‘Gods and Glamour’ inaugurates new Art Institute galleries
By Madeline Nusser November 14, 2012 4:46PM
The Art Institute of Chicago's Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman and Byzantine Art features more than 550 works in the "Of Gods and Glamour" exhibit, including this bust of Silenus (detail), 1st century B.C./1st century A.D. Roman. | Photo by Erika Dufour
Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art
♦ The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan
♦ Open daily 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday until 8 p.m.
♦ General admission: $12-$18; kids under 14, free; free to Illinois residents the first and second Wednesday of every month
♦ (312) 443-3600; artic.edu
Some 125 years ago, the Art Institute of Chicago commenced its collections by amassing ancient art, displaying it right inside the front entrance. When Karen Manchester began her job as a curator at the museum in 2001, ancient art had fallen out of favor. “It couldn’t get any closer to the back door,” Manchester says, surmising, “things cycle, interests change over time.”
But a few years ago, a donation of $10 million dollars changed all that: Turn shabby McKinlock Court into the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries, stated the grant from eponymous donors. The art presented in its spiffed up halls? Not trendy modern paintings or contemporary installations, but Greek, Roman, and Byzantine art spanning 330 to 1453 A.D. (think marble slabs carved into idealized figures, mosaics featuring great kings’ faces, or pottery stamped with the likeness of gods and goddesses).
“Our heads were reeling,” says Manchester, whose Ancient Art curatorship had floated around departments — shunted with Oriental arts, European decorative arts and Asian arts — before the grant ordained her chair and curator of Ancient Art, Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art.
Manchester gradually built up a team of administrative assistants, art handlers and researchers. The display space expanded, from the short, back hall flanking the rectangular courtyard to the entire 13,707-square-foot McKinlock Court. The curatorial team amassed 561 objects to fill it, interspersing the museum’s small collection of quality fragments with borrowed works owned by collectors from the Chicago area and as far away as London and Sao Paulo. The new wing opened to the public on Nov. 11.
For Manchester, the biggest boon came when the British Museum serendipitously shut down its late antique and early Byzantine wing for restoration. The Art Institute worked out a deal to borrow 51 of the most important works to create “Late Roman and Early Byzantine Treasures from the British Museum,” a display that runs through August 25, and launched in correlation with the Jaharis Galleries wing opening.
The British Museum loans allowed the Art Institute to accomplish an amazing feat: In its first nine months, the Jaharis wing will feature the entire spectrum of ancient art, beginning with ancient Egypt’s influence on Greece, through the explosion of the Roman Empire and into Byzantine art. “This is the only time in art history that we’ll be able to present the chronological sequence,” Manchester says.
One of the most spectacular objects inside the dark, dramatically lit British Museum display — according to Christina Nielsen, assistant curator for Late Antique, Early Christian, and Byzantine Art — is the intricately carved glass Lycurgus Cup. It features small properties of gold and silver, which turn it green in transmitted light and red in direct light.
“Someone very wealthy would’ve used it at a dinner party,” Nielsen says. “As they drank the wine from their glass they could’ve held it up to a candle and amazed their friends. It’s dinner theater, really.” To show off the chalice, the museum hired a local lighting technician to create a timed beam of light that emphasizes the change in colors.
One of Manchester’s favorite works is a small table sculpture beset with three satyrs strangled by a serpent. The great Italian art collector and Renaissance ruler Lorenzo de Medici likely owned the sculpture, displaying it at home for his famous friends to see. “There’s reason to think that two major artists of the Renaissance — Antonio del Pollaiuolo and Michelangelo — saw this piece, because it echoes in their work,” enthuses Manchester. “To me that’s pretty amazing — it’s power to have influenced those artists, it still retains that power to influence artists today.”
To present these compelling back stories, the Jaharis Galleries introduced iPad technology.
“The classical antiquities are very difficult for people to understand. Some of it is old and dirty and broken,” Manchester says. “I want to help visitors understand why we have these pieces and what they can tell us about the past.” Click on a few buttons and see what classical marble sculptures originally looked like (hint: they weren’t white) or watch a video of a potter demonstrating ancient techniques.
Another way the curatorial team plans to keep displays fresh: Frequently revolving in new artifacts and presenting unique temporary exhibitions. Because the courtyard is the museum’s crossroads — connecting the old Michigan Avenue building with the Modern Wing and the Rice Building’s temporary exhibition space — Manchester plans to work with other departments to create era-bridging exhibitions, including a possible show on Picasso and his interest in ancient art. “There are any number of connections in this museum,” she notes.
One of the obstacles in switching out exhibits has always been the precariously heavy and often fragile nature of aged sculptures. To fix this, the museum commissioned the “Rolls-Royce” of case manufacturers — a company from Milan — to custom make vitrines with a mechanical lift system.
“Any time you move art, you run a risk — it’s dangerous for the people lifting it, and dangerous for the art,” Manchester says. “Good casework can make all the difference in the world.”
The cases and displays will show off work such as the loaned Bust of Athena, made during the Roman period. According to Manchester, the curly-haired beauty was singled out by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the f”ather of art history,” who said it contained “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.” Manchester discovered that back in the 19th century, the Art Institute owned a cast of the sculpture, placed over the front door of the Michigan Avenue entrance as a way to advertise the museum’s holdings. Now that the Jaharis Galleries are complete, works like this will have their day in the sun once again.
Madeline Nusser is a local free-lance writer.