From the Curator's Desk

The Life of Thomas Eakins

Rusty Freeman - Friday, September 18, 2020

We explore in this post, the family, friends, education, and art of Thomas Eakins in relationship to his social contexts and highlight key events and paintings.  As many readers know, Cedarhurst cares for four paintings by Eakins — Samuel Murray, 1889; Professor Barker, 1886 (and the excised canvas fragment of Barker’s hand turned into a separate painting); and Eakins’ beloved sister Margaret, 1871.  

Thomas Eakins, Margaret, 1871, oil, 18x15", Gift of John R. and Eleanor R. Mitchell, 1973.1.17

Today, Eakins stands with America’s best painters of the 19th century who was also the century’s best art teacher.  Eakins is highly regarded for his ability to capture in paint the psychology of both men and women.  Rembrandt and Velázquez had this ability.  

Known today for his portraits, he sold very few paintings in his lifetime.  It is said that all his paintings are portraits in some form or another.  Also praised for his outdoor scenes, especially his rowing depictions.  His colors (blacks, browns, and tans) were a problem for some, not colorful enough, and his paintings not “modern” enough.  Eakins had no interest in the contemporary art of his times (Courbet, Manet, or Impressionism).  In 1864, Manet had just debuted Olympia and was the talk of the town. Though Eakins was in Paris in 1865, he remained an iconoclast interested only in painting what he saw in real life. He cared next to nothing for the smooth neoclassical style or the bombastic romantic style.  Thomas Eakins danced to a different beat.  

Eakins was smart, wealthy, single-minded, with no political or social ambitions.  An excellent student, he excelled at art and science.  Eakins may have been bipolar; fought depression every day of his life.  Sexual identity ambiguity and family tragedy (deaths of mother and sister Margaret; suicide of a niece) also haunted his life.  

Nonetheless, young Tom and his father, Benjamin hunted together, sailed, and bicycled.  Tom loved rowing.  The elder Eakins had amassed a fortune that would keep Eakins and his wife Susan Macdowell Eakins in good stead the rest of their lives.  

Married to Susan Macdowell for 32 years.  She was a former student and they cared deeply for each other.  After Eakins died, Susan worked tirelessly to see that her husband was recognized by the major museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

Supremely gifted, Eakins always knew he wanted to be an artist, and unconventionally, his father supported and encouraged his son in this pursuit.  

Young Eakins attended one of the leading schools in the country, Philadelphia’s Central High School where only 1% of potential grammar school graduates were accepted.  He was interested in painting, anatomy, medicine, physics, and sports.  Eakins had a lifelong fascination with science. He gave the scientific address at graduation in 1861. 

Eakins developed fluency in French and six more languages—Italian, Spanish, German, Greek, Latin, English.  Also knew sign language.  His command of French allowed him to navigate past the bureaucracy guarding admittance to Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  

Eakins sailed the Atlantic to Paris in 1866 to pursue his dream to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with the most celebrated art teacher of the time, Jean-Léon Gérôme.  Mary Cassatt also studied with Gérôme.  In France, Eakins kept a journal in French and returning home, for a time, wrote letters to friends in French.  While in Paris, Eakins also studied with Léon Bonnat, a portrait painter.  Bonnat advised Eakins to visit Spain and especially the Prado, where Eakins fell in love with paintings by Diego Velázquez.  The Prado and Velázquez had a tremendously positive effect on Eakins’ thinking as to what painting could be.

During Eakins’ lifetime, the Second Industrial Revolution nicknamed the Gilded Age began to thrive.  The last decades of the 19th century and the first two of the 20th century were times of great economic achievement for the United States. It rapidly became the most industrious and wealthiest nation in the world.  

The pace of the world was noticeably accelerating with the inventions of trains, the automobile, the airplane, telegraph, telephone, the camera, light bulb, movies, typewriter, cash register, and time clock. Eakins was one of the first painters to use a camera in making art.  Eakins met motion photographer Eadweard Muybridge at the University of Pennsylvania.  Eakins was an integral part of the University’s grand experiments, serving on committees, and there he perfected his own photographic invention—the wheel camera—that photographed human movement with one camera.  

Significantly, the Gilded Age saw the rise of the professional class, especially in the science and medical professions.  Sports were becoming popular as a middle class way to relax.  In 1871 Eakins painted Max Schmitt in a Single Shell.  In 1875, Eakins painted The (Dr. Samuel) Gross Clinic considered by many to be his greatest painting.  At the time, surgical teams still wore business suits.  People despised the painting considering it to have too much blood and shock value.  

Eakins’ late 19th century world was quickly becoming modernized and his paintings responded to social and cultural innovations.  

In an infamous incident, in 1886, Eakins was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art where he taught.  During a figure drawing class, he removed the loincloth from the male model in order to further a point on musculature.   Immediately afterwards, 54 students petitioned to have him reinstated.  Within ten days Eakins’ dismissal, 30 of his students set up, on their own, an Art Students League with Eakins as the sole instructor.  

Thomas Eakins, Professor Barker's Hand, 1886, oil, 15x12" (reduced), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. S. Alden Perrine, 1973.6.1
Thomas Eakins, Professor George F. Barker, 1886, oil, 24x20" (reduced from original 60x40"), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. S. Alden Perrine, 1973.6.1

Professor George F. Barker was painted the year of the dismissal.  A well-regarded physicist and chemist, Barker was a friend and colleague of Thomas Edison.  Originally, Eakins painted his dear friend Barker as a three-quarter body-length portrait, not the head-only portrait we exhibit today.  Remarking on the psychological identity of the hand, Eakins said, “a hand takes as long to paint as a head; and a man’s hand looks no more like another man’s hand than a head looks like another’s.”  

