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Exhibitions, Graduate Student, Research Travel

Long Now Exhibition: A Trip to San Francisco Part II

Alex Kermes is an art history graduate student and works as a graduate exhibitions assistant.  He is currently developing an exhibit site in coordination with Dr. AnnMarie Thomas of the Engineering department that combines technology, art, design, and culture. This space is scheduled to open fall 2015.


Firmly in possession of the Rosetta Disk, centerpiece to our exhibition on the Long Now’s projects, we set out early on our second day in San Francisco to Pixar. As you can see, we were guided along by some friendly faces!

Cars at Pixar

Cars at Pixar

Dr. Thomas with Allen from Pixar

Dr. Thomas with Allen from Pixar

At Pixar we met Allen, a visual effects specialist. Their offices were deep in the creation of their next film, Inside Out. While we got to learn a lot of what goes in to developing their movies, most of it was off-limits to our prying eyes (and, naturally, to photographs as well). Nevertheless, the place was fantastically interesting as well as iconic.

While visiting Pixar seems tangential to the development of an engineering exhibit, it provided us a glimpse into how design and culture can come together. A significant amount of research into fields like history, psychology, and art go into the creative process of every Pixar film. I was particularly interested in the amount of background research that informed the basis of their upcoming movie (which deals with child psychology).

Pixar restroom sign

Pixar restroom sign

The striking thing to me about Pixar was the high coordination of visuals that go into branding the place. Seldom do I take pictures of restroom signs (like I said, I was limited on what I could photograph), but the silhouette of Pixar’s beloved Woody character tells visitors something about this building. Everything was Pixar-oriented, providing a constant reminder of the world of Pixar and all their characters in it.


Our last stop on this trip was pure inspiration. The Exploratorium is San Francisco’s hands-on museum dedicated to all things scientific. Our tour guide was Dr. Thomas’s friend Lenore, who showed us many of the interesting parts of the museum, highlighting the exhibits that deal with mechanics and optics (and art).


We also took a “tour” of the Tactile Dome: a walkway/maze/path in complete darkness, which can be navigated only by touch. Of course it is a little difficult to take pictures in total darkness, so I left the iPad locked away while we bumped into each other for 15 minutes, making our perplexed way through the Dome.

It is worth noting the star-power present in our group. We noticed Dr. Thomas’s project Squishy Circuits on display at the Exploratorium!

Dr. Thomas’s Squishy Circuits

Dr. Thomas’s Squishy Circuits

We then headed to the airport for our return – it was a short trip, but well worth it for the amount of inspiration we received for our upcoming exhibit. The tech industry might not resonate with the “history” part of “art history,” but art historians constantly study the overlap between culture and creativity, which turned out to be my greatest takeaway. We will do everything we can in our exhibition space to highlight the exchange and overlap of art and technology, with the end goal that we too can inspire visitors the way we were while in San Francisco.

Please watch for our exhibit space to open on the third floor in the new Facilities and Design Center this fall! We are looking forward to sharing what art and culture can do for science and technology to our St. Thomas audience.


Exhibitions, Graduate Student, Research Travel

Long Now Exhibition: A Trip to San Francisco Part I

Alex Kermes is an art history graduate student and works as a graduate exhibitions assistant.  He is currently developing an exhibit site in coordination with Dr. AnnMarie Thomas of the Engineering department that combines technology, art, design, and culture. This space is scheduled to open fall 2015.

Collaborative projects between Art History and Engineering are few and far between. It was no surprise then that as a graduate art history student traveling to San Francisco’s tech industry with Dr. AnnMarie Thomas from the School of Engineering, I understandably encountered a number of raised eyebrows. The art historical value of lasers and 3D printing may not be overtly obvious at first, but the departments of Art History and Engineering have big plans to bring these concepts together. It has been my pleasure to collaborate with Dr. Thomas over the past couple months on the development of an exhibit space in the new Facilities and Design Center, located on the University of St. Thomas St. Paul campus. This space has been designed with the intention of showcasing objects that straddle the fine lines between art and technology.

