Object of the Week: Union

Sam Gilliam’s 1977 painting Union tantalizes with its tactility. It’s rhythm, texture, color, and shade; bright and inviting, dark and rough. It’s free-form abstraction raked as a zen garden, and grounded by geometric shape.

Over the course of his career Gilliam has shown a deep interest in painting as a physical process. He made waves in the art world in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when he displayed paint on canvas in innovative ways. He began suspending his canvases, hanging them by corners like linen sheets on a laundry line, or pinning them up at certain points, allowing the canvas to cascade downward in thick, heavy folds. While this body of work created a sculptural experience of the canvas, his series of Black Paintings, of which Union is a prime example, created a sculptural experience with paint. In these works he used a shag-rug rake to create a notched surface texture that unifies the painting.

Interestingly, Gilliam started out as a representational painter. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, he studied at the University of Louisville, earning his BA in 1955 and his MA in 1961. In the ‘60s he relocated to Washington, DC, where fate awaited. In DC Gilliam joined up with the artists who would become known as the Washington Color School—a group working in abstract modes to press the expressive potential of color.

In his own milieu Gilliam was a sponge, always soaking up wisdom, but also dispensing it. Discussing artists who have influenced him in a recent interview, he begins with Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis but covers a staggering range after them, speaking smoothly on Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Claude Monet, Georges Braque, Arthur Dove, Tintoretto, Alice Denney, Jan van Eyck, and David Smith. Add to that mix: jazz music, especially the tunes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk; curators like Walter Hopps, one-time director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art; symbols, like the American flag; and Washington’s urban design, its circular hub and radiating arteries.[1] Gilliam links his own productivity with his ability to recognize fine material: “There’s a mental connection that’s very good between the activity of painting and, let’s say, the visual and the listening process from the outside, which is always stimulating.”[2]

Though Gilliam’s beginnings were tied to the figure, his future was bound in colorful abstraction. His first one-man show in DC, held at Adams-Morgan Gallery in 1963, featured exclusively representational paintings, while his second show, held just a year later, featured no representational works.[3] Gilliam recounts that one of the DC artists, Tom Downing, played a large part in encouraging this shift: “Tom saw an exhibition of mine that was entirely figurative plus a series of watercolors on a grid, which were Klee-like. He suggested that, obviously, the figurative painting was unnecessary and that the watercolors were right in. So, I guess he’s the one that got me started making abstract paintings.”[4]

Gilliam’s work now graces prominent collections all over the country, and his Black Paintings have been collected by many important museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. We can safely say that his influences, and his innovations, have served him well.

Check out Union and a group of earlier paintings in the Sam Gilliam exhibition on view now at SAM!

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Union, 1977, Sam Gilliam (American, b. 1933), acrylic on canvas, 55 x 65 ½ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Peirolo, 82.117 © Copyright the artist. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.
[1] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82-92.
[2] Sam Gilliam, 92.
[3] Gilliam/Edwards/Williams: Extensions. Ex. Cat. Hartford, Conn.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1974; 15.
[4] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82.
Share

Get to Know SAM’s VSOs: Emily Jones

The middle daughter of three girls, Emily Jones grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, IL. She soon longed for adventure and moved to the city to attend Columbia College in 2008. She graduated in 2012 with a major in Creative Writing and minor in Black World Studies. Her coursework in bookbinding, cartooning, and metalsmithing affirmed her passion for working with her hands. Her love for the arts led her to seek employment in the museum shop at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she daily visited two of her favorite paintings: George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day. After two long years at an office job in the promotional products industry, Emily decided to shake things up. In 2016, she made the cross-country journey from Chicago’s Logan Square area to West Seattle (in the dead of winter) with her aquatic turtle, Flapjack, and handsome tuxedo cat, Duke Ellington. It is there that she can be found toiling in her greenhouse or frolicking on the beach with Duke.

SAM was naturally calling her name.

SAM: What do you think of the Sam Gilliam installation (May 6–November 26)? 

Emily: Holy Color! I love this gallery. I am particularly drawn to Union. I can’t imagine having to handle and care for that painting with all the textured pieces and chunks of paint. Another VSO showed me a few pictures of his draped work and it is spectacular. My mind just keeps trying to imagine a garment made out of his colorful polypropylene fabric. It has a beautiful sheen to it.

