Collection Connection

What’s YOUR Favorite?

Newly Revamped Collection Connection will shine the spotlight on our Friend’s favorite art at Mia.

Laurie Fontaine-Junker’s favorite piece at Mia: Yasuimoku Komuten Company Ltd (Japanese 21st century), Teahouse, constructed 2001. Gift of the Friends of the Institute, the Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, the Commemorative Association for the Japan World Exposition (1970), the James Ford Bell Foundation, Patricia M. Mitchell, Jane and Thomas Nelson, and many others, 2001.204.1.

For many years, Mia’s docents have lovingly written the newsletter’s Collection Connection, allowing Friends to glimpse—from an expert angle—the beauty of unique and sometimes overlooked artworks at Mia.

This year we’d like to encourage YOU to be our expert! Answer a few simple questions about your favorite piece of art at Mia and send it to: for inclusion in upcoming issues of the newsletter. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be an expert! Just let us know why you love it and, in doing so, give others a glimpse into the magnificent variety of art and art lovers who make up our Friends.

1. What is your favorite piece at Mia or the one piece that you can’t leave Mia without seeing?

2. Why do you love it?

3. Where is this piece located in Mia? Is there anything special about the location?

Lastly, add anything that you know about the piece that makes it come to life, stand out or otherwise be deserving of a moment in the Friend’s spotlight.

Polaris, a painting that leads the way

In Polaris, Martin Wong draws our attention to the dual nature of man as we seek our way in the Universe.
By Susan Arndt, Mia docent

© Estate of Martin Wong, Courtesy PPOW Gallery, NY
© Estate of Martin Wong, Courtesy PPOW Gallery, NY

The brilliant blue in Martin Wong’s painting, Polaris, attracted me to the piece like a magnet.  My attention quickly diverted from the vibrant color to the children outlined in gold. They sit together in an open circle, in various animated positions. They seem prepared to move in an instant. They are both attentive and distracted. Wong has plucked them from the diversity of what was his Lower East Side neighborhood and set them into a brilliant blue field that is filled with a map of the constellations. The constellations are named and also rendered in gold. The children are among the stars and Polaris is in the center of their group. It all would seem ideal except for the figure in the upper left corner outside the circle. We only see the lower legs and feet. This figure is not outlined in gold.        
Life is not ideal and Wong knew that. He grew up and came of age in 1950’s and 1960’s Chinatown and San Francisco with a constant flow of diversity surrounding him. The son of Chinese immigrants he had a being-of-two-worlds-awareness, feelings of belonging and not belonging, that can be common to first-generation immigrant children. These are themes he would eventually explore in his work.
After earning his degree in ceramics from Humboldt State College during the counterculture movement, Wong paid his way by painting lightening fast portraits of people dubbing himself the “human instamatic.”  At that time he was also creating costumes and sets for a street theater group known as the Angels of Light. The group specialized in fantastical drag spectacles that were heavy on camp. In 1978, Wong moved to New York City, first occupying a room in the dilapidated Meyer’s Hotel in exchange for being the night porter. In 1982 he moved to the Lower East Side where he became friends with graffiti artists and the ex-con, poet, and playwright, Miguel Pinero. It was Pinero that urged Wong to paint what was around him–the urban environment in all of its gritty reality.
The large brick tenements, the African Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean, South and Central Americans that inhabited them were subject matter for Wong. He was an observer, recording the variety in the cultural identities around him always noting what effect the place had on them, and what effect they had on each other. In other words, what brought people together, and what kept them apart. He recorded their humanity.
The constellations, named and outlined in gold, appeared in multiple paintings. They were not intended to be the focus, but another layer, visual reminders that the stories of the Lower East Side are as old as the stars. In Polaris, Wong has made this commentary the subject. He has drawn our attention to the dual nature of man by placing twins near the constellation of Gemini at the bottom right of the circle. One looks away while the other points to the guiding North Star. The children are participating, active, involved, choosing–good or bad–who they might become. The figure on the outside, it would seem, has a decision to make.  

