Monday, May 22, 2017

Lathe and Nature Magic


David Sengel (born 1951, US), Night Bird, 2000. Ebonized maple burl, sassafras, rose and locust thorns, 4 ¼" x 10" x 9 ½" (10.8 x 25.4 x 24.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 David Sengel. (PMA-8029)

When I see a work of art that blows me away, I’ve just got to share it with as many people as I possibly can. This work was my “epiphany of the week” that I recently sent to my co-workers. I’m sure we all realize that there is strong and proud traditional emphasis on process, design, and crafting within the contemporary woodworking community. I’m pretty sure I don’t care if wood is worked to produce a functional piece or a sculpture, I still just call it ART. FINE ART at that. All one has to do is look at David Sengel’s work to realize why I say this!

David Sengel is a really unique individual, aside from being a great artist. He grew up learning about woodworking in his father’s workshop. For some time he honed his ability with the lathe, making functional works of art. At some point, he decided it would be more interesting if what he created had some sort of narrative. That is clearly evident in this piece. One of his chief inspirations is a daily walk through his land in North Carolina, where he observes details in nature that eventually end up in his art.

A dear friend of mine was a lathe enthusiast, who turned amazing pieces out of burl wood. His preferred burls came from Australian trees, but I imagine trees all over the world have burls. Burls are growths on trees, which may be caused by insects, fungi, or environmental stresses. They usually look like a big bump on the side of a tree. My friend Matt used to make amazing bowls from burls on his lathe, often including the deformities in the finished piece. I’m kind of imagining that this work by Sengel is displaying some of the deformities of the burl.

In this piece, Sengel has ebonized the wood. Ebonizing is not simply staining the wood with a dark color. It involves a process that causes a chemical reaction to make the wood turn black, imitating the precious ebony wood that is practically extinct on our planet. The tannins in the wood are what react with the treatment. A combination of tea, steel wool, and vinegar is often used to ebonize wood. Tea is loaded with tannins. It must be done after the wood is turned, because ebonizing only affects the surface.

I’m not sure what part of this piece is from the sassafras tree, but I’m pretty sure the bird is composed of rose and locust thorns. I’ve seen other works by Sengel with those components. Sengel’s work is amazing, and he uses every part of a tree imaginable, including the roots! 

Sengel's art can be found in a number of museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Mint Museum. The following websites feature his work and the work of other wood artists:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Still Life and Our Culture of Abundance

John F. Francis (1808–1886, US), Still Life with Apples and Chestnuts, 1859. Oil on canvas, 25" x 30 1/8" (63.5 x 76.5 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-360)

I got so excited the other night while watching Antiques Roadshow. A person brought two little still-life paintings from 1865, and I said to myself, “Oh, those look like John Francis’s work.” And they were! If the Baroque period was the high point of Dutch still-life painting, then the 1800s were for the US. There are just so many artists who specialized in still life, and I’m purposely ignoring trompe-l’oeil still life because illusion is more important than anything else in those works. Because of the domination of the Peale family during most of the 1800s, artists like John F. Francis are not given the art historical accolades they deserve, so I’m on it!

Francis was born in Philadelphia and had to have been aware of the paintings of the Peales who specialized in still life: Raphaelle (1774–1825) and James (1749–1831). His training, however, is unknown, and it is generally assumed that he was self-taught. Interestingly, at the time Francis began painting, still life was still a (relatively) newly accepted painting subject—portraiture and history painting were still considered “the finest” compared to landscape, still life, and genre.

Francis became a portrait limner—an itinerant painter with little formal training—during the 1830s and 1840s. He never strayed too far from Philadelphia, however. About 1850, he began to add still life to his body of work. By 1854 he was painting still life almost exclusively. I’m not sure if he ever saw Dutch Baroque still-life paintings, but he preferred to paint sumptuous “banquet pieces” like these. Like the Dutch Baroque artists, he intensely scrutinized the textural appearance of the food in his still life, and did not eschew showing fruit that was past its prime.

I’ve seen these Francis works at the MFA. Although they appear as sharply painted as Peale still life, they are actually more painterly. Another difference from the Peales is compositional. Francis’s still-life works are typically staged on a white tablecloth that is slightly askew from the picture plane, as opposed to the parallel, undressed shelf of Peale still life. While many are on neutral backgrounds like these, some are set with landscape backgrounds.

