Welcome to WAM Updates

WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

We hope you like reading the Updates! If you are interested in learning about something specific, or have a suggestion for a WAM Update, please update us at wamupdates@worcesterart.org

Monday, August 20, 2018

Writing Museum Wall Labels: A Case Study

Recently a new rotation of works on paper--featuring prints and drawings reflecting the Renaissance interest in anatomy--went on view in the Italian galleries. I was asked to create the wall label to accompany it. Wall labels in museum galleries are concise blurbs about a work, or works of art, written in a way meant to be easily understand-able and accessible to the public. Prior to writing the label for this rotation, I had only worked on two labels for photographs in the 2016 exhibition Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period, with each label representing a single work of art. In this case, I needed a label that would tie together and clearly present three works as a single grouping in 150 words or less. It was the same amount of space, but I had to squeeze in discussions of two additional pieces of artwork.

In order to create a cohesive didactic label for three artworks, I had to locate a single central theme to unite them and narrow down my focus. In this case, I focused on the significance of anatomical study to artists during the Renaissance. Understanding how to render the human body accurately was tied directly to successfully depicting a nude figure. All three images include at least one nude figure despite differences in medium, the artists’ personal styles, and the subject being depicted. While the print Bacchanal with a Wine Vat by Andrea Mantegna’s subject is more or less a standard mythological scene, the two other prints are a nude depiction of The Last Supper and a rather theatrical image of skeletal and flayed figures. With three diverse images, the narrative I conveyed needed to be observable to the visitor viewing the grouping of these works. Working within the 150 word limit, I was able to point out one element of each work on paper relating to the overarching theme of anatomical study, while still leaving room for the viewer to make their own observations within the theme and discover the works of art for themselves.


Through my own experience I can say that artwork has so much to say that it feels easier to write a book than it does to write a quick blurb. It is easy to go down a research rabbit hole when writing on a work of art, and thus it can be equally tempting to overwhelm a casual viewer or stray off subject. Sometimes you find more questions than answers. While looking into these objects, I discovered theories about how Skeletons and Ecorches by del Barbiere may have been intended for use as an illustration in an anatomy textbook, but it seemed too embellished with curtains and props for a book of that nature. Could it have had another purpose? If it was intended for a book? If so, which book? I also was fascinated by an ongoing debate over the artist attribution of the drawing of The Last Supper. In the past it was attributed to Rosso Fiorentino, but through formal analysis the curator and others agreed that his association with the drawing was not secure.  In addition to the unknown status of the artist, was this drawing a study for another work of art that exists today? Was it drawn by Andrea del Sarto? What about an unknown student in a workshop? Are there any other artworks or sketches connected to this piece somewhere out there? These questions may never find their answers. Limiting the subject matter discussed in the label prevents it from turning into a book or dissertation, and leaves room for others to enjoy the mysteries and speculation that make art history so fascinating.


--Gabrielle Belisle, Fellow for Prints, Drawings and Photographs, Worcester Art Museum

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Contributions of Southern African American women artists explored

I’m thrilled to announce that my chapter, “Contrary Instincts: Art History’s Gendered Color Line,” was published in Central to Their Lives: Southern Women Artists in the Johnson Collection.
This catalogue, years in the making, acknowledges the achievements of female artists working in and inspired by the American South. Spanning the decades between the late 1890s and early 1960s, the volume examines the complex challenges these artists faced in a traditionally conservative region during a period in which women’s social, cultural, and political roles were being redefined and reinterpreted.

My essay looks at the mutual marginalization of trained and self-taught southern African American women artists. For Boston-born Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998), Clementine Hunter (1886-1988), and Minnie Evans (1892-1987), the challenges posed by their race were complicated by an additional barrier: their gender. As limited as the opportunities were for African American male artists, meaningful opportunities were even rarer for women. Trained or untrained, Southern African American women artists had to overcome extreme disadvantages in order to create art. Furthermore, the American South looms over their artwork: the rich and complex cultural and historical dynamics of Southern life are manifested in subject matter, medium, and even reception by the art world. In considering artists such as Alma Thomas (1891-1978), Selma Burke (1900-1995), and Augusta Savage (1892-1962)—alongside Evans, Hunter, and others—this essay seeks to explore their similar struggles, their connections to the American South, and their range of creative expression.
 