Our inaugural exhibit will focus on the projects from the Long Now Foundation, which was also what brought us to San Francisco. The Long Now Foundation, headquartered in California, has for many years been developing projects focused on long-term thinking and responsibility (also the theme of the exhibit) – in particular, their 10,000 Year Clock and Rosetta Disk. The 10,000 Year Clock is a monumental object designed to keep accurate time for the next 10,000+ years. On the other end of the scale, the Rosetta Disk is a nickel disk less than 3” across. The disk contains translations of over 1,500 world languages which have been micro-etched with laser and can only be read with a microscope. Through generous donor support, the University of St. Thomas has acquired a copy of the Rosetta Disk, which will be exhibited along with pieces from the 10,000 Year Clock. The exhibit is slated to open during the 2015 fall semester.


Our first visit was to Autodesk, a design company specializing in 3D CAD software which they convert into amazing 3D printed sculptures. Our guides Dawn and Christy were supremely helpful along the way. It was a bit tricky to wrap my head around how they transformed computer designs into 3D objects, but I definitely noticed the breadth of cultural influences at work in the minds of the folks working there. A number of object designs were based on airplanes, action figures, and sea monsters. The sheer capabilities of the place were flat-out cool. They are able to print using multiple materials, multiple colors, or multiple sizes.

Autodesk objects on view

Autodesk – objects as art

One thing I noticed was that the objects were treated like works of art, as witnessed through the way that they were labeled and exhibited throughout their offices. For me, this was important because it shows the interest the company takes in the cultural-technological crossover that design is capable of. Moreover, it affirmed my belief that there are ways to bridge the supposed gap between art and technology, and inspired Dr. Thomas’s and my aspirations for our own exhibit space.

Other Mill/Other Machine

Other Machine - interior

Other Machine – interior

Our second stop was an old pipe organ factory. It has recently been converted into the manufacturer of Othermill, a product of the company Other Machine. They even used old wooden organ pipes as shelves.

Othermill at Other Machine

Othermill at Other Machine

This Othermill is a milling machine the size of a microwave that uses CNC (computerized numerical control) to “create 2D and 3D objects out of durable materials, such as wood, metal, plastic, using digital designs.” People utilize the Othermill to create things from relief stamps to circuit boards – how, I don’t know, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating to me. Dr. Thomas’s friend Simone tried in vain to help me understand. Regardless, she was a wonderfully enthusiastic tour guide during our visit.

The Interval

The Interval

The Interval

Ultimately, the reason we embarked on this trip was to meet personally with the minds of the Long Now Foundation and bring home the exhibit’s new copy of the Rosetta Disk. The brainpower of the Foundation was represented by Dr. Laura Welcher and Dr. Alexander Rose.

At The Interval, the foundation’s event space (and bar), they showcased a number of projects they’ve worked on. One of the coolest was a tall metal contraption known as The Orrery. An orrery is a model of the solar system that predicts the positions of planets – and the one at the Interval is huge and immensely cool to look at.

Alex with The Orrery

Alex with The Orrery

We met up with Alexander and Laura for a lengthy discussion on the numerous ideas they had about their work and how it could be exhibited. Their input was incredibly insightful. Over the course of two hours at the Interval, we talked about scope of the Foundation’s projects and ways in which we could apply it to our exhibit space. It is one thing to display objects and hang labels next to them, but it is another thing entirely to find sophisticated ways to provide viewers of our exhibit opportunities to participate and learn about the ideas being presented. Dr. Welcher’s and Dr. Rose’s suggestions gave us so much to consider while planning our first exhibition of the Long Now Foundation’s projects that we are eager to unveil to the public. Much, much more will follow as our project progresses!

On the left in this picture is Dr. Welcher passing a prototype of their current project in front of Dr. Rose (details of this project are closely guarded for now).

On the left in this picture is Dr. Welcher passing a prototype of their current project in front of Dr. Rose (details of this project are closely guarded for now).

We then collected our Rosetta Disk and concluded our day with dinner. That was the first day of our trip. We still had Saturday in San Francisco, which included some extremely fruitful and inspirational trips as well, but those will be covered in a second part to my blog post.



Exhibitions, Faculty, Graduate Student, Presentations, Research, Students

Other Worlds: The Natural and Supernatural in Andean Art

William Barnes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History.  His research interests include the Pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, particularly those in Mesoamerica and the Andes.  His principal research focus is upon the imperial Aztecs of Central Mexico and how their art intersects with ritual and the Mesoamerican calendar.  He is currently teaching a course on the art of Mesoamerica, to be followed in the fall by a course on the early colonial art of Latin America.