What is your favorite piece of art currently on display at SAM?

I have such a hard time picking favorites! I am pretty in love with Der Orden der Nacht by Anselm Kiefer lately. It wasn’t my favorite at first but the more I stared, the more enamored I became. A lot of people see it and remark about how the man looks dead, but to me he looks completely at peace. Although the scenery is completely haunting (a sunlit haze over a field of looming dead sunflowers) and a little creepy, I can’t help but imagine what it must’ve looked like ablaze with yellow, alive and lush. That man lying beneath those flowers knows what I’m talking about.

I also really enjoy dissecting the craftsmanship in the Men’s tunic from Cameroon in  . There is so much appliqué and embroidery. I’m also obsessed with all of the jewelry pieces we have—especially the gold serpent bracelet in the Ancient Art gallery and all of the Maassai beadwork and Fulani earrings.

Who is your favorite artist? 

Again too many favorites! I love the impressionists and art nouveau. I’m a sucker for the female form and flowers. That being said Alphonse Mucha comes to mind. The way he adorns women (swoon). Beautiful!

What advice can you offer to guests visiting SAM? 

See it all! You never know what you are going to glean inspiration from and appreciate. It’s not aways the things you expect to like that you fall in love with. You might be surprised.

And put down your phones! I know I am guilty of this too sometimes but there is nothing worse than when I see people texting, not even looking at the art, or just snapping quick, blurry pictures that they will probably never look at again, and moving on. You really can’t get scale or the impact of an artwork from a picture. If you really love it, take the time to stop and stare for a few moments—maybe even minutes—and really connect with the piece first. Being at a museum is an experience. Savor it.

Tell us more about you! When you’re not at SAM, what do you spend your time doing?

My favorite things to do are travel and visit other museums. I love to be outside, so hiking, running, and kayaking are a regular occurrence. I also enjoy seeing live music and am an avid reader who loves comics and graphic novels. I am always trying to make more time to create art and explore new mediums. I just started volunteering at the Northwest African American Museum and am interested in volunteering with the Frye Art Museum as well. I can’t imagine life without art, so I intend to drown in it.

Katherine Humphreys, SAM Visitor Services Officer

Photo: Natali Wiseman.
Share

Creating the Unseen Land of the Olympic Sculpture Park

The Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library‘s latest book installation, to coincide with the exhibition, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, introduces a work that recently came into the library’s artists’ books collection. This illustrated book, with original pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors, was created by Seattle author, illustrator, zine creator, and book artist Jessixa Bagley. Bagley is best known for her award-winning children’s picture books: Boats for Papa (2015) and Before I Leave (2016). Her latest book, Laundry Day, was just published by Roaring Book Press in February 2017.

The work is the first in our collection to be born out of a Seattle Art Museum program. The Land of Unseen is a culminating storybook inspired by a collaborative process with visitors to SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park. The “Summer at SAM” program was entitled “Build a World with Jessixa Bagley” and took place over several weekends in August 2016. Jessixa invited participants to help her “create the unseen imaginative world of the Olympic Sculpture Park and give voice to all the creatures and animals that live within it.” Each week, visitors participated in interactive, open studio sessions that explored a different aspect of Bagley’s creative process. These sessions included plot development on vintage typewriters supplied by Carriage Return, character advancement through collage, and landscape mapping with watercolor and mixed media.

To construct this unseen land, the first group of park visitors were given prompts and encouraged to use typewriters to create stories about characters that live in the Olympic Sculpture Park. Next, Bagley had a different group of visitors develop those characters by creating collages based on the writings of the first group or from free-form ideas. One participant imagined an otter wearing a hat participating in plein-air painting, creating a colorful landscape. Another imagined a crow strumming a banjo surrounded by hats reminiscent of National Park Service ranger hats, in a background of rich organic textures of yellow, green, and blue. The final group of visitors was asked to create Mad Libs–style stories based on the collages, and ultimately a map of this hidden world began to take shape. From there, the book was born.

Bagley’s normal practice is to create her work alone indoors, but for this experience she really enjoyed creating work on-site at the Olympic Sculpture Park, being outdoors and working with so many visitors. This was the first time she did this type of collaboration with a group of strangers, and she found that the experience offered a very different type of inspiration.

