strolls along. Take your time to amble through these scenes; recognizable character types from pious to provocative abound, and not everyone is what they may seem, whether beggars, astrologers, or nobles.

While the two scrolls were relatively easy to prepare for the web by splicing together a very long image from photographs, the accompanying text for the street scene mainly consisted of collector’s seals and commentaries about the image dating over several centuries. Yang Pu may well have included such texts, but lost them during remounting. The book below proved more difficult to describe for an English-speaking audience, as it has a lengthy preface, requiring a good bit of research and technical fiddling from intrepid interns Mai Yamaguchi (Asian Art) and Liana Jegers (Prints and Drawings/Turning the Pages). The transcribed Japanese characters have appeared as question marks or empty boxes in the explanatory captions in a rather capricious manner.

Turning the Pages

So if you made it this far, you might be wondering where the opportunistic pornographers mentioned above come in. Well, consultations with our programmers in London have already resulted in the successful implementation of the needed diacritical mark, a macron, above the ō in the artist, Bumpō’s Romanized name, but consistency failed us once again on our home turf! A technical difficulty resulted in our website being unable to properly display any sort of mark of this sort for fear that it might be html code with nefarious intent! We link to our Turning the Pages™ books through our “My Collections” interface, which allows any viewer to assemble illustrated lists of their favorite Art Institute artworks from the museum database, and then type in comments on their choices. In the past, entirely inadvertently, users gained permission to include any type of formatting in the comments section, including live image and page links. These could be viewed by anyone, and were no longer restricted to referring to artworks owned or sanctioned by the museum. In fact, at least one enterprising individual took this to mean the Art Institute was offering free advertising space for their porn site. It wasn’t pretty. A few missing macrons are a small price to pay for the museum’s digital dignity.

Click below for access to any of the newest Turning the Pages resources:

Bumpo Sketches Book

Street Scene Handscroll

Yang Pu Handscroll

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An Insider’s Look at the Armory Show

POSTED BY , ON March 12, 2013, Comments Off on An Insider’s Look at the Armory Show

 Armory Show Splash Page-1

The recently opened Picasso and Chicago will celebrate the long history of the artist’s relationship with the city. But 100 years ago this month, when the art of Picasso and his contemporaries was displayed at the museum for the very first time, it was met with shock, controversy, outrage. . . and record-breaking crowds. In 1913, the Art Institute hosted the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known today as the Armory Show. That revolutionary exhibit introduced the Chicago public to some of the most radical art of the day.

The Armory Show had such a huge impact on modern art in America that critics and art historians have continued to write about it for the last 100 years. To offer something new, we wanted to create an in-depth and interactive resource about how the exhibit came to be, what the public thought about it, and even what it looked like. This month we’ve launched a special online exhibition all about the Armory Show in Chicago and its legacy.

Just as the organizers of the Armory Show wanted to embrace the “new spirit” of the times, the online exhibition marks this important anniversary in a way that celebrates 1913 but belongs to 2013. A permanent part of the museum’s website, the Armory Show online exhibit will be a lasting tribute to the show that established the Art Institute as a venue for modern art and that changed the course of art collecting in Chicago. This project called for a museum-wide team, involving many different departments. Old newspapers were scoured, personal letters were brought to light again, and the original exhibition pamphlets were tracked down and digitized. Now you can tour the 1913 show on your phone or tablet while walking through the very same galleries today. Or read about the fate of “Henry Hairmatress” at home in your pajamas.

AS Gallery Explorer - Gallery 50 Northeast

Possibly the most exciting part of the website is the gallery explorer. Looking at photographs of the exhibition found in our Archives, we went through each image trying to identify as many works of art as we could. High-res scans of the photos let us zoom in incredibly close, and we were able to recognize previously unidentified works. Now on the website, you can take a virtual tour of the Armory Show, wander through the museum galleries as they looked 100 years ago, and find out where many of the artworks can be found today. Try and spot the works that now belong to Art Institute’s permanent collection—many of which are currently on view in a special presentation in the third floor of the Modern Wing.

Visitors to the website will quickly learn that the Art Institute’s audience was not shy about voicing their opinions back in 1913, and we hope you’ll share your thoughts, too.

