Whistler, Roussel, and Frame Design

POSTED BY , ON September 15, 2015, 0 COMMENTS


Museum visitors ask us lots of excellent questions, but one frequent topic is that of frames. How do we choose them? Are they original? Visitors to Whistler and Roussel: Linked Visions may have noticed that there are several different frames in use in the exhibition. Both James McNeill Whistler and Theodore Roussel cared enough about the public presentation of their prints that they designed special frames to exhibit them. So in keeping with their shared interest in frame design, we made a point to present their works on paper in frames consistent with the aesthetic that each of them preferred.

In the case of Whistler’s prints and drawings, we have used frames that were made based on his own designs. Many of these were seen previously at the Art Institute in the 1998 exhibition, Songs on Stone.


For Roussel, whose work has only rarely been shown before at the Art Institute, we were able to use some of the original frames that he himself created. Roussel designed two different types of frames for his prints. For his monochrome prints, he used a thin wooden frame with an ivory or bone-colored finish; this frame style had rounded corners, and Roussel then adhered prints with different patterns to them. One example is his Lily Pattern Frame of 1888/89 (top image). For some of his color prints, Roussel designed elaborate ensembles consisting of the color print or work of art, which was placed on a printed color mount, and then both were enclosed in a wider frame profile with square corners onto which patterned prints were also adhered. There are three of these complete ensembles in the exhibition, including Last Poppies, shown in the Stag and Flower Pattern Frame (image immediately above).


In situations where we didn’t have enough of Roussel’s original frames, we created new frames in order to carry out his vision. In this photograph, you see conservation specialist Christopher Brooks and frame conservator Kirk Vuillemot (left to right) discussing the vintage frames the Roussel produced. We selected the monochrome frame style as our prototype, and we decided to emulate the rounded corners and ivory colored varnish. Kirk developed the reproduction ‘Roussel-inspired’ model that we used in the exhibition. We wanted to be clear that these were not original period frames, so to help make that distinction we did not produce pattern prints to adhere to the frames.


In addition to the specific framing decisions made for the exhibition, special attention was also paid to the overall presentation of the works. For Roussel’s L’agonie des fleurs, we used the new Roussel-style frame and then mounted the work on white-gold leaf coated paper (above). This presentation emulates Roussel’s experimentation with metallic inks for printing and also for printed mounts. We also employed a green-brown mat for some of Whistler’s color prints, like Moonrise in the New Forest (below).


One of the great delights of preparing an exhibition that is based on the Art Institute’s permanent collection is the opportunity to work with conservation preparators like Christine Conniff-O’Shea (below) to make these kinds of decisions. When an exhibition features permanent collection works rather than those borrowed from other institutions, we can control how objects are matted and framed to create a viewing experience that not only enhances the pleasure of seeing our collection displayed but also supports the thesis of the exhibition itself.


—Victoria Sancho Lobis, Prince Trust Associate Curator, Department of Prints and Drawings

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Recreating Ancient Music with Modern Technology

POSTED BY , ON September 02, 2015, Comments Off on Recreating Ancient Music with Modern Technology


In the recently installed exhibition, Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints, visitors will find themselves serenaded by the faint but ethereal sounds of antiquity. This background music is that of a panpipe, which is a series of pipes of different lengths that have been bound together (see image above, which illustrates a ceramic variant from the museum’s Pre-Columbian collection).

Panpipes were a principle attribute of Pan, a woodland deity of shepherds and rustic music, and feature prominently in sculptural works and prints in the exhibition. Pan himself also frequently appears in the exhibition, at times alongside Dionysos, the god of wine and theater. You can recognize Pan by his panpipes, but he also often appears as a man with the horns, legs, and tail of a goat, pointed ears, a thick beard, and a snub nose, as in the image above.

Because of Pan’s prominence in the exhibition and due to the importance of music in ancient Greek life, we decided to include panpipe music in the exhibition. Which raises a very important question. How do we know what music from 2,000 years ago sounded like?