Other Worlds: The Natural and Supernatural in Andean Art

Other Worlds: The Natural and Supernatural in Andean Art

On a cold day in November, a number of UST graduate students accompanied me to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) to talk about ancient Andean art and culture with a wonderfully receptive group of MIA docents and guides. For the most part, the students were presenting research they had undertaken in their 2014 spring semester graduate seminar entitled “New Research in the Ancient Andes.” Instead of standing behind a podium and reading from notes while PowerPoint slides fly by behind them, Katherine Joy, Zach Forstrom, Clare Monardo, and Nicole Sheridan were free to walk around gallery 255 and point to concrete examples of Andean art while discussing their salient features and historical context. Not only were they able to address the actual objects from their graduate studies, they also discussed what initially drew them to the works and why they were chosen for this installation — as they, along with eight of their graduate colleagues, had actually curated the gallery 255 installation from the extensive Andean works held in the MIA’s collection. Entitled Other Worlds: The Natural and Supernatural in Andean Art, the installation, on view until April 26, was almost entirely the work of that spring seminar class.

(Left to right): Nicole Sheridan, Dr. Andy Barnes, Zach Forstrom, Katherine Joy, and Clare Monardo

(Left to right): Nicole Sheridan, Dr. Andy Barnes, Zach Forstrom, Katherine Joy, and Clare Monardo

The graduate students selected works related to a number of important themes that the seminar discerned during their study of the broad scope of artistic production in the ancient Andes. These included “Andean Elites and Rulers,” “Feasting and Ritual,” and “The Natural and Super-Natural Worlds,” the final being the category from which the installation title was drawn. In the grouping of their chosen works, the seminar participants intended to show how Andean art was used to illustrate social differentiation, aspects of ritual and political obligation, and the role that depictions of the natural world and the supernatural realm played in legitimizing political authority and maintaining balance and harmony between all levels of the Andean cosmos.

The works are strategically placed so that the viewer can physically walk one through the central ideas of the exhibit’s organizers. On the title wall hang two textiles, a central art form of the Andes whose design cues informed almost all other art forms and designs of the region. When worn, these textiles served to distinguish its wearer from other individuals in the region or communities. The one to the left is a 19th century Aymara llacota (a mantle worn by both men and women) likely woven on a traditional backstrap loom, while the other is a much earlier Huari elite tunic, likely worn by a member of the ruling class. Its elaborate design contrasts with the simplicity of the later Aymara piece, with its stylized depictions of Huari men bearing puma or jaguar-like attributes. The small hats worn by many of these figures are the very same as the MIA’s example 8th-10th century CE Huari four-cornered hat placed in the vitrine right in front of the work.

A Moche fineline pot is next to the small four-cornered hat. This pot depicts one of the famous Moche messengers who, aside from wearing animal inspired costumes, seemed to have served a role in carrying communications between Moche cities in the north coast of Peru (1-700 CE). From this central point in the gallery one can turn to investigate works that depict feasting and rituals, the objects of ritual (that allowed one to contact the supernatural), as well as depictions of super-natural creatures themselves.

I, and all the participants in the seminar, would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Dr. Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, Curator of African Art and Department Head, Arts of Africa and the Americas, along with his curatorial staff, registrar Kenneth Krenz, and the collections and exhibit design staff for the help they provided in putting together this installation. Despite the challenges it posed for them, this entire exercise wound up being a wonderful opportunity for our graduate students to develop a museum installation in such a hands-on and practical manner.



Exhibitions, Graduate Student, Research

A Foray into Provenance Research

Rachel Goldstein is an Art History graduate student. She is researching the provenance of artworks in the University of St. Thomas’ Art Collection for her graduate assistantship.

As the first Department of Art History Provenance Research Assistant, I have been honored to help organize and articulate what provenance means to the University of St. Thomas. I was introduced to the idea of provenance as a young child living in England. My parents are avid silver and antique collectors who opened the world of hallmarks and provenance to me. Like a painting with a noted provenance, a piece of silver carries a hallmark, which indicates its purity, origin, and manufacture. Later on I experienced provenance through my work at a family owned and operated auction house where I learned how an object gains value and what makes an object valuable. My third experience with provenance was working at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD, Dresden State Art Collections) in Dresden, Germany. The SKD prides itself on being at the forefront of international provenance research and collaboration. I was lucky to have a front row seat to the new and innovate aspects of provenance research and study within the international realm.

