Beholding Beauty

Beauty stops us in our tracks. It makes us pause, look, consider. Sometimes it overwhelms us. Oftentimes it makes us uncomfortable, even if only for a little bit. Whether it comes in the form of a painting, a person, or a flower petal, beauty forces us to visually engage with the world around us. But what makes something beautiful? What visual characteristics trigger this act of visual apprehension and appreciation? Over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, scholars and activists have brought to light the socially constructed nature of beauty. What is beautiful to me, they have correctly argued, may not be beautiful to you. And what is beautiful to us today, may not have been so to individuals living in the past.

Although it has now become somewhat passé to discuss the idea of beauty in conversations about art and art history, the concept remains critical when addressing objects made outside of the Euro-American sphere. Indeed, in order to fully understand and appreciate the artistic value of historic artworks made on continents such as Africa, you first have to understand the visual characteristics that were valued by these societies at the times in which they were created, which is to say you have to understand what they considered to be beautiful.

Take, for instance, these two sculptures from the Asante and Mangbetu cultures of west and central Africa. On first glance, they appear to us as stylized, non-naturalistic representations of the female form. While we may, for instance, be able to appreciate the almost perfect circle formed by the head of the Asante Akua’ba, few of us may immediately find it beautiful. Similarly, while our interest may be piqued by the elongation of the skull displayed in the Mangbetu figurative vessel, it would strike many of us as distinctly non-normative.

However, should we choose to dig a deeper into the cultures and customs of the Asante and Mangbetu during the early twentieth centuries—the time periods in which these two pieces were created—we would find that our aesthetic judgments were not at all shared by the artists and societies that produced these works of art. Far from it. For in reality, these pieces are representations of a physiognomic ideal, a concept of human beauty that first emerged in the royal courts of these kingdoms and were subsequently transmitted to the general populace through artistic works such as those cared for by the Baltimore Museum of the Art.

Among the Asante Kingdom, which ruled the area now known as Ghana between 1701 and 1957, the ruling elite privileged broad, sweeping foreheads and flattened, almost egg-shaped skulls. Flatness, to them, denoted beauty and the shape of the egg alluded to the “mystery of the egg” in Akan cosmology, where eggs symbolized the Beginning and the return to it.[1] As a result, Asante royalty used cosmetics and other, more permanent forms of body modification to achieve this figurative ideal. Indeed, the British colonial administrator Eva L. R. Meyerowitz noted in 1951 that “The king’s head, like those of all children of the royal house, has to be massaged during the first weeks after birth so that a greater width of skull, which is believed to give dignity and importance to a person, is achieved.”[2]  Similarly, the noted Africanist art historian Roy Sieber recounted in 1972 that “After birth the heads of Kwahu [an Asante sub-group] infants are massaged at dawn for three days to assure a high, flattened, receding forehead.”[3]

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, in the northeastern corner of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Mangbetu kingdom of the 18th and 19th centuries practiced as form of body modification known as head binding.  Thought to have begun in the court of the king, the practice consisted of wrapping a baby’s head with a cord made of human hair or plant fibers in weeks immediately following its birth.[4] This permanent elongation of the skull, which was seen as a marker of status and beauty, would then be further emphasized throughout the life of both men and women through head wraps and basketry caps. Taken together, the permanent alteration of the skull along with the application of these elaborate headpieces allowed the Mangbetu to achieve what they considered the height of beauty: a long, thin skull that projected back into space.

The philosopher Wittgenstein tells us that the sight of something beautiful induces in us a desire to copy. This was as true for the early twentieth century Asante and Mangbetu as it was for Wittgenstein and his European contemporaries. Indeed, these pieces owe their creation to that impulse. Asante and Mangbetu artists wanted to create an artistic manifestation of the perfect human form. And while works such as the Asante Akua’ba and the Mangbetu figurative vessel may strike the contemporary Western viewer as odd or non-naturalistic, when we looking at art from places and times not of our own, we must remember that old saying: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Unrecorded Mangbetu artist. Figurative Vessel. Early 20th century. Ceramic. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Anonymous Gift, BMA 2007.279.

Unrecorded Mangbetu artist. Figurative Vessel. Early 20th century. Ceramic. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Anonymous Gift, BMA 2007.279.

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[1] George Nelson Preston, “People Making Portraits Making People: Living Icons of the Akan,” African Arts 23, no. 3 (1990): 72.
[2] Eva L. R. Meyerowitz, The Sacred State of the Akan (London: Faber & Faber, 1951), 56.
[3] Roy Sieber, “Kwahu Terracottas, Oral Traditions, and Ghanaian History,” in African Art and Leadership, eds. Douglas Fraser and Herbert M. Cole (Madison, University of Wisconisn Press, 1972), 176.
[4] Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, African Reflections: Art from Northeastern Zaire (Seattle: University of Washington Press and the American Museum of Natural History, 1990), 123-125.

From Russia (& Belarus) with Love

02In the spring of 1991 George Ciscle, the founder and then director/curator of The Contemporary (known then as The Museum for Contemporary Arts), organized a landmark exhibition in Baltimore entitled Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography in the USSR (May 19–June 21, 1991). The exhibition included 240 recent photographs by more than 45 artists in the Soviet Union. Ciscle selected these works from a larger group of photographs assembled in New York by Joseph Walker, Christopher Ursitti, and Paul McGinnis, three independent curators and gallerists who were committed to Soviet-American cultural exchange. Walker, Ursitti, and McGinnis jointly edited and wrote for a book that accompanied the exhibition, arguably the most important of a group of publications on contemporary Soviet photography that were published around this time.

