All posts in “Object of the Week”

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.
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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
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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.

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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

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Object of the Week: Picnicking under Cherry Blossoms and Boating on the River

Visual art holds a kind of transcendent significance in the way that it unites time and culture. Right now at the Seattle Art Museum, we’re displaying objects that were made five millennia ago in modern-day Iraq, and one floor below, you can find a painting made in 2015 in Los Angeles. There are few better places to celebrate the range of human cultural production than with SAM’s eclectic collection.

Yet it’s not always the diversity that is most striking. Sometimes visual art makes noticeable the similarities across time and peoples.


I hope you’ll visit Common Pleasures: Art of Urban Life in Edo Japan, a newly unveiled installation of Japanese art at Seattle Art Museum, for some beautifully crafted illustrations of the revelry that marked the Edo period. Centrally displayed in the gallery, SAM’s pair of six-panel screens titled Picnicking under Cherry Blossoms and Boating on the River give us a lively image of Edo citizens relaxing, hard. Think you like to party on a boat? These folks did it up right back when they were moving those things manually. Party boats cruising the Sumida River hovered close to the city’s pleasure quarter, and no doubt became floating pleasure quarters themselves.

In Seattle, the cherry blossoms blooming around us—an annual uplifting indicator of the onset of spring—are a welcome sight, and, I’d say, a just reward for enduring a long, wet winter. Nothing sounds better than a leisurely picnic under the blossoms like the one we see figures enjoying in SAM’s screen. Now all we need are a few sunny days . . .

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Picnicking under Cherry Blossoms and Boating on the River, mid-18th c., Anonymous, in Miyagawa school style, Japanese, Edo period (1603-1868), pair of six-panel screens; ink, color, and gold on paper, Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 62.133.1-.2
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Object of the Week: Portrait of Madame la Comtesse de Cambacérès

French painter William Adolphe Bouguereau lived during the last three quarters of the 19th century and was productive as an artist from the 1840s up until his death in 1905. In posterity he’s been remembered—positively by some, negatively by others—for his connection to an academic style of painting, recognizable for its precise forms and traditional subject matter. Top among the most “Bouguereau” of elements would be lifelike representations of the human figure and meticulous handling of paint, both of which are on display in SAM’s Portrait of Madame la Comtesse de Cambacérès, painted late in the artist’s career, in 1895.

What are the arguments against Bouguereau? The developments of modernism around the turn of the 20th century put his techniques and subjects at odds with the avant-garde. Consider: Berthe Morisot’s gesturally painted, impressionistic portrait of Lucie Léon at the Piano that hangs on a nearby wall was painted three years before the Bouguereau. So, many saw in his exacting portrayal of reality a lack of creative effort. What has he added to our perception of the world?

Of course Bouguereau (and his many supporters) had an answer to that. An especially telling anecdote about SAM’s painting survives thanks to journalist Eugene Tardieu, who visited Bouguereau at his studio in 1895, and would publish his memory of the interview in L’Echo de Paris. Receiving Tardieu, Bouguereau gestured toward the recently completed Comtesse:

Here is a portrait which I have just finished . . . but I am still not happy with it! I tell you one must seek beauty; which is what our innovators no longer know how to do. Here’s a person with a turned up nose and a receding chin: if I did a profile, do you think she would be flattered? No, right? You have to take another approach. I did a full-face view . . . this is what I call interpreting nature.1

Surely a commissioned portrait would perfectly exemplify Bouguereau’s lack of creativity, if he was a simple mimic of nature, as some have criticized? He’s been told what to paint, and no doubt prodded by the patron regarding how to paint it. Nonetheless, the artist sees this, like all his paintings, as an opportunity to “interpret.” His creativity might be lost on some, but Bouguereau knew exactly what he was about. His interventions in nature, evidenced in this portrait and across his oeuvre, served to highlight his ideal of beauty. Here, he has composed the scene to present his subject in the best light, rendering her in a frontal view, while demonstrating great technical skill in the delicate rendering of dress and background. I love his concluding comment, that his manipulation of her posture was his way of “interpreting nature.”

The story of Bouguereau’s portrait gives me pause to think: What interventions in nature do we want from our artists? What interventions do we consider creative? Important? Innovative? On those topics: Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection offers a truly special chance to study some of the most influential artists in history doing their own interpreting of nature, and a chance for each of us to think on how we’d answer those questions.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Quoted by Louise d’Argencourt in William Bouguereau 1825-1905, exhibition catalogue, Montréal: Le Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal, 1984; cat. no. 130.
Image: Portrait of Madame la Comtesse de Cambacérès, 1895, William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905), oil on canvas, 47 5/8 x 35 ½ in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, by exchange, 88.16
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Object of the Week: Canoe prow figure

In the Solomon Islands, from whence SAM’s Canoe prow figure (Nguzu Nguzu) comes, canoes provided for transportation, fishing, and warfare. The success of these ventures depended not only on the skill and preparation of the sailors, but on the protection of one of the canoe’s features.