The Seattle Art Museum is celebrating the Olympic Sculpture Park’s 10th anniversary this year. In addition to considering how the park has changed since its opening, it’s also rewarding to reflect on the many thoughtful, creative projects like this that have been inspired by it.

–Traci Timmons, Librarian, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

Photos: Natali Wiseman.
Share

Object of the Week: War God

Perched in a gallery of Northwest modern art, Philip McCracken’s War God sculpture, a carved figure in cedar wood with a leather strap and saw blades as accessories, has a dark, significant presence. Here at the Seattle Art Museum, he’s surrounded by the work of Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, and Morris Graves, and it seems the perfect place for us to consider McCracken’s art.

McCracken’s work finds its form and substance in the beauty and power of nature. For many years he has chosen to live close to nature, working from a Guemes Island studio near to the animals that inspire much of his sculpture. McCracken has frequently returned to the bird, and other animal forms, as a visualization of the artist’s inner psychology. Much more than wildlife art, McCracken’s work aims to chart new emotional and spiritual depths, recording what is for the artist a process of open-ended exploration. McCracken has spoken about his work as a mode of discovery; rather than dictating what he knows, his sculptures offer reflections of his meanderings into the mysterious and the unknown.

McCracken’s primary subject—the bird—and his mystical understanding of art-making have encouraged comparisons to Morris Graves, one of a handful of figures often cited as standard-bearers for modernism here in the Pacific Northwest. How suitable is the comparison between Graves and McCracken, and how well McCracken does in contributing to the symbolism Graves established, depends on one’s perspective. Writing in 1980 and reviewing a catalogue produced in conjunction with a McCracken retrospective at the Tacoma Art Museum, longtime Seattle art critic Matthew Kangas gave us this resounding barb: “McCracken’s solidifying of Morris Graves’ wispy spirit birds into chunky, polished wood carvings goes down as one of the great jokes in American art.”1 Kangas went on to write that War God was, for him, representative of a troubling current in McCracken’s art that seemed to exalt violence rather than undermine it, and he culminated his criticism by suggesting that McCracken’s sculptures were best suited to Northwest patios—not art museums. You can’t win ‘em all, as they say.

Without a doubt, War God is a harsh piece, one that deals head-on with forces McCracken has called “anti-life.” Many have seen the redemptive value in this piece and in McCracken’s body of work.

War God notably represented the artist at the Fine Arts Exhibition of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, a watershed moment for the arts in this area. In the 55 years since, McCracken has received countless shows and accolades—but I’ll share just one gem from the SAM annals. In March of 1976 McCracken served as the guest of honor at an event hosted by SAM’s Pacific Northwest Arts Council, a classy affair that paired his visual art with lyrical accompaniment by poet Eve Triem. Moon: Philip McCracken is one of the poems Triem read there:

Is a tree
budded
with many names.

My fingers trace the wood
nonlunar color
To a birdshaken twig.

Remembering the poet Li Po
who sang the sliding into cloud
and the emerging
of blossoms into light
attended by
owl          wolf        mountain             cat

and the child’s first sentence:
What do you know—the moon.

The carved verticals
quivering the circle
illuminate
the birth-death cycle
as plumage for freedom.

I don’t think McCracken’s goal has been to win critical acclaim or to inspire poetry. He seems most interested in learning by exploring with his materials, come what may. In the same year he produced War God, McCracken reminded us that “Everyone wants you to fit his conceptions. But to do so is dangerous if it comes before being true to yourself and to your personal vision.”2

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Matthew Kangas, “Birdman of Guemes Island,” ARTWEEK Nov. 15, 1980.
2 Philip McCracken, quoted in Gene Johnston, “Guemes Sculptor Phil McCracken Has One-man N.Y. Show,” Anacortes American LXX, Mar. 24, 1960.
Image: War God, 1960, Philip McCracken (American, b. 1928), cedar, leather, brass, steel, 41 ¾ x 14 5/8 x 12 ¾ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Seattle Art Museum Guild, 63.89, photo: Natali Wiseman, © Philip McCracken.
Share

Beneath the Surfaces: Conservation and Care at the Olympic Sculpture Park

Stroll through the Olympic Sculpture Park on a summer day, and you’ll find yourself immersed in an overload of the senses. The Puget Sound scents the air around Alexander Calder’s towering sculpture, The Eagle, with a salty freshness, while the waves below lap in the wind. Uninterrupted sunlight warms the curving, concrete benches of Roy McMakin’s Love & Loss to the touch. Bike commuters coast along the Elliott Bay Trail, an urban artery connecting bustling downtown Seattle and the neighborhoods to the north. But while visitors enjoy the natural and manmade beauty of the park, the outdoor sculptures on view are constantly under attack by the very elements that makes the park so special.

