Object of the Week: Mann und Maus

As you’re pondering your Halloween costume this year and watching politicians locked in a game of cat and mouse, you may want to stop by SAM for a bit of inspiration. Installed in Big Picture: Art after 1945 is Katharina Fritsch’s Mann und Maus (Man and Mouse). An enormous mouse towers like a dark specter over a sleeping figure of a man, who is as white as his downy bed. The man seems undisturbed while the animal appears alert and ready to pounce. A bizarre mirage? A nightmarish vision? Or, a secret story of affection? It all depends on your point of view.

When the German artist Katharina Fritsch made this sculpture in 1991/1992, she was working in the context of the recent fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the beginning of a rejoinder of long-divided East and West Germany. Following World War II, allied forces divided the country—the East fell under Russian control, the western portions under that of the United States, Britain, and France. The division into East and West became the fault line of the so-called Iron Curtain. Given the extreme ideological differences on either side of that border, reunification was an unexpected and momentous event, with enormous new social and economic challenges. Fritsch was born and raised in West Germany and grew up during the post-war years. Artistically, Fritsch came into her own in the 1980s, part of an artistic and cultural cohort skeptical and ironic vis-à-vis government and symbols of power. Characteristic of Fritsch is the manipulation of scale that renders the most ordinary domestic animals and objects uncanny or strangely surreal. Mann und Maus makes a nice bookend to another celebrated work by the artist called the Rat King—a circle of sixteen rats, their tails tied in a knot and facing outward in what looks like a defensive military formation. The fact that each rat is 12-feet tall, however, turns the tables and puts us, as viewers circling that formation, in a rather uncomfortable defensive position. Scale remains a key ingredient in the theatrical staging of power relationships, a timeless topic that the artist leaves up to the viewer to interpret. For English-speaking audiences, the title of our work, Mann und Maus, will bring to mind John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men, a story worth rereading in view of a global surge in migration and displacement.

– Catharina Manchanda, Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Image: Mann und Maus, 1991-92, Katharina Fritsch, polyester resin and paint, 90 1/2 x 51 1/2 x 94 1/2in., Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.118 © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Object of the Week: Children Drinking Milk

This small porcelain sculpture, which measures less than seven inches tall, is one of a thousand remarkable objects found in SAM’s Wyckoff Porcelain Room. It’s a reminder that every object here has a story. Through this work, Children Drinking Milk, we learn the story of European porcelain collecting in Seattle among a group of women with a strong desire for learning, who had the wherewithal to work with knowledgeable dealers, grow spectacular collections, and then share their objects with SAM and all of its visitors.

Children Drinking Milk, made at the Sèvres Manufactory between 1766 and 1773, is an example of unglazed biscuit porcelain.[1] This technique allowed for the modeler, Etienne-Maurice Falconet (French, 1716-1791), to create detailed designs which wouldn’t be diminished by glazing. For Children Drinking Milk, the unglazed technique allowed Falconet to create details such as the older boy, enjoying the bowl of milk, looking cunningly out of the corner of his eye at a younger boy, who is anxiously waiting for his turn. [2] Falconet, a court sculptor and chief modeler in the Sèvres Manufactory, is one of the most well regarded modelers of biscuit porcelain. He was adept at translating the drawings and designs of artists, like François Boucher (French, 1703-1770), into detailed three-dimensional objects like this one. [3] Children Drinking Milk was considered one of the “Falconet children” representing characters familiar on the streets of eighteenth-century Paris.[4]

So how did Children Drinking Milk get here?

Eighteenth-century European porcelain collecting in Seattle really developed out of the interest of one woman, Blanche M. Harnan (American, ca.1888-1968). Harnan’s interest originated as a result of a study group in which she was involved that focused on world geography and culture. Through her daughter’s interest in teapots, she discovered that the study of ceramics provided a rewarding history of styles and taste in eighteenth-century Europe. Harnan acquired an extensive research library and began collecting European porcelain for study purposes. Her enthusiasm attracted other Seattle women and, under her leadership, the Seattle Ceramic Society was founded in the 1940s.[5]

In the 1950s and 1960s, the group established a relationship with New York porcelain dealer, William H. Lautz Antique Porcelains, one of the premier European porcelain dealers in the US. Because Lautz and the Seattle Ceramic Society were 3,000 miles apart, an interesting way of doing business arose between the two. Lautz would photograph items from his showroom and send them along, with corresponding descriptions and price lists, in binders to the Society. The members would make their selections and notify Lautz. Lautz would carefully pack the items in a crate and send them to Seattle. The crate would be unpacked, and then returned, empty, with a check in the bottom for payment. Lautz would refer to this as his “Seattle scheme.”[6] We know from documentation that Children Drinking Milk came from Lautz. The Bullitt Library holds several of Lautz’s binders sent to the Seattle Ceramic Society and the work appears several times. In a letter sent from Lautz—after the piece was donated to SAM—he reveals his own insights on the piece:

“The French name of the figure, or group rather, that I have called the soup or milk drinkers is ‘Les Gourmands’ or ‘Enfant Buveurs de Lait.’ We might even call them the greedy ones…”[7]

Blanche Harnan continued developing her own collection and leading the Seattle Ceramic Society, which would grow to three units and garner more than sixty members. She would also develop an important affiliation with the Seattle Art Museum. Harnan was appointed Honorary Curator of Porcelain in 1954, “in recognition of her knowledge in a specialized field and in appreciation of her service to the Museum.”[8] At the time, the museum was beginning to build its European porcelain collection and welcomed exhibitions of the Society’s collections, like the 1956 exhibition, 18th Century English Porcelain: A Special Exhibition. The exhibition was arranged and the catalogue written by Harnan and another important Seattle Ceramic Society member, Martha Isaacson (American, 1901-2000).

Since the days of those exhibitions, many of the Seattle Ceramic Society members have generously given objects in their collections to SAM. Many of those are currently on view in the Wyckoff Porcelain Room. Importantly, several significant pieces in SAM’s European porcelain collection were donated to SAM by the Seattle Ceramic Society in honor of Blanche M. Harnan—note “Blanche M. Harnan Ceramic Collection, Gift of the Seattle Ceramic Society” on an object’s credit line.

I wonder what we can learn from those other 999 objects?

– Traci Timmons, Librarian

Images: Children Drinking Milk, 1766-1773, Sevres Porcelain Manufactory, Model by Etienne-Maurice Falconet (French, 1716-1791). Soft paste porcelain, 6 5/8 x 5 3/8 x 3 7/8 in. (16.8 x 13.7 x 9.9 cm), Blanche M. Harnan Ceramic Collection, Gift of the Seattle Ceramic Society, Unit 2, 56.179. Photograph sent in binder to the Seattle Ceramic Society showing Children Drinking Milk in William H. Lautz Antique Porcelains, New York, 1950s.
[1] This is the name given to porcelain and other pottery after having undergone the first firing, and before being glazed, painted, or otherwise embellished. For more, see: Gordon Campbell. “Biscuit.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed September 20, 2017, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T2070959.
[2] Emerson, Julie, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates. Porcelain Stories, From China to Europe. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2000, pg. 216
[3] Savill, Rosalind. “François Boucher and the Porcelains of Vincennes and Sèvres.” Apollo 115, no, 241, pp. 162-170.
[4] “Eighteenth-Century Porcelain in Seattle.” Antiques 85 (January 1964), p. 82.
[5] Emerson, Julie. The Collectors: Early European Ceramics and Silver. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1982, pp. 6-7.
[6] Nelson, Christina H. and Letitia Roberts. A History of Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain: The Warda Stevens Stout Collection. Memphis: Dixon Gallery and Gardens; Easthampton, MA; New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2013, p. 20. Also see Kuhn, Sebastian. “Collecting Culture: The Taste for Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain,” in Cassidy-Geiger, Maureen et al. The Arnhold Collection of Meissen Porcelain, 1710-50. New York, NY: Frick Collection in association with D. Giles London, 2008, p. 107-108.
[7] Letter to SAM Registrar’s Office from William Lautz dated July 9th, 1965.
[8] Seattle Art Museum. Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum: Forty-Ninth Year, 1954. Seattle Art Museum Libraries: Digital Collections, accessed September 21, 2017, http://samlibraries.omeka.net/items/show/29.

Object of the Week: Sea Change

“It’s an important painting on several levels. It’s really important within the Seattle Art Museum collection because it’s the only Pollock painting on display in Washington state. It’s a painting that marks the transition from his earlier style of painting to his classic drip technique.” – Nicholas Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator

We’re revisiting this video of our Chief Conservator working on Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change in 2014. In Nicholas Dorman’s words, the rocks and textures of the painting mean “it’s a brutal swab shredder” to remove a varnish that was applied to the painting in the 1970s. This particular varnish would have changed color over time and influenced the experience of the painting. See what Sea Change looks like now, on view in Big Picture: Art after 1945.

Artwork: Sea Change, 1947, Jackson Pollock, American, Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim, 58.55, © 2007 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

Object of the Week: Virgin and Child with Donor

Seattle has been under a smoky haze for days now because of forest fires north, east, and south of us. Ash covered my kitchen table yesterday morning. The sun no longer sparkles—it looks like an opaque orange egg yolk, and its light struggles to get through the smog. If we were in the midwest I would think a tornado was imminent. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Harvey and Irma have battered their way through neighborhoods wielding the weapons of wind and water.

When I was thinking about an object to write about for this unsettling week, I considered atmospheric abstractions; a Dutch painting about an explosion in a gunpowder factory; a hazy landscape. But then I had another thought. These massive climate events make me feel small and helpless. What have people in the past done in the face of such intimidating natural force? They turned to higher powers.

