All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: Choir of Pieterskerk, Leiden

This week we’re looking an important art historical genre: portraiture. Only, this “portrait,” by Dutch artist Anthony van Borssum, features not the human figure, but a 17th-century church interior as its subject.

Choir of Pieterskerk, Leiden presents a detailed rendering of Leiden’s late-Gothic Pieterskerk church. However, absent from the scene are the ornate religious sculptures and paintings that one would expect to find in a Catholic church. Stripped bare after the iconoclasm (or beeldenstorm) of the Protestant Reformation, this Dutch Reformed church’s whitewashed walls and columns appear austere, decorated only by heraldic banners that obscure the stained glass windows behind them. The materials used to create this work—pen, bistre (a pigment made from soot), and watercolor—only add to the church’s restrained and unadorned appearance.

As the Dutch empire grew during the 17th century, so did its art market, and church interiors like this one (as well as still lifes, landscapes, and portraits) were popular during the period. Characterized by soaring verticality, vaulted ceilings, and dramatic lighting—all of which diminish the presence of the human figure—the church interior, as a genre, conveys a sense of spirituality, despite the near total absence of religious iconography.

Dutch Reformed churches were non-secular spaces, but van Borssum and his contemporaries approached church interiors to explore light, color, spatial volume, and perspective. In this context, Pieterskerk becomes less a religious site than a patient sitter, a creative subject readily awaiting its likeness to be captured.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Choir of Pieterskerk, Leiden, 17th century, Anthony van Borssum, pen, bistre, and watercolor on paper, 14 9/16 x 9 1/4 in., LeRoy M. Backus Collection, 52.34
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Object of the Week: Still Life with Calendar

As we prepare for the last 31 days in our 2017 calendars, it becomes clear how quickly time flies. Where did the year go? In this 1956 work by Northwest artist Wendell Brazeau, Still Life with Calendar, time is certainly a preoccupation, as well as developments in abstraction imported from Europe during the years following World War II.

A painting that could only exist after the pictorial revolution brought about by Cubism, and Paul Cézanne before that, this work is a marker of an important moment in American painting when European theories made their way to artists living and working in the United States. Like many, Brazeau studied in Paris and worked first-hand with the European avant-garde, bringing such ideas back to the Northwest and pollinating the region with new modernist theories.[1]

One of the main genres of Western art, the still life takes many forms; whether arrangements of symbolic objects that point to the brevity of human life,[2] or celebrations of material wealth, the still life has fascinated artists for centuries. In more recent art history, the still life has become a foundation for formal experimentation.

Indeed, here flat geometric forms and bright planes of color unify a spatially ambiguous plane. We see lemons or limes perched precariously on the left-hand corner of the table, as well as a chair, coffee pot, flower vase, and fruit basket, all nearly sliding from their fixed positions. Behind this array of multi-toned vessels and objects we also see a small section of an incomplete calendar—a tongue-in-cheek inclusion that seems to simultaneously honor and scrap the genre’s interest with the passage of time. A knowing departure from the still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, Still Life with Calendar playfully explores the possibilities of abstraction while wittily honoring the subject’s antecedents.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Still Life with Calendar, 1956, Wendell Brazeau, oil on board, 41 3/4 x 46 in., Northwest Annual Purchase Fund, 56.254 © William A. Brazeau
[1] Brazeau studied art at the University of Washington for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. For more, please see Barbara Johns, Modern Art from the Pacific Northwest in the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1990), 16.
[2] Vanitas, for example, contain objects—such as musical instruments, skulls, candles, and flowers—that serve to remind the viewer of their own mortality, as well as the worthless pursuit of earthly goods and pleasures.
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Tlingit Basket

Object of the Week: Tlingit Basket

Around this time of year, the cornucopia could very well be the most ubiquitous Western symbol of abundance, evoking a more agrarian past. However, this Tlingit “berrying basket” (kadádzaa yéit)—made by Tlingit women and children for harvesting berries—holds similar cultural (and more practical) significance for the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, as it would be used to collect special foods for the culmination of potlatch feasts.1

The potlatch ceremony, as practiced by the Tlingit (as well as many other indigenous groups in the Pacific Northwest and Canada2), centers on gift-giving. Potlatches take place for a variety of reasons, ranging from births and deaths to weddings and house building. Often replete with dancing, singing, storytelling, and the distribution of gifts, an important aspect of these lavish celebrations is the communal feast, to which such baskets contribute.

