Articles on this Page
- 08/22/13--05:33: _Guest the Artist – ...
- 08/27/13--05:33: _A Fun Evening at th...
- 09/25/13--05:33: _Why you can’t take ...
- 03/24/14--05:33: _Why Every Trip Shou...
- 03/26/14--05:33: _El Greco and the Pa...
- 04/07/14--19:35: _Science & Sfumato –...
- 05/27/14--05:33: _Mosaic Treasures at...
- 11/17/14--05:33: _The Life of A Paint...
- 05/18/15--05:33: _The Scrovegni Chape...
- 01/20/16--05:33: _Re-Opening the Renw...
- 08/22/13--05:33: Guest the Artist – Old Church Edition
- 08/27/13--05:33: A Fun Evening at the Cincinnati Art Museum
- 09/25/13--05:33: Why you can’t take photos in museums
- 03/24/14--05:33: Why Every Trip Should Include Museums
- 03/26/14--05:33: El Greco and the Painting Process
- 04/07/14--19:35: Science & Sfumato – Technical Analysis to Aid Art Historians
- 05/27/14--05:33: Mosaic Treasures at Sepphoris, Israel
- 05/18/15--05:33: The Scrovegni Chapel: My Moment with Giotto’s Masterpiece
- 01/20/16--05:33: Re-Opening the Renwick and the Morning After
I liked playing “Guess the Artist” last month so I have another good one for you.
This is an early work of a famous painter. To make it difficult, I’m not going to give you any clues! (Other than this artist has a super obvious signature which I had to cover up in the picture.)
It is almost not fair to look at this painting online and try to guess the painter. If you look closely in person, you can see in the minutia, traces of who this artist would later become.
Do you have a guess yet?
Vincent van Gogh! Known for his vibrant colors and unruly brushwork, Vincent started his career examining peasant life. He produced this painting in 1885 as well as his famous “Potato Eaters” which uses a dark palette to highlight the bleak existence of rural farmers.
I was really surprised by the realism of “The Old Church Tower at Nuenen.” The play of light off the stone tower and the smokey sky are lovely. The subject matter, composition, and execution seems to bridge the realism and provincial subject matter of Corot’s work with the darkness and pessimism of Coubet’s peasant world.
Vincent van Gogh is not know as a good draftsman. His lines are often crooked, curvy and generally not accurate representation of the subject matter even in his small study drawings. But in this month’s mystery painting he does a very good job of creating a solid and realistic tower. Knowing that the tower should look as real as possible, he must have struggled to create the image. I like looking at this painting and thinking about Vincent’s conscious effort here to copy a style. The work must have been slowly and meticulous executed which seems light years away from his free “painting-a-day” pace at the end of this life. Of course later he abandoned some of this rigid realism and painted churches in his own undulating way.
Interestingly, early Vincent was already physically painting his own way. Van Gogh’s works have linear strokes of color and very deliberate hash marks of parallel color. While the church walls above are done in lines of green and yellow, they are done in muted roses and brown in the mystery painting. If you look closely, the tower’s facade is a thickness of horizontal and vertical hashes which would have been a good clue toward Vincent Van Gogh.
Filed under: Art History, Netherlands Tagged: art, art history, humor, museums, mystery, Painting, travel
church FIshtina25old church paintingVincent van Gogh's "The Old Church Tower at Nuenen (The Peasants' Counrtyard)" from the Van Gogh Museum in AmsterdamVincent van Gogh - "De Aardappeleters (The Potato Eaters)""The Roman Campagna in Winter" by Camille Corot Vincent van Gogh - The Church at Auvers-sur-OiseVincent van Gogh "The Old Church Tower at Nuenen (The Peasants' Counrtyard)" detail
I wandered into the the Cincinnati Art Museum with no expectations. I’d forgotten to check their collection ahead of time and I didn’t know what the special exhibits were. I ended up having what was probably one of the funnest museum experiences I have ever had! The programing, creative presentation of their art and friendly staff were so impressive that I left at the end day totally floored and a new fan of the Cincinnati Museum.
Brilliant Curatorial Choices
It is fairly easy to just hang art. Where a museum proves itself is the ability of its staff to arrange and present its works in an thought-provoking way. Earlier this year, I wrote about how San Diego’s three major art museums did a good job constructing thematic exhibits from their permanent collections. The Cincinnati Art Museum has very creatively considered how to present their pieces which made for a really fun experience filled with a legitimate sense of discovery.
The central passage of the gallery houses the “Masterpieces” of the collection. Each piece is dramatically spot-lit and enveloped in a cocoon of hanging black cords. I have never seen anything like this. Since some light passes through the forest of cords, there is a sense of intimate enclosure and isolation with the masterpiece without being in a restricted viewing stall. Somewhat distracted by the novelty of the setting, I ran my hands through and leaned into the cords while the smiling security guard looked on.
I loved the exhibit entitled “The Collections: 6,000 years of Art”. Recognizing that there are lots of treasures in the collection that can’t be properly displayed, the Cincinnati Art Museum has created an “open storage” exhibit. Two large galleries are packed with sculptures, paintings, decorative objects and furniture. The display cases were mostly chronological and displayed on wooden crate-shaped pedestals – a nice homage to the storage theme. The paintings are hung as mishmash of genres, periods and styles. I loved this! Sometimes you just want to contemplate a portrait of the Holy Family and a 20th monochromatic century study. It’s not museum sacrilege; it can be really fun! Signage is difficult in this type of display but it forces you to just look at the paintings and evaluated them on appearance alone, rather than named artists and historical notes.
I first saw this concept of open storage galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I loved it there too. I’m glad to see the Cincinnati building on that exhibit design concept.
In general, the museum was very well laid out and presented. The main collection touched a broad spectrum of Western Art. I particularly liked a room of contemplative American paintings by Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper and Grant Wood. Interspersed throughout the collection were small signs connecting a piece in the main collection to one of the masterworks in the central gallery. The viewer was asked to compare the two pieces with some discussion questions. My favorite pairing was a 18th century British military portrait and a statue of Shiva.
Cincinnati is the historic home of the famous Rookwood Pottery company. Founded in 1880, this company has produced some of the most beautiful Art & Crafts ceramics in America which still yield significant prices at auction. It’s not surprising then that the Cincinnati Art Museum would have an excellent collection of pottery and some of the more impressive pieces created by Rookwood, plus works by other local artisans. As someone who as always considered Rookwood a vase maker, it was great to see decorative panels for hotels and domestic commissions.
The night I went to the museum it was open until 9pm as part of their summer hours. What I didn’t realize was that summer hours entail a bit of a party. In the center courtyard of the museum there was a modern blue-grass group playing American folk museum. (Cincinnati does border Kentucky after all.) There were also free snacks, a cash bar and a crowd of young professionals taking it all in. The music echoed through the museum and created a great viewing atmosphere. I almost felt like we’d broken into the museum and were having a party!
