I am sitting in a white room with high ceilings, in deep silence. I am all alone. Only a slight humming is audible in the background. Right above me, unaware of this entire operation, hundreds of visitors are entering the glass doors of the Modern Wing. In front of me, a robotic arm, red and amber lights on, is going back and forth with a hypnotic rhythm. Outside, a yellow and purple X-ray warning sign is guarding the door.
I have programmed the computer this morning, so now I only have to sit, wait, and watch while, dot after dot, tantalizing images the eye cannot see trickle down the screen, like The Matrix with a splash of Warhol. In a few hours, the veil will be lifted.
The scene before me was painted by Paul Gauguin in Tahiti in 1896 and it is entitled Why Are You Angry?
The painting shows two women sitting in the foreground, not making eye contact. Another woman, a magnetic presence, stands in the middle, and she is not happy. Although the title is evocative of some kind of narrative, the whole meaning of the scene remains mysterious. My colleague Kristin Lister, a paintings conservator, says that after looking at the painting inch by inch through a microscope, examining every brushstroke, she thinks perhaps originally this might have been a twilight scene. Perhaps there was fire, or light peeking through the doorway of the hut that is now pitch black. Today, over 100 years later, the colors are still bursting out of the painting, making the whole room vibrate (no, the vibrations are not just the effect of the cooling fan in the X-ray tube; this art is powerful).
We cannot see through the dark, or through black paint for that matter, but X-rays can. And this new piece of technology—brilliantly designed by scientists Joris Dik and Koen Janssens with Bruker’s engineers—has been on a US grand tour to peer under some of the most important and enigmatic paintings in this country, after having its Cyclops eye trained on nothing less than Rembrandts back in Europe. It is important to remember that only a few years ago it was unthinkable to do what I am doing today, in the comfort and security of my own lab here at the Art Institute. This type of analysis was only possible at Synchrotrons, large-scale facilities like the one located 30 miles from here at Argonne National Lab. I don’t even want to start thinking about the hassle of having to transport this masterpiece there, arranging for security during transport, making sure the temperature and relative humidity are kept constant during the analysis and at values that are safe for the art. Instead, now that the technology is portable, it can travel to the art rather than the other way around. So, after the Getty in Los Angeles, and New York’s MoMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art, this instrument, called a macro-XRF scanner, has landed here in Chicago. Too bad I can only keep it for a few more days! I would love to own one of these.
This amazing technology scans the surface of a painting with X-rays, exciting the painting materials without harming them. In response, at every spot probed, the atoms that make up the physical structure of the painting and its paint layers emit energy back in different packets so that we can tell precisely what the chemical elements are below the surface and, by inference, what pigments the artist has used. And instead of doing this for individual points, wielding a gun-like instrument—as seen in my post from June 27, 2011—we can now visualize the exact distribution of paints by sweeping through the entire surface of the painting. And this one is definitely big, at 37 1/2 x 51 3/8 inches!
It is going to be fantastic to be able to include this imagery in our forthcoming online catalogue on Paul Gauguin, part of our ongoing Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative which already includes richly detailed catalogues for Monet and Renoir.
So now under my eyes the magic of discovery begins: Below the veil of bluish-black paint there are two heads, not just the one we see, and red brushstrokes of vermilion (a pigment that contains mercury, whose symbol is Hg in the periodic table of elements) with touches of chrome yellow (a pigment containing lead [Pb] and chrome [Cr]), making for a very dynamic yellow-orange and fiery red backdrop for the seated figure.
So, is there a glowing fire inside? Is it an orange curtain? Wait, is Paul inside? Are the women fighting over him? After all, he could be quite attractive, I think; perhaps not conventionally handsome, but I can definitely see a fire in him. He reminds me of the actor Jean Reno of “La Femme Nikita” fame.
Whatever it is, after spending many hours in this room in close intimacy with his work, analyzing its every brushstroke, I feel somehow closer to Gauguin. And suddenly I am reminded of a recent article in the New York Times by Bill Hayes that definitely resonated with me. Its words are still echoing in my head now. In essence it says: When the world goes crazy, pick a work of art. Make it yours. Make it matter. Visit often.
Well, this is MY Gauguin today then. After a whole day with this painting, I feel exhilarated and very calm.
“Why are you angry?” asks Gauguin. “Why are you stressed?” we may sometimes ask ourselves. As long as we have great art that makes us dream and technology that makes us experience things we never thought possible, then we can have faith in this world. No need to be stressed, no need to be angry.
As spoken from my X-ray den. (And don’t worry, I wear a radiation dosimeter and, yes, this instrument is safe for me AND the art!)
—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist
[On view in Gallery 246] Paul Gauguin. Why Are You Angry? (No Te Aha Oe Riri), 1896. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
[On view at the Van Gogh Museum] Paul Gauguin. Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables) (detail), 1888. Van Gogh Museum , Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).
