Wednesday, August 10, 2016

August Artist Birthday to Recognize

Hedda Sterne (1910–2011, born August 4, Hedwig Lindenberg, Romania), Alaska I, 1958. Oil on canvas, 71" x 110" (180.3 x 279.4 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2016 Hedda Sterne / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-697snars)

Give credit where credit is due, I always say. Sadly, that isn’t something a lot of art history texts do when it comes to women artists. For instance, there were many women practicing some form of abstraction already in the 1930s, when the Great Depression sort of slumped the interest in art from “something new and exciting” to Social Realism. Several women, such as Gertrude Greene (1904–1956), helped found the group American Abstract Artists (1936) which championed abstraction in a period when it was being largely ignored. Hedda Sterne is another artist who worked in abstraction from early in her career. Since her birthday was the 4th of August, let’s (unofficially) call this “Hedda Sterne Month.” She’s such an interesting artist!

New York, VIII, 1954. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 72 1/8" x 42" (183.2 x 106.76 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P1682snars)
It is evident (to me, anyway), that these beautiful two paintings have an innate sense of depth in them, even though I would call them abstracted. What is so fascinating about these two works is that I can see the subject of the title in them. I can totally see a snowstorm obscuring the horizon on Alaska I and I can really get a sense of the buildings of New York through a window in New York VIII. It is one of the works in a style she called “vertical-horizontals”. Perhaps this is why Hedda Sterne usually did not refer to her intuitive painting as “abstract.” This probably stems from her background in Surrealism, which gives greater weight to the reality of inner vision, than observed fact.

Born in Bucharest, Romania, Sterne trained in art there and later in Vienna. In the 1930s painter Victor Brauner (1903–1966) introduced her to the Surrealists, and later in that decade she began to exhibit her paintings with them. Many of her works of the 1930s include dream-like figuration or disembodied heads on abstract backgrounds. In 1941 Sterne escaped a round-up of Jews in Bucharest and escaped to New York.

In New York, Sterne became part of a community of refugee European modernist artists, befriending Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Max Ernst (1891–1976), and Mondrian (1872–1944), among others. It was this group of diverse European modernists who helped stimulate American artists prone to modernism into forming Abstract Expressionism, the first modernist movement indigenous to the US.

Sterne became represented by the wonderful Betty Parson (1900–1982) in her gallery in New York, Sterne joined the circle of artists associated with Abstract Expressionism also represented there: Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Mark Rothko (1903–1970), and Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967). It is perhaps for this reason that Sterne is sometimes labeled an Abstract Expressionist.

Sterne, along with 17 Abstract Expressionists, including all the “stars” of the movement, wrote an open letter to the Met in 1951 objecting to its refusal to show modern art. This group of artists became known as the “Irascibles,” and Stern was the only woman in the photograph of the artists by Nina Leen (1909–1995, a fashion photographer mostly) that appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s refusal to exhibit modern art was the result of a 1921 exhibit of “modern art” from Europe, featuring Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Lillie P. Bliss, one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1929), persuaded the Met to host the exhibit. It was such a “ratings” failure, that the Metropolitan Museum’s rulers rejected featuring modern art in that museum.

Funny how things go, huh? I don’t really see “action painting” or “color field” in Sterne’s work, two of the standard measures of Abstract Expressionism. These works from the 1950s are logical progression from the crisper, grid-like paintings she did in the 1940s, only in more muted palette. Sterne painted in an abstract idiom for the rest of her career. Although she co-signed the letter to the Met, Sterne eluded the “star” status accorded to the men in Abstract Expressionism, and yet, perhaps more so than many of those men, had worked in abstraction throughout most of her career.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 4 6.35; Explorations in Art 5 6.35; Explorations in Art 6 5.25; A Community Connection 6.2, 8.4; Exploring Painting 12, Exploring Visual Design 4, 5; The Visual Experience 6.6, 9.3, 16.7; Discovering Art History 17.1

Monday, August 8, 2016

A True “Renaissance” Person

I was recently reading about Herbert Bayer (1900–1985, US, born Austria) and realized what a treasure this artist has been! I always appreciated his Bauhaus years and his contributions to graphic design, but, I had really never investigated very deeply how broad his vision was for the Bauhaus aesthetic.

