Teaching the African American Experience through Art
September 29, 2016
On October 13, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will host "Art and the African American Experience," an evening for teachers presented in celebration of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Led by educators at SAAM, Teaching for Change, and the Anacostia Community Museum, participants will explore ways of thoughtfully addressing race and the African American experience through art in their teaching. The event is free with registration, and includes teaching resources and a standing reception.
Eye Level spoke with two of SAAM's collaborators in planning the evening, Linda Maxwell, Education Program Coordinator at the Anacostia Community Museum, and Sandhya Rajan, Professional Development Specialist at Teaching for Change, to get an advance look at what to expect at the event.
Eye Level: Could you tell us how you will be contributing to this evening?
Linda Maxwell: I will be exploring the artwork by William H. Johnson, entitled Marian Anderson. We will be looking at the life of Marian Anderson through Johnson's eyes with a hands-on activity using graphic organizers and primary resources. I hope educators will be inspired to integrate art and history in their classrooms in different ways to engage a variety of learners.
Sandhya Rajan: Teaching for Change will model a lesson called Expanding the Narrative: Meet and Greet the Harlem Renaissance. This lesson is designed to allow participants to look beyond the traditional narrative of the Harlem Renaissance by taking on the roles of historical figures. We are excited to share a lesson that allows students to learn more than just a few names and stories from that time period.
EL: Why did you decide to participate in the event?
SR: We are thrilled to participate in this event for teachers focused on exploring the historic, political, and social roots of issues of race through American art. We are committed to share lessons and curricula that challenge and transcend the textbook narratives.
LM: I decided to participate because I love art, history, and the ability to share with other like-minded educators ways to engage students.
EL: How do you think artwork can play a role in addressing historical and contemporary African American experience with students?
LM: Artwork, when used appropriately as a tool to engage students about the African American experience, is highly effective because it enables students to actually understand history better by visualizing the concept. This helps them to better process the information.
SR: We agree with our colleague Lynda Tredway who said, "In a media-driven age, visual images provide access to important events and political struggles that may be more engaging to students than written text. At the same time, these images can offer an avenue for the development of critical literacy."
EL: For teachers who can't attend the evening, what's one thing you'd want them to know about teaching issues of race in the classroom?
LM: For the teachers who cannot attend, I hope they continue to seek out opportunities to bring the important discussion of race in the classroom and their communities by pursuing training, mentors and institutions that will support their efforts.
SR: We emphasize in our work that race and racism are central to all of U.S. history. Textbooks often leave students thinking that racism was only in the South or an issue during certain eras (like slavery or the Civil Rights Movement). However, racism has shaped all of the U.S. (North and South) and all historical periods through the present.
The October 13 event is free with registration.
A Humorous Streak to The Art of Romaine Brooks
September 28, 2016
Joe Lucchesi, the consulting curator for SAAM's exhibition, The Art of Romaine Brooks, is Associate Professor of Art History and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program Coordinator at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Joe gives us a look at the humor and wit of Romaine Brooks. He will be leading a tour of the show on Thursday, September 29 at 6 p.m. The Art of Romaine Brooks is on view until October 2, 2016.
Most commentaries on Romaine Brooks' work focus on its seriousness. This is hardly surprising, since there is a quiet weightiness to her work that is palpable in person and pervades the mood of the galleries when walking through SAAM's current exhibition, The Art of Romaine Brooks. Her carefully modulated palette of subtle grays and neutral tonalities lends to this muted emotional tenor while her sitters, placed alone in spare planar spaces, carry themselves with a psychological gravity that verges on isolation. These formal choices can initially give the appearance of works wreathed in melancholy. Beyond that, Brooks produced much of the work within a historic context of emerging lesbian subcultures in a homophobic culture of early 20th century Europe. And the artist herself titled her autobiography No Pleasant Memories. But this consistent characterization of Brooks' artwork (and the artist herself) as moody, somber, or even gloomy can obscure notes of humor and wit shot through many of the portraits and drawings. Brooks' incisive wit and somewhat sardonic observations bring richness to the works' emotional texture and sharpen the overall insights her works have to offer.
Brooks' humorous undertones emerge most often through deadpan juxtapositions that seem to offer sly satiric commentary on some aspect of her sitters. For example, in her portrait of Madam Errazuris, the influential interior designer appears nearly engulfed by her ostentatious outfit with its giant ostrich plumes and voluminous cloak. But she gazes confidently and somewhat condescendingly out of the picture, in command of both her outsized fashions and the viewer's attention. Or in Una, Lady Troubridge, the sitter's prized dachshunds in the artist's play on the traditional portrait with hunting dogs threaten to shift the painting's tone into a mocking observation of her aristocratic pretention. That note of stinging humor is there, yet the dogs also enhance Troubridge's sense of calm and control, and her level engagement with the viewer.