In 1885, Samuel Murray was an art student of Eakins at the Art Student League.  Eakins painted the Cedarhurst Samuel Murray in 1889.  Murray was 25 years Eakins’ junior and they were inseparable in the 1890s. They went to boxing matches, rode bikes together, and made pilgrimages to Walt Whitman.  Murray was at his friend’s bedside when Eakins died in 1916.  

Thomas Eakins, Thomas Murray, 1889, oil, 24x20", Gift of John R. and Eleanor R, Mitchell, 1973.1.16 

Since his death, Thomas Eakins has been favorably compared to his contemporaries Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.  These American thinkers contributed enduring principles towards Eakins’ own philosophical outlook.  

Whitman (1819-1892) asserted in his poetry the beauty of the human body, physical health, and sexuality.   Whitman’s poetry broke new ground as it moved away from traditional verse to everyday cadence.  Whitman was world-famous as people from all over the world visited him in Camden, New Jersey. Eakins met Walt Whitman in 1887.  They became friends and enjoyed many talks together.  Eakins was a Whitman pallbearer, and he and Samuel Murray made the death mask of their friend.  

Thoreau (1817-1862) was an exponent of Transcendentalism which espoused the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of humankind, and trusted insight and experience over logic.  America’s Hudson River School painters owed a debt to this worldview.  

Thoreau’s Walden is considered a philosophical treatise on labor, leisure, self-reliance, individualism, and our connection to nature.  Thoreau’s themes—the value in the beauty of the human body, the unity of creation, self-reliance, and individualism suffused the values of Thomas Eakins who lived from 1844 to 1916.

Thomas Eakins and his legacy had a tremendous impact on Robert Henri and his Ashcan painters.  George Bellows with fellow members of the Ashcan School started an American Revolution freeing artists to paint what they wished, much beyond what the Academy sanctioned.  They—and in many ways following Eakins—chose Everyday Life.  

George Bellows observed: Eakins’ 1917 Metropolitan retrospective “proves him to be one of the best of all the world’s masters. The greatest one man show I’ve seen and some of the very greatest pictures.”  

Museums Study History Through Art

Rusty Freeman - Friday, September 11, 2020

Museums, and perhaps most particularly art museums, have roles to play in connecting the lives of their visitors with the history of their communities and their country.

History becomes illuminating when it’s tied to the present. Museums can, for their audiences, facilitate this connecting work of history to the world today.

Art museums themselves have to be current and as connected to the present as they are about studying the past.

Museums endeavor to be relevant in the traditional sense but also in new ways that challenge old school ways.The Innovation & Tradition in American Art permanent collection traces American history from late 19th century to the postmodern.  Photo: R.Freeman 

SRO at the February 2018 opening of the “Savage” Happening at Cedarhurst. Photo: R.Freeman

Museums endeavor to present History as critically important for understanding our current moment.

Reading objects in historical contexts that speak to today is what art museums specialize in.

Everyone reads cultural objects through the many languages they are born into and those they cultivate.  All the arts — books, painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, movies, music, dance, theatre — play fundamental roles in signposting what is significant in culture today. Museums have tools to share on how to read objects in context. The tools are offered to visitors to determine what is relevant.

William Glackens, Summer Day, Bellport, Long Island, 1913, Oil; Julien Weir, The Feather Boa, 1890, Oil; Collection of Cedarhurst, Photo: R. Freeman

Form, Mood, Function, Social Values, and Historical Contexts are my main themes when considering what goes into and comes out of cultural objects. Just the study of Form alone expands into the artwork’s material connotations, the influence of style, and semiotics.

The audience turns as guest artist Margaret Keller (podium, far right) makes a point about her watercolors.  At the Leaning on Nature exhibition, February 23, 2020.  Photo: R. Freeman

Dominant themes in American art are established in the works of the Ashcan School and Paul Strand. Each in their own ways looked to represent people and aspects of American life that were often overlooked. Their art and photography became the recognition of people from everyday life. Typically, back in their era, only prominent people and events were portrayed in oil or made into statues. Later, Pop Art continued the recognition of everyday life. Postmodernism looked closer at the social values in everyday life.

Marilyn Boysen, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, all works 1995-2003, bird feathers, exotic woods, various media.  Roberta Elliot, themed seasons stands for masks, 2009, hand-wrought metal.  All Permanent Collection of Cedarhurst.  Photo: R. Freeman 

Museums and its curators are challenged with how to make collections accessible and relevant to a wide range of people. Curatorial work begins in scholarship.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch said, “Scholarship should shape what you do in part because it gives you credibility.... You can be stopped if your scholarship isn’t sound.”

Museums are not only for experts. The very scholarship that attracts experts can also be conveyed to diverse spectrums of people. Curators are the liaisons.

Art Museums can be at the center of their communities helping to understand the social and democratic challenges in a world where lives are dominated by the risks of economic collapse, ecological catastrophes, rise of totalitarianism, and warfare.

A museum’s raison d’être begins introspectively improving the institution itself.

Cedarhurst has always reviewed its past adjusting to ensure that it is relevant to its community, a welcoming space for all people.

The Mount Vernon Township High School Future Farmers of America exhibit May - July 2018.  Photo: R.Freeman

Being inclusive is a day-to-day commitment; a transformative commitment. Diversity is another name for democracy. Diversity embraces tradition and innovation. It’s what we strive for at Cedarhurst.

Bruno Moser discussed his collection in The Beauty of Function exhibition October 2015. Photo: R. Freeman 

I have a sense that museums have long functioned as micro-forums of democracy who gather diverse audiences to discuss the representations of culture.

Museums, though not perfect, continue to shift towards the needs of their audiences becoming more involved as social agents of change.

Artists in our collections, like myself, believe in the power of representation.

Representations can bestow meaning, authority, and prestige on the person, object, or idea being depicted. Visual artists, musicians, and poets reconfigure “our lived lives” into art.

The Cedarhurst artists who historically recognized the contradictions of those who had been under-represented are: Robert Henri, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, Paul Strand, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, and George Bellows.