As both a practical and aesthetic object, this berrying basket features a traditional Tlingit embroidery design identified as “head of salmon berry,” a modern motif likely copied from an oil cloth pattern.3 Decorative yellow triangles and trapezoids punctuate the zigzagging black and brown bands. Slightly wider than it is tall, flared baskets such as this would be used to collect berries by knocking them right off the bush.

While the imagery of baskets overflowing with corn, squash, and grapes might appear hackneyed during these autumn months, food plays an undeniably central role in our social gatherings. Whether your get-togethers take years to plan (as is the case with some potlatches!), a few weeks, days, or hours (there is no shame in take-out . . . ), these celebrations with friends and family surely incorporate enough food to fill a berrying basket, many times over.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

This basket in particular was one of many produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sold as souvenirs to tourists. Though derivative of traditional Tlingit berry and cooking baskets, it features the traditional geometric embroidery designs developed by the Tlingit.
2 This includes the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Makah, Nuxalk, and Tsimshian, to name only a few.
3 Frances Lackey Paul, Spruce Basketry of the Alaska Tlingit (Lawrence, Kansas: Haskell Institute, 1944).
Image: Kak (basket) Kadádzaa yéit (berrying basket), ca. 1900, Tlingit, spruce root, maidenhair fern stem, and grass (twining and false embroidery), 11 1/2 x 10 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.234
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Male figure with balamwezi pattern

Object of the Week: The rising of the new moon figure

With the night sky subsuming our ever-shortening days, darkness takes on new meaning. Some might embrace these early evenings and winter constellations, while others surely count the days until the spring. No matter where we land on the spectrum, I think we can all agree that it is increasingly difficult to appreciate darkness as a larger force in our lives, especially with all the technology helping us override our circadian rhythms.

At the risk of sounding like a horoscope, a new moon begins tomorrow evening, November 18, and our night sky will be even darker than usual. While we might not be as in tune with the lunar calendar as preceding generations (or, if we are, we likely use an app), for the Tabwa people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the moon—and its absence—is certainly worth noting.

Though hard to make out, this figurative male Tabwa sculpture features traditional iconography called balamwezi, triangular patterns that reference the rising of the new moon and lunar phases. Balamwezi roughly translates to “the rising of a new moon,” and is a metaphor that contains both darkness and light. A moment of transition and rebirth, the new moon brings complete darkness while also holding the promise of illumination. To quote the scholar Allen F. Roberts, “balamwezi patterning was a visual proverb insofar as it conveyed its sense of uncertainty, transformation, and . . . the courage to persevere, even in the darkest hours.”1

In Tabwa culture, darkness—representing obscurity, ignorance, danger, and destruction—is balanced by more positive attributes such as light, wisdom, safety, and hope.2 Ultimately, forging a nuanced connection between darkness and light makes inextricable their disparate attributes and associations. Perhaps this way of thinking can change our own behaviors and attitudes toward darkness, and what better time than during the onset of tomorrow’s new moon!

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

1 Allen F. Roberts, A Dance of Assassins: Performing Early Colonial Hegemony in the Congo Page (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 87.
2 Rosalind Hackett, Art and Religion in Africa (New York: Cassell, 1996), 126.
Image: Male figure with balamwezi (the rising of the new moon) pattern, Tabwa, wood, 34 x 7 3/4 x 8 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.790.
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Woman Selling Flowers (detail)

Object of the Week: Woman Selling Flowers

There’s something intimate about this hanging silk scroll by Japanese artist Ito Shōha. In the rural scene we see a young working woman, in layers of white and indigo-dyed clothing, carrying freshly cut flowers. These details help her appear specific, individual. Set against a hazy ochre background and soft green leaves, her unassuming beauty is echoed throughout the bucolic image. Modest in both style and composition, this unpretentious scene might appear banal to today’s viewers, but it is exactly this ordinariness that makes the work radical.

