On view at the Blanton Museum of Art through November 15, 2015, Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm features more than 30 gouache and pastel drawings by artist Natalie Frank, a New York-based Austin native. This presentation explores the nineteenth-century fairy tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, including well-known stories such as Cinderella and Snow White, and more obscure tales such as The Lettuce Donkey and The Ungrateful Son. Written between 1812 and 1857, and subsequently translated into more than 160 languages, the Grimm’s fairy tales are known and loved by children the world over. What is less known is that these stories were originally intended for adults, with later editions expunged of sexuality and violence. For this body of work, Frank uses the original, often graphic versions of the narratives as a point of departure, examining the vast emotional, physical, and intellectual transformation of the stories’ female characters. Frank renders key scenes from each fairy tale, investigating the ways in which they address gender, sexuality, and complex familial dynamics.
One of my joys as a Mellon fellow has been researching the prints of Francisco Goya (1746–1828). Produced after the artist’s fiftieth birthday, Goya’s four mature etching series are emblematic of his technical mastery and inventiveness. The first series, Los Caprichos (1797-99), is exemplary of the artist’s satirical social criticism. LosDesastres de la Guerra (1810-20) followed Caprichos, expressing the artist’s anguish at the events of the Peninsular War and its aftermath. Shifting subject matter, Goya’s La Tauromaquia (1815-16) series then portrayed the history of bullfighting as an Iberian ritual played out between humankind, nature, and fate.
Having spent many hours with these series—all worthy of careful consideration—it is Goya’s next series, Los Disparates (1816-24), that most captures my interest. And it is that series which I wish to explore here. The twenty-two works that make up Disparates date to after the war but before the artist’s move to Bordeaux in 1824. Goya did not publish the series during his lifetime. Instead, in 1864 The Royal Academy of San Fernando produced an edition, issued under the title Los Proverbios, from the eighteen plates in their possession. Because of this appellation, scholars long sought to match the works with common sayings. Proofs discovered in the twentieth century, however, bore titles in the artist’s hand, all beginning with the word disparates (follies/ absurdities). With that revelation, the works’ meaning suddenly appeared incomprehensible. Difficultly in deciphering the series likely contributed to the comparable lack of attention, relative to its predecessors, that the series has received ever since.
Los Disparates teems with uncanny chimeras: beings at once familiar and unfamiliar. Recognizable things also inhabit the prints—cats, horses, people in sacks, soldiers, etcetera. Nonetheless, any promise of clear symbolic meaning that these things might offer is empty. Such strangeness is not unique in Goya’s output. Painted on the walls of the artist’s Madrid home (Quinta del sordo), around the same time that the artist etched Disparates, Goya’s “Black Paintings” are equally difficult to understand. Unlike those paintings, however, Goya made Disparates in a reproducible and distributable medium. For me, this suggests an important question: who did Goya make Disparates for, and what ideas did he hope to impart to that audience?
Rather than trying to discover hidden meanings in the symbolism of Disparates —a futile task, I believe—I want to consider Goya’s space. More to the point, I have been thinking recently about Goya’s backgrounds. Throughout the series, Goya typically places his action against (or in) an amorphous darkness, as with Disparate General, or else in a realm falling from light into obscurity and emptiness.
In our daily lives, background is a relative thing that supports the way we see the world. Physically near or distant, it is always that which shifts always away from our focus, acting as a substrate for reality as well as a part of it. The laptop in front of me, for instance, stands out as a form only because my mind separates it from everything else that I call background. To put it simply, without background there is no foreground.
In order for the world to appear as something stable and intelligible, our mind makes use of such systematic arrangements. Were we to experience the world in its specificity, nothing would make sense. A river flows, constantly renewed, different from moment to moment, and yet we recognize it as the same entity across expanses of time. We represent things with names and generalized ideas of their forms. Similarly, we unconsciously organize the space around us. In art, this basic need to regulate our world through representation becomes most obvious. Humanity has invented countless methods for organizing space: hierarchal registers, the upturned and flattened space of Japanese prints, the geometries of Renaissance perspective where paintings became windows, the abstracted spaces of maps, and many others.
