Category Archives: Fine Arts

A Closer Look at the Technology Behind an Exhibition


"A Closer Look" iPads installed in the gallery.

“A Closer Look” iPads installed in the gallery

The museum recently opened Small Prints, Big Artists: Masterpieces from the Renaissance to Baroque, a comprehensive exhibition that traces the development of prints across the centuries, explores the evolution of printmaking techniques, and unlocks the images’ hidden meanings. The works in the show are dynamic, striking, elaborately detailed, and quite beautiful. If you haven’t yet seen the exhibition, it runs throughout the summer and I highly recommend it.

On the surface, the prints included in the exhibition may seem devoid of technology, however it’s important to remember that these artifacts were state-of-the-art examples of the technology at the time. Woodcut, etching, and engraving were the photography and software development of centuries past. As a technologist, this notion creates an extra layer of intrigue for me.

To that end, I’d like to shine a light on some of the technology we employed to help tell the stories of these works and unlock deeper meaning for the exhibition visitor.

SURFACING KEY THEMES

During the exhibition development phase of the project, it quickly became clear that our curators and educators wanted to convey key themes that either impacted the artist’s inspiration or process. Through several months of workshopping and whiteboarding, a cross-departmental group of CMOA staffers explored various tactics that would best engage gallery visitors around the three focus themes: symbolism, reality and imagination, and altered states.

We didn’t start with technology solutions; we never do that. As an institution, we try to introduce technology-based solutions only when analog solutions do not achieve the desired goals. In this case, though, it was clear that technology was going to be the approach through which visitors could dive deeper into the ancillary components of the prints themselves.

The information architecture document developed for the interactive.

The information architecture document developed for the interactive

Our interpretive strategies team began investigating how visitors might explore this information. We started with content and intent before even thinking about design or devices we’d employ. What were the stories we wanted to tell? What objects best told them? We storyboarded the narrative in a hierarchical format. Designers and developers know this as information architecture.

Wireframe for one element of the iPad interactive

Wireframe for one element of the iPad interactive

Once the information architecture was solidified, we started thinking about how the stories would best be conveyed. We explored the possibilities and considered options for weeks. Ultimately, we landed on an overarching concept, A Closer Look, and the concept of a touch interface that would allow for the highlighting of certain aspects of artworks, the ability to comparatively juxtapose images and a way to see the immense detail possessed by the prints.

A way to explore these features without getting too bogged down in the detail of design is to iterate on low-fidelity wireframes. Evolving the information architecture into a loosely crafted user interface made it possible for the team to ask questions like “What would the user do?” and “Does this layout make sense in relation to our desired outcomes?”.

It was at this stage that we identified hardware—we would use iPads—and began working with the installation team so the interactive components could be seamlessly integrated into the gallery experience.

Screenshot of the iPad development environment

Screenshot of the iPad development environment

After the wireframes were solidified, we began building the interactives. We currently have no developers experienced with Objective-C (an object-oriented language for iOS touch devices) on staff here at the museum, so it made sense to utilize internal skill sets and develop in the HTML/CSS/JavaScript stack. Instead of a native iPad app, we built a web application that could be shown through our browser of choice, in this case the Kiosk Pro app that allows us to customize user permissions and lock the devices down into a public or kiosk mode. It was pretty straightforward from a development perspective.

REUSABILITY FTW!

The digital media department at CMOA is also producing quite a bit of original video content, much of which we desire to share with visitors in the gallery. In addition to the A Closer Look interactive described above, we developed a reusable HTML5 video player also optimized for iPad display. The idea here is that we can now start with this established code base for future exhibitions, make some small CSS changes, and quickly have a shiny new exhibition-branded media player. Keep your eyes peeled for this in Faked, Forgotten, Found, opening later this month.

OPENING UP OUR WORK

Realizing that other institutions might have similar needs and not have the resources required to develop custom solutions like these, we’ve open sourced the code that drives both A Closer Look and the video player over on our GitHub page. This code is free to use and modify, and it has been made available as an open resource. CMOA has utilized many open source resources over the years and it’s nice to be able to contribute back into the community when we can.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about how we’re doing. Did you visit the exhibition and explore some of the technology offered? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.

