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

Friday, March 15, 2019

Woman Warrior: In celebration of Women’s History Month

Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875), a Japanese Buddhist nun, is considered one of the most important female artists in Japan. Raised as the adopted daughter of the Otagaki family, she received the broad education typical of a samurai family.  She excelled at a great variety of arts, including calligraphy, poetry, the game of “go,” and multiple forms of martial arts.

Otagaki Rengetsu, Tea Bowl, glazed stoneware with incised calligraphy
Otagaki Rengetsu, Tea Bowl, Edo Period (1603–1868),
glazed stoneware with incised calligraphy
Tragedy struck many times in her life.  Starting around 1819, she lost at least four children at an early age, two husbands, two siblings, and finally, her adopted father in 1832. This led her to join the Chion’in Temple in Kyoto as a nun and take the name Rengetsu. Soon after the death of her father, she began to travel Japan and compose poetry, creating tea wares to help support herself. Though she quickly became famed for her works, she remained humble, often describing her work as clumsily done. Her poetry, painting, calligraphy, and pottery all have a distinctive directness that is free, unconventional, and elegant.

She was also an outspoken pacifist. During the Boshin War (1868-1869), the civil war between the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and the imperial court, she penned a long poem decrying Oshio Heihachiro for his rebellion against the emperor and wrote a shorter one addressing the general Shimazu Tadayoshi, who supported the court, urging restraint toward his rebellious countrymen.

--Eddie Ouano, Curatorial Intern, Asian Art Department

March 15, 2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Travels with Hiroshige from a Technical Perspective

Utagawa Hiroshige, Awa Province: the Naruto Whirlpools, from Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces
Utagawa Hiroshige,
Awa Province: the Naruto Whirlpools, 1855,
woodblock print, ink and color on paper
The Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) is renowned for the technical virtuosity he employed to create his woodblock series Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces (1853-56). Each print shows how the artist took advantage of new inks and advanced printing techniques to design the stunning images presented in the WAM exhibition Travels with Hiroshige.

Japanese woodblock print production is not a solitary effort, and Hiroshige’s fame rests on a complex collaboration of publisher, artist, block carvers, and printers. The skill of each was important to the final artwork.  After applying the artist’s drawing to a block of cherry wood, the carver created a key block by skillfully removing all the wood around the lines. The key block would then be inked and used to print black and white proofs. The artist used the proofs to indicate the colors and effects for each area. Most prints required the carving of ten or more additional blocks, one for each color.  Registration marks helped the printer keep the lines and colors in proper alignment.  Each block was re-inked between impressions and colors were printed one at a time.

The Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces series is particularly celebrated for its wide use of color gradations, called bokashi, which can be seen on every print.  After the background colors were printed, a gradation of color for certain areas was achieved by an extra step that reused the original color block: after washing the block, the printer applied the graded tint of pigment in selected areas.  This was done by hand with a moist brush that had been partially dipped in the pigment.  
Other techniques that were effectively used in the series include overprinting (one color over another), embossing, and the use of woodgrain to add texture.  In the latter, blocks with prominent grain patterns were selected and specially prepared to give the appearance of movement in monochrome areas such as the sea.

Visitors to Travels with Hiroshige will be stunned by the colors, especially the blues. The blue pigment used in this series revolutionized Japanese woodblock printing. Prussian or Berlin blue was accidently synthesized in a German laboratory in the early 1700s. The vivid blue pigment is stable, lightfast, and amenable to being mixed with other pigments. Before the arrival of Prussian blue in Japan in the 1820s, artists and print publishers used blue pigments derived from natural sources, such as indigo and dayflower petals. These vegetable dyes produced muted blues that fade dramatically when exposed to light. Imported Prussian blue made possible a wide range of intense and long-lasting blue hues. They were translucent and especially effective in expressing depth in water and atmospheric distance. The availability of the new blue pigment was a major factor in the development of landscape as an important subject in Japanese prints.

The print at top right shows printing gradations in the sky. Woodgrain adds movement to the water, and overprinting can be seen on the rocks and the whirlpools. A scene composed of mainly sky and water was made possible by the use of Prussian blue pigment.

