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On the Move: Picabia

POSTED BY , ON April 29, 2015, 1 COMMENTS

Painting conservation usually happens in the museum’s conservation studios, but this spring and summer, museum visitors are in for a special treat. In a first-of-its-kind public demonstration, conservation work on Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl (pronounced ed-town-easel) will be performed in full view of museum visitors at the base of the spiral staircase in the Art Institute’s Morton Wing.

Now don’t get us wrong, we love making our visitors happy, but that’s not why we’re staging conservation in this location. Rather, this step of the extensive conservation treatment calls for natural light—lots and lots of natural light. So the painting moved today from the Modern Wing to one of the museum’s most sun-drenched spaces, Gallery 135, just outside the gallery of Indian art of the Americas.

We’ll have much more on the conservation of Edtaonisl in the coming weeks, but for now we wanted to take you on the painting’s journey through the museum as it moved to its new temporary home.

It began its trek through the Modern Wing’s Griffin Court. . .

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then carefully rolled through the Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan Art. . .

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made its way through the Asian Art galleries. . .

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until it reached its light-filled home in the Morton Wing.

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Now Open—Chatter: Architecture Talks Back

POSTED BY , ON April 24, 2015, 1 COMMENTS

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Chatter: Architecture Talks Back, open now in the Modern Wing’s Architecture and Design galleries, explores the work of five contemporary architects and their responses to the history of the practice. As you explore the exhibition, you’ll discover the compound meaning of its title: first, and most presently, chatter describes the impact of modern communication on the practice of architecture. Architects are using (and trying to make sense of) Twitter, Instagram, texting, Yik Yak, Snapchat, Whisper, and Yo* just as much as the rest of us. The open-ended conversation they create is what’s featured in the exhibition (you won’t find too many of the standard models and plans you might expect to see in an architecture exhibition here—come to see video, drawings, photography, and application design instead). Chatter documents the exploration of these modes of communication as they impact and interpret current architectural thought.

The next meaning of chatter describes how these practitioners respond to the history of architecture—a conversation across generations. For instance, Jimenez Lai of Bureau Spectacular uses cartoon-like drawings to directly reference the content and style of legendary Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman. Erin Besler confronts unorthodox methods of representation by interpreting Peter Eisenman’s seminal Fourteen Transformations using robotic drawing and 3D modeling. A number of works from the Art Institute’s holdings of Architecture and Design are on display to emphasize and illustrate this dialogue with the past.

The Chatter galleries also house an installation by Iker Gil of the journal MAS Context, featuring the work of a global array of design thinkers. Visit the exhibition on Saturday, May 16 to participate in a roundtable discussion of how we communicate about architecture. I.e., chat about Chatter.
*Full discosure: Yo, Yik Yak, Snapchat, and Whisper are not actually mentioned anywhere in this exhibition. Full disclosure, part 2: I am not sure what all of these services do.


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Badgers vs. Blue Devils

POSTED BY , ON April 06, 2015, Comments Off on Badgers vs. Blue Devils

Tonight’s NCAA championship game pits the Wisconsin Badgers against the Duke Blue Devils and we couldn’t resist taking a look into our collection to see what a more artistic match-up between these teams would look like.

Badger

Perhaps surprisingly, there were several images of badgers in our collection, primarily from our Asian collection. In Japan, badgers are mischievous goblins who use all sorts of disguises to deceive people. And when they lead their prey astray, they love to delight in their misfortune. In this image, the badger is dressed up like a begging monk. Hijinks ensue.

Finding a blue devil was a bit more difficult. Because a blue devil isn’t a devil of the traditional sort; rather, the name comes from “les Diables Bleus,” a respected and daring French military unit from World War I. Because that’s a bit too obscure even for the Art Institute’s large collection, I sought out an image of a duke.

Duke

The man you see above is José Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba. The Spanish artist Goya painted several portraits of the duke, including this version completed a year before his death. The duke was known as a music lover and equestrian, but probably not a basketball fan since it was invented nearly a century after his death.

As a good midwestern girl, I’ve definitely got a favorite, but who are you rooting for?

Image credits:

Kawanabe Kyosai. Badger in the Guise of a Buddhist Monk, Meiji Period, c. 1780. Asian Departmental Sundry Trust Fund.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. Portrait of José Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba and Marquess of Villafranca, c. 1795. Anonymous loan.

 


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250 Shades of Gray

POSTED BY , ON April 02, 2015, 1 COMMENTS

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As you stroll through Burnishing the Night, the atmospheric Prints and Drawings exhibition of mezzotint engravings currently on view in Galleries 125-127, you might notice a cameo appearance by one of art history’s most famous moms, Whistler’s mother. But what you’re looking at isn’t the larger-scale painting by James McNeill Whistler meant for public exhibition; rather, it’s a smaller black and white mezzotint created by the lesser-known Richard Josey (under Whistler’s supervision) intended for display in private homes.