Not simply decoration, the Nguzu Nguzu would act to protect the crew during their voyage. Secured to the ship just at the water line, he would alternately rise above the water and dip down below it, surveying the horizon, and then the depths of the ocean, to detect, and see off, any human or supernatural forces that might come against the ship. Assuring the wind stayed calm and the waves low, he secured safe passage for the ship through his effective presence.

Decorative patterns of abalone shell cross his forehead, encircle his eyes, and line his jaw. In his hands, the Nguzu Nguzu clutches a head. It’s not known whether the head is a friendly one, making this a protective gesture, or if this was an enemy head, and his display one meant to scare off potential threats. No matter; the symbol shows the power Nguzu Nguzu was seen to hold over human life. A sea voyage blessed by his presence was a successful and safe one. Similar examples of Melanesia canoe prow figures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston give us a sense for the consistency in how these pieces were carved and adorned.

Almost as long as people have been navigating the seas, we’ve decorated our seafaring vessels, and the figurehead, featured prominently at the front of the ship, was one of the earliest forms of maritime artistic expression. As active agents, cultural markers, and symbolic messengers, figureheads have mattered for a long time.

Britannica says the practice likely began millennia ago in ancient Egypt or India. It was picked up by the Greeks and Romans, whose influence has been wide-reaching. In the Middle Ages, Viking longships memorably featured imposing creatures on the prow, whether dragons or sea serpents, like that of the Oseberg ship. The Bayeux tapestry records how English and Normand ships imitated and perpetuated the Viking style. European ship-carving extravagance peaked from the beginning of the 17th to the early 18th centuries, when decoration was so ornate that it would occasionally interfere with ships’ functionality.1 The ill-fated Vasa ship of Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus (1594–1632), boasting a decorative program of some 700 sculptures and decorations, and highlighted by a 10-foot carved lion at the prow, sank on its maiden voyage in Stockholm harbor on August 10, 1628. The years around the turn of the 17th century had seen maritime expansion and exploration, with strong navies developing in England, Holland, and Spain, especially—and their vessels always donned impressive figureheads bespeaking wealth and power.2

Get creative and imagine what figureheads we’ve flown ahead of ourselves in the 20th century . . .

. . . and 21st century . . .

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Ralph Sessions, The Shipcarvers’ Art: Figureheads and Cigar-store Indians in Nineteenth-Century America, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005; 15.
2 Sessions, Shipcarvers’ Art, 16.
Images: Canoe prow figure (Nguzu Nguzu), 19th century, Melanesian, Solomon Islands, wood, nautilus shell, 10 5/8 x 7 7/8 x 5 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1443. Photo: Audrey Kletscher Helbling, https://mnprairieroots.com/2014/08/19/a-photographers-perspective-on-faribault-car-cruise-night/. Photo: Floris Oozterveld / Flickr.

 

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Object of the Week: Rummage

The word “rummage” has satisfying and nostalgic connotations for me. Hearing it triggers memories of summertime outings to what my grandma called rummage sales, where I’d pore over knick-knacks and tchotchkes in search of another person’s junk that would be my treasure. To rummage is to search with a kind of directionless mind—to not know what we’re looking for until we find it. When we rummage we’re also navigating through a mass of objects, of all varieties, without neat structure or organization. If you think about it, it’s the disorganization and diversity of these things that gives us something to do: We sort the unsorted according to our principles and desires.

In the season of spring cleaning it’s much easier for me to imagine contributing to the rummage pile than doing any rummaging of my own. Still, it seems a fitting time to reflect on Mark Tobey’s important 1941 painting Rummage, celebrating the barrage of sights and sounds found at the Pike Place Market.

The market became a touchstone for Tobey, and in the art of Pacific Northwest modernism, Tobey’s work pictures the market most and best. The connection he felt to the energy, the people, and the goods was quasi-spiritual. Tobey called the market “a refuge, an oasis, a most human growth, the heart and soul of Seattle.”1 His visits to the market were restorative and cathartic, and they also provided plentiful aesthetic stimulation for his work. While he would return to Pike Place for subject matter at various points, the years 1940–1942 saw Tobey complete the greatest number of market studies. Rummage, painted in 1941, fits into this period of concentrated attention.

