Monday, January 15, 2018

It’s All How You See It

John Pfahl (born 1939, US), Nursery Topsoil Pile (Winter) Lancaster, NY, from the Piles series, 1994. Chromogenic print on paper, 16" x 20" (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 John Pfahl. (AK-2019)

Winter landscapes full of snow are a joy to behold. Of course, snow in the mountains is even more joyous to behold. Imagine a series of photographs that presents piles of various materials as landscapes. This is the brilliant work that artist John Pfahl did with his 1990s series Piles. What better way to elevate a pile of miscellaneous materials than a beautiful and monumental composition? I sometimes think that this series could also be titled Mountains.

The study of the history of photography often includes that of landscapes. One of the types of views of landscapes often discussed, such as in the Davis book Focus on Photography 2E, is the grand landscape. This term was coined to describe the panoramic landscapes of the American West in the late 1800s, when it was a vast, unexplored territory. The photography of John Pfahl turns the idea of the grand landscape on its head in his brilliant series called Piles.

Ansel Adams (1902–1984) and Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) had their Sierra Nevada Mountains, and Timothy O’Sullivan (1840–1882) his Rocky Mountains. Pfahl is inspired by the grand landscapes of Adams, and tries to create photographs of piles of various materials in imitation of the grandeur of the grand landscape style. He judiciously works with light, atmosphere, and scale to produce images of piles of such things as topsoil or wood scraps to create images that imitate the monumental feeling of mountain photographs.

Pfahl’s Piles works are not meant to look natural, because he is not interested in pure landscape photography. He prefers for the viewer to make a mental connection to real mountains from the images. This creates an intellectual construction tool out of a photograph, as disbelief that this is not a landscape is suspended. Pfahl prefers the ambiguity, although he does admit the finished photographs remind him of his love for the mountains he has seen in his travels.

Pfahl was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey. He received a BFA and MA from Syracuse University. He was interested in cartography (mapmaking) as a young man. Like a cartographer, he uses visual symbols to help the viewer construct a landscape out of the piles of detritus. In documenting such debris as automobile tires or leaves, he creates something monumental from material that has a less-than-monumental back story. In this way, Pfahl is hoping viewers of his Piles series will reevaluate landscape as subject matter, as well as their relationship to it. 

John Pfahl, C & D Pile, Modern Salvage Company, Model City, NY, from the Piles series, 1994. Chromogenic print on paper, 16" x 20" (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 John Pfahl. (AK-2020)

John Pfahl, Toxic Waste Reclamation Site, Niagara Falls, NY, from the series Piles, 1996. Chromogenic print on paper, 16" x 20" (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 John Pfahl. (AK-2021)

Monday, January 8, 2018

What’s in a Number?

It’s 2018 now. Does the number eighteen conjure up anything for you? A lot of people make a big deal about turning age eighteen, but for me that just conjures up nightmares of bullying, a face blooming with pimples, and being 6' 2" and 104 lbs. I was, however, at eighteen, a budding art historian (go figure). I propose that we look at a variety of great art that has the number eighteen in its dating (or presumed dating).

Ancient Persia, Persian Guard, relief from the Hall of 100 Columns, Palace of Darius I, Persepolis, Iran, 518–ca. 460 BCE. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-10204)

I think the reliefs on the walls of the buildings at Persepolis are among the most beautiful of ancient sculpture. They combine aspects of both Near Eastern and Greek art. I’m always especially fascinated by the way hair and beards are meticulously delineated.

Although these reliefs may have been inspired by those decorating Assyrian (1365–609 BCE) palaces, Persian sculpture is more refined. The figures project more from the surface than Assyrian reliefs, and the forms are more rounded. The treatment of the clothing is reminiscent of archaic Greek (776–480 BCE) sculpture, which seems to have been an influence on art of the Achaemenid Persian empire (550–330 BCE).

Around 550 BCE, the Persians—a formerly nomadic, Indo-European speaking culture from Iran—began seizing power from the region of Persis in southwest Iran, present-day Fars. They were the descendants of Achaemenes, a 600s BCE Iranian ruler in southwest Iran under Assyrian domination. By 539 BCE, the Persians—under Cyrus the Great Achaemenes (ca.600/576–530 BCE)—controlled Babylonia and Media, which covered northern Anatolia and some of the Aegean islands to the west. Under the rule of the king Darius (born 550 BCE, ruled ca. 521–486 BCE), the Persian empire was at its greatest extent, and Darius built a new capital at Parsa (the Greek “Persepolis”). An inscription on the south terrace indicates that Darius built the city as his capital. 

