All posts in “Curator’s Soapbox”

Seeing Nature through The Eyes of Curators: Venice

By the 18th century, landscape has become a full-fledged genre. One of the reasons that artists paint landscapes is for a shifting international clientele that is doing a lot of travel. Of course, it is the wealthiest elite that is doing this kind of travel, such as English gentlemen on the Grand Tour. It becomes a mandatory part of one’s education to spend time in Italy, which is where European systems of government formed and where there are still ancient monuments for people to see. It also has a lush and exotic landscape from an English perspective. In Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection you’ll see works focused on Italy, and particularly Venice—a favorite place for people to visit and a very favorite place for artists to portray. It is also a favorite place of Paul Allen’s—there are eight paintings of Venice in this exhibition. Throughout, you have the opportunity to think about places you have, or haven’t, visited, and see them through the eyes of artists. And this is especially true of Venice.

The first great painter of Venice is Canaletto, a Venetian, and he paints very exacting images of particular locations in Venice. Venice is a magical place because it is so unchanged. You can seek out this view of the Grand Canal and it will look just like the painting. Canaletto had his studio in Venice where these paintings were displayed and English visitors would commission paintings or buy them in groups as decoration for their homes. Both of the Canaletto paintings in Seeing Nature are spectacular paintings in their own quiet way. He can easily describe the rhythms of everyday life, but can also describe pageantry and the kind of stately and more decorated trappings that Venice could put on for grand occasions. The ingredients that you see here—buildings, water, boats, sky—those are the basic ingredients of any painting about Venice and artists will address these elements according to their own interests.

J. M. W. Turner painted about a century after Canaletto, in the mid-19th century. By 1841 when he painted this painting, Turner had visited Venice three times. His early works are watercolor studies made on the spot—probably influenced by images by Canaletto and other Venetian artists. By the time he is well into his career, he has made Venice the scene for a kind of more poetic rumination on mood and atmosphere–and also a sense of nostalgia for the past, which often accompanies views of Venice as well as poetry and literature about the city. Turner has invented a story here about the great 15th century painter, Giovanni Bellini, whose paintings are still to be seen in many churches in Venice. In Turner’s fantasy, three Bellini paintings are being delivered to the church that you see in the painting. He has created a lavish and dignified pageant: you can practically hear the music playing, with richly dressed people and flags and banners and a full flotilla delivering these paintings to this beautiful church. Sky, water, boats, buildings—it’s all here, but what a different effect from the Canaletto paintings. Most of the paintings in the exhibition have Plexiglass over them so you can get close to them and study the surface and brushwork. This one is almost like enamel. It looks like palette-knife work. Turner’s texture and color contribute to the mood. This is all part of concocting an emotional and poetic response to this place.

Later in the exhibition you can see how Manet, Monet and other Impressionists saw Venice through the lens of the artistic issues of their own time.

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

Hearing from SAM ‘s curators is a treat and this post is only a taste of what Chiyo Ishikawa and Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator, will be speaking on Wednesday, April 19 during A Constant Entertainment: A View Of Venice From Canaletto’s Studio. This lecture is part of our Conversations with Curators series. This popular members-only lecture series still has tickets available and single lectures are open to the public. Get your ticket now for more on Venice and our current exhibition, Seeing Nature, on view through May 23.

Images: Installation view of Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection at Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman. The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking Southeast from San Stae to the Fabbriche Nuove di Rialto, ca. 1738, Canaletto, Italian, 1697–1768, oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 30 5/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Depositing of John Bellini’s Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redentore, Venice, 1841, Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775–1851, oil on canvas, 29 x 45 1/2 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.

Pictures and Words: National Gallery by Frederick Wiseman

One of the abiding pleasures of my job is that I get to spend so much time in museums—not just the Seattle Art Museum, but great institutions throughout Europe and the United States. That’s where I spend my business trips, and many vacations too. Working in a museum, I am familiar with the teamwork and myriad decisions that go into creating collection installations and exhibitions. Now a gorgeous new film, Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery (playing December 5-11 at the Northwest Film Forum), invites viewers to watch the activity behind the scenes at one of the finest collections of European art in the world, London’s National Gallery.

