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Art Matters: What’s In A Color?

For thirty years, Exhibition Designer Terry Beckham has been establishing the look and feel of the Museum’s galleries through one important, though often overlooked, quality: the paint color on our walls. While at first glance the paint off the canvas may not seem obvious to Museum visitors, it plays an important role in complementing the artwork and enhancing the visitor experience.

The seemingly simple task of selecting a paint color is “the hardest thing that I do,” says Beckham. Through research and collaboration with the curator, Beckham methodically selects paint color based on a myriad of factors, whether through a moment in history, the interior decor trends of a time period, or even in the work of the artist. For instance, the “cornflower blue” paint that was used for the exhibition Norman Rockwell’s America was a hue that appeared repeatedly in Rockwell’s palette, on his canvases and in his Saturday Evening Post covers.

In addition to the curator’s vision for a gallery, the artwork itself serves as the most significant inspiration for selecting a paint color. The paint on the walls, in fact, makes the art look even better. “Typically,” Beckham explains, “I tend to choose darker, jewel tones, which make the colors in a piece of art appear brighter. The dark wall colors, combined with the dimmer conservation lighting in the gallery, trick your eye and make the art really stand out.”  You may recall this technique at work, particularly in our deep red Kress Galleries. Now thirteen years old, the Kress red was selected with much consideration and precision, as fourteen options were tested in the gallery under the proper lighting and against different pieces of art.

However, some of the color selections in our galleries are quite a departure from the darker paints. Our new African Ceramics Gallery is one example, where the fresh green walls are reminiscent of a grassy savannah, similar to the setting where the ceramics were made. Another favorite, Beckham adds, is the paint in the Asian galleries. This light grey, or celadon, is a color found in the art of every culture represented in our Asian collection. Not only is the color soothing and rather neutral, it is also symbolic of the shared artistic quality of these nations.

Just a few months ago, Beckham reflected on twenty years of paint color in a more tangible way. The rejuvenation of our Jemison Galleries gave us a dazzling archive of exhibition design history, when 187 layers of paint came off of the walls. “These layers of paint are a piece of Museum history, and truly tell a story about all the work we have done throughout the years,” Beckham says. “Paint is the most dramatic way to alter a gallery, but it also says so much about the planning and thoughtfulness that goes into everything we do at the Museum.”

Corporate Spotlight

Mark Drew, Maynard Cooper & Gale PC

MY MUSEUM: Maynard Cooper is extremely philanthropic through charitable contributions, pro bono services, and attorney involvement in the community. Why do you feel it is important to support non-profit organizations?

MARK DREW: As one of the firm’s founding principles, giving back to the community is an important part of the firm’s culture and is a priority that drives our charitable efforts. Our firm and our people are very blessed in many ways, so we feel a real obligation to give back and share our success. Our hope is that our charitable efforts create a ripple effect among our employees, friends, and family.

MM: Maynard Cooper was once again voted one of Birmingham’s “Best Places to Work” by the Birmingham Business Journal. Do you think your employees view support of the Museum and associated benefits as a factor in this?

MD: I do believe the benefits that our firm receives, as part of our continued support of the Museum, play a role in our employees’ overall satisfaction in the workplace. We strive to maintain an environment that allows each employee to feel productive, inspired, and valued. Sharing the Museum’s sponsorship benefits with our employees is a wonderful way to show our appreciation for their hard work.

MM: From your perspective of working at one of the largest law firms in the city, how do you think the Museum helps Birmingham attract and retain businesses?

MD: Our city’s cultural attractions are critical to our ability to attract and retain businesses. Museums are front and center on a company’s mind when considering different cities and cultural opportunities; and we are very lucky to have such an exceptional art museum in Birmingham.

MM: Maynard Cooper is a long-time supporter of the Museum. Why do you support the Museum and the arts in Birmingham?

MD: For all the reasons already mentioned, the Museum is a real gem for the City of Birmingham and all surrounding areas. We know that the Museum plays a significant role in the success and attractiveness of our community. The arts are vital to the long-term well being of our city.

MM: How does your support of the Museum and other non-profit organizations help you to stand out among competitors?

MD: I don’t know that our charitable giving makes us necessarily stand out from our competitors. In general, Birmingham is a very giving community, and that includes most of our law firms and lawyers. We give because we are able to, and we believe it is the right thing to do.

Mystery Object

Summer 2014: Culinary Molds

Culinary Molds, about 1750-1765. Staffordshire, England. Salt-glazed stoneware. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Catherine H. Collins Collection.

Culinary Molds, about 1750-1765. Staffordshire, England. Salt-glazed stoneware. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Catherine H. Collins Collection.

Still hungry from our last Mystery Object? How about something sweet? These Staffordshire jelly molds, made of salt-glazed stoneware, were a staple in 18th-century English dining culture.

In the second half of the 1700s, dining service à la française (“in the French style”) was at the height of its popularity. These dinners included a savory first course, a second course with a jelly or a pudding – often fruit-flavored – and a dessert course of sugar-based confections and dried fruits. The dining table was organized into an imaginary grid, and all of the courses were set out together much like a modern buffet.

An English table set in Service à la française, including molded treats.

An English table set in Service à la française, including molded treats.

Art in use

Mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and a beloved treat in 18th-century dining rooms,the classic dessert blancmange is a sweet, white gelatin. To make it, moisten two tablespoons of arrowroot with two tablespoons of cold milk and stir until smooth. Then, bring half of a pint of milk to boil and add the arrowroot paste. Stir for two to three minutes, then sweeten with two teaspoons of sugar and flavor with vanilla or almond extract. Pour into a mold to set.