Rachel Goldstein

Rachel pulling the print out of storage

My assistantship at St. Thomas began with my reading of the American Alliance of Museum’s Guide to Provenance Research. Currently considered the bible of provenance research, this book examines the large responsibility one has when researching the provenance of a work of art or artifact of historical importance. The book also outlines best museum practices, which information to include, whether written or digital, within the records of provenance and what an object can tell you about its history.

After studying the book, I began to search the websites of local, national and international museums, and cultural institutions to discover what provenance information and data the museums were availing to the public on the Internet. This activity was to give me a better understanding of what terminology is used, the presentation of written provenance, and allowed me to gain an understanding of how much provenance information is disseminated to the public.

Fantail Pigeon. Milton Avery

Fantail Pigeon, 1955, Milton Avery, Woodcut, 2012.001.027, Dolly Fiterman Collection

It was then time to begin my provenance research. To begin, the curator allowed me to choose one artwork out of five possibilities from the University’s Art Collection. I chose Fantail Pigeon, 1953 by Milton Avery. It is a woodblock print in black and brown on Japanese rice paper and is the 24th print of 25 in its series. The first task was to study the piece and record its physical characteristics: size, condition and subject. After recording these findings on a form, I started to and am still researching Milton Avery, his career, the history and creation of Fantail Pigeon and the other woodblock prints in the Fantail Pigeon series.

I was able to find the Milton Avery Papers in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. These ‘Papers’ are digitized files which were donated to the Smithsonian by Milton Avery’s widow Sally Avery, an artist whose artwork we also posses in the collection at UST. I have been taking notes and studying these archives in order to understand the conditions of Avery’s work, the dissemination of his work and his relationships to the gallery owners who sold his works and museum curators who organized exhibitions of his work. I am still in the process of finishing this part of my research. Provenance research can be slow at times, but it allows you to delve into the interesting and colorful world of the artist.


Asmat, Exhibitions, Graduate Student, Research, Students

Gretchen Burau: Among the Asmat: The Schneebaum Perspective

Gretchen Burau is the Curator for the exhibition “Among the Asmat: The Schneebaum Perspective,” on view in the Gallery of the Anderson Student Center from September 4 to December 20, 2013.  Mrs. Burau is the third graduate student to develop an exhibition for the American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas.



Before applying to St. Thomas I was unfamiliar with Asmat, having spent most of my academic career focused on Western art.  After learning about the AMAA@UST’s extensive collection of Asmat Art, I decided to enroll in Dr. Julie Risser’s “Presenting Pacific Collections” course in Spring 2012.  It was my first semester at St. Thomas and I was thrilled to be exposed not only to Asmat culture and art, but also individuals who aided in the preservation and commissioning of many objects now owned by the AMAA.

While researching for my final paper, I came across the work of artist and anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum, who first came to Asmat in summer 1973. It was during this time that he became involved with the Catholic mission and was introduced to Bishop Alphonse Sowada and Father Frank Trenkenschuh. Through this encounter, Schneebaum came to live and work in Asmat, eventually becoming the Assistant Curator of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in Agats, Indonesia.  One of Schneebaum’s finest contributions to the museum can be found in the skillfully executed drawings he made for Asmat Images, published in 1985. His illustrations were among the first published documentations of Asmat art and were instrumental in making the objects accessible to interested individuals who might not have had direct access to the art.

Through these drawings, Schneebaum would gain a detailed understanding of repeated imagery and was eventually able to decipher specific symbols and their meanings. Consequentially, he formed connections that helped tie certain villages and specific artists to their art, which was carefully recorded for the museum. The importance of the images has increased with time, as many of the cataloged pieces were made for ceremonial purposes and were not designed to endure after fulfilling their ritualistic tasks. As the years passed, many of these artifacts have deteriorated due to insects and the harsh jungle climate. Thankfully, Schneebaum’s drawings remain to attest to a distinctive art style made by a culture that today is rapidly changing.


Tobias Schneebaum, Drawing of Spirit Mask

Tobias Schneebaum, Drawing of Spirit Mask


Beside drawings, Schneebaum wrote several books, including Where the Spirits Dwell, highlighting his time in Asmat.  His autobiographies were written with an artist’s sensibility, as shown in Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea, where Schneebaum recorded:

Asmat bewitches me.