--Erin R. Corrales-Diaz, Assistant Curator of American Art

Learn more about Central to Their Lives: Southern Women Artists in the Johnson Collection:  http://www.sc.edu/uscpress/books/2018/7954.html)  

Monday, July 30, 2018

Sainsbury/WAM Fashioning Colors Symposium

WAM partnered with the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, one of oldest organizations devoted to the study of Japan in the UK, to co-organize the symposium Fashioning Colors: New Perspectives on Japanese Woodblock Prints. Held last week at the Sainsbury Institute in Norwich, England, this international symposium brought together ten print and textile scholars and conservators from the UK, the US, and Japan to discuss the intersection of fashion, textiles, and ukiyo-e woodblock prints through the lens of color. The event was conceived as a pre-exhibition symposium for an upcoming show at WAM in 2020 that will draw on our collection of rare early Japanese prints from the late 17th century to late 18th century.

Speakers shared a diversity of fresh perspectives and research, such as Henry Smith (Columbia University) in his talk about the crossover histories between color printing in prints and textiles, and Stephanie Su (Sainsbury Institute) in her presentation about the prestigious kimono house Chiso and its 19th century commissioning of printed paintings to inspire its designers.

Prints, fashion, and textiles were also placed in a global historical context by economist Fujita Kayoko (Ritsumekan University), who discussed the domestic consumption of textile imports in early modern Japan, while conservation scientist Marco Leona (Metropolitan Museum) presented how the introduction of synthetic dyestuff from Europe to Japan dramatically transformed the context for print production. The following day the British Museum hosted a special viewing of works in its storage.

For those who missed the symposium do not despair. The exhibition catalogue in 2020 will feature essays by the symposium speakers so stay tuned!

--Vivian Li, Associate Curator of Asian Art and Global Contemporary Art

Monday, June 11, 2018

Why Curators Visit Art Fairs

Jeff Koons, Swan (Inflatable), 2011-15 This spring I was invited by the Chinese University of Hong Kong to give a series of public lectures for their “Art and Museum Lecture Series.” While there I attended the major contemporary art fair in Asia—Art Basel Hong Kong—that is now in its tenth year. For museum curators, art fairs are important not necessarily just for acquiring art, but for networking with dealers, collectors, and artists in the region and internationally. Special exhibitions, panel discussions, gallery openings, and artist talks happen in and around the art fair. Additionally, art fairs allow visitors to see in person recent artworks by established artists to those up-and-coming. Jeff Koons’ work, the stainless steel sculpture Swan (Inflatable), 2011-15, was a crowd favorite at the fair, as well as the debut of Marina Abramović’s new virtual reality work, Rising, 2017.
Aisha Khalid’s Two Worlds As One, 2017, was another stand out. Two monumental rugs hung suspended facing each other. While the heads of hundreds of steel and gold plated pins created stunningly intricate patterns on the rugs, the tips of the steel pins created a menacing field of sharp pin points on the reverse side. An exciting artist I learned about at the fair was Shinji Ohmaki. His popular large-scale installation, Liminal Air Space-Time, 2018, was simply a single cloud-like fabric constantly hovering and moving in the air by unseen fans. It was a magical respite from the general frenzied pace and visual overload of the fair.

-Vivian Li, Associate Curator of Asian Art and Global Contemporary Art

Friday, May 25, 2018

James Walker's monumental work, The Battle of Gettysburg: Repulse of Longstreet's Assault, July 3, 1863


This past week I presented on the monumental canvas, The Battle of Gettysburg: Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault, July 3, 1863, at the Boston Athenaeum. As part of a sponsored program for the current exhibition, Subscription Campaigns: Contributions in Support of Community, this talk explored the history of the panoramic painting and its subsequent souvenir industry. (You can read about the talk here.)