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Just in time for Halloween, the museum’s Asian Art Department opened a creepily appropriate exhibition called Ghosts and Demons in Japanese Prints. The display showcases some of the most special works in the collection, including images from Hokusai’s series One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari), from which the woodblock print above is drawn.
According to urban legend, Koheiji, a traveling kabuki actor, was murdered by his wife and her secret lover. After his death, he sought revenge and went on to haunt the pair incessantly. This print features the ghostly spectral of Koheiji pulling down on a mosquito net bed canopy and peering down on the couple. . . or maybe on us.
The tale of Kohada Koheiji was a well-known one and was featured in Japanese fiction and theater, and this image by Hokusai is the most famous version of the story. Although best known for his images of Mount Fuji, Hokusai was no stranger to supernatural themes. In One Hundred Stories, he explored a variety of ghosts, demons, and witches from Japanese tradition.
Image Credit: Katsushika Hokusai. Kohada Koheiji, from the series One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari), c. 1831–32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.
Eastman Johnson and his wife were riding through Nantucket when they happened upon a scene much like this one, seeing “the yellow corn and husks, the bright chickens running about [and] the old sea captains with their silk hats of better days.” Their excursion inspired this romanticized view of rural life, celebrating hard work, community spirit, and the harvest during a husking bee. Towards the right you can see a young woman holding up a red ear of corn in her right arm. According to folk tradition, this allowed her to kiss the person of her choice.
But what this painting doesn’t show is that scenes like this were becoming more and more rare. Industrialization was revolutionizing American agriculture and small farmers were increasingly being forced to abandon their land and seek work in cities. However, we’ll cut Johnson some slack because the timing of this painting does allow for a bit of nostalgia. Johnson made it in 1876, the year that marked the United States’ centennial, a time when people were celebrating democracy and the American spirit.
Image Credit: Eastman Johnson. Husking Bee, Island of Nantucket, 1876. Gift of Honoré and Potter Palmer.
In 1980, photographer Sarah Charlesworth exhibited a new body of work called Stills, a collection of photographs collected from news wire services and the New York Public Library that showed nearly life-size images of people jumping or falling from great heights. The series was originally limited to seven photographs for a variety of reasons—the cost of printing, the size of the exhibition space—but Charlesworth amassed a much larger collection of these archival images and in 2012, expanded the series to 14 photographs. This exhibition marks the first time all 14 photographs will be shown together.
These images bring up a range of questions: Are the subjects jumping from something? To something? Are they falling? Did they have suicidal intentions? Who are they? What happened to them? We don’t know all of the answers to these questions, but we do know that the outcome is not always as dire as it appears to be.
For example, the image above shows a 15 year old named Patricia Cawlings who jumped (for unknown reasons) from the top of a Zen mission building in Los Angeles. She fell about 20 feet and somewhat remarkably only suffered minor injuries. But because of how Charlesworth has cropped and scaled the source photographs, it’s impossible to tell this by looking at her image. In the words of exhibition curator Matthew Witkovsky, this “absence of closure can seem unendurable” for the viewer.
We invite you to see this exhibition in the Art Institute’s Modern Wing through January 4.
Image Credit: Sarah Charlesworth. Patricia Cawlings, Los Angeles, 1980, printed 2012, No. 10 of 14 from the series Stills. Krueck Foundation and Photography Gala Funds. © Estate of Sarah Charlesworth. Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone.
You might be surprised to discover 1) that these two paintings were created by the same artist and 2) that they were inspired by the same thing. They were in fact both painted by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian within just five years of each other and were both inspired by the landscape in his native Holland.
If you’re familiar with Mondrian’s work, you probably recognize the aesthetic of the top canvas: horizontal and vertical lines and a limited palette including black, white, and primary colors. Also, in this case, Mondrian has rotated the square canvas by 45 degrees to create even more contrast between the lines in the painting and the diagonal lines of the canvas. But these spare, geometric compositions reflect more than just an interest in abstraction; they represent a reduction in natural forms to create a pure new visual language. And often, the natural forms that were the jumping-off point for Mondrian’s work came from Holland’s flat geography.
But as he and other artists were experimenting with relationships between abstract lines, shapes, and colors, Mondrian was also creating more representational work, including this painting from 1916 called Farm near Duivendrecht. This is one of 20 views of the same farm that he created over about 14 years. In part, this was to please his patrons, many of whom preferred a more naturalistic style. But it also gave him an opportunity to balance his new abstract interests with the more straightforward approaches to landscape that he had worked on early in his career.
Make sure to visit (and compare) both of these works on your next visit to the third floor of the museum’s Modern Wing.
Piet Mondrian. Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray, 1921. Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International, Warrenton VA.
Piet Mondrian. Farm near Duivendrecht, c. 1916. Gift of Dolly J. van der Hoop Schoenberg. © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International, Warrenton VA.