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This audio tour features fifteen artworks selected by twenty-two middle and high-school students from the 2018 -2019 Museum Leader's in Training (M.LiT) program. Students spent twelve weeks exploring approaches to museum interpretation, research, and attended workshops dedicated to writing content and recording audio. These works, chosen to highlight the diversity of VMFA’s collection areas, were selected from among two-hundred artworks featured in Ryan McGinniss’ 16 panel painting Art History is Not Linear - on permanent display inside the Museum’s main entrance. Students were asked to consider McGinniss’ conceptual statement which states, “Art history is not linear; although it is often taught as such. Culture is a multidimensional network that feeds and builds upon itself in a mash up that transcends time.”
Jane: Can you imagine a time in the Mediterranean world when Greek culture dominated the region? That’s 2,500 years ago!
Kathia: This is a time when great civilizations like Babylon and Persia dominated the middle east. Pre-Columbian civilizations are becoming established, and Imperial China will not exist for another 300 years. This is the time of the Etruscan civilization, located in present day Northern Italy.
Jane: There’s not much recorded history of the Etruscans, as all of their poetry, literature, and monuments have been lost. Much of what we know comes from art that has been preserved in burial sites.
Kathia: Paintings and artifacts discovered in tombs lead researchers to believe that Etruscans were lovers of luxury. This Etruscan Mirror is a perfect example of the extravagant lifestyle of the wealthier class. Mirrors were a symbol of status, often gifted to women in the event of a marriage, and due to the intricacy of the designs they were likely valued gifts. The side of this mirror on display features a winged female figure, while the other side is polished to be reflective.
Jane: There are about 3,000 ancient mirrors in museums throughout the world today, many of them from Etruscan tombs. The Etruscans believed the after-life was a continuation of mortal life. When an individual died they were buried with all of their possessions, including items they viewed as necessities – such as brushes, pottery, paintings, and sculptures. Their tomb walls were either painted to look like the interior of their homes or with depictions of banquets and parties. This mirror was found in a furnished Etruscan tomb where it was buried for over two thousand years before being excavated.
Kathia: Today, mirrors are present in almost every home and in many public spaces. Compared to the Etruscans, what objects would you consider valuable or important?
Anna: What do you see?
Grace: An old bench maybe?
Jacqueline: Intricate designs and patterns?
Trinity: Maybe even dragons stretching across the bottom.
Grace: This is a Funerary Couch. Funerary couches were used in early China to support a coffin in the burial chamber of a tomb.
Trinity: It represents the Chinese belief of life after death because these couches were meant for the dead to relax on in their afterlife.
Jacqueline: This couch is from the 6th century when Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, popularized filial piety which is the Chinese tradition of respecting one’s elders.
Anna: This popularity could explain why scenes of filial piety were included in the design work of this couch.
Trinity: Or maybe the tomb occupants were respectful individuals?
Grace: Maybe they were parents and their children wanted to honor them in death. What do you think?
Kent: The Marriage of Rigault d’Oureille and Catherine de Rance is a Medieval French tapestry made by unknown weavers depicting a celebratory wedding scene with the Rigault castle visible in the background.
Malena: We noticed that this piece displays an abundance of food and people positioned in front of a castle. This abundance of life and royal setting could be a way to illustrate either the beauty of marriage or society moving towards a more prosperous era.
Georgia: While viewing this tapestry, we wondered if the abundance of food and the lush, flowering, landscape, surrounding the couple may represent good-fortune and the hope for fertility. During the time this piece was made, society was emerging from a time of great hardship and strife. The hope for a more abundant future can be interpreted through the amount of fertile imagery present in the scene, which like many other ancient paintings, is used to represent a society’s overall prosperity.
Rithanya: Have you noticed the difference in the styles of clothing among the people depicted in this scene? The extravagant clothing worn by the aristocratic couple, and the plain clothes worn by the shepherds, harvesters, and craftsmen seem to indicate that there are many different social classes present. The class differences are also indicated by the tasks they are performing as well as the items that they are carrying and surrounded by. Perhaps this is meant to show that the future will be prosperous for all regardless of status and social standing.
Josh: What stands out the most in the painting to you? There’s a lot of emphasis on the distinction between the foreground and background.
Carrington: There’s all that intense lighting in the front. The foreground is what is used to tell the story.
Josh: I think the background is supposed to give insight into the way of life that was described in the Bible.
Carrington: Or it could have been the artist projecting the lifestyle of his own time into his art.
