Category Archives: Decorative Arts

Video: The Art Connection


We just wanted to say thanks to everyone who came out on Sunday, April 14 to mark the opening of The Art Connection Annual Student Exhibition! Check out the video to see our student artists hard at work in the museum’s studios as they prepared for this year’s exhibition. Throughout the school year, students in grades 5–9 worked through the creative process with the help of teaching artists in the museum’s galleries and studios. Artworks in this year’s exhibition reflect the influence of recent exhibitions such as White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes, Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Art at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939, and Cory Arcangel: Masters.

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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.”

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.

Restoring the Urn of Life


urnscaifeGeorge Barnard Grey’s Urn of Life, now on view in the Scaife Galleries.

ORIGINS OF THE URN

The Urn of Life (c. 1898–1900)  is the unfinished repository for the ashes of Anton Seidl, the Hungarian composer and conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Upon Seidl’s death, a group of the composer’s friends asked American sculptor George Grey Barnard to design his funerary urn. Barnard agreed to the commission and worked on the urn for two years. However, before Barnard could complete the sculpture, the original patrons decided the urn was too large, accepting instead a smaller model of one of the figures. The unfinished urn remained in Barnard’s studio until 1908 when he included it in an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

originalurnThe original urn as it appeared in 1908, with four large, chiseled feet. Also, the structural support behind the female figure’s head on the left no longer appears on the work. From the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The urn was purchased by Carnegie Institute in 1919, and today it looks markedly different from when it arrived here in Pittsburgh. Still an unfinished work at the time, the smooth, conical section at the bottom was very roughly textured with point chisel marks and had four large, lobular feet that extended outward from the bottom edge. A letter from the Carnegie Institute archives from then director John Beatty to Barnard mentions: “Your man expects to finish the base on the Urn of Life tomorrow….” And thus the urn was given the form that is visible today.

DSCF1169Conservation technician Tasha Mowery begins the long restoration process.

THE RESTORATION

It had been quite a long time since the urn was on view here at the museum, and our curatorial staff decided it would be a nice addition to the newly renovated Scaife Galleries. At the time of the treatment, the white Carrara marble had become dark greenish-gray with embedded dust and soot; it had likely never been cleaned. Cleaning tests were conducted on the surface of the marble, starting with dry cleaning methods such as vacuuming and rubbing with powdered white vinyl eraser crumbs. Most conservators prefer to start with dry cleaning methods, as the use of cleaning liquids are a comparatively much more aggressive method. Vacuuming did remove a small amount of surface particulate and the eraser crumbs were found to reduce the ingrained dust and soot, but the eraser crumbs were difficult to apply and control on vertical surfaces and in tight recesses.

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Restoring the marble to its original color.

Through systematic testing we were able to develop a cleaning solution which selectively lifted away the dust and soot and left the marble unharmed. The most effective way to loosen the deposits was by poulticing the marble surface with a cotton pad soaked with the solution for several minutes and then gently scrubbing the area with cotton swabs, cotton pads, and soft brushes. Residues of the cleaning solution and any remaining dust or soot particles were cleared from the surface with a pressurized industrial steam generator which directs a concentrated jet of steam from a nozzle. While much of the sculpture had a smooth surface which could be more easily cleaned, there still remained large areas where the tooth chisel and point chisel texture remained. The layer of dust and soot was extremely tenacious in these areas, and they needed to be poulticed numerous times for extended periods. But after many hours and thanks to the hard work of conservation technician Tasha Mowery, we were able to restore the urn to its original color.

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Installing the nearly 1650-pound (!) urn in the newly renovated Scaife Galleries.

BACKGROUND

Born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, in 1863, Barnard attended the Art Institute of Chicago and from 1883 to 1887 worked in Paris while attending the École des Beaux-Arts. He lived in Paris for twelve years, exhibiting for the first time in the Salon of 1894. After returning to America in 1896, Barnard began to enjoy a successful career as a commissioned sculptor. Greatly influenced by Rodin, his major sculptures appear in cities throughout the eastern United States, including New York, Cincinnati, and Louisville. Among these are the monumental Carrara marble figural groups (completed in 1912) that flank the entrance to the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg. Barnard once remarked that his work on the Urn of Life guided him in the creation of these much larger works—”I found the seed which, when I planted, grew into the two compositions known as ‘Labor’ and ‘Love’ on either side of the Capitol…” Barnard died in 1938 and was buried in Harrisburg.

barnardBarnard working on The Hewer, one of his best known works, first exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. This photo appeared in World’s Work in 1902, not long after the Urn of Life was completed.

