My high school art history teacher had a method of getting students to engage with paintings in a way that I found compelling, meaningful and a lot of fun. For the end of semester review, he passed out slides with figurative paintings to individuals and groups. Our assignment was to take 15 minutes to examine the work, and recreate it by posing as the people depicted in the artwork, using only the few props available to us in the painting studio. Each student presented the pose to the class, and we’d compare the student’s pose to the projected slide. I didn’t know it then, but we were doing an old fashioned type of theater or parlor game, called a tableau vivant. Doing that tableau vivant taught me what contrapposto felt like. It allowed me to embody the lithe grace of Donatello’s David. I looked at the work of art differently when I was considering how to recreate it.
A tableau vivant is a “living picture;” a recreation or reinterpretation of a work of art by people posing in a mute, motionless charade. It was a popular form of entertainment in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as evidenced by this chapter of a manual for dances and parties from the library’s collection, An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490 to 1920.
A quick search of Chronicling America shows plenty of tablueax vivants documented on the society pages, as war relief fundraisers, or as amusements at parties and other events.
The entertainment was popular enough to be parodied on the cover of Puck. Here we see a circa 1900 reproduction of Jules Bastien-Lepage's 1879 painting Joan of Arc.
and a 1918 New York Times rotograveur picture section showing a tableau vivant given at St. Francis Xavier College with Laurette Taylor as Joan of Arc, clearly in imitation of the Lepage painting.
And finally, the cover of Puck, showing Teddy Roosevelt, from 1912
I recently read an excellent article on using tableaux vivants as a pedagogical tool. Bringing Students into the Picture: Teaching with Tableaux Vivants by Ellery Foutch is available here as a free download: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/ahpp/vol2/iss2/3/. Two shorter articles, one from Art Museum Teaching, and one from the Yale National Initiative, also provide information and inspiration for classroom or gallery use. While these how-to articles give good descriptions of how this active form of engagement with art connects with kinesthetic and visual learners, Foutch’s piece also discusses how doing creative reinterpretations with tableau vivants allows the class to deal with social justice issues, and identity. The article describes a longer project than the quick charade my teacher assigned. It includes group work, research, and performance. It gets students to go beyond looking and describing, and onto interpreting and creating something new. Exciting stuff!
The way Foutch structures the tableaux vivants project is similar to the TPS method: first students examine the object, make observations, reflect, and ask questions. Then, they use these observations, reflections, and questions to inform their research. By creating their own interpretation of the work of art, they are exercising critical thinking skills, and making connections between history and their own experiences.
There are contemporary artists who use similar modes of interpretation and recreation in their work to delve into identity and social issues. Kehinde Wiley uses imperial history painting, such as in his Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005
https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/169803 to explore issues of race, masculinity, fame, and imperialism. (for more see http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/recognize/paintings.html) Cindy Sherman’s history portraits show her embodying old paintings in discomforting ways. https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/the-multiple-worlds-of-cindy-shermans-history-portraits-2/
Part of the pleasure of viewing a tableau vivant is the small thrill of recognition when the viewer recognizes the reference image being enacted. There’s also the spectacle of a body posed in stillness -- the kitschy version might be the living statue street performer. For students who are kinesthetic or visual learners, doing a tableau vivant could be an effective strategy. Have you done tableaux vivants in the classroom? How did your students engage with the work? How did different learners react?
It’s summer, time for roadtrips! When I was in graduate school, my now husband and I would spend summer weekends driving around the Wisconsin landscape, seeking out folk art environments, outsider art installations, and general weirdness. We particularly enjoyed large art environments, made by self-taught artists, such as Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips.
(Photo from the Carol Highsmith Collection, https://www.loc.gov/item/2011632363/) Fred Smith was a child of German immigrants, born in Northern Wisconsin in 1886. He never learned to read or write, but he farmed, and later built and operated a tavern. Maybe it was his building experience, or the work he did on his ornamental rock garden, or maybe it was all the beer bottles from his tavern, but something prompted Smith to begin building large-scale sculptures from wire and hand-mixed cement, decorated with shards of glass and other objects. By 1950, he was building an art environment he called the Wisconsin Concrete Park, which eventually encompassed three and a half acres. The Wisconsin Concrete Park was preserved by the Kohler Foundation and gifted to Price County, WI.