Anna Claypoole Peale (1791–1878 US), Portrait Miniature of an Unknown Woman, 1818. Watercolor on ivory, 2 7/8" x 2 ¼" (7.3 x 5.7 cm). © 2018 Art Institute of Chicago. (AIC-337)

I’m fascinated with American portrait miniatures, if not for the historical nature of the genre before photography, then for the technique of watercolor on ivory. I’ve convinced myself that the ivory must have been scored and gessoed to retain watercolor. I know a woman who does miniatures now and she never could explain to me how watercolor stays on ivory. Nonetheless, such delicate portraits like this are a tribute to patience, if nothing else.

Although not as well known as her younger sister Sarah Miriam Peale (1800–1889), Anna Claypoole Peale was a member of the first American artistic dynasty. She was the niece of Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), the “founder” of the dynasty. Trained by her father, James Peale (17491831), Anna sold her first two paintings—copies of French landscapes—at the age of 14. She played an important role in the cultural development of Philadelphia in the early 1800s.

Peale was born and spent most of her life in Philadelphia, although she also made trips to Washington, DC; Boston; Baltimore; and New York to fulfill portrait commissions. Although she relied primarily portrait miniature commissions for income after 1823, she also continued to paint full-scale portraits, landscapes, and still life.

In 1824, Peale and Sarah Miriam were the first two women to be elected members of the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Between 1824 and 1842, Anna’s reputation was such that she had more commissions than she could comfortably handle. She retired from painting in 1841 after her second marriage. 

McKim, Mead, and White (firm operated 1880–1961, New York), Honore Family Tomb, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, probably 1918. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-13596)

This is one of the more “modest” mausoleums at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. It is the residing place of the Honore family, natives of Kentucky who moved to Chicago in 1855 and became millionaires in real estate speculation. This tomb is across “the street” from the Palmer tomb, a family one of the Honore daughters married into. The Palmers were key in establishing the Art Institute of Chicago, and were also big real estate moguls (see the Palmer House Hilton and Towers between State and Wabash).

If you ever spend any time at all in Chicago, Graceland Cemetery is a must-see destination. It is like a history book of Chicago elite of the 1800s and early 1900s. The cemetery was relocated from Lincoln Park in 1860 when malaria and cholera were threatened because of the Lake Michigan water seeping into tombs (yuck). It soon became surrounded as the city grew, and boasts graves of such famous people as Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Cyrus McCormick, Marshall Field, and even a Titanic fatality, Arthur Ryerson.

The architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White made it big in the late 1800s mania for revival style architecture, particularly Beaux-Arts Classicism, which was another vein of Baroque Revival. The founding partners were Charles F. McKim (1847–1909) and William R. Mead (1846–1928). They were joined in 1879 by Stanford White (1853–1906). White, like McKim, had worked for Henry Hobson Richardson, the great architecture god of Romanesque Revival. While specializing in Beaux-Arts Classicism (good for bank façades), they hired scads of other architects for their numerous commissions, many in the also trendy Gothic Revival, like the Honore Tomb.

Monday, December 18, 2017

A Multicultural Proclaimer

Iran, The Archangel Gabriel, page from a dispersed manuscript of Wonders of Creation by Qazvini, 1500s. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper, 10 7/8" x 7" (27.7 x 18 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1407)

Westerners usually think of the Archangel Gabriel in terms of Christmas cards depicting the Annunciation, when he proclaimed to Mary that she would conceive Jesus. Well, it turns out that he was a multicultural proclaimer, serving as God’s messenger in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths. The angel is mentioned several times in the Qur’an, although there are various interpretations of his status by scholars. However, scholars all agree that it was Gabriel (Jibril, or Jibrail) who made the really big announcement to Muhammad that he was chosen to be a prophet by God.

In the ninety-sixth chapter of the Qur’an (96:1-5), the archangel Gabriel appears to Muhammad while he is in the wilderness of Hira (near Mecca) meditating and trying to figure out his spiritual life away from all of the evils in the world. Gabriel basically tells Muhammad that God needs him to put forth God’s message, and to write down God’s teachings. The archangel helped him overcome his protests that he could not read or write, ultimately convincing Muhammad, “Read in the name of your lord and cherisher who created…He who taught the use of pen; Taught man that which he did not know.”

This passage, in which Muhammad is instructed to write the Qur’an, more or less, is so interesting in light of how significant calligraphy became in the art forms of Islamic lands. The emphasis on the written word in the Qur’an is so strong that, by the Middle Islamic Period (ca. 750–1258), literacy in Islamic lands was greater than in Western Europe. 

