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A Monuments Man from Indiana

Today's guest blogger is Annette Schlagenhauff, Associate Curator for Research at the IMA. She is in charge of researching the provenance, or history of ownership, of European paintings in the IMA’s collection.

The Monuments Men, 2014 © Columbia Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox

The Monuments Men, 2014 © Columbia Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox

On February 7, all eyes will turn to a movie called The Monuments Men, a much anticipated film directed by George Clooney and featuring a star-studded cast. It tells the story of several brave World War II soldiers who were tasked, against all odds, with preserving monuments in the paths of advancing Allied armies in the final months of the war. Once the war had ended, their mission was to find and safeguard treasures of European art stolen by the Nazis. Until now, their story was largely unknown to the general public, although art museums and provenance researchers had long been amazed by the valiant efforts of the men and women in the Monuments, Fine Art & Archives section of the military. They put their lives on the line in an effort to guarantee that Europe’s finest cultural treasures were preserved for future generations.

As it goes with many Hollywood movies, the broad outlines of the story are true, but names and circumstances have been changed to fit a two-hour narrative structure. So if you are expecting a documentary, you might be disappointed and should watch The Rape of Europa instead, a film released in 2008 which is based on the ground-breaking book of the same title by the historian Lynn Nicholas. But The Monuments Men is to be commended for its ability to focus our attention on the hardships and tragedies as well as the successes of these cultural soldiers, most of whom were older than the average GI and elected to leave careers as artists, architects, archivists, conservators and other museum professionals in order to bring their particular expertise to bear in the Allied war effort.

One of the real-life Monuments Men was Thomas Carr Howe Jr., a native of Indiana. Born in 1904 in Kokomo, Howe was raised in Indianapolis before he left for the east coast to attend university. (If the name sounds familiar to Indianapolis residents or Butler University alumni and students, it’s because his father taught at Butler and then served as its president from 1907 to 1920.) The younger Howe chose to pursue an art museum career and, in 1931, he was appointed assistant director at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, becoming that museum’s director in 1939. During WWII, Howe joined the U.S. Navy and served there for two years before being recommended to serve as a Monuments Man.

Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art by Thomas Carr Howe Jr.

Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art by Thomas Carr Howe Jr.

When Howe returned to San Francisco in February 1946, the head of Bobbs-Merrill, the Indianapolis-based publishing company, asked him to commit his experiences as a Monument Man to writing. Howe agreed to do so, and later that same year his recollections were published with the title Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art. Here we can learn that Howe was present at the Alt Aussee mine when Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, both looted by the Nazis, were packed up and brought out of the depths of the mine under considerable time pressure due to the advancing Russian armies. He was also present several weeks later when a group of Monuments Men evacuated the art stored at Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. Movie goers will recognize these place names, and Howe’s published recollections were no doubt carefully studied by the team that created and produced the movie.

Saltmines and Castles tells yet another interesting story – and one that can be linked to a specific painting currently in the IMA’s collection. Howe’s first solo assignment in Europe – and the Monuments Men often travelled alone rather than as a team — was to retrieve a cache of 81 cases full of art from Grassau, a small town in southeast Bavaria, where Nazi loot had been discovered. In one of these cases was the IMA’s masterpiece by Paul Gaugin, Still Life with Profile of Laval. This painting had been looted, along with many others, from a prominent Jewish collection (the Herzog Collection) by Hungary’s Nazis in 1944. To safeguard their haul from the Russians, it was moved to the small town in Bavaria. Howe’s efforts were almost thwarted by the Hungarian museum curator who was charged with safeguarding the art, but Howe prevailed and he brought the paintings to Munich where the Central Collecting Point was located. Several years later, it was restituted back to Hungary, and then back to the widow of the Herzog heir. She allowed a dealer to sell it, and it had a number of owners before it was acquired by the IMA in 1998. Long story short, a painting now located in Indianapolis was safeguarded by a Monuments Man from Indianapolis!