Wiseman edited down hundreds of hours filmed on-site to craft a paean to the art of looking. We observe masterpiece after masterpiece–close-up, within the grand architecture of the galleries, and unframed in the attic conservation studio. We observe people—the professional staff of the Gallery, which includes the director Nicholas Penny, curators, educators, marketing specialists, scientists, framers, conservators, art handlers, maintenance staff—as well as studious visitors who scrutinize these paintings looking for answers or just marveling at the talents of great artists of the past.

In contrast to many documentaries, there is no narration, no interviews, and no identification of the speakers. We take a fly-on-the-wall position and watch the business of the museum unfold in a non-hierarchical way. The closest thing to a dramatic crisis is a series of conversations among museum staff about whether the august Gallery should succumb to marketing opportunities to appear more hip and reach a broader audience. I was fascinated to recognize that the National Gallery–which has free admission and welcomes over five million visitors annually—is as concerned as we are at SAM to understand our audiences and develop programs with their needs in mind. But in a film that lasts nearly three hours, this is just one of many activities that hum through the museum, seemingly no more or less important than installing a new lighting system, managing a blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, or conserving paintings.

The curators and conservators have unparalleled knowledge about the works of art in their care, but their conversations here are often quite insular and subtle. For me the heroes of the film are the talented and passionate gallery educators who are marvelously effective in helping visitors to understand what the artist was trying to do all those years ago under circumstances that feel quite foreign to us today. All of these dedicated professionals prize active looking, as does Wiseman. He lets scenes unfold in real time, which will require an adjustment from viewers used to quick-paced, plot-driven films. But patience has its rewards, and in the final scene the film achieves poetry as a pair of dancers perform in an empty gallery before two of the most moving works that Titian ever painted. These wordless moments where music, dance, and painting come together resonate with a power beyond all of the eloquent words that came before.

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

Image: Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

Joseph Hillaire: Carver of the Kobe-Seattle Sister City Friendship Pole

Hillaire carving the pole for Kobe, Japan, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, 1961. Photograph by Harvey Davis. Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History and Industry.

Joe Hillaire Kwul-kwul-tu, (meaning “spirit of the war club”) was a man of indomitable spirit, grace, intelligence, and talent. For his Lummi people, he perpetuated song and dance traditions through the Setting Sun Dance group, was instrumental in reviving the Lummi Stommish water festival (and Chief Seattle Days at Suquamish), taught totem carving and canoe-making, and was a voice for social and political causes. Of parallel importance were his actions as a liaison between Native and non-Native people. He imparted knowledge of Lummi heritage to anthropologists Bernhard J. Stern and Erna Gunther (curator of the Northwest Coast Native exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair) and ethnomusicologist Willard Rhodes, as well as to the Boy Scouts of America and various school groups in the Seattle region. Hillaire also provided guidance to business and civic leaders, and traveled throughout the U.S. and to Japan with the objective of fostering inter-cultural friendships and bringing attention to Native culture.

Totem pole carved by Joe Hillaire, Kobe, Japan, 1961. Photograph by Lawrence Denny Lindsley, 1967. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.

The 35-foot-tall pole depicted in the image to the right was carved by Hillaire in 1961 as a part of a two-pole project to call attention to the upcoming 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Kobe is Seattle’s sister city and the story pole was a goodwill gift meant to point out commonalties between the two cities, ease the memories of WWII, and promote trade between the U.S. and Japan. Hillaire’s approach is richly symbolic: two sisters grow closer as they acknowledge the things they share, like the salmon, mountains and sea, and the rising sun (Japan) and setting sun (Seattle). The monster blowing a dark cloud symbolizes the darkness of war, while the sun alludes to the hope of peace.