Woman Selling Flowers

Shōha—one of the leading artists of her day—painted Woman Selling Flowers in the mid-1920s. This work reflects many of the artistic changes that took place during the Taishō (1912–1926) and early Shōwa (1926–1989) periods in Japan. On the heels of the Meiji Restoration, the Taishō era in particular saw years of unprecedented cultural transformation. Many artists during this time were exposed to Western art, and their exposure resulted in a shift away from the conservative artistic traditions that defined previous generations.

This painting by Shōha is best categorized as bijinga, a traditional Japanese genre that takes up beautiful women as its subject. Bijinga most often depicts geishas and courtesans, and helped establish an ideal standard of female beauty in Japan. In Woman Selling Flowers, however, Shōha offers up a more modern take on the genre, naturalistically representing a middle-class woman from Shirakawa (a northeast suburb of Kyoto) conducting her daily business.1 Absent are the highly stylized elements that typify bijinga, such as hair, dress, and makeup. Rather than representing an idealized female form, the woman here appears beautifully ordinary.

Shōha’s brand of bijinga was met with critical acclaim for depicting the contemporary life of women without idealization.2 No doubt her own experiences as a woman informed the treatment of her subject in Woman Selling Flowers, and earned her a leading role as a bijinga artist. Shōha’s intimate—and authentic—focus on the daily life of women in Japan connects this scroll to the other works on view in Talents and Beauties: Art of Women in Japan, the newest installation on view in our Japanese galleries. A visit to Talents and Beauties offers an important and wide-ranging glimpse into the diverse ways women are represented in Japanese art, and many works, such as this one, carry larger social and political significance.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Woman Selling Flowers, late 1920’s, Ito Shōha, ink and colors on silk. 84 1/2 x 22 7/8 in., Gift of Griffith and Patricia Way, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2010.41.56
1 Michiyo Morioka and Paul Berry, Modern Masters of Kyoto: The Transformation of Japanese Painting Traditions (Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1999), 268.
2 For more on the life and work of Ito Shōha, please see Morioka and Berry, 266-267.
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Untited (@ Pieces)

Object of the Week: Untitled (2 Pieces)

For my first Object of the Week post as SAM’s new Collections Coordinator, I have chosen to highlight Untitled (2 Pieces) (1978) by American sculptor Richard Nonas. With a personal interest in modern and contemporary art, I have always found Nonas to be an under-recognized figure with an elusive body of work. But what is Object of the Week for, if not to engage deeper with art even if we feel challenged or uncomfortable in the process? We should never expect art to be straightforward—an important fact that challenges us to ask questions in order to better understand and appreciate an object’s history, meaning, and making—no matter how difficult or elusive it may be.

In Untitled (2 pieces) two steel brick-like forms, each measuring 6 x 2 x 22 inches, rest one on top of the other. Despite the weight of their physical makeup, there is a certain lightness to the stacked arrangement—a tenderness if you will. The patina on the steel surfaces further softens the cold, industrial material, adding a sense of age to these familiar yet enigmatic objects.

For decades, Nonas has created sculptural installations defined by their minimal aesthetic, intimate scale, geometric forms, and use of everyday materials such as wood, granite, and steel. Unlike his Minimalist contemporaries Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Robert Morris, Nonas was distinctly interested in the emotional and spiritual qualities of artwork, rather than the removal of such expressions (a hallmark of Minimalism). For Nonas, the physical presence of his sculptures is just as important as the relationship—and emotional interaction—between object and viewer.

Prior to entering the art world in the 1970s, Nonas was an anthropologist. For ten years he conducted field work in northern Ontario, the Yukon Territory, Mexico, and Arizona.1 Speaking about his time in Mexico, the artist recalled “the extraordinary way those people conceived and perceived the world spatially, the ways they situated themselves contextually were unlike anything I knew in my own culture.”2 Nonas translated his observations and experiences as an anthropologist into an artistic practice aimed at challenging our notions of place and time.