The exhibition was installed in Mount Vernon, in the former Greyhound service garage at Park Avenue and Centre Street (now part of the Maryland Historical Society). Ciscle thought its emptied-out interior evoked the alternative spaces in the Soviet Union where these photographers had shown their work. To quote from the special events card that accompanied the invitation to the opening:

Before Perestroika, “unofficial” art was denied access to public viewing. In the more tolerant climate of the Gorbachev era, “unofficial” art that has surfaced is exhibited in “raw” spaces—frequently disused warehouses and industrial sites. The former Baltimore Greyhound Service Terminal, provides an appropriate parallel to these spaces.

Indeed, traces of the 1941 building’s former use were present in the form of old signage and fixtures as well as the worn parking lines on the floor and the dented metal bumper guards on the walls.

Organized according to geographical region, the photographs in the exhibition were installed on temporary aluminum walls designed by architect Steve Ziger and illuminated by natural light coming in through the skylights. Because the staff of The Contemporary then, as now, was relatively small, Ciscle relied on a large corps of volunteers to serve as visitor services and security staff. While working on the exhibition, Ciscle learned that Baltimore had one of largest Russian immigrant communities in the United States; label texts and tours were thus given not only in English but in Russian as well. There was also a small library featuring books on the Soviet Union.

Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography from the USSR was mounted only in Baltimore, though initially it was intended to travel throughout the United States. Less than six months after the show closed, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

One of the visitors to Photo Manifesto was Brenda Edelson, the BMA’s Director of Programming from 1973 to 1985 and currently one of the Museum’s National Trustees. Edelson recognized affinities between the works in the exhibition and the European modernist photographs that she and her late husband Robert Edelson had collected. The Edelsons subsequently began to acquire late 20th-century photographs from Russia and other former Soviet republics.

In 2012, Brenda Edelson gave 47 of these photographs to the BMA. Ranging in date from 1959 to 2000 and encompassing the work of 14 photographers from Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine, this significant gift complements the Museum’s collection of photographs—now numbering more than 4,000—by strengthening its contemporary material and widening its global reach. Twenty of these photographs were recently included in the exhibition New Arrivals: Late 20th-Century Photographs from Russia & Belarus in the On Paper Gallery in the Contemporary Wing (September 20, 2015–March 20, 2016). Through research we have determined that at least one of these photographs, Igor Savchenko’s toned gelatin silver print 11.89-6 from the series Alphabet of Gestures, was shown in Photo Manifesto. Given the importance of this exhibition, mounted in the historical watershed year of 1991, it could not be more appropriate that the photographs Edelson has collected have found a home in Baltimore.

My greatest thanks to George Ciscle for speaking with me about the exhibition as well as providing archival material (including photographs and a copy of Edward Gunt’s article “Parking the Art in a Garage,” published in the The Baltimore Sun on June 9, 1991).

Installation shots and documentation courtesy of The Contemporary, Baltimore.

When Wishes Are Horses

A sculpture of a man riding a bucking horse.

Frederic Sackrider Remington. Bronco Buster. 1895; this cast 1906. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey A. Legum, Baltimore, BMA 2012.585

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” So goes a 16th century nursery rhyme advocating hard work. Artists have been knowing that for some thousands of years, working to create stirring images of horses from cave paintings to contemporary art. I wish readers would come have a look at three horses on view in the American Wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Consider the American cowboy, arguably one of the most powerful mythic beings to appear since the pantheon of Greek gods peered down from the Acropolis in Athens. Recently, the BMA acquired an example of Frederick Remington’s first bronze sculpture, Bronco Buster [above]. Remington was already established as a painter and magazine illustrator when he copyrighted the piece in 1895. The Roman Bronze Works in New York cast ours in 1906, while Remington was still around to manipulate its metal surface, creating individualized textural effects as he did with each of the casts made while he was alive. Remington tackled a rousing subject – a bucking horse testing the rider’s strength by doing its utmost to land him in the dust. So well did the artist capture an ideal of rugged individuality that more than 300 authorized casts of the Bronco Buster were made over a twenty-year period during and after the artist’s life-time. You might occasionally glimpse one in the Oval Office at the White House when the nation’s President appears on television.

Sketching the Bronco Buster in a note to Owen Wister, who pioneered American Western fiction, Remington wrote, “my oils will all get ‘old mastery’ [like] molasses, my watercolors will fade – but I am to endure in bronze.” Once the mythic cowboy gained traction in popular culture, he, too, has endured – providing unlimited material for Hollywood producers and actors. Some of the early programs might seem tame in an entertainment world crowded by pneumatically muscled action heroes wearing stretchy revealing outfits, carrying bizarre attributes, equipped with supernatural powers, and always open to futuristic options for intergalactic transport. But I still recall being transported by a 1950s black-and-white television series featuring a masked man in tight (for then, anyway) pants and a matching cowboy hat, rearing up on a colorless-coordinated white stallion. He’d just dispatched the baddies, distributed a silver bullet (symbol of law and order; also effective against werewolves…), and declaimed, “Tonto, our work here is done,” before galloping off to a resounding “Hi Yo Silver, Awaaaaaaaaaaaaay!”