Grass (Earth) Mound, from Aspen Meadows, Colorado, 1955. Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-834byars)

Marble Garden, from Aspen Meadows, Colorado, 1955. Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-833byars)

By 1946, Bayer was an internationally recognized leader in graphic design as well as interior design. He was approached by Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, who had a vision to make Aspen, CO into a world-class community that integrated art and culture. From childhood on, Bayer was a lover of nature. That was reinforced in 1923 when he made an extended trip to Italy, sketching and painting what he saw in nature. His initial instinct after World War II (1939–1945) was to return to Austria and build a ski hotel in the mountains.

His visit to Aspen, with its gorgeous mountain views, convinced him to accept the Paepcke’s offer to design an integrated cultural center—the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, today the Aspen Art Institute—into the surrounding environment. Once he moved there he was provided with a lot of design work, which included architecture, outdoor sculpture, and these two groundbreaking earth works. The stylistic designation Earth Works is usually reserved in art history books for works from the 1960s and 1970s. I feel we should extend that designation back to 1955 when Bayer designed Grass Mound and Marble Garden.

I feel that the style Earth Works does not take into account, either, Japanese garden architecture dating back to the 1500s, but that’s another arthiSTORY. Bayer’s works were truly novel for the period in which he created them. They totally put me in mind of ancient Roman ruins, which, considering his long trip to Italy in 1923, may not be a stretch. Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) created a sculpture garden at MOMA in 1953, but it certainly does not have the same interaction with nature as Bayer’s Marble Garden.

More aspects of this Renaissance Person:

Bauhaus Books—Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane, book cover, 1925. Letterpress on paper. Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-802byars)

Were you aware that Bayer introduced the Universal font in 1925? After graduating from Bauhaus in Dessau having studied graphic design and typography, Bayer started teaching courses in graphic design starting in 1925. He left Bauhaus in 1928 to establish his own design firm which became amazingly successful. While at Bauhaus he designed book covers for Bauhaus publications, and also designed stationery, programs, and flyers. The reduction of forms to utter simplicity at Bauhaus really reflects the influence of Russian Constructivism, don’t you think?

Silesian Home magazine cover, 1927. Letterpress and offset lithograph on paper, 12 3/16" x 8 1/4" (29.8 x 21 cm). Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-809byars)

Bayer is credited with moving graphic design into the modern age with his wonderful magazine, advertisement, and poster designs. This cover is one of my favorites, because it perfectly demonstrates how compatible abstraction, fine art, and architectural structure are. It’s too bad the Nazis considered this “degenerate” art. It’s a lot more exciting than the stale, overblown Neoclassicism that they preferred.

Self-Portrait, 1932. Photomontage, 14 3/16" x 11" (36 x 28 cm). Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-821byars)

While working in Berlin after 1928, Bayer explored the use of photographic montage in his design work. This had been pioneered by the Surrealists. Bayer used it both professionally, and for his private work. This “self-portrait” has all the hallmarks of Surrealism. Bayer’s reflection in the mirror is not the true physical world, but something out of the subconscious or dream world.

Chromatic Squares with Circle, 1966. Acrylic on paper, 20" x 20" (51 x 51 cm). Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-762byars)

It seems there were very few avenues of style that Bayer did not explore. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s much of his painting was concerned with the optical effects of color. This was something he would have studied at Bauhaus with Josef Albers (1888–1976). In the 1960s, the exploration of the optical sensations of movement caused by the juxtaposition of certain colors falls under the Op Art stylistic designation.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 4 6.35; Explorations in Art 5 3.15, 3.16, 5.25-26 studio; Explorations in Art 6 4.24, 5.25; A Community Connection 8.4; A Global Pursuit 8.4, 8.6; Communicating Through Graphic Design 5, 6, 7; The Visual Experience 9.3, 9.5, 9.14, 10.4, 16.6, 16.7; Discovering Art History 14.4, 17.2, 17.5

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Sargent's Watercolors


I get to see so many great works of art by artists I truly admire, that I like to share them with as many folks as I can. As I’ve probably already blah-blahed, I’m a big fan of the watercolors of John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). As a matter of fact— as a failed watercolor artist—I sort of idolize Sargent’s watercolors. They just make me feel happy all over looking at the many, many beautiful works he produced in that medium. Here are some I bet you may never have seen. And please note: at the same time Sargent was producing gorgeous watercolors, he was till painting in oils, though hardly any portraits, except for one that was commissioned for the Ufizzi in 1907.