This coalescence of elements within the Olympic Sculpture Park provides a different sensory experience when your job is to preserve its works of art. SAM’s Chief Conservator Nicholas Dorman explains, “It’s a pretty aggressive environment out there. When the sun does shine, it’s unimpeded and bounces off the Sound, creating very intense light levels. Unhindered wind also comes through, carrying salt and lots of pollution. All of these elements break down the sculptures’ materials over time.”

Love & Loss

Care for each sculpture in the park requires attention to a range of factors that include its materials and fabrication, the artist’s or foundation’s intentions, and SAM’s curatorial and exhibition design philosophies. It’s easy to understand that the illuminated ampersand in Love & Loss requires upkeep in order to keep glowing. However, even its concrete benches and paths are prone to deterioration. Once a sculpture requires intervention, the conservators must consider many questions before deciding on a solution. Liz Brown, SAM’s Objects Conservator, describes, “When I’m looking for a treatment system, I have to keep in mind everything from how the public might interact with the piece, to the artist’s intent, to how the sculpture and the materials we apply are going to react to the environment.”

Coating the surface of Love & Loss is one part of its conservation treatment. When the conservators found that the original acrylic-polyurethane coating wasn’t performing well within the interactive environment of the installation, Brown worked with artist McMakin to replace it with a water-borne acrylic paint designed for pools, which she reapplies every year in order to preserve the aesthetic he originally envisioned for the piece. By comparison, sculptures painted with matte, highly pigmented paints, such as The Eagle and Tony Smith’s Stinger, are susceptible to damage by human touch because oils and contact more easily mar and break down the underbound coatings. The park’s proximity to the Puget Sound also brings the problem of chloride corrosion, making the coatings’ maintenance essential to the preservation of the metal sculptures.

As summer approaches, much of the conservation work at the park moves from behind-the-scenes to more publicly visible processes. Brown will soon begin cleaning all of the art and treating areas where corrosion has appeared. Several larger projects will also take place. This year, she hopes to manage refabrication of the Love & Loss ampersand and to determine a painted surface that will work for that portion of the sculpture in the long term. The next time you’re at the park, sitting on Love & Loss may feel a bit different, knowing more about the care that lives both within and beneath its surface.

—Erin Langner, Freelance Arts Writer and Former SAM Adult Public Programs Manager

This post is the fourth installment in a series of stories exploring the history of the Olympic Sculpture Park in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Over the course of this year, we will continue reflecting on the Park’s evolution over the past decade.

Images:  Photo: Benjamin Benschneider. Love & Loss, 2005-2006, Roy McMakin, American, b. 1956, mixed media installation with benches, tables, live tree, pathways and illuminated rotating element, Overall: 288 × 480 in., Olympic Sculpture Park Art Acquisition Fund and gift of Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.2, photo: Benjamin Benschneider, © Roy McMakin. Stinger, 1967-68 / 1999, Tony Smith, American, 1912-1980, steel, painted black, 6 ft. 6 in. x 33 ft. 4 1/4 in. x 33 ft. 4 1/4 in., Gift of Jane Smith, 2004.117, photo: Paul Macapia © 2006 Estate of Tony Smith.
Share

Personal Landscapes

What’s your personal landscape? Watch our video series, Personal Landscapes, to hear from creatives, scientists, and an athlete on what draws their eye in Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The exhibition features 39 historically significant European and American landscape paintings from the past 400 years. From Brueghel’s allegorical series of the five senses painted in the 15th century to David Hockney’s The Grand Canyon, completed in 1998, there’s something for everyone in Seeing Nature. See it yourself before it closes, May 23! Get $5 off between now and closing by using the code SEE$5OFF at check out.