The special exhibit for the summer were works by American Impressionist and Cincinnati-native Edward Henry Potthast. His breezy, colorful beach scenes filled with children were perfect for an August evening. Since I didn’t know this artist, I was happy to learn about a clearly talented American painter.
If you find yourself in Cincinnati, then by all means get to the Cincinnati Art Museum! Beside being run by smart and clearly fun people, admission is free year round thanks to several generous contributions to the museum.
Filed under: Art History, USA Tagged: art, art history, Cincinnati, design, exhibits, museums, Painting, travel, USA
FIshtina25Cincinnati Art Museum entrancemasterpiece bays, Cincinnati Art Museumvan gogh, Cincinnati Art Museummasterpiece bays, Cincinnati Art Museumpainting open storageEgyptian open storage, Cincinnati Art Museumpainting open storage displayAugustus Roman portrait bust, Cincinnati Art Museumpainting open storagedutch art galleryImpressionist mother and child paintingsRookwood arts and crafts fireplaceRookwood spring plaqueThe Goodle Boys, live music at Cincinnati art museumBeach scenes by American Impressionist Edward Henry Potthast.
I take a lot of pictures when I travel – architecture, market stalls, natural vistas, local life. As much as I like to soak in the experience, I always like having an image to take home as a souvenir. But like many travelers, I eventually encounter a museum or historical site that doesn’t allow photography. So why can’t I take pictures in a museum? It may be frustrating and not really obviously why photography is prohibited, but I think it comes down to a few simple rationales. Hopefully this explanation will give you some perspective next time you see the dreaded “No Photography” sign.
#1 – Crowd Control
I am convinced crowd control is the single greatest cause for no photography rules! People trying to take photos don’t pay attention to their surroundings, they jostle for position, and cause traffic jams. Imagine if the “No Photos” rule was actually enforced at the Louvre? Limiting photography is perhaps the only tool museums have to control the throng of daily visitors.
In setting up a gallery, museum curators must balance how to best display the art, how the exhibit should flow, how pieces could play off each other and then more practically, how are people going to walk through this space? After some assumptions about the number of daily visitors and the average time a person views a piece (or masterpiece), they make some space concessions for the sake of the traffic flow. Nothing messes up this orchestrated herd more than constant photos pauses in which everyone waits for one person to take a photo.
Belgium – Viewing Art from inside a “Box”
I’ve written about the tiny viewing room in which the Ghent Altarpiece is displayed. In this tight space, photography is forbidden so that visitors can enter, view the piece and leave. They’ve even forbidden tour guides from speaking in the room so that people don’t stand and linger in the cramped space. So there I was, shoulder to shoulder and three rows deep, when the woman in front of me pulled out a camera and clicked away. She stayed in front of the piece for a few more minutes, taking valuable viewing real estate, deleting photos so that she could take a few pictures more of the painting. In a gallery with an unspoken rule of “take a look and then let someone else see”, she was demonstrating why photography was actually prohibited.
#2 – “The Viewing Experience”
Taking photos also gets in the way of appreciating the art on view. Inevitably in every museum I visit, I see someone quickly snapping from picture to picture, getting in people’s way without really even looking at the art. The behavior does a disservice to the “photographer” as well as to the other visitors.
There is a trend now to save visitors from themselves and institute strict no photography policies to ensure that all can enjoy and focus on the art. Noticeably, the Musee d’Orsay has a no photography policy. As someone who plans on spending a lot of time someday at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, I’m happy to see that they’ve forbidden photography. As much as I would like to photograph details of the objects on view, I think I would rather enjoy free-flowing crowds and time to enjoy the artifacts without a camera constantly popping into my line of sight.
I also have a lot of sympathy for no photography rules in places of worship. No one wants flashes going off while they are praying. Even those places that do allow photography deserve unobtrusive, quiet respect from their visitors.
Ireland – No Photography in a Cave
Limiting photography is also the considerate thing to do sometimes. At Newgrange, Ireland, groups of about 10 people are led down a narrow stone path to the prehistoric burial chamber at the heart of the archaeological site. As my tour guide was getting started, one member of my group staring getting a little claustrophobic and had to move into the passageway to listen. As we were all taking a final look at the end of our visit, I asked if I could take a photo of the stone carvings. The guide said no. I asked why. “It will damage the rock,” she shot back.
Well obviously a flash will not harm rock – this is another case of crowd control! Imagine flashes going off is a small, dark, enclosed space? Even the calmest person could get a little disoriented and claustrophobic. The flashes would also ruin the experience of being inside the cave, watching the evocative shadows play across the rough stones.
#3 – Preservation of the Art
So maybe rock isn’t actually damaged by light but there are fragile objects that can be effected by flash photography. Non-colorfast pigments, natural varnishes and old paper are susceptible to thousands of daily camera flashes which could hasten degradation. Since these works are being preserved for the very long-term, museum go to great lengths to design special gallery lighting, use UV-filtering glasses and limit what viewers can do.
That being said, Museum are beginning to relax the rules and posting more “No Flash” signs. With a half-way decent camera, you can use a steady hand and a longer exposure time to capture exquisite images of very fragile works of art like the Bayeux Tapestry.
#4 – Copyright
Most works of art in museums are within the public sector or are old enough that image copyright does not apply. However, some museums or private owners may wish to control the distribution of their image and so they have the right to forbid photography. This is especially common for special exhibits which may have unique policies since they feature privately owned pieces and loaner works from other institutions.
Interestingly, I happened across a room of ancient Roman mosaics in Sparta. The museum attendants were adamant that no photos could be taken in the room displaying them. I asked why and it turns out these mosaics had never been documented or published in public. In an academic sense, they were “undiscovered” works of art. The museum was putting together an article about the pieces and didn’t want them reaching the public beforehand.
So, hopefully that helps next time you see a “No Photography” sign. I’m still conflicted in that I see why photography is usually banned but still really do like to take pictures when I travel. If it’s any consolation, you can always buy some postcards of your favorite pieces. I certainly have quite a collection….
So have you ever been to a museum with a No Photo rule and wished you could have taken pictures?
Filed under: Art History, Travel Tagged: advice, art, art history, culture, museums, News, photography, rules, tourism, travel
no photography FIshtina25Crowd viewing the Mona Lisa, Louvre, ParisMetropolitan Museum of Art sculpture hallThe Ghent Altarpiece on Displaylooking at Pollack in a museumEgyptian MuseumBlue mosque, Istanbul prayersNewgrange, part of the prehistoric Brú na Bóinne complexnewgrange entranceno flash signBayeux tapestry horses close upPicasso and Gilot exhibit posterSparta Museum mosaicscroll
I’ve been meaning to write for some time about why every trip should include art museums. But when I read Robert Reid’s post “Are Museums Overrated?” on National Geographic’s blog, I knew it was time. In his piece, Reid argues that Museums don’t necessarily need to be on anyone’s “To See” list – unless of course that’s your thing. I would encourage the opposite! Even if you’ve never been to a museum in your own community, you must visit museums when traveling. Most travelers are skeptical about spending precious vacation hours looking at old stuff, so let me tackle some of the mental barriers for visiting museums and elaborate on the major pluses for this cultural experience.