A Tramp, ca. 1906. Watercolor on paper, 20" x 14" (50.8 x 35.6 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1010)  
   

John Henry Leonard (1834-1904, Britain), Studies of Sheep. Watercolor on paper, 4 3/8" x 14 3/16" (11 x 36 cm). Private Collection. © 2016 Davis Art Images. (8S-13169)

The Impressionists really laid the groundwork for Sargent’s watercolor when they revolutionized the painting process. Sargent himself painted in Giverny with the Great One, Claude Monet (1840–1926). Impressionists discarded the traditional, academically-taught underpainting that established lights and darks in favor of applying pure color right to the white surface of the canvas. This made their colors RADIANT.

There are a lot of reasons I attribute Impressionism for Sargent’s late works, particularly in watercolor. Compare the Sargent above (I really hate that title) with the Leonard. Did you know Sargent was a master of the “schmear” (my word)? To lessen the saturation of a color he would rub off with his fingers or a brush the wet watercolor, allowing the paper to help create a tint. Academic artists like Leonard used the traditional brown-yellow-green underpainting and achieved tints for highlights by adding white (gouache) to the color of the fur.  

It’s amazing to me how luminous this little study is, with the schmeared cobalt blue coming through in the highlights on the arm. And that incredible muted shadow of the left ear Sargent achieved! This piece may come from Sargent’s 1905 to 1906 trip through the eastern Mediterranean from Palestine and the Middle East through Turkey to North Africa. 

Bedouins, ca. 1905. Watercolor on off-white wove paper, 17 7/8" x 12" (45.4 x 30.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1012)
So many of Sargent’s watercolors are like tourist snapshots of his travels through the Middle East and Europe. Let’s just say I prefer watercolors to photographs if I have my choice when Sargent’s work is concerned. This work is stunning, not because of the intense expression on the man’s face, but the fact of the luscious cobalt blue deep shadows. Perhaps the fact that Sargent was able to capture the essence of his subject with quickly executed watercolor accounts for the fact that there is little interest in psychological depth in this piece?

This Bedouins comes from the same trip as A Tramp. I can only guess that Sargent saw these guys either in Syria or Saudi Arabia? For works like this Sargent usually did the most minimal pencil sketches, and then constructed the form in color. 

Corfu: Lights and Shadows, 1909. Transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite, with wax resist on paper, 15 7/8" x 20 7/8" (40.3 x 53 cm). © MFA, Boston. (MFAB-41)

Between 1907 and 1909 Sargent must have traveled constantly, because he produced watercolors from Switzerland, Italy, and Greece. Corfu is an island on the west side of Greece. The island must really have inspired Sargent, because there are a lot of gorgeous paintings that resulted from that visit. This watercolor is my favorite. Talk about the ability to evoke the physical sense of a sunny day in the Mediterranean!

This depiction of shadows on a whitewashed wall is simply brilliant. I’m thinking that he achieved the white parts of the wall by blocking them with either a candle or wax crayon. That means he established the shadows in reverse, I am assuming. I’m just wondering how thick he applied wax and if it stayed on the work after finish?

At any rate, this is a gorgeous little work, especially those scrumptious shadows of multiple color in the foreground. That was yet another realization that was arrived at by the Impressionists, that shadows have color, they’re not black. Before Impressionism, shadows were achieved by adding black (or burnt sienna) to the local color to create a shade.

In the Simplon Pass, 1909. Transparent and opaque watercolors over wax resist and graphite on paper, 14 7/16" x 21 3/16" (36.7 x 53.8 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5292)
I absolutely love Sargent’s sun-drenched watercolors of Switzerland! I’m including this piece because it isn’t quite finished, but it is gorgeous anyway. One can actually imagine the finished piece in one’s mind due to the absolutely brilliant colors Sargent uses in the shadows. I’m thinking he used the wax resist in the top of the parasol and details of the sitter’s outfit.

Sargent had only two exhibitions of his watercolors in the US at the Knoedler Gallery in New York. In 1909 exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum bought the whole group which Sargent considered a cohesive portfolio. In 1912 the MFA in Boston did the same thing at the second exhibition. Sargent remarked that he really liked painting in watercolor, and I think it shows! Now if I can only figure out exactly how he applied the wax resist: Was it like frisket? A stick of wax? Stumped minds want to know!