All in all, still-life paintings like these of the mid-1800s speak to me of the (perceived) “bounty” of America. The middle class American art patrons—just like their 1600s Dutch counterparts—wanted these luscious paintings in their dining rooms to reflect to their guests not only their good artistic taste, but also their own prosperity. I get a kick out of seeing these paintings up close. Francis used pale blue for his highlights on the glasses and fruits in these baskets instead of the usual white. 

Still Life with Apples and Chestnuts, detail.

Here’s another beautiful example:

Still Life with Wine Bottles and Basket of Fruit, 1857. Oil on canvas, 25 1/8" x 39 7/8" (63.8 x 76.2 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-367)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.6; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.8, 2.7-8 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.6; Experience Painting: 6

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Raphael of Flowers


Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759–1840, France, born Belgium), Joséphine’s March Lily (Amarylis Josepinae), 1802–1805. Watercolor over graphite on vellum, sheet: 19 ¾" x 28 ¼" (50.3 x 71.8 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-7953)

I don’t usually experience beauty attacks when considering art from France of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Neoclassicism isn’t my thing! But this artist is a standout in a period otherwise dominated by history/political art. Any artist who pursues the love of painting flowers while France was going through the Reign of Terror is OK in my book! And, it reminds me that there are many other artists who have specialized in, or simply done a nice job with, works about flora and plants.

Some of the details of Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s life sound like a charmed folk tale. Take the story that he once visited Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI (both died 1793) in the Bastille because they wanted him to document a flowering cactus that was there?! Nevertheless, he was a highly respected botanical illustrator, and he escaped the French Revolution with his head.

Born of a Flemish family of painters (mostly for churches), he started painting flowers, plants, and trees as a child. He studied the masters of Dutch Baroque painting as a young adult, and was particularly impacted by the floral still-life painting of Jan van Huysum (1682–1749). He went to Paris in 1782, where he began earning his living doing theater decoration.

In his spare time in Paris, Redouté would spend hours doing flower studies in the Garden of the King. He came to the attention of the Superintendent of Paris Waters and Forests, Charles Louis l’Héritier (1746–1800), who subsequently mentored him and encouraged him to produce scientific studies of flowers. He introduced Redouté to studies of the dissection process and, more importantly, his massive botanical library.

Under l’Héritier’s guidance, Redouté learned the watercolor technique of Gerard von Spaendonck (1746–1822), a fellow Flemish botanical artist. Spaendonck eventually recruited him as a staff artist. Spaendonck had connections to the royal family, and eventually Redouté secured a position as a court botanist to Marie-Antoinette. He documented hundreds of exotic flowers in royal estates, such as the Tuilleries and Versailles. He managed to avoid the guillotine by cozying up to the Bonaparte faction during the 1790s, meanwhile becoming one of the most popular botanical painters in France.

Before Napoléon (1769–1821) made himself emperor, Redouté began associating with Napoléon's wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763–1814). He continued to produce watercolor studies that eventually were translated into colored engravings in books, personally learning the stipple engraving process. In 1805, a year after Napoléon’s and Joséphine’s coronation, he was appointed a court flower painter to the empress. Typically, he again switched allegiances back to the Bourbon royal family after Napoléon was deposed in 1815.

The beautiful study above was produced for the publication The Garden of Malmaison (1803) by the botanist Étienne-Pierre Ventenat (1757–1808). Redouté’s watercolors betray the influence of Spaendonck in the contrasting values of high-intensity color and transparent high values. This Josephine’s March Lily is a fitting subject for Redouté, because Malmaison was Joséphine’s private palace on the banks of the Seine 15 km (9 miles) west of Paris. The rest of his life he spent teaching flower painting. Between 1817 and 1824 he produced his greatest success, a portfolio of prints of his watercolor studies called Les Roses.

Here is a painting by Jan van Huysum, whose work greatly influenced Redouté to pursue botanical painting. 

Jan van Huysum (1682-1749 Netherlands), Flowers in an Urn, ca. 1720. Oil on wooden panel, 31 7/16" x 23 5/8" (79.9 x 60 cm). © 2017 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0864)

Here are some other artists I particularly like who specialized in flowers and plants:

Fidelia Bridges (1834–1923, US), Wisteria on a Wall, 1870s. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 14" x 10 1/16" (35.6 x 25.6 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1170)

Bridges, a native of Massachusetts, was encouraged in her studies of flora by the pioneering woman sculptor Anne Whitney (1821–1915). Bridges, like Redouté, worked exclusively in watercolor. 