Visiting a Museum 101
Maybe your biggest complaint about visiting museums is the tedious experience of actually visiting a museum. I see this at every one I visit: slowly moving herds of people filing by pieces, doing a once over look and maybe snapping a picture. Galleries are somber and visitors take on a checklist attitude feeling obligated to meander through every space. Digital cameras & smartphones have even made the experience even more unbearable at times. This is not how you visit a museum.
The recent “quality travel” movement advocates a deep dive into local culture for a more complete and enriching experience. It’s the same thing with museums. Always err on the side of quality versus quantity. I’ve spent a full day in the Louvre, one of the most incredible museums in the world, but I didn’t come close to seeing everything. And I’m a self-proclaimed “Art Traveler”! It distracts from the quality of the art to pretend you are going to see it all because really, how much time does that leave you with any one piece? Will you really notice any subtly in the characters, emotion, or its execution if you give each a passing glance?
Imagine yourself in Venice. You might wander some of the streets then sit to watch life along the canal. You would never force yourself to march your way through all of Venice’s streets “because you have to see it all”. It’s the same thing in museums – just look for things you like or don’t like and most importantly make the experience your own and enjoy it.
I sometimes wonder if it is the price of museums that makes people feel obligated to see everything. Most major international museums are $20+ which is not cheap for budget travelers. Again, this is not a buffet where you need to eat as much food as possible for your money. You ordered the filet mignon and it taste like Northern Renaissance Art so savor it and don’t worry if you don’t eat the baked potato that came on the side!
Get a Guide
Most people prepare for travel by pouring over guidebooks, reading blogs, and talking to friends about a destination. We do our homework and set off knowing the best local dishes, most beautiful city walks, and quintessential local markets. But why doesn’t anyone do research about art? We take it for granted that the museum will enrich us without even considering what we might want to see while we are there. Why write off a museum if you yourself don’t know what’s worth seeing in it?
Luckily more and more art museums are getting savy digitally and have special suggested tours, collection highlight lists, and interactive features on-line to make planning your visit easy. Many places connect the pieces to larger events in history and national culture so you understand the context and importance of a piece.
Granted art is not everyone’s expertise, so maybe you decided to leave the planning to the experts. If you find yourself in a museum without any background knowledge, then take advantage of the curator tours, guides, and other written material provided for visitors. For example, John Singer Sargent’s Madame X at the Metropolitan Museum of Art might just look like a fancy lady and you’d move on past it. But on a tour, you’d hear about the scandalous history of this “indecent” piece and how Sargent had to repaint her shoulder strap after a public outrage. Without realizing it, you could have walked by one of the most fantastic paintings of the Parisian art world at the turn of the century!
Art is not Passive
We’ve got TV, movies, and the Internet, but our ancestors had art. Religious paintings elevated, transfixed and terrified worshipers in Europe for centuries. Images and objects conveyed royal power everywhere from China to Peru. Folk art captured the hopes and memories of common people. Art is emotional. It has power and drama, pain and pathos. Sauntering past a painting, you don’t give it enough time to open up.
Have you ever really looked at a work of art? Part of “art appreciation” is trying to understand the meaning and purpose of a piece. Sure, some painting may seem cryptic and complex, but sometimes, like in Goya’s The Fifth of May or Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, the impact is immediate and visceral.
If you want to understand a little bit more about the power of art, one of the most compelling, personal stories about the emotion and importance of art comes from Monica Bowen (of Alberti’s Window) and was published on the late Hasan Niyazi’s ThreePipeProblem. Monica was so moved that she is now a professor of art history, but you certainly don’t have to be a professional to connect with a work of art.
Know a Culture By Knowing Its Past
I’m excited about the local culture and slow travel movement. I think every tourist should be looking for authentic experiences. But on some level, you need to understand a culture’s past before you can appreciate its modern psyche. Every village and city has a past that formed the buildings, people, and ways of that community. Art is how humans have been recording their triumphs, hopes, and tragedies for centuries. It is important to see who a people once were in order to understand them today.
For example, I think it enriches your visit to the Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid if you’ve seen Goya’s The Third of May. If you understand that Chinese art changed little over a thousand year period, you might have something to ponder among the ultra new skyscrapers of Shanghai. Even the Acropolis Museum in Athens sheds some light Greece’s long history of occupation and eventual independence. Who knows what new insight you may find!
I also find it interesting to see how a culture presents its past both figuratively and literally. The new Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is not just an art museum. It tells the nautical, merchant history of this small nation through maps, ship models, and other exciting objects picked up in their travel. It’s a far more detailed and nuanced story than I ever learned in school but it is told with care by the museum about the nation’s ancestors. The museum itself which incorporates historic and modern architectural elements and it both practical, inviting and open seems to also mimic for many how the Dutch see themselves today.
Travel itself is a challenge. We leave our community and our comfort zone because we want new experiences. Maybe you don’t eat horse meat at home, but when you’re in Amsterdam, why not try it? Maybe you don’t watch a lot of sunrises at home, but you are definitely going to wake up for them in Thailand. I am not a “beach person”, but I just got back from Tel Aviv and its incredible beach boardwalk.
We travel to see new things. If you don’t consider yourself a museum person, at least give it a try. For the reasons I’ve mentioned above, you should at least give yourself the opportunity to learn something or be moved by art.
Museums can really enrich travel and are a critical part of exploring and understanding new places. You should see the massive Louvre in Paris, or the tiny Desmond Castle Museum in Kinsale Ireland. But most importantly, be conscious of why you are visiting and how you are visiting any museum. Your approach, attitude, and choices can have a huge impact on your experience.
Ultimately, I agree with Reid that we should not have a “checklist” mentality when it comes to museums. But then again, travel should never be about checklists. You should never do something just “to do it.” If there is anything that is truly over-rated about travel, it is not thinking about why or how we travel.
Filed under: Art History Tagged: art, art history, museums, opinion, travel
Madame X at the Metropolitan Musem of Artshtina25Metropolitan Museum of Art sculpture hallmuseums wrong memeMadame X at the Metropolitan Musem of ArtGoya Third of MayJan Gossaert - Portrait of a Merchantsunset Nafplio
This last Saturday, the National Gallery of Art, along with SPAIN art & culture organization, held a small symposium on the Renaissance/Mannerist artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos in honor of the 400th anniversary of this death. Better known as “El Greco” (the Greek), this Cretan painter stands out in Spanish art history for his unique, almost otherworldly compositions, bold use of color and fluid brushwork. Analysis of some recently rediscovered paintings was presented at the conference and helps shed some light on how the artist worked.