Woodlawn Vase, 1860                                                Silver Maker:  TIFFANY & COMPANY, New York, 1837-present The Maryland Jockey Club, Baltimore, on extended loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art, BMA  R.15873

Woodlawn Vase, 1860, Silver. Maker:  TIFFANY & COMPANY, New York, 1837-present. The Maryland Jockey Club, Baltimore, on extended loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art,BMA R.15873

The BMA stables numerous silver horses.  Not called “Silver” – made out of it. They embellish racing trophies from the 19th and 20th centuries.  An elegant racer named Lexington tops my favorite, the Woodlawn Vase [right]. Tiffany & Company created the three-foot-high trophy for the now defunct Woodlawn Racing Association of Louisville, Kentucky.  Anticipating the elaborate presentation silver of America’s Gilded Age, the vase is covered with inscriptions and racing emblems, including horseshoes, saddles, jockey caps, a stallion, mare with foal, and even tiny engraved signboards bearing the rules of the original 1861 Kentucky race for which the vase was named. Ridden by a jockey, Lexington is poised at the top of the vase above four winged victories. In 1870, a thoroughbred named Preakness, sired by Lexington, won the first stakes race ever held at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Given to the Maryland Jockey Club in 1917 as the trophy for that annual event, the enormous silver vase still makes its yearly appearance at The Preakness Stakes held at Pimlico. Like I said, “Hi Yo Silver, Awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!’

Elie Nadelman. Horse. Original c. 1914, this cast 1967. Bronze 35 1/2 x 28 3/4 x 10 1/2 in. (90.2 x 73 x 26.7 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in Memory of her Husband, George Siemonn, BMA 1967.46

Elie Nadelman. Horse.
Original c. 1914, this cast 1967. Bronze. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in Memory of her Husband, George Siemonn, BMA 1967.46

A third captivating horse displayed in the American Wing is a riderless bronze by Elie Nadelman [fig. 3].  First conceived as a large decorative plaster for cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubenstein’s New York apartment, this sinuous creature sets one delicate hoof on classical tradition, and another on an important French modernist text.  Having read Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Nadelman knew the drawings of Constantin Guys who “applied himself to the personal beauty of horses.” Nadelman’s sculpture recalls Constantine Guys’ drawings. Nadelman also studied classical antiquities. Critic Lincoln Kirstein associated his elegantly streamlined steed with the mythical horses that pulled Poseidon’s chariot across the waters, as described in a poem by modernist writer Constantine Cavafy: “Their bodies, their feet, must clearly show/ they do not tread the earth, but run on the sea.” The BMA’s large bronze was cast posthumously, but a smaller life-time bronze casting, exhibited in a New York gallery in 1917, made Nadelman an art star almost overnight.

Like all talented artists whose work resonates over time, Nadelman had wide-ranging interests.  If his modernist equine sculpture reminds you of prehistoric ponies painted on the walls of caves in southern France and Spain, you’ve twigged another of the artist’s inspirations.  Hi Yo—but not necessarily silver…

The Breakfaster’s Conundrum

Few modern day breakfasters spend much thought on toast. Put the bread in the toaster and fetch it once it eagerly leaps into the air declaring it consumption ready. A century or two ago, the journey of the little toast that could was rather different. And for the upper classes, far more ornate. The fresh baked bread was sliced, placed in a fireplace toaster and carefully monitored as to not burn. Once the desired crunch was achieved, it was of utmost importance to maintain it, lest toast’s natural enemy, sogginess, take hold. An inevitability if simply piled on a plate. And so, the toast rack was conceived, providing a way to serve the crispest of toast in an elegant fashion. The design was simple: several rows were created by a metal scroll, separating each piece. The racks often holding 4-6 pieces at once. Convenient, accessible, structurally sound toast at your disposal. The only downside being that to retain crispness, heat was sacrificed with the opportunity for air to circulate between each piece.

Christopher Dresser. Manufacturer: Hukin & Heath, Birmingham and London. Articulated Toast or Letter Rack. 1884‑1885. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Charlotte B. Filbert Bequest Fund, BMA 2006.84

Christopher Dresser. Manufacturer: Hukin & Heath, Birmingham and London. Articulated Toast or Letter Rack. 1884‑1885. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Charlotte B. Filbert Bequest Fund, BMA 2006.84

Toast racks first appeared as early as the late 1700’s, but didn’t become common until Victorian times. Perhaps one of the biggest names in toast rack design, if not industrial design in general, Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) created quirky yet functional pieces to liven up the breakfast table. In this design currently on view in the American Wing, Dresser evokes the image of a Japanese bridge. He was a botanist fascinated by the arts of Japan, inspirations which can be seen throughout his work. After Japan opened its ports to Western trade in 1853, the influence of Japanese art and style swept through Western artists of the time, creating a phenomenon called Japonisme.

