Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

Objects of Desire: Dawn’s Pick


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Installation view, Carlo Bugatti, Cobra chair, 1902, wood, parchment with painted decoration, and copper, Berdan Memorial Trust Fund, Helen Johnston Acquisition Fund, and Decorative Arts Purchase Fund

Choosing my favorite object from Inventing the Modern World is nearly impossible—my “favorite” tends to shift by the hour or according to my mood (this says more about my love of objects than it does about my indecisiveness). There’s one extraordinary object however that stands out no matter the time of day or my disposition—the Cobra chair designed by Carlo Bugatti.

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Bugatti was one of the most eccentric European designers working at the turn of the century and his furniture is truly fantastical, bordering on bizarre. Inspired by nature, architecture, and decorative elements of the Middle East, North Africa, and Japan, he worked in unusual combinations of materials.

The Cobra chair was part of a suite made by Bugatti for the 1902 Turin Prima Esposizione d’Arte Decorativa Moderna, the first world’s fair devoted exclusively to decorative arts and design. The organizing committee declared that only original and innovative designs free of historical precedent would be accepted. It is obvious that Bugatti rose to this particular challenge.

cobradetail2The dynamic form of the Cobra chair blurs the boundaries between sculpture and functional design with a revolutionary assembling technique decades ahead of its time. Composite wooden elements were joined and shaped to create a curving silhouette that anticipates the cantilevered designs of the 1920s and 1930s by Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and Kem Weber. Bugatti disguised and unified the composite parts with stretched and joined parchment, making the chair look like it’s a solid piece. The vellum is painted with stylized flowers, dragonflies, and geometric shapes while the applied copper disc on the back further accentuates the cobra imagery. Although the chair exhibits the exotic influences, organic shapes, and naturalistic references that typify Art Nouveau, the chair stands out as a thoroughly modern product of Bugatti’s vivid imagination.

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The otherworldly aspects of Bugatti’s designs are truly elucidated in the image of the Snail Room at the 1902 fair. One of three complete rooms Bugatti designed for the exhibition, the Salle de Jeu et Conversation (room for games and conversation) contained a spiraling banquette and table surrounded by Cobra chairs and circular panels mimicking the chair backs. The room is at once futuristic, organic, and exotic.

Though Bugatti’s Cobra is beloved by art historians today, it was a bit too radical to be widely accepted in 1902. Nevertheless, Bugatti was awarded a diploma of honor by the Turin jury. They clearly found the Cobra chair to be as unforgettable as I do. As one contemporary critic of the exhibition wrote, “the artist who knows how to give a truly individual imprint to his furniture is C. Bugatti.…Bugatti, living outside every movement and owing everything to himself and demanding everything from himself, is the exhibitor who most clearly remains stamped in one’s memory.”

Japan is the Key


There is a lot of work that goes into preparing an exhibition, even the relatively small shows that go on view in Gallery One. Much of the work is not exactly glamorous—hours spent in libraries paging through deteriorating volumes covered in 100-year-old dust, or hours spent removing 100-year-old dust from a work of art—but it can still be very exciting (seriously)! When Lulu Lippincott, curator of fine arts, first had the idea to exhibit our early Japanese print collection, she wanted to present the works in a different context than they have been shown at CMOA in the past. Remembering that both our collection and our neighbor’s (Carnegie Museum of Natural History) contained a number of Japanese ivory sculptures in storage, we thought this would be an excellent opportunity to bring the two mediums, woodblock prints and ivories, together in one exhibition exploring the early history of collecting Japanese art at this museum. The exhibition, “Japan is the Key…”: Collecting Prints and Ivories, 1900–1920will be on view March 30–July 21, 2013, in Gallery One.

A key figure in our story is ketchup magnate Henry J. Heinz, an avid collector who donated over a thousand ivory sculptures to the museum. While the majority of these are small-scale works ranging from two to 14 inches tall, there is one that soars above the rest—a life-size ivory eagle measuring nearly four feet tall. Heinz purchased the work for the museum in 1913 during his travels throughout Asia and it had been on continuous view until the early 1990s. For those of us who can’t remember or who have never seen the giant eagle, it is easy to be stunned by the sheer size of it; knowing that it is constructed out of such a precious material only adds to its magnificence.