Luis Alberto Perez Velarde, curator of the Museo del Greco, spoke about a series of 13 paintings known as the Apostolate of the Museo del Greco. This series consists of half-length portraits of Jesus and the 12 apostles (with Paul replacing Judas). El Greco and his workshop actually produced two other versions of this series which are now at the Asturias Museum of Fine Arts in Oviedo (done 1602-1607) and in the Toledo Cathedral (done 1607-8). Interestingly, the series at the Museo del Greco which dates to 1610-1614, is mostly unfinished. We can then compare these in progress portraits to the other completed sets.
I thought one of the most striking examples was the portrait of Saint Matthew. As one of the evangelists, he is shown holding a book and quill. His right hand is simply a wash of flesh-tone color under the book. The typical, long fingers of El Greco’s figures will clearly be a later refinement. The Saint’s face and beard are also a ghostly approximation. It’s as if we were looking through obscured glass at the man. The tunic and cloak are flat with sharply contrasting areas of light and dark missing the eventual blended progression from one to the other. The completed versions of Saint Matthew don’t have these unresolved areas.
The Saint Matthew paintings are a fascinating glimpse into El Greco’s creative process. The prevailing Italian and Spanish method at the time was to prepare a detailed under-drawing on the blank canvas which enabled fairly exact work once painting began. It was also not uncommon (especially in Spain) to complete an entire monochromatic under-painting as a guide for the final work.
By creating a fleshy colored hand “zone” and just the darkest and lightest regions of the clothing, we can imagine that El Greco worked quickly and directly on the canvas. Without detailed under-drawings, he appropriated areas for the final image and then iteratively refined each element as he went like a sculptor slowing carving in the round. The dynamic contrast of light and dark seen in El Greco’s work is therefore a result of how he worked refining areas of the canvas by building up layers of definition. The obvious brush strokes are not because he was trying to remove the realism and blur the image, it is because he held back and didn’t get close enough to realism.
El Greco was very much ahead of his time in how he approached art. We can see his influence particularly among the Impressionists and Expressionists – movements that occurred more than 250 years after his death. Perhaps seeing his legacy, relevance, and appreciation today is the most fitting tribute on this 400th anniversary of his death.
Filed under: Art History Tagged: art, art history, El Greco, Mannerism, museums, Painting, process, Renaissance, Spain, talks, Washington DC
apostle room - el grecoshtina25Saint Martin and the BeggarApostle Room, Museo del GrecoEl Greco - St Matthew, Museo del GrecoEl Greco - San Mateo, Toledo CathedralEl Greco - San Mateo, Asturias Museum of Fine ArtsPortrait of a Man (presumed self-portrait of El Greco), circa 1595–1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
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This post is part of a larger on-line symposium to honor the late Hasan Niyazi, the self-taught art historian behind Three Pipe Problem. Hasan championed art history, critical analysis, valuable online discourse, and all things Raphael! As part of this April 6th celebration (Raphael’s birthday), you can read all of the posts here. He is missed by all those who knew him personally or through his active engagement with readers online.
I always appreciated that Hasan advocated for scientific research and technical analysis as a complimentary approach to historical research and stylistic connoisseurship. Art is fundamentally material science even if the end result can be ascribed beauty or emotional intensity. Thus it makes sense to use analytical techniques to understand how a piece of art was constructed in order to understand to creative process and the end product.
Given the numerous Three Pipe Problem posts on Leonardo da Vinci and the continuing struggle to attribute two recent works – Salvator Mundi and La Bella Principessa, I thought it would be useful to return to this enigmatic artist. Da Vinci’s experimentation with material and techniques is anecdotally well-known. But really what do we know about his luminous sfumato faces? One recent study confirmed the nearly impossible.
Art History Question
Sfumato, which come from the Italian word for smoke, is the effect of creating transitions from light to dark without any discernible lines. An invention of the Renaissance, it is a technique most closely associated with its champion Leonardo da Vinci. While the soft, naturalistic result is breathtaking, true sfumato is very difficult to produce. Egg tempera paints of the Italian Gothic period made it nearly impossible to achieve this effect, whereas oil paints introduced to Italy widely in the 15th century, were more suited for this method. Da Vinci is believed to have used washes of oil-based tints to slowly build and mold the sfumato volumes.
Unfortunately there has been very little that art historians can do to verify that this was the process used by da Vinci. In the last 30 years or so, art conservators have commonly removed small bores, or cross-sections, from a painting which show like tree rings the layers of paint on top of each other. This analysis uses high magnification and the identification of visible pigment crystals to attribute layers. This method would not be appropriate for the type of low pigment washes da Vinci used. More importantly, no one would ever let a bore of pigment be removed from the face of a da Vinci figure!
Here’s where recent analytical science provides an answer: a non-destructive, highly sensitive method for identifying and quantifying pigment and binder (i.e. the oil holding everything together) layers.
The Analytical Method
X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF) is a well-established analytical method which uses the intrinsic and unique atomic properties of many element to identify materials. Think back to the 1950′s atom model of a central nuclei with an electron spinning around it on an elliptical orbit. In XRF, the energy of an x-ray is used to remove an electron in an elliptical orbit near the nuclei. Electrons wants to be as close to the nuclei as possible, so another electron in an outer elliptical “falls” back down to take its place near the core. During this fall, the electron gives off an amount of energy proportional to the drop. The energy released is based on the respective energy levels of the two ellipticals and is so unique that we can identify most element in the periodic table by that signature energy difference.
One of the greatest advantages of XRF is that since it used x-rays, it is not destructive to paintings, ceramics, and a whole range of materials. Advances in x-ray generation and engineering mean that XRF can be applied to a single point in space whether on the surface of or inside materials. Scientists can probe down through paint layers with a fine degree of resolution.
XRF at the Lourve
In 2010, a team from the French Art Research and Conservation Center (Centre de Recherche et la Restauration des Musees de France) working at the Louvre were joined by a scientist from the European Synchrotron Radiation Lab (i.e. the x-ray experts) to perform the first XRF analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s priceless sfumato faces. This was an incredible undertaking as this type of analysis had never been performed before. Their results were published in a prestigious, general interest, international chemistry journal.
The researchers wanted to understand how da Vinci created the sfumato effect of flesh. So they selected a line of several centimeters that moved from light to dark along a figure’s face and tracked how the pigment and layers changed over this 2D line. The Louvre has an impressive 7 paintings by da Vinci which span his entire career which provided information about da Vinci’s general painting style and he adjusted his techniques over his career.
How Thick Are the Paint Layers?
The figure above summarized the study findings. Along the bottom axis is the position along the figure’s face and the vertical axis is the total paint thickness. You can see the thickness of the base white-pink flesh layer by the pink line. The thickness of the darkening glazes is then on top of that following the red line. Then finally the varnish layer is shown in orange. (The authors also admit that the varnish may be a later addition.)
As you would expect for such a subtle effect, the glaze layers are tiny and build up linearly. Glaze layers of 2-5um, or only 0.002 – 0.005mm, in thickness were discovered.
