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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2018

More Higgins Armory Objects on Display at WAM

I’m delighted to announce the completion of our pilot “open-storage” installation of arms and armor in WAM’s new Medieval Galleries. Open storage is a way of displaying objects closely packed in a “storage-type” space. This means we can’t label the objects or present them as beautifully as in a normal gallery display, but it allows us to make a large number of objects accessible to the public.

We are ultimately working to put the full Higgins Armory collection on view, using a combination of gallery displays and open storage. With some 2000 objects in the collection, this is a huge project! The pilot installation in the Medieval Galleries will allow us to test our ideas for open storage before we implement them on a large scale. It also allows us to get more of the Higgins collection on view—at this point, we have 5 full suits of armor on display, and a total of about 100 Higgins objects.

In the meantime, WAM has received $40,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities and $250,000 from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to support planning and preparation for our permanent arms and armor galleries. This money will support conservation and curatorial study of the Collection. It will also bring in interpretive and design consultants to help us map out plans for the permanent arms and armor galleries, which are currently scheduled for installation in 2023.

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Introducing Yesenia Perez

We are pleased to welcome Yesenia Perez, the new Assistant Curator of Education and Experience at WAM!  Yesenia, who started November 1, will oversee project teams for all public education events, plan and coordinate docent training and continuing education, and help create programming tied to our exhibitions.

Originally from Bethlehem, PA, Yesenia comes to us from Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where she completed her MA in Art and Museum Studies, focusing on Education and STEAM.  Her studies included six months in London, where she visited dozens of European museums and art galleries.  She finds the collection at WAM unique in its diversity – not just in the range of the collection itself, but the way the art, themes and even lighting change from one room to the next, creating a new and exciting experience in each gallery.  “Going from the Medieval Arms and Armor gallery to the European galleries on the second floor is like seeing two different worlds entirely, yet housed in the same museum.”

In the video below, Yesenia discusses her favorite piece of art at WAM – “Interior of the Studio of Van Dael and his Students at the Sorbonne” by Philippe Jacques van Bree (1816).  This painting shows eight female art students, a mix of wealthy women pursuing art in their leisure time and professional artists perfecting their craft.

Out of the many upcoming exhibitions and events, Yesenia is especially looking forward to her first Flora in Winter this January, saying she's impressed with both the size of the program and its long history at WAM.  But more than anything, Yesenia is excited to begin working with the community of Worcester, to meet the people who live here and find out why they love their Museum so much, and to better understand the important role WAM plays in the community.

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

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