You might be surprised to discover that the expatriate American painter and printmaker extraordinaire James McNeill Whistler did not even consider his 1871 painting of his mother to be a portrait. He thought of it as a study of tone, and gave it the title Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 as an allusion to musical terminology. The word “mother” doesn’t appear anywhere. Indeed, to him, public interest in its sitter and literal subject, rather than the way it was painted seemed irrelevant:

Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?

            Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890, p. 128.

While Whistler pretended not to comprehend why the painting’s identity as a simple picture of his mother would interest the public more than its artistry, he was also a consummate businessman. He was closely involved in the production of this mezzotint about eight years after he produced the original oil on canvas. Josey’s plate may in fact have been steel-plated after it was engraved, allowing for hundreds, or even thousands of impressions of the same quality to be pulled from it. In fact, the medium of mezzotint was especially prized for its usefulness in reproductions of paintings, and the painterly quality of this print does not disappoint. Nowhere is the lack of color and its subtle gradations between values more intentional.

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Here’s a closer look at the color range in engraver Richard Josey’s rendition, a mezzotint entirely printed from a single kind of black ink. Far more than the proverbial 50 shades of gray, these include up to the maximum of 256 different shades shown in the Photoshop-generated color table above.

Whistler built up the muted tones of his original composition through brushstrokes on canvas. In contrast, Josey reductively made the printing matrix by burnishing light effects into a previously roughened plate that would otherwise print in solid black. In addition to the color table mentioned above, the following diagram also pinpoints the amount of black present in several areas of the print—from a near 100% black for the shadows of the skirt (point nr. 1) to the 59% black, grayed-out midtone of the wall (point nr. 3). The brightest highlight within the print at 10% appears in the fold of the handkerchief in the sitter’s hand (point nr. 4), but the 4% tone of the paper support is even brighter (point nr. 2).

gray details

Perhaps in part due to the proliferation of Josey’s print, the painting known as Whistler’s Mother has now been considered the Victorian Mona Lisa, and may well be one of the best-known (and parodied) paintings by an American artist, much like the Art Institute’s own American Gothic. Now that’s a fancy bit of printing, even one in monochrome.

Image Credit: Richard Josey, after James McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mezzotint, 1879. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Many thanks to Liana Jegers for her help in troubleshooting the Photoshop color mapping.


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Why 1690?

POSTED BY , ON March 31, 2015, 3 COMMENTS

Earlier this month, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 opened at the museum. For the casual viewer, 1690 to 1840 might seem like an arbitrary span of time, but the choice was quite deliberate. So today we’ll answer the question on everyone’s minds—why start with 1690?

While the century and a half our exhibition covers is noted as one of relative peace and stability in Ireland, the era was not without its conflicts; the period was ushered in by one of Ireland’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) military encounters, the Battle of the Boyne.

But let’s back up just a bit. In 1689, William III, a Dutch Protestant, was crowned King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, deposing the Catholic James II. Protestant nobles in England, fearful of a Catholic royal dynasty, had secretly encouraged William to seize the throne.

When William took the crown, James was exiled to France, but he did not sit idly by. With troops supplied by his cousin, the Catholic King of France Louis XIV, James landed in Ireland hoping to invade England from the Emerald Isle and regain the throne. Ireland’s majority Catholic population rallied to his cause in the hopes that a Jacobite (from the Latin for James) victory would help them regain property they had lost after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland some 40 years earlier and secure Irish sovereignty and Catholic religious toleration.

So on July 1, 1690, the armies of William and James clashed on the banks of the River Boyne, 30 miles north of Dublin, in what was the beginning of the Battle of the Boyne. Among those to fight alongside James was Sir Neil O’Neill, pictured below.

Wright Sir Neil O'Neill

This is not what Sir Neil wore on the battlefield but rather what he chose to portray himself in for his formal portrait painted a decade earlier. Nearly every detail is deliberately pro-Irish: the costume, spear, shield, and headdress are those of an Irish chieftain; the Irish wolfhound a symbol of national pride. Less obvious to today’s audience is the Japanese armor that appears in the bottom left-hand corner, but Sir Neil’s contemporaries would have recognized it as a reference to the persecution of Jesuit missionaries in Japan. So Sir Neil not only saw himself as a guardian of Ireland but as a defender of the Catholic faith.

In the end, Sir Neil, James, and the rest of the Jacobite army were defeated. William remained king, and James returned to exile in France. Sir Neil, unfortunately, died of injuries sustained in the battle. In Ireland, William’s victory ensured that the island’s minority Protestant elite retained their political, economic, and social authority for over a century in what is commonly referred to as the Protestant Ascendancy. But the fight for Irish autonomy did not die at the Boyne. Next time we’ll look at the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and some of its key players who, like Sir Neil, are featured in our exhibition.

—Anna Decatur, Assistant Director of Principal Gifts

P.S. You might be wondering why someone in the museum’s development department is writing on Irish history. In fact, I started working at the museum shortly after receiving my master’s degree in Irish history from Queen’s University Belfast, not knowing that a major presentation of Irish art was in the works. I’m deeming it a happy coincidence!

Image Credit: John Michael Wright. Portrait of Sir Neil O’Neill, 2nd Baronet of Killyleagh, 1680. Private Collection.


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