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 2 1.3-4 studio; Explorations in Art 3 5.27-28 studio; Explorations in Art 4 1.1; Explorations in Art 5 1.1, 1.2, 1.5, 4.20; Explorations in Art 6 1.3; A Community Connectioin 2.3, 6.4; A Personal Journey 2.2; Experience Painting 2, 5; Exploring Painting 5; Exploring Visual Design 3; The Visual Experience 9.3, 9.10, 16.6; Discovering Art History 15.1

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A National Treasure

Every so often it dawns on me how artists can be more than the production of their art. They can evolve to be a great gift from their country, their culture, and act as representatives of humankind’s indomitable spirit in general. Not to be immodest, but, the world would be a better place if artists ran it. Otherwise, why would busted-down philosophies like Nazi Germany, the “Cultural Revolution” in China, and the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia target artists, intellectuals, writers, etc.? Yary Livan, a master of Cambodian ceramic art, has brought his culture’s tradition to New England and has been sharing it with students since 2001.

Yary Livan (US, born 1954 Cambodia), Elephant Vessel, 2006. Glazed white stoneware, 9" x 10" x 10.5" (22.9 x 25.4 x 26 cm). Collection of the Artist.

Were you aware that archeologists think that Cambodia may have been the origin of rice cultivation and bronze casting in southeast Asia? Archeologists have also found evidence of ceramics being produced in Cambodia as early as 4000 BCE. At the height of its power during the so-called Angkor Period (ca. 790–1200s CE), the Khmer culture controlled a region that included most of Southeast Asia including Laos, Vietnam, and part of Thailand.

Traditional ceramics as far back as the pre-Angkor period were wheel thrown and decorated with incised patterns. Glazed ceramics appeared during the 800s CE. The production of ceramics in animal form or with animal decoration became prominent between the 1000s and 1200s. Archeological evidence indicates that indigenous ceramic production declined after that period because of increases in the import of Chinese wares.

Traditional Cambodian ceramics continued to be produced into the 20th century, primarily for household use and storage. The vast range of vessel designs—both household and ritualistic—was depicted often in bas-relief on Angkorean temples. The Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh was a major source of education in traditional Cambodian ceramics up until the turmoil of the 1970s.
Yary Livan studied ceramics at the Royal University starting in 1971. When Pol Pot and his stooges took over Cambodia in 1975, not only did they force city dwellers into the country to cultivate rice on communal farms, they also targeted artists (and other groups) for either execution or imprisonment. Because the Khmer Rouge had to build new communal dwellings and prison camps, they needed roof tiles. Livan’s mother suggested to the authorities that Livan knew how to build wood-burning kilns to produce roof tiles, and so he survived the Reign of Terror (1975–1979).

During the 1980s and 1990s Livan was in a series of refugee camps. Amazingly, for that entire period he did not pursue his art form. In 2001 he was granted political asylum in the US and went straight to Lowell, MA. In 2002 he became a visiting ceramic artist at Harvard and in 2005 he began teaching ceramics in the Lowell public schools.

In 2012 he built a traditional wood-burning kiln in association with Middlesex Community College where he became an adjunct professor. Livan has stated that a wood-burning kiln can achieve effects not possible with a gas-fired kiln. He also admits that glazes often do not come out of the kiln the same color twice.

Elephants have been revered animals for more than 2000 years in Cambodia. They were used not only as work animals when building large temples such as Angkor Wat (1100s), but they were also ridden in royal processions (with gold-covered tusks!) and in battle. They hold as honored a position in traditional Cambodian culture as they did in Indian culture. It’s no wonder that Yary Livan produces works that feature the elephant. The work below is from the heyday of the Angkorean period, but it does not quite have the elegance or delicate workmanship of Livan’s piece above. 

Cambodia, Elephant vessel, 1000s–1100s CE. Earthenware, height: 4 3/4" (12.1 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3518)
If you are anywhere near New England, I highly recommend that you check out this exhibition of Yary Livan’s ceramic art at the Ayer Lofts Art Gallery in Lowell, MA. I’ve seen many of his works and to say that the glazes and beautiful incised and applied decoration are mind-blowing is an understatement. The subtlety of his glazing is absolutely a delight to see. I am particularly a fan of an eggplant-color of glaze that he achieves.

