A Note from Retiring Curator Timothy Riggs

Editor’s note: In August 2014, Timothy Riggs will retire from the Ackland Art Museum after 30 years of dedicated service. On July 19th, friends of the Ackland gathered at the Carolina Inn for the Museum’s Annual Spring Luncheon, at which Timothy was the honored speaker. The following is a thank-you note that Timothy sent to guests who attended the luncheon.

Dear Friends,

Just about a month ago when we gathered for the Ackland Spring Luncheon at the Carolina Inn, I looked out across that room filled with friends, family, and colleagues, and realized again just how many people across this community care for the Ackland Art Museum and what it does.

I want to repeat here the words of Joseph Conrad that closed my talk that day:

“For life to be large and full, it must contain the care of the past and of the future in every passing moment of the present. Our daily work must be done to the glory of the dead, and for the good of those who come after.”

Museums are places where the care of the past for the future is especially direct. We cannot hear Lincoln give the Gettysburg address, but we can look at a wood engraving by Winslow Homer that a member of Lincoln’s audience could have held in his hands and looked at just as we do. And I hope that our grandchildren will have the same opportunity.

DSC_0111_croppedIn the past thirty years I have seen the Museum’s gallery space double, and I have seen the collection grow to the point where we could fill double our present space with outstanding works of art. I have seen a website and a digitization project make images of thousands of works from the collection available to millions of people. I have seen our Education department grow from one half-time public-relations-and-education person to five staff members and two graduate interns, and I have seen its programs grow far more than I can say.

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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)

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