Wisconsin seems to be rich in this form of folk art. I first visited Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron on one of our rambles, though I had passed it several times a year, as I drove past the Badger Munitions plant, on my way to visit family friends in Baraboo, WI.
Just a few months ago, I visited Prairie Moon, near Cochrane, WI. It’s a lovely location, not far from the Mississippi River. The only company we had on our visit was a pair of bald eagles. A video about the site is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XncMap5EJuU From that video, I learned that Rusch had visited Dickeyville Grotto, an art environment I have on my to-visit list.
These sites raise so many questions for me. What causes someone to spend so much time and energy creating them? Why do they choose the materials that they do? Is concrete frequently used because it is relatively inexpensive and easy to work with, or is it because the artist has experience using that material for more practical purposes? What about metal or other found objects? Are there common themes in these installations? Were they meant for personal enjoyment, or was the artist hoping for a larger audience? Did the artists think of themselves as artists? Are these kinds of installations more common in rural areas or in cities? Why? What keeps people from doing this more often? What would happen if I decided to start making my yard into an art installation?
There are examples of vernacular art installations in the Library of Congress collections, but they can be hard to track down. It’s a challenge to catalog something like this, I suppose. The subject heading “naïve art” which the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus (http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/aat/) uses for this kind of sculpture didn’t yield anything (though I think that’s a good thing, because of the pejorative connotations of “naïve”) Library of Congress subject authorities https://authorities.loc.gov/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?DB=local&PAGE=First gave me the terms “outsider art” and “primitivism in art.” A search of outsider art resulted in an image of a Dubuffet sculpture, which is not what I am going for. I tried folk art, which got me closer, and led to Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle House.
The subject heading “vernacular architecture” led me to images of Watts Towers, but only those images in the Carol Highsmith collection. The Highsmith Archive is a good place for locating images of these kinds of artistic expression, such as this wonderful image of Highsmith’s own cousin amid his artwork.
Like so many things in life, it’s easier to find images of art environments by self-taught artists in the library collection if you know what you are looking for. Two sites that are useful for finding outsider art along your roadtrip route are Roadside America https://www.roadsideamerica.com/ and the Atlas Obscura https://www.atlasobscura.com/
Maybe you’ll find the inspiration to start your own art environment.
When I think of classic Philadelphia buildings, I always think of red brick structures, such as the Gloria Dei or Old Swede’s Church, depicted here in this silkcreened WPA poster by an unknown artist from somewhere between 1936 and 1941.
The lovely brick of Independence Hall, shown in a lithograph from 1876, is emblematic of Philadelphia, with its stately, solid brick. This image of Independence Hall appears to have been made as a box cover for a commemorative souvenier for the centennial.
The charm of brick is evident in Elfreth’s Alley’s Federal and Georgian townhomes, built between 1720 and 1830, as seen in this photograph from the Highsmith collection.
Of course, brick is used all over the city, for less grand structures such as this abandoned home at 20th and arch streets, photographed in 1938,
Or this privvy, which was once behind the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. Why so much brick? Is it simply that brick endures? Floods and fires would destroy wooden structures, but brick would remain. However, I don’t believe there’s been a conflagration like the Chicago or San Francisco fire to explain the abundance of brick in Philadelphia.
The answer could be just below our feet, but we’ll need to dig for it.
Here we have a general soil map of Pennsylvania. Note the narrow band of yellow at the lower right. According the the map key, the yellow indicates a substrata of marine clay and sand.
This map of Philadelphia from 1797 shows that the English and Swedish occupiers of this area were very familiar with the building material that lay beneath their feet. They recognized the clay and sand as ideal raw materials for making bricks. The curious little pond-shapes with accompanying solid dots show where the brickworks and kilns were located within the city. There are at least a dozen in this image. Bricks, which shaped the look of the city, were shaped by the site of the city itself.
Indeed, brick manufacturing took off in Philadelphia, with 14 brick kilns within the city by 1794. Brickmaking, and building with brick employed enough people that the Bricklayers Company was formed by 1799.
