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Welcome to VMFA! This audio guide will help you get started and aims to answer big questions about some of VMFA’s most popular works of art, like what or who is that!? Why is this important? Why was this made? And how was this made?
Because what you think and experience is as important as the information we are sharing with you, we’ve included some suggestions on ways to interact with the works of art featured on this tour. There also may be additional images or videos associated with these stops, simply click on the image or video icons to access them. We hope you will hear some new things, get connected, experiment and be inspired. Let’s get started!
This painting, titled Catfish Row, can actually be linked to an American opera called Porgy and Bess.
There’s a lot to see in this painting, so go ahead and give yourself a moment to just stand in front of it and take in all the details you can see. Now imagine yourself in this scene. What do you hear? Is there music playing? What can you smell? What can you taste? The artist, Jacob Lawrence, has painted this in a way that seems to beg us to jump right in and join the scene. Perhaps you heard the sizzle of food on the stovetop and maybe you could smell the stalls of fresh seafood in the foreground. You may also have noticed the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow creating a vibrant and fast-paced energy that maybe had you feeling and hearing the hustle and bustle of this open air market.
African American artist, Jacob Lawrence, spent June and July of 1947 travelling through southern cities getting a sense of what life was like for African Americans living in the Deep South – He observed everything from work situations, to home life, to social settings. As you can probably tell by your dive into the Catfish Row scene, Lawrence was greatly inspired by everything that he saw, heard, tasted, and smelled, which led him to create ten paintings that highlighted the places and people that inspired him.
Jacob Lawrence was commissioned, or paid, to do this work by Walker Evans, a famous photographer and editor of Fortune Magazine. At the time, Evans was writing an article titled, “In the Heart of the Black Belt.” The Black Belt was an agricultural and primarily African American region in Alabama and Mississippi. Evans wanted Lawrence, who was gaining fame for his modern depiction of African American life, to illustrate the article with his bold, colorful style. Ultimately, three out of the ten paintings were published with the article in 1948.
Taking its title from Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi, this painting was not one of the three to appear in the magazine. At the time of this painting, the place Catfish Row was a trade and travel hub for Vicksburg, and it was always busy: full of people, wagons, steamboats, and trains.
It has been said that “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg!”
Catfish Row is also the same name as the Charleston, South Carolina tenement building in Porgy and Bess, a 1935 opera written by composers Ira and George Gershwin. This opera was the first American produced opera to highlight contemporary African American life. When it premiered in New York, it featured an all-African American cast.
Strangely enough, this is actually the second time that this work of art has been painted on the wall of the VMFA! The artist, Sol LeWitt, is known as one of the founders of Conceptual Art. But what exactly is Conceptual Art, and what does conceptual mean in this case? A concept is an idea, and Conceptual Art is all about the idea behind the creation – so much so that the idea is even more important than what the artwork ends up looking like. Because the focus is on the idea and not on the final product, Conceptual Art might look a little different from other paintings and sculptures you come across, and it doesn’t always look like what many people think art should look like. Which makes this a great time to ask: Would you call this art? What do you think the idea behind this piece might have been?
The title of this work is Wall Drawing #541, and Sol LeWitt’s idea was to create 3-D forms on a flat surface. He wanted to make it seem like these cubes were either moving away into space or moving off the wall towards you. Do you think it worked?
When LeWitt sells a wall drawing, the buyer gets a piece of paper that states that the Idea is a Sol LeWitt original. Then people are hired to follow directions and install it, or in this case, paint it on the wall. Here’s how LeWitt thought about it: he saw his artistic process to be more in line with that of a music composer. A composer writes a piece of music, but it’s the symphony or orchestra who performs it, and it can be performed again and again and again. It’s also similar to the work of an architect who draws and designs the plans for a building but is not the one who builds it.
Although the drawings are made from precise instructions, LeWitt observed that, “each person draws a line differently and each person understands words differently.” So even when the same directions are followed, the end result can be a unique artwork! Which is similar to the way that we look at art – what you see and think may not be the same as what somebody else sees and thinks.
