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Spotlight on the Collection

December 2013: Jar

Jar. Vietnamese, 16th century. Glazed stoneware with four monster-head bosses below rim, mythological animals with cloud and flame motifs painted in underglaze-blue cobalt-oxide and overglaze enamels, with inset, reticulated, bisque-fired roundels with cranes. 24 1/4 × 15 inches. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Purchased with funds provided by the Estate of William M. Spencer III, AFI289.2010.
Jar. Vietnamese, 16th century. Glazed stoneware with four monster-head bosses below rim, mythological animals with cloud and flame motifs painted in underglaze-blue cobalt-oxide and overglaze enamels, with inset, reticulated, bisque-fired roundels with cranes. 24 1/4 × 15 inches. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Purchased with funds provided by the Estate of William M. Spencer III, AFI289.2010.
Jar, Vietnamese, 16th century

This large ceramic jar is one of the most spectacular example of painted Vietnamese ware known. At just over two feet tall, it is exceptional not only in size but also in the complexity of its decoration and its near perfect condition. Four mask bosses protrude just below the rim, four unglazed openwork panels depict a crane flying through swirling mists, and four painted mythological creatures – two winged horses and two qilin – appear in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels. The cut-out bisque-fired roundels of cranes, backed with another offset panel of clay, add shadows and an unusual sense of depth. The decorations – all symbolic of luck and prosperity – are deftly rendered and have not been retouched or overpainted. Apollo Magazine, a journal for decorative arts and an important voice in the art world, named this jar one of the Top 10 Museum Acquisitions in the World for 2011.

Over the past 6000 years, Vietnam has created the most sophisticated ceramics tradition in Southeast Asia. Besides borrowing from China, Vietnamese potters explored indigenous tastes and developed their own production techniques. The smooth gray-white clays of the Red River Valley made for ceramics that are light and thin-walled, which artists then painted, engraved, and carved with decorations.

China ruled Vietnam, its close neighbor, for 1000 years – from the beginning of the 1st century AD to the 10th century – thus exposing the Vietnamese directly to its civilization and ceramic tradition. Vietnamese potters, however, did not simply copy Chinese ceramics; rather, they combined their own methods with Chinese ones in original ways. They experimented with new ideas and integrated features from cultures such as Cambodia, India, and Champa. The industry developed distinctly Vietnamese characteristics during the native Ly and Tran dynasties (1009 – 1400). The Vietnamese have traded wares through the centuries from Egypt to Japan, and all over Southeast Asia.

The Vietnamese have always been profoundly aware of nature. Dense tropical forests, lush rice paddies, rushing rivers, and the colorful flowers, animals, birds, and fish that inhabit them have long been part of the vocabulary of daily life. This variety of flora and fauna translates well into art, especially ceramics. The decoration of bowls, plates, cups, jars, figurines, and containers of all sorts offers a glimpse into what the Vietnamese considered important, significant, or amusing through the ages.

A steady stream of gifts and Museum purchases over the years has resulted in a collection that not only provides an overview of Vietnam’s rich ceramics heritage but is also one of the three most important collections of its type in North America.

—Dr. Don Wood, senior curator and curator of Asian art, with Tyler Pratt, education intern, summer 2013

Explore in depth!

Vietnamese ceramics show the influence of Chinese imperial rule but retain a unique national style. Take a look at these resources in the Museum’s art research library, and check out these links to explore Vietnamese and Chinese ceramics in depth!

Dragons and Lotus Blossoms: Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art, 2011

The Elephant and the Lotus: Vietnamese Ceramics in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2007

Chinese ceramics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vietnamese ceramics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Corporate Spotlight

John D. Johns, Protective Life

My Museum Magazine interviewed  John D. Johns, Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer, Protective Life, to learn more about why they support the Museum.

MY MUSEUM MAGAZINE: How does Protective Life’s support of the BMA align with your corporate mission?

