Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Life and Death in Pompeii on film

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

In 2013, the British Museum staged an exhibition dedicated to the daily lives of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum and how they were snuffed out by the eruption of Vesuvius. Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum was a blockbuster, selling more than 50,000 advance tickets and drawing crowds of visitors flocking to see the more 250 artifacts from the British Museum’s collection and on loan from the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii. The show feature some iconic pieces — the fresco portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife, the “CAVE CANEM” mosaic of a guard dog from the House of Orpheus, the sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat, the plaster cast of a dog writhing in its final agony — as well as lesser known but no less remarkable survivors, like a carbonized cradle, a loaf of bread, a life-sized bronze hare mould used to make cakes or terrines.

A private tour of the show was broadcast in movie theaters at the time. The hour-and-a-half film walks viewers through the exhibition guided by curators and experts including Mary Beard and Giorgio Locatelli. It covers the history of the towns’ destruction, the last two days of their ancient existence

It’s got a sexual content warning because of the many explicit artifacts typifying Roman frankness about sexuality that were found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mary Beard discussing whether a third figure in a fresco of a couple in a reverse cowgirl posture was part of a threesome or an ignored slave or a voyeur is good clean fun, as far as I’m concerned, as is her discussion of the triple-phallus wind chime ( “phalluses to the power of x” “with bells on!”) and the one about the “more hardcore” Pan-goat statue.

Seven years later, the British Museum has uploaded the complete film to its YouTube channel. It’s one hour and 27 minutes long and even so not nearly long enough for me. They should have made it a mini-series. Pompeii Live is free to view, of course, but like so many of its brethren, the museum has been hard-hit by the extended closure, so if you’d like to help support it, donate here

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Little but luminous in Basel

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

The Kunstmuseum Basel reopens on Tuesday, May 12th, allowing visitors to enjoy a little-known aspect of Renaissance art: small-format stained glass paintings created by Old Masters like Hans Holbein the Younger. Very few of these works survive today, but for a brief period in the 16th century they were wildly popular in Switzerland and southern Germany, donated by organizations and prominent individuals to adorn civic buildings, monasteries, churches, universities and guildhalls.

Beyond its immediate artistic appeal, the genre is of great interest in both a historical and a sociocultural perspective. Stained glass paintings were commissioned by institutions such as the estates of the Old Swiss Confederacy (today’s cantons), monasteries, and guilds as well as individuals. Donating such a work was a common and widely recognized act of social communication, lending lasting expression to alliances, friendships, and honors. That is why virtually every stained glass painting prominently features the donor’s coat of arms. The imagery surrounding this central element varies widely and includes depictions of religious themes as well as personifications and allegories, representations of professions, and motifs and scenes from Swiss history.

The Kunstmuseum Basel has more than 20 of these rare stained glass paintings in its permanent collection, and close to 400 of the preparatory drawings used to create the glass pieces. For the Luminous Figures: Drawings and Stained Glass Paintings from Holbein to Ringler exhibition, curators selected 20 of the most significant paintings and 70 preparatory drawings. Other museums — the Victoria and Albert in London, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, and the Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum, Zurich — loaned works for the exhibition as well.

On display are the earliest surviving preparatory drawing for a glass painting (dating to around 1470/80) and striking pen-and-ink prep drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger and other masters. The museum was able to pair up a few of the preparatory drawings with the finished glass paintings, bringing them back together again for the first time in five centuries.

As usual with museum exhibitions, there are a number of associated events on the calendar where people can learn more about stained glass in general and this very specific and localized expression of the medium. One extremely cool event really sets the “luminous figures” in their precise historical and cultural context. It’s a guided tour of Basel Town Hall (built between 1504 and 1514) and the Schützenhaus (the firing range built in the 1560s by Basel’s Riflemen guild that was in continuous use until 1899 and is now a restaurant that I very much want to patronize) which still have their original stained glass paintings in situ.

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Celebrate the raising of the Vasa

Thursday, April 30th, 2020

It’s been 59 years since the pristine wreck of Vasa, the Swedish warship commissioned by King Gustav II Adolf which sank less than a mile from dock on her maiden voyage on August 10th 1628, was salvaged from Stockholm bay. It  broke the surface of the waters on April 24th, 1961, where, floating on pontoons, sprayed constantly with harbour water, it was excavated for five months. For 27 years it was conserved at a temporary location at the Wasa Shipyard. In 1988 it moved into the Vasa Museum and ever since then has been one of Stockholm’s most visited tourist destinations with more than one million visitors each year.