How a Rembrandt Self-Portrait Made Me a Curator


Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait in a Velvet Cap with Plume, 1638, etching,  Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Self-Portrait in a Velvet Cap with Plume, 1638, etching, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

I fell in love with prints by accident. As a college student, I was interested in medieval art, or, more specifically Byzantine art, especially manuscripts. I needed a part-time job to help with my living expenses, and I applied to work as a research assistant at a New York art gallery that specialized in manuscripts and early printed books. Unbeknownst to me, the gallery also specialized in old master prints and drawings, which I managed to ignore during my first few months at the gallery. I was thoroughly immersed in the world of medieval saints and philosophy.

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Small Prints, Big Artists: Masterpieces from the Renaissance to Baroqueincluding several self-portraits by Rembrandt, is open through September 15.
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One day, I was alone in the gallery with the secretarial assistant. An elderly gentleman walked in with a paper bag under his arm. He took out a small framed print, black and white, very unassuming looking, and said, “They tell me this may be a Rembrandt.” I glanced at the print briefly. It was a portrait, a man in an elaborate feathered cap (shown above). And, with all the arrogant self-confidence of youth, I said, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t think so.” The man packed up his picture and left, disappointed.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Raised Sabre, 1634, etching with touches of burin, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom, by exchange

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Raised Sabre, 1634, etching with touches of burin, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom, by exchange

A little while later, I thought to myself, “Maybe I should just check on this.” The gallery had a wonderful library (this was long before the internet). I pulled out a book on Rembrandt’s etchings, and….there it was. The print WAS an original Rembrandt—Self-Portrait in a Velvet Cap with Plume (1638)—an impression of which is in Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection. I would later learn that Rembrandt made about 30 self-portrait etchings, some very sketchy and slight, some elaborate (examples below), as well as some 50 paintings and a few drawings.

Three of Rembrandt’s other etched self-portraits are included in Small Prints, Big Artists: Masterpieces from the Renaissance to Baroque. In Self-Portrait with a Raised Sabre (above), the artist wears a fur cap and stole; in Self-Portrait with Saskia (below), he is sketching while looking into the mirror, as his new bride Saskia gazes at us in the background; and in Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill (below) he poses as a Renaissance courtier, in a velvet hat and opulent coat. The concept of the self-portrait as an exploration of one’s own psyche did not really exist in the 17th century. Most modern scholars believe that Rembrandt made the prints as models, or “tronies,” as they were then known. He was also producing works for sale and publicizing himself as an artist.

Rembrandt van Harmensz. Rijn, Self-Portrait with Saskia, 1636, etching, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Rembrandt van Harmensz. Rijn, Self-Portrait with Saskia, 1636, etching, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

The experience at the art gallery and the unidentified print taught me a most valuable lesson. Never guess, never assume you know, always check to be certain. More importantly, I was embarrassed by how little I did know about prints, and curious to find out more. What followed was a wonderful adventure of learning—one artist at a time, one print at a time. I often wish I could thank the elderly gentleman for the lifetime of pleasure he gave me. I hope someone wiser than me identified his Rembrandt print as genuine!

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, 1639, etching, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, 1639, etching, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Charles J. Rosenbloom: Devoted Supporter & Benefactor


Gerald L. Brockhurst, Portrait of Charles J. Rosenbloom, 1939, oil on canvas, Gift of the Estate of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Gerald L. Brockhurst, Portrait of Charles J. Rosenbloom, 1939, oil on canvas, Gift of the Estate of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Pittsburgher Charles J. Rosenbloom (1898–1973) was a lawyer, businessman, philanthropist, and passionate supporter of the state of Israel; he was also a music lover, bibliophile, and art collector of breadth, refinement, and taste. A staunch supporter of many Pittsburgh institutions, he was already a noted art collector when he began his official association with Carnegie Institute and its Fine Arts Department (later Carnegie Museum of Art), when he was elected trustee of the Carnegie Institute and member of the Fine Arts Committee in December 1939. He remained a devoted friend and benefactor of the museum throughout the rest of his life. In addition to his long service on the museum board, throughout the years he provided funds for a diverse group of acquisitions, gifted art from his collection, loaned works for important exhibitions, and, finally, hand-picked a large and important part of that collection as a bequest to the museum.