Similarly, Brooks' pairing of La Barrone Emile Erlanger and an ocelot brings distinct undercurrents of sensuality and exoticism to what initially appears to be a motif intended to underscore and mimic her static, aloof attitude. In Chasseresse, the artist uses the animal-figure juxtaposition to different erotic ends. The mountain goat's inclusion seems to amplify the icy, mythological dignity of the female protagonist, with her placid expression and neutral gaze. But a shrewd, playful eroticism infuses the scene when one notices the goat's carefully strategic placement opposite her midsection, its pink tongue barely protruding toward her bare knee while her forearm grazes the animal's face.
Even Brooks' drawings have some of these same elements of mordant humor. Although they're steeped in weighty emotional themes of imprisonment, struggle, and exile consistent with the artist's autobiography manuscript, in writing about the drawings she noted that they were "...inspired by laughter, philosophy, sadness, or death..." A drawing like Primitive Coquetry (La Coquetterie Primitive) captures this unique balance of humor and horror, with its lumpish, animal-like figure standing absurdly upright on its wide feet in a cheesecake pose, smiling coyly over its shoulder at the viewer. Or the The Organ Grinder (L'Orgue de Barbarie), in which a wispy, meandering yet vibrant line transforms into a whimsical figure casting a world-weary look heavenward. Within what Brooks called the "inevitable encircling line" of her drawings, these subtle notes of humorous fantasy add depth to the psychological perspectives they offer. The artist's wry quips and visual puns thread the exhibition and fill the galleries with echoes of Brooks' knowing laughter.
Glass Gardens: Agnes Northrop Designs for Louis C. Tiffany
September 27, 2016
To kick off the 2016 season of the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art, scholar Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, brought us into the close circle of Louis Comfort Tiffany's art glass studio. Frelinghuysen illuminated the roles of women in this male-dominated field, focusing on the life of designer Agnes Northrop, one of the "Tiffany Girls". In spite of her prominent role at the time, her significance has been long overshadowed by Tiffany himself as well as other women in the studio.
Agnes Northrop was born in Flushing, Queens, in 1857 and died in 1953 in the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan at age 96. She was most likely introduced to Tiffany in the late 1880s and by the 1890s had, according to Frelinghuysen "forged an independent role for herself within the studio." Tiffany was an artistic polymath whose creative output ranged from paintings to photography to furniture and garden design. Tiffany's great contributions to art glass were twofold: development and use of an opalescent glass and employing landscape as its sole subject. The Tiffany Girls played a crucial role in the art glass studio by selecting the glass pieces and cutting them into shapes that would be used to make the designer's signature windows and lampshades. And it's in creating landscapes made of glass that Northrop distinguished herself. "Designing windows," Frelinghuysen told us, "was her enduring passion."
With resources from the Tiffany archive housed at the Met, Frelinghuysen was able to piece together Northrop's contributions to the studio by viewing signed watercolor renderings as well as a memoir Northrop drafted in her last years. Her painted landscapes were translated into glass and featured beautiful floral renderings and often a central stream to represent "the voyage of life." Among her important windows, Northrop created a set for her family's place of worship, the Reformed Church of Flushing, where her grandfather became pastor in 1865.
Frelinghuysen also told us about the blossoming artistic and environmental movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that ran parallel to the interest in landscape windows. The borough of Queens, was not just the site of the Tiffany glass studio and Northrop's family, but the home of many public gardens and nurseries. In fact, during Northrop's time, Flushing was dominated by the horticultural industry, and, at the turn of the century, it was "the nursery capital of New York and surrounding areas."
In a shoutout to Northrop's birthplace during the Q and A, two women who were born and raised in Flushing, thanked Frelinghuysen not just for telling us the story of Northrop and the Tiffany Girls, but for allowing them to rethink their hometown as a place of beauty and creativity.
Framing The Art of Romaine Brooks
September 22, 2016
Romaine Brooks was something of an interior decorator as well as an artist. She took a lively interest in the frame designs and finishes for her artworks. Several of the paintings in the exhibition The Art of Romaine Brooks are in frames that she personally designed or that were prepared under her direction.
Other Brooks paintings, however, came to SAAM years ago in frames that have no connection to her. We took the opportunity of our recent exhibition to reframe some of those for the show, creating frames that more closely resemble those she designed or chose. The frame for Peter, A Young English Girl was created by Eli Wilner & Company of New York as a gift to the museum. The frame for Le Piano was created in our own Lunder frame conservation lab by Martin Kotler.