Josh: Christianity was a big part of life for the painter, so artists like him would paint biblical stories.
Carrington: An element of this painting that might be overlooked is the cross that young John the Baptist is holding.
Josh: The cross could foreshadow Jesus’s future crucifixion.
Carrington: The look on Virgin Mary’s and St. John the Baptist’s face gives the feeling that they are aware of this future and are in a somber mood. And the rock behind Christ and his mother possibly alludes to the rocky tomb that he was buried in.
Josh: What else in this painting might reference the story of Christ?
Felix: The Faberge Collection contains many stunning pieces adorned with fine jewels and tells the history of the last Russian royal family, the Romanovs.
When the Romanovs were exiled and forced to move out of the palace in 1917, they left behind many of their personal belongings, including many objects adorned with fine jewels made by Fabergé.
Even though the famous eggs are the center of attention in this gallery, there are still many other treasures here. We consider the Cornflowers to be one of them.
Some of the only information we have about this piece comes from Mrs. Lillian Thomas Pratt, who donated her collection of Russian decorative arts, including about 170 pieces from Faberge.
The Cornflowers seen here are mentioned in Ms. Pratts personal papers, which states that the object was part of a flowers and berries collection created for Tsar Nicholas the 2nd of Russia.
Jin Sun: The Cornflowers are displayed in a case with other decorative objects of a similar color palette and style. The gold and silver used to create the stems and leave aren’t blinding but helps draw your focus to the royal blue used on the petals.
Native to Europe, cornflowers have been an important symbol for many countries since the mid-1800s. Sometimes referred to as a “Bachelor’s button,” cornflowers were worn by young men when they went to social events to show their availability. It was also said that if the flower faded or died too quickly, their love wasn’t returned by their romantic interests.
The next time you are in this gallery, or any museum with a Fabergé exhibit, please make time to seek out objects like the Cornflowers. Even though a piece might be less decorated, it can still be rich in history, craftsmanship, and beauty.
Jin: As you look at this object, what do you see? The first thing I noticed were the geometric designs and how the piece looks like it is made out of multiple parts.
Kathia: I noticed two monkeys with big headdresses and what appeared to look like spikes along their back looking straight at me. At first glance, I thought they resembled warriors, and I wondered if that is what the Monkeys are meant to symbolize?
Felix: I noticed the two stylized serpents on the bottom, and to the right what seems to be a small person. I wonder what the meaning behind all these symbols is?
Jane: After looking at this piece and hearing our questions about it, do you have any questions of your own? Do you think it has a religious meaning? What do you think the figure at the bottom right is doing?
Sydney: In sacred funerary rituals, the Mayan people buried their leaders wearing masks because they believed that by doing so, the lords of the underworld would treat them with honor and look favorably upon them. By placing the mask over the face of a leader before burial, the leader would achieve divine status in the afterlife.
Sophie: These burial masks were often made out of jade, just like this miniature mask. However, miniature masks were not used for funerary rituals but as embellishments for ceremonial belts and attire.
Sydney: In Mayan culture, jadestone was more precious than gold and was a stone of religious importance primarily used to make art and sacred objects. The colors and translucency of jade are reminiscent of what the Mayans thought of water and vegetation, and the Maya associated jade with the sun god Kinich Ahau.
Sophie: The Mayan elite carved this sun god into jade and wore it around their necks, it was a way to connect with him. Since Jade was so precious, artists utilized all scraps of the stone that they had— perhaps this is why this particular mask is created from fragments.
Gabrielle: You have arrived at the Royal Buffalo Mask.
Simi: Look at the art in the case behind the mask.
Gabrielle: Turn around and notice the textile and other masks behind you.
Simi: What makes this piece different from its surrounding counterparts? Is there anything particular about how this object is displayed in comparison to the rest of the gallery?
Gabrielle: It was made sometime between the 19th and 20th centuries.
Simi: It’s amazing how a culture can continue to maintain age-old traditions in their communities, even up to the present day. The role of the Buffalo Mask is still significant, even to Bamum communities today.
Gabrielle: Notice that most pieces in this gallery aren’t hung on the wall like typical paintings; instead, they can be viewed from many different perspectives. The Buffalo Mask is not just a piece of art meant merely for viewing, but is an object with a purpose. These masks are created and used by the Bamum Culture, one of many groups of the Cameroon Grasslands. Cameroon is located on the west coast of Africa.
Simi: Traditional African art, like this, is often meant to be worn, touched, and used in ceremonies. The music, the audience, and the environment come together to complete the work of art. What we see is just a fragment.