 

Archibald Knox. Manufacturer: Liberty & Co., Ltd.. Toast Rack. 1905‑1906. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Albert H. Cousins Bequest Fund, BMA 2015.150

Archibald Knox. Manufacturer: Liberty & Co., Ltd.. Toast Rack. 1905‑1906. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Albert H. Cousins Bequest Fund, BMA 2015.150

A contemporary of Dresser, Archibald Knox (1864-1933), was a designer of delicate metalware who would become one of the chief creative minds behind Liberty & Co., a London-based firm which played a large role in fostering the Art Nouveau movement. Like Dresser, Knox was deeply influenced by a particular culture. Unlike Dresser, Knox’s influence was not Eastern. Instead, he drew upon his own heritage, playfully incorporating Celtic knots, crosses and other interlacing designs that he saw scattered across the countryside while growing up on the Isle of Man.

The two toast racks differ dramatically. Knox’s dainty metal arms form small, elegant knots near each peak, giving the impression of a continuous, graceful line. Dresser’s, on the other hand, boasts the sturdiness one would expect of a bridge. The base curves, but the rest are 90 degree angles, a ball skewered at each intersection of the arms. Despite their stylistic differences, both men skillfully incorporated the aesthetics of distinctive cultures. Moreover, their work was not reserved only for the elite. Each also designed fashionable, effective and affordable pieces for the home. Inviting a new class of patrons to partake in the genius of their design.

Nowadays, toast racks are rarely seen on the breakfast table. Many are used as letter racks, as the design provides a convenient solution to postal organization. Perhaps they began disappearing from tables when breakfast became a meal consumed increasingly on the go. This on the go mentality could have caused a third option to arise between toast rack (cold, crisp toast) and plates (warm, soggy toast): eating directly from the toaster (warm, crisp toast). Convenient to be sure, but not nearly as elegant.

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Elizabeth Stouffer Garrett & Elizabeth Barbara Garrett Quilts

Elizabeth Stouffer. "Tree of Life”. 1809. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of William L. Reed, Lutherville, Maryland, in Memory of Barbara Garrett Reed, BMA 1982.140

Elizabeth Stouffer. “Tree of Life”. 1809. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of William L. Reed, Lutherville, Maryland, in Memory of Barbara Garrett Reed, BMA 1982.140

Tradition holds that girls of the 19th century and earlier often created a collection of quilts prior to their marriage. The Archives at the BMA offers some evidence of this claim in the papers of early quilt scholar William Rush Dunton, Jr. Dunton’s notebooks include photographs and written records of quilts by Elizabeth Stouffer of Baltimore and her daughter Elizabeth Barbara Garrett, which seem to support the conclusion that this did occur in some instances. Quilts recently given to the Museum by members of the Garrett family offer material proof as well.

Elizabeth Stouffer of Baltimore (1791-1877) created this Tree of Life Chintz Appliqué Quilt, given to the BMA in 1980. This quilt combines several major stylistic trends in early American quilting. Within a central medallion format framed by several borders, Stouffer composed a flowering Tree of Life cut from various printed fabrics and appliquéd to the white cotton background. Such chintz appliquéd quilts were popular during the first half of the 19th century. Their designs recalled painted and printed cotton bedcovers from India called palampores, which were often decorated with a central flowering tree.  In the background and borders, elaborate stuffed and corded work depicts oak leaves, exotic flowers, thistles, and pineapples. After making her quilt, Elizabeth Stouffer took the extra step of initialing and dating it on the reverse in cross-stitch, and added the number “7” indicating that it was the seventh in a series of quilts she had made.

In 1817, eight years after finishing her 7th quilt, Elizabeth married Robert Garrett, founder of the banking house of Robert Garrett and Sons. Among their four children was a single daughter, Elizabeth Barbara Garrett (1827-1917). This Diamond in Square on Point Quilt, donated to the Museum by Edith and James Garrett in 2012 bears her initials, the date 1835, and a “1” on the reverse, indicating that like her mother, Barbara Garrett acquired (and most likely made) a series of quilts.  Although, she would have been only 8 years of age in 1835, it is likely that Barbara had a part in creating this quilt.

Elizabeth Barbara Garrett. "Diamond in Square on Point" Quilt. 1835. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of James and Edith Hoyt Garrett, Baltimore, BMA 2012.227

Elizabeth Barbara Garrett. “Diamond in Square on Point” Quilt. 1835. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of James and Edith Hoyt Garrett, Baltimore, BMA 2012.227

Young girls learned sewing and embroidery at a very early age in early 19th century America.  Even an eight-year-old could cut the fabric sections and sew the straight lines required in piecing the simple Diamond in Star pattern. Examination shows that the quilting is very good at 14 stitches per inch (as opposed to 20 stitches per inch in the Tree of Life Quilt), but the quilted diagonal lines often go off course and are “corrected” by starting over again a short distance from the previous stitch. Likewise, the clamshell pattern quilting in the border becomes less regular as it continues and is finally abandoned in favor of an easier pattern of straight lines. Observations such as these may indicate a young, less experienced seamstress, supervised by someone with more skill. Even so, Barbara Garrett’s quilt was fashionable for her time, which preferred the block structure over the central medallion seen in her mother’s quilt. It also contained many beautiful fabrics, available to her due to the prominence of her family in Baltimore’s mercantile and banking businesses and the city’s thriving trade.

Fabrics in Elizabeth Barbara Garrett's quilt.

Fabrics in Elizabeth Barbara Garrett’s quilt.