Having spent nearly 20 years in storage, the giant eagle has accumulated layers of dust and other particulates on its surface. Thankfully, it was kept in the original case built for its display in 1913 which has managed to offer some additional protection over the years—although the two jars of pesticides which were sealed inside offered a rather… malodorous surprise when it was opened for cleaning. Over the next several weeks, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s objects conservator Gretchen Anderson and her team of interns will be analyzing and cleaning the eagle before it goes into our exhibition. As a rare treat, the team will work in full view of the public and, yes, they do take questions! You’ll be amazed by the resourcefulness of objects conservators and stunned to find out their use of common household materials, such as makeup sponges and chunks of a Magic Eraser to remove the grime.

Next time you visit the museum, skip the PaleoLab (just this once) and head up to the third floor’s Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians (at the back of Polar World) where you can see this team of conservators in action. They’ll be there 10 a.m.–4 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays for the duration of the conservation. If you don’t get a chance to see it being cleaned, it will be on view March 30–July 21, 2013, in Gallery One as part of the exhibition!

Installing the Presepio


P1090265Art handler Matt Cummings takes on the delicate task of installing figures in the middle of the scene for the Neapolitan presepio.

Every year on the Monday—Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, Carnegie Museum of Art staff installs the museum’s remarkable Neapolitan presepio. Beloved by Pittsburghers as an annual holiday tradition the presepio is an incredible multi-media work of art, created by 18th-century artisans in Naples.

Monday
We install the stage set within the steps of St. Gilles in the Hall of Architecture. The set is made up of dozens of platforms topped with miniature buildings, bridges, roads, rocks, and a stream. The various pieces are unified by the application of conservation-safe moss cloth.

P1090259A member of the so-called “Turkish band,” a common sight in the bustling Mediterranean port of 18th-century Naples.
P1090264Watch out—his sheep has a wild look in his eye.

Tuesday
In come the figures on rolling metal carts. More than 100 human and angelic characters, plus another dozen animals, and countless finimenti or finishing touches (tiny props like walking sticks, assorted foods for the marketplace, and tiny ceramic and silver jars and platters. If all goes well, we finish the day by suspending the host of angels overhead.

P1090288Museum staff place figures in the foreground, while the yellow ladder at back will help us install the angels overhead.
P1090287During the rest of the year the presepio figures rest in carefully padded and outfitted drawers like this one.

Wednesday
We polish off the installation with a green velvet skirt, gold stanchions, and didactic panels, as well as a special display case that provides an opportunity to see one figure up close.

P1090261The Moorish King Balthazar
P1090262This lady even has carefully crafted miniature earrings.
P1090269The fisherman is the oldest figure in the presepio, dating to 1700. A natural fit for a streamside spot, he also serves as an allegory for Christ, who was called the “fisher of men.”
P1090273This begging dog is quite a character with his upward gaze and wagging tail.
P1090293Art handler Steve Russ arranges items based on photographs from a previous year.

Manet and Zizi


woman-with-a-catEdouard Manet, Woman with a Cat  (Portrait of Mme. Manet), c. 1880, oil on canvas; Courtesy of Tate Images

Last week I took a road trip to Ohio to see the exhibition Manet: Portraying Life, currently on view at Toledo Museum of Art through January 1. While this enthralling exhibition focuses on Manet’s portraiture and figure paintings, a whimsical detail in a portrait of the artist’s wife Woman with a Cat (Portrait of Mme. Manet) especially caught my eye. Sitting prominently and contentedly on Madam Manet’s lap is the same black cat with white muzzle—Zizi—featured in Carnegie Museum of Art’s Still Life with Brioche (below), also from 1880.

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Edouard Manet, Still Life with Brioche, 1880, oil on canvas; William R. Scott, Jr. Fund; Carnegie Museum of Art

Manet’s repeated depiction of this family pet got me thinking about the wider, general role of cats in his oeuvre. Cats were a surprisingly important feature of Manet’s art for decades. Sometimes they are important to the overall meaning of a scene and always they reveal a lighter side to the artist and his genuine interest in these animals.

In Woman with a Cat, Manet vigorously and loosely paints his wife (née Suzanne Leenhoff) ensconced in pink. Zizi’s black fur stands out in stark contrast to the pale colors of the surrounding scene and becomes a prominent, centrally located feature of the composition. In Still Live with Brioche, however, many viewers don’t notice the cat until it is pointed out to them. In the darkly colored still life, Zizi’s head subtly enters the scene at the right edge. In both paintings, Zizi’s markings and facial features are rendered distinctly. This is clearly a cat that Manet knew well. Zizi’s cozy sleeping posture in Woman with a Cat also reveals an artist who was a keen observer and was well familiar with the body language and habits of cats.

