Monday, May 23, 2016

Contemporary Bamboo

Nagakura Kenichi (born 1952), Curve, 2001. Bamboo (madake), 10" x 10" x 9" (25.4 x 25.4 x 22.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Nagakura Kenichi. (PMA-6743)

Bamboo (“take” or “dake” in Japanese), the fastest-growing woody plant on Earth, has been a cultural underpinning in Japan since forever. It has been used there to make everything from cups and tea whisks, to timbers for the roofs of houses. Bamboo sprouts (“dakenoko”) have also been used in cooking. It is variously a symbol of strength, because of its sturdiness, and also purity and innocence, because it is simple and unadorned. There were a lot more master bamboo artists in the past, but plastic has overtaken bamboo in the department of utilitarian arts. Nonetheless, there are estimated to be about 100 master bamboo artists, and we were lucky enough to get some of their gorgeous works for our digital image collection from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These works are proof that the art form is definitely alive and well! In the past, some bamboo master artists have been named National Treasures in Japan.

Bamboo grows all over Japan because of the humid, warm climate. There are roughly 1000 recorded species of the plant. Some bamboo species are amazingly fast growing, some as fast as 47 5/8" (121 cm) a day! That seems amazing, but it must account for the fact why bamboo is so relied upon in Japan as a lumber stock.

Bamboo is often included in arrangements with pine boughs at New Year because of its auspicious nature. Pine stands for longevity and endurance, while bamboo is strength and flexibility. Along with plum branches (representing a young spirit), they symbolize the cardinal qualities of long life, hardiness and vitality.

The artists represented here have created objects, both utilitarian and sculpture, of amazing grace and complexity, showing the versatility of bamboo. As is evident with these artworks, the most common way to use bamboo in Japan is to split it into strips to use in basket arts. It is quite literally a “green” art form, because bamboo is a sustainable crop. How wonderful that such a venerable, ancient art form can come into the 21st century in exciting new forms.

Some of the bamboos seen here are:
  • Madake, timber bamboo—the most common type
  • Nemagari, a short, mounting form common in Nagano Prefecture (sasa senanensis)
  • Menyadake, a form in which three branches grow out of each node on the main stalk
  • Susudake, the most prized, smoked bamboo 100 years or older taken from old roof timbers, usually from the late Edo Period (1615–1868)

Honma Hideaki (born 1959), Graceful Figure, 1997. Bamboo (menyadake and nemagaridake), 30" x 15" x 10" (76.2 × 38.1 × 25.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Honma Hideaki. (PMA-6727)

Morigami Jin (born 1955), Untitled, 2001. Bamboo (madake) and rattan, 18" x 10 1/2" x 14" (45.7 x 26.7 x 35.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Morigami Jin. (PMA-6740)

Mimura Chikuho (born 1973), Cloud on the Peak, 2005. Bamboo (madake), 7 1/2" x 17" (19.1 x 43.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Mimura Chikuho. (PMA-6738)

Kawashima Shigeo (born 1958), Cosmic Ring II, 2002. Bamboo (madake) and cotton thread, 16" x 16 1/2" x 7 1/2" (40.6 × 41.9 × 19.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Kawashima Shigeo. (PMA-6732)

Nakatomi Hajime (born 1974), Fragrant Wind II, 2003. Bamboo (madake) and rattan, 14" x 8 1/2" (35.6 x 21.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Nakatomi Hajime. (PMA-6745)

Honda Syōryū  (born 1951), Dance, 2001. Bamboo (madake) and rattan, 11 3/4" x 14" x 11 1/2" (29.8 x 35.6 x 29.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Honda Syōryū. (PMA-6725)

Kosuge Hōunsai Kōgetsu (born 1932), Hanging flower basket with comb pattern (“kushime”), 2005. Bamboo (Susudake, sadodake and nemagaridake) and rattan, 9 1/2" x 5" x 3 1/2" (24.1 x 12.7 x 8.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Kosuge Hōunsai Kōgetsu. (PMA-6736)

Correlations to Davis Programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.studio23-24, 5.25; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4, 3.5; A Community Connection: 3.2, 5.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.5; Beginning Sculpture: 6; Exploring Visual Design: 6, 11; The Visual Experience: 7.2, 10.2, 12.4, 13.5, 16.8; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.4

Monday, May 16, 2016

Hand Gestures in Art

A couple of days ago while I was crossing the street—with the walk light on—some dope decided he didn’t want to wait for a green light and drove through the red, across my path, not three feet in front of me. As he passed me he gave me a certain hand gesture, why I don’t know. I thought, “Geez, and I had the walk light!” Well, the hand gesture was a definite negative. And you know what this art historian does with a negative? He turns it into a positive art history story!