JOHNNY JOHNS: We like to say that our mission is clearly set forth in our name—Protective. That’s who we are and that’s what we do—protect and serve people. Since the Company was founded by former Governor William Dorsey Jelks in 1907, we have firmly believed that our mission to create value for shareholders is directly linked to our commitment to serve the broader communities in which we live. Our business is, like most, extremely competitive. We compete not only for sales and revenues, but also for talent. And we compete for high-potential talent with much larger companies headquartered in major cities throughout the country. We firmly believe that our ability to “win” in our industry is directly linked to how successful we are in bringing the best and the brightest to Birmingham. We find that “quality of life” is an increasingly critical issue for families thinking about relocating to another city. It is therefore vitally important that the greater Birmingham community provide a diversity and quality of life that is appealing to smart, ambitious, and highly-educated people. From that perspective, the Birmingham Museum of Art is a true crown jewel. A quick tour instantly reveals not only the extraordinary quality of the collection, but also the careful thought given to its display and interpretation. I like to think that the Museum “punches above its weight” in terms of how it compares to museums in larger cities throughout the country.

MMM: Protective Life 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 the associated benefits as a factor in this?

JJ: I have no doubt that the high level of employee satisfaction we enjoy is strongly bolstered by our company’s support of many cultural, civic and charitable activities in the Birmingham community. Kate Cotton, who leads the Protective Foundation, does a marvelous job of providing opportunities to our employees to get directly involved, in a hands-on” way, in many of the organizations that we support through the Foundation. We have on a number of occasions invited our employees to events hosted at the Museum and strongly encourage them to get involved as volunteers.

MMM: Protective Life has demonstrated time and again that it truly cares for Birmingham by being an outstanding corporate citizen. In your view, how does your support of the Museum positively impact our city?

JJ: Thank you for your observation about our commitment to the community. Once again, I will say that having a world-class art museum in the city is a huge benefit when attracting talent from around the country, and it also strongly supports the recruitment and economic development efforts of the Birmingham Business Alliance. The satirist H. L. Meaken once pejoratively and cynically called the South “The Sahara of the Bozarts.” The quality of our Museum directly refutes such stereotypical notions outsiders may have about our deep appreciation and enthusiasm for the fine arts in Birmingham.

MMM: As a sponsor of Art Speaks: 50 Years Forward, what do you think is one of the most important things we can learn from this exhibition series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham?

JJ: There are so many things we can learn—so many things to ponder and reflect upon, including the incredible courage and conviction of those who followed Dr. King in demanding an end to the segregated past; the poignant tragedy of the Sixteenth Street Church bombing; the cruel arrogance that motivated the decision to bring out fire hoses and police dogs to intimidate young civil rights marchers; and even the noble efforts made by a few white leaders in the community to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. However, I think the most important lesson to be learned from this era in our history is this: we got through it. We successfully navigated across the bitter divide of hatred and intolerance without violence or additional bloodshed to a much better place today. In fact, I think what has evolved in our City over the last fifty years—a peaceful, collaborative, inclusive, and tolerant community—is almost as important a lesson in history as what occurred in 1963. We have much to regret about that era, but much to be proud of and thankful for in terms of what we have accomplished since those dark days.

MMM: Protective Life supports approximately 170 nonprofits. What are important characteristics you look for when choosing to support an organization?

JJ: We look for organizations that are well-organized, well-managed, have strong leadership, and serve important community needs. We also like to make “catalytic” gifts—contributions that set in motion a chain reaction that will lead to bigger and better things for the organization, as well as the broader community. We also have a special interest in helping children-at-risk, improving education and ensuring that our core cultural amenities continue to thrive and prosper.

Spotlight on the Collection

November 2013: Chilkat Blanket

Chilkat Blanket. Native American, Tlingit people, Ketchikan, Alaska, 19th century. Goat wool, cedar bark. 35 1/4 × 65 3/4 inches. Museum purchase, 1956.48.48.

Chilkat Blanket. Native American, Tlingit people, Ketchikan, Alaska, 19th century. Goat wool, cedar bark. 35 1/4 × 65 3/4 inches. Museum purchase, 1956.48.48.

Chilkat Blanket, Native American, Tlingit people, 19th century

A chilkat blanket is worn draped over the shoulders of chiefs or high-ranking men during important ceremonial occasions. The graphic, bold design elements are derived from family crests and are composed of abstracted animals’ faces, eyes, snouts, fins, beaks, and wings, which fill the design field with perfect bilateral symmetry. Women weave the robes from goat wool and soft cedar bark, working from design boards painted by men. Their looms have a top frame and side supports, but the warp threads hang freely at the bottom.

Historically, chilkat robes were items of great prestige and were treasured gifts when received at a potlatch ceremony. During the 19th century, when Tlingit and other Northwest Coast individuals became wealthy by way of the fur trade, the potlatch reached new extremes of gift-giving and display. According to some accounts, chilkat robes were burned as a demonstration of the host’s wealth and largesse.