It is particularly startling how thin the paint on Saint John the Baptist is applied overall. For this painting, the combination of primer layer and glazes is never more than 50um thick on the face! For comparison, that is approximately the thickness of a human hair.
What Constitutes the Glaze Layers?
Prevailing historical knowledge and visual analysis tells us that these sfumato glaze layers were thin. But what does that mean quantitatively?
The authors were able to analyze the pigment content in the glaze layers and found that they were only 8% pigment. The pigment minerals themselves were standard for the time so da Vinci was not playing with the chemistry at least. Walter et al. do point out that it is possible that carbon black was also added to the glaze but that it cannot be detected by XRF. Even so, 8-15% of pigment is not a significant amount. I have no concept of how opaque this concentration would be, but it does not seem like much. You can imagine the need for layer after layer of this dilute paint to achieve a perfectly shaded face.
What Does This Tell Us About da Vinci’s Style Over Time?
One of the more interesting findings in this paper is the change in da Vinci’s approach to sfumato over time. The Louvre team found that La Belle Ferronnière (painted around 1490-1495) had a consistent under-painting of white and pink pigments. The thickness of this layer was even across her entire face. The thickness of the darker glaze was increased to give the desired shading.
However, the Mona Lisa, painted sometime between 1503-1517, is constructed slightly differently. The white-pink under-painting layer is thinner in the shaded areas. So not only do the glazes slowly taper to build up the darker areas, the light color underneath slowly tapers away. The result is a proudly sublime sfumato effect.
Studies like this one performed by the Centre de Recherche et la Restauration des Musees de France are phenomenally valuable and informative. Science can validate prevailing theories about an artist’s style and give us knew insights such as paint thickness and composition that cannot be found exactly in the historical record.
This type of analysis can best be leveraged when performed with art historians. With a keen understanding of prevailing controversy and unknowns, art historians can provide not only the questions to trigger scientific studies but also interpretation. Scientific understanding must eventually be translated to the practice of executing a painting.
Ultimately scientific analysis lends itself to a new kind of connoisseurship as Hasan forsaw. Even perfect imitations of an artist’s style that can convince the greatest connoisseur, can be discredited with more fundamental scientific information about the execution of the piece. For example, it would be difficult to refuse something that looked like a da Vinci but was also painted to the thickness of only a human hair like the other paintings explored in this article. With both scholarly and scientific information, great new research and understanding is possible.
 de Viguerie, L.; Walter, P.; Laval, E.; Mottin, B.; Sole, V. A. “Revealing the sfumato Technique of Leonard da Vinci by X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy”, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2010, 49, 6125-6128, and supporting information. Link here.
Filed under: Art History Tagged: art, art history, Conservation Science, da Vinci, Italy, Renaissance, research, science
Eyes of St. Anne from "Virgin and Child with St. Anne"shtina25mona lisa experiment, SRFDetail of Mary from Leonardo da Vinci's "The Virgin of the Rocks", National Gallery, LondonXRF diagramda Vinci XRF analysis childvarnish layersRaw pigments and paint making display at the Rembrandt House, Amsterdam da Vinci change over timeEyes of St. Anne from "Virgin and Child with St. Anne"
You may never have heard of Sepphoris but this former Roman city has some fantastic mosaics. Also known as Tzippori or Zippori , this archaeological site in the Western Galilee has been excavated over the last 30 years revealing wonderful treasures. Ignored by tour buses, I had the site to myself and could enjoy the best and most extensive collection of ancient mosaic art in Israel.
The History of Sepphoris
Given its strategic position on top of a mountain, there had been a settlement at Sepphoris for centuries before the invading Romans made it there provincial capital for Western Galilee in 47 BCE. Following Herod’s death in 4 BCE, the local Jewish community revolted and seized Sepphoris which was subsequently destroyed as the Roman army retook the city. Herod’s son Antipas made Sepphoris his capital and rebuilt the city in an extravagant Roman style much of which remains today.
Sepphoris largely avoided Rome’s wrath following the Jewish revolt of 66 CE and existed as an important center of Jewish life for centuries. Following a destructive earthquake in 363 CE, the city was reconstructed in a Byzantine style. A Crusader era fortress was build on the mountain summit in the 12th century but was lost to Saladin. For centuries afterward, ancient Sepphoris slept under an Arab village until the first archaeological exploration of 1931 led to major excavations in the 1980′s.
A Biblical Connection
Antipas triggered a major building boom at the beginning of the first century which would have require massive amounts of man-power and money. The poor Jewish town of Nazareth was only a few kilometers away and would have supplied most of the unskilled workers and craftsmen for this extensive construction project. Scholars point out that this would certainly have included “carpenters” from Nazareth and that this exposure to cosmopolitan Roman life may have influenced Jesus’ later ministry. Perhaps Jesus’ theology of social justice and caring for the poor may have evolved from seeing first hand the splendor and excess of Sepphoris.
Additionally, following the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish faith began transitioning to a rabbinical tradition. The Talmud describes Sepphoris in the 1st and 2nd century CE as an important city of “18 synagogues” and home to several famous rabbis.
The Roman Villa, or the Dionysus House
The artistic highlight of Sepphoris is the elaborate floor of an elegant Roman villa, known as the Dionysus House. Used as a space for entertaining, the floor depicts scenes from the life of Bacchus and images of his followers feasting. The large blank space on the left of the floor would have been for large couches for the guests and hence were not decorated.
Gods and goddesses, mythical creatures and revelers like celebrate the cult of Bacchus. I especially like the image of men smashing grapes by foot to make wine.
The Nile River House
Just off the main street in what would have been the center of ancient Sepphoris is a multi-roomed dwelling with especially creative mosaic floors known as the Nile House. The central rooms of this complex has a elaborate river scene mosaic that is teaming with life. The image shows the annual flooding of the Nile River overseen by the River God himself and a fertility goddess. The banks are crowded with fishermen, fowl, wild beasts and flowers. The entire floor is alive with activity!
The fertility of the land is evident by the violent hunting in the foreground:
Unfortunately this mosaic still needs to be restored. The floor is uneven and there are sunken or missing pockets which cast shadows and make it a little harder to appreciate the beauty of the mosaics in photographs.
Interestingly, the source of the Nile appears to be coming from the mouth of a very big animal. Given its face and elephant-like feet, my guess is that it is a hippo.
In the surrounding hallways and smaller chambers are images of Amazons, warriors and centaurs, or elaborate geometric patterns.
Excavations have uncovered only one synagogue in Sepphoris which dates to the fifth century CE. Demonstrating an impressive mixing of cultures, the central aisle is decorated with Jewish and secular images.
About half of the floor is taken up by a huge zodiac disk. In the center, a radiating sun is pulled in a chariot by 4 horses. Each wedge of the disc depicts a sign of the zodiac with Aramaic captions. The outer four corners around the disc (known as spandrels) depict the seasons personified as young women. For example, winter is bundled up in robes while Spring has flowers in her hair. This depiction of the zodiac reminds me of other pagan Greek and Christian Byzantine examples and shows a high degree of cultural sharing at the time.