His sculptural installations treat space as a medium, and transcend the cultural and historical associations we might bring to them. Just as the field of anthropology demands that we ask critical questions about cultures, objects, and the people who make them, Nonas’s sculptures, too, force us to search for meaning within the works and ourselves:

And making sculpture? I start with memories of how places feel. The ache of that desert, those woods, that room opening out. Places I’ve been, places I’ve seen and felt. And felt always with some component of unease, apprehension, disquiet, fear even, discomfort certainly. Memories of places that seem always slightly confusing, slightly ambiguous. Places whose meaning slips away, but not too far away.3

The world and spaces we occupy are constantly in flux, and Nonas seeks to embrace this contingent and ever-shifting aspect of our lived experience through his sculpture. Holding no singular interpretation or prescribed meaning, his pared down objects readily accept our all-too-human responses of uncertainty and doubt.

In addition to examining one of two Nonas sculptures in our collection, my hope is that Untitled (2 Pieces) might also act as an introduction and larger framework for future Object of the Week posts: By looking closely at SAM’s collection and asking questions what can we learn about an object, artist, people, or culture? And what can we learn by opening ourselves up to a particular work?

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Untitled (2 pieces), 1978, Richard Nonas, steel, 6 x 2 x 22 in. and 6 x 2 x 20in., The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States, a joint initiative of the Trustees of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection and the National Gallery of Art, with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, 2008.29.21
1 Susan Cross, Richard Nonas: The Man in the Empty Space (North Adams, MA: MASS MoCA, 2016), 4.
2 Alex Bacon, “In Conversation: Richard Nonas with Alex Bacon,” Brooklyn Rail, March 4, 2013, http://brooklynrail.org/2013/03/art/richard-nonas-with-alex-bacon.
3 Cross, Richard Nonas: The Man in the Empty Space, 4.
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Fireman's Coat

Object of the Week: Commoner’s Firefighting Jacket

As Halloween approaches and our thoughts turn to the weird and witchy, we wanted to highlight an early-nineteenth-century firefighter’s coat, called hikeshibanten, since it features a spooky spider. Made in the Edo period in Japan, these firefighter’s coats were reversible, and this design is actually on the interior of the jacket, only visible when the jacket has been turned inside out. A large spider—with an endearing face—looms over the shoulder of the jacket, where it hovers menacingly over an abandoned go board (Pacific Northwesterners may have unnerving flashbacks to the giant house spiders that descend on Seattle in the autumn). The range of tonalities centers on indigo, white, black, and greyish-brown, with red accents on the fan; this color palette visually unites the work, creating parallels between the spider’s eyes and the go pieces.

The method of dyeing used, tsutsugaki, is a type of resist dyeing. The design was drawn on the cotton using rice paste, and these initial lines are visible now as the lightest areas of the design. The spider and the go board were dyed their respective colors, and covered with more rice paste to block any other dye from entering the area. Then the fabric was dipped into indigo multiple times, dried, soaked in hot water again, and the rice paste was scraped off to reveal the layering of colors; this whole process could take 20 days.[1]

But why is this spider on a firefighting jacket at all? The jacket tells a story from the life of Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948–1021), a warrior-hero. The story is as follows: Yorimitsu was sick, and was resting in bed. He was visited by a priest—but the priest was actually a giant spider (tsuchigumo) in disguise! Yorimitsu, being very clever, sees through the disguise, and attacks the spider with his sword, wounding him. Yorimitsu’s four attendants, called the Four Heavenly Kings, were playing a game of go while guarding him, and leapt up to track the spider back to his den.[2]

This narrative was popular in theatrical productions, and there was a song in Noh theatre specifically about tsuchigumo, the intimidating earth spider. The story appears frequently in woodblock prints in the nineteenth century as well. The jacket shows the moment when the go game was abandoned, with tsuchigumo retreating back to his web. So great was the hurried effort to find the spider that the attendants left behind their personal effects, scattering go pieces in their haste.