Dr. Emily Hanna, curator of the arts of Africa and the Americas

Explore more in the Museum’s collection!

Visit the Hanson Art Research Library for these and more books and resources about Native American art:

Cheryl Samuel. The Chilkat Dancing Blanket. University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Aldona Jonaitis. Art of the Northern Tlingit. University of Washington Press, 1986.

Community News

Party With A Purpose 2013

More than 2,000 families attended District 8’s annual Party with a Purpose fun day in Ensley Park. After learning about Romare Bearden’s piece, The Dove, participants created decorative quilt squares as part of a community quilt project and a calendar to be distributed to the district’s constituents. What an exciting collaboration for the BMA staff, Junior Patrons volunteers, teen volunteers, and Samford University volunteers to support this awarding-winning district! The district placed fourth in the nation for Best Neighborhood Program at the 2013 Neighborhoods USA Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Spotlight on the Collection

October 2013: Cup

Cup (Qero). Colonial Period Inca culture (1532 – 1821) , Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, 18th century. Wood and lacquer. 8 × 6 7/8 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by John M. Harbert III, by exchange, 1994.28.

Cup (Qero). Colonial Period Inca culture (1532 – 1821) , Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, 18th century. Wood and lacquer. 8 × 6 7/8 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by John M. Harbert III, by exchange, 1994.28.

Cup, colonial period Inca culture, 18th century

Some traditions withstand the test of time – through generations, cultural changes, and even centuries of progress and modernization. Yet, these same outside influences often result in new ideas and approaches that supplant old ways and customs.

This Inca qero (ritual drinking cup) represents such conflicting responses to cultural change. Inca artisans created wooden drinking vessels like this one after the Spanish conquest of Inca territory – current day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Inca and other Andean cultures drank chicha, a beer made from maize, from qeros. The Inca always produced qeros in pairs, to represent the dual nature of the cosmos – specifically the male-female dichotomy of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Apu (Father Mountain). During social and religious ceremonies, Incas situated the pair of cups symbolically with the “male” cup on the right and the “female” cup on the left. Families considered qeros an important connection to their religion and also as valued heirlooms that linked the present day with ancestors and history. Although produced in various materials including wood and metal, the qero’s basic shape remained consistent throughout the Andes.

—Samantha Kelly, curator of education

Join the conversation!

Change is hard. How many times have we all struggled with changing leadership, learning new things, and adapting to new people and customs? Human nature often wants things to remain the same, clinging tightly to familiar things that something new threatens to replace. At the same time, we know that change offers opportunities to grow, dream, succeed, and reimagine the things we hold true.

Peruvians still serve chicha beer in large qero-shaped vessels, only now they are mass manufactured in glass. Click here and here to see some examples.

What is the hardest change you have made in your life? How did you balance your past with your future? Click here for some advice on how to deal with major life changes.

Spotlight on the Collection

September 2013: I Am a Man

I Am a Man: Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28th, 1968. Ernest Withers, 1968; printed 1994. Gelatin silver print. Museum purchase, 2006.322.1.

I Am a Man: Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28th, 1968. Ernest Withers, 1968; printed 1994. Gelatin silver print. Museum purchase, 2006.322.1.

I Am a Man: Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28th, 1968, Ernest Withers, 1968

After Ernest Withers (1922-2007) received his first camera in high school, he quickly began documenting events and people in his immediate community.  A quiet determination to get the best shot continued throughout his life. His ties within Memphis’s Black community afforded him a proximity to central figures of the Civil Rights Movement; he eventually became the movement’s most widely published photographer. He once recalled, “I was trained as a high school student in history. But I didn’t know that I would be recording the high multitude of imagery and history that I did record.”

In 1943, after attempting and failing to make a career out of photography, Withers enlisted in the armed forces and trained at the Army School of Photography at Camp Sutton, North Carolina. During his service, he practiced camera and darkroom skills by making portraits of fellow servicemen in Saigon. When he returned to Memphis in the late 1940s, he earned a modest living photographing the Black community there through pictures of sporting events, images of performers and audiences at nightclubs, and family portraits. In 1948, Withers became one of Memphis’s “original nine” Black police force, putting his studio photography aside.

