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Seattle Art Museum

Frederick Sandys’ Plants in “Medea”

These past few months I have been busy researching and writing, in order to present a paper at MLA this past January. I had many ideas that I wasn’t able to explore in my presentation due to time constraints, so I thought I’d share some some of those here.

One painting that I’ve been thinking about a lot is Frederick Sandy’s Medea ( 1868, shown below). I became very familiar with this work of art last summer, as it was one of the highlights of the Victorian Radicals exhibition that came to the Seattle Art Museum. It really is such a nice painting! There are a lot of fascinating details in this painting (including the copulating toads in the foreground – eek!), but lately I’ve been drawn to the background of the right hand side, as well as the balustrade-like railing behind Medea.

Frederick Sandys, Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, “Medea,” 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, detail of Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, detail of Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Behind Medea is a depiction of the Golden Fleece. This is the sacred fleece that inspires the Greek hero Jason to embark on a quest, since he is told that he can reclaim his right to a throne if he obtains the fleece. Medea is the daughter of King Aietes, the owner of the fleece, and she uses her magic to help Jason complete his tasks and get the fleece in his possession. Later, Jason spurns Medea for another woman named Glauce. In this painting by Frederick Sandys, Medea is depicted as a dangerous femme fatale, as she is in the process of concocting a poisonous garment that will consume her rival Glauce by fire.

As is typical in Frederick Sandys’ work, this painting includes several plants that are depicted with botanical precision. This imagery has heretofore escaped notice, but I think that that specific plants were used in order to references several literary sources. For example, Sandys clearly intended the Golden Fleece hang from an oak tree, and a few acorns are nestled among the oak leaves to emphasize this point.I think the oak tree might give evidence that Sandys was inspired by a specific version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the Orphic Argonautica from the 4th century CE. This version explains that the Golden Fleece was hung on an oak tree in the grove of Ares.

The Orphic Argonautica continues and describes many “noxious plants” that appear in the garden, surrounding the Golden Fleece. A long list of plants are named, including aconite (also known as aconitum, “wolf’s bane” or “monkshood”) and belladonna. These are two plants that Medea was said to have used to create poison, and Sandys paints them with detail so that they can be recognized. In fact, the foreground of the painting also includes belladonna leaves and berries, so there is a clear connection between this plant and the poisonous concoction Medea is creating.

Belladonna from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Belladonna from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

Monk's Hood from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Aconite (“Monk’s Hood”) from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

A British audience may have connected the inclusion of wolf’s bane (shown above) to a John Keats poem Ode on Melancholy (1819), mentions wolf’s bane as being a “poisonous wine.” This mention in the poem might be a possible reference to Medea. I’m also struck by how owls and beetles appear in Sandys’ railing and the first stanza of Keats’s poem, which may further solidify that Sandys was looking to this poem for inspiration.

I have had some difficulty identifying the plant farthest on the left (shown below), but I have two ideas. I think it looks like some kind of thistle. The Orphic Argonautica discusses how, in order to open the wall of the sacred grove, Medea helped to place magical herbs as part of a sacrifice laid on “black thorns.” Sandys might have used the thorny thistle as a way to reference these black thorns in the story.

Thistle? from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Artichoke thistle? from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

My other idea is that the plant might be a cardoon (artichoke thistle). This isn’t a common plant to associate with Medea, and it doesn’t appear in the Orphic Argonautica. However, a publication of the Horticultural Society in London in 1827 discusses how Medea must have created a concoction to restore youth and vitality with a cardoon, and I wonder if Sandys was familiar with this publication. In this mythological story, Jason is celebrating his return with the Golden Fleece, but notices that his aged father Aeson has become infirm and cannot celebrate. Medea withdrew blood from the veins of Aeson, inflused the blood with certain herbs (possibly a cardoon, according to these Victorian horiculturalists), and then returned the infused blood back into Aeson’s body, which revitalized and reinvigorated him.

Detail of plants and railing in Sandys' "Medea"

Detail of plants and railing in Sandys’ “Medea”

Each of these plants is aligned with writhing cobras that appear as a repeating decoration of the railing behind Medea. It almost is as if the cobras serve as exposed roots for the plants! In this context, the writhing cobras – depicted in the style of the Egyptian uraeus – seem to serve as symbols of exotic and mystical witchcraft. The specific alignment of the repeating cobras just underneath the stalks of the plants creates a visual effect that suggest that these mystical and powerful plants are rooted in Medea’s withcraft.