Images from Joseph Hillaire’s Trip to Kobe, Japan (1961)

 

 

 

Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems

Lummi artist Joseph Hillaire was commissioned to carve two story poles in connection with the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, we are remembering Hillaire’s contributions to the Century 21 Exposition in a series of weekly posts. Please check back each week or subscribe to our RSS to learn more about Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems. 

Top Photo: Hillaire carving the pole for Kobe, Japan, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, 1961. Photograph by Harvey Davis. Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History and Industry.

Joseph Hillaire: Carver of the Century 21 Exposition Totem Pole

Joseph Raymond Kwul-kwul’tu Hillaire (1894–1967) was an artist, storyteller, performer, Native activist, and diplomat. When Joe Hillaire was born, lingering distrust permeated Native-White relations. Many of Joe’s totem poles were created as civic monuments and served to bridge cross-cultural understanding, as well as to project the rich Lummi oral traditions.

Hillaire’s monumental carvings are “story poles”—the deeds of ancestral heroes and their encounters with supernatural beings appearing on both sides of the pole. When Hillaire learned carving from his father at sixteen, Coast Salish totem pole carving was a recent practice. While this art form was adopted in shape and size from northern Native groups, it displayed more naturalistic figures (adapted from traditional interior house posts) and arranged them in narrative fashion.

In 1961, Hillaire was commissioned to create two totem poles for the Seattle World’s Fair celebration, one to tour the United States to promote the Fair (and the unique heritage of the Northwest) and one for Seattle’s sister city, Kobe, Japan. The Land in the Sky Pole—which tells the story of the adventures of two brothers who enter the sky worldtraveled to 300 cities and towns before it was returned to Seattle for the April 21, 1962 opening of the Exposition. By the time it was completed the sixty-six year-old Hillaire having carved on it in twenty-five states! The Land in the Sky Pole was never erected at the Seattle Center but stood near Chief Seattle’s grave on the Suquamish reservation from 1963 until 2005, when it was deemed unsafe and taken down, and returned to his ancestral home, the Lummi reservation near Bellingham, WA.

Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems

Lummi artist Joseph Hillaire was commissioned to carve two story poles in connection with the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, we are remembering Hillaire’s contributions to the Century 21 Exposition in a series of weekly posts, starting this week! Please check back each week or subscribe to our RSS to learn more about Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems.

Hillaire and grandson, Ernie Lewis, 1950s. Photograph courtesy of Pauline Hillaire.

Michelangelo Wednesdays

A couple of weeks ago I gave a tour in the “Michelangelo Wednesdays” series. (Quick overview: SAM curators—including myself, the curatorial lead for Ancient Mediterranean and Islamic art—give a short tour of the Michelangelo exhibition every Wednesday afternoon.) I am not a Renaissance scholar, though I do have a soft spot for Florentine art. Would I fake my way through the show, using the knowledge and vocabulary gleaned from the amazing Professor Evelyn Lincoln in my Renaissance art classes in college? Would I simply do an overview of the show, basically taken straight from the catalogue and Chiyo Ishikawa’s overviews? Maybe I would just take people around and point them toward my favorite stops in Gary Radke’s charismatic audio tour? What, oh what, was I going to do?

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What it takes

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to put a work of art on view.  To our visitors, it should seem oh-so-easy: You see painting A (something you love) one day, and on your next visit it’s replaced with painting B (something you love even more). But behind the scenes, it’s anything but. As you relax and take in the holidays, here’s a little piece of our frenetic world to consider. (And as a little holiday bonus from me to you, all images are from 1983—enjoy!)

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Why a plate?

Michelangelo Public and Private invites us into the artistic process behind some of the most astonishing works of art ever created – the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Through preparatory drawings – quick figure sketches to capture a pose, analytical studies of outstretched limbs, a highly finished portrait that will be incorporated into a populous narrative – we watch Michelangelo making decisions that lead to the finished work.

It is easy to understand why these preparatory drawings – the artist’s first ideas – are at the centerpiece of the Michelangelo exhibition. But what about some of the other objects? Continue Reading…