Some fragments of notated music do survive from antiquity, but the markings are quite different than the sheet music of today. One of the rare examples of a musical piece found in its entirety is the Seikilos Epitaph (200 B.C./A.D. 100), a short but complete example of ancient Greek musical composition that was discovered engraved on a tombstone near Aydin, Turkey. It is the oldest known piece of complete western music in existence. The actual engraved object is preserved today in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The musical notations appear as a series of small markings just above the letters. They begin with the sixth line of the inscription:


We started our process by gathering together a number of ancient Greek and Roman fragments of surviving music (like the Seikilos Epitaph, which have been published together in a useful book edited by Egert Pohlmann and Martin West, Documents of Ancient Greek Music: Extant Melodies and Fragments. Clarendon Press, 2001). Three melodies from the surviving music comprise the track heard in the exhibit.

Musician Brett Benge then brought these pieces to life using a music-editing and creation program called Logic Pro, which he connected to a digital piano. But without a performer schooled in the practices of ancient Greece, Brett had to find other means to create an authentic sound. He began by using a raw sample of eight notes recorded from a live panpipe. It was important to use a sample of high quality to capture the beauty and idiosyncrasies of a live acoustic instrument. Computers like precision, so such idiosyncrasies are difficult to produce artificially.


To add to the authenticity, Brett wanted to incorporate a tuning schematic that might well have been used in ancient Greece. Tuning practices have varied over the centuries and continue to vary culture to culture even today. These tuning schematics slightly alter each pitch, making them somewhat sharper or flatter than what we’re used to in 21st-century America. They can be loaded electronically to produce tuning consistent with practices of another culture, preference, or epoch. For this project, he located a (fitting, we think) Pythagorean schematic. To a modern ear, these pitches might sound slightly out of tune, but they are consistent with, in this case, the ratios of Pythagorean tuning. The pan pipes of ancient Greece were probably not tuned with this level of precision, but at worst, the tuning schematic helps the instrument sound more authentic by giving it a less-than-perfect, rougher sound. At best, the instrument sounds tuned in a fashion that may well have been what was used in ancient Greece.

Finally, great care was taken to produce musical phrasing that would be consistent with a performer of professional caliber. A skilled performer alters the speed and amount of breath blown to create changing dynamics. These subtle changes were created meticulously with electronic tools. One aspect of authentic panpipe sound, however, evaded all electronic manipulation—the sound of player’s breath either during notes or inhaling between phrases. Ultimately, Brett recorded the sound of his own breath to layer with the sound of the panpipe sample.

In process, a screen shot of the program in process looks like this:


Thus, this is merely one interpretation of several fragments of ancient music. If you research the Seikilos Epitaph, you will discover many different versions and interpretations of how it may have sounded. This shows us that the study of music from Greek and Roman times is complex and we may never really know what music sounded like, but we hope our interpretation helps transport you back in time while exploring the exhibition!

—Elizabeth Benge, Collection & Exhibition Manager, Ancient and Byzantine Art

Special thanks to my very talented husband Brett Benge for music production and writing assistance.

Image Credits:

Statue of Pan, 1st century A.D., with 18th century (or earlier) restorations. Anonymous loan.

Pan Pipe (detail), 180 B.C./A.D. 500, Nazca, south coast, Peru. Kate S. Buckingham Endowment.

Seikilos Epitaph, National Museum of Denmark.


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Work of the Week: Hodler

POSTED BY , ON August 21, 2015, Comments Off on Work of the Week: Hodler


It’s hard to believe in the more than six years that the Art Institute blog has been up and running, we’ve never once mentioned this painting. Why, you might ask? Is the artist famous? Not really. Although Ferdinand Hodler was one of Switzerland’s leading artists at the turn of the 20th century, his work has not been shown extensively outside of Europe. Then maybe the subject of the painting is famous? Again, no. James Vibert was one of Hodler’s closest friends and a Swiss sculptor who studied with Rodin, but he’s not well known.

The reason is much simpler. This is just one of those paintings that jumps off the gallery wall at you. Perhaps it’s the big red beard. Perhaps it’s Vibert’s size (he was referred to as “herculean”). Perhaps it’s the impenetrable gaze. Or maybe it’s the fact that the painting is virtually symmetrical.