Livan was made a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow in 2015. That’s not why I recommend you see his art work. It’s because he’s just a darned amazing ceramic artist that will thrill you with his shapes and glazes. This is why I consider him a national treasure. I think he may be the only Cambodian ceramic artist working in the US in traditional Cambodian ceramics and a wood-burning kiln. 

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.5-6 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, 6.35-36 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.10, 2.9-10 studio, 4.23-24 studio; A A Personal Journey 3.1, 3.4; Community Connection: 5.2, 2.6; A Global Pursuit: 8.5; Experience Clay: 4, 5, 6; The Visual Experience: 10.6, 13.3; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.5

Friday, July 8, 2016

World Watercolor Month

July is World Watercolor Month. I’m always happy to celebrate a medium in which I am really not terribly good. I have a feeling it’s because I’m an impatient Virgo who can’t stand to patiently build up translucent layers of color as one ought to do. When I was first in grad school in painting courses, I was using watercolors and gouache. My teacher said, “you’re trying to do in watercolor what you should be doing in oils.” So, there you have it, I’m not a watercolorist. But let’s celebrate the art of those who are accomplished.

Watercolor has been an art medium since cave paintings, when natural elements were mixed with water to make paints. For centuries artists made their own watercolors by grinding natural ingredients such as ochre, ashes, and various plants and mixing it with water. In the early Renaissance (ca. 1400–1600) watercolor was often only used to tint woodcuts or other prints. Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) is credited with creating highly finished watercolors of animal and plant studies that advanced the medium toward finished fine art status.

British landscape artists of the 1700s are credited with advancing stand-alone-watercolors-to-fine-art status. By the period of Impressionism (ca. 1870s–1890s), watercolors had arrived as works of art in their own right. Many painters in oil held exhibitions of just their watercolors for the first time around the turn of the 1900s.

Egypt, A Peacock Basin, leaf from a dispersed Automata manuscript Treatise on Ingenious Mechanical Devices, by al-Jazari, probably from Cairo, 1354. Opaque watercolor, gold leaf and ink on paper, 13 3/4" x 8 1/4" (35 x 21 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1381)

I’m guessing this device does not use a live peacock as a spout, but this illustration does not indicate how the water gets from the reservoir into the bird. The written word has always been important in cultures of Islamic faith, to the point where writing (calligraphy) is an art form. From the middle Islamic period (ca. 750–1200) on, therefore, book illustration was an important art form. Every kind of book was illustrated except the Qur’an. In Arab lands, the favored medium for book illumination was opaque watercolor.

Manuscripts dealing with automata—mechanical devices that usually incorporated moving figures—were immensely popular in both Europe (in the Middle Ages ca. 1000–1400) and the Arab world. The Turkish scientist, engineer, and mathematician Ismail al-Jazari (1136–1206) made many advances in the field of automata devices. He is thought to have created some remarkable automatons, including a clock shaped like an elephant with a puppet striking a bell for the hour. Al-Jazari’s devices were usually powered by water that turned a cam shaft. I don’t really know where that is in this design, but this fountain/basin would certainly be a conversation starter at a party.

Iran, Cover of a prayerbook that contains passages from the Qur’an, 1729. Ink opaque watercolor and gold leaf on paper mounted to lacquered pasteboard, 3 11/16" x 2 1/4" x 3/4" (9.4 x 5.7 x 1.9 cm). © Brooklyn Museum  (BMA-2249)

If I owned a beautifully illustrated book like this, I’m sure I wouldn’t carry it around for fear of somehow damaging the work of art that is its cover! The Safavid dynasty in Iran, which ruled from around 1526 to the mid 1700s, is considered one of the periods when art really flourished, particularly architecture, ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and book illustration. Iran under the Safavids grew prosperous because of their strategic location on the trade routes between India and China with Europe.

Contact with Europe brought Safavid artists in contact with European art. Safavid rulers encouraged European artists to relocate to the Safavid court. Floral decoration is a mainstay in mosque, textile, and mausoleum decoration, usually in an abstracted style. This realistic floral painting is possibly indicative of the influence of European botanical studies of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. 

