All posts in “Object of the Week”

17 years’ supply

Object of the Week: 17 years’ supply

In 2016 the SAM docents—a rockin’ group of volunteers that plays a huge part in sharing our collection—donated funds for the museum to acquire a new artwork. Their collaborative effort raising the funds found a very fitting consummation in the acquisition of Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2014 photograph 17 years’ supply, an image that projects togetherness and interconnectedness, especially in the face of trials.

Tillmans has achieved international recognition for his innovative and thoughtful photography. Central to the artist’s work are his interest in the formal structure of photography and his desire for intimacy, what he calls “the very being-in-this-worldness with others, and the desire to be intensely connected to other people.”¹ He is a gay man whose attachment to the LGBTQ community has surfaced at various times in his work, in overt and in quieter references. Tillmans doesn’t aim to document subcultures with his images, nor does he hope that his photography will be read as a diary, directly expressive of his personal life. 17 years’ supply, however, is a work that challenges both those intentions.

Powerful symbolism informs both the choice of subject and the straightforward title. A cardboard box frames the image in humble terms. Inside lies a jumbled assortment of bottles and boxes of medical prescriptions that once contained treatments for HIV, and some of them bear Tillmans’ name (he is, himself, living with HIV). The artist took this photograph in 2014, the 17th anniversary of the death of his partner, Jochen Klein, who fell sick with AIDS-related pneumonia and never recovered. Here, Tillmans staged, and recorded, a visualization of his defense against the same sickness that took his partner 17 years prior.

In a published interview with New York artist Peter Halley, Tillmans reflects on the role HIV/AIDS has played in his life and work:

Tillmans: All my work has been made with the knowledge of possible death, because since 1983 I’ve had an acute awareness that this disease, AIDS, affects me. In 1985, after my first few sexual encounters, when I was seventeen, I had this big AIDS fear. That’s actually crazy, when you think of a seventeen-year-old schoolboy lying in bed thinking he’s going to die.

Halley: I don’t think it’s that crazy. It happened. It was real and a lot of people did get sick and die.

Tillmans: The threat of AIDS has been with me for all my active sexual life, and so all the celebration and the joy and the lightness in my work has always taken place with that reality on board.

Halley: In other words, if life is fragile one needs to celebrate and appreciate it more?

Tillmans: Yes—well maybe that’s too much of a statement. You could take away the ‘if’, because life is fragile, and you have to celebrate it and enjoy it and not despair over the fact that it’s fragile because it just is. And that’s why I don’t despair; that’s why I’m optimistic, because it doesn’t only affect me—it affects us all. It just brings us all together again in the sense that that’s part of the deal. We’re all equally mortal.²

I’m deeply moved by Tillmans’ optimistic perspective. Each of us knows our end, and the end is the same for each of us. Loving others well and enjoying life in the meantime is something each of us gets to choose—or not choose.

After winning the prestigious Turner Prize in 2000—becoming the first non-British artist to receive the award—Tillmans designed a related exhibition catalogue that was essentially a comprehensive visual index of his published work to date. To his show and catalogue he gave the title If one thing matters, everything matters. I would add to Tillmans’ proclamation: If one person matters, everyone matters. Our togetherness in the fragility of life is part of what makes us human. So is our need to share its joys. Wishing everyone a sense of closeness and celebration!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: 17 years’ supply, 2014, Wolfgang Tillmans (German, b. 1968), Inkjet print on paper, 12 x 16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Seattle Art Museum Docents, 2016.18
¹Wolfgang Tillmans, interview with Nathan Kernan, published in Wolfgang Tillmans: View from Above, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2001; 11.
²Wolfgang Tillmans, interview with Peter Halley, published in Wolfgang Tillmans, New York: Phaidon, 2014; 22.
Share

Object of the Week: Scholar’s rock on stand

Wander into a Chinese scholar’s studio at the Seattle Art Museum to find treasures like a masterfully carved brush pot and a tiny cage to house a lucky cricket. This display of Pure Amusements brings together objects and furnishings collected by scholars as a display of learning, a claim to social status, and an inspiration for reflective thinking.

The Qing period Scholar’s rock on stand, a craggy piece of limestone mounted to a carved wooden base, rewards our contemplation, too. Interesting examples of the scholarly collecting impulse, scholars’ rocks were “favored stones that the Chinese literati and their followers displayed and appreciated indoors, in the rarefied atmosphere of their studios.”¹

A very human desire lies at the heart of this tradition. Who, as a kid, does not build their own killer rock collection? In China, too, people have been gathering rocks for a long time. The Chinese practice of decorating gardens with rocks was in place by the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). The specific tradition of the scholar’s rock has been traced back to the Song dynasty (960–1279), and it continued through the Yuan (1279–1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644–1911) periods.