Ever since I first studied Asian art in college, I’ve been fascinated by the hand gestures carved or painted on images of Buddha or bodhisattvas. This tradition goes way back to the very first known carved images of the Buddha from northern India/Pakistan. This is an early example of the abhaya mudrâ. 

Pakistan, Buddha Sakyamuni, from Peshawar, Gandhara, ca. 150–200 CE. Schist, height: 47 1/8" (119.7 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-206)

Representations of the Buddha and bodhisattvas are almost always shown with their hands making certain gestures. These gestures have been ritualized and stylized down through the history of Buddhist art. These stylized gestures have symbolic meaning relating to the Buddha’s ministry, and are known as Mudrâs. Mudrâ comes from the Sanskrit root mud, which means “to delight in.” They are a traditional part of classic Indian dance, Yoga, and spiritual practices. Representations of some aspects of the Buddha require a certain mudrâ, and some require specific objects to be held.

Harina and Avakasha mudras
The harina, or “lion gesture,” is always shown on the right hand. It is meant to symbolize peace and protection. The avakasha is a left hand gesture of leisure. Bodhisattvas are generally saints, people who have achieved enlightenment but forsake Nirvana to remain with humans to help them find their way. Arhats are considered “perfected people” who have found Nirvana.

Korea, Amithaba with Six Bodhisattvas and Two Arhats, 1700s. Ink and colors on silk, 31 7/8" x 35 3/8" (81 x 90 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-656)

Cincihna, the “gesture of understanding,” is a right-handed gesture. It symbolizes understanding in the sense of spiritual understanding. Guanyin is one of the most popular of the bodhisattvas. He is considered the bodhisattva of compassion. In this sculpture, he sits in the “position of royal ease.”

China, Bodhisattva Guanyin, 1279–1368. Wood, height: 50 3/8" (128 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1890)

Bhumisparsha and avakasha
Bhumisparsha, always the right hand, is the “gesture of witness.” It pertains to the time when Mara—the demon, or, symbolically the sum of blind passions in humans that keeps them from enlightenment—tried to obstruct Buddha from obtaining enlightenment while he was meditating under the Pippala tree. He basically threw obstructions and temptations at the Buddha, finally challenging him to provide proof of his virtues. Buddha touch the ground and the goddess of the Earth gave witness to his virtues. The leisure gesture shows how unperturbed the Buddha was with Mara’s machinations.

Myanmar, Seated Buddha, 1700s–1800s. Bronze, 15 3/4" x 6 1/2" x 5 1/4" (40 x 16.5 x 13.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6655)

This is the “gesture of meditation,” sometimes called Samadhi or Yoga mudrâ. It is commonly used for images of the Buddha Sakyamuni (“sage of the Sakyas”, Buddha’s clan), Buddha Amitabha (the Buddha of “Infinite Life,” connected with Pure Land Buddhism), and Medicine Buddha (fully enlightened human, healer of outer and inner sickness). Kannon is the Japanese translation of Guanyin. In depictions of Guanyin, the meditation gesture emphasizes his capacity to help humans achieve enlightenment through perfected meditation.

Kanō Motonobu (1476–1559, Japan), Bodhisattva of Compassion (Kannon/Guanyin). Ink, color and gold leaf on silk, hanging scroll, 61 7/8" x 30" (57.2 x 76.4 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-783)

This is one of the oldest mudrâs seen in depictions of the Buddha. It is commonly associated as a “gesture of blessing,” “gesture of fearlessness,” or “gesture of protection.” It is sometimes depicted as a left-handed gesture. My professor in college said it literally indicates the Buddha expressing the idea of “have no fear.”