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Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas; Via Musée d’Orsay

Perhaps the most important use of a cat in his painting career is found in his notorious Olympia, where the animal’s body language is also emotionally compelling, but in a different way. The angry black cat at the foot of the woman’s bed undoubtedly is a symbol of sexuality, but its presence—glaring defensively and arching its back—also helps make the viewer uncomfortably aware of their own role as an intruder into the scene. Cats and still life components are often important elements of Manet’s figurative paintings. This is true in Olympia and also in a painting such as The Luncheon (below).

E0702 MANET 8638Edouard Manet, The Luncheon, 1868, oil on canvas, 1911 Tschudi Contribution, Inv. no. 8638; Via Alte Pinakothek

In The Luncheon, a cat is seen curled over, one leg in the air in the act of bathing itself as a curious and light-hearted moment in the midst of an enigmatic trio of stoic figures and still life elements, including a partially peeled lemon. In yet another painting from the 1860s, Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume, a cat plays with an orange on the floor at lower right in the composition. The trend of depicting cats and fruit together in one composition is continued in the late still life in Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection.

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Edouard Manet, Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume, 1862–63, oil on canvas, Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903, 1961.18.33; Via Yale University Art Gallery

Manet was part of an artistic and literary community enthralled with cats. Occasionally his use of cat motifs were inside jokes or references meant to speak specifically to his writer and artist friends. In this early example of the inclusion of a cat in a major canvas, a dedication to the photographer Nadar appears near the cat; this detail could be part of an elaborate set of personal references between Manet, Nadar, and Charles Baudelaire. Other works in Manet’s career reference his friendship to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Manet also produced a famous lithographic poster called Cats’ Rendevous in relation to a publication on the history and behaviors of cats by the writer Jules Champfleury called Les Chats, illustrated by many prominent artists.

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Edouard Manet, The Cats’ Rendezvous, lithograph, 1868; S.P. Avery Collection; Courtesy of NYPL

Portrayed variously as symbolic, suggestive, humorous, and domestic, the deceptively minor motif of the cat had a surprisingly large place in Manet’s repertoire of imagery and became very much associated with Manet’s artistic persona.

So, when visiting Gallery 6 in the Scaife wing of Carnegie Museum of Art and you see the small black and white head peeking into the frame of Manet’s still-life, it’s interesting to remember that Zizi is part of a rich and long tradition in the artist’s career.

Dogs also played a prominent role in Manet’s art… but that’s a post for another time…

The Model That Smokes


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Hiroshi Sambuichi, Inujima Art Project Seirensho, 2008, wood and acrylic model, incense; 1:50; Courtesy of Hiroshi Sambuichi

A particularly fascinating model on view in White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes is by Sambuichi Architects of a transformed copper refinery, or seirensho, on the Japanese island of Inujima. The Inujima Art Project Seirensho is a museum dedicated to preserving and reusing the remains of the refinery, as part of the broader Benesse Art Site.

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Iwan Baan, Aerial view of Seirensho and the island of Inujima, 2008, digital chromogenic print; Courtesy of Iwan Baan

The refinery features a large chimney that originally served as an industrial smokestack but it has since been repurposed into a chimney that connects to the building’s underground passageways, creating a natural ventilation system. Sambuichi Architects has included two small chambers on the front of the model that are designed to hold lit incense coils, sending smoke throughout the model’s passageways, over a scale figure, and eventually escaping out of the clear acrylic chimney stack.

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Lighting the incense coils, which burn for up to 8 hours. We’re using this kind.
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Placing the incense chambers into the front of the model.
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Incense smoke blows past the scale figure towards the chimney, illustrating the airflow in the repurposed refinery.

White Cube, Green Maze is open through January 13, 2013. Come see this model and over 20 others from six international art sites.

The exhibition presents works by:

Raimund Abraham (New York City); Tadao Ando (Osaka); Arquitetos Associados (Belo Horizonte); Tatiana Bilbao (Mexico City); Rodrigo Cerviño Lopez (São Paulo); Rudolf Finsterwalder (Stephanskirchen); Erwin Heerich (Düsseldorf); HHF architects (Basel); Oliver Kruse (Hombroich); Johnston Marklee (Los Angeles); Ryue Nishizawa (Tokyo); Rizoma Arquitetura (Belo Horizonte); Hiroshi Sambuichi (Hiroshima); Álvaro Siza Vieira (Porto); TOA (Taller de Operaciones Ambientales, Mexico City); Topotek 1 (Berlin); Weiss/Manfredi (New York City)