—Allison Perelman, Research Associate in Medieval through Modern European Painting and Sculpture

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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.

Opening the Augsburg Cabinet Drawers

POSTED BY , ON October 18, 2012, Comments Off on Opening the Augsburg Cabinet Drawers

On October 28, the department of European Decorative Arts will unveil a bold new way to look at its collection—from the inside out. A hands-on, iPad-based technology—called LaunchPad—has been developed, allowing viewers to interact with the objects, including watching animations of the hidden interiors of a wide variety of objects on display and perusing videos revealing the trade secrets of their construction.

One of the richest objects for these interactive programs is the museum’s Augsburg Cabinet (top image), a mammoth concoction of ebony wood and ivory inlay from Southern Germany in the 1660s. It was intended to be over-the-top, a veritable cornucopia of artistic references from prints collected across Europe, combined with practical, but fashionable accessories such as shiny medicine jars, toiletry items, and even an ivory tablet ripe for amateur sundial-making and collecting (above).

These deluxe constructions were exceedingly popular with the nobles of the time. Philip Hainhofer―a sometime diplomat, and merchant from Augsburg, Germany―started a cabinetry craze by furnishing his elite clientele with many multi-tiered and drawered objects much like the Art Institute’s cabinet. Hainhofer died in 1647, and so did not design our cabinet directly, but his style endured in the Europe-wide fascination with woodworking masterpieces that hinged (quite literally) on the tempting possibilities of closed doors and endless drawers. Many of the cabinets were decorated with inlaid or relief designs taken directly from prints by important artists from Germany and the Netherlands, which in turn offered a highbrow guessing game for cabinet owners and their friends. As a well-connected merchant, the maker of the first Augsburg Cabinet would have been quite familiar with German and Dutch prints, especially those with secrets and doors (of a kind) of their own to unlock.

In an early album (now at his patron Herzog August’s Library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany), Hainhofer included a colorful, interactive sketch of a cabinet he proposed building, with two flaps attached that reveal a bevy of gold statuettes of saints. This emphasis on making the interior visible and physically accessible suggests one of the thrills of the finished cabinets, which only the owner could open and exhibit. His inspiration for this diagram may have been a colorful drawing he owned of a Venetian courtesan with a liftable skirt (revealing men’s drawers and tall, stilt-like shoes) copied from a popular print. Around 1613, again using flap technology, Hainhofer funded a set of three scientific broadsides with hundreds of flaps, which are now at the Art Institute! These anatomical flap prints present male and female bodies as Adam and Eve, and allow the viewer to open them up to great depths, marveling at the sinew, muscle, and bone all the way. While other woodcuts predated Hainhofer’s production, these engravings are significantly more layered and replete with bells and whistles, much like the decorative flourishes on the later Augsburg Cabinets.

The cabinet-collectors and makers of the early German Baroque would not have gendered furniture (though urban legend claims that Victorians saw table legs as a naked threat), perhaps solely due to an unfortunate inability to make puns using the German word for ‘drawers.’ Salvador Dali later made the surreal connection between the seductiveness of the female form and the quasi-sexual accessibility of such a cabinet in a 1936 Art Institute drawing, City of Drawers. While Dali’s paired drawer knobs and intimately-placed keyhole are suggestive of nipples and a chastity belt, the initial purchasers of our cabinet would not have been quite so literal. They would however, have found the artwork to be highly desirable.

What would the Art Institute’s Augsburg Cabinet first viewers have done when they encountered such a sought-after object? Marveled at the cabinet’s size, or circled it to observe its slick and shiny, minutely-worked exterior? Longed to rummage through its marbled-paper-lined drawers? They may have ached to peer into the innermost recesses of a cabinet to contemplate the colorful reliefs of the four seasons (as engraved by an associate of Hendrick Goltzius) or take a gander at an equally-hidden relief of a damsel in distress (and undress) after Agostino Carracci. They could even have engraved an ivory tablet for time-telling across the mid-European latitudes of 42-52 degrees. Whatever their desires, the Augsburg Cabinet could provide.

Come to the European Decorative Art Galleries after October 28 for a peek at the Augsburg Cabinet as it has never been seen before, in an animation that peers into its highly-refined nooks and crannies. Only then will all be revealed!