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849, Japan), Morning Glories in Flowers and Buds, ca. 1830. Color woodcut print on paper, 9 ¾" x 14 11/16" (24.8 x 37.3 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2610)

I know Hokusai specialized in landscape, but he also produced numerous examples of the time-honored subject matter of bird-and-flower painting (kacho ga). Even in woodcut form, these compositions are stunning. 

Edwin Hale Lincoln (1848–1938, US), Thistle, 1898–1907. Platinum print on paper, 18 ¾" x 9 13/16" (33 x 25 cm). © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P2452)

Serious study of plants and flowers in photography began early in the development of the art form. Lincoln concentrated exclusively on documenting flowers. Beginning in the 1890s, he developed a group of platinum prints, first published in 1906 as The Wildflowers of New England. He published several editions of the study. The 1906 edition had 75 images, and by 1914 it was up to 400 images. 

Guo Dawei (Kwo Da-Wei, aka David Kwo, David Kwok and David Kwo Da-Wei, 1919–2003, US, born China), Cannas, 1950s. Ink and color on paper, 44 5/16" x 13 11/16" (112.6 x 34.8 cm). Image © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-663)

Guo was trained in traditional Chinese landscape and bird-and-flower painting in Beijing before the Communist takeover. In 1953, he moved to the US, where he was exposed to Abstract Expressionism. His bird-and-flower works from after that period reflect the action painting strain of Abstract Expressionism.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 2 1.2; A Personal Journey 5.5; A Global Pursuit 7.3

Friday, May 5, 2017

Beauty Attack


Henry Bacon (1839–1912 US), Street in Cairo, 1905. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 13 1/2" x 20" (34.4 x 50.8 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-561)

I must say, one of the things that keeps me young (in spirit, of course) is the constant beauty attacks I experience at work while looking at art from all over the world and every conceivable time period. These beauty attacks occur pretty much on a daily basis. I’m sure my co-workers get tired of hearing me exclaim “That’s gorgeous!” about one artwork another. Sometimes these attacks are great in the extreme and become epiphanies. That means I’ve learned something new and I’m thinking about an artist in a brand-new light. That would be the case with Henry Bacon (18391912).

Can you totally feel a sigh of relief standing in the shade rather than the bright sunlight? Bacon’s watercolors so remind me of the work of Sargent, particularly his scenes of Egypt and the Middle East. And he totally learned the Impressionist mantra to “not use black to make shades for shadows!” You can see that in his swipes of phthalo blue all over the place.

This former Civil War (1860–1864) soldier and illustrator for “Leslie’s Weekly,” born in the state in which I currently live, went to Paris in 1864 to study art after being wounded in the war. Unfortunately, he chose the École des Beaux-Arts—instead of the Barbizon and their budding Impressionist protégés—and studied under the realist Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889). He also came under the influence of the equally-vapid classicist realist Jean Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). The only difference in Bacon’s work of the 1870s and 1880s from those artists is that he painted many genre scenes of people in Brittany.

The Colossi of Thebes, 1904. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 15 7/16" x 21 9/16" (39.3 x 54.9 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-315)

Bacon developed an abiding love for the people and light of Egypt after his first trip there in 1897. By the mid-1890s, he had already swayed away from his genre scenes of middle-class French people in favor of Impressionism. The light of Egypt confirmed his interest in observed light and painting on the spot with a lighter palette. It also confirmed his love of watercolor, in which he worked almost exclusively for the rest of his life.

Like Americans Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Bacon used the white of the paper as his highlight. He abandoned the opaque underpainting watercolorists had traditionally used. Here, again, we see the use of phthalo blue in the deepest shadows. 

Bedouin Campfires, ca. 1911. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 16 13/16" x 26 1/16" (42.8 x 66.2 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-509)

Being an extremely poor watercolor artist myself, I’m always very envious of artists who can achieve such wonderful nuances with the medium. This lovely dusky scene is just full of the Impressionist palette, right down to the salmon and green he used for the foreground, which is beautifully complimented in the darkening sky. What most intrigues me is the smoke from the fire. The lazy me is tempted to attribute it to white gouache he may have added after the rest was dry, simply because there is a big white blob in the middle of the smoke under the camel’s head. And how else did he achieve the wisps of smoke to the left, but with thinned, white gouache? Just gorgeous!