When I look at Giorgio Ghisi’s School of Athens after Raphael (1550), I feel as if I could climb those steps and pass under those archways. The perspectival method that produces this space is a convention. Background here is a diffuse spatial symbol, reliant upon a vanishing point—a mathematical twinkling star. Every diagonal line in the print relates to an invisible point of convergence, like railroad tracks receding into the distance and meeting on the horizon. The artifice of Ghisi’s space functions only if the viewer possesses the perquisite understanding of such coded space. By contrast, the darkness of Disparates severs the tether of that old logic. Goya sets us adrift. His vanishing point fills the world.
Shifting from the Renaissance to the modern era, what other comparisons might we make? A German contemporary of Goya, the Romantic poet Novalis wrote, “I turn away from the light to the holy, inexpressible mysterious night.” This same nocturnal womb would later haunt the Surrealists. It emerges clearly in Casting the Runes, 1951, by Leonora Carrington (1917-2011). Like Disparates, Carrington’s painting dispenses with perspectival space. Her boundless twilight-green ground supports a cast of uncanny beings. This darkness is a magical field where irrationalism speaks, and where dream and wakefulness might be reconciled.
In contrast to Carrington’s work, I suggest that Goya’s backgrounds in Disparates can be read as negations of rationalism, bereft of the Surrealist optimism for reconciliation. If Goya’s artwork retains any conceptual residue of the renaissance painting as window, it now opens onto madness and the failure of reason. Goya witnessed firsthand the challenges to the Spanish Enlightenment, ranging from abuses of power to the superstition, intellectual conservatism, and jingoism of the masses. And while the Bourbon monarchs managed halting reforms, the war caused this to falter and cease. Goya’s experiences surely shook his belief in the idea of human perfectibility under reason. After all, unreason had brutalized Spain in the name of Napoleon, France, and enlightened principle.
Nevertheless, I do not read Disparates as mere catharsis. The “Black Paintings” might have been that, but these were prints, meant to reach out into the world. It seems to me that Goya had a purpose in setting his Disparates in non-places, evacuated of coherent, rational meaning. By doing so, he revealed the unknowable void beneath civilization and world. With Disparates, Goya stood upon the threshold of the world, showing it the reflection of its essential, underlying madness.
I say “essential” because the artist knew that the formless night is equally generative and destructive. It is the primordial material from which reason and light first emerged, and it is the only background against which the rational mind can discern itself. Still, it is troubling. In glimpses of the borderless night, did Goya recognize the dissolution of all that we are? Was he unwilling or unable to forget (as we habitually do) that such darkness persists, a leviathan just beyond every limit of reason? Writer Georges Bataille once mused, “The philosopher through his discourse . . . ‘mirrors the empty sky’ with less honesty than the madman. . . .” Goya—who painted the inhabitants of Spanish asylums—might have added that since the madman’s irrational honesty is unintelligible from this side of reason, art is left to bridge the gulf, communicating the most difficult truths.
Douglas Cushing earned his BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design and his MA in art history at the University of Texas at Austin. His master’s thesis, written under the supervision of Linda Dalrymple Henderson, examines Marcel Duchamp’s relationship with the writings of the Comte de Lautréamont. Douglas is currently a PhD student in art history at the University of Texas at Austin working on exchanges between art and literature in the avant-garde. He is the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Prints and Drawings, and European Paintings at the Blanton Museum of Art.
For further reading:
Bataille, Georges. “Nietzsche’s Madness.” Trans. Annette Michelson. October, special issue: George Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-knowing. Vol 36 (1986): 42-55.
Breton, André. Manifestos of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969.
Fort, Ilene Susan, Teresa, Dawn Ades, and Terri Geis. In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012.
Michel Foucault, History of Madness. Trans. Jonathan Murphy. London: Routledge, 2006.
Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment. Exh. Cat. edited by Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez and Eleanor A. Sayre. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1989.
Harris, Tomás. Goya: Engravings and Lithographs. Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1964.
Herr, Richard. The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958.
Hughes, Robert. Goya. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
La Tauromaquia: Goya, Picasso and the Bullfight, Exh. Cat. edited by Verna Curtis and Selma Holo. Milwaukee Art Museum, 1985.
Paquette, Gabriel B. Enlightenment, Governance, and Reform in Spain and Its Empire, 1759-1808. New York: Plagrave Macmillan, 2008.
Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso E., and Julián Gállego. Goya: The Complete Etchings and Lithographs. New York: Prestel, 1995.
Schulz, Andrew. “Moors and the Bullfight: History and National Identity on Goya’s Tauromaquia.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 90, No. 1 (June, 2008): 195-217.
Tomlinson, Janis A. Francisco Goya Y Lucientes, 1746-1828. London: Phaidon, 1994.
Tomlinson, Janis A. “Francisco José Goya y Lucientes: Approaching Los Disparates.” Romance Quarterly, Vol. 54m No. 1 (2007): 3-8.
Volunteers at the Blanton have a variety of opportunities to see first-hand what it takes to run an art museum. Currently, there are nearly 60 university students from UT and other Austin-area colleges and universities who are exploring options for museum careers by helping us operate the Blanton on a daily basis. If museum work is something that interests you, spending time at the Blanton will help you learn what our various departments do, what individual staff members work on, and how it all comes together for an exhibition opening or day-to-day school tours.
Volunteer jobs are often as simple as providing visitors with information or monitoring galleries during parties and events. Even though they are easy to do, we couldn’t run the museum’s programs and events without this extra help. In exchange, volunteers get to experience the programs, events, films, lectures, etc. and learn more about how we do what we do. It’s like having an appointment twice a month to come to the museum and catch up on the latest exhibitions while helping us keep things lively and engaging for various audiences.
One story of a current volunteer involves an early decision to pursue a career as a curator. As a high school student, being a museum curator seemed like a fascinating career journey that would combine complex ideas, travel, visual creativity, administration of projects, and working with high level donors. After several years of helping in various routine jobs around the museum, this volunteer is still at the Blanton and now a junior at UT. After a summer on a Fulbright scholarship to Russia she is back again, this time for a different type of volunteer job. She will be helping in the Prints and Drawings department with research and background work on various works of art and exhibitions. She is one step closer to her dream and also to finding out if this is the career path for her.
Something great about volunteering that might seem to be a bummer at first glance is finding out you DON’T want to work at a museum. I recently heard from a summer intern who let me know that her experience here was very valuable. She learned about the museum and the various career opportunities in general that a museum offers and decided that these careers were not a perfect fit for her. She says now that it helped her so much to rule those possibilities out of her career journey. She wrote:
I know it has been a while, but I just wanted to thank you for giving me such a positive internship experience. Although I’ve decided to pursue another career path in art, I really think my time at the Blanton gave me the push towards assessing my professional strengths and interests. Because it was my first internship, I might have been too anxious to really appreciate the time you took to explain things to me. I have had a few more internships since then and have learned that not all places properly mentor their interns let alone engage with them. I know this e-mail seems quite out of the blue, but I’ve just been thinking about my experiences lately and wanted to share some of my thoughts.
Having worked in art museums for over 16 years, I know that I enjoy the culture, staff members and visual stimulation that this environment provides. If you know someone who is considering a museum career, encourage them to spend time in a museum on the other side of the information desk. It will help them to imagine if museums are a good fit for their career or not. Every personality and every set of skills can be utilized at a museum. It’s more about the type of work we do that may stand the test of time and feel like the right fit.
Martha Bradshaw joined the Blanton in 2005, where she has been Manager of Visitor and Volunteer Services for almost ten years. For information about volunteering at the Blanton, email Martha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On November 7, internationally recognized sculptor and installation artist Doris Salcedo presented a lecture at the Blanton on her work and its connection to political history. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Salcedo makes art using specific historical events—both from Latin America and abroad—as entry points for issues of global resonance, like political violence and discrimination. A small installation of Salcedo’s work is on view in conjunction with the talk. Though international in scope, Salcedo’s body of work is in dialogue with a vital history of political and conceptual art from South America—an area well represented in the Blanton’s collection. Many artists began using conceptual or subversive strategies in earnest during the 1970s and ’80s, when oppressive military dictatorships emerged across the region.