 

Installing the Modern World


Worlds Fair-5253Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 is officially on view at Carnegie Museum of Art. The exhibition is a massive undertaking, the largest exhibition of decorative arts and design at the museum in nearly a decade. We’ve received a number of queries as to how we actually did it.

Worlds Fair-5191While some may say it takes a village to mount an exhibition like Inventing the Modern World, in this case it took more of a sprawling urban center. We owe thanks to a large network of talented individuals—including our colleagues in the Exhibitions, Registrars, Conservation, Publications, and Technology Initiatives departments, our skilled professional art handlers, our generous co-organizers at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and a host of dedicated outside contractors—all of whom were truly invested in creating this knockout exhibition.

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Co-organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (NAMA), the genesis of the exhibition extends back more than a decade. When chief curator Jason Busch and NAMA curator Catherine Futter were researching the topic over the last four years, they traveled across the globe on multiple trips, scouring museum collections for the most stylistically and technologically innovative objects exhibited at the fairs between 1851, the first international exhibition in London, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With such a large number of examples to choose from, each object had to earn its space on the exhibition checklist. (See some of the highlights.) We worked hard to secure loans, negotiating with museums and private collectors on shipping, insurance, and display requirements.

Once the checklist was finalized, comprising nearly 200 objects from 45 lenders across the globe, it was time to start thinking about the layout for our venue. Jason and I worked with NAMA exhibition designer Amanda Ramirez for nearly a year to plan the layout and design of the show. At the same time, we were working with our Publications department to finalize the exhibition catalogue and beginning to compose the 200+ wall labels and text panels for the exhibition.

elevation1 floorplanSample elevations and floorplan of the exhibition’s entry gallery

For a show that was more than a decade in the making, we had only seven exhilarating weeks to deinstall the previous exhibition, prepare the galleries for construction, build new walls and platforms, paint, and install exhibition furniture as well as 238 objects—all while primping the galleries with final touches for opening weekend. Here’s a peek at what we’ve been up to leading up to the exhibition opening.

P1090143Weeks 1–2: Once the previous exhibition was deinstalled, it was time to clean the galleries and prepare for new construction. The space transformed quickly as the fantastic crew from Giffin Interior & Fixture Inc. began building new walls, bringing in custom platforms, and painting the galleries.

P1090130Week 3: We continued to build and paint walls and lay out furniture platforms as the custom-built exhibition casework began to arrive. With the assistance of Bob Tolnai, fabrication technician at NAMA, the casework was placed and the galleries started to look more and more like an exhibition space. Decorative features such as fabric treatments to evoke bunting from the 1851 Crystal Palace, vinyl graphics including one modeled after Siegfried Bing’s Art Nouveau at the 1900 Paris fair, and photo blow-ups of fair displays were installed to provide visitors with context. Our 2-D plan was starting to become reality!

P1090109Weeks 4–6: This is when the real fun began. Truck shipments full of crates containing artwork arrived. Curatorial staff, art handlers, and registrars worked alongside a special team from NAMA (associate registrar Jill Kohler, conservator Joe Rogers, and registrar Janet Hawkins) to unpack and condition report all objects prior to installation, making sure they arrived in the exact same state in which they left Kansas City. Small objects were installed in vitrines while larger artworks were placed on platforms as the exhibition truly started to develop.

P1090139Week 7: The galleries were ready for the finishing touches. Two-dimensional artworks were hung, along with didactic panels. Vinyl quotations were applied to the walls and platform and wall labels were installed. After one last final cleaning of the galleries, the exhibition was ready to open!

I hope you’ve had a chance to visit Inventing the Modern World during its opening week, and if not, we hope to see you in the galleries soon!