And, just so you can compare his exciting watercolors to his…competent…earlier genre paintings, here is one of his oil paintings from the 1870s. This subject is what made him famous: people on transatlantic steamers, the latest thing in the 1800s. 

On the Open Sea—The Transatlantic Steamship, 1877. Oil on canvas, 19 3/4" x 29 1/8" (50.2 x 74 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (MFAB-47)

Bacon did countless works on the subject of transatlantic voyages to America, a new craze in the 1800s since steamships made travel to the US much faster. I find this type of realism at a time when Impressionism was blooming a big YAWN.

And speaking of big yawns, if Bacon’s realist period reminds you of anybody, here’s a hint: James Tissot (1836–1902). I can’t believe any art historian would ever even remotely associate Tissot with Impressionism, except that he liked to document middle class urban life. I’m not even going to guess what the dude on the trapeze with a monocle means! 

James J. Tissot (1836–1902 France), Women of Paris: The Circus Lover, 1885. Oil on canvas, 58" x 40" (147.3 x 101.6 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1233)

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Bill for Art


No, this is not some sort of philosophical jaunt through current government threats to cut all funding for the arts and libraries, though goodness knows that could be a college dissertation. Actually, yesterday I realized I was going to be late paying our cable bill and the art history nerd in me suddenly came up with the idea to show you works of art that feature different uses of the word “bill” in the title.  

William Harnett (1848–1892, US, born Ireland), Still Life—Five Dollar Bill, 1877. Oil on canvas, 7 7/8" x 12 3/16" (20 x 31 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2804)

Brought to the US as an infant from Ireland, Harnett was apprenticed as a silver engraver for currency as a youth. Obviously, that led to a life of crime (art)! In 1886, New York police grabbed this painting from the bar where it hung and Harnett was arrested for counterfeiting! A judge looked at the painting and told Harnett to avoid such “mischief.” Harnett never painted money again, but another trompe l’oeil artist, John Haberle (1856–1933) made it his specialty. I don’t know if he was ever arrested.

Harnett turned to painting in 1866, studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the National Academy of Design in New York. In New York, he first began to exhibit still-life paintings. He preferred still life because he could not afford models. Harnett’s preference for still life was reinforced when he went to London and Frankfurt in 1880. He was much impressed by Dutch Baroque still life, which he studied carefully while in Europe. 

Senufo People (Ivory Coast), Hornbill (Porpianong Bird), 1900s. Wood, metal and pigment, height: 63" (160 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-753)

Large sculptures of the hornbill bird (Porpianong) were traditionally commissioned by the Lo and Poro societies of the Senufo as representatives of fertility. The Porpianong was traditionally considered the “founder” of the Senufo people. Worn traditionally on the head during dance or processions, the sculptures depict the bird’s long bill touching a fertilized stomach, a symbol of procreation. The wings are usually represented as a square with painted designs.

Hornbills mate for life and are considered to share in the raising of their young. They protect their young by spreading out their wings. This would probably account for the square, shield-like wings in many Porpianong sculptures.

The Senufo people (also called Siena and Sene) are an ethnic group living in Ivory Coast, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Many of them live in the Middle Volta valley, between the Bagoe, Bani, and Mouhoun Rivers in West Africa. Senufo ancestry is not fully known, but they are believed to have migrated northward from the area around Odienne in Ivory Coast. They are now known as distinctly northern, central, and southern Senufo. They have traditionally worshipped ancestors and earth spirits, but many have converted to Islam since the 1700s.

Courier Lithograph Company (printer, ca. 1848–1926, Buffalo, NY), copy after Charles E. Stacy (1873–1926?, US), “Buffalo Bill” Cody—I Am Coming poster, ca. 1900. Chromolithograph on paper, 26 ½" x 40 9/16" (67.3 x 103.1 cm). © 2017 Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC. (SI-18)

I’m not even going to touch on the implications of Cody’s Christ-like “I am coming” statement on this poster. In fact, I’m not touching at all on the questionable ethics of his “Wild West Show.” I’m using his name merely as a vehicle to give praise to a 19th century sensation: the chromolithograph.

Chromo—or color—lithography works much on the same principle as multiple block woodcuts, using a litho stone for each color. Alois Senefelder (1771–1834, Czech-German), the developer of the black and white lithograph around 1798, had envisioned color lithography, but never realized it. The first patent taken out on chromolithographs was in 1837 in France. The first chromos were produced in the US in 1840.

