Category: History

Dispatches: Philadelphia

Philadelphia skyline from the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum

There are no end to art and historical treasures in Philadelphia and Rhonda had a chance to meet up with some good friends and take in a few last week. The Philadelphia Art Museum is a wonder and its annex, the Perelman Building, houses two intriguing exhibits: Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South and The Art of Collage and Assemblage through September 2nd. Souls Grown Deep combines and extraordinary collection of textile art, sculpture, and painting acquired from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Roman Stripes Variation Quilt, 1970, Loretta Pettway(born 1942)

With remarkable inventiveness, generations of quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama have created arresting compositions of color and form from worn-out clothes and other repurposed fabrics. Provocative mixed-media paintings and found-object sculptures by Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley and others are displayed amongst the quilts, whose subjects and materials echo with the painful history of the American South and the conditions of life for many who live there. The collage exhibition includes works by Joseph Cornell, a personal favorite, and other less-expected names including Romare Bearden, Bettye Saar and Pablo Picasso.

Protecting Myself the Best I can (Weapons by the Door), 1994, by Lonnie Holley (American, born 1950), 2017-229-24.
Lonnie Holley/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio/Art Resource (AR), New York

We found artfulness of another kind at the National Constitution Center’s new permanent exhibition, Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality. Some interesting textiles are on display, including a fragment of the flag that Abraham Lincoln raised at Independence Hall, 1861 (From the Collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia on loan from Gettysburg Foundation) and an embroidered potholder that reads, “Any Holder but a Slaveholder.” We also appreciated the Anti-Slavery Alphabet from 1847.

Cardbird II, 1971, Robert Rauschenberg

The exhibition has an ambitious premise, to illustrate how the nation transformed the Constitution after the war to more fully embrace the Declaration of Independence’s promise of liberty and equality. The 3,000- square-foot exhibit brings to life the stories of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman and other figures central to the conflict over slavery. It features the stories of lesser-known individuals, too, in order to shed light on the American experience under slavery, the battle for freedom during the Civil War and the fight for equality during Reconstruction, which many call the nation’s “Second Founding.” Highlighted are the three constitutional amendments added between 1865 and 1870, which ended slavery, required states to respect individual rights, promised equal protection to all people, and expanded the right to vote to African-American men. The exhibition covers, as the Wall Street Journal terms it: “the racially egalitarian society that was briefly wrestled into being after the abolition of slavery, before the ravages of Jim Crow and the hard-fought triumphs of the civil-rights movement.”

Potholder, National Constitution Center, Philadelphia

The artfulness is evident in the matter-of-fact way the signage and artifacts give equal time to the efforts made to reach equality and those determined to subvert each of those amendments — including displays about Ku Klux Klan, complete with original robes, which were not white but maroon and heavily ornamented. Also edifying and persuasive is the neutrally presented, but inescapable, evidence that the goals of these amendments are yet to be achieved. An example, noted by one reviewer, is the 13th Amendment. “The interactive displays…show the debates, the drafts, and the redrafting of those amendments and help to explain how the final draft [of the 13th] actually allowed forced labor ‘as a punishment for crime’ … It does not take long to make the connection between the 13th Amendment and the shockingly profitable system of prison labor and prison farms which still exists today.” (Margaret Darby, Exhibit Review: Civil War and Reconstruction, May 9, 2019).

Anti-Slavery Alphabet, National Constitution Center, Philadelphia

On the Flip Side: What the Back of an Art Work May Reveal

More of a mystery — the back of Lenore Tawney’s Untitled Collage, 9.125” x 9”,10/23/64. Photo: Tom Grotta

More of a mystery — the back of Lenore Tawney’s Untitled Collage, 9.125” x 9”,10/23/64. Photo: Tom Grotta

Though artists generally create artwork with the intent for just the front to be viewed, the backs of canvases and tapestries can provide collectors, curators, historians and viewers with an interesting narrative. Since the late 18th century, conservators have been paying attention to the backs of artworks. “Why?” you may ask. The answer is this: the face of a painting communicates its art, but it’s back carries the history of the artwork itself.