In ancient civilizations people made offerings to the gods. Later, supplications could be made to royalty, once believed to be divinely endowed. But in 14th-century Christian Europe, most prayers were directed heavenward—to God, his son Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a pantheon of saints, each associated with specific conditions or complaints. Saint Christopher was supposed to protect you if you were traveling; Saint Roch was invoked against the plague; Saint Martin of Tours was the patron of the poor. For protection from bad weather, people turned to the little known Saint Medard.

We don’t have an image of Saint Medard, but we do have an image of a man kneeling in earnest prayer as he gazes up at the Madonna and Child.

The figure is easy to miss because he is so much smaller than the Virgin and Child who are the main subject of the painting, originally the central panel of an altarpiece that he paid to have painted. This man was not asking for deliverance from a momentary crisis such as a flood or fire. He was thinking longer term and bigger picture—specifically, eternal life beyond this brief earthly existence. For him, the Virgin Mary represented solace through her various roles: protective mother, Queen of Heaven, and embodiment of the living Church.

I love this painting, which is currently undergoing conservation and will be back on view in the European galleries by the end of this year. In the past I have always focused on the serene splendor of the Virgin, who remains a loving mother while embodying queenly demeanor. But, feeling small these days in the face of catastrophic world events, I feel a new identification with that tiny donor, praying away for all eternity.

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

Image: Virgin and Child with Donor, late 1340s, Bernardo Daddi, Italian, Florence, active ca. 1280-1348, egg tempera with gold on wood, 43 x 18 1/2 in., Samuel H. Kress Collection, 61.151, photo: Eduardo Calderon.

Object of the Week: Diversion Tunnel Construction

Viewers of this photograph, Diversion Tunnel Construction, Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936, by Margaret Bourke-White (American, 1904–1971) will likely appreciate the machine-age composition, the eccentric geometric design, and the surprising beauty evoked in a steel liner. For this Labor Day edition of Object of the Week, however, I’d like to look more closely at the worker, crouched down, performing his labor and appreciate Bourke-White’s first associations with social documentary photography.

Bourke-White began her career in the 1920s and quickly became recognized for her images capturing machines, factories, and commodities of the industrial age. She was working on corporate commissions when the great financial collapse of the late 1920s and early 1930s began to alter profoundly the American economic landscape. Subsequently, she began turning her focus from symbols of industry to human subjects directly affected by the Great Depression.¹

Bourke-White became a staff photographer for the new Life magazine in 1936 and photographing the construction of the Fort Peck Dam in northeast Montana was her first assignment. The Fort Peck Dam was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program that responded to the devastating poverty and unemployment of the day.

Life reported: “The dam is intended to give work to Montana’s unemployed and incidentally to promote carriage of commerce on the Missouri [River]… It has paid wages to as many as 10,000 veterans, parched farmers and plain unemployed parents…”² The Army Corps of Engineers, ultimately responsible for the dam’s construction, estimated the number of workers to be even higher.³

Historian, Rafe Sigmundstad, describes the construction of the dam’s diversion tunnels—of which the steel liner shown in Bourke-White’s photograph is a part—giving us a sense of the dangerous work needed to complete the complicated dam structure.

“The Missouri River flows through four diversion tunnels running under the east abutment of the Fort Peck Dam. How they got there is quite a story. Gangs of workers took turns cutting into the shale with coal saws that would pivot about an axis to make a 15-foot cut. Then the material was blasted out of the tunnel, scooped into railcars and removed while more digging commenced. This happened day in and day out. Three shifts totaling 4,000 men worked on the tunnels day and night, removing about 5 million cubic yards of material to make way for the tunnels. Residents grew used to the constant noise of the blasting. Serious landslides occurred during the excavation, due to bentonite fault seams in the bedrock. The bedrock itself, known as bearpaw shale, was extremely high in water volume and some 300 yards thick.”4

In addition to the construction photos, Bourke-White documented the people and the newly constructed Fort Peck City built by the Army engineers to house the workers on the dam. The city was built to house the workers, not their families. For additional housing, rent was charged which left the married worker without enough money to house the family elsewhere. Consequently, workers with families moved farther afield into self-constructed shanty towns.5

When the editors of Life sent Bourke-White on this assignment, what they expected were the construction photos that only Margaret Bourke-White could take, but what they got was a human document of American frontier life.6 On this Labor Day, take a moment to think about the human effort that went into constructing our roads, bridges, dams, office buildings, and homes.

—Traci Timmons, Librarian*

*This author acknowledges the negative impact the Fort Peck Dam had on the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. To learn more, read The History of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, 1800-2000 by David Reed Miller (Helena, Mont: Fort Peck Community College, 2008), p. 319-344.