Tobey gives us a maelstrom of ‘40s Seattle symbols: lounge chairs, mannequins, spoons, wheels, neon signs, birds, and clocks, arranged haphazardly, and pictured from different vantage points. His figures join the scene quietly and timidly, their presence overwhelmed by the visual noise around them. Looking at this painting, I picture Tobey doing his own rummaging, perusing the market’s stimuli and selecting his subjects from it. In a broader sense, he was also selecting from Western art’s tradition of forms in space, Cubism’s rethinking of those forms, and Asian art’s different emphasis on line.

One of the Seattle Art Museum’s best-traveled pictures, Rummage has greeted viewers in Tacoma; Portland; San Francisco; Detroit; New York City; Poughkeepsie; Palm Beach; Cincinnati; Baton Rouge; Utica, New York; Albany; Buffalo; Baltimore; Andover; Copenhagen, Denmark; Frankfurt, Germany; Berlin; Nuremburg; Munich; Hamburg; Essen; London; Colorado Springs; Pasadena; Milwaukee; Valparaiso, Indiana; Fort Worth; Los Angeles; Oakland; Cortland, New York; East Lansing, Michigan; Columbia, Missouri; Newark, Delaware; Tucson; Aurora, New York; Macon, Georgia; Geneseo, New York; Jacksonville, Illinois; Lafayette, Indiana; Neenah, Wisconsin; Madison; Chicago; Pittsburgh; Interlochen, Michigan; Dallas; Osaka, Japan; Omaha; Miami; Des Moines, Iowa; Philadelphia; and of course, right here in Seattle.

Here’s proof that rummaging—seeking and finding—translates well.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Mark Tobey, Mark Tobey: The World of a Market, Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1964, introduction
Image: Rummage, 1941, Mark Tobey (born Centerville, Wisconsin, 1890; died Basel, Switzerland, 1976), transparent and opaque watercolor on paperboard, 38 3/8 x 25 7/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 42.28
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Object of the Week: Sdláagwaal (horn ladle)

Sometimes, when I’m writing about remarkable artworks we have at SAM, I feel a bit like Levar Burton. SAM’s Sdláagwaal (horn ladle) is an incredible thing . . .

Sdláagwaal is displayed adjacent to a bold piece by living Native artist Robert Davidson. Standing in the galleries and seeing these pieces next to one another is like watching the traditional conversing with the new, visually. We can also imagine Davidson speaking his comments about the Sdláagwaal, recorded in a 1995 SAM catalogue:

This person had a sure understanding of space. Not just the graphics, but even beyond, the whole aesthetics of spoon. It’s almost like a swan. My first reaction was raven, but then you look at the long neck.

It is almost like a mandala, it becomes a concentration object. When I go fishing, the net is like that, a meditation point. We’re watching that net. We can watch for three, four, five hours, waiting for that fish to strike. Same with carving. You could work three, four, five days to get that line right, that undercut right. It’s almost like a meditation.1

Has anybody ever applied the term “aesthetics of spoon” with such awesome and apt grace (or been brilliant enough to apply it at all)? Davidson’s phrasing would never have come to me, but I understand immediately the qualities to which he refers. Every aspect of the Sdláagwaal bespeaks perfection. It has been carved with adze and knife from a mountain sheep horn, steamed so that the wide bowl of the ladle might be formed, and fashioned by someone with a clear mastery of the technique. With the precise lines that cover the ladle, the artist shows awe-inspiring precision. The formline designs on the bottom of the ladle fill the pictorial space with perfect balance and symmetry.

Another authority whose voice we should listen to regarding the Sdláagwaal is Bill Holm, a recognized scholar, longtime curator, and prolific author on Native American art in the Pacific Northwest. The gallery bracketed by the museum’s four great Arthur Shaughnessy house posts, also has a monitor playing several videos where we can learn from Bill Holm about the history and making of the posts. Back to the Sdláagwaal, of which Holm writes:

Among the artists of the Northwest Coast there were some who had complete mastery of the materials, techniques, and design system with which they worked. The maker of this horn ladle was one of those artists . . . . The formlines comprising the design are broad and simple, without extraneous elaboration. Their execution is flawless.2

To have people like Davidson and Holm, who really know their stuff, compliment the Sdláagwaal with such glowing words brings heaps of praises on its maker—who must have been quite an impressive individual, indeed.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Robert Davidson, quoted in The Spirit Within: Northwest Coast Native Art from the John H. Hauberg Collection, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, and New York: Rizzoli, 1995; 118.
2 Bill Holm, Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1983; 84.
Image: Sdláagwaal (horn ladle), ca. 1860, Haida, mountain sheep horn, 14 ½ x 6 ¾ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of John H. Hauberg, 85.356.

 

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