Before the 20th century collectors referred to them in terms that mean “fantastic rocks.” The type of rock, as well as its texture, form, and color, were all important elements for the collector to consider. Different rocks were most treasured at different moments in history, so the look of these rocks has allowed new scholarship to date them, and also to think about changing tastes in collecting over time. Generally, the darker the color, the more prized the scholar’s rock: black and slate grey were at the top. Limestone came first among rock types not only for its look but also for its sound. Due to its density, it would ring like a bell when struck.²

Scholars’ rocks were used in several senses of the word. Functionally, they might serve as brushrests, inkstones, or censers. But their primary function was to inspire. The form of the rock suggested a mountainous landscape, and like a landscape painting, a scholar’s rock acted as a microcosm of the universe—a small piece of an infinite, natural puzzle—an object on which to meditate and to gain cosmic perspective.³ They would be displayed indoors on a desk, on a table or bookshelf, or perhaps on the floor if they were especially large. Traditionally, a scholar displayed his choice rock on a finely carved wooden stand, both to support the irregular form, and to designate the rock as a special item, like a piece of sculpture.

And sculpted they were. Once chosen from nature, scholars’ rocks were frequently carved, weathered, and burnished to suit their owner’s aesthetic. Collecting a scholar’s rock involved both selection—the finest rock would inherently resemble a painting by the powers of nature—and manipulation—as the scholar imprinted their aesthetic onto the rock form by carving or treating it in some way. There is a fascinating give-and-take here, a loop of influence whose beginning and end is hard to identify. As much as the natural forms of rock, and the mountainscapes they represented, informed styles of scholarly painting, the Chinese literati also made natural rock conform to their vision of a painterly landscape, molding it into their idea of beauty.

I’m reminded of David B. Williams’s reflection in Too High and Too Steep, his account of man-made changes to Seattle’s topography: “We shape the land, and the land shapes us.”⁴

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Scholar’s rock on stand, Chinese, Qing period (1644-1912), limestone, 15 ¾ x 8 ¼ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.326
¹Robert D. Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks: An Overview,” in Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars’ Rocks. Exh. Cat. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1997; 19.
²Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks,” 20.
³Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks,” 21.
⁴David B. Williams, Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.
Share
Sea Bear

Object of the Week: Sea Bear

We who love art find joy in putting words to what artists are doing visually. Scholarly articles and Instagram posts, Ph.D. dissertations and dinnertime monologues, poetry and pop music are all common sites for reflecting on the ideas impressed upon us by visual art. However much we enjoy sharing our own angle, we should designate the greatest respect for the words artists share about their own work. They are often, in themselves, a kind of poetry.

Along with a few images of this week’s object, Sea Bear, by Seattle artist Sherry Markovitz, here’s a selection of thoughts from the artist on her work and this resplendent piece:

I am after beauty, with an edge of uncertainty, vulnerability, and power. I use animal metaphors to explore issues of intimacy, closeness, and separation.1

Immersing myself in work and making objects is a way of setting boundaries and losing them at the same time.2

This piece was done after the birth of my son Jake. It has a quiet about it that is different from the preceding pieces. It also is part of the stories I have been doing that utilizes an extension to the head. It also is a transition piece that displays the qualities of the work that involves horns & gourds.

The quiet, monochromatic color.

I see the ‘collar’ as directional. The wood shape & the bear shape—working in tandem was the key (formally) on this one. I think the large pearls pulled the shape back to the bear. It’s funny, as I get further away from a piece, it is, in fact, the abstract concerns that remain the most visible to me.

Emotionally Sea Bear is circular, all the stuff on it is traceable to significant walks. Walks with my mother in Florida, walks in Port Townsend with Peter (during which time J was conceived), walks alone to find the ‘root’ pieces at Discovery Park. Walking on the beach is such a drifting and wonderful activity.

I feel whole at those times, and quiet.