China, Seated Bodhisattva, ca. 530 CE. Limestone, 77 3/8" x 35 7/16" x 18 1/8" (196.5 x 90 x 46 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-625)

This is probably the most common gesture in Christian Western art. It is primarily associated with images of Jesus in his capacity to bless/forgive/sanctify.

Hans Memling (ca. 1430/1433–1494, born Germany, active Flanders), Christ Blessing, 1481. Oil on panel, 13 13/16" x 9 7/8" (35.1 x 25.1 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-258)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4” 2.studio7-8; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 5.29, 5.30; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.Connections; A Personal Journey: 4.4; A Community Connection: 1.1, 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 3.5, 4.5, 7.5; Discovering Art History: 4

Monday, May 9, 2016

A Different Way to Look at Rainy May Days

Most of May’s weather has been pretty cold and rainy so far, so I thought I’d look at art (which I do every day anyway) to take my mind off of it. Of course, a title including “May Rain” caught my eye, and got me contemplating yet another one of those fascinating dichotomies in art history: dueling philosophies. This one involves the Japanese print movements that arose after the Ukiyo-e style had more or less run its course during the Meiji period (1868–1912).  The Westernization of Japan after it was “opened” by the US and Britain in the mid-1800s really helped to make Ukiyo-e subject matter and style seem rather passé. It did not help that the official Japanese “academies” considered woodblock prints a “minor” art form compared to painting. An effort by groups of artists in the early 1900s to resurrect the spirit of Ukiyo-e resulted in the “shin hanga” (new print, the Kawase and Tsuchiya) and “sosaku hanga” (creative print, the Onchi and Azechi) movements.
Kawase Hasui (1883–1957), May Rain at Sanno, From the series “Twelve Subjects of Tokyo”, ca. 1920s. Color woodblock print onpaper, 11 3/8" x 10 3/8" (28.8 x 26.3 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2823)

Onchi Kōshirō (1891–1955), Tokyo Station, from the series “Scenes of Lost Tokyo,” 1931, reprinted 1946. Color woodblock print on paper, 10 1/4" x 7 7/8" (26 x 20 cm). © Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-528)

Just a little comparison with the Shin hanga print above (Kawase) and a classic Hiroshige depiction of rain. I love the vibrant colors of the classic Ukiyo-e, but the Kawase has such wonderful softly contoured forms. I can’t decide which I like better!

Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858), The Fudo Waterfall at Oji, #47 from the series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”, ca. 1857. Color woodblock print on paper, 14 3/16" x 9 7/16" (36 x 24 cm). © Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-194)
The art form of the multiple-block woodcut print flourished in Japan during the Edo Period (1615–1868). It is primarily known in the West in the Ukiyo-e style, prints that showed city life and familiar landscapes as representations of the transient physical world. The style persisted briefly after the Edo Period, particularly in landscape and cityscape prints.

Shin hanga and sosaku hanga had their origins in Japan as a reaction to the rapid industrialization of the country after its “opening” to Western powers. At the turn of the 1900s, there was a great debate in Japan in artistic and literary circles about traditions in Japanese art.  This was in part influenced by the Japanese exposure to European modernism: many Japanese artists travelled to Europe during the 1890s. Another factor was the reaction by young artists during the first decade of the 1900s to stifling cultural strictures and the establishment in 1907 of the Japan Fine Arts Academy, which looked upon printmaking as a “minor art.” 

Artists of these print movements were committed to rejuvenating the spirit of the Ukiyo-e genre of woodblock printing in all its aspects. The artists of the shin hanga movement, which flourished between 1915 and 1947, emphasized the traditional hierarchy of artist, woodblock carver, and publisher as separate entities in the process of producing prints. This was in contrast to the sosaku hanga (creative print) artists who made sketches, drew the design, cut the woodblock and printed it themselves. Sosaku hanga evolved as an idea in the 1890s, and is sometimes assigned the “starting date” of 1904 with publication of creative prints in Myojo magazine. Sosaku hanga as a genre flourishes to the present day and the is sometimes referred to as “New Hanga.”