A search of Philadelphia directories from the late 18th and early 19th centuries tells us more about who these brick makers were, and where they lived as well as where the many bricklayers lived.
https://archive.org/stream/philadelphiadire1801phil#page/80/search/brickmaker I found this image from the 1801 Philadelphia Directory in the Internet Archive, contributed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
That bricklayers were an important groups of trades people in the city of Philadelphia is evidenced by this wonderful document, which describes the procession order for a parade in 1788, which honored the establishment of the constitution of the United States. The brickmakers marched just after the cabinet and chair-makers, right before the painters, and the bricklayer marched between the fringe and ribband-weavers and the taylors.
Another interesting piece of evidence about bricks in Philadelphia is John Cromwell’s Brick Layer’s Company membership certificate from 1811, now in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
It is always thrillng to see how dull-sounding historical documents like membership certificates can provide a window into the past: this certificate includes a detailed illustration of early 19th century building practices, tools, worker’s clothing, and of course, the city.
Following my curiosity led me to a variety of primary sources, from soil maps to early city maps and directories, and bits of ephemera, resulting a better understanding of why I see what I do. Now I see Philadelphia's buildings with even more curiosity, wondering what other stories they have to tell.
What stories can we tell with maps?
If you’ve been listening to NPR in the mornings lately, like I have, then you know they are covering the 10th anniversary of the 2008 financial crisis. I was thinking about how to understand the effects of the mortgage crisis on neighborhoods, and how art could be used to communicate how areas were affected. While photographs of boarded up homes or a street full of for-sale signs might tell a story, I was interested in finding more abstract, or less literal objects to analyze.
A textiles curator friend pointed me to Kathryn Clark. Clark was an architect and designer, working on planning New Urbanist neighborhoods from 1994-2004. When the foreclosure crisis hit, she felt she had to make art about it, to communicate the severity of what would happen to the urban fabric. She turned to the craft tradition of quilts, those quintessentially American emblems of thrift and resourcefulness. You can see one of her quilts in the Smithsonian American Art Museum https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/washington-dc-foreclosure-quilt-109954 and other examples on the artist's website: http://www.kathrynclark.com/foreclosure-quilts.html.
Foreclosure Quilt, 2015, linen, cotton, and recycled thread, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 2015, Kathryn Clark, Museum purchase through the Stephen D. Thurston Memorial Fund, 2015.40
To make these quilts, she used RealtyTrac maps of cities as her source, cutting, rubbing, or pulling the fabric away, thread-by-thread to show the plots with foreclosed homes. The result is abstract, and affecting in its familiarity. Her work immediately brought to mind a fascinating primary source available through the Library of Congress: Sanborne Maps, such as this late 19th century one from Detroit.
Sanborn maps are fire insurance maps, which describe not only location, but shape, size, construction, and details such as windows and doors, roof types, sprinkler systems, etc. for dwellings and other structures so that the insurers could adequately judge the risk of loss by fire.
In this detail, you can see pastedowns, where corrections or additions were made, which echo the mendings on some of Clark’s quilts. (I have to announce with great joy that I created this detail using the Library's clip image tool -- so useful!) These pastedowns are an example of thrift, not dissimilar to the quilt tradition: rather than going through the expense of reprinting entire pages to show corrections or updates, the maps makers would simply add small glued-down bits of paper with the edits, putting them directly over the area to be changed, just as one would patch a frayed quilt block.
The Library of Congress has a significant collection of Sanborn maps, which have been digitized and made available at high resolution. Researchers use them for a huge variety of reasons, and the Library has provided an extensive guide available here: https://www.loc.gov/collections/sanborn-maps/about-this-collection/
Tanvi Misra write a nice article about the interpretive possibilities of Sanborn Maps, available here: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2014/10/the-accidental-revelations-of-sanborn-maps/381262/
TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List wrote a short piece about textile maps on their blog. It has good images, including a nice detail for a Kathryn Clark piece, but not a lot of text: https://www.tafalist.com/mapping-the-world/.
I am intruiged by the possibilities of using fiber as a medium for understanding data. I am sure there's lots to be done with it, and am excited about the possibilities of weaving, knitting, felting, or sewing.