This work has been installed twice already at VMFA, most recently for gallery renovations in 2009 and following the exact directions that were used in its original installation.
It’s easy to get distracted by how beautiful and intricate these eggs are, but hold on, there’s more, because every egg has a surprise!
This ornate egg, known as an Imperial Fabergé Egg, was created by the Fabergé Firm in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The company was founded in 1842 by Gustav Fabergé. His son, Karl Fabergé, turned his father’s small company into a famous international success. In the Russian tradition, decorated eggs were given to celebrate the Christian holiday of Easter. The Russian Tsar, or ruler, Nicholas II gave his wife and his mother decorated eggs almost every year between 1894 and 1916. This egg was given to the Tsar’s wife, Empress Alexandra, on Easter Sunday of 1912.
Because these eggs are so complex and detailed, it’s interesting to think about how the Fabergé firm would have created them. Imagine for a moment that you have been tasked to make a Fabergé Egg: where would you begin? What kind of supplies do you think you might need? How do you think you might go about assembling it?
This egg is made to look like it is carved from a single piece of a bright blue stone called lapis lazuli, but it actually has six sections of stone. The places where the sides meet are hidden under all of the gold decorations.
Do you see the double-headed eagles in gold? Those are symbols of imperial Russia. All the Fabergé eggs conceal a special surprise, and if you look next to this egg, you’ll see what was hidden inside – it’s a portrait of Tsar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra’s eight-year-old son, Alexei, known as the Tsarevich.
The double-sided portrait rises slowly on a special gold platform as the egg is opened. The tiny painting is set in a frame surrounded by diamonds that form a double-headed eagle resting on a lapis lazuli pedestal. If you turn the portrait around, the artist even painted the back of Alexei’s head!
This egg had a very special meaning for Empress Alexandra. Not long after Alexei was born in August of 1904, his parents discovered that he had inherited hemophilia, a rare and often fatal blood disease. Nicholas and Alexandra kept Alexei’s condition secret from the Russian people for fear that this threat to the heir of the throne would weaken the country’s stability.
To learn even more about the Fabergé eggs, you can go to the large screen nearest you and tap through it to find more information.
Meet Septimius Severus. You might not know it just by looking at him, but he’s actually pieced together with parts that don’t all come from the same time period. It’s true! Although the head is an ancient portrait of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, the rest of the sculpture is not! So what happened?! This is a story that requires us to go back in time quite a number of years.
Septimius Severus was a Roman Emperor who ruled over 18 hundred years ago between the years of 193 and 211. At some point in history, the head of the sculpture you see before you was detached from the rest of his sculpture body. We’re not sure how, why, or when, or even where the rest of the Emperor’s original body went. What we do know about Septimius Severus’ head is that, in the 1600s, it ended up in the collection of a man named Vincenzo Giustiniani. This was a man who greatly admired the art of ancient Greece and Rome, and he collected thousands of sculptures so that he could put them on display in his palace gallery. Many ancient sculptures show the wear and tear of their age – broken or missing pieces – and Giustiniani really preferred to display full sculptures in his gallery. In order to do this, he hired skilled artists who combined fragments of ancient sculptures – like the head of Septimius – to parts that they carved themselves to make full-length, complete sculptures.
Take a moment to examine Septimius. Walk all the way around him. Can you pick out the areas where he’s been pieced together?
We also did a thorough examination of him, and by studying him closely and going through Giustiniani’s writings, we learned that this sculpture was not 100% ancient. But here was the problem, we were having a hard time figuring out which parts were ancient and which parts were more modern. So the museum decided to do a range of scientific tests to get to the bottom of this mystery. By studying and testing the type of marble used in each part of the sculpture, we were given enough information to help us draw come conclusions about when the various pieces were put together and from what time period the pieces may have come from.