Image: Wind Tunnel Construction, Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936, Margaret Bourke-White, gelatin silver photograph, sheet: 20 x 16 in. Gift of friends in memory of Willis Woods, 88.24, © Time Inc., All Rights Reserved
¹ Corwin, Sharon. “Constructed Documentary: Margaret Bourke-White from the Steel Mill to the South” in Corwin, Sharon, Jessica May, and Terri Weissman. American Modern: Documentary Photography by Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2010, p. 108.
²Life. “Franklin Roosevelt has a Wild West” in Life vol. 1, no. 1 (November 23, 1936), p. 10.
³U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Omaha District. Fort Peck Dam. http://www.nwo.usace.army.mil/Missions/Dam-and-Lake-Projects/Missouri-River-Dams/Fort-Peck/ (accessed 8/16/2017).
4 Sixty-one workers lost their lives. Sigmundstad, Rafe. Fort Peck Dam. http://www.fortpeckdam.com/historypages/?p=10 (accessed 8/16/2017).
5 Life, p. 10.
6 Bourke-White, Margaret, and Theodore M. Brown. Margaret Bourke-White, Photojournalist: March 15 – Apr. 23, 1972; Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art. Ex. Cat. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, 1972, p. 59.

Object of the Week: Audience of a Prince

“I think of Chinoise as very much a part of the conversation of the global diaspora and the spreading of cultures from one place to another.” – Saya Woolfalk

Hear from mixed media installation artist Saya Woolfalk on her favorite things in SAM’s collection and gain a new perspective on the Chinoise Tapestries, one that layers the histories evident in the intricate embroidery of these objects. The Audience of a Prince tapestry is part of a suite of four European chinoiserie tapestries from the workshop of Judocus de Vos that depict imaginary interpretations of life in Asia. In the early eighteenth century (circa 1703-07), Judocus de Vos owned the largest workshop in Brussels, with twelve looms. The tapestries feature magical scenes of exotic figures clothed in flowing robes and elaborate headdresses, fantastic animals, botanical studies, and purely imaginative flights of fancy. This suite of Flemish tapestries was commissioned for the Duke Leopold-Philippe d’Arenberg’s residence in Brussels in 1717, when it was fashionable for wealthy Europeans to create rooms evoking an exotic, foreign atmosphere.The d’Arenberg family of Edingen (Enghien, Belgium) had a long history of collecting tapestries. Recent research in the d’Arenberg archives by Koenraad Brosens, University of Leuven, has uncovered three documents that record these tapestries. The earliest document records the original commission of 1717. The four tapestries in SAM’s collection are the only tapestries from this suite known to exist today.

Artwork: “Audience of a Prince”, Judocus de Vos, commissioned in 1717, Wool, silk, metallic threads, 146 7/16 x 58 1/4 in. (370.8 x 148 cm), Gift of Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff Endowment for the Decorative Arts, Anonymous, General Acquisition Fund, Mildred King Dunn, Richard and Betty Hedreen, Decorative Arts Acquisition Fund, Margaret Perthou-Taylor, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, Ann Bergman and Michael Rorick, Mr. and Mrs. David E. Maryatt, 2002.38.4.

Object of the Week: Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas

Sometimes our reactions and reflections on artwork do not take the shape of words. Sometimes the most accurate portrayal of emotion and thought is an ephemeral, physical reaction. David Rue, dancer and SAM’s Public Programs Coordinator, had just such a reaction to Robert Colescott’s Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas while leading an Art & Social Justice Tour in January of 2017. Enjoy this video of Rue’s response to the vibrant colors of Colescott’s “outsider’s” perspective. Colescott’s artistic identity as an African American painter led to a lifelong practice of inventing new narrative scenarios to address the persistent racial tensions in the US. See more work by Colescott in Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas opening at SAM, February 15, 2018.

Artwork: Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas, Robert Colescott, American, 1925—2009, 1985, acrylic on canvas, 96 x 92 in., General Acquisition Fund, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, and Patricia Denny Art Acquisition Fund, 2016.12.

Object of the Week: House of the Head

This summer, thousands of people are stepping into Infinity Mirror Rooms filled with lanterns, polka dots, pumpkins, and 115 mirrors. As of this week, 90,000 visitors in Seattle have seen infinity in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors. Every Infinity Mirror Room makes the most of mirrors. What you may not realize is that mirrors have a long history in art and you can seen some of that history in SAM’s other galleries. The oldest mirror on view is from the 3rd century BC, an Etruscan bronze with an incised back depicting a woman who only wears a cap, necklace, and fancy shoes. Three figures stare at her, as if wondering if she forgot to put on a dress—but it happens to be a scene of seduction by Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.  (48.36)

There are other small mirrors incorporated into sculptures on view: the Box of Daylight Raven Hat (91.1.124) on the 3rd floor and SAM’s very own mirrored room, which suspends 1,000 porcelains in a gilt rimmed infinity in the renowned Porcelain Room. On my walk through the galleries, however, one mirrored object calls out for attention. It only has four mirrors and is not an attention grabber—unless you happen to be tuned into art of the Yoruba culture of Nigeria. (93.157)

What looks like a small temple, or a crown, has an unusual name and concept to back it up. In Yoruba, it is called an ile ori, or House of the Head. One’s ori is not only your head, but your destiny. Before a person is born, he or she must visit the molder of spiritual heads to choose a destiny and personality which guide one’s character and fate. It is inside you, invisible to others, and is your “inner head,” which is embodied by a small abstract sculpture that is kept hidden in its own house. As seen in this house for the head, it has geometric shapes and numerical calculations, like any residence. Cowrie shells coat the entire surface, befitting the head of a wealthy person. Mirrors embellish the openings, flashing to signal the presence of a significant head held inside. When you want to “get your head together,” this house allows you to concentrate on how to align your thoughts with your destiny.