I often feel possessed there, but what it is that possesses me is unclear. The forest churns up my insides when I am in the midst of immense trees in soggy soil, vines, and plant life that exude odors of decay. The forest continually draws me into conjuring up dreams of living naked, hunting wild boar and cassowary, birds and possum, and spending days in blinds awaiting whatever animal would come, killing it, skinning it, roasting it, eating it.

At times when traveling with no one but my paddlers, I sit in the canoe or lie down on my pandanus mat in the men’s house and allow my mind to wander at will. I am impressionable: I am a million miles or more away. I am on some star of Orion or perhaps it is Sirius, brightest of them all. Perhaps I become one of the daughters of Atlas in the cluster of the Pleiades, or I am in some distant nebula, hurling myself headlong into the Void, through the night sky, a meteorite of myself landing easily on a star.

Throughout my life, I have been searching for a way to connect with other human beings. Suddenly, I find myself in a forest among the Asmat, living in their world of spirits, where I lose my insecurities and am content.

What brought me to this stage in the history of my life? Where did I go right? How did I finally choose a path out of oblivion, the path itself so marvelous to behold? I would not change that path even if it were possible to do so. (1)

Because of his tireless efforts, many museums, including the American Museum of Asmat Art @ UST and The Metropolitan Museum of Art have more diverse Asmat collections, with rare objects not to be found elsewhere. While traveling, Schneebaum was careful to record pertinent information: “I wrote in my journal several times a day; I put down everything I could remember of the trip from Agats and began taking notes on whatever I saw in the house: the sago bowls of wood and leaf in the racks, the digging sticks, the drums and spears and bows and arrows. I recorded the way the house was constructed, the number of adults and children; I made a plan of the fireplaces, with the names of those who sat and slept there, and I tried to make out how the food was divided, a complex subject I was never able to understand.”(2)

Tobias Schneebaum, Biwar Laut, Sasco, 1973

Tobias Schneebaum, Biwar Laut, Sasco, 1973

As a practicing artist, I had a natural affinity for Schneebaum’s drawings and observations.  His work provided an avenue for me to access Asmat art and after completing Dr. Risser’s course, I was curious to learn more about the culture.  I applied for the Assistant Curator assistantship at the AMAA and was fortunate to receive the position, quickly going to work on the fall 2012 exhibition, “Building the Collection: Recent Gifts and Purchases.”  Having previously curated two-dimensional art exhibitions, this experience exposed me to sculptural objects and the challenges related to their mounting, transportation, and presentation.

As the academic year progressed, I assisted with Rachel Simmon’s exhibition “Wowipitsj: Man, Myth, Legend.”  While working on these two shows, I continued to research Tobias Schneebaum and discovered that the University of Minnesota’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection houses his personal papers.  Purchased from Schneebaum by University Libraries in 2004, the collection contains 33 boxes of personal correspondence, illustrations, and other materials related to various aspects of Asmat Art.  Most notably, the collection contains a drawing Schneebaum made of Amandos Amonos, the main carver of the wuramon or soulship owned by the AMAA@UST.


Drawing of Amandos Amonos by Tobias Schneebaum

Drawing of Amandos Amonos by Tobias Schneebaum


Wuramon/Soulship - AMAA@UST

Wuramon/Soulship – AMAA@UST


These curatorial experiences combined with academic research led me to propose an exhibition of AMAA@UST art objects, illustrations, text, and video related to Schneebaum’s time in Asmat.  “Among the Asmat: The Schneebaum Perspective” is a comprehensive showing of AMAA@UST art related to the work of Tobias Schneebaum. Arguably the most ambitious Asmat exhibition to be shown in the Gallery, it features twelve shields, two large carved crocodiles and many other objects that have not previously been on view at the University of St. Thomas.

I plan to use the Asmat-related information and experiences I have acquired over the past two years to prepare for my final qualifying paper in the M.A. program.  Recently I contacted the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a Schneebaum archive that includes his personal documents and art objects.   I hope to travel to New York during the next academic year to do research for my final research project and to provide the AMAA@UST with additional materials related to the Asmat.


(1) Tobias Schneebaum, Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 3.

(2) Tobias Schneebaum, Where the Spirits Dwell (New York: Grove Press, 1988), 39.