So here’s what we found: Giustiniani’s artists took an ancient head of Septimius Severus and combined it with a fragment of an ancient body from another sculpture. Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about the original sculpture that the body came from. The more modern parts that the artists carved and added in the 1600s were the legs, arms, and other various missing pieces. Additions were also made to this sculpture around the year 1900. Once we were done with all the research, conservators cleaned and patched Septimius up to look just as he would have looked in Giustiniani’s 17th century palace gallery. And get this, we even added a new index finger on his right hand! What do you think? Did you find any of his surgery marks?
The artist of this piece, Kehinde Wiley, is the same artist who painted the official portrait of President Barack Obama, which was unveiled in 2018.
To find subjects for his paintings, Wiley often uses a process that he calls, “street casting.” This is how it works: he will stop people on the street and invite them to be in one of his paintings. Seems simple enough, right? But Wiley has said that he looks for “people who possess a certain type of power in the streets.”
Once he has the painting “cast”, he needs to decide what the painting will look like, and this is where the subject of his work has a direct hand in the way they will be portrayed. Together, he and his subject look though an art history book and choose a work of art to serve as the inspiration for the painting. Wiley’s subject will then pose like the figure in the inspiration piece. Wiley’s subjects also get to choose the clothing they will be painted in. So while we don’t know the name of the gentleman pictured, we do know that this is how he wanted to be represented. If you were to be immortalized in a painting, what would you want to be wearing? How would you want to pose? Any ideas what artwork you might choose as an inspiration?
The piece chosen as the inspiration for this painting was painted by Dutch artist Frans Hals back in 1625. “Willem van Heythuysen” (“van height-hows-in”) is both the name of the wealthy Dutch merchant whose image was painted by Hals, and it is also the name Wiley uses for the title of his painting. In the Hals painting, van Heythuysen is shown wearing a black outfit, lace ruff or collar, and a sword. Wiley’s subject is clearly closer to our time and place, evidenced by his Sean John track suit and Timberland boots. Take a second to put yourself into the same pose as this man. How does it feel? What does his facial expression tell you? What might he be thinking about?
The background that Wiley has painted is also definitely worth a mention. You may have noticed the lavish, golden floral designs and the way that they take on a life of their own, interacting with the subject by encircling his leg.
With sword in hand, this anonymous, African American man gazes back at the viewer with pride. He’s stepping into the long tradition of European and American portraiture – an exclusive tradition that did not provide opportunity for people of color to be shown in positions of power. With paintings like this, Kehinde Wiley has set out to re-write art history!
While this object is small, it is very important. This tiny gold jaguar is one of only eight known in the world today! VMFA has two of them, and they keep each other company in the galleries!
Give it a closer look. Do any questions or curiosities pop into your head when you look at it ? Perhaps you’re wondering who might have made this jaguar. Or how it might have been made? Or what it might have been used for? While we don’t know the name of the person who made this, we know that it was made by someone from the Moche (“MO-chay”) culture of Peru in South America. The Moche lived in a part of the desert along the coastline in northern Peru between the years 100 to 800.
One really interesting thing is that we tested the metals of both jaguars in our conservation lab, and they found that both jaguars are made out of almost the exact same mixture of metals: about 80% gold; 10% copper; 7% silver; and 2% nickel. This evidence, combined with the similarities with the other jaguars from collections around the world, show that they were all made by the same workshop, maybe even the same person.
Take another close look. Can you see the small holes in the tail? This could mean it was once threaded to something, possibly along with the other 7 jaguars. Perhaps they were all strung together to make a pectoral or necklace- that would have been worn on the chest of a very important figure in Moche society. It might have been worn by an important chief or shaman. Shamans are believed to have contact with the spirit world, and they were very important people to the Moche.
The jaguar is the largest, most ferocious predator in this area of South America. They are strong and adaptable to different surroundings, and they’re able to swim, and climb, and run. Because of this, they are very powerful symbols, especially for warriors.
Give one more good look before we leave. Can you see where the gold has been indented along the back to represent a jaguar’s spotted fur? For such a small figure, there’s a lot going on!