As the museum is closed for the time being, you can celebrate the anniversary with some teletourism. Here is the Vasa Museum’s Director of Research Fred Hocker talking about the complex salvage operation that raised the Vasa while simultaneously giving us a tour of the ship.

Next up, Hocker’s guided tour of the king’s cabin, or rather, a replica of it.

Museum guide Lisa orchestra of carved wooden putti in steerage. I’m embarrassed to say this is the first explanation I’ve heard of why the space was called steerage and I appreciate that a term now synonymous with the cheapest, least comfortable passage possible described the antechamber of the king on the Vasa.

In this video museum Educational Officers Lotta Wiker and Emilie Börefeldt explain how the Vasa was raised, illustrated with models of various stages of the salvage.

That’s just the tip of the contact iceberg. The Vasa Museum broadcasts live streaming video  of tours, stories, concerts from the museum every weekday at 4:28 PM, ie, 16:28, the year the ship was launched to its immediate demise. The broadcasts are live on Instagram and are also uploaded to the museum’s Facebook page. English-language videos air on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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From the Met’s film vault

Saturday, April 25th, 2020

This year is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 150th anniversary. To celebrate their sesquicentennial, the Met has been uploading movies from their vast archive of films about art going back to the 1920s.

The Met’s Office of Cinema Works opened in 1922 when the moving image captured on film was less than 30 years old. The medium was still considered the cultural inferior to its cousin the so-called legitimate theater. The Met was one of the first museums to embrace its great education potential. The Office of Cinema Works produced films that would be screened first for museum members and then to visitors. It filmed the museum’s excavations in Egypt and made documentaries about the museum, objects in its collection, artist profiles, explanations of different artistic techniques.

Because the Office’s mission was educational, from its earliest days in 1922 the films it produced were made available for rent to other museums, schools and societies. The Met soon did brisk business in film distribution as well as production. They also pioneered the use of safety film. To be able to send their films to more screens and make them as easy and safe to use as possible, in 1928 they moved from the industry standard 35mm nitrate film to 16mm non-flammable acetate that could be screened with portable projectors.

The Office of Cinema Works was active through 1935, and its descendants at the museum continue to produce films about art well into the 2000s. Most of the 1,500 treasures in its climate-controlled vault have been in permanent retirement, however. Starting in January of this anniversary year, From the Vaults has been releasing a film from the archive every Friday, beginning, as is only right and fair on the Internet, with a film about cats.

Earlier this month, From the Vaults released a self-referential gem: The Hidden Talisman, a 1928 historical romance/ghost story that was filmed at the original Cloisters. The faux medieval setting is very apt to the drama. The first Cloisters was only in use for 24 years, from its opening in 1914 until the Met Cloisters as we know and love it today moved to its current location in 1938, so this film is a rare glimpse into a long-gone classic.

Here’s another great early one from 1924 about the Met’s Armor Galleries.

View the rest of the treasures from the Met’s film vaults on the museum’s YouTube channel.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring revealed Tuesday

Friday, April 24th, 2020

In 2018, the Mauritshuis museum performed an in-depth scientific examination of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665). The last time it had been thoroughly examined was during a 1994 conservation, and technology has grown by leaps and bounds since then. The goal of the Girl in the Spotlight project was to discover new information about the master’s brushstrokes and impasto, about his use of pigments, oils, canvas and other materials.

The research was conducted in public view in a specially-made glass enclosure in the museum’s Golden Room gallery. Over the course of two weeks, a team of specialists deployed state-of-the-art technology including MA-XRF scanning, optical coherence tomography and digital microscopy to analyze the painting. The project was documented in daily posts by lead conservator Abbie Vandivere on the outstanding Girl with a Blog, which is a wonderland of information about Vermeer, his most famous work and the latest conservation practices.