As I look at this quiet shrine, it leads me back to admire what the Yoruba Supreme Being, Odumare, stands for. He is the Prime Mover and Infinite Intelligence who created himself/herself and the universe. One Yoruba diviner and professor, Kola Abimbola, says the Yoruba have a GPS for life with a system and oracle known as Ifa. In search of more GPS and a dose of Yoruba confidence and creativity, I took a spring vacation in Nigeria. I was there to witness friends becoming chiefs and in the process, a spirit from the otherworld sat down to enact a hilarious conversation about the joys and pitfalls of raising children. Here she is making her point, offering her own version of Infinite Intelligence.

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: House of the Head (Ile Ori), 20th century. Nigerian, Yoruba, cloth, mirrors, cowrie shells, leather, Gift of Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam, 93.157. Mirror with scene of the Judgement of Paris, 3rd century BC., Etruscan, Bronze, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.36. Sketch of scene on the mirror back Egungun Mother in Erin Osun, 2017, Photo: Pam McClusky.

Object of the Week: Saint Augustine in Ecstasy

“Murillo is an exceptional painter of human emotion, which is one reason why this is my favorite painting in SAM’s collection.”– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

This is Jeffrey Carlson’s last Object of the Week post as his last day at SAM was yesterday! 😞

To say goodbye, we live streamed one last our charming Collections Coordinator speaking about his favorite painting in SAM’s collection, Saint Augustine in Ecstasy by Bartolomé Murillo. While working as SAM’s Collections Coordinator Jeffrey contributed 93 Object of the Week posts to our blog, sharing his knowledge and love of SAM’s collection of artwork from around the world with audiences far and wide. He will be missed, but we wish him well on his next adventure!

Artwork: “Saint Augustine in Ecstasy” by Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, 1665–75. bit.ly/SAMArtAug

Object of the Week Special Edition: The Western Mystery

This blog series is designed to focus on art works on SAM’s collection but this week we’re bringing you a special feature on Spencer Finch: The Western Mystery. This nebulous formation of suspended glass panes is currently installed at the Olympic Sculpture Park in the PACCAR Pavilion and will be on view through March 3, 2019. So, while not actually an artwork owned by SAM, this piece will be hanging above the heads of visitors to the sculpture park for years to come. Find out more about the artist and this mesmerizing art work from Carrie Dedon, Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art.

Object of the Week: Portsmouth Sofa

You may have noticed SAM’s regal Portsmouth Sofa making our American galleries look super comfy and inviting. With the ubiquity of couches in the US today it’s hard for us to grasp what an item of prestige this sofa would have been 200 years ago. In early 19th century America sofas were the most expensive seating furniture, and fancy ones could be had for about $35 to $46. What else could you have gotten for that price?

In the 1810s in New Hampshire, $40 would buy you

100-150 pounds of beef

or

40 bushels of beans

or

a pair of stockings ($1.25), thick shoes ($1.75), and a wool hat ($1.75), every year for 8 years

or

a sheep weighing in at 133 pounds

or

two two-year-old heifers

or

6 tons of hay.1

How long would it take you to save that up? From 1819-1821 a woman tailor worked for $.25 per day—so just about half a year’s salary later, she’d have a sofa. In 1818 a journeyman shoemaker worked eight months for $26 per month. If he could have put away a quarter of his salary he would have had a couch in the same time span. Back then, the working day started at sunrise and continued until sunset, dark, or 9 pm, so I’m sure both of them were busting their bums. That’s when a couch comes in handy!

SAM’s Sofa once decorated the home of a wealthy ship captain and merchant named George McClean, who helpfully had his name branded on the frame. This was a finely carved sofa by Portsmouth standards and would have set him apart as a man of status. After its life of use, the sofa was acquired by Ruth Nutt, an important collector of decorative arts, and a major SAM patron. From her arrival in Seattle in 1989 until her passing in 2013, Ms. Nutt was heavily involved with SAM, as a board member and committee member, as a financial supporter and art donor. In 2014 SAM was the beneficiary of her exceptional collection of American silver, which you can admire all around the inviting Portsmouth Sofa.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 New Hampshire Commissioners on Bureau of Labor Statistics, Manchester, N.H.: James P. Campbell, 1872.
Image: Sofa, ca. 1810-20, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, mahogany and birch veneer, secondary wood elm or maple, modern upholstery, 34 x 72 x 24 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Ruth J. Nutt, 2005.180

Object of the Week: Wheat Field

Joyeux quatorze juillet! As our French friends celebrate La Fête nationale, we’re looking at a painting by Paul Camille Guigou, an artist we categorize as French—although he really identified only with the region of southern France called Provence, where he was born and spent much of his life. His story illustrates that national identity is complex and nuanced, and being French—or American, or anything else—means different things to different folks.