Eli Wilner & Company created the frame for Brooks' Peter, A Young English Girl, taking cues from the artist's own enhancements to an Art Deco-inspired frame on Brooks' Self Portrait along with as other frames in the exhibition. The Wilner staff took photographs during a site visit, and also consulted notes in a frame treatment report and used a frame profile drawing provided by Kotler. For further character, they referenced and analyzed silver frames from a similar period that are in the Wilner inventory. In order to maximize accuracy, the studio craftspeople created a subtle range of profile samples for the curatorial staff to review alongside the painting itself.
The chosen finish was silver-gilded, with underlayers of gesso and a slightly orange-red clay, purposefully omitting the standard layer of ochre clay to help achieve the desired color and luminosity. After sealing the gilding, they applied an extremely thin layer of aluminum paint, followed in the normal manner with casein. Throughout the process, various in-house techniques were devised through experimentation to give the frame a sense of age, and to replicate the complex nature of the surface, including incorporating a small amount of powdered silver to imitate a unique, somewhat glittery feature that exists intermittently on the original, artist-made frame.
Before Martin Kotler began constructing his frame for Brooks' Le Piano, Chief of Conservation Tiarna Doherty was in the process of conserving the painting, which required a careful study of Brooks' techniques. Doherty found that Brooks began her paintings by toning her ground with diluted black paint, before subsequently applying layers of grays and glazes made from oil mixed with varnish. In fact, the artist used a similar approach with a number of her frames: the wood was first toned with a black stain, then gilded with a silver-colored leaf. Kotler emulated these aspects of Brooks' technique to create his frame for the Le Piano.
Virginia Mecklenburg, Chief Curator, discussed and reviewed Kotler's approach along the way. He constructed the frame of oak-veneered plywood over poplar hardwood, choosing the oak because its heavily-grained characteristic would telescope through the metal leaf-gilded surface. In addition, oak is commonly used in France, where other frames in the Romaine Brooks exhibition were made, making it a natural choice.
The Art of Romaine Brooks continues through October 2, 2016. When visiting the exhibition, we hope you will look closely, not only at Brooks' extraordinary paintings and drawings, but at their striking frames as well.
Abigail Choudhury contributed to this post.
Luce Artist Talk with Nicole Salimbene
September 20, 2016
Each month, the Luce Foundation Center partners with neighboring Flashpoint Gallery to bring local artists to speak about their own work and the inspiration they take from SAAM's collection. We'll kick off our fall Luce Artist Talk Series on Sunday, September 25, with Nicole Salimbene, a multimedia artist whose work explores themes of mindfulness and conflict between one's internal self and the physical world. She will discuss how she uses form to encourage contemplation and provoke dialogue.
Have you stood in front of a piece of artwork, eyes swelled with tears or with a grin larger than life, because the piece evoked a deep personal connection or raw emotion inside of you? On Sunday, D.C. artist Nicole Salimbene will discuss how her interactive installations invite viewers to contemplate their own personal relationship with the piece and discuss how it impacts them. Rooted deep within her artistic practice, Salimbene's art acts as a metaphor for a human experience or represents a relationship with the physical world.
Like Nicole's installations, artwork in the Luce Center uses form, color and shape to convey the human experience. Rosalind Bengelson's painting, Abstraction, uses bright primary colors and simple shapes to represent the vibrancy of life while Kenneth Campbell's sculpture, Nike, uses smooth stone to give it an "awareness of its own sense of gravity, making it seem as mobile as humans are." Nicole's work, which hones in on themes of mindfulness and conflict, challenges the viewer to grasp its intended meaning from its material and form as well. Her current exhibition, titled Mending, consists of thousands of threaded sewing needles and tangled sculptural masses of yarn and stitches. She strives to create elegance and monumentality out of everyday materials traditionally used for mending or repair. Her unique material choice and sculptural forms compel the viewer to stop and meditate on the meaning of the piece and their relationship to it. She hopes the viewer draws the connection that the steady act of threading a single sewing needle represents the stitch-by-stitch process the viewer must take to create transformations in their own life and in the world.
During her talk, Nicole will draw connections between her current exhibition and Sean Scully's work, Black Moon. In addition to Scully's piece, her emphasis on meditation and reflection takes on similar themes of other works within the Luce Center such as Bruria's work, Dream Sequence, which uses lace, butterfly decals, and porcelain to allude to a meditative space.
Based in Washington, D.C., Nicole Salimbene creates art for meditative practice and hopes her work brings attention to issues within the environment, compelling the viewer to explore reasons behind their own personal life choices. On Sunday, we look forward to learning more about the connections she draws from the pieces here in Luce, as well as in her own artistic practice.
Please join us at 1:30 p.m. for Nicole's presentation and a short Q&A afterward.