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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.


Caring for Art

From Paper Trails to Digital Delivery

File cards with TMSby Suzanne Voce Stephens, Collections Database Administrator

In the “old days” of Museum Registration, we used to type colorcoded cards to cross-reference our collection records—white cards for object records, pink for donors, green for loans, yellow for media. We started moving away from that in 1989 when we invested in our first collections management software. At the time, we were among the early advocates nationally of computer systems. Now, 24 years later, virtually all museums have automated collection records. We continue to expand our use of the database and have recently completed a major upgrade of our software, The Museum System (TMS), which is widely used by museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Chrysler Museum of Art, New York Historical Society, and hundreds of other museums around the world. 

We are working to expand our database to further enhance our access to and understanding of the collections. New features and projects on the horizon include enhancing data related to conservation records, attaching scanned archival documents, expanding our exhibition history records to make them more easily searchable, managing current exhibitions with new features of the software, and continuing to attach images to object records. The database currently includes over 33,500 object records, 5,000 artist records, and more than 30,000 image files. Perhaps the most important aspect of our upgrade has been moving to a virtual server that provides more hard-drive space and speed for faster growth of the collection data. These more robust features of the database are available to curators and museum staff members for research, inventory, and archival use. 

Public access to TMS data is available in the online searchable collection database on the Museum’s website, which offers highlights of the collection as well as greater depth in some areas. The online collection is drawn from TMS data as well as images from the Museum’s digital asset management system (a separate image database). The number of works available online continues to grow at a steady pace as a team of several departments work to edit collection data, photograph works of art, and review copyright issues. Our goal is to make more works of art and search tools available to the public in the coming months and years to expand public awareness and scholarship of the Museum’s best loved works and hidden gems in the collection.

Mystery Object

Summer 2013-Spring 2014: Egg Beater

Egg Beater. Wedgwood, about 1800. Lead-glazed earthenware, creamware. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; The Buten Wedgwood Collection, gift through the Wedgwood Society of New York, AFI451.2008a-b.

Egg Beater. Wedgwood, about 1800. Lead-glazed earthenware, creamware. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; The Buten Wedgwood Collection, gift through the Wedgwood Society of New York, AFI451.2008a-b.

Hungry?  In the mood for an omelet? Eighteenth-century cooks used small, circular, covered vessels like these examples–made by Wedgwood of creamware, a kind of low-fired earthenware ceramic–to beat an egg. A series of spikes, or prongs, pointed toward the center line the inner wall. A cook broke an egg into the main vessel, covered it, and shook.

Art in use

Here is an 18th-century recipe for your omelet:

To make an Omelette. Put a quarter of a pound of butter into a frying pan. Break six eggs and beat them a little, strain them through a hair sieve. Put them in when your butter is hot and strew in a little shred parsley and boiled ham scraped fine with nutmeg, pepper and salt…

—From The Experienced English Housekeeper: For the Use and Ease of Ladies, House-Keepers, Cooks, &c.… by Elizabeth Raffald (first published 1769)

Comments from the gallery

Question: “How would you use an object like this in your life?”
  • “To hear faraway sounds.”
  • “To catch fish.”
  • “As a sugar container – spikes help to break up lumps with room in the center for a small sugar spoon.”
  • “To sift through spices that might get stuck together.”
  • “To grind coffee beans.”
  • “As art.”
  • “To hold loose tea leaves.”
  • “To keep kids’ hands out of the cookie jar.”
  • “As a lemon squeezer.”
  • “To protect my Oreos.”
  • “To mix something.”
  • “As a fairy torture device.”
  • “To clean my glass eye!”
  • “To strike fear in the hearts of my enemies.”
  • “As a walnut crusher.”
  • “As a bug catcher.”
  • “As a musical instrument. I’d put beads in it, and shake firmly.”
  • “To hide money in.”
  • “As a trap for pests/rodents.”
  • “Cookie or candy jar if I didn’t want to share.”
  • “To store cotton balls.”
  • “As a home for my pet bug.”
  • “As a cream separator.”
  • “To keep notes and trinkets.”
  • “To julienne vegetables.”
  • “As a jewelry safe.”
  • “To hide precious things that I don’t want anyone to touch.”
  • “To trick my enemies.”
  • “As a Halloween decoration.”
Question: “What are the first three words that come to mind when you look at this object?”
  • “Wow – that’s – cool”
  • “Sand – worm – dentures”
  • “Utility – teeth – old”
  • “Incredible – edible – egg”
  • “Dagger – devour – drum”
  • “I – am – scared”
  • “Grinder – container – unique”
  • “Sharp – dangerous – interesting”
  • “A – musical – instrument”
  • “When – is – dinner”
  • “It – is – beautiful”
  • “Tuna – fish – can”
  • “Sharp – finger – trap”
  • “Awesome – weird – cool”
  • “Sharp – pointy – scary”
  • “Teeth – scary – bad”
  • “Lip – stick – holder”
  • “Old – food – processor”
  • “Tooth – pick – separater”
  • “Drum – milkshakes – blender”
  • “Green – spikes – container”
  • “Grinder – green – spikes”
  • “Fruit – juicer – yum!”
  • “Shaker – grinder -drum”
  • “A – top – hat”
  • “Ouch – shaker – trap”
  • “Sharp – teeth – ouch”
  • “Death – blades – torture”

And one more insightful comment from Abigail, a gallery visitor: “I could see this as somebody’s heart. It is hard to get to, but once you get it, it is amazing!”