Guigou was immensely proud of Provence. Its landscape, inseparable from the unique quality of light that illuminates this part of the world, inspired nearly all of Guigou’s paintings. A reclusive type, he would wander the hills near town by himself, a solitary figure seeking communion with his muse. On his hikes Guigou would make a point of going to out-of-the-way spots where few had visited, and where the views were unknown. The un-fame of these places seems to be part of what drew Guigou there; by visiting and painting them, he was drawing attention to something he knew was special and yet somehow overlooked. We can read his visions of rural Provence as a kind of journalism, enlightening those who wouldn’t see it for themselves.

Guigou’s program as an artist involved more than producing realistic, flattering pictures of places that were meaningful to him. He painted during the 1850s and 1860s, a period when France, under Louis-Napoléon, made efforts to naturalize its southern citizens, who had maintained a sense of cultural independence and local pride. Much of the Provençal cultural heritage revolved around the language spoken there, langue d’oc. Guigou and many others who cherished the region’s culture and history saw the government insist that French, and not the local language, be spoken in Provence schools. The threat to their language was a literal and symbolic one, and for Guigou, part of a larger problem in the lack of appreciation for Provence’s identity. Meanwhile, the industrialization of the area exacerbated Guigou’s sense of cultural loss. With his paintings, he became an advocate for the land, its people, and its story.

In Wheat Field, the artist’s heartfelt connection to Provence shines. Waving strands of golden wheat, warmly lit from above, and enlivened by flecks of red and blue, fill the center of the painting. Three working figures wading into the field honor the region’s agriculture. Rugged hills loom above quiet valleys. Guigou is a very textural painter, leaving nothing refined or smooth, visibly preferring a coarseness evocative of the country. I love the little footpath that he includes on the left. This unassuming trail seems just the type he would have sought out on his painting excursions.

Poet and activist Frédéric Mistral, who had been a fellow champion of Provence with Guigou, wrote in 1908:

I consider Paul Guigou the greatest painter of Provence. No one could paint better than him the luminosity of our beautiful land, the rugged poetry of its rocky and powdery soil. With great sincerity of vision, he made a truthful and faithful portrait of his little nation. He does not yet have the place in the world of art which he deserves, but that will come.¹

Anything but a detached observer, Guigou makes no attempt to hide his nationalistic affection for his subject. His way of romanticizing Provence will be too sentimental for some, but I appreciate that he clearly loved what he painted. He felt it worth recording and celebrating, especially in the face of cultural domination and industrial intrusion.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Wheat Field, 1860, Paul Camille Guigou (French, 1834-1871), oil on canvas, 25 3/8 x 45 13/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Corydon Wagner, 60.49
¹Quoted in Paul Guigou: 1834-1871. Exh. Cat. New York: William Beadleston, Inc., 1987.

Object of The Week: The Adoration of the Magi

SAM’s painting by Francesco Bassano of the Adoration of the Magi contributes to several different stories in art history: the Italian Renaissance, Venetian painting, and religious art, among others. By situating this work where it is, in our Emblems of Encounter installation, we’re encouraging folks to look at the painting through a particular lens, focusing on its inclusion of two figures with dark skin: the magus that takes a central place in the painting, and the smaller page who stands behind him.

Why are these figures here? What role do they play? What do they reveal?

By the time he painted this work, Francesco Bassano could rely on established traditions attached to the Adoration story that would tell him what symbols to include and how to compose his picture. This prominent biblical story had been referenced by countless artists over several hundred years and had become codified in European visual art. Still, it wasn’t until the years between the middle of the 14th and the middle of the 15th centuries that artists working in what is now Germany and the Czech Republic initiated the trend of depicting one magus with dark skin.¹ The motif of the African magus in visual art developed out of Medieval writings that allegorized biblical stories: scholars at that time understood the three magi, or wise men, who appear in the Book of Matthew as symbols for the three known continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe. A writer known as Pseudo-Bede would make the not unreasonable corollary that the African magus was dark-skinned.² This black magus made his arrival in Italian painting around the mid-15th century, importantly coinciding with growing interaction between Europe and Africa: trade, missionary efforts, and of course, the importing of slaves.

Similarly serving to fill the scene with visual interest and to illustrate the burgeoning diversity of the painter’s world, a group of sweetly rendered animals attends the scene. The caravan of worshippers arrives on the backs of camels, donkeys, and horses. A furry monkey surveying the scene, a pair of handsome dogs, and a regal peacock complete the menagerie. The movement of the painting, enforced by the swooping line of the caravan, leaning figures and gestures, directs our eye to the figures of the infant Jesus and mother Mary. Their whiteness is the standard against which the African magus and his page are made to look different.