Beauty and Simplicity for Contemplation

Graceful ewer will be one of the objects used for interpretation during Art in Bloom this April.   
By Susan Arndt, Mia docent
It is cold outside, negative four degrees to be exact. Even a short walk outside to get the mail demands more then one layer. When my dogs are met with a blast of arctic air at the door, they just look up at me in disgust. It is time to put my winter survival plan into action.

Ewer, c,1700 Unknown artist, India Zinc alloy; cast engraved, inlaid with brass

I start pulling up photos of flowers from my garden. The photos provide a memory of warm summer days, their sights, their smells. As the sun slowly becomes more direct they help me visualize the return of my summer paradise. I also start scanning the museum for objects that will help me quench my longing for spring. I found the perfect match in the Islamic gallery (G243), a small graceful ewer, used for hand washing, covered with an orderly floral motif. The ewer will be one of the objects used for interpretation during Art in Bloom this April.
The ewer was made in the late 17th or early 18th century near Bidar, India on the Deccan plateau. Bidri ware, as it is known, is a unique type of metal work. Functional objects such as boxes for pan (betel leaf), trays, hookahs and water vessels were cast from an alloy of zinc mixed with small amounts of copper, tin, and lead. The objects are engraved and inlaid with silver and or brass. The inlay is masked and the object is covered with a mud that is only found around Bidar. The mud contains ammonium chloride and copper sulfate which reacts with the metal alloy to turn it a velvety matte black, exaggerating the inlaid motif on the object when the mask is removed.
Though the metalcraft itself is unique to the area around Bidar, the design motifs had been influenced by the cosmopolitan flow of trade and the rise and fall of empires including the Persians over time. Though the area was originally Hindu, the introduction and adoption of Islam strongly influenced the art and architecture of the area.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 11.38.10 AMThe motif on Mia’s ewer covers the entire surface. Sprays of flowers with their leaves are stylized and repeated on the rounded surface of the ewer. Smaller vegetal patterns trace the pedestal foot, handle and spout. Beautifully decorative, the patterns are intended to evoke the description of Heaven found in 164 verses of the Qur’an. Paradise described as a walled garden; its sounds, its smells, its trees, flowers and flowing water. Water that gives life to the garden is a gift from Allah that sustains all. Words of the Prophet quench the faithful longing for Paradise. From this ewer, water flowed over hands to purify before and after meals, like a call to prayer.


For Luck, What does it mean to you?

Examine Rick Bartow’s drawing at a most personal level in this month’s Collection Connection.

By Susan Arndt, Mia docent

For Luck, 2003
Rick Bartow

What do you see when you look at Rick Bartow’s drawing, For Luck?  How does it make you feel?  What do you see that makes you say that? Take a minute and really look.
To people who are not familiar with the contemporary artist Rick Bartow, he can seem to be an enigma.  His work can be pleasingly puzzling or downright unnerving, and capable of taking any viewer on a journey, if you are willing to go.
Friends of Bartow’s have described his process as intuitive, frenzied, consuming, messy.  Bartow seemed to thrive on the mystery of the origin of inspiration.  To him, it was a cherished gift that passed through him to the viewer.  Bartow said, “Once it begins, the battle is on! The many marks go back and forth until the war is done. It must play out until resolution, and make cognitive the blindly thrashing marks, line, and color.”  What is left in the wake of creation is to be interpreted personally by all.  The meaning will be the one you attach to it.
Music was also an inspiration to Bartow and a big part of his life. He was both a writer and performer and called music another extension of expression.  A musician from a young age, Bartow was tasked with playing music to the dying during his tour of duty in Vietnam.  The exposure left him broken.  It was his art, music, and heritage that he turned to for healing.
Themes in Bartow’s work have dealt with the emotional pain mined from his life.  PTSD, addiction, loss, personal transformation, and redemption.  Charles Froelick, who represented Bartow when he was living and now represents his estate, has called Bartow “an artistic omnivore, constantly searching the internal and external worlds for emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and poetic inspiration.” Bartow was influenced by artists such as Fritz Scholder, Francis Bacon, John Bevon Ford, and Joe David.  He had also traveled extensively, to Mexico, Japan, Germany, and Africa. Collaborating with others,  studying storytelling traditions and world mythology added to the rich traditions embedded in his Native American roots.
As a member of the Mad River Band of Wiyot from the Humboldt Bay area of northern California; his visual language included the shape-shifting tricksters Raven, Owl, Coyote, and Bear. Though his work contains Native American imagery, it defies categorization.  The genius of Rick Bartow is that he was a careful observer bringing together many influences and drawing on universal truths to create stories that speak to our very being. His travels teaching him that in this world, people are more alike than not.