American, Miniature of Elizabeth Sewell Salisbury, 1787–1789. Watercolor on ivory, 1 1/2" x  1" (3.8 x 2.5 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-648)

Watercolor is such a mystery to me technically anyway, but I really can’t figure out how artists got it to stay on a piece of ivory. They must have scored it somehow to make the surface porous? However they did it, watercolor-painted ivory miniatures are one of the most fascinating forms of portraiture ever! They flourished between the 1500s and mid-1800s, when the Daguerreotype photographic portrait more or less killed the genre. Miniatures were meant to be keepsakes of either a loved one far away or of a departed loved one. They were either worn or displayed on a small stand.

Portrait miniatures were madly popular in the American colonies and the early Federal period. Like all other forms of art, they were status symbols. Many prominent portrait miniaturists were women artists. This miniature is an exact copy of a painted portrait in oil of a member of one of the wealthy Salisbury family of Worcester, MA, big supporters of the American Revolution (1775–1783). The original oil was painted by Christian Gullager (1759–1826), a popular society portraitist of the post-Revolution period. Gullager even painted a portrait of President Washington.

I personally love her dormeuse, the demure confection of ruffles on her head. Until the middle of the 1800s, it was typical for married women to have a covered head both at home and in public. The dormouse was a French invention originally fashioned to protect the ridiculously elaborate hairdos of pre-Revolution France during sleep. Hence the noun extracted from the verb dormir, to sleep.

Ohara Koson (1877–1945, Japan), Carp and Wisteria. Ink and watercolor on silk, 15 15/16" x 6 9/16" (40.5 x 16.7 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1041)

Among watercolor artists of whom I am in awe are Japanese painters. Their masterful layering of transparent watercolors and ink make me drool. This masterpiece just makes me want to take up watercolor again, but then I always have to remind myself, “remember what your watercolors looked like!” Certainly not as sophisticated as this!

Ohara Koson was active in that fertile, and yet turbulent, period of the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) when Japan rapidly industrialized and drank up the influence of Western art. Japanese artists formed two “camps” in the printmaking genre: the shin hanga (new prints) and sosaku hanga (creative prints). The shin hanga artists believed in doing things the old fashioned way with both subject matter and process, while the sosaku hanga preferred total control over their work. Ohara was part of the conservative shin hanga. While he is known mostly for his prints, his paintings are really stunning.

Shin hanga artists preferred subject matter, as well as style, that was traditional. That may be the case, but this painting has a dose of Western realism in it, along with typical features of Japanese painting: asymmetrical balance, expert contrast of positive and negative space, and open composition.


John Singer Sargent (1856–1925, US), An Artist at His Easel, 1914. Watercolor over graphite on wove paper, 15 3/4" x 24 15/16" (40 x 53.4 cm). © Art Institute of Chicago. (AIC-347)

One of my favorite American artists, Sargent, was one of the key forces in changing watercolor from study medium to out-and-out finished fine art in America. In the early 1900s, many museums had subscriptions with him to buy a certain number of watercolors per year, they were so prized. Most know him only as a portrait painter of wealthy American ex-pats in Europe in an Impressionistic mode. But I find his watercolors much more interesting. He and Winslow Homer (1836–1910) were among the first American artists to use the white of the paper for highlights instead of adding white gouache after finishing a piece.

The 1890s were Sargent’s busiest and most lucrative years of portrait painting. By 1900 he tired of the artifice and formulaic nature of depicting wealthy sitters and he turned increasingly to watercolor. In taking up watercolor, Sargent returned to emphasizing painting outdoors (plein-air) that he had learned while studying art in Paris. Between 1900 and 1914 he created more than 700 watercolors, painted almost entirely outdoors, in brilliant pure colors with virtually no pencil outlines.

In order to find subject matter in which he could explore the nuances of outdoor light, Sargent chose locations ideal for that: Florida, the Alps, Italy, and Greece. In 1917 he went to Florida and produced eleven watercolors, all of which were bought by the Worcester Art Museum. One of Sargent's favorite motifs wherever he went was palm trees and palmetto. He delighted in the multiple textures, and tendency to offer many nuances of light and dark.

Diego Rivera (1886–1957, Mexico), Mason, ca.1937. Watercolor on paper, 15" x 11" (38.1 x 27.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2016 Banco di Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museum Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-281riars)

Rivera was undoubtedly one of the most influential artists of the 1900s in the Western Hemisphere. His art work influenced both the development of Mexican modernism, the mural art of the WPA during the Depression (1929–1940), and the Mural Movement in American urban areas in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But, he was no only a muralist. He was also gifted in pastels, charcoal, and watercolor.