The beadwork is a lot about getting quiet—& color—the beauty of the colored glass. Muting it somewhat on Sea Bear—making it more sand like and solid. How pieces lay in the sand—3

I have several strong personal influences: my family of origin, whose psychodynamics have been a continual source of reference; my partner, whose vision, optimism, and endurance keep everything in fresh perspective; and the late Emil Gehrke, a folk artist of Grand Coulee, Washington, who taught me that art could be about joy and totality.4

I work as hard as I can. I set no limits on how or when I work. My limit is exhaustion.5

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Sea Bear, 1990, Sherry Markovitz (American, b. 1947), wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, papier mâché, 25 x 17 x 29 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Terry Hunziker, 90.3 © Sherry Markovitz. Installation view of Pacific Currents at Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Nathaniel Willson. Sherry Markovitz’ hand-written notes on Sea Bear, from SAM’s curatorial files.
1 Sherry Markovitz, quoted in 50 Northwest Artists: A Critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in the Pacific Northwest, ed. Bruce Geunther, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1983; 81.
2 Sherry Markovitz, 50 Northwest Artists, 81.
3 Sherry Markovitz, letter to Vicki Halper, August 14, 1991.
4 Sherry Markovitz, 50 Northwest Artists, 80-81.
5 Sherry Markovitz, 50 Northwest Artists, 80.
Share
Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor, 1882

Object of the Week: Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor

The almost-summer, peek-a-boo-sun weather here in Seattle has me excited about all the potential the coming season holds for outdoorsy activity. Having been cooped up through a cold winter and rainy spring, we’re ready to get outside, to maximize those sun rays, and to utterly exhaust ourselves. Let’s burn some skin and burn ourselves out! What better place to get the most out of summer than the Pacific Northwest? (Nowhere, that’s where.)

One can find endless things to do on a sunny day here, but a favorite of mine, and of quite a few other folks, clearly, is to get out on the water. Kayaks, SUPs, sailboats, and some one-percenter yachts will be out in full force these summer weekends. After three years of living in Seattle, I’ve finally met a family with a boat and can’t wait to bum a ride, to float out over the Sound, to reverse my land-bound perspective, and to drink in the beauty of the coastal landscape. The quality of light and the diversity of the geography in the Northwest give us the perfect ingredients for a romantic painting, which is why I’m especially grateful that we have a really good one at the Seattle Art Museum: Cleveland Rockwell’s Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor.

In the painting, soft orange light filters through a dense atmosphere to coat the scene in mystical hues. Hardly joy riding, its figures row with exertion and carefully navigate an active harbor, bustling about to accomplish the trade that made Astoria an important port town in the 19th century. The scale of their enterprise varies, some maneuvering humble canoes and others commanding imposing merchant ships. A flock of seagulls finds its breakfast before gliding into the distance, maybe headed next for the salmon canneries that are the only sign of humanity’s nascent shaping of the land. Silhouetted by the gently rising sun, the mounds of Astoria’s Tongue Point root this picture in a place, reminding us that it records a real local history. Rockwell worked with the US Coast Survey and knew the terrain in Astoria well, so he’s not imagining anything. Even the phantasmagoric warmth of the sunlight may be truer to life than we imagine; his title references then-frequent fires that would leave this kind of dreamy atmospheric effect.

Second to Rockwell, we have Captain George Flavel to thank for this painting. Captain Flavel lived in Astoria and did quite well for himself as a bar pilot, helping ships to navigate the very dangerous access point to the Columbia River from the Pacific, and running a tugboat service that took ships upriver from Astoria to Portland. Captain Flavel was a friend of Rockwell’s and commissioned him to make several important paintings, including Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor. He passed away in 1893, but this painting remained in the Flavel family for several generations. Within the first few months of my time as Collections Coordinator at SAM, I received a call from a descendant of Captain Flavel who had an interest in the painting and planned to visit SAM. It was heartwarming to look at this painting with him and his family, who held such a personal connection to it. Our warm and fuzzy feelings reflected right back at us from Rockwell’s cheery painting.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor, 1882, Cleveland Rockwell (Born Youngstown, Ohio, 1837; died Portland, Oregon, 1907), oil on canvas, 20 x 34 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Len and Jo Braarud, Ann and Tom Barwick, Marshall and Helen Hatch; and gift, by exchange, of Lawrence Bogle, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor Collins, Eustace Ziegler, Mary E. Humphrey and Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 89.70
Share

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

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

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

Object of the Week: Minidoka Series #2: Exodus

Object of the Week went live yesterday on Facebook and Instagram from the SAM fifth floor hallway where Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator, discussed Roger Shimomura’s Minidoka Series #2: Exodus.

Watch this video to learn more about how Shimomura processed the era of Japanese internment in America and his identity as a Japanese American by combining Japanese and American pictorial styles. A mash up of American Pop, cartoon imagery, and traditional Japanese woodblock print, the aesthetic is a blend of these two cultural worlds. Shared between these styles are the flat, broad areas of color and the strong black outlines around the figures.

Have you ever been forced to pick up your life and move it? Have you had the experience of being displaced? Everyone’s experience is different and Shimomura offers a place of entry into his experience through the emotional responses of the figures in the painting. We cannot change the past but, as Shimomura reminds us, it’s not about changing the past, or forgetting; it’s about remembering and moving forward.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Share
Share