New Forms from an Ancient Craft: Exploring Hard Bodies

By Susan Arndt, Mia docent

Mount Bull, 2013 Someya Satoshi Lacquer, wood, rattan, horn, metal, mother of pearl, shell, leather, and pigment Gift of the Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture 2013.29.1313a
Mount Bull, 2013
Someya Satoshi
Lacquer, wood, rattan, horn, metal, mother of pearl, shell, leather, and pigment
Gift of the Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture 2013.29.1313a

Nothing about the creation of a piece of lacquerware is easy. To start,  the viscous, slow-running sap is toxic and is collected from a tree that is a close relative of poison ivy. Contact dermatitis is a real possibility. The sap must be distilled carefully to remove impurities and improve its quality. Warmth and humidity are required in order for it to cure and set properly. By mixing lacquer with ground clay, artists are able to mold layers around a core, adding hemp cloth, coating and drying after each addition. Then one builds, dries, polishes, and repeats.
Inlays are created by gluing precious materials such as mother-of-pearl to an object. This is coated with more lacquer, dried, polished, and coated again and again. Painting adds another layer. The process of building up layers of lacquer requires time and could take months or years to complete an object. But the finished product’s durable surface is distinct, like liquid velvet.
Production of a single piece of lacquer is definitely not easy and this is why walking through the exhibition Hard Bodies: Contemporary Japanese Lacquer Sculpture is visually stunning. A jaw-dropping joy in my book. The “audacious eye “of Willard (Bill) Clark led Clark and his wife Elizabeth to explore and collect lacquer objects by contemporary artists who are in turn exploring the ancient utilitarian craft to push it in new sculptural directions. The Clark collection’s strength in the new form is unique 30 works by 16 artists, are included in the exhibition — and affords viewers a wonderful opportunity to witness a moment when art examines itself and pivots to take us somewhere we have never been before.
And so, I find it very appropriate that the biographical Mount Bull by Someya Satoshi was commissioned by Clark in 2013 at a time when the Clarks were making plans to move their collection to Mia from Hanford, California. Influenced by animation, Someya’s work combines pop culture with the ancient aesthetics of lacquer craft.  The tattoo-like motifs that cover the figure of a bull reference both Japanese and California culture. Why a bull? There are many works of art in the Clark collection that have the bull as subject matter. Mr. Clark built his family farm into a worldwide cattle breeding business. The success of the business-on the back of the bull-allowed the Clarks to appreciate, collect, and share their love of Japanese art.
Both Mount Fuji and Mount Whitney, highest peaks in Japan and California respectively, are represented on the bull. Both mountains are considered sacred to the indigenous peoples of Japan and California. They are sources of artistic inspiration. Other motifs represent the culture and landscape of both places. A Route 66 sign is synonymous with the great American road trip that explores the vast landscape of the country. It brushes up against Japanese pine trees. It was, after all, a photo of a Japanese garden in a geography book that peaked the interest of a 12-year old Clark, igniting his lifelong passion for this art. Indeed, turning a passion into an opportunity for cultural sharing and study is extraordinary.