Both print movements reflected Western influence in style. Ironically, both shin hanga and sosaku hanga prints had more appeal abroad than in Japan.
Tsuchiya Kōitsu (1870–1949), Rain in Ginza, from The series “Tokyo Views,” 1933. Color woodblock print on paper, 12 15/16" x 17 3/8" (32.9 x 44 cm). Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-531)

Azechi Umetaro (1902–1999), Sunlit Plateau, 1940. Color woodblock print on paper, 15 1/2" x 10 13/16" (39.5 x 27.5 cm). © Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-669)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.studio5-6; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.studio3-4, 1.MeetAndoHiroshige; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.7, 2.8; A Community Connection: 4.5, 8.2; A Global Pursuit 7.5; Experience Printmaking: 3, 4; Exploring Visual Design: 5; The Visual Experience: 3.5, 9.4, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.4

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Cataracts Paintings

As a painter, I often do not like to contemplate having any sort of illness associated with my eyesight. That’s why, when I discovered a long while back that Claude Monet (one of my Heroes of Art History) had suffered from cataracts, it gave me the willies. I learned that fact at a massive retrospective of Monet’s work that I saw at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1990s, I believe. They had his works arranged in chronological order by date, and one room was dominated by a decidedly, predominantly warm palette. When I read the blurb printed on the wall, it was one of those epiphany moments of art history that I experience (often on a daily basis). I remember when I proceeded to the next room, post-cataract surgery (1922), that his palette had returned to the predominant blues, greens, and violets. How they cured cataracts in the 1920s without zapping them with a laser is another topic I don’t care to contemplate.            

Claude Monet (1840–1926, France), The Japanese Footbridge, 1920–1922. Oil on canvas, 35 1/4" x 45 3/4" (89.5 x 116.3 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P2623)

Claude Monet (1840–1926 France), The Japanese Footbridge, Giverny, 1922. Oil on canvas, 35" x 37" (88.9 x 94.1 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (MFH-818)
In 1893 Monet began to transform the marshy ground behind his house in Giverny into a Japanese garden with a water lily pond and various domestic plants. He also built a "Japanese" wooden bridge. The point to the garden was to contrast two ideas that were central to his work after the 1880s: the gradual dissolution of floral forms, and reflections in water.  He explored the subject of the pond and the bridge 18 times between 1898 and 1900. It appeared less frequently after he was diagnosed with cataracts, when the pond and water lilies occupied the majority of his work towards the end of his life.

Monet began having trouble with cataracts in 1905, but did not see a doctor about it until 1912. He put off the needed surgery until 1923. Cataracts affected his ability to distinguish the cool range of colors, thus many of his works from this period are dominated by bright yellows, oranges, purples, and reds. His brush strokes also became wider and larger because cataracts cause light to blur the contours of objects. These warm paintings were not Monet's intentional stylistic shift; he was merely painting what he saw with the cataracts. This is borne out by the fact that after he had the surgery in 1923, he destroyed many of the orange/yellow works.

I’m glad Monet didn’t destroy all of these paintings from the Cataracts Period. I’m just wondering why he waited 18 years to get the condition fixed? I find these paintings in a warm palette with gestural brush work to be very visually exciting, sort of like Expressionism, which was being explored at the same time. One of the paintings I saw in the AIC exhibit was a painting of Monet’s house in Giverny, and I am ashamed to admit as an art historian, that my first reaction to it was that it was a van Gogh!

Here’s post-cataract Monet:

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Iris, 1923–1926. Oil on canvas, 78 3/4" x 79 1/4" (200 x 201.3 cm). © Art Institute of Chicago. (AIC-7266)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.Connections; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.21, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.9, 2.Studio7-8; A Personal Journey 5.4; A Community Connection: 6.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.2, 8.4; Experience Painting: 6; Exploring Painting: 7, 11; Exploring Visual Design: 4; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.4; Discovering Art History: 13.1

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Malagan

Since I first saw the Rockefeller collection of Oceanic art at the Metropolitan Museum in the early 1990s, I have been enthralled with the sophistication of sculpting, inlay, painted decoration, and combination of materials in their arts. I’m especially fascinated by the variety of art forms involved in the Malagan, the ceremonies held after the burial and mourning of the dead. The masks are especially spectacular.