Asmat, Conference Presentations, Exhibitions, Graduate Student

Rachel Simmons: Curating Wowipitsj: Creating your own Opportunities

Rachel Simmons is the Curator for the exhibition “Wowipitsj: Man, Myth, Legend,” on view in the Gallery of the Anderson Student Center from Feb. 4 to Aug. 4, 2013.  Ms. Simmons is the second graduate student to develop an exhibition for the American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas.


The experience I gained through developing this exhibition has been invaluable. Having been an assistant to Julie Risser, Director of the AMAA@UST, for two years and a student in two of her classes prepared me for the challenges it takes to curate an exhibition.  Some of the challenges included picking objects and writing their labels, developing material for the brochure, deciding on just the right piece for the marketing materials and then the correct angle to photograph the piece so that it will catch peoples’ attention.  All of this might sound minor or tedious, but it demonstrates how much thought literally goes into every aspect of an exhibition.  While I knew going into this project that I would face those challenges, there are really two things I learned that I think others in the program will also find helpful.

1) Co-writing is hard, so it helps to have someone you know well.  Luckily I have worked side by side with Julie for so long that as we were developing the text for the brochure we could literally finish each other’s sentences.  When one of us was stuck and just could not find the right words and we were left to resort to odd hand gestures to get our point across, the other would take over the keyboard and finish.  Others around us as we were writing frequently heard, “Yes! That’s it, that’s exactly what I wanted it to say!”

2) Opportunity doesn’t always knock and sometimes you have to chase it down and tackle it.  For example, this exhibition is a part of an internship I did over the fall semester.  While it is not uncommon for students in our program to take internships, this was the first time there was an internship within the department.  Even though the path was somewhat unconventional, I knew this was something I really wanted to do since I did not think I would get this kind of curatorial experience at a larger museum.  Thankfully, Julie was on board and the department was able to award me a Patricia Jaffray Scholarship to help pay for the internship credits.

Dr. Risser had wanted to have an exhibition about myth.  Fortunately, I had already completed a paper about myth in one of her classes the year before.  I combined that paper with one I presented at the Midwest Art History Society Conference annual meeting last year about contemporary Asmat carving.  This exhibition came out of both of those papers.  “Wowipitsj: Man, Myth, Legend” not only explores myth and carvings, but also how carvers are preserving the oral traditions in their art forms.  Doing this exhibition allowed me to really explore this topic both in words and in objects.

My final word of advice for my peers is DO NOT be afraid to ask for something you want, because there are a lot of really great people here that can help you accomplish it, even if the task sounds daunting and even if it has never been done before.


Exhibitions, Graduate Student, Research

Angela Daniels: Toulouse-Lautrec in the Fiterman Collection

What follow are excerpts from a seminar paper written by graduate student Angela Daniels. Her research uncovered the historical context of the circus scenes created by late-nineteenth-century French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, including the print of “Footit and Chocolat” which is part of the Dolly Fiterman collection at the University of St. Thomas.

 Henri de Toulouse-Lautreac, Le Cirque.  Gift of Dolly Fiterman.  Photo: Christy Dent.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautreac, Le Cirque. Gift of Dolly Fiterman. Photo: Christy Dent.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Circus: A Complex Relationship to Nineteenth-century France by Angela Daniels

In the brief intervening years between his life and death, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec chose to live as an artist and amassed an impressive body of work.(1)  To accomplish this he became a consummate recorder of people from an early age. His approach as an artist to his subject matter might be compared today to that of participant-observation normally undertaken by anthropologists, whereby one both observes and records the complex relationships and interactions of a group, but also acts as a member of the group to better understand them.

Montmartre and its melting-pot of social classes was his area of study. Though Toulouse-Lautrec would come to be known most for his depictions of the women and the cabarets in this locale, it was actually the circus and its performers that he was exposed to as a young artist. It would be the imagery of the circus that he recalled from memory and returned to in his art at the end of his life as his health began to fail and the question of his sanity was at stake.(2)

For this project, it is Toulouse-Lautrec’s imagery that is compelling as an area for research. I argue that this work, particularly the artist’s treatment of the figures in the composition, is influenced by the cultural and political atmosphere of Montmartre, particularly the social class conflicts and interactions Toulouse-Lautrec witnessed as a patron and resident of Montmartre.

