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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The first time I saw Cosmic Cities, I found it hard to believe that the Arthur Wesley Dow who I was familiar with could paint so large and boldly. This is what the Grand Canyon did for him. Dow was famous as a teacher at Columbia Teachers College. He developed a course of composition study based on Japanese prints, on filling the page or canvas through flat patterns and linear rhythms. This is what he taught to people like Georgia O’Keeffe, a new modern way of looking. In his own practice, he created beautiful little wood cut prints and tiny paintings done in the landscape around his Massachusetts home. But when he went west it changed him completely.
When Arthur Wesley Dow got to the Grand Canyon, he said it compelled him to think about pictures in three different ways. One was color, because the sedimentary rock, sand, and shell shimmered, changing colors all day long and giving a glittery quality to the atmosphere and the surfaces. He said the immersive experience of the Grand Canyon made him think differently about the structures of pictures—he loved that disorienting quality, the feeling that we have no footing, that we might tumble into the scene. He also said he saw nature’s innate architecture. In Cosmic Cities, this strange architecture looks like it could have come from some ancient builders, but it is the product of nature itself. This painting was commented on by critiques as a great breakthrough for American painting at this time in 1912. Because of its large scale and its all-over, painterly color pattern, it doesn’t look like a Victorian-era painting—it looks like it could have been painted today.
Dow went to the Grand Canyon because he saw paintings like Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon, also in the Allen collection. Moran visited the Grand Canyon repeatedly. His trips were paid for by the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Hotel. The Santa Fe Railroad extended its tracks right up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and built the famous Fred Harvey Hotel there. It was a tourist destination for a long time before Theodore Roosevelt designated the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908. When you look out across the vast space, you see the horizon in the Moran painting, and so you get a sense of firm grounding, and of deep landscape. It’s a very different effect from Dow’s boundless, dizzying place.
–Patricia Junker, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art
I don’t know how many of you have been to the Grand Canyon, but the drama of the Grand Canyon is just extraordinary. When you stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon you can hardly ever see straight down to the Colorado River because it is so deep. What you see is this texture of different planes that unfold in front of you. I have this idea that Dow painted the Grand Canyon at sunrise because once I got up at four in the morning to see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon and the lavender tones start coming out. In David Hockney’s Grand Canyon, on the other hand, I see sunset colors because that’s when there are intense orange and yellows. You can’t believe how much purple there can be in a rock! Of course, Hockney exaggerates since these are not natural colors.
A British artist who spends a lot of time in Los Angeles and travels to the Grand Canyon, David Hockney did some work designing stage sets. I think that’s especially pronounced in his Grand Canyon. He uses these small squares of canvas corresponding to photographs he took at the Grand Canyon. Initially he planned a photographic series. He took all these photographs, taped them together, and then decided the photographic representation wasn’t successful. So he painted the Grand Canyon in three different versions. This one is called The Grand Canyon and conceptually, if you think of stage design, the purple form would be one slice that you roll onto stage and the yellow form could be another. There’s a way in which he was learning from his experience in stagecraft for the composition of this scene. The stroke of genius here, that tiny sliver of sky—which when you’re standing there, would instead feel enormous—puts so much pressure on the entire composition. It’s really an extraordinary painting.
–Catharina Manchanda, Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Bring your own experience of the Grand Canyon to Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection and compare it to three wildly divergent depictions of this natural wonder. Seeing Nature presents 39 exquisite, highly detailed paintings as a platform for visitors to consider their own experience with the world through sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste. On view through May 23, don’t miss it!
Images: Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona, 1912, Arthur Wesley Dow, American, 1857-1922, oil on canvas, 61 x 79 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset, 1909, Thomas Moran, American, born England, 1837–1926, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. David Hockney, British, b. 1937, The Grand Canyon, 1998, oil on canvas, 48 ½ x 14 ft. 1 in. overall, Paul G. Allen Family Collection, © David Hockney.
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.
The Way dissolves into rivers
The Way coagulates into mountains.