--Susannah Baker, co-curator, Travels with Hiroshige

March 12, 2019

Friday, March 8, 2019

Endurance of an Idea

When I first stepped into the exhibition, Archaic Avant-Garde: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Horvitz Collection, I was struck by the physical power of the ceramic pots that were standing tall against the muted chartreuse walls. As I began to study each object, I immediately was reminded of this quote from the Minnesota potter, Samuel Johnson:
It’s a strange thing to adhere to an artistic lineage within a culture that celebrates novelty and independent genius. Yet, here I am, making jars using old techniques and referencing forms that my teacher and his teacher made before me. I don’t think it makes the work anachronistic or nostalgia, but rather reflects the endurance of an idea standing firm in its relationship to time and place.

Even as new technologies are being introduced to the ceramics field every day, these new-generation makers in the show still find a need to prolong their history using archaic techniques. I was visually struck by how the pots made in the last 60 years felt as if they had jumped out of the ancient kiln sites in Japan but also alluded to contemporary aesthetics. For example, Koichiro Isezaki’s Penguin #3 challenges the function of the vessel, yet the surface treatment maintains connections to the ancient techniques of the yakishime (unglazed stoneware) style of wood-firing. Because the culture in Japan continues to celebrate their ceramic history, these new and up-and-coming makers are able to intertwine individuality with old processes.

Each object in the show has an underlying historical context that can be traced back to various kiln site aesthetics. Some of the pots stand firm in the style of a specific kiln site while others show combined characteristics such as Shiro Tsujimura’s Stoneware Jar.  This particular object exhibits a traditional form that is common throughout Tokoname ware while also overlapping with the Shigaraki style of feldspar inclusions. Even though the object labels each name one artist, each object demonstrates a deep rooted collection of hands, minds, and history that is forever marked into the work.
As a maker, who also creates using wood-fired kilns like the potters in this show, I constantly turn back to look at various histories for inspiration in both formal processes and surface techniques. I believe sustaining culture through art provides education for new-generations of makers to understand the value of maintaining history in the present and in the future.

--Abby Nohai, Artist-in-Residence, Worcester Center for Crafts

Image caption:

Abby Nohai giving a talk to WAM docents at opening of Archaic Avant-Garde. Photo credit: Tom O’Malley.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation shines in the American paintings galleries

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898, Oil on canvas
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898,
 Oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art
A temporary addition to the American paintings galleries (Gallery 332) allows the Worcester Art Museum to tell a more complete story about American painting in the nineteenth century. On loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), will be on view at WAM until February 25.

The son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, Henry Ossawa Tanner often painted religious subjects that explored the presence of the divine in human life. Discouraged by the racism he experienced in the United States, Tanner left for France in search of artistic acceptance. While abroad, he traveled to the Holy Land and later incorporated his experiences into his paintings. The Annunciation references the moment when the Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God (Luke 1: 26-38). Tanner radically reinterpreted the biblical scene, casting Mary as an awkward adolescent dressed in Middle Eastern peasant clothing and the angel as an abstracted vertical flash of light. In forgoing traditional religious holy attributes like a halo or angel wings, Tanner humanizes the moment and creates a modern version of the spiritual narrative. The Annunciation brought Tanner critical acclaim and became the first of his paintings purchased by an American art museum.

You can learn more about this remarkable painting by taking a docent-led tour on Saturday, February 16 at 1pm. Titled “Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Emergence of African-American Fine Art,” this extended Zip Tour takes place during Black History Month.

-Erin Corrales-Diaz, Assistant Curator of American Art

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Works of art remind me of home