Hodler developed a strict aesthetic theory he called parallelism, in which he relied heavily on symmetry and repetition to create overall unity. About this theory, Hodler wrote, “We differ one from the other, but we are like each other even more. What unifies us is greater and more powerful than what divides us.”

Whatever the reason, this is a painting that’s difficult to simply walk by. We hope you enjoy it on your next visit!

And finally, a quick sidenote for all of you Top Chef/celebrity doppelgänger fans (it might be a small group). . . What do you think about this comparison?

Ferdinand Hodler. James Vibert, Sculptor, 1907. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

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A View from Below, Part Five

POSTED BY , ON August 07, 2015, 1 COMMENTS


It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

No, it’s not the holidays, but it is my annual stroll through the galleries with 10-year-old Sophie! We’ve been at it for five years and have covered everything from Pop to Impressionism, and this year we took on our biggest challenge yet. . . the present.

The Art Institute’s Charles Ray exhibition features work by the contemporary sculptor created between 1997 and 2014. It’s the artist’s first major exhibition since 1998, and includes 19 figurative sculptural works that flow from the museum’s Modern Wing to the exterior gardens. I couldn’t wait to see how Sophie responded to art made within her lifetime.

Her first reaction upon walking into the galleries was “whoa.” Solid start. And while it was a response to the art, it was even more of a response to the space. There are just 15 pieces in the 18,000-square-foot galleries, giving each sculpture lots of breathing room. Sophie compared it to a park, with people meandering around, rather than following a set path through an exhibition. And in fact, that’s how you’re meant to experience the exhibition. Ray wants you to have a 360 degree experience with the works, and specifically tried to create pieces that would draw you all the way around.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 12.20.02 PM

One example of that idea is The New Beetle, in which a child plays with a toy car. Charles Ray has said about this sculpture, “if the object can move you physically. . . it will also move you intellectually.” As Sophie made an unprompted circle around the sculpture, she created a narrative in which the boy was with his parents and they were talking about something boring (“like what to do with their house”) and he was immersed in play. She thought he might be an only child because it was clear by how he was playing that there were no other kids around.


We also talked a lot about Light from the Left. In this bas relief, Charles Ray is handing his wife a bouquet of flowers. From a distance, Sophie thought they might be actors on a stage, but as she got closer, she noticed details like the air vent on the floor and the fact that the texture in the background might represent mini-blinds instead of a curtain and decided that they must be at home. Correct. She also talked about how the light hit the piece. When I told her the title, she asked if that’s why we put it where we did, so that the sunlight streaming in the galleries also hit it from the left. Correct again.


But her favorite was Ray’s 2005 Tractor. She’s really interested in how things work, so she loved seeing the inner mechanics of the broken down equipment. She also responded to the labor of the creative process, in which Ray dissembled an actual tractor, cast each piece in aluminum, and reassembled it.

One of her final notes was the realization that there wasn’t a lot of color—everything was white or silver. She suggested that might be because when there are a lot of colors, you tend to look at the brightest one. But when everything is the same color, you look more closely at all of it.

The clearest sign I knew she liked the exhibition? When we left, I asked how long she thought we’d spent in the galleries. She guessed a half hour. . . and it had been an hour and a half.

As always, thank you Sophie for your thoughtful and creative insights!


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POSTED BY , ON July 31, 2015, 6 COMMENTS

Break out your crocheted romper and your giant floppy black hat. . . Lollapalooza starts today! Over the course of the weekend, more than 140 bands will grace the stages of the giant music festival, which is located right across the street from the Art Institute.

And for the sixth year in a row, we’re bringing you our Lollapalooza challenge. Match these artworks from the Art Institute’s collection with the band name from Lollapalooza’s line-up that you think they represent. The first person to get all eight correct—in the blog comments—will be the winner of an Art Institute prize pack!

Happy guessing and festival-going! Drink lots of water and reapply sunscreen frequently.

















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