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903), Still Life with Profile of Laval, 1886 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Samuel Josefowitz Collection of the School of Pont-ven, through the Generosity of Lilly Endowment Inc., the Josefowitz Family, Mr. and Mrs. James M. Cornelius, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard J. Betley, Lori and Dan Efroymson, and Other Friends of the Museum, 1998.167

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903), Still Life with Profile of Laval, 1886
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Samuel Josefowitz Collection of the School of Pont-ven, through the Generosity of Lilly Endowment Inc., the Josefowitz Family, Mr. and Mrs. James M. Cornelius, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard J. Betley, Lori and Dan Efroymson, and Other Friends of the Museum, 1998.167

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Guest Bloggers, History, Indiana, Museum Community, The Collection

 

A reminder of classical Rome in Indiana

Early January in Indiana is a time that limits activities in the garden. At the Miller House, there has been flood clean up from the rains that came just before Christmas, and tree pruning is an annual winter task. Otherwise, there is planning for the coming year and reflection on the year that’s passed.

Thinking back on 2013, one item that we’ve checked off the to-do list is repairs to the fountain in the north garden. The main element of the fountain is an alabaster bowl, purchased by the Millers while on a trip to Rome in 1957. In a letter to Alexander Girard, Mr. Miller referred to it as a “Second Century Roman alabaster bowl” that he and Mrs. Miller purchased to “add to our house some reminders of classical Rome.” As a classics scholar himself, Mr. Miller would have found such mementoes particularly meaningful.

By the time the museum acquired the property in 2009, the fountain was in need of attention. The bowl itself was badly cracked, its metal lining was failing, its exterior was thickly encrusted with mineral deposits, and its spray jet had been replaced with a short length of white PVC pipe – the stuff plumbers call “schedule 40.” Not attractive.

 

Laura Kubick of the museum’s conservation department worked with Kemna Restoration and Construction, Inc., of Indianapolis to undertake the needed repairs. Of all aspects of the project, the most challenging was the removal of the mineral deposits on the bowl. Ranging in color from brown to white, these deposits obscured both the color of the material and the details of its carving. The completed bowl emerged as lustrous black with faint white veining, beautifully echoing the color scheme of the house itself. Its exterior was handsomely carved with strigillations, the curving flutes most often associated with Roman sarcophagi. Miller House site administrator Ben Wever found the spray jet among irrigation parts in storage and took it to a local metal fabricator for repairs. When reinstalled, the fountain again brought the sound and movement of water to the Miller garden, but now in a way that represents the Millers’ aesthetic intention.

Presently, the fountain is snugly covered with a Tyvek shroud to protect it from freeze-thaw damage as we look forward to the fine spring days when it will again sparkle with water droplets and add its soothing note to the garden.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Guest Bloggers, Miller House, Uncategorized

 

How hair helps conserve art

Today's blogger is Laura Mosteller, Conservation Technician II at the IMA.

As the conservation technician at the IMA, one of my responsibilities is keeping an eye on the devices that measure temperature and humidity in the galleries. Why? A major aspect of our mission at the museum and the field of conservation is to preserve artworks for generations, and often these artworks are composed of vulnerable materials. Changes in temperature and humidity can result in stresses of warping, dislocating joins, cracking and lifting of surface layers, breaking fibers, metals corrosion, and cockling of works on paper. Not to mention that mold will thrive at relative humidity levels of 70 percent or higher.

hygro_closedThere are many devices available that enable a real time recording of the gallery environment and we use a variety of these for recording comprehensive data history. What you may be surprised to learn is that one of the devices uses horse or human hair as a very important element for sensing humidity fluctuations. Called a hygrothermograph, it is one of the most common devices used to measure and record temperature and humidity. You’ve likely seen the contraption in many museums and wondered if it was a contemporary work of art.

hygro_openHumidity measuring devices have been around for hundreds of years; in the early days a material that was hygroscopic, or capable of absorbing moisture, was connected to the instrument to act as a humidity sensor.  The substance may have been twine or paper, and it would expand and contract when influenced by the varying levels of the moisture content in the air. These changes in the material could be quantitatively measured to interpret the relative humidity. In the late 1770s, Horace Benedict de Saussure is credited for implementing the sensible hygroscopic material of human hair in his design of the device. It is said that he used the locks of his lovely wife; perhaps the idea came to him after she complained of a bad hair day on a rainy afternoon. In today’s version, hair can be stripped of its oils and gathered in a small bundle providing the perfect humidity detector. So if you’re the type of person who enjoys unusual facts, this one is certain to impress your friends.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Guest Bloggers, History, Technology

 

Remaking a rug at Miller House

Today's blogger is Bradley C. Brooks, Director of Historic Resources and Assistant Curator, American Decorative Arts at the IMA.