Share

Object of the Week: Head of a woman from a grave stele

Art doesn’t just do one thing. It does many things. In the past, it has served many functions, and today, it continues to serve many functions. One tradition of art making that has lasted for a very long time sees art as a form of commemoration. The makers of this category of object create representations of people as a way to honor them. For millennia, we’ve made art, and also given art, in memory of those we love.

SAM’s Head of a woman from a grave stele came to the Seattle Art Museum in 1960, when Norman Davis, an important arts patron, successful brewer, and scholar of numismatics, chose to honor his mother by donating it to the museum. This piece of Classical Greek history made for a fitting donation in her memory.

Finely carved in white marble, the figure tilts her head to the left in a subtle display of emotional response. Just that small act of movement in the figure communicates a sense of empathy. She reacts to the scene before her with simultaneous interest and restraint. A distant sadness seems to emanate from her eyes as they gaze downward, but serenity and peace rule her expression. The artist has captured this woman in the beauty of her youth—as was the custom for portraying women, no matter their age. Soft features mark her physiognomy and voluminous curls sit atop her head. The artist has crafted an ideal of beauty and virtue more than a portrait of an individual.

In her original setting, though, this figure represented a singular person. The marble head was, of course, attached to a body, one that may have been standing or seated, and this woman would have been accompanied by other figures representing members of her family, all situated around her. The figural group was arranged inside a niche, on a grave monument, or stele, the purpose of which was to remember lost loved ones for posterity. The woman represented in SAM’s head might have symbolized a family member, or herself have been the deceased. Because these ornate grave monuments were expensive to produce, they marked only the burial plots of the wealthier families of Athens, so we can know something of her comfortable economic status. Artists carved this type of sculpture in relief, meaning the figures were not free-standing, but this woman has been carved in very high relief, and that fact has helped scholars to date the piece to the 4th century B.C.E.

What a powerful thing that art can do—to help us remember the people we love! And what a meaningful parallel that, when Norman Davis donated this beautiful sculpture to SAM in memory of his mother in 1960, he was re-enacting the same practice of honoring a family member that produced this artwork in the first place, some 2,350 years ago.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Head of a woman from a grave stele, 350-325 B.C., Greek, Athens, Classical period (ca. 480-323 B.C.), marble, 10 x 8 13/16 x 6 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Norman Davis in memory of his mother, Mrs. Annie Davis, 60.60
Share

Object of the Week: Mercury and Argus

Jacopo Amigoni lulls us into a place of comfort with pastel colors and a picturesque landscape—but the tale inspiring his painting of Mercury and Argus is not a tame one.

Sweet notes issue from Mercury’s flute, bringing his companion, Argus, to the half-conscious state of stupor that precedes a nice, long nap. Mercury dons a soft red tunic, balanced by a winged cap on top of his head, and sits on a gold cape that cascades down to the ground, resting beneath his bare foot. He regards his counterpart with gentle interest. Argus, his blue cape draped over one shoulder and around him, lightly grasps a staff in his hands while gazing, and leaning, toward the musician and his mellifluous tune. A dog rests at his feet, fully given over to sleep, while a white cow stands behind him, swishing its tail, with an alertness in its gaze that contrasts Argus’s squinting, open-mouth slumber.

Spoiler alert!

Argus will fall asleep. Mercury will cut off his head. The cow Argus has been watching is really a princess, who has caught the eye of Jupiter and incurred the wrath of Juno. Here’s the story, artfully told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

There is a grove in Thessaly, enclosed on every side with crags, precipitous,—on which a forest grows—and this is called the Vale of Tempe—through this valley flows the River Peneus, white with foaming waves, that issue from the foot of Pindus, whence with sudden fall up gather steamy clouds that sprinkle mist upon the circling trees, and far away with mighty roar resound. It is the abode, the solitary home, that mighty River loves, where deep in gloom of rocky cavern, he resides and rules the flowing waters and the water nymphs abiding there. All rivers of that land now hasten thither, doubtful to console or flatter Daphne’s parent: poplar crowned Sperchios, swift Enipeus and the wild Amphrysos, old Apidanus and Aeas, with all their kindred streams that wandering maze and wearied seek the ocean. Inachus alone is absent, hidden in his cave obscure, deepening his waters with his tears—most wretchedly bewailing, for he deems his daughter Io lost. If she may live or roam a spirit in the nether shades he dares not even guess but dreads.