This artist, Esther Mahlangu, doesn’t just paint murals. She has also transformed a BMW Sedan into a unique and colorful BMW Art Car!
In 2014, VMFA commissioned South African artist, Esther Mahlangu, to form a gateway for the African gallery with these two impressive murals. Mahlangu is one of the most well-known artists of the Ndebele people of South Africa. These works are huge,colorful, and expressive. Give yourself a moment to take them in. Now, without thinking about it too hard, choose one of them. Stand in front of the one you chose, and give yourself a little time to soak in all the detail. Spend some time with the patterns and shapes and colors. What catches your eye? How does your eye move around the mural? Why did you choose the mural that you chose? What drew you to one over the other?
Among the Ndebele, it’s customary for women to paint their homes in bright, bold, geometric designs. Esther Mahlangu learned how to paint from her mother and grandmother when she was growing up in the 1940s. The types of patterns and designs she paints are an expression of Ndebele identity, and they’re similar to patterns found in Ndebele beaded clothing and jewelry.
After participating in a major Paris exhibition, Mahlangu gained international success and started expanding her work: painting murals, canvases and even cars! In 1991, BMW asked her to paint a car as part of the BMW Art Car project, and she was the first woman and first non-Western artist to participate. In 2016, BMW contacted her again, this time to detail the interior of a car.
Mahlangu has passed the Ndebele painting tradition along to younger members of her family, including her granddaughter, Marriam, who assisted with VMFA’s Project. Mahlangu’s work doesn’t begin with a sketch like many artists; her pieces come to life directly from a picture in her mind’s eye. And believe it or not, she doesn’t even use a straight edge tool to create her intricate designs. Her techniques vary from using a single chicken feather to etch a fine line to multi-feather clusters and artist’s brushes for the broader areas of color.
Many of Mahlangu’s murals were painted directly on walls that have since been painted over. So some of her most important mural projects now exist only in photographs. To make sure her works here at VMFA would survive for many years and through any possible gallery changes, Esther painted these panels on linen and not directly on the wall.
At first glance, this object appears to be one thing, but look closely and you’ll find it reveals more. Focus on the intricate and stylized designs. What do you notice? The central image simply appears to be a butterfly, right? But look closer. Do you notice the other figures? That butterfly is actually made up of six hummingbirds!
This object is based on a spindle whorl. A spindle is used to twist and spin wool or other fibers into yarn. This yarn can then be used to weave garments or ceremonial blankets. And a whorl is a wooden disc that acts as a weight on the spindle, allowing the speed of the spin to be controlled and changed. Actual spindle whorls have a hole in the center where they slip onto the spindle. They can vary in size from 4 to about 8 inches in diameter.
This carving was made by contemporary artist, Susan Point, a member of the Coast Salish people who live in the Northwest Coast of North America, including Vancouver, Vancouver Island and northern Washington State. Coast Salish whorls are often carved with images that represent the family they belong to. Each family has animals that symbolize membership in a specific clan, or group. These are called crest animals, and the butterfly is one of the crest animals for Susan’s clan. The butterfly is also significant in many Northwest Coast Cultures for its appearance in creation stories known as Raven stories, named after Raven, the main character. In these stories, a butterfly often acts as the companion, scout, and spokesperson for Raven along with helping him find food. The design of this particular spindle whorl was inspired by a quiet afternoon the artist spent on her property watching birds and butterflies.
Many native artists today maintain tradition while branching out into new directions. Susan chose to work with a time honored form and design pattern that highlights the rich history of Coast Salish weaving, traditionally done by women, but she does it through the use of carving, which in her culture, is traditionally done by men.
The carving by Coast Salish people is often done on a very large scale, such as totem poles and house posts. Susan is not only one of the few Coast Salish women who carve, but she also carves on this incredible scale, inventing the oversized whorls to highlight the intricate work done by women in her culture. Coast Salish women have a distinctive weaving style using mountain goat wool, waterfowl down, and fireweed cotton. And they once used wool from a special breed of dog, now extinct.