Six years in the making, James Walker’s twenty-foot long by seven and a half feet wide The Battle of Gettysburg debuted in Boston on March 14, 1870. No less than five major Boston newspapers lauded the work’s sweep and substance, praising its “remarkable minuteness and comprehensiveness and . . . fidelity.” Indeed, several of the generals depicted in the work (Longstreet, Meade, Hancock, Webb, Hall, and others) vouched for its accuracy—and its pathos. After its first appearance, The Battle of Gettysburg embarked on a cross-country tour with owner, the historian John Badger Bachelder, to “delight and instruct” American audiences. The popularity of the picture and the narrative of the battle of Gettysburg generated a souvenir market including guide books, descriptive keys, and small-scale print reproductions. This cottage industry around Walker’s panoramic painting enabled Bachelder to shape Americans’ popular—and persistent—perceptions of the battle.
 
 --Erin R. Corrales-Diaz, Assistant Curator of American Art

Image: James Walker, The Battle of Gettysburg: Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault, July 3, 1863, The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Europe’s Oldest Treatise on Swordfighting

 I’m delighted to report that the new edition of my transcription and translation of Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33 has just become available. Sometimes known as the “Walpurgis Fechtbuch,” I.33 is the oldest known book on swordfighting, having been written in Germany in the early 1300s. I started transcribing and translating the crabbed Latin of this manuscript in the early 1990s, when it was still kept at the Tower of London, and it was this work that first put me on a professional career path in the world of arms and armor. I first published I.33 with the Armouries in 2003, but there’s been a lot of research on this manuscript since then, so the new edition incorporates all the latest findings.

I.33 uses words and illustrations to describe a system of swordplay using a buckler—a small round shield that was used in unarmored swordfighting. Surprisingly, the figures who demonstrate the techniques are a “priest” and a “student.” This suggests that the manuscript may have been produced by staff at a cathedral school, the forerunner of the medieval university. We do know that medieval university students liked to engage in swordfighting, a tradition that survives even today in some German universities. Even more surprisingly, at the end of the manuscript the student is replaced by a woman named Walpurgis. Her presence remains a mystery, a reminder of how much we have yet to learn about the culture of arms in medieval Europe.

—Jeffrey L. Forgeng, Curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art



Tuesday, April 24, 2018

John La Farge’s ‘Most Curious’ Peacock Window

The Peacock Window, completed near the end of his lifetime, is considered John La Farge's most experimental window. Originally, the window was commissioned for a client. However, due to technical challenges surrounding La Farge's signature cloisonné-like technique—in which glass pieces in a copper coil network are fused together—the window was set aside. Fifteen years later, La Farge revisited the window, and it became a personal and experimental project. La Farge was proud of the piece and muses in a letter to a friend that the window is “most curious.” Indeed, La Farge curiously and uniquely weaved multiple techniques. For example, he employed traditional stained-glass techniques, as well as fused glass with organic cracking and texture. He also loosely applied cold paint with a brush, spatula, and even his fingers. By doing so, La Farge achieved an innovative style that created subtle yet complex illusionistic effects, colors, depth, and movement that arguably had never been achieved before in stained-glass history.

Conservators examined the window because of concerns surrounding its questionable structural integrity and aesthetic illegibility. To understand the window’s condition, especially for an experimental piece, it was critical for conservators to first discern the artist’s intent. What elements were originally intended by La Farge? What appears to be damage, dirt, or an unintended application, but may not be? What was unintended by La Farge himself, but ultimately accepted by him? What was never intended by the artist, but are damages caused by later conditions? Which damages could be addressed and improved? Conservators and conservation scientists conducted extensive examinations, scientific analysis, and research to shed light on such questions.  Then, conservators strengthened the structural integrity and improved aesthetic readability, while preserving the artist’s intent and being aware of the window’s complex construction and sensitivities of the various media. Conservators selectively cleaned the window to reduce soot from pollution, improved areas of poor restorations on various layers of the window, mended unoriginal fragmented glass with conservation-grade epoxy, and replaced the brittle and corroding lead border. Conservators collaborated with preparators to create custom framing and special lighting conditions to properly illuminate and safely support the window for display.  All such work helped preserve and bring to life John La Farge’s original intent and the illusionistic effects and colors he sought to create.

- Amanda Chau, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Objects Conservation


Recent WAM Updates