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

Image Credits:

German, Augsburg.  Augsburg Cabinet, c.1660s, Wood, ebony; carved and inlaid ivory, stained and carved wood relief, gilded bronze, iron implements.  Anonymous Purchase Fund.

Ivory Sundial tablet (found inside the Augsburg Cabinet), 1660s.

Lucas Kilian. Third Vision, from Mirrors of the Microcosm, 1613. Gift of Dr. Ira Frank.

Salvador Dalí. City of Drawers, 1936. Graphite on buff wove paper.  Gift of Frank B. Hubachek, 1963.3


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Extreme Makeover, Website Edition

POSTED BY , ON August 07, 2012, Comments Off on Extreme Makeover, Website Edition

If you’ve visited our website lately, you may notice that it’s received quite the facelift. And that’s due to (an exceptional amount of) hard work over the last year or so from our partner, Chicago–based design firm Studio Blue. Kudos to Maggie Lewis, partner and project manager, and Cheryl Towler Weese, partner and lead designer! After the dust settled, we caught up with Cheryl to talk to her about her inspirations and considerations for our site redesign.


The Art Institute last did a website overhaul in 2004–2005—forever ago, in web terms. How does your design for the new site reflect new thinking in web design since that long-ago era?

Together with our development partner, Fuse IQ, we tried to harness a number of newer possibilities:

Webfonts. The design firm Pentagram recently developed a carefully wrought new identity for the museum [the museum’s “red square” logo], and we discovered that Ideal Sans, the museum’s proprietary font, was available for our use in Beta as a web font. We looked hard at the typeface, and explored ways to use it that best evoke the museum.

Multiple platforms. We thought about large monitors, mobile devices, laptops, and tablets. We worked to allow the site to respond successfully to each medium, so we re-skinned and served up the same content differently for desktop and mobile, and designed a fluid home page. (Responsive design—where the same site essentially reshuffles structurally to adapt to mobile and desktop—could also be a good model, but we decided it wasn’t the best option for a site with a number of legacy page types.)

The ability to explore deeply within a page. We wanted a site that felt immersive and accessible yet contained a great deal of rich information. We incorporated tabbed content that users can toggle among, related events that open and shut to provide more information, and videos and images that open/enlarge on an overlay layer.

Navigation. Sites like the Art Institute’s can be as rich and complex as the institutions they serve, so we broke the navigation into several discrete chunks. We designed each navigation cluster differently, so that users had a mnemonic means to help them find their way.

Integration of social media. We incorporated dynamic social media content throughout the site, connecting multiple AIC portals (the museum’s Facebook, Twitter, blog, and YouTube pages).

Connectedness. We wanted the ability to connect events, exhibitions, and people. We tried to build and leverage a rich taxonomy (tagging) of calendar events, allowing dynamic relationships between events, exhibitions, and a variety of audiences and interests.

What are some of your sources of inspiration? Magazines, design blogs, gardening, random glimpses of something on the street?

I like to spend time soaking in the ethos of a project, talking to project team members, and observing qualities or quirks that might help yield something original. In this case, however, my primary inspiration was an abiding, career-long love for this institution (I’ve worked with the Art Institute for 20 years) and the intense, committed, and intelligent work done there.

What were the thoughts or images you held in your head while coming up with your concepts for the Art Institute? Were there any signature Art Institute elements you had in mind?


We were influenced by the Modern Wing’s grace, luminosity, and masterful craftsmanship, and we wanted to reflect a small piece of that in the site’s design, while keeping it open and welcoming—Midwestern, if you will.

We’ve also witnessed the museum’s deep commitment to research and scholarship over the past 20 years, and hoped to make the site feel as rich and meaty as the rest of the museum’s cultural output.

And we were inspired by the museum’s focus on mission, art, and exhibitions, and we wanted to allow the artwork to speak for itself.

If you could have any work of art from the museum in your home, which one would it be?

How about Hella Jongerius’s Felt Stool or Embroidered Tablecloth in the Architecture and Design collection? Her work is a fantastic mix of beauty, intelligence, irony, craft, old and new. I’d love living with either of those pieces.

Great choices. Thanks Cheryl!


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