–Sun Ch’o, Fourth Century 
Shan Shui, or river and mountains, is a Chinese term for landscape. During the Six Dynasties (220 AD–589 AD) Shan Shui became a popular style of landscape painting as well as referring to a specific form of landscape poetry. In Terratopia: The Chinese Landscape in Painting and Film at the Asian Art Museum you will see examples of Shan Shui painting as the exhibition displays centuries of works to examine the role of landscape as an enduring subject of artistic, philosophical, and environmental reflection from the 3rd to the 21st century. In the paintings of the exhibition, you’ll notice calligraphy on pieces such as Wangchuan Villa (17th Century). The inscription refers to a series of Shan Shui poems by Wang Wei whose country retreat at Wang River is depicted in the painting. Wang’s couplets, focused on the natural landscape of his retreat, are collected, with the poems of fellow poet Pei Di, as the Wheel River Sequence. A sample of these poems, meant to convey imagery and tranquility are below.
No one seen. In empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, no more.
Entering these deep woods, late sun-
light ablaze on green moss, rising.
Autumn mountains gathering last light,
one bird follows another in flight away.
Shifting kingfisher-greens flash radiant
scatters. Evening mists: nowhere they are.
Flute-song carries beyond furthest shores.
In dusk light, I bid you a sage’s farewell.
Across this lake, in the turn of a head,
mountain greens furl into white clouds.
Perhaps one of the most iconic pieces of writing that begins to unfold a long history of the role of poetry in Chinese landscape painting is written on The Orchid Pavilion Gathering created in 1732 by Chen Fu based on the original work of Wang Xizhi (303-361), the whereabouts of which has been unknown since the Tang Dynasty. This calligraphy is the Lanting Xu (Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion), written as a preface to a collection of poems generated during the famed Orchid Pavilion Gathering of literati. Read the Lanting Xu to begin your own journey into the poetry associated with the works of art you can see at Asian Art Museum before Terratopia closes.
“First Inscription: In the ninth year of the Eternal Harmony era in the beginning of the last month of spring when the calendar was in kuei-ch’ou , we met at the Orchid Pavilion in Shan-yin, Kuei-chi to celebrate the Bathing Festival. All the worthy men assembled; the young and the senior gathered together. Here were lofty mountains and towering hills, thick groves and tall bamboo. And, there was a clear, rapid stream reflecting everything around that had been diverted to play the game of floating wine-cups along a winding course. We sat down in order of precedence. Though we had none of the magnificent sounds of strings and flutes, a cup of wine and then a poem was enough to stir our innermost feelings. This was a day when the sky was bright and the air was pure. A gentle breeze warmed us. Upwards we gazed to contemplate the immensity of the universe; downwards we peered to scrutinize the abundance of living things. In this way, we let our eyes roam and our emotions become aroused so that we enjoy to the fullest these sights and sounds. This was happiness, indeed! Men associate with each other but for the brief span of their lives. Some are content to control their innermost feelings as they converse inside a room. Some are prompted to give rein to their ambitions and lead wild, unfettered lives. There is all the difference between controlled and abandoned natures, just as the quiescent and the frenzied are unalike. Yet, both take pleasure from whatever they encounter, possessing it but for a while. Happy and content, they remain unaware that old age is fast approaching. And, when they tire of something, they let their feelings change along with events as they experience a deep melancholy. What they had taken pleasure in has now passed away in an instant, so how could their hearts not give rise to longing? Furthermore, a long or short life depends on the transformation of all things: everything must come to an end. An ancient said, “Life and death are the greatest of matters, indeed!” Isn’t this reason enough to be sad? Whenever I read of the causes of melancholy felt by men of the past, it is like joining together two halves of a tally. I always feel sad when I read them, yet I cannot quite understand why. But I know that it is meaningless to say life and death are the same; and to equate the longevity of P’eng-tsu with that of Shang-tzu is simply wrong. Future readers will look back upon today just as we look back at the past. How sad it all is! Therefore, I have recorded my contemporaries and transcribed what they have written. Over distant generations and changing events, what gives rise to melancholy will be the same. Future readers will also feel moved by these writings.”
This is your final weekend to see the historical paintings and the contemporary film work of Yang Fudong in Terratopia before it closes on Sunday, February 26. As it says in the Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion, “. . . life depends on the transformation of all things: everything must come to an end.”
