“America Seen”: Sneak Preview (the intern’s favorite)

This semester at the Ackland, I’ve been conducting research and writing interpretative text for the exhibition America Seen: The Hunter and Cathy Allen of Social Realist PrintsThrough this process I’ve become very familiar with the prints in the show and wanted to share one as a first impression and in advance of the opening reception this evening.

Subway

Fritz Eichenberg, American, born in Germany, 1901–1990: Subway (Sleep), 1935; wood engraving. Ackland Art Museum, The Hunter and Cathy Allen Collection, 2013.21.13.

America Seen features 38 prints from the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s by American artists. The majority of the artists represented in the exhibition lived and worked in New York City. They were inspired by the scenes of everyday urban life they witnessed around them and the subway was a popular theme. One of my favorites prints, Subway (Sleep), falls into this category. Although the print depicts a rather unremarkable moment in the daily life of any New York City subway rider, I’m drawn into the composition through Eichenberg’s use of strong contrasts between light and dark, as well as his careful attention to realistic details inside the subway car, such as the straps, signage, and advertisements.

I can empathize with the occupants of this train car, from the weary, young couple at the far end to the child sleeping in her mother’s lap. I have also been on the subway, tired after a long day, and eager to get home. But where are these people going? What were they doing before? Perhaps the proud and poised woman in a stylish hat is headed to a party or to church. Is the man to her left her companion or a stranger? With a souvenir balloon as a clue, I suspect the collapsed child is returning home from a fun day at the park. While it is impossible to know for sure, the artist, Fritz Eichenberg, invites us to look and speculate about the lives of those pictured. Continue reading

What’s in a Name? (and What on Earth is “Varech”?)

Look at the label next to any painting in the Ackland Art Museum, and the third or fourth line down will give you the title—the name of the painting. Once in a while, with a painting made after 1940, the label will say “Untitled,” a sort of warning that the label will give you no help in figuring out what this painting shows (“Just look hard at it and figure it out for yourself.”). 

The strange thing about this is that most paintings made before about 1700 really were untitled. If we see a 17th-century painting labeled Saint Jerome in Penitence, that is not really a title: it’s a description of what the painting shows you (if you know something about Saint Jerome). The first owner of the painting didn’t need to give it a title because he already knew what the subject was; just as you don’t need to write your mother’s name on the back of a photo of her in her wedding dress (although your great-grandchildren may wish you had when they are looking through a stack of old family photos).

Between 1700 and 1900, the way that art was presented to potential owners changed, and publicity became a more important part of art commerce. An artist who submitted a painting to an exhibition—and who hoped that some journalist would mention it in a newspaper—might want to distinguish it from similar paintings by other artists. A distinctive title, like September Morn for a nude bather in a lake, could help. It could also call special attention to one particular aspect of the painting: if you see a landscape titled The Sentry, your thoughts turn to war, and you search for what may be a tiny figure in a broad panorama.

Bernard_Wave_ARS

Émile Bernard, French, 1868-1941: “The Wave,” 1892; oil on pulpwood board, mounted on canvas. 22 3/4 x 33 9/16 in. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackland Fund. 71.29.1. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

In April 2013, Neil McWilliam, a scholar who specializes in paintings by Émile Bernard, called our attention to an inventory that the painter himself had made in 1901. One entry reads:

La vague – Raguenez – la mer, un tas de varechs, des chênes, une tête de paysanne à l’avant plan

(The Wave – Raguenez – The sea, a mass of “varechs,” oak trees, head of a peasant woman in the foreground)

Continue reading