The Dunton collection in the Archives at the BMA records two more quilts by Elizabeth Barbara Garrett: a Nine Patch Variation Quilt with sashing and a glazed chintz border marked on the reverse with cross stitch, “EB.G/1836/2”1; and a Checkerboard quilt with 2-1/2″ blocks and a wide glazed chintz border marked on the reverse with cross stitch, “EB .G/1839/5”2.

Detail, Nine Patch Variation with Squares on Point in Grid Quilt, Maker: Elizabeth Barbara Garrett, 1836, American, Maryland, Baltimore Cotton, Gift of Mrs. Robert Garrett, New York, BMA 2015.126

Detail, Nine Patch Variation with Squares on Point in Grid Quilt, Maker: Elizabeth Barbara Garrett, 1836, American, Maryland, Baltimore Cotton, Gift of Mrs. Robert Garrett, New York, BMA 2015.126

Detail, Checkerboard Quilt with Chintz Border, Maker: Elizabeth Barbara Garrett, 1839, Cotton, American, Maryland, Baltimore, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Garrett, Santa Rosa, California, BMA 2015.127

Detail, Checkerboard Quilt with Chintz Border, Maker: Elizabeth Barbara Garrett, 1839, Cotton, American, Maryland, Baltimore, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Garrett, Santa Rosa, California, BMA 2015.127

These quilts have descended in the family until recently, when they were donated to the BMA from Garrett family members, thus providing a material record to match the archival evidence of a young Baltimore girl following a family tradition of industry and creativity in developing a cache of home-made quilts for use in her future household.

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1 Recorded in Dunton, Vol.VI, pp. 66-67, illus.
2 Recorded in Dunton, Vol.VI, pp. 68-69.

Lessons in Engraving: Burin Studies

Stanley William Hayter. Burin Studies. 1943. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Paul Mann, Towson, Maryland, BMA 1979.365. © Estate of Stanley William Hayter / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Stanley William Hayter. Burin Studies. 1943. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Paul Mann, Towson, Maryland, BMA 1979.365. © Estate of Stanley William Hayter / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

One of my current projects is a large-scale exhibition focused on twentieth-century intaglio printmaker Stanley William Hayter (English, 1901-1988) and his print workshop called the Atelier 17. Hayter’s print workshop was a hotbed of collaboration and experimentation; it was his goal that artists would work together toward new discoveries. He downplayed his role as teacher and mentor, although it is clear that the workshop’s success owed a tremendous amount to his personal charisma. When a new artist arrived at the studio Hayter would put them through their paces before allowing them free access to the equipment. One of the first things was to accomplish a plate of burin studies. Given a copper plate, the nouveau would be instructed to make marks without regard to a planned image. This was a chance to become familiar with the technique and process. Hayter encouraged students to free their minds of preconceived imagery and just let the burin go where it might until they had become fully comfortable making marks. Because engraving is a difficult means of making an image—one pushes a diamond-shaped tool through the copper or zinc to create divets that will carry ink—it is important that one is at ease with it prior to investing time and energy in a large print.

Hayter, himself, engraved several of these sorts of studies, including the BMA’s sheet from 1943. In it graceful lines loop and intersect, barely indicating concrete forms. It really was supposed to be a freeform exercise tapping into one’s subconscious. He even advocated for creating engraved lines by feel rather than by sight. These ideas can be linked to Hayter’s interest in the surrealist practice of automatic drawing, in which one’s subconscious should be accessed thus producing stronger work.

Hayter was active at the Atelier until the end of his life in 1988, meaning scores of artists can claim some time with the master. One such artist is the master printer James Stroud, whose print shop, Center Street Studio, operates outside of Boston. In between his BFA and his MFA, Stroud studied with Hayter at the Atelier in Paris from 1980 to 1981. Stroud’s studies fill the plate as swirling lines that intersect over geometric forms in an orderly yet chaotic way. Stroud reported coming across the plate in his studio in 2014, many years after he engraved it. For fun, he printed a handful of impressions and liked the result. Knowing about the BMA’s upcoming Hayter exhibition, Stroud kindly offered an impression to the Museum, for which we are grateful.

James Stroud. Burin Studies. 1980, printed 2014. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of the Artist, BMA 2014.100. © James Stroud

James Stroud. Burin Studies. 1980, printed 2014. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of the Artist, BMA 2014.100. © James Stroud

Meditating on water

Gabriel Orozco. Darth Vader. 2014. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Alan and Carol Edelman Acquisition Fund, BMA 2014.114. © Gabriel Orozco

Gabriel Orozco. Darth Vader. 2014. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Alan and Carol Edelman Acquisition Fund, BMA 2014.114. © Gabriel Orozco

Gabriel Orozco, like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is a master at revealing the poignancy of humble materials and the significance of seemingly casual encounters. Orozco’s photograph, Darth Vader, 2014, is a recent gift to the BMA’s collection. In it, the world looks back at us as we gaze into a mirror-smooth puddle that has collected in an overturned umbrella. The trees that are reflected in the water drop their leaves, sprinkling a bright visual confetti over the black umbrella and brown and grey pavement. The remarkable aspect of this deceptively simple composition lies in Orozco’s ability to notice exceptional details within a common scene and present them so that we can recognize beauty in the most inconspicuous elements of our daily lives. We learn to appreciate the potential for humor and playfulness in the everyday as well.  Here, Orozco’s title clues us into the menacing black helmet of a pop culture villain that can be deciphered in the otherwise delicate shapes of the puddle and umbrella.