If all this poetry has you yearning for more landscapes, come to Seattle Art Museum to see Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, on view through May 23. And keep in mind, the Asian Art Museum is temporarily closing for renovation beginning Monday but installations featuring SAM’s Asian art collection will continue to be on view at the Seattle Art Museum for all to take retreat within.
–Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Copywriter & Content Strategist
Images: Wangchuan Villa, 17th century, Wang Wei, Chinese, ink and color on silk, 36 ft x 11 13/16 in., Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 47.142, photo: Mark Woods. The Orchid Pavilion Gathering (detail), 1732, color added 1739, Chen Fu, Chinese, active 1730s, ink and color on paper, 13 1/4 X 25 7/8 In., Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.138, photo: Elizabeth Mann.
 “Yu T’ien-t’ai-shan fu” (Fu-poem of My Wanderings on Mount T’ien-t’ai), Wen-hsü an, 2 vols. (Shanghai), Chapter XI, pp 223–227
 Frodsham, J.D. “Landscape Poetry in China and Europe.” Comparative Literature 19, no. 3 (Summer, 1967): pp. 193-215 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1770207
 Wang Wei, The Selected Poems of Wang Wei, trans. David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 2006.
On February 22 Congressman John Lewis presented his graphic novel trilogy, MARCH, during Migrations & Marches, a SAM event taking place at Benaroya Hall in order to accommodate a larger audience. The event was presented as an educational opportunity for regional youth and a majority of the seats were reserved for students and their families. As a result, public seating was limited and the event sold out almost immediately. To allow more people to take part in this exciting program, we stayed open late to host a free live stream of the talk in Plestcheeff Auditorium. We also kept the Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series exhibition open and free until 9 pm. If you missed it, not to worry! You can tune in from the comfort of your home anytime, right here!
Created with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell, MARCH, recently the winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, recounts the story of the civil rights movement through the eyes of one of its most well-known figures and shares important lessons about nonviolent activism and empowerment. Congressman John Lewis is an American icon whose commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to a seat in Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from being beaten by state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.
SAM’s six-panel screen picturing Scenes of Life in and around the Capital serves to celebrate the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto, giving a flattering impression of the city as one that is full of jovial activity. Gold leaf, in the form of clouds, covers a large area of the screen and lends to Kyoto an air of royalty and prosperity. As a compositional element, the clouds divide this very large panel into bite-sized vignettes. When your eye scans across the panel, and up and down, it encounters figures sitting, running, parading, and celebrating in scenes alternately private and public. Both rural and urban citizens have a place here, as life in the city blends seamlessly with the surrounding countryside, and the city’s attractions are enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. What your eye won’t find in its flyover of Japan’s ancient capital is any element that disagrees with the established order and the abiding image of prosperity. The humdrum of day-to-day life, the majority of which involves work, doesn’t fit into the picture. Neither does illness, disease, or death much affect this heavenly realm.
The screen has interesting things to say about how we see, and how we aim to be seen. As I look at the screen, I’m reminded of spinning around and above Seattle during a special brunch in the Space Needle’s SkyCity restaurant (an experience I hope everyone has a chance to enjoy). To look over a city with great energy, lots happening, and an incredible geographic diversity brought, for me, feelings of joy and pride. Surely Kyoto’s citizens in the Edo period appreciated everything their city offered—its rich culture and vibrant lifestyle—in a similar way. It’s also worth noting how, from the top of the Space Needle, or standing in front of this screen, we take up the perspective of a passive observer. We watch others go about their lives without being seen ourselves and, with no fear of being caught watching, we’re encouraged to watch even more closely.
It’s this aspect of looking that contemporary artist Tabaimo has pointed to in her exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi. In the show, Scenes of Life in and around the Capital relates meaningfully to Tabaimo’s video work Haunted House, seen nearby. Haunted House mimics the movement of an eye scanning a long row of houses, while our view is limited to a small circle, as if we are viewing these scenes through a telescope. In Haunted House and in SAM’s screen, stories present themselves one at a time, providing the viewer a steady stream of entertainment.