By the post-Civil War (1860–1865) period in the US, chromolithography had created what some critics called a “chromo civilization.” By the 1880s, when the fad was fading, it was said that 4 out of 6 homes in the West were decorated with chromolithographic copies of either Currier and Ives prints or schlocky genre scenes. The great lithographer Louis Prang (1824–1909) pushed the sale of cheap chromolithograph reproductions of art, because he felt that art was not only for the elite.

The Buffalo Bill is a fine example of a chromolithograph in all its glory, right down to the spit coming out of the buffalo’s mouth. I’m wondering if the running buffalo were taken from one of the numerous studies of thundering buffalo executed by George Catlin (1796–1872) in the early 1800s. Regardless of that, the Courier Company was most famous for its posters rather than its reproductions of paintings. Their most famous posters were done for Buffalo Bill and the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956 Russia), Handbill for “The Bedbug,” a play by Ivan Mayakovsky (1893–1930). Letterpress on paper, 6 7/8” x 10 3/8" (17.5 x 26.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 Aleksandr Rodchenko / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-D1054rdvg)

It’s interesting that so many of the Russian avant-garde artists warmly embraced Communism as a “salvation” from the country’s imperialist past. Ironically, this advertisement is for a play (“Klop” is Russian for bedbug) in which Mayakovsky throws shade on the swindlers and new elitists of the Communist party, who ultimately, in the playwright’s mind, become archaic curiosities in the successful Communist dream state of the future.

Rodchenko was born to a working-class family in Saint Petersburg, studying art in an academic milieu. Moving to Moscow in 1915, he was immediately drawn to the avant-garde, particularly the Suprematist theories of Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935). Malevich believed that pure abstraction helped elevate and express the spiritual. As an ardent Communist in the coming revolution (1917), Rodchenko turned to the abstract theories of Constructivism, based in geometry and the influence of machines and building. Constructivism advocated for social transformation.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Not an Easter Egg


On our planet, the egg has been almost universally viewed as a symbol of rebirth and fertility since ancient times (imagine ancient eyes seeing something living come out of something hard and apparently inanimate!). Cosmic eggs are also the part of many creation stories around the world. Hardly surprising that it was adopted by the early Christians as one of the symbols of Christ’s resurrection. Eggs were symbols in spring equinox ceremonies throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East in ancient days. As we know, many Christian holidays and symbols stem from pre-Christian practices. But, as this is not a religious blog, these interesting works of art are as close as I’m coming to the subject of Easter! 

Unknown American Artist, Egg Salad, ca. 1850. Oil on canvas, 8 ½" x 11 ¼" (21.6 x 28.6 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-133)

This isn’t usually what contemporary American’s conjure up in their minds when they yearn after egg salad. Where’s the mayo? But, honestly, every time I see this painting when I’m at the MFA, it makes me hungry. And what is more representative of the no-nonsense realism—even in the most common things—that characterizes early American art?

As far as the still-life genre in American painting, it really didn’t exist until the Peale family came on the scene in the latter half of the 1700s. Before the second decade of the 1800s, still-life works were confined to botanical studies. Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), the patriarch of the Peale “dynasty,” turned over his successful portrait miniature business to his brother James (1739–1831) in 1795. When James’s eyesight began to fail (go figure) around 1820, he began painting still life.

James is really credited as the instigator of the craze over still life by American patrons, but I’ve always considered Rembrandt Peale’s (1778–1860) portrait of his brother Rubens (1784–1865), Rubens Peale with a Geranium (National Gallery of Art), to be an outstanding early still life (1801). It is thought to have been the first geranium introduced in America, and it really does vie with Rubens for the star spot. 

Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801. Oil on canvas, 28 1/8" x 24" (71.4 x 61 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0381)

Another brother of Rubens and Rembrandt, Raphaelle (1774–1825), was primarily a still-life painter. Two daughters of James, Anna Claypoole (1791–1878) and Margaretta Angelica (1795–1882), were also primarily still-life painters. Mary Jane Peale (1827–1902), daughter of Rubens, carried the Peale still-life painting dynasty into the 20th century! 

Marcel Wanders, designer (born 1963, Netherlands) and Moooi B.V., manufacturer (2001 to present, Breda, Netherlands), Medium Egg Vase, designed 1997. Porcelain, 5 3/4" x 4" x 3 ½" (14.5 x 10.2 x 9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6701)

This is definitely not an Easter egg! An unusual porcelain vessel, it is one of a set of three of differing sizes. What they all share in common is how they were created. The designer, Marcel Wanders, formed the mold from hard-boiled eggs that were encased in latex condoms. But, using unconventional and innovative materials is one of the hallmarks of the work of this Dutch designer.