This mask would have been used along with an elaborate costume, which would have covered the wearer’s entire body.
Gabrielle:Take a look at the other buffalo in the case up against the wall behind the mask. Notice the feathered cape costume. The wearer of our mask could have worn a similar costume, however we don’t know for sure. The materials used for this costume varies from feathers to cloth to raffia.
Simi: Is there is a reason this piece is set apart from the rest?
Gabrielle: Yeah, I definitely believe that it has the spotlight for a reason.
Simi: Look again at the pieces around you. Compare them with the Buffalo Mask.
Gabrielle: Many of the other masks are not beaded, but are instead made just of wood. They have browns, dark greens, and tan color palettes. However, the Royal Buffalo is brightly colored and animated. It’s decorated with colorful glass beads, identifying it as an item owned by the king.
Simi: Right, look at how rounded the face is and how bold the blues and reds are.
Gabrielle: The Buffalo emphasizes the strength of leadership, and is seen to represent the civic leaders. The African Cape Buffalo is a formidable creature, known for its intelligence. It will remain docile until provoked.
Simi: The display really makes the mask seem royal. It creates an ambience of great strength.
Gabrielle: Although African masks, like this one, are commonly viewed as ancient, old, or outdated, it is important to remember that many of the traditions connected to the objects in this gallery remain a part of contemporary life for many people. This mask was of great importance to the people of the Bamum culture, and the rituals that it was used in are equally significant. Though the piece is now in a museum, it is important to remember that this object was not meant merely for display. The Royal Buffalo Mask had a whole other life that can not be seen when viewed in a glass box. The objects you see in this gallery are not ancient art, but the story of many everlasting cultures.
Caroline: An owl, a salt shaker, and a pentagonal shaped lamp. Can you find them?
The owl is seen on the poster near the center right of the painting. The salt and the pepper shakers are displayed on the tables to the right. The pentagonal shape is shown in the lamps hanging from the ceiling. Take a moment to notice all of the reflections in the windows. Did you notice the owl reflected onto one of the windows above the booths?
Reflections are a primary reason why Ralph Goings was so drawn to painting diners. In an interview, Goings stated that he was interested in the effect that light has on surfaces and how the reflective surface defines their form. He noted that these reflections created the illusion of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface. He chose not to stage the compositions of his paintings because he believed that form, color, and space are at the whim of reality.
Goings is among the first generation of Photorealist painters. Photorealists use a photographic reference to realistically recreate an image in their chosen medium – usually painting or drawing. Goings created his life-like paintings by first taking a photograph, projecting the image onto a canvas, and then tracing the projection with pencil before beginning to paint.
Photorealism grew out of Pop Art, characterized by its depictions of mundane, everyday objects, and Modernism, which is identified by a spirit of experimentation. The movement gained recognition in the 1970s, a time when Goings was at the peak of his painting production. However, this doesn’t necessarily refer to his speed— Goings often spent years on paintings due to their technical nature. He spent eight to ten hours on just a few square inches of a painting.
With his focus on light and reflection, Goings’ stylistic choice of including ordinary objects such as an owl poster, a salt shaker, and a pentagonal lamp, makes Burger Chef Interior a dynamic still life that captures the everyday American experience during this time period. We hope you will take another few moments to let the mastery of light and reflection that Goings exhibits in “Burger Chef Interior” to fully soak in.
Grace: Do you think this is a chalkboard? At first glance, so did we. However, this piece by Cy Twombly is actually oil on canvas.
Jacqueline: Synopsis of a Battle is quite difficult to interpret at first glance. What does it look like to you?
Grace: In my opinion, the shape in the center looks a lot like a fan or a dress and the image as a whole reminds me of structural blueprints.
Jacqueline: Although this certainly does not look like an epic war scene, this piece actually depicts the Battle of Issus which was pivotal in Alexander the Great’s struggle to conquer the Persian Empire.
Grace: What can you see that would make you think of the connection between this piece and The Battle of Issus?
Jacqueline: Twombly wrote the word “Issus” on the top left and repeatedly scribbled “flank”, which refers to the right or left side of a military formation around the painting.
Grace: Twombly’s abstraction of this famous battle to the point of complete disorder is actually incredibly purposeful. By reducing the subject to a subtle message, Twombly is highlighting the mark-making in this work.
Jacqueline: Synopsis of a Battle is part of Twombly’s blackboard series where he explored language and the process of writing by painting canvases to look like chalkboards.