Though Bassano’s painting reflects a one-sided perspective, it seems to me that it could hardly have been otherwise. The painting records a historical moment when people were interacting across cultures and across continents with more frequency than ever. The appearance of the black magus in the larger theme of the Adoration shows one people group attempting to make sense of an increasingly complex and diverse world, folding new revelations into their existing understanding of things. In such pictures, we see a European effort to “reassert order and to avoid an ontological abyss,” says historian Peter Mark. “By fitting the African into an existing Christian iconography, European artists were incorporating the Black man into their familiar view of the world.”³

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: The Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1575, Francesco Bassano (Italian, 1549-1592), oil on canvas, 61 5/8 x 81 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Clarence A. Black Memorial Collection, 50.76
¹ Stefan Goodwin, Africa in Europe, Vol. 1, Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009; 148.
²Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Epiphany of the Black Magus Circa 1500,” in The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. III, Pt. 1, Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2010; 10-11.
³ Peter Mark, “European Perceptions of Black Africans in the Renaissance,” in Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory, Exh. Cat., New York: Center for African Art, 1988; 30.

Object of the Week: Lukwalil (feast dish)

Artist Calvin Hunt has followed in the footsteps of his older brother, father, and grandfather, inheriting traditions from a family of accomplished carvers. He has carried on his family’s legacy admirably. Among his achievements he can count totem poles, masks, and canoes in several museum collections worldwide, and a 25-foot-long feast dish made around 1987 for the Great Hall of the Canadian Museum of History.

SAM’s Lukwalil (feast dish) measures roughly 1/5 the size but still creates a visual impact, its gaping mouth threatening to swallow up anything in its path. Hunt carved this feast dish from wood, colored it with earth-tone pigments in green, red, and black hues, and adorned it with opercula shells. The operculum—I learned—is the disk on the foot of gastropods that acts like a trap door, allowing them to close up in self-defense against predators. Repurposed in fine art, the pearly shells are natural bling on this wooden serving dish.

SAM acquired the Lukwalil with the goal of demonstrating the persistence of cultural traditions among living artists—still, and maybe increasingly, important to the museum’s mission today. Expanding the collection with a feast dish allowed SAM to better illustrate an important part of the potlatch: feeding guests, abundantly, in style.

Hunt is a member of the Kwagu’l, a Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast from central British Columbia, on northern Vancouver Island. SAM commissioned Hunt to produce this Lukwalil in conjunction with the exhibition Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch—an homage to the significance and persistence of this tradition among Hunt’s people:

The Kwakiutl held tenaciously to their potlatch . . . The Canadian government, while sometimes misdirected, had its reasons for the law. The potlatching Kwakiutl, even when subjected to an increasingly authoritarian paternalism, were convinced that nothing was wrong with the potlatch and that the law was mistaken. Exploiting the government’s weaknesses, they were able to thwart the law at least as often as it thwarted their potlatches. They remained significant participants in their own destiny. Except for a brief period between 1919 and 1927, the Kwakiutl did with their potlatches pretty much what they wanted to do.1

On Vancouver Island, and all over the Canadian provinces, many will be celebrating this weekend on July 1. Canada Day commemorates the formation of Canada from the original provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, a result of the British North America Act, passed by British Parliament on July 1, 1867. This year holds special significance as it marks Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Some Indigenous people in Canada are responding to Canada Day with demonstrations of “reoccupation,” a reminder that such celebrations take up a European perspective and carry the taint of colonization. Come see the Lukwalil and the rest of SAM’s exceptional Native American collection to give honor to, and open up conversations with, enduring Native traditions.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Lukwalil (feast dish), 1994, Calvin Hunt (Tlasutiwalis; Kwakwaka’wakw, Kwagu’l band, b. 1956), wood, paint, opercula shells, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 94.63
1 Douglas Cole, “The History of the Potlatch,” in Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, Exh. Cat., Seattle and New York: University of Washington Press and the American Museum of Natural History, 1991; 135.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

 

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

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.

 

Object of the Week: Large Plate

A Harvard-educated scholar with impressive curatorial experience, Henry Trubner came to SAM in July, 1968 to lead its Chinese art department. Sometime later, Trubner selected this Chinese Yuan dynasty Large Plate to present to the museum as a gift in honor of the retiring Dr. Fuller, who celebrated his 75th birthday in 1973, the same year he stepped down after 40 years at the helm of SAM. As they say, the best laid plans . . .

The Large Plate, purchased from a notable Tokyo dealer, arrived at SAM in February of 1973. But Trubner then struggled to gather the funds to make the purchase. Delays and negotiations ensued. Dr. Fuller’s June 1 birthday came and went, though not without art aplenty. It wasn’t until May of 1974 that Trubner and SAM could complete the acquisition of the Large Plate that had been in Seattle for some 15 months.1

From Trubner’s description of the piece in a 1983 publication, we see that much of his interest was related to its look: the swirling decorative pattern and rich red hue.