It seems that an important reason why the Miller House and Garden has retained so much of the integrity of its original design is that the Millers greatly cherished and valued the work that Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, Dan Kiley, and Alexander Girard produced for them. They were patient partners in the design process and tended to seek refinements, rather than wholesale changes, as the house evolved through later years.

miller_house_carpet

Top: The den rug before replacement. Bottom: The new den rug.

The rugs in the house are a case in point. The rug presently under the dining table, for example, is the fourth generation of the original Girard design. The first was one of a group of flat-woven rugs produced in France, all of which were later replaced with looped-pile versions of the same designs. With wear and food spills, the dining room rug was the most often replaced.

At the time the museum took ownership of the property, the Miller family had begun a project to remake a number of rugs in the house. Most in need of replacement was Girard’s den rug, which had been worn quite through in a few spots. We fudged it for a while with the placement of furniture to hide the worst of the damage, but this was only at temporary fix.

As with any such project, there were concerns about achieving the appropriate weave structure,  pattern, and color accuracy. We had received some of the original design drawings as part of the Miller House Archives, and IMA conservators had painstakingly removed unfaded fibers from deep in the rug’s pile in order to make accurate color comparisons. After several rounds of adjustments and approvals, we gave a go-ahead to Edward Fields to put the rug into production.

The new den rug!

The new den rug!

In mid-April of this year, the new rug was ready to install, and it more than lived up to all our expectations. The vibrant colors were back, and the many emblems of family history and association were renewed, all rendered in a highly disciplined, multiple colorway grid of lozenges – a glimpse into the mind and design process of Alexander Girard.

Filed under: Conservation, Design, Miller House, Textile & Fashion

 

The IMA in Egypt, Part 2: Have Gun – Will Travel

Today’s blogger is Dr. Gregory Dale Smith, the Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist at the IMA. Dr. Smith is reporting through a series of blog posts on the IMA’s involvement in a new exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World.

Figure 1. A Bruker Tracer III-V portable XRF spectrometer positioned vertically in a bench top stand alongside a Bruker Alpha FTIR spectrometer. Dr. Smith uses the FTIR to analyze the organic binder in small fragments of paint.

Figure 1. A Bruker Tracer III-V portable XRF spectrometer positioned vertically in a bench top stand alongside a Bruker Alpha FTIR spectrometer. Dr. Smith uses the FTIR to analyze the organic binder in small fragments of paint.

An X-ray gun that is! In a previous post, I described a collaborative project with the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the American Research Center in Egypt that sought to find a better means of excavating, stabilizing, and preserving beautifully-decorated, but incredibly fragile painted funerary artifacts. My role in the 2013 field season was to identify the materials of these coffins, statues, and wooden objects in order to better inform the approaches to their conservation. To do this, I needed to transport several scientific instruments to our field site in Abydos, Egypt. The IMA’s X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer, a.k.a. the X-ray gun, was one of those analytical tools, ideal for determining the elemental composition of the objects’ inorganic components (metals, minerals, stone) and small enough to be easily transported to a dig site lab (see Figure 1).

Figure 2. The Abydos dig house wet chemistry laboratory was used to test for proteins and polysaccharides in the paints used to decorate wooden funerary objects.

Figure 2. The Abydos dig house wet chemistry laboratory was used to test for proteins and polysaccharides in the paints used to decorate wooden funerary objects.

For the organic components (paint binders, wood, resins, waxes, textiles, glues), a Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer loaned by Bruker Instruments complemented wet chemical tests conducted in our makeshift field lab, shown in Figure 2.

Figure 3. Blue tape solves the persistent problem of loose electrical adapters while a tea kettle and insulated thermos replace a lab hotplate for warming reaction test tubes.

Figure 3. Blue tape solves the persistent problem of loose electrical adapters while a tea kettle and insulated thermos replace a lab hotplate for warming reaction test tubes.

Operating a field lab in the desert requires a good deal of patience and creativity. Daily power outages, loss of the internet, and an omnipresent layer of dust can complicate analyses that would be quick and routine in the IMA’s state-of-the-art laboratories (see Figure 3).  Stay tuned for the final installment describing the results of our research and some future research directions.

Filed under: African Art, Art, Conservation, IMA Staff

 

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