Grace: As you can see, the surface is covered in symbols and the image is solely constructed of lines. There are several unrelated words scattered around the painting. They emphasize the importance of mark-making because they shift the focus from the meaning of the words to analyzing Twombly’s lines.
Jacqueline: Using frantic, hurried, and strong white lines to represent this ancient battle, Twombly hints at the chaos of war.
Grace: Twombly infuses his emotions and his reactions to historical subjects into his work through his abstract approach. How does this work feel to you?
Jacqueline: You might have said analytical or fierce or even chaotic. No matter your response, Twombly’s ability to evoke such emotion from his work is a testament to his training and highly developed vision.
Grace: After studying art at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an institution known for fostering artistic talent, Twombly moved to Rome with the help of a Virginia Museum Fellowship in 1957.
Jacqueline: As shown by the subject of this painting, he was very interested in and inspired by the history of Greece and Rome and makes references to classical mythology in many of his works.
Grace: Twombly still frequently returned to America, even living in Virginia for part of each year. Through his personal experiences and studies in both Europe and abroad, his work became a fusion of modern art movements.
Jacqueline: Art movements like Abstract Expressionism, which emphasized the process of painting and the energy behind the brushstroke definitely influenced this highly active work of art. This influence, coupled with his interest in graffiti, contributed to the abstraction we see in this painting.
Grace: Some consider Synopsis of a Battle a powerful commentary on language. However, art is open to interpretation. So, what do you think Cy Twombly was trying to say with this piece?
Josh: God told Adam and Eve they could eat from any tree in the Garden of Eden. Except for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they ate from the tree they would die.
They ate from the tree anyway and were thrown out of Eden. God placed a Cherubim with a flaming sword to protect the Garden, just like the one you see in this painting.
Brown fell in love with art history while enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he became associated with a group of Art Institute alumni known as the Chicago Imagists.
Initially known as “Hairy Who”, the first six core members of what would become the Imagists opened up an exhibit in South Chicago´s Hyde Park Art Center. Roger wasn’t initially a part of the groundbreaking six, but was instead a part of a group known as “Monster Roster”. The Monster Rosters were very similar to the Imagists in style. The Hairy Who’s and Monster Rosters eventually merged and were dubbed the Chicago Imagists in 1972.
What really made both these groups stand out was their outlandish and revolutionary style. The Chicago Imagists were grouped together because of their common beliefs. Inspiration comes from popular culture and love for the human figure.
Adam and Eve is a great example of these beliefs. The Imagists loved to incorporate the popular comic book style into their works. This meant they were focusing on simplified two-dimensional figures and less on a realistic depiction of the person. Both figures are also semi-nude. This is reminiscent of the Bible, but it also shows the intimate feelings toward the human figure that the art of the Imagists usually depict.
The story of Adam and Eve can also be seen as a story about sin, regret, and impending doom, which are the type of themes the Imagists liked to focus on. If you look to your right, you can see the same dark theme and comic-like style. This piece, Duo Verde was done by another fellow Imagist- Ed Paschke.
Lucy: Have you ever heard of Diana the Huntress? She is the Roman goddess of wild animals and the hunt. This sculpture is a reduced version of the original sculpture of Diana of the Tower that was put up in the late 1890s of the Gilded Age.
The Gilded age was a time of opulence for the wealthy who reaped the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, which is perhaps why the original sculpture was gilded with gold leafing.
In the late 1890s, women dressed modestly. The nude Diana was a shock to the people of New York, and became quite the controversy. The sculptor, Saint-Gaudens, was asked to display her in a more modest light, so he draped her with cloth. However, heavy winds quickly blew the fabric off of the statue and it was never replaced.
The original sculpture stood atop Madison Square Garden until 1925, when it was moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The original “Diana of the Tower” statue became one of New York’s most popular landmarks. She was made out of gilded copper, and stood 42 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. This was also the first statue to be lit with electric light.
If you were a sculptor, what subject would you choose? Where would it be located? If you were asked to modify your sculpture, how would you respond?
Anna: What pops into your mind when you think of the role of a Queen?
Trinity: Be honest with yourself, what do you see when you look at the women depicted in the Queen of Diamonds or any of the additional panels by Margaret Macdonald Macintosh?
Anna: Perhaps you thought that a Queen was just a King’s wife, or maybe you recognized her true potential.
Trinity: But a Queen can be more than just a wife. She’s the back bone that holds the King upright, without her, he would not be able to function on his own.