For Jove not long before had seen her while returning from her father’s stream, and said; ‘O virgin, worthy of immortal Jove, although some happy mortal’s chosen bride,—behold these shades of overhanging trees, and seek their cool recesses while the sun is glowing in the height of middle skies—’ and as he spoke he pointed out the groves—’But should the dens of wild beasts frighten you, with safety you may enter the deep woods, conducted by a God—not with a God of small repute, but in the care of him who holds the heavenly scepter in his hand and fulminates the trackless thunder bolts.—forsake me not!’ For while he spoke she fled, and swiftly left behind the pasture fields of Lerna, and Lyrcea’s arbours, where the trees are planted thickly. But the God called forth a heavy shadow which involved the wide extended earth, and stopped her flight and ravished in that cloud her chastity.

Meanwhile, the goddess Juno gazing down on earth’s expanse, with wonder saw the clouds as dark as night enfold those middle fields while day was bright above. She was convinced the clouds were none composed of river mist nor raised from marshy fens. Suspicious now, from oft detected amours of her spouse, she glanced around to find her absent lord, and quite convinced that he was far from heaven, she thus exclaimed; ‘This cloud deceives my mind, or Jove has wronged me.’ From the dome of heaven she glided down and stood upon the earth, and bade the clouds recede. But Jove had known the coming of his queen. He had transformed the lovely Io, so that she appeared a milk white heifer—formed so beautiful and fair that envious Juno gazed on her. She queried: ‘Whose? what herd? what pasture fields?’ As if she guessed no knowledge of the truth. And Jupiter, false hearted, said the cow was earth begotten, for he feared his queen might make inquiry of the owner’s name. Juno implored the heifer as a gift.—what then was left the Father of the Gods? ‘Twould be a cruel thing to sacrifice his own beloved to a rival’s wrath. Although refusal must imply his guilt the shame and love of her almost prevailed; but if a present of such little worth were now denied the sharer of his couch, the partner of his birth, ‘twould prove indeed the earth born heifer other than she seemed—and so he gave his mistress up to her.

Juno regardful of Jove’s cunning art, lest he might change her to her human form, gave the unhappy heifer to the charge of Argus, Aristorides, whose head was circled with a hundred glowing eyes; of which but two did slumber in their turn whilst all the others kept on watch and guard. Whichever way he stood his gaze was fixed on Io—even if he turned away his watchful eyes on Io still remained. He let her feed by day; but when the sun was under the deep world he shut her up, and tied a rope around her tender neck. She fed upon green leaves and bitter herbs and on the cold ground slept—too often bare, she could not rest upon a cushioned couch. She drank the troubled waters. Hoping aid she tried to stretch imploring arms to Argus, but all in vain for now no arms remained; the sound of bellowing was all she heard, and she was frightened with her proper voice. Where former days she loved to roam and sport, she wandered by the banks of Inachus: there imaged in the stream she saw her horns and, startled, turned and fled. And Inachus and all her sister Naiads knew her not, although she followed them, they knew her not, although she suffered them to touch her sides and praise her. When the ancient Inachus gathered sweet herbs and offered them to her, she licked his hands, kissing her father’s palms, nor could she more restrain her falling tears. If only words as well as tears would flow, she might implore his aid and tell her name and all her sad misfortune; but, instead, she traced in dust the letters of her name with cloven hoof; and thus her sad estate was known.

‘Ah wretched me!’ her father cried; and as he clung around her horns and neck repeated while she groaned, ‘Ah wretched me! Art thou my daughter sought in every clime? When lost I could not grieve for thee as now that thou art found; thy sighs instead of words heave up from thy deep breast, thy longings give me answer. I prepared the nuptial torch and bridal chamber, in my ignorance, since my first hope was for a son in law; and then I dreamed of children from the match: but now the herd may furnish thee a mate, and all thy issue of the herd must be. Oh that a righteous death would end my grief!—it is a dreadful thing to be a God! Behold the lethal gate of death is shut against me, and my growing grief must last throughout eternity.’ While thus he moaned came starry Argus there, and Io bore from her lamenting father. Thence he led his charge to other pastures; and removed from her, upon a lofty mountain sat, whence he could always watch her, undisturbed.