Any other ideas what this plant on the left might be, if it isn’t a thistle? I haven’t found too much discussion of this specific painting from 19th-century sources, but if anyone knows of some, please share!

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Jackson Pollock’s “Sea Change”

Jackson Pollock, "Sea Change," 1947. Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim to the Seattle Art Museum

Jackson Pollock, “Sea Change,” 1947. Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim to the Seattle Art Museum

Lately I’ve had some opportunities to study and think about Jackson Pollock’s painting Sea Change (1947, above) at the Seattle Art Museum. This painting is fascinating to me for several reasons, including its interesting history regarding how it was gifted to the Seattle Art Museum by Peggy Guggenheim. I also like the painting from a visual perspective: I like to try and trace which layers of paint were placed first, although it is difficult to tell (which isn’t surprising in some ways, since Pollock would work for uninterrupted sessions of 20-30 minutes or more, but later would revisit paintings that he didn’t feel like were finished).

Detail of Jackson Pollock's  "Sea Change," 1947. Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim to the Seattle Art Museum

Detail of Jackson Pollock’s “Sea Change,” 1947. Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim to the Seattle Art Museum

Some of the layers in Sea Change painting are also especially unusual, because Sea Change was completed (as a drip painting) on top of an earlier Pollock painting. Pollock’s earlier style involved more gestural strokes of paint that were directly applied with the paintbrush touching the canvas (as seen, for example, in his Mural from 1943). The Seattle Art Museum recently conserved Sea Change, and a video points out some of the areas which reveal Pollock’s original painting underneath the dripped paint. In the detail image above, you can see some bits of blue and reddish-orange paint (now serving as an underlayer to the dripped paint) that were smoothly applied with a brush.

The multiple layers of the painting are compelling to me visually, because they play with perceptions of illusionism and space. On one hand, the multiple layers appear complex, but the thickness and viscous nature of the paint simultaneously also reminds me that the layers rest (almost hover) on the flat surface of the canvas. As a result, the painting “suggests a visual space that appears infinitely deep yet shallow at the same time.”2

The thing that I also like about Sea Change is that is isn’t comprised merely of paint, but also of gravel that Jackson Pollock found at a gravel pit near his home in Long  Beach (see detail image above). Pollock often would add other materials to his paintings, “such as sand, small pieces of hardware, pebbles and string, to emphasize the ‘thingness’ of the work and to point out that the work was no mystical icon removed from the world; rather, the painting was of the world.” In other words, the gravel helps to assert that this painting, despite its lack of representational subject matter, is grounded in reality.

Namuth_jackson_Pollock_1956_1957

Hans Namuth, photograph of Jackson Pollock working in his studio, 1950

Pollock’s gestural movements also help to ground the painting in reality too, because the viewer can get a sense of Pollock’s physical exertion and real experience in creating the work of art. When creating his drip paintings, Pollock would place his canvases on the floor while he worked. This placement was intentional for Pollock, not only so that gravity could aid the paint to drip downward, but also so Pollock could sense his own physical relationship with the painting. He said, “My painting is direct. I usually paint on the floor. . . Having the canvas on the floor, I feel nearer, a part of the painting . . . similar to the Indian {Navaho] sand painters of the West.”3

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1950 Museum of Modern Art

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1950 Museum of Modern Art

Lee Krasner, an Abstract Expressionist painter who was married to Pollock, explained that Pollock painted with different tools, “using sticks and hardened or work-out brushes (which were in effect like sticks) and basting syringes . . . His control was amazing. Using a stick was difficult enough, but the basting syringe was like a giant fountain pen. With it he had to control the flow of paint as well as his gesture.” Sea Change is a very early example of a drip painting by Pollock, so it seems most likely that he was using a sticks or hardened brushes. In contrast, the basting syringes were used later by Pollock, as seen in his Untitled painting c. 1950 at the Museum of Modern Art (shown above).