In Brazil, artists endeavored to make works that could circumvent official state censorship. One such artist was Cildo Meireles, who Blanton visitors may know best through his permanent installation Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals). Rather than make paintings or prints to hang on a gallery wall, Meireles utilized everyday objects and existing circuits of exchange—like the circulation of currency and the recycling system—to disseminate his art. Zero cruzeiro (1974-1978) and Zero Dollar (1984) are two such works in the Blanton’s collection. The two “counterfeit” banknotes question the value ascribed to currency and underscore its symbolic link to the nation. They also carry more historically specific meanings: in the case of the cruzeiro, the repeated devaluation of Brazil’s currency beginning in the late 1960s; and, in the case of the dollar, U.S. domination of the global economy. With the intent of stimulating conversation and debate, Meireles distributed versions of his Zero cruzeiro (and corresponding Zero centavo coin) within Brazil.
Another South American artist working to evade government censorship during this period was Eugenio Dittborn of Chile. In 1983, a decade into the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Dittborn developed a form of circulating art that would become his trademark. The artist applied found images and texts, using various artistic processes, to large sheets of brown wrapping paper. He then folded the compositions down to a fraction of their size and mailed them to international destinations. For one such “Airmail Painting,” No Tracks (Airmail Painting No. 13), Dittborn transferred mug shots of women found in old detective magazines on to the paper. The portraits evoke images of desaparecidos, those mysteriously abducted or killed under military regimes in Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere. By distributing his work on inconspicuous materials via the postal service, Dittborn bypassed the normal barriers to entry of the art market (such as the high cost of shipping a work on canvas). He also succeeded in communicating coded messages about Chile’s political climate to the outside world, thereby, in his words, “[salvaging] memory within a political climate that attempted to erase virtually every trace of it.”
Artists living abroad were able to respond more freely to the political instability in their native countries. Luis Camnitzer, a Uruguayan artists and activist, was living in New York when Uruguay fell under a repressive military dictatorship. He was deeply affected by the regime’s human rights abuses, which he learned about from friends and colleagues who had remained there. Camnitzer’s commitment to socially responsible art led him to create the Uruguayan Torture Series, in which he subtly employed visual and textual devices to evoke the psychological trauma of torture. Closely cropped and printed in a soft, ethereal palette, the images seem inviting on first glance. It is only upon another look that text and image interact to reveal more ominous implications. Camnitzer hoped that these images would awaken a world audience to the crimes being committed in his home country.
An installation of Salcedo’s work will be on view in the Blanton’s Klein Gallery from Nov. 7 to Feb. 22, 2015.
Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American art. She holds an M.A. in Art History from George Mason University, where she specialized in 20th-century Latin America.
WEATHER UPDATE, 4/6: It’s raining! This means we’re going with the inclement weather plan for today’s Austin Cultural Campus Spring Concert Crawl. Instead of one of the four spots being Mark di Suvero’s sculpture, we’ll be in the POB atrium (at Speedway & 24th) where Deborah Butterfield’s horse sculpture, “Vermillion”, is on view. All other locations are the same. See you soon!
Austin’sCultural Campus (ACC) is looking forward to co-hosting the annual spring Concert Crawl on Sunday, 6 April with free admission and live music. This innovative and fun music concert series is co-presented with the Butler School of Music. A series of short, informal music concerts performed by talented students of the Butler School of Music will be presented at four of Austin’s most popular cultural destinations. Concert programs will begin at 1:00pm, 2:00pm, and 3:00pm at each venue. Each mini-concert will feature a variety of music masterworks specifically chosen to respond to the art and collections exhibited at the museums. Travel from each location to hear all four music programs, and enjoy an inspiring afternoon of music, history, art, and fun. Kick off the afternoon at whichever spot you like, and then visit the rest in the order that strikes your fancy. The weather is predicted to be sunny, beautiful, and in the low to mid 70s.
A trombone quartet will perform a selection of trombone quartets at Mark di Suvero’s Clock Knot in Landmarks’ public art collection (the tall red abstract sculpture located on the lawn at the corner of East Dean Keeton & Speedway streets). At the Harry Ransom Center (300 West 21st Street), a string quartet will perform Beethoven’s Opus 59, No. 1. At the Blanton Museum of Art (200 E Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard), a piano trio will perform Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons. And right across the street from the Blanton, The Bullock Texas State History Museum (1800 Congress Avenue, will feature a wind quartet performing John Harbison’s Quintet for Winds.
We’d love to see pics of your experience! Share with us at #ATXCulturalCampus.
An embroidered mantle patterned in vivid indigos and reds. A meticulously modeled crustacean in clay. Black ceramic bottles burnished to give off a metallic sheen.