The sovereign god no longer could endure to witness Io’s woes. He called his son, whom Maia brightest of the Pleiades brought forth, and bade him slay the star eyed guard, Argus. He seized his sleep compelling wand and fastened waving wings on his swift feet, and deftly fixed his brimmed hat on his head:—lo, Mercury, the favoured son of Jove, descending to the earth from heaven’s plains, put off his cap and wings,—though still retained his wand with which he drove through pathless wilds some stray she goats, and as a shepherd fared, piping on oaten reeds melodious tunes. Argus, delighted with the charming sound of this new art began; ‘Whoever thou art, sit with me on this stone beneath the trees in cooling shade, whilst browse the tended flock abundant herbs; for thou canst see the shade is fit for shepherds.’

Wherefore, Mercury sat down beside the keeper and conversed of various things—passing the laggard hours.—then soothly piped he on the joined reeds to lull those ever watchful eyes asleep; but Argus strove his languor to subdue, and though some drowsy eyes might slumber, still were some that vigil kept. Again he spoke, (for the pipes were yet a recent art) ‘I pray thee tell what chance discovered these.’

To him the God, ‘A famous Naiad dwelt among the Hamadryads, on the cold Arcadian summit Nonacris, whose name was Syrinx. Often she escaped the Gods, that wandered in the groves of sylvan shades, and often fled from Satyrs that pursued. Vowing virginity, in all pursuits she strove to emulate Diana’s ways: and as that graceful goddess wears her robe, so Syrinx girded hers that one might well believe Diana there. Even though her bow were made of horn, Diana’s wrought of gold, vet might she well deceive. ‘Now chanced it Pan. Whose head was girt with prickly pines, espied the Nymph returning from the Lycian Hill, and these words uttered he’—But Mercury refrained from further speech, and Pan’s appeal remains untold. If he had told it all, the tale of Syrinx would have followed thus:—but she despised the prayers of Pan, and fled through pathless wilds until she had arrived the placid Ladon’s sandy stream, whose waves prevented her escape. There she implored her sister Nymphs to change her form: and Pan, believing he had caught her, held instead some marsh reeds for the body of the Nymph; and while he sighed the moving winds began to utter plaintive music in the reeds, so sweet and voice like that poor Pan exclaimed; ‘Forever this discovery shall remain a sweet communion binding thee to me.’—and this explains why reeds of different length, when joined together by cementing wax, derive the name of Syrinx from the maid.

Such words the bright god Mercury would say; but now perceiving Argus’ eyes were dimmed in languorous doze, he hushed his voice and touched the drooping eyelids with his magic wand, compelling slumber. Then without delay he struck the sleeper with his crescent sword, where neck and head unite, and hurled his head, blood dripping, down the rocks and rugged cliff. Low lies Argus: dark is the light of all his hundred eyes, his many orbed lights extinguished in the universal gloom that night surrounds; but Saturn’s daughter spread their glister on the feathers of her bird, emblazoning its tail with starry gems.

Juno made haste, inflamed with towering rage, to vent her wrath on Io; and she raised in thought and vision of the Grecian girl a dreadful Fury. Stings invisible, and pitiless, she planted in her breast, and drove her wandering throughout the globe. The utmost limit of her laboured way, O Nile, thou didst remain. Which, having reached, and placed her tired knees on that river’s edge, she laid her there, and as she raised her neck looked upward to the stars, and groaned and wept and mournfully bellowed: trying thus to plead, by all the means she had, that Jupiter might end her miseries. Repentant Jove embraced his consort, and entreated her to end the punishment: ‘Fear not,’ he said, ‘For she shall trouble thee no more.’ He spoke, and called on bitter Styx to hear his oath.

And now imperial Juno, pacified, permitted Io to resume her form,—at once the hair fell from her snowy sides; the horns absorbed, her dilate orbs decreased; the opening of her jaws contracted; hands appeared and shoulders; and each transformed hoof became five nails. And every mark or form that gave the semblance of a heifer changed, except her fair white skin; and the glad Nymph was raised erect and stood upon her feet. But long the very thought of speech, that she might bellow as a heifer, filled her mind with terror, till the words so long forgot for some sufficient cause were tried once more.1

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Ovid, Metamorphoses, transl. Brookes More, I:567-746, accessed May 4, 2017 via http://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses1.html#7
Images: Mercury and Argus, ca. 1732, Jacopo Amigoni (Italian, Venice, ca. 1685-1752), oil on canvas, 30 ½ x 25 ½ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Clark, 51.123. Installation view of European Galleries, Seattle Art Museum, 2017, Photo: Mark Woods.