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Small Prints, Big Artists: Masterpieces from the Renaissance to Baroque opens Saturday, May 31, featuring many of the important artworks donated by Charles J. Rosenbloom.
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André Derain, Portrait of an Englishwoman, c. 1920, oil on canvas, Gift of Charles J. Rosenbloom

André Derain, Portrait of an Englishwoman, c. 1920, oil on canvas, Gift of Charles J. Rosenbloom

The diversity and quality of the works in the museum’s collection with a Rosenbloom connection is truly remarkable. His first gift was a painting by André Derain, Portrait of an Englishwoman, given in 1940, no doubt to mark his official affiliation with the museum. During his lifetime he gave about 250 works, ranging from Old Master works on paper; a rare volume of Goya’s Los Caprichos (The Caprices); Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works by Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Cassatt, Matisse, and van Gogh (whose etching The Man with the Pipe, Portrait of Dr. Gachet is the only work in this medium by the artist); and Japanese woodcut scrolls, including the 1939 series Kasenen (Katyayana) by Munakata Shikô.

Vincent van Gogh, The Man with the Pipe, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (L'homme à la pipe), 1890, etching on tan wove paper, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Rosenbloom

Vincent van Gogh, The Man with the Pipe, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (L’homme à la pipe), 1890, etching on tan wove paper, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Rosenbloom

Munakata Shikô (L): Ananda (Ananda), 1939, woodcut, scroll mounted, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Rosenbloom; (R): Shûbodai (Subhuti), 1939, woodcut, scroll mounted, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Rosenbloom

Munakata Shikô (L): Ananda (Ananda), 1939, woodcut, scroll mounted, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Rosenbloom; (R): Shûbodai (Subhuti), 1939, woodcut, scroll mounted, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Rosenbloom

While his lifetime gifts and his bequest, realized in 1974, include paintings, sculpture, and works on paper, it is the latter that were the core of his art collection. And in several areas, they have subsequently constituted the core of the museum’s collection. His bequest of prints by three of the greatest print masters—Dürer, Rembrandt, and Whistler—is illustrative. They total about 150 works (about half of the entire bequest, with more than 50 each by Dürer and Rembrandt and nearly the same number by Whistler). Among them are some of the most famous images in the genre: Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504, in a spectacular impression), Rembrandt’s The Three Trees (1643) and The Agony in the Garden (c. 1659), and Whistler’s Nocturne from the First Venice Set (1879–80).

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Three Trees, 1643, etching, drypoint and burin, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Three Trees, 1643, etching, drypoint and burin, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Agony in the Garden, c. 1659, etching and drypoint, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Agony in the Garden, c. 1659, etching and drypoint, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

It should be pointed out that several other institutions have benefited from Rosenbloom’s service, financial support, and eventual generosity. In addition to gifts made during his lifetime, he bequeathed the main part of his important collection of rare books, manuscripts, and musical scores, including many first and early editions, to libraries at Yale and Carnegie Mellon University. As was his custom, the list of the items for each institution was carefully and personally selected by the benefactor himself. The same was true for his art collection. In numbers, he divided it chiefly and nearly equally between Carnegie Museum of Art and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. However, the individual works destined for each institution were selected carefully: they represent not only an attempt to divide the collection based on the respective needs of each institution but also a sophisticated collector’s personal considerations. For example, as a rule, Rembrandt’s prints with Jewish and Old Testament subjects were given to the Israel Museum while those designated for the Carnegie showcased a broad and comprehensive representation of the artist’s work in the medium.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, 1879-1880, etching and drypoint, printed in dark brown ink on laid paper, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, 1879-1880, etching and drypoint, printed in dark brown ink on laid paper, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom

Prints from the Rosenbloom collection have been showcased in many exhibitions at Carnegie Museum of Art over the last 75 years, beginning with a 1938 loan exhibition of his early acquisitions. It is fitting that in this 40th anniversary year of his important bequest to the museum, they are again an integral part of the upcoming exhibition Small Prints, Big Artists: Masterpieces from the Renaissance to Baroque.