More than two years have passed since the project’s conclusion, and during that time researchers have published individual reports focusing on one particular aspect of Girl with a Pearl Earring in the journal Heritage Science. Now the full results of the technical examination have been published and the Mauritshuis is making a bit of a fanfare about it, putting up a placeholder for a web page dedicated to revealing the findings. On Tuesday, April 28th, the page will go live.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got a little time on your hands to do a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of one of the world’s most famous paintings, you can read all the previously published papers from the Girl in the Spotlight project leading up the final report. They each stand on their own so you can read whatever catches your eye, but they are intended to be read in the following order:

  1. From ‘Vermeer illuminated’ to ‘The Girl in the Spotlight’: approaches and methodologies for the scientific (re-)examination of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  2. Revealing the painterly technique beneath the surface of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring using macro- and microscale imaging.
  3. Mapping the pigment distribution of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  4. Comparison of three 3D imaging techniques for paintings, as applied to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  5. Imaging secondary reaction products at the surface of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring by means of in situ macro X-ray powder diffraction scanning.
  6. Beauty is skin deep: The skin tones of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  7. Out of the blue: Vermeer’s use of ultramarine in Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  8. Fading into the background: the dark space surrounding Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

And the last but certainly not least of them: The Girl in the Spotlight: Vermeer at work, his materials and techniques in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Last-minute visit with Michelangelo

Sunday, April 19th, 2020

On February 25th, the Getty Center in Los Angeles opened a new exhibition, Michelangelo: Mind of the Master, dedicated to exploring Michelangelo’s  sculpture, painting and architecture as seen through 28 of his drawings. It was a huge success with more than 2,500 visitors a day, but less than three weeks later, the exhibition came to an abrupt end when the Getty had to close its doors when Los Angeles issued the Safer at Home order. 

Of the 28 drawings on display, 25 of them belong to the Teylers Museum which has owned them since 1790 when the museum was just six years old. This is the first time its complete set of Michelangelo drawings has gone on tour.

They were first assembled by Queen Christina of Sweden, a passionate collector of art with a particular taste for Renaissance Old Masters whose collection was sold after her death in 1689 to Livio Odescalchi, nephew of Pope Innocent XI. Livio died in 1713 and his heirs sold off Christina’s former collection, by then known the Odescalchi collection, to the Duke of Orléans, the King of Spain, the Vatican library and the National Gallery of Scotland. In 1788, Dutch diplomat, politician and art lover Willem Anne Lestevenon acquired 1700 Renaissance and Baroque drawings by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael and Guercino from the Odescalchi collection for the Teylers Museum.

Michelangelo made sketches and drawings of all of his projects from anatomical studies for sculptures to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the dome of St Peter’s, but he often burned his preparatory drawings. According to Vasari, Michelangelo never wanted to show his work, the process, the roughing. He was concerned people would steal his ideas and anyway he wanted only the refined finished product in public view. Out of an estimated 28,000 drawings he made in his long life as an artist, today only 600 survive.

But try as he might, Michelangelo could not keep future art historians and curators from exploring the work process of the master. What he considered imperfections are today considered a window into his mind and method. That’s what Michelangelo: Mind of the Master explores.

It was supposed to run through June 7th. With only hours to go before the Getty Center was shuttered until further notice, curator Julian Brooks hastily shot a series of videos of the works on display, describing their significance as he would to happy groups of visitors in the now eerily empty gallery. 

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Museum acquires Frederick Douglass walking stick

Thursday, April 9th, 2020

The South Carolina State Museum has acquired a walking stick that was presented to Frederick Douglass in 1888. The ebonized wood cane sold at a Cowan’s auction in Cincinnati on February 20th of this year for an impressive $37,500, far exceeding the presale estimate of $3,000-5,000. The museum was able to stay in the exorbitant bidding thanks to its acquisition and collections fund, moneys set aside to secure coveted objects for the museum’s permanent collection.

The cane was a beautifully customized gift given to the Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour of South Carolina. Its gold cap features strawberries (in Christian art, the strawberry symbolizes righteousness and nobility of spirit) against a hammered background and is engraved “Hon. F. Douglass / From D.L.I. / Charleston S.C. / Mar. 6th / 1888.” It bears the makers mark of Robert Fitz Simmons of Attleboro, Massachusetts, a chaser and engraver who had a thriving business as a watch chain manufacturer and then expanded into other product lines.

Reconstruction had ended with abrupt finality in 1877 and like the rest of the former Confederate states, South Carolina had resegregated with bloody gusto. Douglass’ speaking tour 11 years later to South Carolina and Georgia was fraught with peril. He was the most famous black man in the country, instantly recognizable (he was the most photographed African American of the 19th century) and just as outspoken a critic of white supremacy after the war as he had been an abolitionist before and during.

On his stop in South Carolina, he delivered two lectures: European Travels and Self-Made Men. The former gave an account of his observations of the difference between racial attitudes in Europe and the United States as he had experienced on his travels, particularly his two-year-long abolitionist lecture tour in the mid-1840s. The latter was a speech about men born into misery who achieve their ambitions without any advantages of birth, connections, wealth, early education or any kind of encouraging environment. First written in 1859, it was a popular lecture that he continued to deliver to rapt crowds night unto his death in 1895.