Share

Seeing Nature through The Eyes of Curators: Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, and Impressionism

Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather

One of Paul Allen’s favorite periods is obviously French Impressionism, and he has some exquisite examples. In Seeing Nature there are five paintings by Claude Monet. Monet had such a long life that he underwent a long evolution based on seeing and communicating his subjective experience to the viewer.

Monet was constantly trying to forget what he knew and what his mind told him—such as that if a stone building is brown it should be depicted as brown. He wanted to forget logic and just paint what he saw. In Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, London was beset by terrible pollution and it created a very foggy atmosphere. For Monet, those atmospheric effects made for a series of beautiful paintings where you can subtly perceive the fact that there’s a bridge before you with smoke stacks beyond. The brushstrokes depicting sunlight coming through the arches of the bridge have more substance than the bridge itself. He was interested in the changing color effects of different times and days so he painted the Waterloo Bridge at different times of day.

Landscape on île Saint-Martin, Claude Monet, 1881.

Landscape on île Saint-Martin

Earlier in his career, Monet didn’t have the luxury of going far afield to paint. It took him years to be able to make a living. Landscape on île Saint-Martin and The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather are from the early 1880s when he was still years away from becoming successful. He painted where he was living with his family. During one summer, Monet was on a little island just north of Paris and painted it in all of its summertime glory with this beautiful field of poppies. There is a little fisherman’s cabin that used to be a watchtower right on the Normandy coast, an area of his childhood that he would return to many times over the years. These paintings reward looking close up, but they also reward standing back and taking in the whole—he’s thinking about both perspectives at the same time.

The Fisherman's House, Overcast Weather, Claude Monet, 1882.

The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather

Claude Monet painted Venice fairly late in his career. It’s important to mention The Palazzo da Mula in conjunction with View in Venice–The Grand Canal by Edouard Manet. Manet was such an inspiration for Monet. Though he never called himself an Impressionist, Manet was absolutely fundamental to the movement. It’s interesting that both artists went to Venice—Manet painting in 1874 and Monet in 1908. By this time there is a historical body of work that artists have created about Venice. There are conventions about what Venetian paintings look like and both of these artists are interested in breaking those conventions.

The Palazzo da Mula, Claude Monet, 1908.

The Palazzo da Mula

Manet’s painting is particularly radical. He is right on the water. It’s as though he’s painting in a boat. All of the grand views, the many beautiful buildings that intersect with the sky and water, are not his main subject. The dome, which was originally much bigger—there’s a pentiment that shows through a little bit now—he suppresses it. He doesn’t want that to be the main event. He’s instead much more interested in the mooring poles that are part of the navigational system of all the boat traffic in Venice.

View in Venice–The Grand Canal, Edouard Manet, 1874.

View in Venice–The Grand Canal

When you see just the prow of the gondola come into the picture, it reminds you that photography has become part of the visual vocabulary by this time. A view can be cut off like a snapshot and a form can end abruptly. It’s not composed in that traditional way, it almost looks like a found view although he obviously worked at it. To me, this painting is an antidote to the kind of more melancholy mysterious aspect of Venice, which is so much a part of its literary reputation. This is more about a bustling city full of movement. It’s full of vigor and sparkling light in the middle of the day.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

See these and other Impressionist artworks in Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, on view at SAM through May 23.

Note: This text is taken from an audio recording of a staff tour of the exhibition led by SAM curators.
Images: Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, 1904, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 25 9/16 x 39 1/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Landscape on île Saint-Martin, 1881, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 28 13/16 x 23 5/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather, 1882, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 22 3/4 x 28 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The Palazzo da Mula, 1908, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 26 1/6 x 36 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. View in Venice–The Grand Canal, 1874, Edouard Manet, French, 1832-1883, oil on canvas, 22 9/16 x 18 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
Share
Share