Art of the Projector


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Rodney Graham, installation view of The Green Cinematograph (Programme I: Pipe smoker and overflowing sink), 2010, 16mm film; color, silent; custom film projector with looper, bench, 5:35 min.; Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery, London © Carnegie Museum of Art

As a film and video archivist, I’m excited to see the amount of moving image work being exhibited at the Carnegie right now. It’s all over the place: projected on floors and projected on doors, shown on a screen or a TV monitor machine, to state it in rhyming couplet form. Thanks to the 2013 Carnegie International and the reinstallation of the Scaife galleries—and to the hard work of assistant curator Amanda Donnan and the rest of the contemporary art department—you can scarcely turn your head without seeing some manifestation of what we in the biz call time-based media. But beyond the artworks on display, I’ve been fascinated to see so many examples of the cinematic apparatus being revealed, if not highlighted, in the installation of those works. The most obvious case in point is Rodney Graham’s The Green Cinematograph (Programme I: Pipe smoker and overflowing sink) (2010), probably my favorite single piece in the International, a 16mm film that cuts between a shots of Graham smoking a pipe and a sink overflowing with soap bubbles. More specifically, it’s a 16mm film that passes through a stunning, custom-built projector with a massive looper made of transparent green Lucite, into which the film cascades, creating a swirling tableau that recalls the hypnotic liquid light shows projected behind psychedelic rock concerts in the 1960s and 70s, or the lava lamps that brought that psychedelia into our very homes. There’s also certainly a resonance between the flow of the spent film strip and the bubbles projected on screen, but if you end up watching the looper and ignoring the screen altogether, that’s cool too.

Tarantism

Joachim Koester, installation view of Tarantism, 2007, 16mm film; black and white, silent; 6:31 min.; A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund © Carnegie Museum of Art

The whirring of the projector is a near-omnipresent sound in the contemporary galleries. In the Scaife film room, Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight* (1963) plays, the only soundtrack the opening and closing of the projector’s shutter. The 16mm film, actually made by pressing small bits of detritus between two strips of splicing tape, inevitably draws your attention from the projected image to the physical object and the mechanism of the projector. The same can be said of Tarantism (2007), by Joachim Koester, another silent, 16mm film, in which the spastic dancing of the performers clashes with the uniformity of the projector’s moving parts. As the film passes again and again through the looper, the apparatus takes on an ominous quality, forcing the dancers through a perpetual cycle of frenzied convulsions.

*Note: Between the writing and publication of this post, Mothlight was deinstalled, but the 16mm projector is still hard at work in the Scaife film room. The current film is Robert Nelson’s Oh Dem Watermelons (1965), a frenetic and positively Gallagher-like assault on the eponymous fruit.  A full schedule of experimental films can be found here.
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Mark Leckey, installation view of Made in ‘Eaven, 2004, 16mm film; color, silent; 3 min.; looped 20 min.; Courtesy of the artist; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne; and Cabinet Gallery, London © Carnegie Museum of Art

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Mark Leckey, installation view of Made in ‘Eaven, 2004, 16mm film; color, silent; 3 min.; looped 20 min.; Courtesy of the artist; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne; and Cabinet Gallery, London © Carnegie Museum of Art

The fourth and final film projector/looper can be found among the gems in the Wertz Gallery of the Museum of National History. In fact, as you enter the room, the only thing you see is the projector, sitting on a tall pedestal and pointing outside the room, down an adjoining corridor. Coming into line with the projector, you glimpse the screen, on which plays Mark Leckey’s Made in ’Eaven (2004). The fact that the two elements of the piece, the projector and the screen, inhabit different spaces underscores the unsettling tension of the film, between the physical fact of the analog media, and the impossible picture it captures, a probing pan around Jeff Koons’s mirrored bunny that could only have been accomplished through digital manipulation. As an analog type of fella, I found myself backing away from the uncanny image, toward the comforting hum of the projector.

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If you’re interested in learning more about archiving and exhibiting moving image works in a museum, register for Carnegie Museum of Art’s symposium A Collection of Misfits: Time-Based Media and the Museum, taking place Nov. 21–23, 2013. The Misfits symposium will bring archivists, artists, curators, and conservators from institutions around the world to discuss case studies, pressing issues, and the future of the field. For more information, visit our website: www.cmoa.org/misfits.
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Telling-Vision

Tony Oursler, installation view of (Telling) Vision #3, 1994, video projector, VCR, video, tripod, light stand, cloth; Second Century Acquisition Fund and Oxford Development Fund © Carnegie Museum of Art

This focus on the apparatus isn’t restricted to film work, either. In Tony Oursler’s video installation (Telling) Vision #3 (1994), a video projector angled atop a tripod figures significantly, simultaneously giving a face and a voice to the brown-suited scarecrow (also propped up on a tripod) and gazing curiously up at the bizarre character. A closed-circuit security camera and monitor provide a live mirror for the Thinker to contemplate in Nam June Paik’s TV Rodin (1976-1978).