A review for his delivery of these speeches at Claflin College, a historically black university founded by Methodist missionaries in 1869 for the education of freed slaves and their children, in The Orangeburg Times and Democrat was positive, if tinged with ominousness. The brief blurb described Douglass as “no doubt the most distinguished colored man in the world” but noted that “Upon being questioned by a student on civil rights matters in America, he advised him to “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!'” That didn’t go down so well. “His manner was pleasing and dignified, but his subject for the time was assuredly ill chosen.” I somehow doubt the paper would have approved of the subject matter at any other time either.

In Charleston, he delivered the speeches at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1882 as the daughter church of Mother Emanuel AME Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South, founded almost 50 years before emancipation in 1817. Charleston’s population was majority black and there were several local African American militia companies named after black and abolitionist heroes Like Crispus Attucks and William Lloyd Garrison. One of them was the Douglass Light Infantry. After Douglass’ speech at Mount Zion AME, the members of the Douglass Light Infantry sang to him at their armory and presented him with the walking stick.

“Walking sticks and canes were often given as presentation gifts during the 19th century, and it is almost certain that Douglass received more than one in his lifetime,” noted Danielle Linn, senior specialist in American history at Cowan’s. “That said, I’ve never seen another cane owned by Douglass! It is especially significant that we were able to determine exactly when and where Douglass was gifted the walking stick,” Linn said. … “It is a rare privilege to hold something that we know belonged to one of the greatest figures of American history.”

“This walking stick is not only a notable object of national history, gifted to the preeminent abolitionist, writer and lecturer Frederick Douglass, it is a significant and meaningful piece of South Carolina history,” said JoAnn Ziese, the museum’s cultural history curator. “Adding this one-of-a-kind piece to our collection will help us continue to tell the wonderful stories of South Carolina for years to come.”

I’m curious to see if they tell the not-so-wonderful story of how South Carolina’s black militias were formed during Reconstruction to keep black voters from being murdered by white supremacist thugs, and how they were suppressed so thoroughly that even their beloved (by black people) Fourth of July parades in Charleston would be eliminated by the end of the century.

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Rare Viking ring found in Dutch cornfield acquired by museum

Sunday, April 5th, 2020

A rare silver Viking ring was acquired by the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (RMO) in Leiden just before it had to close its doors last month. A metal detectorist found it in a cornfield near Hoogwoud in the province of Noord Holland on Christmas Day 2019. It was bought quickly from the finder for an undisclosed sum and is now part of the national collection.

With a diameter of 25mm, a tiny hair under an inch, and weighing eight grams, the ring is quite large. It was made by twisting two silver wires, one thicker, one fine filigree thread made with tiny balls, together. The braided style was in use by Viking goldsmiths from the 9th through the 11th century A.D. This ring dates to the 10th century.

Danish Viking began raiding The Netherlands in the 9th century, occupying the Dutch coast briefly but they didn’t settle permanently as they did in Ireland or York. They established temporary quarters where they camped out in the winter between raids and sea journeys in what is today the province of Noord Holland. A Viking silver hoard from the 9th century discovered in Westerklief, less than 20 miles north of Hoogwoud, is now in the collection RMO. There’s a braided silver bracelet in the hoard made using the same technique as the newly acquired ring.

The size of ring could mean it was made for a sausage-fingered Viking, but RMO curator Annemarieke Willemsen believes it was actually worn as a pendant. The twisted strands flatten and thin out at the top where it dangled from a chain or tie. The wasn’t happenstance; the ring appears to have been deliberately designed to be a pendant and the wear pattern confirms that it was hung from the thin part.

It looks like a miniature version of the neck torcs that were worn by Viking elite of the time. They too were often made with twisted wires that are thin on one side and then gradually thicken as the braid is woven. Pendants of miniature objects — chairs, axes, swords — were popular in the Viking era.

Objects from the 10th and 11th centuries are rare in the Netherlands. The acquisition of this piece will add significantly to the national collection. The museum is planning to display the ring in a future exhibition.

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Van Gogh painting stolen on his birthday

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

A painting by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from the Singer Laren museum just outside Amsterdam on what would have been the artist’s 167th birthday. At around 3:15AM on Monday, March 30th, thieves smashed through the glass door, stole Van Gogh’s Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring and made a quick getaway. The burglar alarm was triggered, but the perpetrators were gone before police arrived at the scene.

