Posted November 02, 2012 by Susan Day
When you go into a museum, do you wonder why certain artworks “make the cut” and are put on view? Why are they significant; how do they relate to other works in the gallery; why did the artist work in that medium; was the art popular or controversial?
The Golden Age of British Watercolors, 1790–1910 presents a beautiful selection of Victorian watercolors at the same time it explores some of these questions. Most museum exhibitions are put together by professional curators who have expertise in their subject areas. But how does one learn to be a curator? What’s the difference between an art historian and a curator? How does a curator select works for an exhibition? In organizing this exhibition, undergraduate and graduate students in Nancy Rose Marshall’s Victorian Watercolor Seminar got some real world insight into these questions.
The seminar also sheds light on the value of art historical research and how this scholarship can be shared with a general audience. Students faced behind-the-scenes decisions—like selection and arrangement of works, design elements, and label copy—in thinking about how to inform and communicate essential, engaging points.
Three students from the seminar offer their reflections on the process. Rachel Klimczyk (2012, Art History) talks about the value of historical research to inform a work and also provide a window into the period when it was created, making connections between the past and present.
Albert Goodwin (English, 1845–1932), Hastings at Sunset, 1885, watercolor, 11 3/8 x 17 3/8 in. Joseph F. McCrindle Collection, 2009.13.68
Working on The Golden Age of British Watercolors: 1790–1910 was a wonderful experience. Students don’t often get the chance to plan an exhibition or learn the practical aspects of curating. In planning content for the website and the layout of the exhibition space, we collaborated to tackle problems and create a successful show. We researched artwork individually, but as a class we identified the main themes for a cohesive exhibition.
When researching historical paintings, it is important to trace information about the artists and the works to their original sources. I used contemporary books and articles published about my artists to understand their roles in the late nineteenth century British art world. Albert Goodwin, for example, is mostly unknown today, but was praised by Victorian critics and made a successful living off of his craft.
Original sources are also valuable in understanding why certain styles of art were popular or prevalent at any given time. Purchasers of British watercolors were seeking specific subjects, messages, or styles when they toured exhibitions. Like consumers today, art buyers were inclined to purchase works that resonated personally in some way. Paintings that featured either patriotic themes or offered an emotional thrill (or both, in the case of Goodwin’s Hastings at Sunset) were very marketable.
Pinpointing all the mechanics behind a trend can be difficult, but it is also a rewarding experience. Eventually I discovered important connections between my artists and their society, and between the works I was studying and other works and artists in the exhibition.
Julia Griffith (2012, Interior Design and Art History) learned that research is not a solitary endeavor but one of networking that can lead to accidental and valuable discovery.
William Simpson (Scottish, 1823–99), Elephant Battery, 1864, Watercolor and gouache over graphite, 10 5/8 x 14 1/4 in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.3.264
The best part about researching and curating an exhibit is working not only with the people in the class but also connecting with others outside of our university.
I wanted access to a book that was too old to travel from the east coast so I got in contact with the curator of the collection at Brown University. He happened to be a scholar of the artist I was researching, William Simpson, and though the book did not hold the information I needed, he passed along some insight instead.
The curator helped me better understand the timing and purpose of Simpson’s Elephant Battery. The artist was creating images for a book about India, and he probably made this painting after returning to England, presumably to depict more war/military scenes than Simpson originally planned. That insight shed light on the subtle messages in the piece.
In addition, the curator shared a military painting from Simpson created during the Afghan conflict in 1879, which is very similar to the India painting in the exhibition. Elephant Battery didn't have a lot of accessible research, so connecting with someone who knew a great deal more than some of the available books was invaluable. This experience taught me that asking a simple question could bring a response you never expected.
Rebekah Rickner (adult student interested in Museum Studies) discovered how much teamwork and problem-solving goes into putting an exhibition together.
Hannah Palmer (English, 1818–93), Street of Tombs, Pompeii, 1838, graphite, watercolor and gouache, 7 1/4 x 10 1/2 in. Edward Blake Blair Endowment Fund and Walter A. and Dorothy Jones Frautschi Endowment Fund purchase, 2004.30
This seminar taught me how to think like a curator. While the two works I researched were aesthetically not my favorites, I enjoyed the challenge of creating narratives that would peak audience interest. Focusing on the female artists’ histories, including family life, social, and political constraints, and artistic background, I hoped to make a visit to the exhibition both informative and, ultimately, memorable.