The human figures in this story are removed from the jacket’s design and the firefighter symbolically takes their place. The firefighter becomes imbued with Minamoto no Yorimitsu’s special powers as a warrior-hero, and the design works as a talisman to protect the firefighter from harm. Firefighting was an especially important occupation in Edo, where most of the buildings were made of wood. The job was both dangerous and glamorous, valorized as a crucial masculine exemplar in Edo.[3] So while these jackets were for a real, practical, dangerous job, they are also imbued with a sort of glamour, which helps explain why such an effort was taken to dye the jackets with symbolic designs. After battling a fire, the coats would be worn reversed to make the designs visible, a stunning effect that visually linked the clothing to success and survival.[4]

Listed in our records as a “commoner’s firefighting jacket,” the ordinariness of the hikeshibanten is one of the things I find so compelling about it. These jackets were objects of both use and beauty, and of hidden, personal importance to the wearer. There are several Edo firefighter’s coats in SAM’s collection, and this one is my favorite. Textiles often have an intimate history with their owners, and this firefighter’s coat makes me think about the capacity for cloth to protect us, define us, and celebrate us. This firefighter, whose name is now lost to time, found solace in Yorimoto’s defeat of tsuchigumo, literally clothing himself in a hero narrative.

– Anna Wager, Blakemore Intern

Image: Commoner’s firefighting jacket (hikeshibanten), Japanese, cotton cloth with indigo dye (sashiko and tsutsugaki), 38 1/2 x 50 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.414
[1] Richard Mellott, “Katazome, Tsutsugaki, and Yuzenzome,” in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles, Seattle: Thames and Hudson and the Seattle Art Museum, 1993, 51-57, 55.
[2] For more on this narrative and related woodblock prints, see Kuniyoshi: From the Arthur R. Miller Collection, edited by Timothy Clark, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009, 268.
[3] Michiyo Morioka, “Sashiko, Kogin, and Hishizashi,” in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles, Seattle: Thames and Hudson and the Seattle Art Museum, 1993, 107-129, 121.
[4] Morioka, 124.
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Object of the Week: Funerary Portrait

This ancient Funerary Portrait uses Greco-Roman methods to honor the deceased and allows us to lock eyes with a 2,000 year-old Egyptian tradition. One of the most extraordinary aspects of Egyptian art is the consistent portrayal of the human form. Developed around the year 2900 BC, during the Predynastic period, this style of portraying the human form remained consistent for 3,000 years, through the time of the Romans, and remains recognizable to most contemporary viewers. Maybe there’s something else recognizable about this Funerary Portrait?

Image: Egyptian Funerary Portrait, 1st–2nd century, tempera on wood, 16 5/16 x 8 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 50.62.
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Breakfast Series by Sonny Assu

Object of the Week: Breakfast Series

On Monday, October 9, we celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the contribution of these communities to global economy, governance, and culture. It is also a day to expose the ongoing suffering of indigenous peoples world-wide as a result of more than 200 years of colonization. In this work of art by  Sonny Assu, called Breakfast Series,  we are initially confronted by the familiar colorful cereal boxes of our youth, luring us with their smiling animal mascots promoting sugar-laden cereals. Upon closer inspection, we see that Assu has turned the pop art inspired graphics on the five boxes into commentaries about highly charged issues for First Nations people—such as the environment, land claims, and treaty rights. Tony the Tiger is composed of Native formline design elements, the box of Lucky Beads includes a free plot of land in every box, and contains “12 essential lies and deceptions.” The light-hearted presentation, upon further investigation, exposes serious social issues.

The cereal boxes and their contents become a metaphor for the unhealthy government commodity food forced upon Natives and First Nations, and that took the place of the healthy diet of fish, seafood, venison, berries, and wild greens that indigenous people thrived upon for thousands of years. Food sovereignty—the right of access and control over native foods and community health—has become an increasingly significant issue as indigenous people struggle at disproportionate rates with diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

– Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art

Image: Photo: Ben Benschneider. Breakfast Series, 2006, Sonny Assu (Gwa’gwa’da’ka), Kwakwaka’wakw, Laich-kwil-tach, Wei Wai Kai, born 1975, five boxes digitally printed with Fome-cor, 12 x 7 x 3 in. each, of 5, Gift of Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006.93, © Sonny Assu.
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