William Edmondson

Rusty Freeman - Friday, September 04, 2020

In my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee there lived a man who became one of the most well known artists in the art world, if not the world-at-large, his name is William Edmondson.  

Born in 1874 to parents who were once slaves in the American South. Edmondson grew up in the Southern historical context of the racist and dehumanizing Jim Crow era. When Edmondson died in 1951, he was not known as famously as he would become later, but his stone sculptures of memorials for friends, numerous animals from life and mythology, and people from his neighborhood, were known and collected by some.  

Edmondson at home in Nashville. The three birds were carved by him; a tombstone for a neighbor. Note the echo of the bird’s head in the cloud. Photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe 1937. All photos courtesy of Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN and The Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.   

During his lifetime, three well known photographers came to Nashville specifically to meet him and see his sculptures. They were Edward Weston who visited in 1941, Louise Dahl-Wolfe in 1937, and Consuelo Kanaga in 1950. First Dahl-Wolfe visited and through her connections, Edmondson became the first African American artist to have a one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937.  

Edmondson’s astonishing number of hand-carved stone sculptures in his backyard. Photo by Consuelo Kanaga 1950. 

Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA sanctioned this event. Modern artists from the beginning were following artists who were “folk” or “self-taught.” Self-taught artists had no formal training in school for the arts. The “modern” artists admired the self-taught artists for their spontaneity, creativity, and most of all, the uninhibited forms of their artworks.  

A page from The Art of William Edmondson.  Note the sideways use of hammer on customized railroad spike.  Dahl-Wolfe photos of Edmondson’s backyard filled with magnificent sculptures.  

During the tumultuous beginnings of postmodernism, the now defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC organized Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980 which definitively brought black voices into the art world conversation. Two superstars emerged from the exhibition — Bill Traylor and William Edmondson. Now, Edmondson was clearly on the national art stage and remains there today.  

In the late 1990s, I curated for Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN, a large traveling retrospective and exhibition catalog. On the cover, Edmondson posed sitting next to his Noah’s Ark.  Photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe.  

Formalism and Symbolic Content

Rusty Freeman - Friday, August 28, 2020

Formalism is a fundamental theory of aesthetics (the study of art and its values) emphasizing the overall appearance of a work of art. The appearance is judged for how well the formal arrangement of elements within a painting, sculpture, etc., manages to convey a successful “internal logic.” All formal elements must work together to convey a unified whole. Formal analysis judges how well a work of art succeeds in creating a pleasurable aesthetic experience separate from its inherent symbolism or interpretations.  

Formalism studies just the forms that compose a work of art. Formal analysis weighs how the subject of the painting, say portrait or landscape, uses color, shape, line, texture, scale, pattern, and framing to make its “statement of content.” For any symbolic content to be conveyed successfully the formal elements must all work together in harmony. The more successful formal harmony, the more successful the symbolic content in a work of art.  

Walter Benjamin once said, “A literary work can only be politically correct if it is also literarily correct.”  

Georges Braque, Violin and Palette, 1909, oil, 36x17”, Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 

In the early 20th century, Cubism developed into the most emphatic, game-changing art movement since the Renaissance. Fifteenth century Italian artists had successfully worked perspective precision into the visual arts. Five hundred years later, Cubism broke decisively from the perspective method. Together, Picasso and Braque developed Cubism. Picasso was particularly interested in how the “object” itself could be fully portrayed without using the scientific precision of the perspective method. Braque in turn was interested in how empty “space” itself could be represented as three-dimensional form in a two-dimensional medium.  

The young Paul Strand first saw Cubism and works by Cézanne and Picasso in Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 art gallery. Strand studied Cubism and the innovative new works of modern art learning how and why an artist arranged the pictorial elements.  

Strand asked “What do Picasso and those other painters mean? Why do they do it that way?” By 1914, Strand was implementing his insights from modern art into his photography— particularly abstraction and sense of composition.  Strand: “We all talked the same language….  It has to do with understanding a painting like a Villon or a Braque. You have to go into a picture; it has to have three-dimensional movement, lovely to the eye, full of variety of color and shape.”

Paul Strand (1890-1976), The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916, Gelatin silver print, edition #15/100, Gift of the Paul Strand Estate, Michael E. Hoffman, © Aperture Foundation, Cedarhurst Collection 1987.8.1a

Strand would in turn apply his newfound methodology of formal arrangement to his work in photography and filmmaking. Strand successfully applied modern art’s formal approach to composition to his photography.  White Fence 1916 ushered in the era of modern photography.  

Georges Braque (1882-1963) invented Cubism with Picasso, 1907-1914. Cubism is the art of three-dimensional space—taking objects and space apart—revealing multiple sides simultaneously on a two-dimensional surface.  

Paul Strand (1890-1976), Georges Braque, Varangéville, France, 1957, Gelatin silver print, edition #18/100, Gift of the Paul Strand Estate, Michael E. Hoffman, © Aperture Foundation, Cedarhurst Collection, 1987.8.2f  

Strand met Braque in 1957 at his home in Varangéville, France. Notice how Strand composed his portrait.He surrounded the artist of space with “cubistic planes” and literally had Braque opening a spatial threshold and emerging from one space into the next. There is a terribly intriguing inclusion of a giant crab seemingly out-of-context, until one remembers that Picasso and Braque also invented collage, the use of disparate elements to compose pictures rich in symbolism.  

A near-perfect example of Strand’s and Cubism’s influence on modern photography may be seen in David Gilmore’s, Crossville, Illinois.  

David Gilmore Crossville, Illinois, 1992, black and white photograph, Cedarhurst Collection  

If we put aside for the moment any likely implicit content or symbolism in the photograph and look only at the picture’s “formal elements”—shapes, lines, geometric forms (diagonals, angles, rectangles, trapezoids), black and white tonalities, and most of all, repeating forms—we can begin to see why Gilmore stopped right here, in front of the trestle and composed this rather fascinating and intriguing work of art. Not only is it an intersection from real life, it is an intersection of Gilmore with History, with Strand, and Strand’s study of Cubism.  