So, this image of Gabriel is not simply the result of the influence of Western European manuscripts from the Renaissance, because angels already existed in Islamic thought. In fact, winged, supernatural beings in human form have existed for thousands of years in the art of the Middle East. This figure of Gabriel bears the typical stylistic traits of Safavid Iranian court painting in the attenuated, elegant figure in a shallow landscape that resembles the millefleur designs of French Renaissance tapestries. The wings resemble paintings of seraphim, the angels of upper high heaven in European paintings. 

France, Triumph of Eternity from the Château de Chaumont Tapestry series, from the Loire Valley, ca. 1512–1515. Wool and silk, 125 ¾" x 148 5/8" (319.3 x 377.6 cm). © 2017 Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of various donors, by exchange. (CM-492)

Book illustration became a dominant form of artistic expression during the Middle Period. Although the Qur’an forbids the representation of any being with a soul, secular books began to portray religious scenes. This image comes from Abu Yahya Zakariya ibn Muhammad Ibn Mahmud-al-Qazvini’s (ca. 1203–1283) book Wonders of Creation. This book, divided in two sections, focuses on celestial phenomena (such as angels, constellations, and planets) and the earthly world (geography, ethnology, zoology, and botany). Qazvini, educated mostly in Bagdhad, was primarily a compiler of information from various sources.

In many ways, this book is similar to the Book of the Marvels of the World (Livre des Merveilles du Monde), a French compilation of numerous sources on similar subjects, both religious and scientific, ca. 1460. Talk about a global village. Wonders of Creation became very popular in Mughal India (1526–1756), where the Safavid style of illustrating books had great influence on Mughal painting.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Experience Painting: 1; Discovering Art History: 4.7, 7.3; Discovering Art History Digital: 4.7, 7.3; The Visual Experience: 14.2

Monday, December 11, 2017

Don’t Look Now…

Edna Andrade (1917–2008, US), Veil Drawing 3, 1974-1979. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 15 ½" x 10" (39.4 x 25.4 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4232)

I may be a broken record on the subject, but in my virtual art history wanderings, I come across so many artists who have been significant in some aspect of the history of art, and yet they are not generally known about. What is always fascinating to me is the connections they have with the “greats” of art history, and how it affected their work. Take Edna Andrade, for example. A fascinating artist, she developed her work in what has to be one of the seminal periods of twentieth-century art, the 1940s and 1950s. She’s absolutely brilliant, and I would like to share some of her work with you.

Andrade once commented that her works were meant to be totally visual. In other words, there is no narrative or story to go with them. It’s interesting that her Op Art pieces were also influenced by architecture, philosophy, mathematics, and design. One can certainly see the latter two disciplines in her work. I think another big influence on her work was the 1965 show “The Responsive Eye” at the Museum of Modern Art. That show featured works by artists such as Bridget Riley (born 1931), whose black and white illusionistic paintings I’m certain Andrade saw.

Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Andrade’s parents encouraged her to draw and paint from the age of eight. She achieved a BFA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After her studies, she taught art at the elementary level in Norfolk, VA. While travelling after World War II (1939–1945), Andrade became acquainted with Bauhaus abstraction and German modernism. Bauhaus influenced her strong emphasis on design, color, and abstraction.

In much of her early work, Andrade shows the influence of Surrealism and Cubism. A large part of her early body of work included watercolor collage and ink drawings of abstracted landscapes. In the 1950s she painted abstract, geometric works in a limited palette. This interest in precision and geometry led to her interest in Op Art in the 1960s. Influences on her style included Paul Klee (1879–1940), Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), and Bauhaus geometric abstractionist Josef Albers (1888–1976).

Edna Andrade, Disappearing Man and Conch Shell, 1948.Opaque watercolor on paper, 8 1/8" x 9 ¾" (20.6 x 24.8 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4329)
This early work suggests the work of Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), and the influence of Surrealism.

Edna Andrade, Cape Ann Beach, 1958. Pastel on paper, 22 3/8" x 29 ¾" (56.8 x 75.6 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6593)
Even while experimenting with Surrealism and abstraction, Andrade continued to produce beautiful landscapes such as Cape Ann Beach. In her treatment of the rocks that dominate this work, one can see how she began to section elements of a composition—in the case of this work, the rock forms—into an abstract configuration such as is seen below. 

Edna Andrade, Star Night, 1967. Screenprint on paper, 29" x 29" (73.7 x 73.7 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6424)
In her fully-developed Op Art pieces like this, Andrade’s work definitely takes on an aesthetic similar to that of Riley, and particularly Victor Vasarely (1906–1997).
Correaltions to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art 5 3.15, 3.16; Discovering Art History 17.2; Discovery Art History Digital 17.2

Monday, December 4, 2017

Temple on Active Volcano’s Slopes!

