Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Artists and their Models

Where: Archives of American Art

When: closing date listed as TBA

In case you don't know, the exhibit space for the Archives of American Art, the largest collection of its kind in the world, is on the first floor of the American Art Museum.  Except when they're taking down one exhibit and installing another, there's always a display here.  It's only one room (and not a very large room at that), so the shows are small, but that makes them ideal for a lunch hour trip.

The current exhibit is on models, those usually anonymous people who pose for artists and help to create great art.  One can't say they labor in the shadows, as their contributions are front and center, but their stories are most often untold, unless they're the subject of scandal.  As the wall notes indicate, " a talent for holding still is often more important than beauty" in a model.  It strikes me as very hard work, holding a pose for 30 minutes at a time.  I think I'll stick to looking at paintings, rather than being a part of them.

In addition to information on human models, there's also a section on animal models - they may not hold a pose as well as a person, but they also work for free!  One model whose identity is known is Nan Wood Graham, Grant Wood's sister and the model for the wife in American Gothic.  Contrary to the impression that portrait gives, Nan was quite attractive, and she posed for several other of her brother's paintings.  One of them featured a small chick that she held in her hands.  After Wood was finished painting it, he put the chick in a pot and covered it with a lid to keep it from making noise.  The chick was so quiet that Wood forgot about it, and his mother discovered it the next morning, fainted, but still alive.  Happily, some food and water brought it around, although Wood gave it the day off to recuperate.  Just think of the fuss a human model would have made in similar circumstances.

One bit of history that reminded me of the present day was in 1939, when some members of Congress condemned the WPA artists for using nude models.  "A waste of government money," and "a desecration of womanhood" were some of the comments.  I could not help but be reminded of the uproar over the "Hide/Seek" exhibit (on gay and lesbian portraiture) held in this very building a few years ago.  La plus ca change, la plus c'est le meme chose.

Verdict:  If you have any interest in learning more about the people you've seen in great artworks, this is a nice overview of the subject.

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