Oceania is a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean that covers one-third of the earth's surface.  Contained in Oceania are the cultural-geographic areas of Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Melanesia includes New Guinea and the islands that extend eastward as far as Fiji and New Caledonia. Archeological evidence exists that suggests the presence of Homo sapiens in New Guinea as long as 40,000 to 50,000 years ago! They most likely crossed over from Indonesia, settling both New Guinea and, by 38,000 years ago, Australia.

New Ireland is in the Bismarck Archipelago, located north of New Guinea. Today it is a province of Papua New Guinea. Much of the art produced in New Ireland has traditionally centered on ceremonies and feasts to honor the dead (called Malagan). The Malagan was a ceremony to honor a deceased person or spirits of deceased ancestors. Malagan refers to both the ceremonies that occur after burial, and the masks, figures, and posts made for us in them.

Performances, feasts, and dances were organized after the funeral (often one to five years after), when artists were hired to carve masks and complex sculptures that usually incorporated multiple figures. The purpose of the Malagan ceremonies was to help send the soul of the deceased to the realm of the departed, and venerated ancestral spirits. While Malagan sculptures are not portraits of the deceased, they represented the soul, and are thought to have contained the deceased's soul during the ceremony.

Malagan sculpture and masks were owned by particular extended families, commissioned especially for the ceremonies by artists who specialized in producing the Malagan. A range of figures, masks, posts, and boards were created. Some were worn during dances, while some were stored in a special Malagan enclosure.

Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, Malagan Mask, 1800s. Wood, rattan, bark cloth, fiber, Turbo petholatus opercula shells, pigment, 15 1/4" x 9" x 12" (38.7 x 22.9 x 30.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1611)
Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, Malagan Mask, 1800s. Wood, rattan, bark cloth, fiber, Turbo petholatus opercula shell, pigment, 20" x 7 3/4" x 12 1/2" (50.8 x 19.7 x 31.8 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1542)

Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, Malagan Mask, 1800s. Wood, bark, fiber, Turbo petholatus opercula shell, pigment, glass eyes, 12 1/4" x 8" x 10 1/2" (31.1 x 20.3 x 26.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1546)

There are a variety of masks used for specific purposes during the Malagan. The three above are called tatanua, after the dance for which it is used. The mask is danced in pairs or in groups of dancers. The spirit of the deceased was traditionally thought to enter the mask. It is possible that such masks were "portraits" (stylized) of the ideal male. They were meant to honor the deceased, ward off malevolent intentions, and sever the deceased from possessions in the physical world. The feather part on the crown of the mask imitates the hairstyle worn by young men for Malagan ceremonies, in which the head was partly shaved and the hair stiffened with lime.

Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, Malagan Mask, 1800s. Wood, fiber Turbo pehtolatus opercula shell, pigment, 23 1/2" x 11 3/4" x 15 3/4" (59.7 x 29.8 x 40 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1575)
This mask is called ges. The ges was considered to be a potent, sometimes destructive spirit in the bush. The mask was used during the Malagan to threaten those in the community who did not honor the deceased. The ges mask also helped remove spirits of other deceased persons from the area where the Malagan was being held.

Ges masks particularly rarely survive to find their way into museums because they are so intricately carved into delicate forms from a single piece of wood. This example contains an abstracted nose formed out of a bird head biting a snake. The bird and snake motif is common in Melanesian art, the bird representing the spirit world and the snake the human realm. These two realms are in constant turmoil. The drooping eye reminds me of Picasso’s Cubism! No surprise Picasso was heavily influenced by Oceanic art.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 5.Studio29-30; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.Studio33-34; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.30, 5.Connections, 5.Studio29-30; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.34, 6.35, 6.Studio35-36; A Personal Journey: 7.6; A Community Connection: 3.2, 7.6; A Global Pursuit: 6.5; Beginning Sculpture: 5, 6; Exploring Visual Design: 6; The Visual Experience: 7.2, 10.2, 10.15, 14.7; Discovering Art History: 4.6, 4.Activity 2

Thursday, March 31, 2016

It Isn’t Just Wood

James Prestini (1908–1993, US), Bowl, ca. 1939. Mexican mahogany, height: 5 7/8” (15 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Estate of James Prestini. (MOMA-D0119)
The American revolution in modernism in the mid-1900s was not confined to painting and sculpture alone (i.e., Abstract Expressionism). Aside from the New York School’s exploring the question of process over object, many schools of artists developed in the late 1940s that questioned the traditional concepts of various art forms. These groups included the ceramics-as-fine-art artists such as Peter Voulkos (1924–2002), and the fine woodworking movement that emerged in America during the post-World War II (1939–1945) period from coast to coast.