Another section of the mosaic describes temple life. While by the 5th century Jewish religious practices had shifted more toward rabbinical teaching and study of the holy books, the community in Sepphoris still kept alive the memory of Temple worship in Jerusalem. There are images of offerings, incense, a menorah, and the Ark of the covenant.
Shops and Streets
While I’ve high-lighted the main buildings, there are lots of smaller houses with their own interesting mosaic floors throughout Sepphoris. Since the site is largely open air, you can wander the ancient streets and peer into people’s decorated homes.
I particularly like the so called “Orpheus House” which is named after a lovely central panel of this Greek poet who has charmed a dozen of exotic birds. Surrounding him are scenes of daily life. While Orpheus was completed with great care and detail, the other images are simple and cartoon-like, but definitely endearing! I particularly like the hospitality scenes. Below a visitor is being welcomed into a home. In a nearby panel, they are having a meal and then later playing a game.
Some houses have mosaic floors with elaborate geometric patterns while others incorporate flowers, birds, or fruits.
How to Visit Sepphoris
If you love mosaics, you really should visit Sepphoris. The archaeological site is known as Zippori National Park and is administered by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority. You can find more information here on visiting hours. Given how easy it is to rent a car and drive in Israel, I would recommend driving to Sepphoris, but you could take a cab from Nazareth as long as you arranged transportation back as well since the area is pretty rural and isolated.
Filed under: Art History, Israel Tagged: archaeology, art, art history, Israel, mosaics, Roman, travel
procession mosaic, wine detail, Roman Villa, Sepphorisshtina25The Mona Lisa of Galilee, SepphorisThe ancient theater and the hills around Sepporiscity ruins, SepphorisMain road in SepphorisRoman Villa mosaics, SepphorisProcession Mosaic, Roman Villa, Sepphoriswine detail, oman Villa mosaics, SepphorisProcession and Drunk Reveler from the Roman Villa, SepphorisNile House mosaic, SepphorisLeopard pouncing on a deer, Nile House, Sepphorislion and ox, Nile House, Sepphorismouth of the nile, Nile House, Sepphoriscentaur, Nile House, SepphorisSynagogue mosaics, Sephhoriszodiac, synagogue, Sepphorisofferings, synagogues, Sepphorissmaller buildings, SepphorisGreeting friends from the Orpheus Houseelaborate geometric floor toppled wall, sepphoris
We take it for granted that paintings should be shown behind glass, watched by security, and protected in museums. However, for centuries a piece of art was just another personal possession. Someone could have a painting altered just as easily as having pants hemmed. Even pieces by the great masters were not immune to harsh treatment. Even an incredible painting by the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci was carved up and nearly lost.
Maybe because he primarily considered himself to be an engineer, Leonardo da Vinci did not produce a lot of finished paintings. He is known for reworking and revisiting his pieces over and over again; for example, he continued to work on the “Mona Lisa” another 11 years after he (supposedly) finished it. He also experimented with materials and techniques. His approach to painting with oil glazes changed over time and he famously used an new fresco method for the “Last Supper” which caused condition problems almost immediately. Leonardo da Vinci’s “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” is a half-completed piece but is valuable because of its rarity and for what is teaches us about his technique and approach to visual art.
“St. Jerome in the Wilderness” dates to approximately 1480. It shows the emaciated hermit saint in a barren, rocky landscape. An extreme penitent, he holds a stone to be used for self-mortification. According to legend, St. Jerome tamed a wild lion by removing a thorn from its paw and so a lion watches in the foreground of the painting with a tense, almost menacing, open mouth. There is a pain and grotesqueness to this work that defies the Renaissance ideal of beauty and symmetry but makes the painting so mesmerizing.
I have always been amazed by the anatomical detail in the neck of St. Jerome. The tendons and sparse muscles are rendered in exquisite, almost painful detail. Da Vinci’s study of human anatomy through clandestine dissections is very evident here and this image shows a mastery of human physiology. The composition of the painting is also very new and show’s da Vinci’s creativity. The straining and rigid saint forms a trapezoid shape which is balanced by the relaxed S-curve of the lion below.
As an unfinished piece, “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” would have likely stayed in da Vinci’s possession but it is not clear what happened to it after his death in 1519 in France. The work only really surfaces in the 19th century when Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, discovered pieces of the painting in a Roman shoemaker’s shop. “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” had been cut into 5 pieces. Reportedly the head portion was used as a box top and the back of the bottom two-thirds was being used as part of a work bench. Cardinal Fesch managed to recover all the pieces and reassembled the painting. After his death, the piece was purchased by Pope Pius IX in 1856. It is now on display in the Vatican Museum Pinacoteca.
If you look closely at the unrestored image at the top of the page, you can see some traces of where the painting had been cut apart. The seams are even more obvious in person if you look at the painting at an angle so that the light grazes across the surfaces. I took the picture above while at the Vatican which clearly shows the square piece cut out around the Saint’s face.
It’s incredible that this painting wasn’t lost completely, that all the pieces were recovered, and that it could be restored. Even half finished, “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” is a beautiful image. It connects to da Vinci’s notebooks of anatomical drawings, illustrates his creative use of space, and provides an example of an emotional and “ugly” image. Among da Vinci’s catalog, this is a rare painting which almost didn’t survive.
Filed under: Art History, Italy Tagged: art, art history, conservation, history, Italy, Leonardo da Vinci, museums, paintings, travel, Vatican
jerome FIshtina25Leonardo da Vinci "Saint Jerome in the Wilderness", Vatican Museums (Pinacoteca), RomeClose up of Leonardo da Vinci, "Saint Jerome in the Wilderness"cut panel seams, restoration, Leonardo da Vinci, "Saint Jerome in the Wilderness"
To enter the Scrovegni Chapel, you have to spend 15 minutes in a “environmental equilibration” chamber and video introduction before passing through two air locks into the chapel. Shockingly, visitors only get another 15 minutes to look around before being rushed out by security. However, if you are a clever art pilgrim (like yours truly) and book multiple back-to-back tickets, the museum escort chases everyone else out but leaves you alone for a few glorious minutes within the chapel.
Standing at the altar looking down the rows of painted vignettes, the rich pastel colors glowing warmly from the morning sunlight, has got to be one of the most profoundly beautiful art experience I have ever had. To say I loved the Scrovegni Chapel would be an understatement.
As I mentioned before my trip, the Scrovegni Chapel (or Arena Chapel) was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni in 1300 as a funerary church for his family. He hired Giotto di Bondone at the height of this artistic career to fresco the entire interior of the chapel with scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus. Giotto was a talented and innovative artist who broke away from the Gothic style prevalent at the time. The Scrovegni Chapel is considered Giotto’s masterwork because of the completeness of the decoration and thoroughness of the composition. The Chapel also received a complete restoration several years ago to remove salts that were rising to the surface, to consolidate paint loss, and fix cracks and other structural damage to the chapel. It is brilliant thing to see!