What are your favorite paintings by Jackson Pollock? Do you prefer his earlier style with the smooth gestural strokes, the classic drip paintings like Sea Change, or the later “fountain pen” drip paintings that were made with the basting syringe? I like how different types of energy are conveyed through Pollock’s diverse experimentations with painting. It is unsurprising to me that he once said, “My concern is with the rhythms of nature.” After all, various forms of energy and rhythm are manifest in the world; some of them are subtle and lyrical, and others are quite explosive.

1 Michael Corris, “From Abstract Expressionism to Conceptual Art: A Survey of New York Art c. 1940-1970″ in Art and Visual Culture 1850-2010: Modernity to Globalization by Steve Edwards and Paul Woods, eds. (London: Tate Publishing, 2011), 233.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

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Kehinde Wiley and William Morris

My different art experiences are colliding this week in an unusual way. This past weekend I went and saw the exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at the Seattle Art Museum. And then, just today I taught my students about some of the designs that appear in William Morris’s wallpaper. When I got home this afternoon, I began to think about how some of William Morris’s work is referenced in a few of Kehinde Wiley’s paintings that I saw on display.

Kehinde Wiley, "St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness," 2013

Kehinde Wiley, “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness” from “The World Stage: Jamaica series 2013

For example, the background design in Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness is clearly referencing a William Morris print of birds and irises. As someone who loves William Morris’s designs, I would have liked to have seen this references explored a little more clearly. A review of this same exhibition from last year (when it was at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) also suggested that mentioning the origins of the backgrounds in Wiley’s paintings would strengthen the show.

Kehinde Wiley, "Mrs. Siddons from the series 'An Economy of Grace,'" 2012. Oil on canvas

Kehinde Wiley, Mrs. Siddons from the series ‘An Economy of Grace,'” 2012. Oil on canvas

The reference to William Morris was most clearly pointed out to me in the portrait of Mrs. Siddons; the pattern is clearly inspired by the Blackthorn block-printed wallpaper that Morris designed in 1882.

IMG_1882

Kehinde Wiley, “Mrs. Siddons from the series ‘An Economy of Grace,'” 2012. Oil on canvas

It seems like there are several reasons for why Kehinde Wiley chooses to reference William Morris’s designs in some of his paintings. On one hand, Wiley’s compositions and designs are trying to draw awareness to the realm of history and art history, not only with the decorative motifs but the way the figure is represented (the female figure’s position which looks away from the viewer reminds me of depictions of the penitent Magdalene by George de la Tour).

In past centuries, fine art was typically associated with white Europeans and refinement. Wiley wants to challenge the idea that fine art and statements of cultural refinement are limited to a specific race; he does this by referencing European artistic traditions in his portraits of black people. To help emphasize his point, Wiley draws inspiration from Morris’s wallpaper designs, since they are associated with taste and the high-quality production surrounding the Arts & Crafts movement. In the exhibition catalog for this show, Annie Paul explains that Wiley creates “decorative backgrounds [which are] inspired by the English designer William Morris, who wove images from botany and zoology into intricate patterns signifying taste and discrimination.”It seems like Wiley occasionally uses Morris’s designs to reference English history and colonialism, too. For example, the inclusion of a Morris print in St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (shown above) references the past colonial presence of the English in Jamaica.

So, Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of black figures, which contain visual references to European history and European art, call for attention and help to create a new vision of contemporary black identity and presence. Holland Cotter, in reviewing a 2005 exhibition of Wiley’s work, asserted as much by saying that Wiley “is a history painter. . . . By this I mean that he creates history as much as tells it.”2

And what would William Morris think about his imagery being utilized in this way? I think that he would be quite pleased: Morris was a socialist who wanted to bring about a change in the art world and society. William Morris felt like the arts, particularly the decorative arts, “were ‘sick’ as a consequence of the split between intellectual and mechanical work that occurred during the Renaissance.”3 Perhaps in a similar vein, Kehinde Wiley seeks to bind together racial divides and “heal” stereotypical assumptions about what constitutes art and portraiture.