Even before Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Paris, events were unfolding that would create a conducive climate for the type and style of art he would come to create throughout his artistic career. The first factor was the establishment of the Third Republic government of France shortly after his birth in 1870 to 1871; second, the influence of Impressionism as the major art movement in his formative years; third, the relaxation of censorship as it applied to visual and literary pursuits originally instituted to restrict political satire; and fourth, his involvement with avant-garde circles, notably the Young Independents group and later, Thadée Natanson and the artistic and literary circle surrounding the publication, La Revue Blanche.

The institution of the Third Republic as France’s system of government was marked with an uneasy acceptance by French citizens from its beginning. Established between 1870 and 1871, it served as a replacement for the failed Second Empire under the rule of Napoleon the Third. The political leaders of the new Third Republic were forced to concede to and make peace with Germany, made especially necessary with the anticipation of a civil war rumbling among citizens of the lowest classes impacted most by the effects of the siege and angered by France’s concessions to Germany.
The bourgeoisie, or middle class, of France became particularly visible during this period of France’s history. This economic and social class emerged from the fruits of the economic success of the European industrial revolution and the competitive ideologies of a capitalist society. Armed with their newfound wealth, the bourgeoisie made possible the expansion of Montmartre into an entertainment district responsible for catering to the nouveau riche with leisure time to spare.(3)

Though Toulouse-Lautrec could actually claim aristocratic lineage and upbringing, he chose to self-identify with the artists and the rest of the lower-class echelons of French society that called Montmartre home.(4) They envisaged the bourgeoisie as the embodiment of the ineffectual government of the Third Republic.(5) During the Third Republic, it was the entertainment venues of Montmartre that became the stage on which the drama of class divisions was played.

Before the entertainment venues of Montmartre, modern Paris and her designer had already shaped the city landscape into an ideal setting for the display of bourgeois wealth and status. Under the guidance of Baron Georges von Hausmann, the Gothic design of Paris was radically transformed into a modern, post-Enlightenment city. More broad, well-lit avenues created clear sightlines down the busiest streets of the city framed and unimpeded by the new, uniform facades lining the boulevards. The intention of the transformation was to reduce crime, as well as to accommodate the population influx from the industrial revolution, and to participate in a modern aesthetic for urban design.(6)  Almost immediately, the bourgeois adopted the boulevards as a format for display of the wealth and status it afforded, a kind of visual spectacle of the new modernity.

“We need publicity, daylight, the street, the cabaret, the café, the restaurant…We like to pose, to make a spectacle of ourselves, to have a public, a gallery, witnesses to our life.”(7)  But spectacle could also mean something more sinister. In the context of the entertainment venues frequented by the bourgeoisie, the performances and the performers also became a spectacle. The bourgeois patrons of these establishments paid to view the low-class performers, objectifying them as a visual spectacle and perpetuating class hierarchies.(8)

The artists of the Impressionist movement, such as Edgar Degas, were the first of this period to capture the phenomenon of visual spectacle. They painted the boulevards, the theaters, the cafés, and the circuses with the top-hatted patrons in the audience and lurking backstage with the performers framed on stage. Many scenes of performances manifest as cropped views, framing the performers as the focal point of work—the view one might have if seen through binoculars.

The circus did not have a native tradition in France, but inherited and adapted the practice from the Italian commedia dell’arte and the English touring circus.(9) The English variety was particularly important to this discussion for its contribution of the Auguste clown character and is the historical precedent for the type Toulouse-Lautrec depicted in the work from the Fiterman collection.(10)

Footit and Chocolat were the most successful interracial clown duo performing in Paris at this time. The man that assumed the character of Chocolat was an Afro-Cuban immigrant from Havana. The Englishman from Manchester who played Footit styled his character as the clever antidote to Chocolat’s foolishness, thus completing the dynamic act of opposition, both in difference of skin color and personality. The exploitation of their many differences added to the comedy, which was only further heightened by the effect of their costumes.