Grand Tour Mementos: Piranesi's Etchings

By Susan Arndt, Mia docent

Giovanni Battista Piranesi Italian, 1720–1778 View of the Remains of the Dining Room of Nero’s Golden House, commonly called the Temple of Peace, c. 1756-1778 Etching Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2007.49.2.2
Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Italian, 1720–1778
View of the Remains of the Dining Room of Nero’s Golden House, commonly called the Temple of Peace, c. 1756-1778
Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2007.49.2.2

I was attempting to take a photo of the Eiffel Tower when I had the pleasure of seeing it in person for the first time. I wanted something that would remind me of my first impression. Massive! Bigger than I thought! Much better than that pitiful replica on the Vegas strip.
This is what 18th-century gentlemen wanted on their Grand Tour, mementos. Giovanni Battista Piranesi had a reverence for history, the skills of a draftsman, creativity laced with some romantic notions and wherewithal to meet a growing demand.
A Venetian by birth, Piranesi referred to himself as an architect. Building was in his blood, his father was a stone mason and master builder. His education included Latin and ancient civilizations taught by his brother who was a monk. He was apprenticed to his uncle who was an architect. Through his uncle’s connections, Piranesi was able to travel to Rome for the first time as a draftsman for the Venetian ambassador to the Vatican. Exposure to the ruins of ancient Rome certainly fired his imagination and exposure to the art of etching created a business opportunity by combining things he was most passionate about. Detailed drawings of ruins, architectural features, and excavated artifacts, as well as detailed drawings of imagined spaces, became subject matter for etchings in multiple series throughout his career. In his lifetime he was called an architect, archaeologist, designer, and printmaker. He can be credited for influencing Neo-classical style for generations.
In the Winton Jones Gallery (344)  sixteen etchings from Piranesi’s well-known series, Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome) are offered for viewing. The series was initiated in 1747 and Piranesi continued producing views (135 in the series) through the year of his death in 1778. Stepping into this intimate gallery allows a close exam of these prints, and the opportunity to see the detail of the artist’s hand at work. Dramatic lighting effects and dramatic perspective demand the viewer’s attention but the juxtaposition of tiny figures against the massive buildings of this ancient culture fires my imagination and curiosity. The perfect memento? I think I would have been an easy sell.
To get an even closer look at Piranesi’s etching technique enjoy this short video on Vimeo.

Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione  (Prisons of the Mind) by Gregoire Dupond for Factum Arte (Madrid)
With support from Fondazione Giorgio Cini.
To enjoy Mia’s art story on Piranesi’s Pier Table in the museums collection follow the link below:

Max Beckmann: Accessing Extremes To Find A New Objectivity

The Collection Connection spotlight focuses on German Twentieth Century Artist Max Beckmann this month.

By Susan Arndt, Mia docent

Blind Man’s Buff, 1945 Max Beckmann Oil on canvas Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Winston 55.27A-C
Blind Man’s Buff, 1945 Max Beckmann Oil on canvas Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Winston 55.27A-C