Anna: Similar to many stories about women in the design world, Margaret Macdonald Macintosh’s art was often overshadowed by her husband’s.
Trinity: And of course, it didn’t help that Margaret’s husband, Charles Rennie Macintosh, was Scotland’s most famous architect at the time.
Anna: However, many of his successes were due in part to his wife. Despite Margaret’s valuable role as a collaborator, some of her achievements and contributions were overlooked in the international art world in favor of her designer husband.
Trinity: Though this was true, she was still admired for her incredible artistry, and was known as one of the “Glasgow Girls” who spearheaded the Glasgow Arts and Crafts style of the 1890s in Scotland before she and Charles became partners.
Anna: Margaret’s portfolio is vast and varied. She shows her skills in multiple medias such as watercolor, embroidery, metalworking, and textiles which she studied at the Glasgow School of Art.
Trinity: One of their most well-known benefactors that supported the couple was Catherine Cranston the owner of the Hous’hill estate and coincidentally, the creator of the modern day tearoom.
Anna: Imagine the soft chatter of ladies and the sweet clink of teacups coming to rest on platters. These lovely sounds that make up the happenings of an afternoon tea filled Miss Cranston’s card room. The “Four Queens” series was created to be inlaid panels in the card room at Hous’hill. In 1904 and in 1908, Miss Cranston commissioned Charles Rennie Macintosh, assisted by his wife Margaret, to redo the interiors and remodel her home. Hous’hill, in addition to the tea rooms and other residences decorated by the couple, helped the world recognize Glasgow as an important city of culture in the newly emerging style of Art Nouveau.
Trinity: From what you’ve heard today about Margaret Macdonald Macintosh, don’t you wonder how many other women’s artistic talent may have been overlooked? Margaret may have not been a queen like in the four panels she painted, but with all her hard work and achievements, she was strong like one.
Georgia: I see you’ve stumbled into Nature, while hopefully not literally. This statue was made by Czechoslovakian artist Alphonse Mucha and is one of his more famous works. If his name sounds familiar it may be because you have seen his stylized posters and paintings, featuring colorful flowers and plants. The prominence of Mucha’s works helped the Art Nouveau movement gain popularity. Art Nouveau is a decorative art style used in paintings, sculpture, and architecture. It is characterized by flowing, kinetic lines and references to nature– just like we see in this bust. This particular bust was created to personify the spirit of nature, as you can see by the way her hair wraps around her torso and shoulders similar to the way vines wrap around a tree.
Did you notice how intricate the details are in this sculpture? Cast by a longtime collaborator of Mucha’s, Emile Pinedo, this bust is made using gilded bronze, which is bronze covered in either gold paint or gold leaf. Nature’s artfully placed strands of hair contrast wonderfully with her reflective silver skin, and are beautifully integrated into the sculpture. Her crown is decorated with snowflakes, gemstones, and flowers. Atop her crown is an egg-shaped jewel carved from marble. Although the intricately detailed design and smooth flowing lines are enough to hold one’s attention, what is most puzzling is her facial expression.
The emotion she is portraying is unclear, however, it can be interpreted in many ways. Some people see her as relaxed, saddened, or serene. What emotion do you think she’s expressing?
Rithanya: In front of you now is a Tibetan or Nepalese religious sculpture titled Serpent King or Nagaraja. This sculpture was created sometime between the 15th and 16th centuries. It is made of gilded copper, engraved with intricate designs, and bright turquoise stones adorn both the figure and the crown of snakes. The style of this sculpture is similar to many copper statues once found in the Densatil monastery in southern Tibet.
You may notice that the sculpture seems incomplete- that is because it is! The figure was once part of a larger display in which the serpent king was depicted offering earthly treasures to the Buddha. However, the rest of the display of which it was once a piece of was destroyed during China’s 20th Century Cultural Revolution.
The Nagaraja depicted in this statue is posing as if he is making an offering. This is because Nagaraja are protectors of scripture, or sutras, in the Buddhist religion. While this piece is Buddhist in origin, Nagas are serpent deities that are found in various South Asian cultures. In one Buddhist legend, the Dalai Lama and his attendants were returning to Tibet from China. The Dalai Lama carried with him copies of scripture that the emperor had given him. However, the scripts fell into a river and were lost. When the travelers returned to their monastery, they found out that an old man had delivered the scriptures that had been lost in the river- slightly damp but intact. Supposedly, the old man was a Naga in disguise. In this story, the Nagaraja is bringing the Buddha sutras, what do you think this statue might have been offering?