In this class we learned how a museum plans an exhibition. The importance of grouping works together so the show ‘made sense’ and at the same time was visually pleasing was our primary effort. Of equal significance were issues of font design, wall color, size and placement of vitrines and audiovisual equipment, and lighting.
Perhaps my favorite part of this process was the collaboration between students and museum staff. A successful exhibition requires much more than a background in art history. I felt, in many ways, that the skills of teamwork, negotiation, and even time management—necessitated by print deadlines—were as valuable as our research.
Other assets were the diverse backgrounds of the students as well as the unwavering direction of Professor Marshall, who not only helped us navigate the museum’s internal systems but guided our research as well. In the end, the exhibition far exceeded my expectations.
The experience is enriching for museum staff as well. Says Jerl Richmond, Chief Preparator: “The collaboration of students, faculty, and museum staff makes for an always interesting process of turning concept into reality and theory into practice. Student participation brings fresh perspective and it is rewarding to see the results of all that hard work.”
Exhibitions like The Golden Age of British Watercolors, 1790–1910 fulfill the museum's teaching, research, and public service mission as we bridge campus and community. Students gain real-world experience and provide invaluable research. The museum, in turn, makes this knowledge accessible to everyone who walks through the door and visits the website. As our mission statement says: the visual arts enrich individual human experience and knowledge of art is essential to understanding diverse cultures, past and present.
The research from this exhibition is available at the Art History Department website.
UW–Madison students Julia Griffith, Rachel Klimczyk, and Rebekah Rickner contributed to this blog post.
The museum has a very nice selection of fan prints on display in Summer Breeze: The Fan in Japanese Prints, in the Garfield Gallery until the September 9. These prints have been in the collection since 1980, but they are rarely on view. One challenge of exhibiting them is putting them in context. Explaining a fan may seem unnecessary, but when most people think of fans they think of the folding variety, not the rigid fans these prints were designed to be. I decided that a two-part exhibition would help people appreciate the ubiquity of fans in Japanese culture; one part would show scenes in which fans were used, and the other part would include prints made to be cut out and pasted onto a splayed bamboo support to make a nonfolding Japanese fan—an uchiwa.
I spent a good deal of time looking through the collection for prints with fans in them: carried as fashion accessories and for cooling, held by actors as stage props, and used by print designers as a cartouche motif. In the midst of this I recalled that we have some very nice sumo prints in the collection (one of which, above, depicts the first two sumo wrestlers to receive the highest rank of yokozuna in their lifetimes). In some of these prints referees use a fan—a gunbai, or battle fan—during the wrestling match.
Gunbai have a long history. Usually made of wood, the gunbai is traditional equipment for military leaders, who used it to direct movements on the battlefield. From there it was elaborated into an elegant item for samurai, sometimes beautifully lacquered and decorated. By the late 18th-century the gunbai had made it’s way into the sumo ring; the referee uses the fan to indicate the winning wrestler.
The gunbai’s association continues to develop. A quick Googling of the word brings up interesting Japanese popular cultural references, including the giant gunbai used as a weapon or shield in the long-running Naruto manga and anime series.
Uchiwa, it turns out, have an interesting double existence in Japanese culture—at once as an elegant item for keeping cool in the summer heat, and also as a component of the samurai’s martial equipment. It’s is probably inevitable that such a basic and useful object of material culture should be imbued over the centuries with many layers of meaning.
Image: Katsukawa Shunsho (Japanese, 1726–1792), The Wrestlers Tanikaze Kajinosuke and Onogawa Kisaburo with the Umpire Kimura Shonosuke, 1780–1785, color woodcut, 375 x 506 mm. Bequest of John H. Van Vleck, 1980.3037
"No way I’ll quit this. Not possible.”—Jason Ramey
Jason Ramey is a storyteller, with great tales to tell: from suddenly leaving college in Indiana for Florida, laboring on a cattle ranch and in a sawmill as he traveled, to working with violent patients in a mental health facility, to recently being menaced by a bull while fly fishing. His art tells stories, too. He grew up in a small G.I. house, sharing a bedroom with his twin brother and mother. The walls and furniture in his sculpture often refer to those cramped quarters and the furniture he grew up with. The walls he builds are stark white and the furniture is often split, which might suggest that alienation is his intention. It isn’t.