TV-Rodin

Nam June Paik, installation view of TV Rodin, 1976–1978, plaster, video camera, tripod, monitor, pedestal; A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund © Carnegie Museum of Art

In all of these cases, the “audiovisual equipment” usually hidden in museum exhibition is brought to the fore, becoming vital elements of the work. It is a good rule of thumb when looking at moving image work to think about how the images are produced and transmitted; these processes are essential to the artists and should inform how we consume the work. The film and video on view at the Carnegie press the issue by laying bare the cinematic apparatus, and acknowledging it as an intrinsic component of the art object.

Cassatt & Degas: An Unlikely Friendship


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Mary Cassatt, Young Women Picking Fruit, 1891, oil on canvas; Patrons Art Fund, 22.8. This work is currently on view in the Scaife Galleries.

…It may interest you to know what Degas said when he saw the picture you have just bought for your Museum. It was painted in 1891 in the summer, & Degas came to see me after he had seen it at Durand-Ruel’s. He was chary of praise but he spoke of the drawing of the woman’s arm picking the fruit & made a familiar gesture indicating the line & said no woman has a right to draw like that.

This excerpt from a letter written by Mary Cassatt, late in her life in 1922, to Carnegie Museum of Art director Homer Saint-Gaudens upon the museum’s acquisition of her painting Young Women Picking Fruit, includes a tantalizing reference to her old friend Edgar Degas (who had passed away in 1917). She also references an inside joke that had existed between the two artists going back decades. Here she remembers Degas’s observation of the S-curve lines formed by the arms of the figures in her large painting. This particular aspect of composition—the S-curve—became a recurring theme in the art of both artists beginning around the time of the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886, and can be seen again, for example, in Degas’s later pastel Dancers, c. 1897 (Detroit Institute of Arts). Join us on September 19 for the next Lunch & Learn program, where we’ll explore the full context of how and why compositional devices such as the S-curve became an important component of the exchanges between these great artists.

The artistic relationship between Cassatt and Degas is a subject that I had been working on for years before I arrived at Carnegie Museum of Art. It was the subject of my dissertation and has been integrated into many different curatorial projects over the years. Next week’s Lunch & Learn program will focus on the 40-year friendship and working interactions between these two major artists in the collection. We’ll discuss aspects of biography, their professional support for one another, and anecdotes surrounding their social interactions in the Impressionist milieu, including Cassatt’s occasional willingness to pose as a model for Degas. But primarily we’ll juxtapose examples of their art side-by-side to see how their artworks seem to be locked in a visual dialogue. My interest in these two artists together has always focused on how their works seem to be in conversation in terms of art production, subject matter, and composition.

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Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery, 1879–1880, etching, soft ground, aquatint, and drypoint on wove paper; Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom, by exchange, 76.57.1

It is well-understood that these two fiercely opinionated, independent, and sometimes difficult artists were close friends in Impressionist circles. In fact, it was through Degas’s invitation to Cassatt in 1877 that she joined the Impressionist exhibiting group in Paris. Cassatt was an expatriate from the United States (born in Allegheny City—now part of Pittsburgh!) and was the only American and one of only three women to ever exhibit with the French Impressionists. Though they were close friends, one of the difficulties in studying their interaction is that their correspondence between one another has been lost. Some of the most direct traces of their communication that remains manifests in their artwork—where they seem to respond to each other in a range of different ways. Interpreting these visual, aesthetic forms of communication, of course, leaves room for a great deal of ambiguity and subjective understanding. Their relationship was enveloped in the challenges of nineteenth-century gender politics and social conventions. Factors of age, nationality, and gender differences undoubtedly complicate the interpretation of their art and professional interactions.

Delving into the nuances of their artistic production and their occasionally fraught friendship helps produce greater understanding of Impressionist artistic circles—yet, looking at their art side-by-side and comparing the circumstances of their careers complicates our understanding of both of them as artists. Why would the cantankerous Degas, known for his occasionally difficult attitudes towards women, be drawn to the younger feminist/suffragist Cassatt, and vice versa? A mutual understanding as well as the sense that they could challenge each other and stand up to each other’s forceful personalities laid the groundwork for their enduring friendship and undoubtedly helped make each of them stronger artists.