The front of Lenore Tawney’s Untitled Collage (1964). Photo: Tom Grotta

The front of Lenore Tawney’s Untitled Collage (1964). Photo: Tom Grotta

“On the backs of canvases, stretcher bars (the wooden framework holding the canvas in place), and the undersides of frames, careful examiners can often find inscriptions left by artists, last-ditch attempts to advocate for works once they’ve left the studio,” explains  Karen Chernick of Artsy in a lengthy piece,“The Secrets Hidden on the Backs of Famous Artworks, ( Artists’ inscriptions serve as an important means of ensuring that the important details of a piece, such as its title, date and authorship, are preserved as the piece changes hands through time. In fact, “Versos are also frequently marked by dealers, collectors, and museums, with notations ranging from greased pencil notes to wax seals, exhibition labels, and inventory numbers,” writes Chernick. “Taken together, these markings are akin to a painting’s passport, representing its identity, travels, and even changes of address.”

However, it’s important to note that this practice is individual. There are artists who choose to provide meticulous details—notes, sewn labels, stitched informatio—and artists who leave the back of canvases or tapestries blank. For some artists, discovering provenance requires determined detective work, others offer an open book.

Details from Mariette Rousseau-Vermette’s notes on Joie 2. Photo: Kaitlyn Capps

Details from Mariette Rousseau-Vermette’s notes on Joie 2. Photo: Kaitlyn Capps

Mariette Rousseau-Vermette, for example, used a numbering system on that back of tapestries, which matched the meticulous files that she kept for the 640 signed works she created in her lifetime. Her files offer very detailed information about the nature of her working methods and the means by which she created and executed such commissions. Her commission for the curtain for the main hall of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa include the negotiations leading up to the contract awarded to her for the commission; original sketches documenting her various conceptions for the curtain, blueprints and plans, fabric and textile samples, diagrams relating to the means by which the design would be implemented, correspondence with craftsmen, manufacturers, and other individuals with whom she collaborated to complete the commission, and installation instructions. 

The label for Mariette Rousseau-Vermette’s Joie 2 — the number links to her meticulously maintained files. Photo: Tom Grotta.

The label for Mariette Rousseau-Vermette’s Joie 2 — the number links to her meticulously maintained files.
Photo: Tom Grotta.

In some instances, the backs of art works can give you a peek into an artist’s artistic process. While creating their work, artists who have continually reworked canvases “may cross out bygone titles previously inscribed on stretchers, leaving hints about images cloaked beneath layers of superimposed brushstrokes.”  For 20th-century artists, such as as Josef Albers, writes Chernick, the backs of canvases were the perfect place to leave explanatory appendices. Albers used the back of canvases to record detailed notes on the themes of his series. Chernick quotes Jeanette Redensek, a scholar who has reviewed hundreds of pieces of Albers’ work, used his extensive appendices to differentiate between the varying pigments used in each piece. In his series Homage to the Square, Albers methodically experimented with pigments, creating more than 2,000 variations over the course of 26 years. “When I see the backs of those paintings, I can see that he’s changed out pigments to get a yellow ochre that’s a little darker, a yellow ochre that’s a little lighter, a cadmium yellow, a cadmium yellow light. He’s playing with very fine distinctions in the colors, and so those color notes are essential,” explains Redensek. The backs of Norma Minkowitz’s works provide another example. Replete with thoughts, images, references, they provide an eye into her process.

The label for Mariette Rousseau-Vermette’s Joie 2 — the number links to her meticulously maintained files. Photo: Tom Grotta.

The back for Norma Minkowitz’s Goodbye My Friend
Photo: Tom Grotta.

The information on the back of a canvas can also impact the value of a piece of art. After a piece is consigned to auction, house specialist scan the piece for indicators of authenticity and condition. In some cases, conservators use ultra-light and raking light to unveil hidden details. The extra information uncovered through this research aids collectors and conservators in proving the authenticity of a piece, therefore increasing the value.

The elements — lining, framing, notations — that restorers consider and what auction houses review once a work is consigned is described in detail in, “What the Back of a Painting Reveals About Its History,” from In Good Taste, 

The backs of canvases, drawings and tapestries not only provide collectors and conservators with the information needed to prove the authenticity of a work, but presents them with an opportunity to explore an uncharted area of art history.