The Twentieth Century German artist Max Beckmann said, “My heart beats more for a rougher, commoner, more vulgar art…one that offers direct access to the terrible, the crude, the magnificent, the ordinary, the grotesque and the banal in life.”
In Blind Man’s Buff (Darwin and Geri Reedy Gallery 371) metaphors abound; reality, dreams, and myths converge.  A clock with neither a beginning nor end; eternity? Burning candles could be flames of wisdom, fleeting time, or both? Gods playing musical instruments could be keeping the rhythm of the cosmos. Are the gods benevolent, angry, or both? A woman distracted by the chaos around her, a man searching blindfolded–will they find one another? Will life as we know it survive? It is 1945, the world is in chaos and Beckmann, now living in Holland, having been labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazi party, wants us to consider who we are and what we will become.
The painting has always intrigued me. I visit and revisit it. I’m curious but it won’t completely give up its secrets.
If artists are the prophets of their times, Max Beckmann was compelled to be a careful observer. Choosing to use the “rougher, commoner, more vulgar art” to find what he called the magic of reality–a New Objectivity. Like many artists at the start of the 20th century Beckmann’s style had shifted away from academic technique to a more highly expressive style that relies on vivid color and bold angular lines to describe distorted figures in shallow space. But where other artists moved toward abstraction and complete removal of the figure in art, Beckmann used the human figure as the narrative in his work to chronicle the dehumanization rising around him.
A current exhibition in the Perlman Gallery (368) titled Seeking the Truth: German Art of the 1920s and 1930s, gives us the opportunity to compare Beckmann’s earlier work with Blind Man’s Buff. He is represented in the exhibition with a series of drypoint prints from the Jahrmarkt portfolio published in 1922, and a bronze statue of Adam and Eve, dated 1936, from the collection of Al and Ingrid Lenz Harrison. It is one of only eight sculptures completed by Beckmann.
In the Jahrmarkt portfolio, Beckmann created a carnival with a cast of misfits and outcasts.
Der Ausrufer (The Barker) (Self-Portrait), 1921 (published 1922) Max Beckmann Drypoint Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2006.63
Der Ausrufer (The Barker) (Self-Portrait), 1921 (published 1922) Max Beckmann Drypoint Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2006.63

The prints have distortions of space that feel confining and claustrophobic, similar to Blind Man’s Buff. In the first print Beckmann has presented himself as a carnival barker pointing to the sideshow attractions, tolling the bell and asking the viewer to attend the amusements within Circus Beckmann. Yet, this is a Beckmann self portrait, Beckmann examining the Self; he is an artist hawking his wares to survive, an artist building ambiguity and positioning himself for survival while telling the truth. In short, the prints give us that “direct access to the terrible, the crude, the magnificent, the ordinary, the grotesque, and the banal in life.” And all the while the bell is tolling for our attention, offering it’s warning, a prophecy of the nightmare to come.
By 1936 Beckmann had been removed from his teaching position, his art removed from museums, confiscated by the Nazis. While the Nazi party tightened its grip on artistic freedom, Beckmann, now living in Berlin, produced the bronze statue of Adam and Eve. Adam is seated cradling Eve, an infant pulled from his rib. Evil, in the form of the snake, has wound its way up through Adam’s legs around his back and over his shoulder to confront the viewer directly. Adam is wildly calling out. But to whom? God? Man? Both? Is Adam helpless or defiant? Beckmann has used space to create a sculpture that is every bit as confining and claustrophobic as his prints and paintings.  Once again he has placed man on the hot seat. In the process, as we stare evil and humanity in the eye, Beckmann forces us to contemplate, through the magic of reality, the choices at hand.

Spending Time with Friends: Don’t Ask Me to Play Favorites

By Susan Arndt, Mia docent

Madonna and Child with Grapes, c. 1537 Lucas Cranach the Elder Oil on panel BEQUEST OF MISS TESSIE JONES IN MEMORY OF HERSCHEL V. JONES
Madonna and Child with Grapes, c. 1537 Lucas Cranach the Elder Oil on panel BEQUEST OF MISS TESSIE JONES IN MEMORY OF HERSCHEL V. JONES