So when Wiley’s paintings are considered in terms of social unity, Morris’s designs are very appropriate. Art historian Caroline Arscott has analyzed Morris’s designs in relation to the social climate of his day, finding that the designs “imagine an overcoming of social contradictions in an allegory performed ‘through the twists and turns of plants.’ In this way his aesthetic stands as a powerful equivalent for the recovered wholeness of men and women, of their relations to their fellows and to nature.”4 In many ways, Wiley is also suggesting similar themes of “wholeness” by binding different cultures together within his paintings. It isn’t surprising, then, that Wiley is inspired by designs of plants which repeatedly interconnect, wind, and bind themselves to each other.

1 Holland Cotter, “Art in Review: Kehinde Wiley,” New York Times, December 9, 2005.

2 Eugenie Tsai, ed., Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2015), 146. 

3 Steve Edwards, “Victorian Britain: From Images of Modernity to the Modernity of Images,” in Art and Visual Culture 1850-2010 by Steve Edwards and Paul Wood, eds. (London: Tate Publishing 2012), p. 81.

4 Ibid., 81.

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Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Inopportune: Stage One”

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Inopportune: Stage One" (2004). Current display at Seattle Art Museum

Cai Guo-Qiang, “Inopportune: Stage One” (2004). Current display at Seattle Art Museum

Last Friday, when I heard about the terrorist attacks in Paris, I couldn’t help but think of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune: Stage One (2004) which is on display in the Seattle Art Museum. Guo-Qiang first created this installation in 2004 for the Mass MoCA (it also was displayed at the Guggenheim in 2008). Nine Ford Taurus cars are laid out in a sequence, but the overall effect is to give the suggestion of one car that is flipping through the air (although time is standing still, so the viewer sees “freeze frame” shots of the car suspended). The first and the ninth car are placed on the ground, suggesting the beginning and end of motion, as well as the beginning and ending of an event: the exploding of a car bomb.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Inopportune: Stage One" (2004). View of 2004 installation at MASS MoCA

Cai Guo-Qiang, “Inopportune: Stage One” (2004). View of 2004 installation at Building 5 of MASS MoCA

Lights emanate from most of the cars, but the colors change as the cars flip through the air. The first few cars have lights from all different colors, which have been compared to fireworks.1 (As a Chinese artist, perhaps Guo-Qiang is connecting to his heritage by alluding to Chinese fireworks.) However, the last few cars (numbers seven and eight in the sequence) emanate different colors: blue, indigo, and purple. (I actually prefer the Mass MoCA installation setup for this reason, because you can best see how the colors of the lights change.) These colors suggest that the impact and heat of the bomb are dying out, as the explosion ends.

Guo-Qiang is a New Yorker, and he was deeply impacted by the terrorist attacks September 11, 2001. Inopportune: Stage One is a reference to 9-11 and also a reference to the world as it exists today (as the result of the events of 9-11).2 So, when I heard about the attacks in Paris, I couldn’t help but think of how this installation embodies the turmoil and upset that is still taking place because of terrorism. I also feel like this installation also can embody an element of hope and perspective too, since the cars and lights are suspended and presented in a beautiful and lyrical way:

“We live in a world full of terror, of discussion and fear of terror. However, if you present only that, you are not providing a perspective. What if it is also something that is very beautiful and dreamlike? Does that reflect something? I always come back to this point: that art ought not to just restate what we know and how we live, it must provide a perspective, a distance.”3 – Cai Guo-Qiang

Ironically, I received notification just this afternoon that Inopportune: Stage One is going to be taken down from its permanent installation in the Brotman Forum at the Seattle Art Museum, starting soon after the beginning of the new year (January 2016). I’m torn about this decision, especially since I feel like the sentiment behind this installation, both in referencing terror and spreading beauty, is more poignant and needed than ever.

This evening, though, I wondered if maybe the visuals of this installation need to be altered to fit with today’s situation. I heard a segment on the radio saying that in years to come, we may look back and say that “The War on Terrorism 1″ began in 2001 with an American initiative, and that “The War on Terrorism 2″ began right now, in 2015, with the European response. Sadly, time will tell if this is the case. But this makes me wonder if a new installation of Inopportune would be appropriate, with perhaps Renault or Citroën cars suspended in the air.