My wife has been an artist her whole life. She is an oil painter and art teacher, who can recite the names of all of the greats. When I first met her, she was a student in Art College in Calcutta. We moved to the United States together with big dreams. We were excited at the prospect of a country filled with opportunity and promise. We got married and a few years later, we had our first child. A baby girl. In 1984, we packed up what we had and moved to Worcester, Massachusetts with that three-month old baby. We had both immigrated to the United States just a few years before. Everything felt new. There was so much about the United States that I had not learned yet. When we first came to Worcester, so many things still needed translation--words, customs and traditions.
Even with all of the newness, the thing that always felt familiar to us was art. It spoke all languages. We could look at a painting and feel its message, with no need for explanation. No worry about choosing the right word, or understanding its tone. Art made us feel like we were a part of this new place. It was something that was natural in a land where everything else needed to be learned. There was something here we already understood.
Today, my family has been in Worcester for over thirty-four years. I know all of the roads by heart. It is truly my home. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for years while we raised our two children, while my wife taught art and always stayed close to it. When it became time for me to retire, I wanted to return to the place that had made me feel welcome when I was a stranger in a new place. I now spend several hours a week at the WAM. It’s the perfect part-time job for a retiree. I learn about the paintings and exhibits, and get to watch new faces feel what this place has always made me feel. 

There is so much that I would like to share with someone who is considering visiting the Worcester Art Museum. I am no docent, but nothing makes me happier than sharing the things I have learned from the visiting speakers and brilliant staff here at the Museum. 

One of my favorite things about WAM is the rich collection of Asian art. It is incredible to see the long history of my people represented so many miles from home. Much of this began with Ananda Coomaraswamy, who began bringing Indian art to this area in the early 1900s. Today, Vivian Li, associate curator of Asian art and global contemporary art, carries on that tradition. There are two upcoming pieces I am especially looking forward to seeing on display. The first is A Vegetarian Lion, A Slippery Fish (2013) by Bharti Kher.  Kher was born in London and now lives and works in India. Her perspective is one that feels especially interesting to me, since her sense of both cultures have shaped who she has become and the art that she creates. 

It’s also special to see pieces of my childhood home make their way to WAM. The Museum plans to commission a decorative jhula from the Indian state of Gujarat that will one day be displayed in the Asian Art Gallery. The jhula is a porch swing with room for two. It reminds me of dusty summer days in India. These pieces, like me, are pieces of another world within this one. We bring our culture, traditions, and stories with us. 

To me, that is the beauty of this Museum. You can look at a piece and feel at home and like you are learning something new at the same time. I am proud to be a part of the fabric of the vibrant Worcester community, and even prouder to see not only my rich heritage and culture, but the culture and heritage of so many others, all on display in one place.

-Barin Bando, Guest Services Representative

(Originally from India, Barin Bando moved to Worcester in 1984.  A shorter version of this WAM Update appears in the Winter/Spring 2019 issue of access magazine.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Tiffany Ecclesiastical Department: Turning Churches into Art

In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, Boston experienced a building boom. Houses, museums, libraries, and churches all competed to be the most beautiful buildings in the newly settled Back Bay area of the city. Designed by rising architect Henry Hobson Richardson in a medieval revival style he would become known from, Trinity Church became the trendsetter for exteriors. With John La Farge’s stained glass windows installed in the 1880s, Trinity Church became known for its innovative interior as well.

Mt. Vernon, 1930s
The pastors and congregants of other churches looked to Trinity Church for inspiration and an opportunity to stand out in the city. But how did they select the windows and decorations that would adorn their sacred spaces and give meaning to their lives? In the case of the Mount Vernon Congregation Church, previously located on the corner of Beacon Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, two sets of their stained glass windows program have been preserved by the Worcester Art Museum, and the paperwork from the 1890s survives to give modern viewers insight into the now-destroyed church.

LCTS design for chancel
Throughout the 1890s, the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company offered printed catalogs to potential buyers, with a variety of window designs they claimed were “historical records, written in lines of beauty, of the growth of the church.” The company also offered to collaborate with churches to offer sketches and estimates. In 1889, the decoration committee of the Mount Vernon church did just that. For the sum of $3,500 (about $98,000 in today’s money), the church contracted with Tiffany designers for woodwork around the apse and pulpit, as well as space for five panels, each depicting one of the Four Evangelists and Christ. The dome of the apse was “cover[ed] in aluminum leaf and decorate[d] with all over pattern and bands, forming panels” with mixtures of glass, metal leaf, wood, and decorative elements. Central to Tiffany’s Byzantine Style as seen in their ideal Chapel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the goal was to dazzle the eye with overwhelming, jewel-like details.