The content of any work of art (visual, music, film) owes everything to its formal arrangement and composition.  

What is a Permanent Collection?

Rusty Freeman - Saturday, August 22, 2020

What is a Permanent Collection? 

A way to study History. And Art. Certainly a permanent collection can be used to study art history. The study of form and stylistic change. To study how new technologies inform and change the style and content of art. 

This blog compares Tradition and Innovation as themes in the Cedarhurst permanent collection. Here, this George Inness painting, (Durham, Connecticut, 1879, oil) may be considered following tradition when compared to Prendergast's innovative and colorful By the Seashore.  All artworks from the Cedarhurst collection.  

A public art museum’s permanent collection reflects the tastes and values of the institution much in the way a private collection reflects the owner’s worldviews on art. What an individual or public institution collects says much about who they are and their aspirations.    

But a museum’s permanent collection is open to being freely interpreted by the communities the institution serves. The museum helps their communities achieve those interpretations.  

Innovation in the work of Maurice Prendergast, By the Seashore, 1905, oil.  

To study the Cedarhurst permanent collection is to see the history of the United States through art objects.  

Art in America has a long history of maintaining traditions with the innovations of each new generation running alongside. Collections reflect traditions and innovations.  

To study tradition and innovation we ask what historical events were significant during the making of this or that artwork. How did the historical event affect the people’s lives? How does this artwork reflect or embody that historical event?  How did people in the past view their world? How does the past help us make sense of the present?  

The objects in any collection are layered with buried stories of identity, representations, ideologies, conflicting messages; they give shape to our mythologies, to create our sense of place, to our dreams of new worlds.

Giovanni Maria Benzoni, Veiled Rebecca, 1872, marble; follows Neoclassical tradition. 

All collections lie in a state of suspended animation, like Sleeping Beauty, awaiting that one curious person to say, why was this object made, why this way, for what purpose, who benefited, how did this object lead to the next great thing, and a host of other as-yet unimagined questions.

The historical context of any object, be it a 100-year-old oil painting or digital photograph, is so important for understanding the many stories that came together in the making of the object. Some of the stories are known; some are unknown. It is discovering the unknown that makes the objects come alive again and can benefit us in the here and now.  

Our stories change. Over time, the ways collections have been valued evolve. For example, the notion of “beauty” has changed, and objects formerly valued as “scientific” or “naive” can become valued for their “beauty.” The next younger generation will see things differently, and that's important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the continuing evaluation and appreciation of our historical heritage. 

Innovation in the art of Annelies Heijnen, Jeu de Boule, 2007, white earthenware. 

The design of this chair is over 300 years old. Its origins reach back to the 18th century in England's countryside. Known as the Windsor chair, its eloquent design features graceful curved spindle back, saddle shaped seat, sturdy arms, and splayed legs. This chair was handmade in 2004 by John Quick, titled Sack-Back Windsor and used walnut, tulip popular, and white oak. This is tradition.  

The Cedarhurst collections offer many opportunities for young scholars to explore the ethos, characteristics, principles, beliefs, customs, assumptions, and values of social and cultural life in the communities of southern Illinois.

In the end, what do you value in these art collections of American History?   

The Curator-Visitor Relationship

Rusty Freeman - Friday, August 14, 2020

Today’s blog introduces the role of the curator in organizing art exhibitions with an eye towards the creative involvement of the visitor.  

Marcel Duchamp declared in his 1957 paper, “Creative Act,” that “all in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds [her or] his contribution to the creative act.” (My italics and pronoun edit to original).  

The following excerpts from are Francesco Manacorda’s essay “For Whom Do We Write Exhibitions? Towards a Museum as Commons.”  [See link below].  

We might “consider exhibitions as communicative constructs; texts using a combination of iconic, textual, aural, and exhibition-specific conventions."  

“An exhibition’s textuality involves a variety of signs and other texts being woven together; this includes the works of art, but also other key textual components, such as their titles, interpretative panels, direct quotes from the artists, extended captions, the exhibition’s accompanying printed matter, and three-dimensional associative enunciations—display conventions such as the juxtaposition of works to generate meaning through similarity or contrast."  

"The art exhibition is essentially a lazy machine which counts on the plus-value of meaning that the viewer introduces as if to fill a series of blank interstitial spaces.”  

Manacorda quoted my favorite art critic Peter Schjeldahl who had this to say about how viewers may interact with an art exhibition. Schjeldahl reviewed an exhibition that seemed to be “withholding the often intricate backstory that informs each of the works and this leaves a viewer with three choices that I can see." 

“One is to be maddened by the tease." 

“Another is to be stimulated to consult the catalogue, which is replete with brainy curatorial essays and with extended quotes from such cynosures of the art-school seminar as Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and from artist friends, including Barbara Kruger, Daniel Buren, and Lawrence Weiner." 

“Still a third is to relax and enjoy the mute and striking elegance of an installation that amounts to an exhibition about exhibiting. I have tested all three options.  They all work.”  

Manacorda: “I consider an ethical duty of the curator—especially the museum curator—to facilitate the various possible actualizations of exhibitions for audiences of different backgrounds.” I am in agreement with Manacorda’s declaration. 

“The question of [curatorial] responsibility leads us to the focus on how to deliberately increase the cooperation with the public, finding ways of writing—or designing—exhibitions that allow, stimulate, and encourage their readers/viewers to contribute.”  

“Would it be possible to contemplate that the reader/viewer cooperation might not just be circumscribed to the interpretation and actualization of a text, but more literally in the territory of co-authoring?” 

What would co-authoring with the art museum curator look like?  