Romantic and Realist artists and literary figures adopted and identified with the clown as a symbol of popular culture, evocative of the precarious state of the human condition.(11)  One group of artists, known as the Young Independents shared an empathetic ideology and subscribed to a lifestyle that aligned harmoniously with the contemporary attitudes toward the clown and class distinction. The content in their work reflected these principles and suggested a fascination with the sexual exploitation and class voyeurism that went hand in hand with the entertainment venues of Montmartre.(12)

In 1881 France relaxed censorship laws that had been put in place to limit the social and political critique of the republic and middle class in response to the rapidly modernizing landscape.(13)  The act of lifting the bans also coincided with educational reform in France that created a more literate public and provided a greatly expanded readership for the magazines and newspapers. Caricature of social types became popular after these censorship bans were lifted in photography, illustration, and journalism.(14)

Caricature became a central element in Toulouse-Lautrec’s works beginning in the 1890s at the same time he was personally and professionally supported by Thadée Natanson of La Revue Blanche. As one half of the founding team of the literary periodical, Natanson cultivated a circle of friends that critiqued the conventionalism embodied by the conservative bourgeoisie.(15)

As artist Toulouse-Lautrec’s oeuvre shows, his work was highly dependent and reflective of the environment in which he lived and worked. Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries in the latter half of the nineteenth century depicted the social inequalities between the bourgeoisie and the lower classes in their immediate environments. Spurred on by the failings of the Third Republic toward the lower classes, artists’ imagery moved to Montmartre and the interiors of the entertainment venues where the bourgeois flocked to visually consume the spectacle of the performers on stage.

Toulouse-Lautrec depicted this dynamic in Footit et Chocolat. The space of the spectacle is contained by the boundary of the circus ring and overall cropping of the scene to frame the action of the clown duo as the object of the viewer’s focus. The viewers in the scene behind the ring wear top hats, carry canes, and festoon their suits with military awards barely discernible. These are the bourgeois patrons of the circus with their physiognomies mutated by caricature, so that only their quality of dress represents them.

1 Gerhard Gruitrooy, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1996), 113.
2 Wolfgang Wittrock, Toulouse Lautrec: The Complete Prints, vol. 1 of Toulouse Lautrec: The Complete Prints, trans. and ed. Catherine E. Keuhn (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1985), 113.
3 Wittrock, 106.
4 Ibid, 14.
5 Thomson, 4.
6 Mary Weaver Chapin, “Toulouse-Lautrec & the Culture of Celebrity,” in Toulouse-Lautrec & Montmartre (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, in association with Princeton University Press, 2005), 47.
7 Chaptin, 47.
8 James Smalls, “’Race’ As Spectacle in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Art and Popular Culture,” French Historical Studies 26, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 357-358.
9 A. H. Saxon, “The Circus as Theatre: Astley’s and Its Actors in the Age of Romanticism,” Educational Theatre Journal 27, no. 3, Popular Theatre (Oct., 1975): 300.
10 Smalls, 365.
11 Helen O. Borowitz, “Painted Smiles: Sad Clowns in French Art and Literature,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 71, no. 1 (Jan., 1984):23.
12 Gruitrooy, 14.
13 Thomson, 17.
14 Thomson, 11.
15 E. Paul Gaultier, “La Revue Blanche,” Books Abroad 25, no. 4 (Autumn, 1951): 336.


Borowitz, Helen O. “Painted Smiles: Sad Clowns in French Art and Literature.” The Bulletine of the Cleveland Museum of Art 71, no. 1 (Jan., 1984):23-35.
Brown, Marilyn R. “’Miss La La’s’ Teeth: Reflections on Degas and ‘Race’.” The Art Bulletin 89, no. 4 (Dec., 2007): 738-765.
Cate, Phillips Dennis, Mary Weaver Chapin, and Richard Thomson. Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre. Washington: National Gallery of Art, in association with Princeton University Press, 2005. Published in conjunction with the exhibition “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre” shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Gauthier, E. Paul. “La Revue Blanche.” Books Abroad 25, no. 4 (Autumn, 1951): 336-339.
Gruitrooy, Gerhard. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. New York: Todtri Productions Limited, 1996.
Haxell, Nichole A. “’Ces Dames du Cirque’: A Taxonomy of Male Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Art.” MLN 115, no. 4 French Issue (Sep., 2000): 783-800.
Saxon, A. H. “The Circus as Theatre: Astley’s and Its Actors in the Age of Romanticism.” Educational Journal 27, no. 3 Popular Theatre (Oct., 1975): 299-312.
Smalls, James. “‘Race’ As Spectacle in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Art and Popular Culture.” French Historical Studies 26, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 351-382.