Bali, Indonesia, Pura Besakih (Mother Temple), view from the Pura Penataran Agung, 900s–1300s CE. Image © 2017 Davis Art Images. (8S-10151)

I’m naturally concerned for Pura Besakih (Mother Temple). It is situated on the slopes of Mount Agung, which is currently causing havoc with its eruption in Bali. It survived a major eruption of the volcano in 1963, when the lava miraculously parted and flowed around the temple. It would truly be tragic if anything happens to this treasure. That would also include ignorant, disrespectful tourists taking crude selfies, as recently happened Wat Arun in Thailand!

Pura Besakih is a complex of twenty-three temples that sit on parallel stepped terraces. Each of these temples has a “meru,” a tiered, pagoda-like tower that reflects the built-up pyramidal shapes found in Indonesian temples. In both cases, the rising form symbolizes the legendary Mount Meru, a golden mountain that stands in the center of all creation outside of the physical plane. The pura itself is built on the side of Mount Agung, considered a sacred mountain, and the stairs that connect each terrace represent a symbolic ascent of Mount Meru toward the Hindu gods. 

Besakih temple was originally a terraced temple dedicated to the dragon god Besakih, who is believed to inhabit Mount Agung. After annexation by the Majapahit rulers in the 1300s, the temple was dedicated to Hindu gods. The merus at Besakih consist of a masonry base about three feet (one meter) in height with a wooden ante-chamber raised on stilts. The ante-chamber is surmounted by a series fiber-thatched roofs in diminishing size. Various relics are buried in parts of each meru to make them acceptable to receive visits by the deities. The number of roofs is always an odd number, related to the god for which the temples are a temporary residence. Eleven tiered-temples such as these are usually dedicated to the highest gods in the Hindu pantheon, such as Siva, Brahma, or Vishnu. 

Bali, Indonesia, Pura Besakih (Mother Temple), gargoyle figures, 900s–1300s CE. Image © 2017 Davis Art Images. (8S-10152)

“Gargoyles” in the temple precinct served the same function as guardian demons in Buddhist temples, or gargoyles on Christian cathedrals: ward off evil. 

Bali, Indonesia, Pura Besakih (Mother Temple), view of the temple precinct from the Pura Penataran Agung, 900s–1300s CE. Image © 2017 Davis Art Images. (8S-10150)

Fossilized human remains indicate that prehistoric Bali was occupied going back to the Paleolithic era, as early as 248,000 BCE. Cave paintings and jewelry made from animal bones have been found on the island of Sulawesi, northeast of Bali, that date between 38,000 and 20,000 BCE. Bali was occupied by Austronesian migrants sometime between 3500 and 2000 BCE, judging by the existence of stone tools and earthenware vessels near Cekik in west Bali.

The Austronesian migration southward toward New Guinea, and ultimately Australia, originated on the mainland of Southeast Asia. Rice, raised in China as far back as 9,000 BCE, extended to Indonesia around 1500 BCE, and possibly to Bali by 900 BCE. Metal artifacts discovered near Cekik indicate that Bali's bronze age had begun by 300 BCE.

Bali received Indian and Chinese migrants starting in the 100s CE. Hinduism had begun to spread by the 400s CE, and Buddhism by the 500s. By the 900s, rice cultivation was active in Bali. Bali became a colony of the Majapahit Empire (flourished 1293–1520 CE) in 1343. When that empire declined in the 1400s due to the growth of Islamic kingdoms in Java, there was a large migration to Bali of Javanese artists.

The word “pura” originates from the Sanskrit word “puri,” which means “walled city,” “city,” “towered city,” or “palace.” In Balinese architecture, it has come to symbolize a Hindu temple complex. Because so many have been built there, Bali is sometimes called the “Island of a thousand Puras.” Most Balinese temple complexes, like Besakih, were planned in three zones: outer, middle, and inner courtyards, each containing a number of shrines.

Correlations to Davis programs:  A Global Pursuit: 8.5; The Visual Experience: 13.3; Discovering Art History: 4.5; Discovering Art History Digital: 4.5

Monday, November 27, 2017

Some Flourish While Others Decline

Ancient Peru, Nazca Culture, Poncho or tunic, 100–600 CE. Camelid fiber, tapestry weave, 74 3/8" x 27 9/16" (189 x 70 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1226)

It drives me absolutely nuts as an art historian the way Western art history textbooks treat Mesoamerican and South American cultures in a peripheral way, yet fawn all over ancient Greece and ancient Rome as the high points of aesthetic development. The fact is that the Americas, as well as East and Southeast Asia, had sophisticated, thriving empires during the same period of the flourishing of Greece and Rome. In fact, they outlasted them. What was happening with the Roman Empire between the late 400s and 600s CE? Oh, nothing. That’s right, it had collapsed. Although Peruvian cultures waxed and waned just like Rome, there was a sustained period of flourishing cultures from around 1500 BCE until the Spanish invasion and conquest in the 1500s CE.