“Rather than Umberto Eco’s ‘lazy machine,’ in this [collaborative] model the museum is like a learning machine. One that learns with the audience in a pedagogical relation that is bidirectional. If the traditional museum can be compared to a broadcasting television or radio station that distributes knowledge generated by experts to general learners who grow by acquiring information and new knowledge, the museum as a learning machine sees all involved actors in the learner position, although not everyone would occupy the expert position as well.”  My italics.  

Curators as knowledgable historians have to have the last word in exhibition design and interpretation.  

Manacorda’s exhibition Art Turning Left, 2012, is cited as an example to “illustrate how we experimented with these ideas at Tate Liverpool. [The photos are from this exhibit.]  The framework of the show in question was to investigate the way that political beliefs had changed how artists produced their work or their attitude towards the ownership, management, and re-design of the means of art production.”  

According to the Tate Liverpool press release: Art Turning Left is a thematic exhibition, based on key concerns that span different historical periods and geographic locations. They range from equality in production and collective authorship to the question of how to merge art and life. The exhibition moves away from the political messages behind the works and claims about the ability of art to deliver political and social change, and instead focuses on the effect political values have had on the processes, aesthetics and display of artworks.  

Manacorda’s curatorial experiment “symbolically highlight[-ed] how the exhibition was a text to be added to, enriched, and debated [and] not necessarily only in a positive way.”   

At Cedarhurst, we offer visitors ways to read and unpack exhibitions for their potential meanings and encourage visitors to determine their own conclusions about an art work’s significance and place within the fabric of history.  

See Stedelijk Studies: Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director at Tate Liverpool.  

Aesthetic Autonomy

Rusty Freeman - Friday, August 07, 2020

This blog introduces the current exhibition Fables, Allegories, and Aestheticism: The Art of the Message.  

The exhibition compares two modes of art making; a mode which prioritizes the art itself as “the message of form” and a mode that prioritizes “the message of content.”  

Artists who follow the “message of form” create art without an intended moral or political point of view and instead offer a tableau that viewers can interpret based on what they see. Those who follow the “message of content” create art with an intention to deliver a socially beneficial message of some kind. Both modes have benefits and purpose. At their best, both modes want viewers to see something from life that they had not see before.  

Fables, Allegories, and Aestheticism: The Art of the Message brings together a diverse group of artists with the intent to understand how these artists use art to convey messages. Key are the artists who practice art with no pre-planned message. For these artists, there is an important social value in creating artworks that may stimulate viewers to find their own message. These artists are Dominic Finocchio, Michael Onken, Glenn Moreton, and Daniel Overturf. The artists with implied social messages are David Yates, Lizzy Martinez, Chloe Flanigan, and Margaret Keller. A Siegfried Reinhardt (1924-1984) painting is included from the Cedarhurst permanent collection as an example of a type of allegorical social commentary found in modern art that viewers must interpret for themselves.  

Dominic Finocchio, Purged Ideology, 2017, oil.  Finocchio’s signs and symbols, though carefully chosen, are left open for interpretation by the viewer based on his or her experiences.  

David Yates, Nighthawks Revisited, 2015, oil.  Yates intends his signs and symbols to carry messages, but encourages the viewer to determine meaning.  

Lizzy Martinez, Little Red Riding Hood, 2017, oil.  Martinez intends a social message.  Here, turning the fable plot upside down, the artist would like to see improved gun regulation.  

Fables are supernatural short stories featuring a useful truth told by animals or inanimate objects. Fables often conclude with the aphorism or maxim. Aesop is a prime example. Allegories are stories where the moral message is implied but never explicitly stated in the storytelling.  John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, published 1678 is a major example. 

Aestheticism was a late 19th century movement of art for art’s sake. The Aesthetic Movement was the idea that art only needed to express beauty or formal excellence without a socially mandated requirement to espouse moral lessons. The Aesthetic Movement together with the especially powerful and influential Neoclassicism and Romanticism gave rise to the Modern Art movement.  

Glenn Moreton, Open, 2020, acrylic.  Moreton paints carefully chosen scenes from real life, but imposes no storyline.  Viewers are free to determine significance for themselves.  

Modern Art championed the priority of the aesthetic autonomy of the art object itself.  

In literature, New Criticism emerged in the 1920s which insisted that the art work alone was the bearer of meaning. Outside references to biography or history were unnecessary. The new critics insisted that everything needed to understand a poem was already in the poem. To an important degree, that is still true today; interpretation begins with form, but social and historical issues are also considered.  

Chloe Flanigan, Hide and Seek, 2018, watercolor, color pencil.  The artist’s social message is to bring awareness to sexual violence against women.  

Clement Greenberg in 1939 began a battle against the products of the mass market by urging that the fine art avant-garde must elevate art with art for art’s sake and “pure poetry.”  This elevation of “pure” art could be easily distinguished from the banal mass culture. 

The early beginnings of postmodernism began in America with the critique of Greenberg’s narrow definition of high art. Pop Art inaugurated the postmodern formal and social critique with its reaction to Abstract Expressionism.  

Michael Onken, Tea with a Traveler, 2019, watercolor, gouache, acrylic. Though loaded with symbolism, Onken intends no message or agenda.  

By the late 1970s and 1980s postmodern artists took Pop Art’s socially referenced outlook and combined it with Conceptual Art’s critical thinking and social commentary to make a new kind of art. The realization grew that it was no longer logical to separate art based solely on its formal qualities from social issues.  

Daniel Overturf, Lonnie Swept the Playroom and Swallowed Up All He Found, 1994, darkroom C-print from original camera negative. Clearly intending a story, Overturf nevertheless leaves room for individual interpretations.  

Margaret Keller, Tortellini Means Venus’ Navel, 1984, watercolor. Though Keller today is better known for her social messages, here, in this early work the artist plays with visual and written language as well as the sensuous gaze.  