Despite going through a Cubism phase while living in Paris (1911–1921), when he returned to Mexico, he was determined to develop a personal style that reflected Mexico’s culture. He was particularly affected by indigenous Mexican peoples, and the art of ancient Mexican cultures had a great impact on the formation of his mature style that emerged in the late 1920s.

Rivera did several watercolor studies of Mexican Indian stone masons. The artist did countless works documenting the humblest jobs in Mexican society among the poorest classes. Like his murals, Rivera's art strove to give dignity to the people whom he believed were the unsung heroes of Mexican culture. Masons, who work on the foundation of buildings, were analogous in Rivera's mind to the soldiers of the revolution who established the foundations of a more equitable society in Mexico.

Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007, US), Untitled, 2003. Mezzotint with watercolor additions, sheet: 27 9/16" x 24 9/16" (70.1 x 62.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Estate of Elizabeth Murray / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P0298murars)

One does not really hear the term “mixed-media” used before the 1900s. After the Dada, Surrealist, and Cubist movements, with the introduction of found objects, collage, and other stuff to painting and sculpture, it sort of made sense to coin the term. Watercolor became one of the media that became part of mixed-media works. Ironically, it is often used the same way it was first used in the Renaissance, as an embellishment to printmaking.

The work of painter Elizabeth Murray progressed from a Minimalist sensibility combined with recognizable forms (the influence of Pop Art) through pieced canvases that represented abstracted shapes. The overriding interest in her work was the unity of idea with form. This she usually achieved through color.

Murray began exploring printmaking in the late 1980s. Color lithography and intaglio processes were among the most frequently used. Murray’s prints reflected the same repertoire of images as seen in her painting. The coffee cup (usually with spillage) is among the most recognizable of those forms. Prints such as this present Murray’s joy in the exploration of color used to unify a composition. 

Wangechi Mutu (born 1972, Kenya), One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwhack, 2004. Collage of cut-and-pasted paper with watercolor, synthetic polymer paint, and pressure-sensitive stickers on transparent paper, 68 1/2" x 42" (174 x 106.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Wangechi Mutu. (MOMA-P1888)

Wangechi Mutu’s work is a powerful representative of the current flourishing of contemporary art in Africa. Her works embody the angst, the damage, and the residual uncertainty left in post-colonial Africa. Her body of work seems biographical, although in a sense she is summing up the state of women in modern Africa. She has termed women’s body’s as “barometers” of current events. Her work references colonial history, current African politics, and the international fashion industry.

Mutu works with cuts outs from magazines, found materials, and everything from fur to glitter. I’m guessing the watercolor was used in the nuanced colors in the corners and at the bottom. Her imagery, while concerned with issues of race, identity, gender, and consumerism, convey both a morbid and a celebratory impulse. This injured woman, seemingly dressed for a festival, is a potent combination of feminist, modern Western and African awareness, creating a type of modern mythology.

Mutu was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and studied at Cooper Union in New York (BFA) and Yale University (MFA). She studied sculpture and anthropology. She lives and works now in Brooklyn. 

Philip Pearlstein (born 1924, US), View of Assisi #5. Watercolor on paper, 25 1/2" x 19 1/4" (64.9 x 48.9 cm). Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH. © 2016 Philip Pearlstein. (BIAA-180pp)

Here’s one beautiful work I could not resist putting in. If you don’t recognize the artist immediately, that’s understandable. Pearlstein is more renowned for his photo-realistic nude models. This piece dates from the period when he was under the sway of Abstract Expressionism. He had just won a Fulbright Scholarship and was touring Italy. His love of landscape is evident.


Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.9, 2.7, 2.8, 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.2, 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 5.26, 5.27-28 studio, 5.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2, 1.4, 2.7; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.2, 1.6, 4.20, 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 4.23-24 studio; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 1.2, 3.4, 4.5; Discovering Drawing: 6; Communicating Through Graphic Design: 5; Experience Painting: 1, 2, 4; The Visual Experience: 9.2, 9.3, 13.5, 14.2, 14.3, 16.3, 16.6; Discovering Art History: 4.4, 4.7, 13.1