The Nazca (flourished ca. 250 BCE to 650 CE) are thought to have arisen out of the Paracas culture, which flourished ca. 750 BCE to 100 CE. The Nazca culture was characterized by a collection of independent chiefdoms. Although there are cultural and artistic similarities among these communities, they did not—like other Mesoamerican and South American cultures—build great cities of standardized design.

As the Nazca expanded their influence, they traded with inland mountain regions where alpacas and llamas were raised, and rainforest regions where they secured the feathers of tropical birds for garments.

The best source for Nazca art objects is from their tombs, which were often 4 to 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) deep. The Nazca culture produced sophisticated ceramic art, gold and metal objects, and particularly sophisticated textiles. Textiles were the most highly-prized objects after gold in Peruvian cultures.

The Nazca were skilled in all of the Andean techniques, including several types of weaving and embroidery, and they also painted designs on plain cotton cloth. Abstract figures were especially popular in designs and most often are depicted participating in harvest scenes that show such foodstuffs as maize and beans. Animals, similar to those in petroglyphs and pottery designs, were also a popular subject.

The poncho above may have once served as a banner. It is thought that the neck hole was woven at a later date from the original weaving. It represents three large figures and twelve subsidiary figures. The large figures wear masks, ponchos, and skirt/loin cloths, and are bearing trophy heads

And here’s an example of the beautiful Nazca ceramics, produced at the time Rome was falling apart: 

Ancient Peru, Nazca Culture, Double-spouted bridge handle vessel, 325–440 CE. Painted ceramic, 3 15/16" x 7" x 6 ¼" (23.5 x 17.8 x 15.9 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5242)

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Community Connection: 1.5; The Visual Experience: 14.4; Discovering Art History: 4.9

Monday, November 13, 2017

Sister-in-Law / Beautiful Landscape

Claude Monet (1840–1926, France), The Islets at Port-Villez, 1897. Oil on canvas, 31 7/8" x 39 ¾" (81 x 101 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, Bequest of Grace Underwood Barton. (BMA-432)

My sister-in-law Stacy's birthday coming up on the fourteenth of November. She’s a beautiful person both inside and out. Since I couldn’t find any “sister-in-law” works of art that satisfied the need to praise a beautiful person, I am resorting to a work by an artist who truly produced some of the most breathtaking paintings I’ve ever seen. Even his studies for paintings have an extraordinary beauty to them. And, I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute to my sis-in-law than with beauty in a painting equal to her beauty as a human being.

As you may already be aware from my posts about Monet paintings, he is one of my inspirations for wanting (trying) to paint landscapes. I think the fact that he was growing as an artist and expanding his vision of what he wanted to show in paintings even in his eighties, should be an inspiration to any painter to keep at it. I often think studies like this have an abstract potential that eventually came to dominate his late water lily paintings.

In 1890, Monet bought his home in the village of Giverny, which is now world-famous for his water lily garden. Nearby was the town of Port-Villez—between Vernon and Bonnières-sur-Seine—where he did numerous paintings as studies of reflections in water. To paint scenes such as this, Monet used a flat-bottom boat, something he had learned from the realist Charles Daubigny (1817–1878). In the 1860s, Daubigny was one of the Barbizon painters who encouraged Monetand his fellow fledgling Impressioniststo paint landscapes outdoors to achieve realistic interpretations of light and atmosphere. This, combined with Monet’s encounter with the works of J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851), the great British Romantic landscape painter, is what started Monet on his path to true greatness.

Like many of the Impressionists, Monet did not paint most of his works completely outdoors. He established the colors and light while outdoors, then refined the works in the studio. However, I have a funny feeling that this study was executed completely outdoors. It’s always thrilling for me, an aspiring landscape painter, to see sections of a Monet canvas unpainted. Monet’s brush work seems to follow the rays of light from the rising sun. Those arcing lines of color are echoed in the foliage to indicate the receding and jutting volumes of the trees. For Monet, the landscape did not exist separately from the surrounding atmosphere and light. He attributed those elements as the truly important contributors to a successful painted landscape.

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Global Pursuit: 7.2; Discovering Art History: 13.1