Following the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, reporters—both Black and white—flocked to Sumner, Mississippi, where the trial was held. Withers, who had been struggling to reestablish his studio business after his stint with the police force, embraced the opportunity to document an event of great personal importance to him. During the trial, Withers met Medgar Evers, an activist with whom he would work closely on subsequent civil rights cases and events. His work reached people across the nation in papers such as the Chicago Tribune, Memphis’ own Tri-State Defender, and New York Amsterdam News.

Withers’s I Am A Man, taken during the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike of 1968, is one of the most recognizable images from the Civil Rights Movement. At the time of the strike, racial tensions were high over inequalities in pay, distribution of work, and opportunities for advancement that ran along racial lines. When two Black men died on the job, and their families received only $500 in funeral expenses, the workers went on strike; organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Community on the Move for Equality, and the Invaders rallied behind them. As a resident of Memphis and an influential member of its Black community, Withers helped plan the march; in fact, he even made some of the iconic “I Am a Man” signs – a rallying cry based on “Am I not a man and a brother?” used by abolitionists in the 18th and 19th centuries – seen here. The image is made more poignant since the strike took place one week before the assassination of its champion, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

—Tyler Pratt, education – visitor engagement intern, summer 2013

Join the conversation!

In what ways did photography contribute to the Civil Rights Movement? How do images play an important role in the development of social consciousness? Check out the following links, and join the conversation!

Ernest Withers, Panopticon Gallery

“Emmett Till and the Impact of Images: Photos of Murdered Youth Spurred Civil Rights Activism,” NPR, June 23, 2004

“Civil Rights, One Person and One Photo at a Time,” New York Times, April 22, 2013

“A Radically Prosaic Approach to Civil Rights Images,” New York Times, July 16, 2012

Recent Acquisitions

“Jazzed” By Discovery of a Rare Print

Drawing in Two Colors or Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I, 1915-1920

Drawing in Two Colors or Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I, 1915–20. Winold Reiss (American; born Germany, 1886–1953), offset lithograph and halftone on Japanese paper. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; gift of Dr. Graham C. Boettcher AFI487.2012

by Graham C. Boettcher, PhD, the William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art

While the majority of the BMA’s purchased acquisitions come from commercial galleries and auction houses, occasionally museum-quality works of art surface in unexpected places. This past October, I found such a work in a Chicago antique store. While scanning the display cases of Broadway Antique Market, a popular shop in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, a small, but striking black and red print on white paper caught my eye. Entitled Drawing in Two Colors, the print—an offset lithograph and halftone on Japanese paper— was the work of the German-born American artist Winold Reiss (1886-1953). Known for his portraits of major figures in Jazz Age Harlem—including poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen—Reiss was also a pioneering designer whose Art Deco interiors used strong patterns, bold colors, and angular geometry. In this rare print, created between 1915 and 1920, Reiss demonstrates his interest in both the Art Deco style and the vibrant cultural scene among Harlem’s elite. 

 An immediate Google search on my iPhone confirmed the rarity of the work. While it was reprinted on a larger scale on thicker paper around 1925, as Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I, the only known example of this version in a public collection was given to the Library of Congress in 1998, by the artist’s son, Tjark Reiss. I acquired the drawing for an extremely modest sum. According to the curatorial code of ethics, when a curator buys a museumworthy work of art with his or her own funds, that curator must offer the work to the museum for the purchase price. That is, if a curator buys an original Norman Rockwell at a garage sale for $5, it must be offered to the museum for that same price. Because the amount paid for the print was negligible, I decided to donate it to the BMA’s permanent collection rather than request reimbursement. It is the Museum’s first work by Winold Reiss, and an important addition to a growing collection of early 20th-century American fine and decorative arts.


Recent Acquisitions

Modern Shin Hanga Prints Gifted to the Museum

Jacko-in-Kyoto, Shin Hanga print

Jacko-in Kyoto, 1963, Kiyoshi Saito (1907-1997), Japanese, Showa period (1926-1989), ink and color on paper, woodblock print, Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; gift of the estate of Larry D. Luke

by Donald Wood, PhD, Senior Curator and the Virginia and William M. Spencer Curator of Asian Art

Fifteen Japanese prints are a recent gift to the Museum from the estate of Larry D. Luke of Huntsville. The prints are from the 1940s-1960s and represent the work of the finest woodblock print artists active in Japan at the time. This is a treasure trove for our collection that includes work by artists of the Shin Hanga, or New Print movement such as Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) and Toshi Yoshida (1911-1995), and artists of the Sosaku Hanga, or Creative Print movement such as Kiyoshi Saito (1907-1997) and Sekino Jun’ichiro (1914-1988). Be sure to look for these prints in the Recent Acquisitions display in the second floor hallway and in the Japanese galleries in the months to come.


