New exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts showcases paired art pieces that are meant to be shown together

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Portrait of a Woman and Portrait of a Man, ca. 1840-1850, oil on canvas mounted to masonite by an Unidentified artist of the New Orleans school. The two portraits depict Ôa well-heeled couple in the antebellum South.Õ Utah Museum of Fine Art curator of European, American, and regional art Leslie Anderson conceived and planned the new exhibit: "Power Couples: The Pendant Format in Art," open now through December 8, 2019. ÒPower Couples explores how artists have used the pendant format across media, cultures and time periods to explore gender roles and social status; to present moments of before-and-after, cause-and-effect and departure-and-return; and to compare and contrast familiar stories and ideas.Ó -UMFA

Every picture tells a story — and, sometimes, two pictures put together tell a different story.

That’s the idea behind a new exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, “Power Couples: The Pendant Format in Art,” which looks at paired artworks from the 1500s to today.

An artist might create two separate works, and pair them up as “a storytelling device,” said Leslie Anderson, curator of European, American and regional art for UMFA. “What couldn’t be represented by a single picture could be represented by works conceived as pairs.”

Anderson has gathered more than 30 pairs of artworks, mostly taken from UMFA’s permanent collection — some recently acquired, others sitting in storage for years. Anderson discovered many of them while exploring the permanent collection during UMFA’s 19-month closure for renovation in 2016 and 2017, just after she was hired.

“I envisioned the show, really, as a celebration of our collection,” Anderson said.

The term “pendant art” was coined in the 1800s, Anderson said, but the idea of paired paintings goes back to the 1500s — a secular version of the religious diptych and triptych paintings, which were connected by hinges so the complete work could fold out and amaze churchgoers.

The earliest paired works often showed spouses. The husband would usually take the “dexter” or right-hand position, as seen by the painted subjects (the viewer would see them on the left). The wife would appear in the “sinister” position, usually looking lovingly and subserviently at her husband.

One such pair in UMFA’s collection are the 1802 portraits of Philadelphia merchant Simon Walker and his wife, the former Marianne Ashley. They were painted by Gilbert Stuart, best known for the portrait of George Washington that graces the dollar bill.

Wealthy couples in the 19th century, Anderson said, often commissioned paired portraits. “They subscribed to the idea that two works are better than one, in terms of decorating their home. It’s a status symbol,” she said.

The style became easily reproduced, Anderson said, and traveling painters would create husband-and-wife portraits on commission. In part of the 19th century, she said, the majority of portrait paintings being created were in pairs.

The style has been adapted to modern times. Kerry James Marshall’s 2003 pairing, “Diptych Color Blind Test” (on loan from the Denver Art Museum), depicts an African American man and woman giving the Black Power salute. The color scheme, in dots resembling the Ishihara color-blindness test, is the red, green and black of the African flag proposed by early 20th century activist Marcus Garvey.

The paired portrait style also is easily parodied. In Nina Katchadourian’s 2015 self-portraits, a recent UMFA acquisition, the artist photographed herself in poses inspired by old Flemish masters. But she shot the photos on her cellphone in an airplane lavatory, and fashioned her old-timey collars from bathroom tissue and toilet-seat covers.

Landscapes are another popular subject of paired art, as “a way for artists to experiment with pictorial field, to suggest a continuity beyond the frame,” Anderson said. One example is Tom Rasmussen’s vivid portrayal of Bryce Canyon — on loan from the Salt Lake City International Airport — where the twin paintings “suggest the vastness of the American West.”

Anderson’s research found an odd Utah connection for one painting, a 1925 portrait of the silent movie star Rudolph Valentino, by the Cuban-born painter Federico Beltrán-Masses. (It hangs alone at one end of the exhibition’s main gallery; its mate, which Valentino also owned before his death in 1926, is held by a private collector.)

Valentino was married for two tempestuous years to costume designer Natascha Rambova, who was born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy in Salt Lake City, a member of a prominent Latter-day Saint family. Rambova’s mother, Winifred Kimball Hudnut, donated much of her estate’s art, including the Valentino painting, to UMFA in the 1940s.

In researching the paired works in this exhibition, Anderson often had to do some detective work.

Take a pair of portraits of Mr. and Mrs. David Austen, painted between 1811 and 1816 by the American artist Samuel Lovett Waldo. For years, Anderson said, these paintings were catalogued in UMFA’s collection as representing a different couple, the Wheelocks of Boston, who were related to the Austens.

“It was actually a confusion of provenance, and the history of the ownership of the work,” Anderson said.

Anderson was able to pinpoint the date the paintings were created because of the frames. They bore a label for a frame maker’s shop on New York’s Partition Street — which was renamed Fulton Street in 1816, in honor of steamship inventor Robert Fulton.

It’s not the first time Anderson has pieced together a new narrative for an artwork.

In 2014, before she came to UMFA, a scholarly journal of 19th century art published a paper by Anderson, in which she argued a famous work by the 19th century Danish painter Christian August Lorentzen had a lesser-known companion painting.

What’s more, the meaning of the famous painting, of a modeling class at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, changed when looked at in connection with the other painting, which showed a German monk discovering gunpowder before his shocked students. The juxtaposition, Anderson wrote, suggested Lorentzen was criticizing the academy’s “ossified curriculum.”

“We had only been reading half of the story,” Anderson said.

The exhibit is peppered with interactive elements, like paired frames where viewers can pose for selfies. Anderson said those participatory items make the exhibition fun, to match the approach artists often take with paired artworks.

“Throughout history, and definitely in contemporary art,” Anderson said, “artists have looked at this particular format, and engaged with it in a very playful way.”

Art, two by two

The exhibition “Power Couples: The Pendant Format in Art,” features paired artworks, many of them from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ permanent collection.

WhereUtah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.

When • Now through Dec. 8.

Lecture • The exhibition’s curator, Leslie Anderson, will deliver a lecture, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 7 p.m., in the Dumke Auditorium at UMFA. Free.

Symposium • Scholars will present new research on pairs in visual arts and music, Friday, Oct. 4, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., in the Dumke Auditorium at UMFA. Free; register online at umfa.utah.edu.

Hours • 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays; open until 9 p.m. Wednesdays. Closed Mondays.

Admission • $12.95 for adults; $9.95 for seniors and youth (6 to 18 years old); free for children (5 and under), UMFA members, University of Utah students, staff and faculty (with valid ID), students at public Utah universities, Utah Horizon/EBT cardholders, and active-duty military families.

Discounts and free days • Admission is free on the first Wednesday and third Saturday of each month. Admission is $5 after 5 p.m. on most Wednesdays (except the first Wednesday of the month, when it’s free).