Tabaimo’s installation of the screen encourages us to take pause and ask: How do we see each other? From what perspective? With what agendas? From there, we might also ask how and why we present ourselves to the world, and whether that image carries pretension much like the screen’s gilded view of ancient imperial Kyoto.
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
IMAGES: Scenes of Life in and around the Capital, second half 17th century, Japanese (Edo period, 1603-1868), ink, color, and gold on paper, 67 7/8 x 149 3/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Purchased with funds from Mildred and Bryant Dunn and the Floyd A. Naramore Memorial Purchase Fund, 75.38.1. Haunted House (detail), 2003, Tabaimo, video installation, © Tabaimo / Courtesy of Gallery Koyanagi, Photo: Patrick Gries.
In October I took a trip to Seattle for opening day of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum. And how perfect it was! Seattle delivers everything you might expect—great coffee, abundant shopping, cool culture, and endless opportunities to accessorize for rainy weather. But the reason for the season was an exclusive first look at the my-sized recreations of the defining designs on display as part of the exhibition at SAM.
Life can be so busy but it’s nice to stop and reflect on recent experiences. So here are my five favorite things from my visit to the Seattle Art Museum to take in the stunning style of Yves Saint Laurent. Spoiler alert, I have more than five favorites but you’ll just have to get to the exhibition during closing weekend (that’s this weekend, Jan 7 & 8) and see it for yourself!
- The Bow Dress
Yves Saint Laurent’s style is superb. In the photo above, the evening gown behind me from Autumn-Winter 1983, with its giant and oh-so-pink silk satin bow, is a perfect example of flawless color and shape combos. I was thrilled to get to see this dress, one of Saint Laurent’s most well known, in person.
- The Pop Moment
I’m a big fan of bright colors! And, like Yves Saint Laurent, I find literature, theater, and film inspiring. In this gallery you can see how the art of his time had an impact on Saint Laurent’s designs. The geometric shapes and strong hues of these dresses draw directly from Pop art. I’m all about this wearable art.
- The Prodigy’s Paper Dolls
I wish I’d had paper dolls this fancy to play with as a kid! Yves Saint Laurent made these paper dolls from magazines when he was a teenager and this is the first time they’ve been shown in the United States. I feel so lucky that they are at the Seattle Art Museum right now and I got to see them up close!
- A Modular Wardrobe
Yves Saint Laurent changed the fashion industry forever when he opened his first boutique, SAINT LAURENT – rive gauche. The store sold prêt- à-porter clothes, which means, “ready to wear.” Thanks to him, now we can all shop for a slice of high fashion for a fraction of the price! Now if only I could find this white silk crepe blouse with red lips in stores still.
- Catching up with a Friend
Traveling means getting to reconnect with old friends! I love getting to discuss all the thoughts that come up after seeing world-class art and it’s so important to have a good friend to talk about creative ideas with. Visiting Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at the Seattle Art Museum wouldn’t be that same without someone to gush over the beautiful fashions with.
IMAGES: Barbie photos courtesy of Mattel. Installation views of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style, Photos: Natali Wiseman.
Inspired by the election year and conversations around art and politics, Grace Billingslea, SAM curatorial intern, wrote this blog post on Joseph Beuys’s Felt Suit as her final project. See Felt Suit on view now in the latest iteration of Big Picture: Art after 1945. Big Picture presents vibrant developments in painting and sculpture in the decades following World War II as an ongoing and evolving exhibition. The November re-install introduces works by European artists grappling with their unique experiences and concerns in the wake of World War II, centered more strongly on the figure and the environment. As the galleries change, new connections and points of departure will be uncovered. There’s always a reason to return to SAM!
Felt Suit, modeled after 20th-century German artist Joseph Beuys’s own, appears to be nothing more than a slightly frumpy, plain grey, felt suit. With sleeves a little too wide and a collar one itches to fold down properly, it is the kind of art piece that makes even an avid museum-goer wonder: Why does a felt suit have a place on a gallery wall?
Beuys’s Felt Suit carries a fascinating story complete with adventure, political strife, and fame.