The Blanton’s new exhibition of ancient Andean material arts, Between Mountains and Sea: Arts of the Ancient Andes, is a feast for the eyes. The phrase is perhaps most apt in the gallery dedicated to the Nasca, a culture that inhabited the south coast of Peru from about 100 BCE to 600 CE. Here a selection of vibrant, polychrome vessels and bowls are decorated with unmistakable imagery: beans, chili peppers, and tropical fruit.
For the contemporary viewer, the stylized food imagery may seem strikingly modern. Having developed one of the most varied palettes in the Americas—it included as many as 13 distinct colors—Nasca artisans favored figural designs made up of flat areas of color and clean outlines. They turned to the natural world for subject matter, often depicting local birds, fish, and plants.
Two bowls on view are painted with a repeating chili pepper, or ají, motif. On one, the peppers have been simplified to silhouettes, which alternate in red and earthy green on a white background and are separated by thin vertical lines. One of the earliest known cultivated plants in the Americas, the chili pepper was used by Andean cultures as both a cooking ingredient and a preservative. Its repetition here may symbolize agricultural abundance. For Texans, it may also bring to mind the visual culture of the Southwest—an indication of just how enduring some Pre-Columbian motifs have been.
In another example, a double spout bottle has been modeled and painted to resemble two lúcuma, Andean fruit still popular in Peruvian desserts today. The strategic juxtaposition of the fruits, each bearing a star-shaped apex where a stem might have been, can only be read as a reference to breasts—a playful double entendre that perhaps links natural abundance with female fertility.
Food has of course appeared as imagery in the artistic traditions of innumerable cultures. But along the desert coast of Peru, the setting for most of the exhibition, farming presented unique challenges. Rainfall in the region was so meager that the Nasca had to rely on the occasional flooding of small rivers and a system of underground canals for irrigation. Thus, repeated references to agricultural abundance may reflect the society’s aspirations as much as its reality.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, we encounter other references to food sources. The Chancay, a central coast culture, made ceramic effigies of camelid species like llamas. While these animals were domesticated for their use as pack animals and for their fine wool, they were also consumed as food. Another important resource for coastal cultures was, naturally, the sea: ceramics from the region feature sea lions, anchovies, and other fish that thrive in the cold Humboldt current off the coast of Peru. Discernible in each of these material traditions is an acute observation of the environment and appreciation of what it had to offer.
Visit the Blanton to view these and other ancient Andean objects. Between Mountains and Sea is on view until August 17.
Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Administrative Manager for Education. She holds an M.A. in Art History from George Mason University, where she specialized in 20th-century Latin America.
The Nearest Air: A Survey of Works by Waltercio Caldas is in its final days! The artist’s first career survey, the exhibition explores Caldas’s full body of work from the 1960s through the present and investigates his centrality within Brazilian art, his role on the international stage, and his unique position on art and its ethos.
In October, Waltercio Caldas spent five days with the guest curator and Blanton installation team to create the Austin presentation of this exhibition. More than many artists, he stays intimately involved in the staging of each work whenever it is exhibited. The following video shows the very deliberative working process behind The Nearest Air.
We encourage you to visit The Nearest Air before it closes on Sunday, January 12. For more information about the exhibition, please click here.
Enjoy festive music, hot beverages, special discounts and a prize drawing!
‘Tis the season to shop local, and Austin’s Cultural Campus is offering a shopping event to get everyone in the holiday spirit! Downtown Austin is a cultural destination, where unique shops within walking distance of one another offer museum-quality gifts that allow you to make meaningful purchases that support art, history and science in your city.
The Blanton Museum of Art, Bullock Texas State History Museum, Harry Ransom Center, LBJ Presidential Library, Texas Memorial Museum, and the Visual Arts Center have joined forces to present the 2013 Holiday Museum Crawl on Saturday, December 7, with festive music, hot beverages and special discounts for those who mention the Austin Cultural Campus.
By shopping in Austin museums and cultural centers, you can find distinctive gifts, such as original art work, nature-themed jewelry, dinosaur goodies, collectibles, souvenirs or the official state ornament. For a gift that lasts all year, purchase a membership and receive a free gift at some locations while supplies last. Sign up at any location to be entered in a special prize package drawing.