Today, aesthetic autonomy means the freedom to choose between the values of “the message of form” or “the message of content”. Art for art’s sake has its place as does art with a social message.  As we know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  

Artist Hometowns:
Dominic Finocchio, Lizzy Martinez, and Margaret Keller are from St. Louis. David Yates lives in Edwardsville, IL. Glenn Moreton and Chloe Flanigan are from Mt. Vernon, IL.  Michael Onken lives in Carbondale, IL. Daniel Overturf lives in Murphysboro, IL.

A brief interpretation of The Magic Game  

Siegfried Reinhardt was born in Germany and lived and worked in St. Louis. Reinhardt taught at Washington University for 15 years. Reinhardt’s The Magic Game, 1961, is a moody, allegorical painting where children play amid abstract, geometric cabinetry against a sheer wall. Circles on the wall appear as holes and moon-like; more circles echo throughout. I think it would be a mistake to interpret the children literally. The tenor of the 1960s was a time of great change and influence. Consider these 60s events - Kennedy was elected, the nuclear sub Triton and nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise were launched, sit-in protests in the South, birth control pills first marketed, spy plane U-2 shot down, and the Bay of Pigs. Reinhardt’s painting reflects the mood of the 1960s and is social commentary of a high order.  

The Origins of Museums

Rusty Freeman - Friday, July 31, 2020

The history of the genesis of museums is a fascinating blend of passion for all things handmade and for the beauty and strangeness of nature. This blog will introduce the motivating impulses of education and conservation that began museums and continue to inform museums today. 

The Cedarhurst Center for the Arts and the Goldman-Kuenz Sculpture Park are a part of this history. Our institution was shaped by this history and reflects the highest and most current best practices of that history.

It is innate for humans to collect. It’s how we teach ourselves to learn about and live in the world. There is speculation that the earliest known organized manifestation of this innate need may be Neo-Babylonian Princess Ennigaldi’s “museum” from 530 BCE. The site was discovered by Ashmolean archaeologist Leonard Woolley in 1925. Other early candidates are the Capitoline Museums, Rome, 1471; and the Vatican museums, 1506. 

I will use these five museums to chart our short history: the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Prado, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England. Contemporary black sculpture Taichi Arch by Ju Ming, 2013. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and Creative Commons 

The Ashmolean Museum may be considered the first public museum. It opened in 1683 on the campus of University of Oxford, England. Founder Elias Ashmole stipulated that his collections (cabinets of curiosity) form the basis for practical research and education. Collection highlights feature archaeological objects and fine art from ancient Egypt, Greek pottery, English silver, paintings by Peter Paul Reubens, Picasso, and John Singer Sargent, and drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci.

The British Museum, London, is like many museums with its conglomeration of styles and additions. The neoclassical facade marks the entrance. The modern green dome and roof were added in 2000. Significantly, the dome covers the Reading Room, 1857, highlighting the history of the museum beginning as a library.  Photo courtesy of Luke Massey and Creative Commons.

The British Museum opened in 1759 and could be described as the oldest independent museum in the world. Interestingly, the British Museum for its first fifty years housed no art, but instead books and manuscripts. Early access was restricted to “learned gentlemen.” Access followed royal court protocol and aristocratic etiquette. Not until the 19th century did access become more accommodating to the public. Collection highlights feature the still controversial Elgin marbles (Lord Elgin removed half the Parthenon sculptures in 1801-1811); the Rosetta Stone; a 600-year-old bust of Ooni, leader of the West African Kingdom of Ife; the Aztec turquoise double-headed serpent, 15th century BCE; the Sloane Astrolabe, medieval, c.1300; and the gigantic granite bust of Ramesses the Great, 1250 BCE.

The Louvre, Paris, on the banks of the Seine. I. M. Pei’s landmark glass Pyramid, 1989, marks the museum’s now famous underground entrance. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and GNU Free Documentation License

The Louvre origin story is the most unique of all museums. Originally, the site next to the Seine River in Paris began as a fortress in 1190. In the 1500s the site was remade as a royal palace. Prior to the French Revolution, which was a ten-year affair from 1789 to 1799, the idea was discussed to turn the Louis XVI palace into a public museum. But it took the Revolution for the Louvre to become a museum. In 1793, the former palace was formally decreed by the new government a public museum. As might be expected, the new museum became a symbol of revolutionary achievement. Collection highlights include the Mona Lisa,1503; the Venus de Milo, c.100 BCE; the Nike of Samothrace, 190 BCE; and the Medici Cycle by Peter Paul Rubens begun in 1622.

The Prado, Madrid. Designed by architect Juan de Villanueva in 1785, its original residents the National History Cabinet, then the Royal Museum, and finally the Prado. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, Emilio J. Rodriguez Posada, and Creative Commons.  

The Prado, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid opened to the public in 1819. The Prado’s collections began with art from the Habsburg and Bourbon monarchs. The royal holdings were strengthened by the famed artist Diego Velázquez—the court painter of Philip IV (1621–65)—who traveled Italy seeking worthy paintings. The Prado boasts the most complete collections in the world of works by El Greco, Velázquez, and Francisco de Goya. The Prado’s highlights are found in most art history textbooks: The Annunciation by Fra Angélico, 1431-35; The Descent from the Cross by Roger Van der Weyden 1436; Self-portrait by Dürer, 1498; The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch 1500-1510; The Cardinal, by Raphael, c.1510; Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet by Tintoretto, 1547; The Emperor Charles V by Titian, 1548; The Three Graces by Rubens, c.1639; Las Meninas by Velázquez, 1656 (meninas here means young ladies-in-waiting or personal assistants to the queen); and The Third of May 1808 by Goya, 1814.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, Manhattan. The majestic Fifth Avenue entrance by Richard Morris Hunt. Famous for many landmark buildings, and as Cedarhurst Book Club members know, Hunt also designed the Biltmore House for George and Edith Vanderbilt. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, Arad, and Creative Commons.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was incorporated in 1870 and opened in 1872. (An aside: other earlier established US museums include - Charles Willson Peale’s Independence Hall, Philadelphia, 1786; Peabody Essex, Salem, MA, 1799; the Smithsonian, 1846; Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1870; and the Chicago Art Institute, 1879.) 