Comments from the gallery

Question: “How would you use an object like this in your life?”
  • “Pineapple press”
  • “Soap-bar holder”
  • “Putting peppermints in”
  • “Baking cupcakes”
  • “Make pineapple cake”
  • “To make elaborate sandcastles, of course!”
  • “Aspic mold”
Question: “What are the first three words that come to mind when you look at this object?”
  • “Nom – nom – nom”
  • “Exquisite – masterpiece – lemon wedge”
  • “Cool – awesome – fun”

 

Recent Acquisitions

Cutting a Fine Figure

Lehman Jar

John Frederick Lehman (American, born Germany, 1825-1883), Jug, about 1870. Ash-glazed stoneware. Museum purchase 2013.19

The BMA recently acquired a rare figural vessel made by the Alabama potter John Frederick Lehman around 1870. The jug depicts an African-American man wearing a cap, hoop earrings, and a coat with broad lapels and buttons impressed with Lehman’s initials. A large buckle-like square probably surrounded a paper label for whatever product the jug contained. The Museum purchased the piece from a private individual who had discovered it in a Talladega County store nearly 45 years ago. Joey Brackner, Director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture and author of Alabama Folk Pottery (2006), commented on the significance of the piece: 

The acquisition of the John Lehman figural jug, one of only three in existence, is a testament to the commitment of the Birmingham Museum of Art to acquiring and presenting the art of the people of Alabama. Along with enslaved Edgefield potter Dave Drake, Lehman is the most well known of historical Southern potters. Lehman combined a variety of decorative techniques unusual for the Deep South with the distinctive alkaline glaze for which the region is known. He most likely came to the United States in the 1840s as a refugee of the revolutions in the German states. During his odyssey, he acquired considerable skills as a potter. Lehman’s longest tenure was in Rock Mills, Alabama, where he and his family lived and worked during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Before his death in 1883, Lehman created a series of decorated jars and jugs that have been the source of much excitement and varying interpretation.

With this most recent acquisition, the BMA now owns two of these important decorated pieces, and has secured a third as a promised gift. The collection also includes two undecorated pieces attributed to Lehman. The figural jug is now on view.

Hadrian’s Villa: The Remains of the so-called Pretorio, 1774, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, 1720-1778), etching, Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of Roy Curtis Green in memory of Walter Marshall Ellis, AFI202.2013

European Masters on Paper

The Museum recently received a very generous gift of nine works on paper and two books from Roy Curtis Green. The gift includes four prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi from his famous Views of Rome, etched between 1747 and his

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Art Matters: New Gallery, New Ideas

Art Matters: New Gallery, New Ideas

Numerous technological changes have occurred since the 1990s, and the world of art conservation is no different! Over the years, art conservationists have kept up with innovative products and solutions, constantly adapting to keep collections safe and looking their best.

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Spotlight on the Collection

July 2014: Armor

Armor (Tōsei Gusoku), Muromachi period (1392-1573), about 1550. Saotome Iyetada (Japanese, active mid-16th century). Lacquer, wood, iron and silk. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Endowed Funds for Asian Art Acquisitions, the Birmingham Museum of Art Volunteer Council, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas N. Carruthers, Jr., Mrs. Gerda Carmichael, Mr. James D. Sokol, Mr. and Mrs. Victor Hanson II, and Dr. and Mrs. James Kamplain, 1997.137.1-.6.

Armor (Tōsei Gusoku), Muromachi period (1392-1573), about 1550. Saotome Iyetada (Japanese, active mid-16th century). Lacquer, wood, iron and silk. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Endowed Funds for Asian Art Acquisitions, the Birmingham Museum of Art Volunteer Council, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas N. Carruthers, Jr., Mrs. Gerda Carmichael, Mr. James D. Sokol, Mr. and Mrs. Victor Hanson II, and Dr. and Mrs. James Kamplain, 1997.137.1-.6.

Armor, Saotome Iyetada, about 1550

To a modern audience, suits of samurai armor may seem extravagant or even flamboyant; however, each element served a real purpose. Besides providing protection, high-status samurai warriors needed to be identified by their foot soldiers and to intimidate the enemy on the battlefield. At least four to six different artisans created suits like this one, working together in a manner not unlike an assembly line. The colors and patterning on armor identified a warrior’s rank; those on this suit link it to the daimyō (governor), so it belonged to a samurai of high status.

In the 16th century, changes in warfare and interactions with European – mainly Portuguese – traders produced helmets called kawari kabuto (“extraordinary” or “fancy”). Forms included simple animal shapes like rabbits and bears, dragons, and stylized horns like the ones on this helmet. An artist created these designs with materials such as papier-mâché or lightweight wood. For wealthier classes of samurai, helmets included more complicated designs, like Mount Fuji, to distinguish high-ranking military leaders on the battlefield. In large battles, it was essential to discern friend from foe quickly, so form often took precedence over maneuverability.

The ferocity of a soldier’s armor was meant to project an image of superhuman strength and fearlessness in the face of death. The samurai often fought in one-on-one duels; warriors proceeded from opponent to opponent until called off by their officer. When combined with kawari kabuto, face masks with pointed teeth or wiry moustaches created frightening adversaries in this type of combat.

Join the conversation!

Today, people use clothing, piercings, tattoos, and other outward signs to project certain aspects of their identity, to intimidate (like the samurai’s helmets), or simply to stand out in a crowd. How do you project your identity? What do you hope to express about yourself? How have these markers affected your relationships, perceptions, or self-image?

Check out these links, and join the conversation below!

“Mark My Words. Maybe.” New York Times, April 12, 2014

Object Lessons: Samurai Warrior Armor, Christie’s