Angel of the Resurrection catalog

A notice in the Boston Globe on December 18, 1899, mentioned how the pastors used the windows as illustrations for their sermons, describing a now-lost window dedicated to a recently deceased widow who bore her plight “with exemplary patience.” While these decorations helped churches to stand out and attract new members with their art and design, they also offered their parishioners reminders about scripture and a spiritual retreat from the everyday world.

– T. Amanda Lett
PhD Candidate, History of Art and Architecture Boston University and Guest Curator of Radiance Rediscovered: Stained Glass by Tiffany and La Farge.
Tiffany employees at work

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

New Acquisition Inspires Gallery Reinstallation

Gallery 211, a small room along the Renaissance Court balcony, has long held the latest pieces in our European collection chronologically — paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Those visiting the gallery today will find it somewhat changed.  The yellow-white walls have been repainted a deep blue.  Alongside old favorites like Monet’s Waterlilies and Gauguin’s Te Faaturuma (The Brooding Woman) hang pieces that have long been out of view, including works by Renoir and Cézanne.  Nearest the door hangs a small painting of brightly colored houses with a simple black frame.  Modest as it may seem, this new acquisition is the inspiration for the gallery’s reinstallation.

“It was serendipity,” says Claire Whitner, Director of Curatorial Affairs and James A. Welu Curator of European Art.  The Museum had already begun the process of acquiring Häuser in Riegsee (Houses in Riegsee) by Gabriele Münter when Claire joined WAM in August, but as a specialist in German Modernism, she was immediately drawn to it.  “The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was the perfect fit.”

Gabriele Münter, one of only three female artists currently on display in the European galleries, was a prominent member of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group of German artists active in Munich in the early 20th century.  Like all artists, she did not work in isolation, drawing inspiration from other artists of her time.  Claire sees in Häuser in Riegsee not just another experimental landscape, but also an avant-garde use of paint and light, the strong outlines of Paul Gauguin, and the bright palette favored by Fauvist artists.*  “Münter merges all these elements in her work, making it something more transitional, moving towards expressionism.”

Claire Whitner, Director of Curatorial Affairs and
James A. Welu Curator of European Art, stands next
to the new Münter painting.
When choosing which paintings would accompany Münter’s, Claire hoped to be able to show how the artists of the early 20th century worked together and fed off each other.  “I tried to find works that speak to each other and put them into a dialogue, rather than having each work stand in isolation.”  Using WAM’s strong collection of late 19th and early 20th century art, Claire was able to pull together a stunning range of artwork, some quite different from others, but all sharing a common thread of mutual inspiration.

Doing so also meant narrowing the time period on display.  Notably, Untitled, No. 629 by Vassily Kandinsky has been relocated to the Sidney and Rosalie Rose Gallery on the Upper 3rd Floor.  Münter had been Kandinsky’s student, and the two had shared a professional and personal relationship, but WAM’s Kandinsky comes from a very different time period – 1936, while the rest of the gallery is pre-World War I.

“World War I marks a dramatic break in the kind of artwork produced in Europe,” Claire explains, when many avant-garde artists were sent off to war; Kandinsky was forced to leave Germany and return to Russia.   The War itself lead to changes in how the artists saw the world.  “They had to adapt to the horror of the War, and they began to develop in new directions.”  For Kandinsky, this meant increasingly abstract art; for others, it meant turning to more emotionally wrought modes of representation.

Gabriele Münter (German, 1877-1962), Häuser in Riegsee (Houses in Riegsee),
1909, oil on cardboard, Stoddard Acquisition Fund, 2018.40
Which leaves one last question: why choose blue for the gallery walls?  “The Blaue Reiter artists felt that blue was the most emotional and mystical color,” Claire explains.  She also found that each of the pieces chosen for the gallery includes some blue, though all in different shades, and some as only a highlight.  The blue walls help to draw these out, unifying the artwork, and also allowing the viewer to appreciate the colors in a new way.  “There are shades of teal in Münter’s painting that I never noticed before,” she says.  Such a bold choice is especially suitable to a gallery of avant-garde artists, tying into the experiments with color so popular in the early 20th century.

*The Fauvists were a group of early 20th century French artists who emphasized bright colors and often wild, experimental brush work.  Henri Matisse was a leader in this movement.

- Sarah Leveille, Worcester Art Museum

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