Wanders was born in Boxtel, Netherlands, and graduated from the School of the Arts in Arnhem in 1988. He first came to attention with his innovative Knotted Chair in 1995 that he made in collaboration with Droog Design in Amsterdam. It is constructed with carbon and aramide fiber cord, and an epoxy resin finish. Wanders emphasizes creating designs that stress humanity and a down-to-earth aesthetic.

Wanders has designed works for many of the major design firms, such as Cappellini (1946–present, Arosio, Italy), Droog Design (1993–present, Amsterdam), Flos (1962–-present, Brescia, Italy), and others. He founded his own firm of Moooi—a tricked up version of the Dutch word mooi, or “beautiful” —in 2000. Wanders also extends his talents to architectural and interior design, and in the last few years the design of home appliances. 

Sudo Reiko, designer (born 1953, Japan), and NUNO Corporation, manufacturer (1984 to present, Tokyo), Big Egg textile, 2003. Polyester organdy with paper appliqué, width 39" (99.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7141)

This fabulous fabric was designed by one of my favorite fiber artists, Reiko Sudo. If you have read my blog for a while now, you know how much I love the revolutionary designs of Sudo. Failing the entrance exam in order to become a kimono designer, she founded NUNO Corporation in 1984 with Jun’ichi Arai (born 1932). Nuno means “cloth” in Japanese. The company is dedicated to designing and producing textiles in combinations of unconventional materials and techniques, according to traditional Japanese aesthetics and in an eco-friendly way.

When they started NUNO, Sudo and Jun’ichi were on the cutting edge, being among the first to use computers to design textiles. Designs such as Big Egg are meant to be versatile, used for fashion or interior design. Big Egg is made from Eichizen washi papers applied to ramie (a fibrous Asian plant stem) ovals and then to polyester. Materials such as this are made in limited quantities and are not mass-produced, industrially milled to simulate the aesthetic of hand-looming. 

Ogata Gekko (1859–1920, Japan), White Rabbit, ca. 1890–1910. Color woodcut print on paper, (9 1/2" x 9 7/8") 24.1 x 25.1 cm. © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2378)

Since this post has a vaguely Easter theme, I couldn’t leave you without a good art work of a rabbit, though it’s no Easter Bunny!

Like Sudo Reiko, I’ve also blogged about Ogata Gekko in the past. I’m fond of artists who don’t quite fit into one stylistic category or another, and he certainly typifies that quality. A devoted follower of Chinese painting traditions, he was renowned in his time for his sophisticated lacquer work. During the 1880s he became committed to the rejuvenation of the ukiyo-e tradition of multiple woodblock prints, although he developed a style that avoided the overt linearity of the tradition prints of that style. His woodblock prints, where possible, imitated brush work. One sees that in this bunny in the gentle shading of the form.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hanami in Spring


Terasaki Kōgyō (1866–1919), Cherry Blossoms and Moon. Ink and light color on silk, 46 ¾" x 18 3/16" (118.8 x 46.2 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1017)

With warm weather finally starting to return, I’m going to continue to celebrate spring with ART. Hanami is Japanese for “blossom viewing,” and is the name given to the annual spring cherry blossom viewing that takes place in Japan between March and May/June. The time span is wide because of the many species of sakura (cherry blossoms) that have different blooming times, and some of very short duration. The Japanese gave the US government more than 3000 cherry trees in 1912, and those have their own Hanami in Washington, DC every year. Naturally, cherry blossoms play a big part in Japanese art.

The beautiful painting above is by an artist who is part of the interesting state of society in late 1800s Japan. While the country was industrializing and “modern(western)izing” at a fantastic rate, there was a lot of push back from Japanese who wanted to preserve traditional aesthetics and values. The veneration of the cherry blossom period is so lovely, it has resulted in masterpieces like this. In Japan, the cherry blossom is the symbol of, naturally, rebirth. In fact, I think I read somewhere that the school year in Japan starts in Spring rather than Autumn, because it is such an auspicious time.