“I feel incredibly angry and now I’m starting to feel sadder too,” Jan Rudolph de Lorm, director of the Singer Laren Museum, told Reuters in an interview.

He appealed to those who had taken the painting to treat it with care “so that sooner or later it can be shown to the public unharmed”.

Van Gogh painted this piece in 1884 when he was living with his family at the vicarage in Nuenen where his father was pastor. This was a formative early period in his artistic life. It was Nuenen’s peasants and weavers who were the subjects of his seminal The Potato Eaters. He drew and painted the vicarage and its grounds a number of times, capturing it in different seasons. At 9.8″ x 22.4″, it is uncommonly wide.

De Lorm described the painting, which depicts a woman in a garden with red-flowered bushes and with a church in the background, as “an image of silence, of reflection and of tranquility, which undoubtedly offered him comfort and inspiration”.

“Through him, it gave us and our audience the same emotion,” de Lorm added.

The oil on paper on panel work was part of the museum’s Mirror of the Soul. Toorop to Mondrian exhibition focusing on works displaying the inner life of Dutch artists at the turn of the century. It’s a collaboration with the Rijksmuseum and was inspired by a book on the topic written by the Rijksmuseum’s senior curator of paintings. It features more than 70 paintings, drawings and watercolors from artists world-famous and relatively little known. It was fully insured, of course, and the insurers had inspected the museum’s security measures before the exhibition began.

There are works from the Singer Laren’s collection in the show, but the stolen Van Gogh was not among them. It was on loan from the Groninger Museum, a modern and contemporary art museum with an ecclectic permanent collection that contains exactly one Van Gogh. The painting has been in its collection since 1962 and its loss is incalculable, far beyond monetary value which is easily in the millions.

The theft is being investigated by local police and by Interpol.

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Tour the Winchester Mystery House

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

The famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is closed until at least April 7th, but the museum has compiled a comprehensive 41-minute video tour for our remote enjoyment.

The manchester was built by Sarah Winchester, widow of rifle tycoon William Wirt Winchester. When he died in 1881, his wife inherited a huge fortune in cash and stock, making her worth a half billion dollars in today’s money and one of the richest women in the world. Legend has it — and it is very much legendary as Sarah left no correspondence or journals on the subject, nor did any family, friends or loyal employees ever volunteer an explanation — that, devastated by the loss of her husband and daughter, she sought the advice of a Boston medium named Adam Coons. After a séance, he told her that she was haunted by the thousands of Civil War soldiers and Indians who had been killed by Winchester firearms, and that the only way to appease the vengeful spirits was to use the Winchester money she’d inherited to build them a house. Another origin story claims that a medium told her she would die as soon as the house was finished, so she saw to it that construction continued until her last breath. There is zero evidence that any of this ever happened.

In 1884, she moved to California and bought a 161-acre farm in Santa Clara Valley from Dr. Robert Caldwell. There was a modest eight room farmhouse already on the property, but Sarah’s vision was far vaster. For 38 years, she had her crew of carpenters and masons work in shifts so construction continued 24-7, 365 days a year. (Again, this is the legend; somebody probably took some time off now and again.) built and built, creating a mansion with hundreds of rooms, rooms-within-rooms, unfinished rooms, mazes of corridors, dead ends, staircases that are short cuts from one part of the house to the other, staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open up to walls, doors that open to the outside two stories up, small doors, big doors, cupolas, turrets, windows of every shape and size, skylights in floors, prime numbers, especially 13, everywhere. There was even a seven story tower at one point, but it was destroyed in the 1906 Frisco quake.

When she died on September 5th, 1922, work immediately stopped. There are still nails half-hammered in to the walls. The rich reclusive widow and her labyrinthine mansion were already famous by then. The villa was known as the Spirit House and rumors abounded of nightly séances, copious hauntings and “evil spirits” confounded by Sarah Winchester’s architectural follies.

She left her estate to the charities she supported, dedicated employees and family. The furnishings of the house were sold and the mansion itself opened to tours in 1923. Millions of visitors have trod its eccentric floors in the century since then. You can now join them virtually from the comfort of your home, maybe chasing the tour with a viewing of the horror thriller Winchester starring Helen Mirren now showing on Showtime and streaming on Hulu.

You can also buy discounted ticket vouchers for a visit to the mansion that will be valid through May 2021. The vouchers cost $26, $13 off the regular ticket price. The income from the voucher sales will help keep the lights on and food on the table for the museum’s employees while the Winchester House is closed.

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