No Photograph Has Ever Reproduced the Chapel’s Colors
I am going to use images of the chapel in this article, but just so you know, none of these pictures truly capture the color of the interior. Without a doubt, the color completely blew me away. No published image comes close to the rich, warm colors in these frescoes. (And since cameras are allowed, you’re going to have to trust me.)
I visited in the late morning so there was daylight filtering into the church nave. The red and orange robes had depth and weight. They were soft but with tangible volume and overall just gorgeous.
Giotto painted colors by simply varying the amount of pigment used rather than mixing in white or black pigments to darken or lighten. The fullness and movement of the robes comes from this subtle variation in tone of the pigment. It was masterfully executed by Giotto and expertly revealed by a very successful, modern restoration.
Looking at a lot of images of the chapel, the damage (even after restoration) appears too stark and the colors too dark. Sure a lot of this damage still exists but it is really not so pronounced in natural sunlight. In person, the colors breath and blend and soften. It’s as if a camera captures a single frame of something in motion. The photos really are no comparison for seeing the chapel in real life.
Why We Say Giotto Started the Renaissance
Art history teaches that Giotto was the artistic tipping point that ushered in the Renaissance. While the Byzantine-Gothic formula for depicting figures was starting to crack with his teacher Cimabue, it was Giotto who introduced naturalism back to the visuals arts. Analysis of Giotto’s work always points to the emotion in his figures, specifically anguish among the lamenting friends around the cross in the Scrovegni Chapel.
It’s hard not to appreciate the pain in this scene. Here are furrowed brows, tearful eyes, and twisted mouths which don’t appear in Italian Gothic or Byzantine of the previous century. It is very easy to point to these figures as an example of naturalism and human emotion to art, but I think this misses the true genius of Giotto. He was an artist of subtlety and nuance which was even more radical in an age when Saints held their murder weapons against a golden backdrop.
Standing in the Chapel itself, there was another even more dramatic panel that demonstrated a greater depth of human understanding. The massive artistic leap forward in the Scrovegni Chapel is a panel that demonstrates true insight into the human psyche: “Scenes from the Life of Christ – Washing of Feet”.
Thinking historically to the life of Jesus, one’s feet became incredibly dirty walking around. It was an act of hospitality and humility to wash the feet of others. Before the Passover meal in the Passion story, Jesus told his 12 disciples that he was going to hand-wash their feet.
In Giotto’s version, each figure react uniquely to this strange event. Two younger apostles stand to the left of Jesus with water jugs clearly helping the process along; you can just make out a faint smile on one of them. Behind and on the far left, a man with wild gray hair is untying his sandals enthusiastically while the men above him watch with worried expressions.
My favorite figures are right around Jesus. With Peter’s leg in hand, Jesus tries to reassure him. Yet even as he holds up his robe, Peter is literally scratching his head. There is confusion but willingness in his direct stare and furrowed brow. Behind them, the man in blue conceals his bare feet perhaps feeling unworthy or embarrassed and seems to be contemplating what his turn will mean. To his right, the man in purple looks anxiously away. His hands are wrapped in his robe as if to show that he does not want to and will not take off his sandals. Giotto has managed to convey a lot of the emotionally subtle and theologically complex elements in this scene. By comparison, painting someone crying now seems less impressive.
The other piece of “naturalism” that made me laugh was in “Scenes from the Life of Christ – Ascension”. Jesus is being taken up to Heaven surrounded in a brilliant halo, and the apostles below are raising their hands to protect their eyes from the light. What an incredibly intuitive detail! This is of course what a human would do in the presence of blinding light and demonstrates a big departure from the gold, semi-divine world of Gothic panel paintings.
My Favorite Panel
It’s tough to have a favorite panel, but I definitely left the Scrovegni Chapel with a new appreciation for “Scenes from the Life of Christ – Resurrection.” Based on the Gospel of John, Jesus appears to women weeping at his tomb just after the resurrection. Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus, calls out to him, and is told not to touch him because it is not yet time. It’s a strange exchange but has become popular in art as the “noli me tangere” or “touch me not” scene.
Giotto’s Mary is just incredible. Kneeling, she is almost completed concealed by her red robe. Her little face peers out followed by two jutting, almost disembodied pink arms. Unlike future noli me tangere Marys who will gesture gracefully for Jesus, Giotto’s Mary is really grasping with desperate, outstretched, and nearly straight arms. Her expression combines disbelief with a wondrous hope; her eyes are locked in on Jesus’s face.
Almost as much as Mary is reaching out, Jesus seems to be running away. I only really noticed this in front of the panel, but he is literally out of the frame. Jesus’ arm and the very top of his victory banner are cut off by the edge of the panel. The sharp angle of this right leg makes it look like Jesus is trying to get away – and fast! Even with the urgent getaway, there is a kindness in his face that reminds us of the underlying reunion actually occurring here.
Looking at the lay-out, this composition is a huge departure from Gothic art. The tense, non-physical interaction between Mary and Jesus only takes up a quarter of the image. They are balanced by sleeping soldier to the left and an empty blue sky above which takes up almost half the painting. It’s a daring lay-out that relegates the action to the corner and intensifies the fleetingness of this chance encounter. It was really exciting to experience this insight and enjoy this painting in person.
The Little Things
There are several other details that you only notice when you can walk around the images. For example, the halos are all painted over raised fresco ridges which is a Byzantine convention. This makes for an interesting juxtaposition of traditional art elements and Giotto’s innovative imagery. Alternatively, Judas’ halo loses the ridge and becomes just a painted dark saucer at the beginning of the Passion narrative images. I wonder if Giotto originally intended to remove Judas’ halo but for visual consistency it was added later, or if Giotto always expected to depict Judas with a waning halo leading to the Betrayal?
There are also mirrors set into the plaster of Jesus’ halo in the Last Judgement scene on the back wall. Imagine the sunlight hitting that every day and radiating out! I also really liked the goofy camels that look like donkeys in the Nativity and the fat peasants in the Wedding at Cana panel. Viewing the paintings at their real size you can also appreciate the Hieronymus Bosh-like demons torturing the damned in the Last Judgement which include one like monster that I can only describe as “Hell’s Armadillo”.
Enjoy a Visit
If you find yourself anywhere remotely near Padua, then it’s worth a side trip to visit the Scrovegni Chapel (aka the Arena Chapel). I thought Giotto’s frescoes were more impressive than the Sistine Chapel and the space more breathtaking than many of the greatest churches.
Just remember to book your tickets in advance and to stretch your neck out beforehand because you won’t look down for a second. And of course, consider getting at least two sessions because 15 minutes will most definitely not be enough time.