The museum’s tray shows alternating layers of thin red and thick black lacquer, with a fourth black or highly polished dark brown layer on top. The decoration consists of a cloud scroll pattern (ruyi) on the interior, around a central quatrefoil medallion. The same cloud scroll pattern is repeated on the underside of the cavetto. The base is lacquered a deep blackish brown within a low foot rim. This significant example of Yuan lacquer was acquired from Jean-Pierre Dubosc, noted collector and connoisseur of Chinese and Japanese lacquer.2

We can also confidently say that Trubner chose the Large Plate partly for the relationship it would establish with the many lacquer pieces that Dr. Fuller had collected in the early years of the museum, like this very sculptural snuff bottle. Trubner’s strategic vision for growing the collection was a new thing. Dr. Fuller, as director and his own chief curator, had added to the collection by pursuing what caught his eye, happy to be led by instinct and impulse. While visiting a gallery or museum, Fuller would come upon something that struck him, and in his excitement, would learn a lot about it, and maybe buy something for the museum.

Trubner’s entry to the scene initiated a new collecting era at SAM, one marked by taking careful inventories of the art market, addressing collection gaps, and courting generous donors to support acquisitions. In other words, the collecting program began to look a lot more like it does today. Our Lacquer Plate can serve as a reminder of that transition to intentional growth.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China: Chinese Art in the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 151-154.
2 Henry Trubner, Asian Art in the Seattle Art Museum: Fifty Years of Collecting, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1983; 12.
Image: Large Plate, 1280-1368, Chinese, lacquer, Diam.: 13 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 74.21.

Object of the Week: Standing figure (Nkondi)

SAM’s Congolese Standing figure (Nkondi) meets and enraptures visitors in our African art galleries. Beads, feathers, and knots of string secured to the wooden figure with countless iron nails lend him a startling and uncomfortable presence. Why has he been on the receiving end of this aggressive, symbolic gesture of driving nails?

Across the country, in exhibitions at great museums like the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, San Francisco’s de Young Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Nkondi has confronted viewers with his own appearance—and with wrong assumptions about his purpose.

Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese

Not only has he been exhibited extensively, the Nkondi has an interesting provenance. He was collected by Merton Simpson (1928-2013), one of the most significant dealers of African and tribal art in the second half of the 20th century. Interestingly, Simpson first opened his gallery—Merton D. Simpson Gallery—in the early 1950s in order to support what he considered his primary work: painting. An artist for life, Simpson served in the Air Force and was asked to paint General Dwight D. Eisenhower, which he did, earning $100 for his effort. Simpson became part of the New York Abstract Expressionist school, crossing paths with artists like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, who would critique Simpson’s paintings in the frame shop where Simpson worked. Later he joined the politically focused Spiral Group of artists, which also counted Romare Bearden among its members.1

No slight to Simpson’s visual art, his accomplishments as a dealer of traditional African art surpassed what he did in painting. When Simpson passed away in 2013, a New York Times obituary reflected on his incomparable taste and expertise, his success and renown as an art dealer, and the significance of his doing so as an African American. Heinrich C. Schweizer, then head of the African and Oceanic art department at Sotheby’s, remarks that “Over the course of the ’60s and ’70s Simpson became the most important dealer in the US in this field . . . Worldwide, you could say he was one of the two or three leading dealers, and certainly a powerhouse in the US, and this was especially remarkable for an African-American, who began doing this in the time of segregation.” The same article quotes an equally admiring Lowery Stokes Sims, the highly respected retired Curator Emerita at the Museum of Arts and Design: “When I worked at the Met I would go to the gallery and see some of the most incredible African art I’d ever seen in my life. It was really showstopping. And occasionally he’d show his own work . . . For an African-American who came up in the art world in the 1970s, he was truly one of those unsung pioneers, crucial in establishing our place in the art world.”2

Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese

SAM’s Nkondi was purchased from Simpson in 1968 by another exceptional collector of African art, Katherine White, whose transformational 1981 gift—of which the Nkondi was part—forms the core of the museum’s African collection.

Since the Nkondi has arrived at SAM, the museum has been telling his true story and deconstructing “fetish” myths about him. Congolese advisor Fu Kiau Bunseki has offered critical insights on the Nkondi’s role as a sign of authority, and as a hearer and keeper of agreements. Check out the SAM website for rich insights on the thoughtful symbolism that informs each element of this memorable figure.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections  Coordinator

Oral history interview with Merton D. Simpson, 1968 November, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Bruce Weber, “Merton D. Simpson, Painter, Collector and Dealer in African Art, Dies at 84,” New York Times, March 14, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/arts/design/merton-d-simpson-artist-and-gallery-owner-dies-at-84.html
Image: Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese, wood, iron, fiber, beads, string, glass, feathers, chalk, 31 11/16 x 13 3/8 x 8 11/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.836, Photos: Natali Wiseman.
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