As an image that transforms the image of water into a broader meditation, Orozco’s photograph speaks to Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Water), 1995, one of the most beloved works in the BMA’s collection.  Gonzalez-Torres created a sensation of the luminosity, movement, and therapeutic qualities of water by focusing on another seemingly modest item—plastic beads more conventionally seen as a cheap and somewhat tacky way to curtain off doorways and portions of rooms.  Through the artist’s vision, these beads—repeated in a specific sequence of blue, clear and silver strands and elongated to fill the given doorway of an exhibition space—transform into a delightful, interactive experience. People are invited to walk through Gonzalez-Torres’s sculpture, touching the undulating surfaces, listening to the rustle of the swinging of strands, and being enveloped in the light glinting off each small colored sphere. The piece so engages the senses that one is at least momentarily “cleansed” of concerns and distractions, and reminded that such pleasurable and celebratory sensations can be found in common objects.

Felix Gonzalez Torres. "Untitled" (Water). 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Saidie A. May, BMA 1995.73. © The Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Water). 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Saidie A.
May, BMA 1995.73. © The Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation

Tea (Roses) for Two

Childe Hassam American, 1859-1935 Roses in a Vase, 1890. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches. Helen and Abram Eisenberg Collection, BMA 1967.36.3

Childe Hassam. American, 1859-1935. Roses in a Vase, 1890. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches.
Helen and Abram Eisenberg Collection, BMA 1967.36.3

An elegant American impressionist still life by Childe Hassam and a stately oil lamp hand-painted by Celia Laighton Thaxter, now paired in the new American Wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art, signal a change in the way Americans thought about Nature. Each was created during the tumultuous period when—as the United States emerged as a major global economic power—our relationship to the landscape gradually changed.  In the decades preceding American Impressionism, enormous machine paintings of regal mountain vistas by Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, and others gave way to the commercial viability of the oil sketch and the dominance of closely observed local incident over large national themes. In the face of urban development and attendant pollution, Victorian families used green houses and terrariums to bring nature indoors for study and enjoyment. Objects of decorative art embellished with ornament drawn from nature reinforced engagement with the natural world.   Filled with “the flowers our grandmothers loved,” old-fashioned cottage gardens were planted as a Colonial Revival antidote to the fast pace of modern life. Away from home, Americans experienced nature through the founding of the national park system, the growth of natural history museums and botanic gardens, as well as expanding tourism, and an explosion of articles in the popular press.

Once deemed the most idiosyncratic watering-place in the Union, Appledore—among the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire—was the prototype for early 20th-century American summer art colonies. At the Shoals, Thaxter celebrated progressive art, music, and literature in a beautiful natural environment. Hassam was a tourist when he painted the tea roses in Thaxter’s parlor.  His freely brushed still life records the type of monochromatic bouquet she regularly gathered from the garden outside her cottage door. The 15 x 50-foot raised-bed plot became famous when she published An Island Garden (Boston, 1893). Gaining traction as an up-and-coming American impressionist, Hassam became one of Thaxter’s favorite artistic guests.  As his first muse she commissioned the young painter to illustrate her garden book with delicate landscapes and vignettes. A critic observed that Hassam’s paintings gave “the world which cannot get to Appledore Island an idea of the peculiar wealth of color which the marine atmosphere, or else some fairy spell of the place, lends to the [flowers] which grow in the poet’s garden.”

At first glance, Hassam’s luscious impression of somewhat blown roses in a glass vase seems an unlikely battle standard. He was just back from Europe and eager to tailor the lessons of French avant-garde art to his own purposes. His fragile bouquet, a finely tuned orchestration of yellows and greens set against a richly painted yet almost abstract background, hoists the banner of art for art’s sake, signaling firm commitment to light, color, texture, indeed all that makes painting beautiful. Hassam would spend his long career battling for beauty.

As a woman writer with an undependable husband, Celia Laighton Thaxter, too, had battles to fight. Hassam first met the poet and journalist in Boston when she sought watercolor lessons in the early 1880s. Obliged to supplement the income generated by the Laighton family’s seasonal hotel, Thaxter applied her skills to decorative china painting and book illumination, socially acceptable occupations for genteel women at the time. Proceeds from her artistry also supported her own widely recognized but poorly paid literary efforts. Graceful olive branches, her most distinctive pattern, decorate the parlor lamp now in the BMA’s collection. The Greek inscription is taken from Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus:  “watched by the eye of olive-guarding Zeus and by gray-eyed Athena.”

On Appledore Island poet and painter honed their powers of observation, keeping watch for a personal understanding of the natural world around them. Guided by the influential English art critic John Ruskin, whose ideas were discussed in the cultured atmosphere of the parlor, each artist carefully examined flowers to know them better, but avoided scientific analysis in favor of description that offered a pathway to imaginative sensibility. The careful scrutiny of nature served as a springboard for the imagination, triggering not only poetic language but also painted images that sidestep natural grandeur’s potential to overwhelm or baffle. As Thaxter’s lamp illuminates the concept of a carefully decorated, art- and flower-filled interior, Hassam’s suggestively abstract oil painting favors intimate personal experience, furthered by the relatively small scale of his work from the Isles of Shoals. Layers of pigment form a sensuous surface that takes on an abstract life of its own with colors still bold and fresh, offering us not so much a record of place as an intimation of spirit, communicating what it was to pause for a moment amidst such resplendent blossoms.