1 Seattle Art Museum, “Inopportune: Stage One.” Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www1.seattleartmuseum.org/eMuseum/code/emuseum.asp?style=single&currentrecord=1&page=search&profile=objects&searchdesc=Number%20is%202006.1&searchstring=Number/,/is/,/2006.1/,/0/,/0

2 Ibid.

3 Guggenheim Museum, “Cai Guo-Qiang, I Want to Believe.” Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education/school-educator-programs/teacher-resources/arts-curriculum-online?view=item&catid=727&id=93

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Chuck Close and Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock, "Sea Change," 1947. Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm). Seattle Art Museum

Jackson Pollock, “Sea Change,” 1947. Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm). Seattle Art Museum

Tonight I learned an interesting connection between Chuck Close, Jackson Pollock, and the Seattle Art Museum. In a 2008 interview, Close explained that at an early age, he was influenced by Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Close said, “I went to the Seattle Art Museum with my mother for the first time when I was eleven. I saw this Jackson Pollock drip painting with aluminum paint, tar, gravel and all that stuff. I was absolutely outraged, disturbed. It was so far removed from what I thought art was. However, within two or three days, I was dripping paint all over my old paintings. In a way I’ve been chasing that experience ever since.”1

I can’t find an indication of which Jackson Pollock painting Chuck Close saw, but I think that there is a chance that it might have been Sea Change by Jackson Pollock (1947, shown above). This painting was acquired by the Seattle Art Museum in 1958, but previously it was exhibited in 1955 at the SAM in a show called “Contemporary Trends in International Art” (April 7 – May 1, 1955). Since there is some uncertainty as to Chuck Close’s exact age when he saw a Pollock painting in the Seattle Art Museum (see first footnote), I want to propose that Sea Change is a viable possibility for the painting that influenced Close so much, even though Close would have been almost fifteen years old at the time (not eleven).

When Chuck Close was eighteen, Sea Change (1947, shown above) entered the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection as a gift from Peggy Guggenheim. A fascinating side note: I found an fascinating transcript of the oral history of Edward B. Thomas, who used to work as a curator for the Seattle Art Museum. Thomas recounts his involvement in the museum’s acquisition of the painting Sea Changby Jackson Pollock. The painting was given to the museum as a gift from the art collector Peggy Guggenheim, under some very unusual circumstances. In essence, Edward Thomas was invited to dinner at Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo in Venice, along with another dinner guest who appears to have been overbearing and rude. As a result, Peggy took a shine to the curator from Seattle, and at the end of the evening offered to let him select one of the Jackson Pollock paintings from her collection as a gift! Perhaps the Edward Thomas was drawn to selecting this Pollock, since it had just exhibited in Seattle a few years before? It seems likely to me.

Even if Sea Change wasn’t the painting that influenced Close as an adolescent, it is certain that Chuck Close would have seen this Pollock when it entered the museum collection. Close went to college in the Seattle area and even exhibited at a show for Northwest artists at the SAM in 1959.2

I feel like Jackson Pollock’s influence perhaps wasn’t keenly present in the middle of Close’s career, when he focused on creating hyperrealistic portraits like Mark (1978-79). However, I think in more recent decades the painterly quality of his portraits, which include swaths and swirls of color, could perhaps tap into Close’s early interest in Pollock:

Chuck Close, "Emma," 2000. Oil on canvas

Chuck Close, “Emma,” 2000. Oil on canvas

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about Close’s change in style during his later years, which in some ways can relate to the fact that he is now bound to a wheelchair and suffers from a partially-mobile painting hand. And now, while considering Close’s interest in Jackson Pollock, I like to think that Close is somehow indirectly inspired by his predecessor’s “action painting” more than ever, despite his own recent limitations in physical mobility. Go Chuck!

1 Phong Bui, “Chuck Close with Phong Bui,” The Brooklyn Rail, July 7, 2008. Available online: http://brooklynrail.org/2008/06/art/chuck-close-with-phong-bui. Elsewhere, another online source indicates that Close was fourteen (not eleven) when he saw the Pollock paintings, whereas another biography indicates Close probably saw the Jackson Pollock in 1953 (when he was thirteen).

2 Robert Storr, Chuck Close, Kirk Varnedoe, Deborah Wye, Chuck Close (New York: The Museum of Museum of Modern Art, 1998), p. 203. Available online HERE.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.