Recent Acquisitions

Renaissance Revival Vase Added to Collection


Vase, 1858/59, designed by Alfred George Stevens (English, 1817-1875); painted by Emile Aubert Lessore (French, 1805-1876); Minton Pottery manufactory (est. 1793). lead-and-tin-glazed earthenware (Majolica). Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; purchase with funds provided by Henry S. Lynn, Jr. AFI5.2013

by Anne Forschler-Tarrasch, PhD, Senior Curator and the Marguerite Jones Harbert & John M. Harbert III Curator of Decorative arts

Through the generosity of board member Henry Lynn, the Museum has recently acquired a large snake-handled vase made between 1858 and 1859 by the Minton pottery manufactory in Staffordshire, England. The lead-and-tin-glazed earthenware, or Majolica, vase was decorated by Émile Aubert Lessore (French, 1805-76). Lessore is most familiar to us as a pottery painter at Wedgwood and the Museum’s Beeson and Buten Wedgwood collections include a number of Lessore-decorated objects. We are delighted now to have an example of Lessore’s earlier work. His freehand painting style and his ability to reproduce the works of Old Masters on ceramic objects marked the climax of the Renaissance revival style at Minton during his brief tenure. The images depicted on the vase are drawn from the frescoes created by the Italian painter Domenichino (1581–1641) for the Baroque Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome. These include on one side the Evangelist Luke with the symbol of the ox—a figure of sacrifice, service, and strength—and on the other the Evangelist John with the eagle—a symbol of the sky, or John’s lofty gospel. Paul Atterbury, in The Dictionary of Minton, writes of pottery painted by Lessore and shown at the 1862 London World’s Fair, “notably a pair of snake-handled vases.” Because Lessore’s tenure at Minton lasted barely one year, it is probable that our new acquisition is one of the pair of vases in question. Indeed, because the vase depicts only two of the four Evangelists, there is little doubt that a second vase exists with images of the others. It is now up to us to locate the second vase so that this important pair can be reunited. Let the search begin!


Recent Acquisitions

Chatsworth House Arrives at BMA

Chatsworth House and Park, ca. 1725, Pieter Tillemans

Chatsworth House and Park, ca. 1725, Pieter Tillemans, Flemish (1684-1734), oil on canvas, Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; purchase with funds provided by the Sklenar Family—Herb, Ellie, Susan and Tisha; and the Art Fund, Inc. AFI4.2013

by Jeannine O’Grody, PhD, Deputy Director, Chief Curator, and Curator of European Art

Thanks to the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Herb Sklenar and their family, the Museum purchased a major example of 18th-century English landscape painting. This glorious view of Chatsworth, one of the stately “treasure houses” of Britain, was painted in about 1725 by Pieter Tillemans (1684-1734), a Flemish artist who played an important role in spreading the visual language of landscape painting—already flourishing on the European continent—to the English school. Tillemans was born in Antwerp, emigrated to England in 1708, and became one of the pioneers of landscape painting in Britain. 

Chatsworth, built in the 16th century by the Cavendish family, has remained home to the Dukes of Devonshire through today. It contains a priceless collection of paintings, furniture, Old Master drawings, neoclassical sculptures, and books. The house and gardens have been remodeled over the centuries, but this canvas immortalizes this era with a remarkably accurate topographical record. The painting combines the estate with a frieze of 17 horses in the foreground. In the 18th century the second duke was famous as a breeder and owner of race horses, and these represent the cream of the Chatsworth stud. Tillemans captured the unique qualities of several of the horses with an extraordinary naturalism, which has allowed historians to identify some of the legendary racers. 

In the spirit of discovery, we invite you to look closely at our new painting and to become absorbed in the astonishing amount of deftlyrendered details such as the mill with its waterwheel in the foreground, a groom feeding a horse, the grand gardens with fountains and classical sculptures, the various structures on the estate, and perhaps the duke himself on horseback. In contrast, the artist also captured the panoramic view of more than 1,000 acres, counterbalancing the open spaces of sky with the undulating landscape. This iconic work, critical to the development of English landscape painting, was passed down through 16 generations of the Cavendish family until purchased by the BMA. It is on display in the English Gallery.