Jason’s art is about people and relationships. At first look, that may not be obvious. For example, This Side and the Other could be about two people—symbolized by the chairs—who are distanced from each other. Yet when I spoke with Jason about this work he focused on healing, about two people being able to talk to each other unburdened of their relationship baggage, or stereotypes based on appearance, or society’s values and expectations. Furniture and walls are made for people. Our relationships with those materials are intimate. They create spaces for us to be together, even when we don’t want to be, and they provide a place for our things.
Why does he make architectural sculpture? For starters, he’s always moving, always doing. In the midst of installing his exhibition (which is awarded to Chazen Prize–winners) and finishing his MFA, he bought a sander, checked some books out of the library, and taught himself how to sand scratches off his car. This is a man who likes big projects.
But Ramey’s drive is about more than staying busy. He is interested in putting things together, and by that he means not only sculpture but ideas. As we talked in a coffee shop he examined the molding and baseboards, analyzing how they joined at the arched doorway and the corner. And he talked about his fascination with chairs—the lines and function that people have worked and reworked for centuries. He’s interested in perfect chairs, like his 1954 Eames chair—chairs that are comfortable for everyone, no matter the sitter’s size.
Ramey faced a temporary set-back while earning a BFA from the Heron School of Art in Indianapolis, and it played an important part in his artistic development. He received a letter in the mail telling him he had to re-do his sophomore review. He was devastated. But he knew that he had to go on. It gave him fuel, and he fired up and started working even harder. He says an experience like that tells you who you are, and he is tenacious.
Finally, Jason says he makes sculpture because it makes him happy. He doesn’t sculpt to tap into the bad things in his life or his past. Creating sculpture brings him joy. He says this apologetically, because creating art is supposed to be about so much more than that. And it is, of course. But don’t we all aspire to a career that makes us happy? Isn’t it as simple as that?
Ramey’s sculpture is not the kind of work that has an immediate emotional impact, although Michelle Grabner, the curator who selected the Chazen Prize–winner, described his work as having a “demanding presence.” I asked him what he thinks about people not understanding his work; he said he doesn’t worry about being misinterpreted. There are formal elements that people can respond to, and then, upon further reflection, they may realize for themselves how his work refers to our sense of place, which is at the heart of many peoples’ sense of self.
After talking with Jason, I started to think about my own childhood. My family went for bike rides through the neighborhood on summer evenings, and if a house was under construction, we’d often stop and explore it. My sister and I would guess what the rooms were going to be, and we got a thrill out of stepping through the studs-only walls. I breathed in possibility and opportunity with the sawdust in those houses. The isolated walls and furniture of Ramey’s work evoke that memory.
Here are some of the memories Ramey has infused into work:
Sometime after 1983, or maybe it was ‘84
Though this piece was designed specifically for Paige Court in the Elvejhem Building, it is a personal one for Ramey. When his father left them, his family stopped eating dinner at the dining room table. His father’s absence was like a presence. Ramey, his brother, and their mother ate on the living room floor or the couch instead. He realized recently that this may be why he’s uncomfortable sitting around the table when invited to dinner, and he still doesn’t like formal settings—but he’s working on it!
Over the Wall Desk
When UW students move out at the end of the school year, the detritus-filled sidewalks are chaos. Ramey noticed how much furniture is thrown out—a lot of it cheaply made but still functional. He started thinking about how even when the furniture leaves a space, the walls stay the same. Then he wondered: if he attached a wall to a desk, would they still be able to throw it out?
In the small G.I. house Ramey grew up in, he and his brother would use the mirror in the room that they shared with their mother when getting ready for school. Ramey doesn’t like mirrors and isn’t comfortable with how he looks. He still doesn’t like looking at himself in the mirror.
Ball and Claw Wall
One day in his studio Ramey thought, “Boy, I really love walls!” and he realized that they calm him. So this sculpture is, in a sense, a wall on a pedestal. His mother had a lot of furniture that came from her grandmother; it was beautiful, but it was also too big for their small house. The legs on this piece are a nod to Jason’s memories of playing under a table with Queen Anne legs when he was growing up. He found the legs in second hand and antique stores, then built the base for this piece.
Chazen docent Karen Barrett-Wilt wrote this piece based on an interview with Jason Ramey, who was awarded the First Chazen Prize to an Outstanding MFA Student.