Spotlight on the Collection

August 2013: Dawn

L’aurore (Dawn). William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1881. Oil on canvas. Gift of the Estate of Nelle H. Stringfellow, 2005.111.

L’aurore (Dawn). William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1881. Oil on canvas. Gift of the Estate of Nelle H. Stringfellow, 2005.111.

L’Aurore (Dawn), William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1881

Dawn – early morning represented by a female figure reaching back to smell a blooming calla lily – exemplifies William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s standards of beauty and technical skill. His attention to detail and smooth finished surfaces produced human figures that are both lyrical and ideal.

Bouguereau studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and classical art at the Villa Medici in Rome, which gave him a chance to explore the human form in depth. Critics praised his images of nudes particularly for the meticulously detailed yet gentle rendering of skin.

Greco-Roman antiquities and Italian Renaissance sculpture often influenced Bouguereau’s later work. Frequently, he portrayed biblical, mythological, and allegorical figures like Dawn. A passage in Homer’s Odyssey that describes the breaking of day as a “rosy-fingered dawn, the child of the morning” inspired him to paint the figure’s fingers and toes with a pinker hue than the rest of her flesh.

Dawn is Bouguereau’s first artwork in a series of the times of day. Others include Dusk (1882; National Museum of Art, Havana); Night (1883; Hillwood Museum and Gardens, Washington, DC); and Day (1884; private collection, USA). Though each allegorical figure’s personality is as different from the others as night is to day, a continuity exists among them – in their poses, loosely draped garments, and the landscapes they occupy. The paintings, a study in complements and contrasts, share a harmony of line, form, and color. Although the artist exhibited each work at the Paris Salon, they never hung together; he sold them to his dealer Adolphe Goupil, who in turn placed them with American collectors.

Bouguereau’s polished academic style fell out of favor in the wake of looser, more expressive styles like Impressionism. Painting, however, was a labor of love for him; he said, “Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come… if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable.”

—Tyler Pratt, education – visitor engagement intern 2013, with Jeannine O’Grody, deputy director and chief curator

See the other works in the series!

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dusk (1882)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Night (1883)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Day (1884)

Join the conversation!

Though not as much a household name today as other 19th-century French artists like Claude Monet, William-Adolphe Bouguereau was one of the foremost painters of his time. As styles like Impressionism and Post-Impressionism have gained prominence in the 20th century, more traditional artists like Bouguereau have fallen into obscurity.

What more would you like to know about the artist and his times? Academic art, training, or the Salon? Your questions and feedback will help us develop the BMA’s inaugural Museum Lab, opening next fall!

Staff Updates

Staff Updates – July 2013

Dr. Anne Forschler-Tarrasch, The Marguerite Jones Harbert and John M. Harbert III Curator of Decorative Arts, has been named Senior Curator. Anne has been with the Museum since September 1999. During her tenure she has curated a number of exhibitions and gallery installations and is the author of the comprehensive catalogue European Cast Iron in the Birmingham Museum of Art. Anne also oversees the Museum’s internship program.

At the National Art Education Association annual conference in Fort Worth, Texas, during the first week of March, Curator of Education Samantha Kelly presented Adrift Without a Guide? Strategies for Engaging Self-Guided Museum Visitors with Toby Tannenbaum, Assistant Director for Education at The J. Paul Getty Museum. The session explored experimental strategies for encouraging visitors to slow down, look closely, connect with, and truly contemplate original works of art. A national audience of art museum educators learned about the innovative strategies newly available to visitors in the BMA including the Meditation Station in the Japanese gallery, the Mystery Object kiosk in the 18th-century English gallery, and interactive iPad apps featuring the permanent collection and exhibitions such as The Look of Love

 On February 28, Assistant Curator of Education for Visitor Engagement Kristi McMillan served as a judge for the 2013 Veterans Fine Arts, Applied Arts and Crafts Competition. This annual program provides veterans receiving treatment at the Birmingham Veterans Administration Medical Center with an opportunity to be acknowledged for their artistic talents and skills. Local first place entries in each category, selected by a panel from the local art community based on creativity, skill, originality, and total presentation, go on to compete in the VA’s national art competition.

Artist-in-Residence Toby H. Richards presented a sumi-e workshop entitled Sumi-e: The Art of Relaxation to students, faculty, and staff at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on April 12 as part of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Also a form of meditation, sumi-e is classical Asian black ink painting that focuses on simple brushstrokes used to communicate the essence of a subject. Richards has studied, taught, and exhibited her sumi-e work in Japan. She continues to develop and to teach Asian design principles.

Donald Wood, Senior Curator and The Virginia and William M.Spencer III Curator of Asian Art, was recently honored by his hometown of Barberton, Ohio. The Barberton Board of Education inducted Don into the Barberton Academic Hall of Fame on May 2. Don is the first inductee to represent the fine arts in the Hall of Fame. Don had lunch with a number of current Barberton High School students and was joined at the awards banquet that evening by family, friends, and former classmates.