While many cultures across the world utilize the spindle and whorl, large, decorative whorls appear to be unique to Coast Salish people. These whorls were carved with designs onto the side that faced the spinner so that she saw the designs as she worked. As the whorl turned, the designs blurred together, mesmerizing the spinner. This trance state was considered vital to the process. It gave the weaver the ability to create textiles with special powers. Designs on the whorl could indicate purification and might have signified the spindle whorl’s importance in transforming wool into wealth, as blankets were symbols of wealth.
This mummy is of a man named Tjeby who lived in Ancient Egypt nearly 4000 years ago! And get this: we have an idea about what he would have looked like! But first, let’s chat about mummies.
The ancient Egyptians mummified their dead, because they believed that after people die in this world, they continue living in another world. So bodies were preserved, or protected, through mummification, which was a very long and expensive process that not everybody could afford. Mummies were wrapped and placed in coffins and buried in tombs or graves. Spells and special instructions were often written in hieroglyphs on the coffins and in tombs in order to protect the mummy and ward off evil. Protective amulets, similar to good luck charms, were also sometimes wrapped with the mummy.
What you can see of Tjeby inside the coffin is the linen wrapping surrounding his mummified body, and on top of this linen wrapping is a thin netting for protection, because Tjeby’s very fragile. Remember, he is 4000 years old. If you look closely into his coffin, you’ll notice that there’s a long, thin mirror in there. This should hopefully help you see him a little better.
It’s hard to tear your eyes away from a mummy, but if you look at the outside of his wooden coffin, you’ll notice that the lid and chest are decorated with hieroglyphs, one of the earliest forms of writing. These hieroglyphs are there to record Tjeby’s name and titles: Count and Seal bearer of the King of Lower Egypt. These hieroglyphs also include prayers in order to protect Tjeby in the afterlife.
Do you notice anything else about the way his coffin is decorated? Perhaps you noticed the eyes that are painted on the side. Using the mirror, if you give Tjeby another look, you might notice that he is resting on his left side. These painted eyes line up with his head; they are there so that Tjeby can look out through the coffin and be able to see. Are you standing in his eye line?
Naturally, the museum wanted to know more about Tjeby, but of course, we don’t want to damage his body or the linen wrappings. So, in 2013, Tjeby had a CT scan, so we could study his body without unwrapping him. A CT scan is like a very detailed x-ray, and it allowed us to learn more about what his life might have been like. Although we don’t know how he died, by looking more closely at his bones we learned that he was pretty healthy – he had no signs of disease. We could also tell that he was about 5 feet 8 inches tall, and he was about 30 years old when he died. Based on the CT scan, scientists were able to print out a 3-D version of his skull. This model was then used to create an image of Tjeby as he may have looked almost 4000 years ago! You can see this model on view, as well as some of the CT scan images in the case across from Tjeby.
Imagine walking 25 miles a day, through the dessert, while carrying 400 pounds on your back. Bactrian camels, like this one, were known to do just that!
Created over 1,000 years ago, this sculpture of a Bactrian, or two-humped, camel was part of a tomb burial in ancient China. The ancient Chinese believed in a life after death, so they buried their dead with items they thought would be needed in the afterlife. Figures, models of animals, and household items were made specifically to accompany the deceased in tombs.
This camel, and other objects like it, would have been very expensive to purchase. So only the wealthy would have been able to afford to be buried with them. Perhaps the sculpture’s owner made a living from trade along the Silk Road, which was a series of trade routes covering over 4000 miles, linking China with Central Asia, South Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa. This sculpture may have been placed in the tomb with the hope that the deceased would continue to travel along the Silk Road in the afterlife.
Brought to China from Central Asia, camels were extremely important to the ancient Chinese because they are specially adapted to deal with the weather in the Gobi desert where it could be very hot during the day and very cold at night.