Celia Laighton Thaxter, decorator American, 1835-1894 Oil Lamp with Olive Branch Motif, c. 1881. Painted ceramic, metal, glass. H: 27 inches. Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Ellen Howard Bayard, Gift from the Estate of Mrs. Charles R. Weld, Bequest of Alice Worthington Ball, Bequest of Ellen Howard Bayard, Gift of Mrs. C.C. Felton, Bequest of John M. Glenn, Gift of J. Gilman D’Arcy Paul, Bequest of Philip B. Perlman, Gift of William D. G. Scarlett, Young Friends of the American Wing Fund, and Gift of Lydia Howard de Roth in memory of her sister, Nancy H. Deford Venable, BMA 2006.121

Celia Laighton Thaxter, decorator, American, 1835-1894. Oil Lamp with Olive Branch Motif, c. 1881. Painted ceramic, metal, glass. H: 27 inches. Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Ellen Howard Bayard, Gift from the Estate of Mrs. Charles R. Weld, Bequest of Alice Worthington Ball, Bequest of Ellen Howard Bayard, Gift of Mrs. C.C. Felton, Bequest of John M. Glenn, Gift of J. Gilman D’Arcy Paul, Bequest of Philip B. Perlman, Gift of William D. G. Scarlett, Young Friends of the American Wing Fund, and Gift of Lydia Howard de Roth in memory of her sister, Nancy H. Deford Venable, BMA 2006.121

Thoughts on Visibility in Juan Logan’s Ghost and John Hesselius’s Charles Calvert and His Slave

Juan Logan. Ghost. 2009. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Print, Drawing & Photograph Society Fund, with proceeds derived from the 2010 Contemporary Print Fair, BMA 2010.11.1-6 © Juan Logan

A few weeks back, I was exploring the Prints, Drawing & Photographs vaults and came across one of the prints from Juan Logan’s Ghost series (2009). I was completely taken by the depth and mystery of the image – totally up my alley visually – and yet, unsure of the subject matter. I was in hurry and mentally filed away the work as something to revisit. A bit later, I stumbled across the piece again, and Ann Shafer, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs, mentioned to me that the images are ghostings of shackles. Yes, shackles – for necks, arms and feet. In learning this, the piece got a bit deeper and a bit darker.

It is no secret that slavery haunts us. Recent events in Baltimore and across the country have brought race to the forefront of American minds, but race has always been an issue at the fore and at the very foundation of America.

John Hesselius. Charles Calvert and His Slave. 1761. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1941.4

John Hesselius. Charles Calvert and His Slave. 1761. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1941.4

It makes sense to me to pair Ghost with a painting currently on view in the American Wing of the BMA. John Hesselius’s 1761 canvas Charles Calvert and His Slave depicts Charles Calvert, third baron of Baltimore, at the age of five with another boy kneeling at his right – his slave. I cringe when I see this painting, as I’m sure many of our visitors do. Yet with proper contextualization, it is important to have the painting on view as a reminder of America’s history, and as a reminder of why race and racism is as prevalent a topic today as it has ever been.

The painting also raises the question of whose histories we preserve. Living quite near Calvert Street, which nearly spans the length of the city, I very quickly caught on to “Calvert” as a familiar name after my move to Baltimore. Yet, next to Ghost, Charles Calvert and His Slave can take on a new context and a new gravity. When considering this pair, it is fruitful to think about the concealment at work in both images and how each artist employs this concealment to his advantage. Although Hesselius has foregrounded the young Charles Calvert, when paired with Logan’s work, we are forced to think beyond the boy in his head-to-toe pink clothes to the other boy who has very much been “othered”. We do not know his story. We hold onto a small detail, he holds a drum while the boy Calvert holds the sticks.

Ghost, on the other hand, withholds information through its abstract imagery. To create the series of prints which comprise Ghost, Logan has spray-painted over physical shackles placed on a surface and used the “ghost” image left behind as the basis for his etched polymer plates. This process results in the abstract silvery shapes of the image. The series draws you in and then with new knowledge of its origin the image and its title takes on new meaning.

248 years passed between the time that Hesselius and Logan each created these works and the ghost of American slavery looms still. Yet, it is encouraging to me that collections can challenge us to give these pressing issues thought and much deserved conversation. Through my experience at museums and my time so far at the BMA, I am learning more and more that collection and ownership are tricky concepts, ones that are important to revisit thoughtfully and frequently.

Talking life and the sociological imagination with jude Lombardi

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jude Lombardi will be presenting her film Gentrification (k)NOT Movie on March 19th as a part of the BMA’s Open Hours Program.

The Gentrification (k)NOT Movie was born out of conversations jude had at the Station North Arts Café with owner Kevin Brown, who has been working in Station North for years. In 2002, Station North Arts District became the first designated arts district in Maryland. jude and Kevin felt the need to explore what was happening in the neighborhood which housed MICA and a burgeoning art scene, as well as changes happening all over the world in cities, often through arts-driven by development. Her film is meant to provoke questions about change and transformations: What is healthy neighborhood change? What is lost when a place is redeveloped? How might we prevent gentrification from happening during revitalization of a neighborhood?