The Met founders were John Taylor Johnston, railroad executive of the Central Railroad of New Jersey; George Palmer Putnam, book publisher; Eastman Johnson, artist, best known for his scenes of everyday life in America; Frederic Edwin Church, best known as the key landscape painter of the Hudson River School; Howard Potter, industrialist and banker; with various (and apparently unlisted) other founders making contributions. J. Pierpont Morgan played a significant role in moving the fledgling institution forward. 

The museum buildings are a conglomeration of styles: High Victorian Gothic with some modern glass structures on the sides and rear. But it is famed architect Richard Morris Hunt’s Fifth Avenue facade that has become the iconic representation of the museum with the Beaux-Arts style. The Met is the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere. It is perennially the third highest attended museum with around 7 million annually, behind number one the Louvre, and number two the British Museum. 

The Met collections total over 3 million objects managed by over 100 curators with several hundred thousand objects on public view. The former director Philippe de Montebello noted in his 1983 introduction to the handbook that “several of the departments could and would be major independent museums almost anywhere else.” 

Rather than suggest collection highlights, I offer alternative benchmarks. The Met employs over 2,200 people. What follows are some of the Met’s departments: Conservation and Scientific Research, Digital Asset Management, Media Installation, Media Production, Imaging, Advanced Imaging, Libraries, Internal Communications, Market Research, Tourism Marketing, Email Marketing, Social Media, Engineering Management, Carpentry, Electric Shop, Engineering Shop, Horticulture, Machine Shop, Paint Shop, Plexi Shop, Plumbing Shop, Rigging Shop, Roofing Shop, Instruments / Electronic Shop, Locksmith Shop, Counsel, Printing Services, Government Affairs, Information Systems and Technology, Infrastructure and Technical Support, Server and Desktop Administration, Enterprise Applications Management, Constituent Systems, Retail Computer Systems, Research Scholars, Staff Organizations: Forum of Curators, Conservators, and Scientists. 

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic caused the Met to close; this was the first time in a century that the museum had closed for more than three consecutive days.

Throughout their long history museums have been seen either literally or figuratively as schools, civic centers, economic engines, refuges, and town squares, and I’ve referred to them as places for democratic forums. Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art thought of his museum as a laboratory. All these conceptions emphasize the multi-faceted ways museums serve their communities. 

Primarily, art museums are institutions that collect, exhibit, conserve, and educate about culture, values, and history through carefully chosen objects from the many fine art disciplines. Cedarhurst focuses on American national and regional art. 

Today, the visitor is at the center of all a museum does for a community. Collecting, exhibiting, and educational programming drive the mission, with all events organized and presented in order to have meaningful conversations with visitors. Art museums today are complex institutions with diverse demands, that nevertheless focus that complexity on serving visitors and satisfying their curiosities about the worlds and pleasures of art.

Thinking through History

Rusty Freeman - Friday, July 24, 2020

History is the story of how and why we came to be at this present moment. Thinking through History is the detective work that understands how opposing points of view changed history and behavior. To study History is to begin to make sense of the world. 

To live well and thrive in the modern-postmodern world, it is crucial to understand the history of one’s country and the world. 

The teaching of History in American public schools has been in a long decline. A 1985 article in the New York Times, “Decline and Fall of Teaching History,” reported the gradual lessening of the amount of time devoted to teaching world and US histories starting in 1960. Students that are not exposed to history remain a major concern today. 

I believe art museums have a role to play in showing the value of history and showing how to read and analyze cultural documents, including paintings, sculpture, as well as, the news, social media, and fake news. 

Art history practices the careful analysis of visual evidence. 

There is a misconception circulating today that truth or facts are not possible. Practicing careful visual and linguistic analysis of visual and written documents can foster consensus. Bias enters into any social process and can be negotiated though consensus. 

A major misconception is that History is a cut-and-dried affair with only names and dates to memorize. New scholarship in History is alive with new voices and viewpoints that have broadened horizons. 

“History is hard to teach,… because it hits so close to things young people care and worry deeply about: their ethnic, gender, and national identity, the role of America in the world, inequality and injustice in the past and present, the sources of promise and despair in our society.” See Edward Ayers, New American History, University of Richmond. 

Celebrated historian Peter N. Stearns, who taught History at the universities of Chicago, Rutgers, Carnegie Mellon, and George Mason, wrote an essay on the values in studying History. My summary follows. 

The study of History is indispensable. Reading history is the study of human aspirations, motivations, and behavior. It is the best evidence for how complex human societies interact with each other and the environment. The human struggle constantly strives to improve and learns best from past experiences. 

The present today was shaped by the past. Historians, and those who read their writings, study the psychological and sociological factors that allowed monumental change to occur. Historians also study the logics that resist change. Together, the stories of change and resistance are weighed for the social values which motivate the human condition. 

History reaches a degree of understanding about the complex lives we all lead and share. The stories of history are often beautiful and worthy of emulation and moral contemplation. History teaches by example the stories of ordinary men and women who against all odds achieved extraordinary results. 

History is the source for identity. All modern nations promote the study of history. The digital revolution has made genealogy for families a more accessible resource for identity. Institutions, businesses, ethnic groups, and communities also use history to build and maintain continuity and identity. 

History provides data for the review of the emergence of national institutions, problems, and values. History collects evidence of how nations have interacted and compares perspectives. Knowledge of these national and international relationships is a hallmark of good citizenship. 