Tersaki was born Terasaki Chutaro in Kyoto, the son of a poor samurai who was in service to a regional warlord (daimyo). Kyoto was the center of the Maruyama/Shijō “school” of painting that was both a reaction to and receptive of Western influence. It evolved out of the work of Maruyama Okyō (1733–1795), a painter school in the traditional Kanō School, who followed the traditions of Nanga (Southern School, or, traditional Chinese monochromatic painting), but who instilled in his work a respect for naturalism through direct observation. He also adapted techniques of Western chiaroscuro (nuances of dark and light) to build form. Terasaki, too, was trained in the Kanō tradition before moving to Edo (Tokyo) in 1888.

In Edo Terasaki studied with the Maruyama/Shijō painter Sugawara Hakuryu (1833–1898). Training with Sugawara combined with his Kanō training helped Terasaki develop a unique personal style. This piece probably pre-dates 1893, the year a fire destroyed his body of work in his studio. He thereafter decided to abandon traditional forms of expression and focused on images of beautiful women (bijin) in a more westernized style and book illustration. This painting of cherry blossoms in moonlight definitely reveals the influence of the Maruyama/Shijō style in the sophisticated nuances in value. 

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Cherry Blossoms at Yoshino, from a Snow, Moon and Flowers series, ca. 1832–1833. Color woodcut print on paper, 9 13/16" x 14 15/16" (25 x 38 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1407)

I’m sure none of you questions that I have a soft spot for the founders of the landscape genre in the ukiyo-e style, Hokusai and Hiroshige to be specific. They just seem to capture such elegant, subtle statements of visual experience—such as falling rain and snow, mist, and clouds—that it is no wonder this charming piece is so magnificent. Of course, this print is also a tribute to the artists who actually cut the woodblocks with Hokusai’s drawing and achieved the beautiful nuances in pinks of the blossoms! If you’ve ever seen the cherry blossoms in DC, this is what they look like from a distance.

Hokusai is credited with creating the importance of landscape and bird-and-flower prints in ukiyo-e.  Born the son of an artist, he began drawing in earnest at the early age of five. He is thought to have learned drawing and painting from his father, who painted designs around mirrors he made for the shogun (the military dictator).

Hokusai’s lasting contribution to Japanese art, of course, was the introduction of landscape series of woodblock prints. His "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji" had a lasting impact on the younger Hiroshige, and was so popular that it was published numerous times. His interest in landscapes started when he was in the Shunshō School. Impatient at having to produce actor prints, he studied the landscape tradition of the rival Kanō School, based in the great tradition of Japanese landscape painting.

Hokusai produced several Snow, Moon and Flowers and Snow, Moon, Wind and Flowers series. These poetic series usually contained references to revered poetry about these natural subjects, while featuring them in locations the Japanese traveling public would recognize. I love the wonky angle of the torii (gate) in the background of this print! 

Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891), Cherry Blossoms with Pine Needle Border, from the series Comparison of Flowers, ca. 1880. Color woodcut print on paper, 6 1/2" x 9 7/16" (16.5 x 24.5 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4635)

Shibata Zeshin is such an interesting artist. This print reminds me of his New Year’s Cards (surimono). And those include precisely carved cursive Japanese to boot! Prints in series like this are not a scientific comparison of flora, like Western Florilegia, but rather aesthetic and symbolic. Cherry blossoms, symbols of fertility and rebirth, are a likely companion to the pine, which symbolizes strength and eternity (because it’s an evergreen, I guess). I particularly like the disassembled pine tree in the lower left, comprised of clumps of needles.

Shibata Zeshin lived through tremendous cultural and artistic changes in Japan after the US forced Japan open to Western trade in 1854. The Ansei Earthquake of 1855 destroyed much of Edo (Tokyo), and the Meiji “restoration” theoretically put authority back in the hands of an emperor rather than a military dictator (shogun). 

Shibata was born in Edo, son of an ukiyo-e print artist who had studied under Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793). He began an apprenticeship at age 11 to a lacquer artist. At 13 he was apprenticed to the artist Suzuki Nanrei (1775-1844) to learn how to draw. While studying under Nanrei, he acquired the name Zeshin (“true artist”). He also studied in Kyoto, where he learned about Japanese history and Buddhist traditions, studying the tea ceremony, waka and haiku poetry, and philosophy.

Perhaps because of his training in Kyoto, Shibata resisted the urge to study Western art after 1853 and persisted in paintings that reflected Japanese tradition. He is one of the most traditional of the late artists who worked with Ukiyo-e themes. However, his insistence on tradition makes prints such as this one put Western influence in the rear-view mirror.