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Madonna and Child with Grapes, c.1537 in G342 is one painting that I will never get tired of seeing. Mary holds Jesus as he stands on her lap. They are centered on a black background and I am immediately drawn to the rich color Cranach has used to focus our attention on them. Light doesn’t bounce off them as much as it seems to radiate from them. Their heads tilted in unison, their matched gaze directly engaging the viewer, they are open and inviting. Jesus extends a single grape as if to say, “won’t you join me at the table?” The details are fun to examine. The hair of the mother and child, the way the veil is treated, the pleating and needlework on the great puffy sleeves, and the delicate veins on Mary’s hands simply leave me in awe.
Cranach had settled in Wittenberg, Germany as court painter to Frederick the Wise in 1505. There he was able to establish a large studio working with his sons and several assistants. He acquired a printing press and owned an apothecary, which sold artists’ pigments. He participated in the local government. He was burgomaster (mayor) of Wittenberg multiple times including 1537 when Madonna and Child with Grapes was painted. In 1517 he became involved in the Protestant Reformation. He painted and printed multiple images of Martin Luther, Katharina von Bora, and other reformers. He was instrumental in creating new imagery that illustrated Luther’s ideas and printed the manuscripts and new German Bible of the reformer. At the same time, he was able to continue to do work for Catholic customers.
By today’s standards, he was an entrepreneur who created and maintained a quality brand at a time in history that had never seen anything like it before.
But here is the thing. When I am in the gallery with Cranach’s Madonna and Child none of those amazing accomplishments matter. I am taken in, lost in a moment of contemplation and appreciation.         

Dangerous Liaisons in the Halls of Mia

How a tea set can reveal history.
By Susan Arndt, Mia docent
In an encyclopedic museum such as Mia we are always presented with objects that stand on their own merit beautifully. Although, when we have an opportunity to view them in relation to one another they can spring to life in new and meaningful ways. I had this experience last fall when I was researching The Tea Service for Twelve that was part of a tour several junior docents were putting together. What tripped my imagination was reading about 18th-century salon culture and then understanding a little more about the history of that stunning Sevres tea set.

Grand Salon from the Hôtel de la Bouëxière, c. 1735 GIFT OF THE GROVES FOUNDATION
Grand Salon from the Hôtel de la Bouëxière, c. 1735 GIFT OF THE GROVES FOUNDATION

To set the scene for the tea set let’s start with our Grand Salon from the Hotel de la Bouexiere, a gift of The Groves Foundation (Gallery 318). Originally this Salon was a formal reception space in the Hotel (mansion) of Jean Galliard de la Bouexiere. He was not a noble but a well to do member of the bourgeoisie, a former general who collected salt and wine taxes for the crown. This brings up an important note on salon culture, classes mingled. One of the most famous Salonnieres of the day was Madame Geoffrin an orphan who married well but was not a noble. Her talent was to organize groups that brought together academicians in both the sciences, the arts, and philosophies of the day, along with nobility for lively conversations and recitations. She maintained strict order and lived by the motto: to give and be forgiven. Participation was required. Enlightenment spread ideas!  If men ruled the world, woman ruled the salon. The right invitation to the right salon could mean a career boost for a man, and an education or apprenticeship for a young woman hoping to have her own salon one day. Madame Geoffrin served a dinner at 1PM, followed by a lively conversation that lasted through the entire afternoon.
Some salons were structured around the evening with conversation, music, and entertainments, such as cards, that would last until the candles ran out and were not replaced. The Salon de la Bouexiere, recently reinterpreted as part of the Living Rooms* initiative, demonstrates this late night activity along with twenty-four hours of changing light and sound. Step inside. Can you imagine attending the intellectual salon of Madame Geoffrin during the day and moving on to experience a salon of entertainment in the evening? To maintain stamina and keep the witty repartee flowing, stimulants such as tea, coffee, and chocolate would have been required and served in beautiful hand painted porcelain.
Cup from a tea service for twelve, 1807–08 Christophe-Ferdinand Caron; Manufacturer: Sèvres Porcelain Factory GIFT OF THE GROVES FOUNDATION FUND
Cup from a tea service for twelve, 1807–08 Christophe-Ferdinand Caron; Manufacturer: Sèvres Porcelain Factory GIFT OF THE GROVES FOUNDATION FUND