Benefits from the study of History are many. The experience of assessing the evidence is foremost. This parallels analyzing a painting or reading the news or deciding what is fake news. 

Another benefit is assessing conflicting interpretations. The central goal of historical study is an understanding how societies work and this is inherently an imprecise project. Evaluating conflicting interpretations is an essential skill of citizenship. 

Another benefit is assessing past examples of change. This benefit is essential for evaluating change in society today. The study of historical change lends perspective and objectivity regarding the potential magnitude and significance of change in today’s world. 

The study of History builds knowledge on how to use evidence, assess interpretations, and analyze change and continuities. It provides factual information about the background of our political institutions and the values and problems that affect our collective well-being. The study of History reaches for a shared understanding of how the world works.

Reading Memes

Rusty Freeman - Friday, July 17, 2020

This post uses slides, images, and examples to introduce critical (thoughtful) reading strategies for art and even the news.  

According to lexico dot com, a meme is an element of culture or system of behavior that is passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, typically by imitation.

Discerning what is legitimate is particularly difficult concerning social media where the authors of memes are not included.   

My metrics for evaluating works of art: FORM, MOOD, FUNCTION, PERSONAL and SOCIAL VALUES, and the most important HISTORICAL CONTEXTS.  

Thomas Jefferson, as a man of the Enlightenment, knew well the power of art and the importance of symbolism. For the fledging country, Jefferson wanted the symbolism of Neoclassicism symbolically embedded in new architecture. This is a positive use of ideology.  

Jefferson’s use of Greco-Roman architecture to symbolize the new country and its ideals is one of the defining moments of the new country and its positive and uplifting ideologies.  

Greco-Roman architecture embodied the Enlightenment ideals of balance, restraint, unity of design, clarity, and proportion. These were the values Jefferson and others wanted the new country to aspire to.  

This is the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. What does the Greco-Roman architecture symbolize for museums?

Or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City?

Or the public buildings in St. Louis?  FORM embodies ideological content.

Can you imagine the shock of the artist George Bellows when he learned that fellow artist and colleague Marcel Duchamp submitted the urinal as his art entry to the competition? What did Bellows recommend for Duchamp’s entry?

How a work of art is meant to FUNCTION can be key to its meaning and social values.

Here are Damon Davis’s building posters during the Ferguson protests after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014. What might the hands symbolize? Can you come up with more than one interpretation for the hands?

Here are Davis’ All Hands on Deck installed in our galleries in 2016. How has their FUNCTION been altered?  Is their symbolism any less significant or has it become more so?

In this painting from the Saint Louis Art Museum the FUNCTION of the painting was to advertise the prostitute who is holding a meme showcasing her services.  A 1625 Dutch painting titled A Courtesan Holding an Obscene Image.

Personal and SOCIAL VALUES influence one’s opinion regarding a work of art, a social media meme, or the news.

In this detail of Bruegel’s 1559 Netherlandish Proverbs, foolish behaviors and popular beliefs are called into question by the artist. Throughout History, serious artists were never solely interested in painting pictures to merely replicate the world; philosophy and world-views were always being explored visually and metaphorically.

HISTORY is the most important of my five metrics of visual evaluations. History is the most important because the context can alter all of the others - FORM, MOOD, FUNCTION, VALUES are changed over time to some degree. However, some values change very little over time or even cultures. Valor and heroism are admirable in any time period.

Picasso Guernica 1937 is one of the epitomes of anti-war statements by an artist. Here, Picasso condemns Spanish dictator Franco for having had the Nazis bomb the Spanish people.

Andy Warhol proved many times that he was more than a mere disinterested commentator. Here in this eleven foot tall painting Warhol has made a very strong civil rights statement against police brutality. The black and white photo is from LIFE magazine. Red Race Riot, 1963; Germans recognized what Warhol was accomplishing and the Ludwig Museum in Köln scooped up this masterpiece. How might we discuss this political work of art in our museum?

Media messages are constructed, but that does not mean all of the constructions are meant to mislead.  

Who created the message is the most important. Consider how much effort the FBI put into trying to find the origins of the social media posts maligning our elections.  

Consider how African Americans view confederate public works installed during the Jim Crow era. What public work might offend you or worse, make you fear for your life? Art forms carry and delivery the content. I think a Nazi statue in an American public park would be of concern.

Brugel, Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559.  

Goya, Third of May 1808, 1814 condemns the French occupation of Madrid and murder of Spanish citizens.

Max Beckmann, The Night, 1919, condemns the atrocities of war.

Diego Rivera, The Detroit Industry murals, 1933. 27 fresco panels portray automotive, industrial, and agricultural industries.

A political cartoon by Jacob Burck, The Lord Provides, 1934.

Walker Evans, Portrait of a Sharecropping Family in Alabama (1936).

Builder Levy, I Am A Man / Union Justice Now, 1969, silver gelatin print.

Robert Longo, Master Jazz, 1982, representing the angst and turmoil of the early 1980s.

Félix Gonzales-Torres, Untitled, early 1990s.  The artist specifically posed the work's meaning as open-ended and encouraged viewers to come up with their own. Often considered as a memorial to those who succumbed to AIDS in the 1980s.

Jefferson’s use of neoclassical architecture with its “built-in” or inherent symbolism of order, logic, and clarity is the best example of how content is conveyed by a society’s art works.

Today, it is perhaps, much harder to discern fact from fiction. But with the study of art, looking closely at who made it and why and in what historical circumstances, it can become much easier and rewarding.

Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 1957.  Barthes explores topics as diverse wrestling and soap detergents identifying culture's supporting connotations and themes.

Mary Ann Staniszewski, Believing is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art, 1995. Staniszewski tracks how the meaning and value of "art" has changed over historical periods, and what it means today.

Brian Wallis, editor, Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, 1984. A superb anthology of contemporary art by such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, Michel Foucault, Craig Owens, and Martha Rosler.