Joseph Beuys was born in 1921 near Kleve, Germany. His great artistic success came from humble and rambunctious beginnings. Beuys was always adventurous and eccentric and memorably ran away with the circus a year before his high school graduation. His character translates strongly to his art, which elicited intense reactions, both positive and negative, over the course of his lifetime and through to today. The artist’s unique blend of sculpture, performance art, and installations dealt with broad themes of social activism, inclusivity, creative freedom, and energy.
Beuys’s choice of materials often informed the meanings of his works—and this feature of his art-making helps explain his notable and frequent use of animal fat and felt. By the artist’s own telling, Tartar tribesmen used those two substances to save his life when, as a member of the German Airforce during World War II, his plane was shot down on the Crimean Front. From this experience (whether myth or fact, no one knows) the Joseph Beuys we celebrate today was born, along with his ideas of felt as a protective and life-giving fabric. Felt Suit can be partially understood through the choice of material but, in this case, the history of the piece plays an especially important role.
One of sixty nearly identical suits, Seattle Art Museum’s Felt Suit was worn with its brothers in the 1978 Fat Tuesday parade in Basel, Switzerland. In the event, sixty felt-clad men, all wearing their suits accessorized with animal masks, marched together to protest the sale of Joseph Beuys’s piece Feuerstelle to their local art museum for $159,000. In their view, this was an exorbitant amount for their city to spend on art. Upon seeing the demonstration, Beuys donned a long felt coat and his iconic hat and raced out to join the protest himself. After the event, the artist collected the suits and included them in an installation titled Feuerstelle II, which he then donated to the same local museum.
Felt Suit’s role in political activism represents only a small fraction of Joseph Beuys’s political inclinations. Beuys was just as much an activist as an artist, and in fact, he considered those two roles fundamentally linked. He famously stated that, “Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives.” This belief informed nearly every work of art he created.
Extremely progressive for his time, Beuys was a strong proponent of protecting the environment, effecting institutional change through referendums, and opening universities free of charge to any student who wished to attend. He argued that the government should recognize a woman’s work in the home as an occupation and therefore assign wages to home-makers to help achieve gender equality. In 1967, while a professor at the Düsseldorf Academy, Beuys started the German Student Party. Evolving from class debates into a full-fledged organization, the group supported objectives such as increased access to education, breaking down barriers between the West and the East, eliminating nationalistic interests, and complete disarmament. Beuys went on to create the Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum (People’s Free Initiative) in 1971, which aimed to increase public participation in forming and shaping governmental policy and legislation. The artist also ran for numerous elected positions, notably running for the European Parliament in 1979 as a member of the Green Party. Although he was not elected, Beuys never weakened in his political convictions. Throughout all of this Beuys was creating and performing, with nearly all of his work political in some respect.
Utilizing his success as an artist, Beuys shared his progressive ideas with a huge audience. In a time before social media, art was an important vehicle for spreading political messages. By organizing public performances/protests, the artist drew attention to the issue of ecological preservation and effected change. In Sweeping out the Grafenberger Wald (1971), Beuys and fifty of his students occupied a tract of woodland set to be cleared and developed into tennis courts, sweeping it with birch brooms and painting white crosses with rings on all the trees. The protest was a great success, encouraging many citizens to join Beuys in the protest or write to city hall. Such a feat, at the time, was made possible through the collaboration of art and politics and Beuys’s masterful melding of the two.
Joseph Beuys was a unique man who dedicated both his artistic and teaching careers to sharing his firmly-held political ideas with his students first, and then with the world. He worked at great lengths to involve students in his mission and even succeeded in opening Free International University in 1973, a tuition-free learning and research space. This, along with his other causes, pushed him to travel the globe and hold interactive performances in various galleries for up to 100 days at a time where audience members could question or debate him on his progressive stances—many of which are still contentious today. Beuys managed to retain the same audacious and original spirit as the boy who ran off to join the circus throughout his whole career, while also becoming an important political figure. Learning Beuys’s compelling personal history, as well as understanding his art and symbolic use of materials, allows one to see his plain grey suit in an entirely fresh way. Felt Suit was created with the fabric that saved his life, worn in the spirit of how he lived his life, and hangs today to share the legacy of his life.
–Grace Billingslea, SAM curatorial intern