James Prestini is considered one of the “fathers of the modern woodworking movement” in America. He was influenced by the work of his father, an Italian stonecutter, and by the Bauhaus aesthetic of applying the elements and principles of fine art to utilitarian objects. He obtained degrees in mechanical engineering from Yale, the University of Stockholm (where he was exposed to Scandanavian modernism of the 1930s), and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1939, a “Bauhaus West” of sorts where Bauhaus alumni Mies van der Rohe and Moholy-Nagy both taught.

Between 1933 and 1953, Prestini produced hundreds of thin-walled, lathe-turned bowls in a variety of rich hardwoods. Part of the beauty of his work is the perfection of form in the simplest of terms. The refined surfaces of his pieces often mimic the finish of glass or ceramic. These pieces really do bring the beauty of art to everyday utility.

Hap Sakwa (born 1950, US), Vessel, 1979. Manzanita burl, 3 1/2" x 9 3/4" (8.9 x 24.8 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Hap Sakwa. (PMA-6906)
Hap Sakwa, born in Los Angeles, was inspired at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 to become a decorative arts artist. In 1972 he settled in southern California where he was influenced by two major figures of the American Studio Furniture movement, Bob Stocksdale and Art Carpenter.

Sakwa began producing lathe-turned vessels and carved figurative sculpture from native California root burls. Like many of the artists of the American Studio Furniture movement, Sakwa’s designs walk a fine line between sculpture and utilitarian vessels. In 1977 the artist was featured in an early issue of Fine Woodworking Magazine.

William Hunter (born 1947, US), Kinetic Rhythms #1277, 1997. Lathe-turned and carved Cocobolo rosewood. Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC. © 2016 William Hunter. (MIN-71)

One of the major schools of modern woodworking is Northern California that emerged during the late 1940s. These artists came from many fine arts colleges in California, many of them specializing in hand-made furniture with a modern aesthetic produced in fine woods. These early artists extended the range of fine woodworking to encompass not only other utilitarian art objects, but also fine art.

William Hunter is a sculptor who creates organic forms in lathe-turned wood. With degrees as varied as an AA in Fire Science and a BA in Sociology, Hunter was a self-taught woodworking artist. His first show of his turned works was in 1970, at the height of the fine art woodworking movement. His sculpture uses the vessel—one of humanity’s oldest forms—as his vehicle of expression. Hunter’s lathe-turned forms—subtractive sculpture—emulate organic growth without depicting a particular plant or shell, or a specific narrative.

John Cederquist (born 1946, US), Pipe Dream chest of drawers, 1998. Cut and constructed Baltic birch plywood, maple, aniline dye, epoxy resin. Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC. © 2016 John Cederquist. (MIN-69B)

Born in Altadena, Cederquist is one of the many prominent artists of the California branch of the contemporary woodworking movement. He has a BA in art and an MA in crafts from California State University at Long Beach.

Cederquist’s earliest involvement in the woodworking movement came in the design of furniture in the prevailing aesthetic of the 1970s, which emphasized anthropomorphic forms that stressed the qualities of the wood. This early furniture was heavily influenced by Wendell Castle. By the late 1980s, however, fascinated by the ideas of perspective and the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface, he began to explore trompe-l’oeil imagery in the context of furniture and wooden assemblages. This chest of drawers is a great example of his trompe-l’oeil work.

Wendell Castle (born 1932, US), Settee, 1979. Cherry wood, 36" x 58" x 24" (91.4 x 147.3 x 61 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © 2016 Wendell Castle. (MFAB-494)
Born in Emporia, Kansas, Castle earned a BFA in sculpture and an MFA in industrial design from the University of Kansas. He taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology (1962–1969) and then opened the Wendell Castle School in 1980. This school, now incorporated into the furniture making program at RIT, was a non-profit education institution offering instruction in fine art woodworking and furniture design.