Give this camel a good look. You’ll notice that a pack rests between the camel’s two humps. Camels could carry up to 400 pounds of goods, and packs, like the one shown on this camel, would have held items like silk, spices, paper, and weapons.
Take a moment to walk around the camel. What do you see in his pack? What do you think might be packed that we can’t see? If you were going to take a long journey through the desert on the back of a camel, riding 25 miles a day, what would you want to pack? The features found on this sculpture are pretty naturalistic, or true to life. Look closely and you’ll probably notice the camel’s thick eyebrows and padded feet–which help protect camels from desert sand and rough terrain.
It may not look like it, but this marble garden pavilion weighs about 50,000 pounds! That’s almost 27 tons. That’s about the weight of 5 Asian elephants. But let’s put weight aside for a moment.
Imagine that you’re no longer in the VMFA. Imagine instead that you’re inside this garden pavilion at the height of its glory, which puts you in India around the 1800s. Imagine walking through a colorful and fragrant garden to get to the pavilion. It’s hot outside, and the sun has been beating down on you, maybe you have some sweat dripping down your forehead. From inside the pavilion you hear the soothing sounds of water, and you look in through hanging curtains of beautiful fabric to see a small pool of clear water and a bubbling fountain. Looking around, you see that there are inviting places to sit and rest, maybe plush cushions that you can relax on while you dip your toes in the cool water. Peaceful, isn’t it? What else might you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel?
This pavilion was most likely just a small part of an elaborate and formal garden in Northern India. These types of outdoor spaces would provide rest from the heat and noise of everyday life by providing shade and a calm place to sit and relax. Pavilions like this one were for private use by wealthy nobles. The basin in the middle of the pavilion would have once held cooling water and the fountain at its center, now missing, would have been fed by an elaborate gravity-driven system of waterworks. The pavilion also would have had a roof, perhaps with an observation deck. Do you notice the brass rings that run around the top of the structure? These would have held heavy, carpet-like fabric that could be rolled down to provide shade. The rings themselves emerge from the necks of makaras, crocodile-like creatures from Indian mythology.
Now back to weight. Most of the structure is made from white marble, and like we mentioned at the start, it weighs in at about 27 tons. That’s a lot of weight for one gallery, but don’t worry, the floor beneath is reinforced for support!
When the museum purchased the pavilion in 2005, it was in more than 1000 pieces! It took almost 4 years to complete the restoration and conservation. On top of that, it took an additional 8 months for the gallery to be prepared and the pavilion assembled and installed as you see it today.Watch the time-lapse video of the pavilion being installed.
You may or may not be surprised to hear that this punch bowl is a gold medalist. Take a moment to imagine owning this. What would you do with it? Would you use it, or just keep it on display for decoration? Where would you keep it? Crazy as it may seem, this punch bowl was designed to be fully functional. Those hanging ladles were meant for serving. Can you imagine drinking out of this punch bowl?
This punchbowl is created in a style known as Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau artists transformed everyday useful objects into something decorative, and they were very influenced by nature. Look closely at the bowl again, and take the opportunity to walk all the way around it. What elements of nature do you notice? Perhaps you saw shells, waves, maybe even some sea foam. These were all meant to remind the viewer of the ocean. What do the colors make you think of? Maybe the soft swirling pastels of the glass reminded you of a sunrise or sunset, or even the delicate and smooth inside of a sea shell. Maybe you noticed something that looks like octopus tentacles near the base.
This punchbowl was made by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. Named for its owner and head designer, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany was the idea man and a designer, but other artisans actually made this piece. This piece was originally made for public display at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900. It was designed to show off the company’s expertise and to bring the Tiffany firm international recognition. The World’s Fair was an opportunity for art, architecture and technology to be celebrated and showcased. In this particular fair of 1900, talking films, the escalator, and the world’s tallest Ferris wheel all made their 1st appearance! Objects displayed at the world’s fair were considered the best of their kind; exemplary pieces that demonstrated creative and technical achievements. The Tiffany display received both a grand prize and a gold medal and made the company very famous.