I spoke with her about home and place and teaching, the parts that make a life. Hope you can join us at the BMA on March 19th for the screening and conversation.

What is home to you?
Home is where I live when I am not out in the world. It is a safe, warm, loving space that every human being deserves to experience on a daily bases. My home is in Baltimore and has been since my birth.

Can you tell me a bit about your classes when you teach sociology?
When I taught sociology, the scientific study of one’s own society and all that this entails (I know, that’s a lot), my favorite activity was encouraging students to develop a “sociological imagination.” The term “sociological imagination,” one of the most popular terms in sociology, was invented by C. Wright Mills (1959). He wrote a book on the topic by the same name. A sociological imagination is a way of looking at how one views the world, oneself, and their society. It’s about exploring one’s own biography within a historical context, nested in traditions, beliefs and other cultural artifacts. It makes a distinction between [when is] a “personal trouble” and “public issue[s],” and how they might intersect.

Not only is developing a sociological imagination about the biographical in a historical context, it is about exploring the “social” structures, or not so “social” structures that we co-construct and maintain through our language, beliefs and actions. It’s about living in a milieu–a system–and how the elements of that system might orient how one thinks, perceives and acts. It’s about understanding one’s self and our relations with “others,” not necessarily like us

As one person states in the Gentrification (k)NOT Movie, “How you view gentrification depends on where you sit.” That is, one’s position and positioning in the society in which they live affects one’s life choices and life chances.

Finally, when developing a sociological imagination, one’s sense of responsibility and ability for generating a society they desire emerges. Including how one’s thoughts, wants and actions might make a difference that makes a difference (human agency). It is a model for exploring and designing the constraints and possibilities for generating a society one desires to be an element of. (Interview with Lombardi, Sociological Imagination)

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How is this connected to understanding gentrification?
Today, gentrification is happening worldwide–locally, nationally and globally. It is a public issue.

Once I developed a sociological imagination I had little choice but to work in ways that improve the society I live in. That is one reason why I became a social worker, then a therapist, then a professor and then, a filmmaker. The films I make are about people trying to make a difference in the society in which they live.

The word gentrification was originally designed by British sociologist Ruth Glass to point at a particular dynamic that emerges when a “gentry” of people move into a neighborhood (1964). It was meant to connote a process by which during the revitalization of a neighborhood the residents who live there–through no fault of their own–can no longer afford to live there and are eventually displaced.

What I noticed was in our daily discourse the term gentrification had lost its original meaning. As I say in the movie, “If you think it means one thing and I think it means another than how do we design revitalization in ways that prevent it–gentrification–from happening?”

My intentions when making the movie were to explore the meaning of the term ‘gentrification’, to educate people about its original meaning and to offer possible ways for designing the revitalization and development of our neighborhoods so that people are not displaced from their homes.

What might a healthy change to a neighborhood look like?
The Gentrification (k)NOT Movie explores a variety of elements for creating healthy neighborhoods. In the movie I quote former Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter Bellenson, MD, citing four basics for generating a healthy neighborhood: decent schools, decent housing, access to a living wage–work, and health. Mindy Fullilove MD, talks about the importance of generating social networks for sustaining healthy neighborhoods. She also offers a distinction between healthcare and disease management, arguing that 90% of our money goes to disease management while only 10% goes toward healthcare. Thus putting the cart before the horse.

Fullilove is the author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It.  ‘Rootshock’ is a term she adapted from gardening, which describes the loss of one’s personal ecosystem when our networks are destroyed and displacement happens.

 What is a city of the future?
I cannot say what a city of the future looks like. What I can say is what I desire. What I desire is space where there is participation by all when making decisions and designing our city.  Be aware when there is participation by all conflict will emerge, it is natural. It is how we deal with our conflict today (violence) that is unnatural. So this requires, among other things, our ability and a desire to participate in deep conversations embracing our conflicts as opportunities for generating something new.

What is one of your favorite spots in Baltimore?
One of my favorite spots in Baltimore is the Stadium Place, home to over 400 senior citizens of mixed income. It is an affordable housing community that emerged where the historical Memorial Stadium was once located. Stadium Place is featured in the Gentrification (k)NOT Movie as a prototype for revitalization without gentrification. Stadium Place sits in the middle of a historically diverse set of neighborhoods known as Waverly, Homestead, Edner Gardens, Montebello and Coldstream. All of which were — by order of the mayor –involved in the planning and re-development of this huge piece of land now known as Stadium Place.

How did this happen? What were the elements that allowed for this community to come into being without displacing any of its neighbors or neighborhoods?  For more information about Stadium Place and its history, come see the Gentrification (kNOT) Movie.

Judith (jude) Lombardi, LCSW-C, Ph.D. is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Social Work (1981) and a social worker who went back to graduate school, then taught college-level Sociology for over a decade. She now makes documentary movies about people doing what people do. 

Gentrification k(NOT): A Film Screening and Conversation about Displacement in Baltimore is on at the BMA on March 19, 2016 @ 1:00 pm, as part of the BMA’s monthly Open Hours program.