Filed under: Art History, Italy Tagged: art, art history, fresco, Giotto, gothic, Italy, masterpieces, museums, Padua, Painting, Renaissance, Scrovegni Chapel, travel
Arena Chapel FIshtina25Giotto Scrovegni Chapel, PaduaArena Chapel exterior, PaduaJoachim among the ShepherdsGiotto - Raising of LazarusGiotto di Bondone, "Scenes from the Life of Christ: 20. Lamentation", 1304-1306, Scrovegni Chapel, PaduaGiotto di Bondone, "Scenes from the Life of Christ: 14. Washing of Feet", 1304-1306, Scrovegni Chapel, PaduaGiotto di Bondone, "Scenes from the Life of Christ: 14. Washing of Feet", 1304-1306, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (Photo: Web Gallery of Art)Giotto di Bondone, "Scenes from the Life of Christ: 22. Ascension (detail)", 1304-1306, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (Photo: Web Gallery of Art)Giotto di Bondone, "Scenes from the Life of Christ: 21. Resurrection (Noli me tangere)", 1304-1306, Scrovegni Chapel, PaduaDetail of Mary from Giotto di Bondone, "Scenes from the Life of Christ: 21. Resurrection (Noli me tangere)", 1304-1306, Scrovegni Chapel, PaduaDetail of Jesus from Giotto di Bondone, "Scenes from the Life of Christ: 21. Resurrection (Noli me tangere)", 1304-1306, Scrovegni Chapel, PaduaGiotto saint with haloA woman (i.e. not me) looks at the Giotto frescoes at the Scrovegni chapel, in Padua, northern Italy Photo: AP via The Telegaph)
The quiet child of the Smithsonian family of museums re-opened this November with a surprisingly bold statement. The aptly named Wonder exhibit is well worth a visit for its truly impressive installation pieces. While I’m happy to have the Renwick Gallery back, this re-birthday party feels overly flashy, just a bit narcissistic, and certainly out of character for a museum dedicated to decorative arts. While an entertaining show, I am left wondering about the future of this museum and the potential for a reinvented purpose.
A Bold Return
The Renwick Gallery was constructed in the late 1850’s to house the art collection of William Wilson Corcoran. By the turn of the century, this private art museum had moved on to a larger space and so the building was used for various governmental offices. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy saved this historic building from demolition at which point it was given to the Smithsonian American History Museum to house its American decorative arts collection. The Renwick closed in 2013 to complete two years worth of massive restorations. To give you some perspective on the pre-restoration Renwick, the last exhibit there was Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color featuring furniture and “architectural woodwork” made in antebellum North Carolina.
It seems the gallery was eager to announce its re-entry to the DC arts scene with something big! The re-opening exhibit, Wonder, features nine, room-sized works by contemporary artists. The scale of each piece creates an immersive viewing experience as one can walk around, under, and through most of them. It’s always interesting to see pieces that change or reveal fascinating nuances as you look from different angles or change your distance relative to the piece. Wonder certainly gives you plenty to explore.
I liked the use of non-traditional materials. Wonder contains branches, wooden blocks, rope, thread, tires, index cards, LED lights, glass marbles, and dried bugs. That’s one preserved shark away from a modern art bingo!
I particularly liked Janet Echelmans’s “1.8” which hung like a ghost in the upstairs grand salon. Over the course of a few minutes, colored spotlights cycle through the rainbow creating wildly different effects and shadows.
Trying Too Hard
Wonder as been wildly popular. The entry line wrapped down the block on the opening weekend so I obviously gave up on being one of the first people to see the new Renwick. Even a month later when I did get in, the museum was still packed.
The Renwick Gallery is actively promoting photography and Instagraming of the exhibit. While I get this because the pieces are very cool to explore, there is an air of “buzz creation” rather than real artistic engagement behind it all. It feels like a Millennial approach to marketing – “Our re-opening is a huge success because now we’re trending!” My suspicions have been eerily confirmed:
Sadly I get why they are doing this; I understand what the curators of the new gallery are reacting to. The Renwick use to display pottery, baskets, furniture, and textiles. While all expertly executed and exemplary pieces, these items are removed from our daily experience of Ikea furniture, plastic containers, and fast-fashion clothing. People don’t engage with cabinets and they most certainly don’t share photos of them.
That’s why the Renwick re-opened with something extravagant and radically different. Clearly they’re not a museum of rocking chairs and oil lamps anymore. (I mean, didn’t you see that there was a Maya Lin piece in Wonder?) The Renwick has people’s attention now, even if it meant straying away from their decorative arts mission.
What I’m waiting to see is whether the Renwick will truly innovate with the platform it now has, or if it remains a gallery that tries desperately to be “cool”.
Now What for the Renwick?
There’s now an out-of-place neon sign over the front door of the Renwick that progressively lights up and blinks – “Dedicated to the future of art”. The gallery has not communicated a significant change to its mission following the renovation so I’m not sure how to interpret this. It’s an enigmatic statement, but I’m optimistic that they could actually be on to something.
I recognize I’m biased, but decorative art, particularly crafts, are a beautiful and an unsung genre of art. Creativity during fabrication produces objects that transcend the ordinary and the utilitarian to become works of art in themselves. Everyone expects a painting to have meaning or at least minimally some pleasing aesthetic qualities. How magical is it then to find beauty in the mundane! That’s why I love decorative arts and graphic design.
This neon slogan has to be more of an internal mantra to challenge the Renwick curators. For decades the museum as behaved as if decorative arts were a thing of the past that just concerned with techniques of the past. But what does it mean to design and create using 3D-printing today? What does it mean to work with your hands for weeks when technology could make your efforts obsolete? What is uniqueness and originality of design when mass production can create thousands of identical objects? If the Renwick really wants to explore decorative art of the present and future, this could be a fantastic project and an impressive challenge in an age of computer aided design, human-less fabrication, and mass consumption of material goods.
One of the most enlightening exhibits I’ve ever seen was a collection of first generation technologies at the MOMA in New York City. A clock radio, a boombox, and a stand mixer were put on pedestals behind glass in an arresting flip of perspective. I would love to see the Renwick explore the interplay of form and function using the ubiquitous technology with which we’ve surrounded ourselves. Maybe instead of immediately taking selfies, we could look a little more closely at the objects in our hands.
Enjoy it for Now
By all means enjoy Wonder for the impressive collection and playground that it is. I however will be waiting to see what the Renwick Gallery does next.
Filed under: Art History, Washington DC Tagged: art, art history, contemporary art, crafts, Decorative Arts, modern art, museums, Renwick Gallery, travel, Washington DC
Renwick FIshtina25Renwick Gallery facadePatrick Dougherty, ShindigTara Donovan, Untitled, RenwickTara Donovan, Untitled, RenwickJennifer Angus, In the Midnight Garden roomJennifer Angus, In the Midnight GardenJanet Echelman, 1.8Janet Echelman, 1.8Renwick Gallery photograpy signRenwick updatesMaya Lin, Folding the Chesapeake detailRenwick slogan - Dedicated to the future of artLeo Villareal, Volume (Renwick)John Grade, Middle Fork
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