What Happened to that Negative?

The image that Intersections artist Vesna Pavlović created with the deteriorated 8 x 10 negative from the museum archives is mysterious and fascinating to look at. But what happened to it?

Vesna Pavlović, Untitled (Swiss Peasant art exhibition, 1957.4) (2014), 40 x 50 in. Framed archival pigment print. Ed. of 5. Courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art

The installation shots of the Phillips’s 1957 show, Swiss Peasant Art, were taken using large format cellulose triacetate sheet film or safety film (so called because it was less flammable than the previously available nitrate film.) The film captured clear, detailed images but over time the acetate film base shrunk, pulling away from the emulsion and causing bubbles and an effect called channeling. Thankfully, the archives has a full set of 8 x 10 contact prints (created by sandwiching photographic paper and the negative, generating a print the same size as the negative and preserving detail).

Swiss Peasant Art exhibition at the Phillips, June 9-July 2, 1927. This is the print from the deteriorated negative appropriated by Vesna Pavlovic. Photo: The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington DC.

Swiss Peasant Art exhibition at the Phillips, June 9-July 2, 1957. This is the print from the deteriorated negative adapted by Vesna Pavlović. Photo: The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington DC.

Swiss Peasant Art might seem like an unusual show for the Phillips, and it was. Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services—or SITES—the show was called “one of the most heartwarming exhibitions to be seen in Washington in a long time” in a review from The Washington Post. The objects were selected from Appenzell and Toggenburg and focused on the ceremony of Alpenaufzug, the annual upward trek of herds to the springtime mountain pastures. The show included paintings, wooden milk pails, cut brass, a clock, and other decorative items.

Swiss Peasant Art exhibition at the Phillips, June 9-July 2, 1927. Photo: The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington DC.

Swiss Peasant Art exhibition at the Phillips, June 9-July 2, 1957. Photo: The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington DC.

Mining the Archives

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(Left) Vesna Pavlović, Untitled (Swiss Peasant art exhibition, 1957.4), (2014). Courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art (Right) Vesna Pavlović, Installation view of Untitled (Annex, Giacometti exhibition, 1963), 2014. Photo: Mica Scalin

Intersections artist Vesna Pavlović, whose installation Illuminated Archive opened at the Phillips last week, mined the museum’s archival materials to create new works exploring the idea of transparency. The works above feature photographic negatives from exhibitions throughout Phillips history, altered in a variety of ways and to varying degrees.

What I love most about the work at right, a 35-foot curtain made up of digitally manipulated negatives from a 1963 Alberto Giacometti exhibition, is how necessary uncontrollable elements—weather, sunlight, time—are to the viewer experience. Pass by this work at high noon on a sunny day, and the curtain is nearly clear. Chance upon it at dawn or dusk, however, and the details of light and shadow are revealed. It feels like a secret, intimate moment shared between viewer and artwork; a playful approach to the idea of transparency and our perception of it.

Amy Wike, Marketing Manager

Unveiling Vesna

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Phillips preparators unwrap the first of several layers protecting the work. All photos: Amy Wike

Works for Vesna Pavlović‘s Intersections installation at the Phillips, Illuminated Archive, have just arrived at the museum. Here’s a first look at Untitled (Swiss Peasant art exhibition, 1957.4) (2014) as Phillips preparators open it up after arrival. See this and the rest of the works on the walls (and in the staircase!) starting May 22, and don’t miss Pavlović’s talk in the galleries Thursday evening.

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Preparators put on gloves to handle the final layer of unwrapping as Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenovic looks on.

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Vesna Pavlovic’s work Untitled (Swiss Peasant art exhibition, 1957.4) is unwrapped and ready for the gallery walls.