Castle has been at the forefront of innovative contemporary American furniture design for more than five decades. His works are characterized by organic forms from nature that Castle believes are a natural source for furniture design. As a pioneer of the American Studio Furniture movement, he pioneered a sculpture technique of laminated, stacked wood which he then carved into organic forms. He has also pioneered a process of carving fiberglass to make furniture.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.Studio35-36; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.Studio23-24; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 3.2, 5.2, 8.4, 9.4; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 12.4, 16.7, 16.10; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Something Beautiful for March

Edward Steichen (1879–1973, US, born Luxembourg), Mary Pickford, March, 1924. Gelatin silver print on paper, 9 7/16" x 7 1/2" (24.1 x 19.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2016 Estate of Edward Steichen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BMA-4611stnars)

Instead of showing a painting of daffodils blooming or March winds and rain, I’d like to look at one of my favorite photographers, who just happened to take this photograph in March. It probably wasn’t cold or snowy outside when Steichen took this portrait in Hollywood, but, it sure does put beauty and glamour into a month that can sometimes be dreary. And besides, seeing how some people attending the Oscars dressed at the end of February, we need a little shot of demure elegance and sophistication instead of “leaving nothing to the imagination.”

Mary Pickford (1892–1979, Canada) is a perfect subject for Steichen’s style of portraiture (and, yes, she won an Oscar in 1929 for Coquette). No doubt the melodramatic nature of silent movies was perfectly suited to a Pictorialist aesthetic in Steichen's portraiture of the 1920s. With the dramatic lighting, soft-focus, and doe-eyed, sanguine poses, Steichen set a standard in Hollywood portrait photography that continues to the present day, more or less.

Pictorialism ("art photography") did not become popular in the United States until the 1890s. Photographers who worked in the Pictorialist style believed that their photographs came the closest to the aesthetic ideals of painting, this at a time when photographers struggled to get the medium accepted as “fine art”. These aims were achieved through the choice of romantic, sentimental, or allegorical subject matter; careful staging; careful and often dramatic lighting; and generally soft focus. Steichen, who began his career as painter, was an archetypal Pictorialist photographer from around 1895 to 1914.

Steichen arrived with his family in the US at the age of 3. At 16 he had bought a camera, producing soft-focus, self-consciously artistic work. At 19 his photographs were accepted into the Second Philadelphia Salon of Pictorial Photography. All that time he was an aspiring painter, as well, and resolved to go to Paris to study it. On his way there he met Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), the greatest American photographer at the time and advocate of artistic photographer.

Steichen helped Stieglitz found the Photo-Secession group dedicated to that style, and its dependent gallery "291." While studying painting in Paris, he decided to abandon it entirely for photography. Exposure to the Tonalist paintings of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903, United States) and the French Impressionists while in Paris confirmed his Pictorialist style.

Although Steichen had abandoned painting, he styled many of his photographs—in both composition and technique—as paintings would be. Soft-focus, softly lit, asymmetrical compositions typified his poetic style. His Pictorialism was curtailed when he served as an aerial photographer for the American Expeditionary Force during World War I (1914–1918). He was forced to give up his soft tonalities for straight edge, sharp focus photography.

Steichen returned to the US in 1922 and established a studio in New York that specialized in advertising photography. Sharp, crisp imagery was important in that field. However, he was able to combine that style with the Pictorialist sensibilities in the photography he ultimately did for Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines—fashion photography and portraits of movie stars and famous personalities.      

Edward Steichen (1879–1973, US born Luxembourg), Greta Garbo, 1928. Gelatin silver print on paper, 16 9/16" x 13 3/16" (42.1 x 33.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Estate of Edward Steichen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P0306stnars)

This is one of six shots Steichen took of the famous actress Greta Garbo (1905–1990, Sweden-US) while she was filming. No doubt the fact that she had just filmed a scene in which her character's husband had committed suicide contributed to the drama of her poses, which Steichen's Pictorialist style freezes magnificently in time.

Correlations to Davis programs:  A Community Connection: 7.2, 7.4; Exploring Visual Design: 9; Focus on Photography: 2, 3, 5; The Visual Experience: 9.5, 16.6