Mia’s Sevres Tea Service for Twelve (Atherton and Winifred Wolleager Bean, Gallery 310) hand painted by Christopher Caron with illustrations from the beloved fables of La Fontaine is an example of the finest workmanship. Used in a salon the fables would have served to spark conversation. But this is not just any tea set. It was a gift from Napoleon to Prince William of Prussia. In 1807 the treaties of Tilsit made between France, Russia, and Prussia brought an end to the war of the fourth coalition. The treaty offered the best terms to Russia as Napoleon needed to form a blockade against England. The little emperor and the czar were quite cordial to one another and Napoleon even gifted his Sevres Olympic dinner service (140 pieces) to the czar. Napoleon viewed Prussia’s involvement as foolish, reckless, and costly. To punish them he took half their land mass and saddled them with enormous debt to pay for the war. The king of Prussia attempted to have the debt reduced eventually sending his brother Prince William to negotiate with Napoleon. He was denied, but Napoleon sent him the lovely moralizing tea set as a diplomatic gesture. Did Prince William bring up the dinner service? The fables represented give us quite a view into Napoleon’s mindset.
There is the fable of The Fox and the Bust: A fox spies a bust of a man.  He walks around it observing all sides. In the end he sits down to pronounce, “Many great lords are empty heads.” On the sugar bowl there is the fable of The Rat and the Frog: A rat comes to a river it cannot cross. A frog sees the rat and suggests that if the rat binds one of it’s legs to one of the frog they will be able to cross together.  They swim out into the river where the frog begins to dive deep with the rat, attempting to drown it. The rat struggles against the frog and so they are observed by a Kite who picks them off for its own meal. The morale: Be careful of the alliances you make, deceit always falls back on the cheat.
Did Napoleon actually think that Prince William would use the tea set in his salon? In a culture that valued witty repartee this would have upped the game to contemptuous mockery. I’m a little surprised that the tea set survived. C’est la vie!
*Generous support for Living Rooms: The Periods Room Initiative provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and donors at the 2014 Mia Gala.

Collection Connection: Preserving the Past: Thomas Hart Benton and The Wreck of the Ol' ’97

by Susan Arndt, Mia docent
Did you know that the regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton was also a musician? He played the harmonica, collected, transcribed and cataloged folk music. Preserving the musical heritage of rural America was as important to Benton as capturing the fading images of American rural lifestyle. Folk music lyrics often became the subject matter of his work.
Set to a well known tune, The Wreck of the Ol’ ’97 was a ballad based on the true story that inspired a 1943 painting and a series of 1944 lithographs by Benton.  The story goes that on September 27, 1903 a mail train was running an hour behind schedule on the Southern line route from Washington DC, to Danville, Virginia. The engineer, Steve Brody, had been given instructions to make up time. Although he was unfamiliar with the route, the engineer pushed the engine. Witnesses claimed that the speed was ninety miles per hour when the train took a curve leading to the Stillhouse trestle. The train lost a flange on the wheel, jumped the track and fell 75 feet into the ravine below. Eleven people died including the engineer.
Benton’s print captures the dramatic action of the song although he changed the locale to reflect the midwest landscape of his native Missouri and replaced the trestle with broken track in front of the speeding engine. A horse and wagon are being violently controlled. The driver throws all of his weight to pull back on the reins shifting the momentum of the wagon and throwing a women to the ground. Drama and movement are depicted through the use of diagonals and the billowing smoke from the engine that curls around the action. Contrasting light and dark areas serve to focus the viewers attention and contribute to the feeling of impending disaster. Even the exaggerated sinewy foliage of the corn takes on a surreal element that heightens the mood of the print.
The prints were popular and marketed by the Associated American Artists through magazines, department stores, and mail order. The company’s philosophy of making fine art accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy, was in line with Benton’s thinking. A signed print sold for five dollars unframed and seven dollars for a framed print respectively. A fair price!
The Wreck of the Ol’ ’97 by Thomas Hart Benton is currently on view in G316 as part of the exhibition of prints, drawings, and artists’ books titled Horse Power. The exhibition celebrates the horses more than 500 years history as muse and inspiration for artists and their patrons.
To hear the song that inspired this piece, go to Vernon Dalhart’s  1924 recording – Wreck of the Old ’97 at: