Monday, October 5, 2015

German American Heritage Month

The more things change, etc. I get really irritated with people who say in speeches that immigrants to the US should “speak American.” For one thing, “American” isn’t a language, it’s a nationality. For another thing, this attitude is as old as this country. Already during the colonial period, even up until the time of the Revolution (1776–1783), English-speaking colonists were afraid that English would die out as the majority language in America. And, no, it wasn’t Spanish they were afraid of—it was German! Well, even though Britain claimed east-coast America as “crown colonies,” immigrants from different parts of Europe also settled here during the 1600s and 1700s. German immigrants were settling in America for almost as long as British. Let’s celebrate German American Heritage Month by showing early examples of German American art!

Interesting fact: Pennsylvania German is often mistakenly called Pennsylvania Dutch, either because many of the Germans came through the Netherlands when they migrated, or because of early colonial confusion of the German word for “German,” which is “Deutsch.” 

Unknown, Pennsylvania, Birth Certificate of Johannes Axer, 1794. Watercolor on paper, 7 7/8" x 12 9/16" (20 x 32 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2454)
War and religious persecution of Lutherans by Roman Catholic nations were the main reasons for the German migrations to America in the 1600s and 1700s. William Penn (died 1718), who “acquired” the Pennsylvania colony in 1681, was the first to offer the colony as refuge for German Protestants. The first immigrants landed in Philadelphia in 1683, with another large wave of migrations in 1710. By 1717 the German population of Pennsylvania was 20,000, and by 1740 it had doubled. Ben Franklin recorded that there were 100,000 Germans in the colony in 1766. Unfortunately, through the 1700s, many of the German immigrants were too poor to afford ship passage to the US and were forced to sign agreements (in English), to work off their fare as indentured servants once they arrived here.  

The migrants were from every conceivable sector of German culture: farmers, day laborers, craftspeople, stone masons, and builders. It is little wonder why there is such a variety of artwork left by these zealous, hard-working colonists. By the late 1700s, German migrants could be found in Maine and New York up to Buffalo. Settlements grew throughout Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), into the Ohio Valley, and down to Tennessee and Kentucky. Germans had settled in most of Maryland, especially Baltimore, down along the Shenandoah Valley, through North and South Carolina, and on into Georgia. As the west opened, settlements grew in Missouri and Wisconsin. 

Henry Young (active mid-1800s, US), Baptismal Record of James David Musser, 1852. Watercolor on paper, 9 13/16" x 7 7/8" (25 x 20 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2648)
Much of the art of Pennsylvania German artists reflects a self-taught aesthetic. The decorative motifs such as flattened birds and flowers come from textile designs. The majority of painting in watercolor is in the form of decorated documents, such as this birth certificate and baptismal record. Though few “portraits” exist in the 1700s, by the early 1800s naively drawn “portraits” appear more and more in these documents, where the text takes a back seat to the standing couple. Note that by the 1850s, these descendants of the German immigrants are writing their documents in English. The stylized, flattened flowers and quilt-derived sunburst designs are giveaways that this Musser family is Pennsylvania German. 

Attributed to John Neis (1775–1867, US), Pie plate, 1786. Red ware ceramic, lead glaze, sgraffito decoration, width: 11 3/4" (29.8 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1629)
This dish was made from high-quality clay found under the wet topsoil of Pennsylvania's low-lying plains. Southeastern Pennsylvania's terrain supported farms and potteries, so by 1810 ceramics kilns could be found in almost every township in Buck's County. Besides producing ceramics on the wheel, Pennsylvania German potters adapted the British technique of making plates such as this by draping a damp slab of clay over a convex mold to form the plate. The inscription on this plate (which I absolutely cannot read) and some of the outlines and coats of the musicians is done in sgraffito work, incised lines that reveal the red of the clay underneath. 

Unknown, Pennsylvania, Chest (Kast), ca. 1793, Painted pine and poplar, 25 9/16" x 49 9/16" x 22 7/16" (65 x 126 x 57 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1925)
Another prevalent art form among the Pennsylvania German was furniture. Because many of the German immigrants were not affluent, their furniture reflects the lives of less well-off people back in Germany. For working class people, chests such as this were essential, and often the only type of furniture they owned. Chests indeed sometimes doubled as beds. This is a custom that dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe (ca. 1000–1400). Typically, Pennsylvania German furniture was painted, because the German immigrants could not afford furniture with expensive inlaid wood decoration (marquetry), or veneered furniture. The stylized flowers are similar to those seen in the two watercolors.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.35-36 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35-36 studio; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 2.6, 5.2, 6.2; Experience Clay: 3; Experience Painting: 4; Exploring Painting: 5; Exploring Visual Design: 11; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 10.6, 12.4; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Bridge

Jasper Johns (born 1930, US), Green Target, 1955. Encaustic on newspaper and cloth over canvas, 60" x 60" (152.4 x 152.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P1929jovg)

The impression a reader gets from some surveys of art history, unfortunately, is that one artistic movement ends and another picks up in a totally different direction. We know this is not true when we see, for example, how classicist realism persisted in painting long after Impressionism hit the scene in the 1870s. The same is true with “movements” in modernism. The more I learn about some artists the more I question the convenient categories into which they are often pigeon-holed. Many of the artists who pioneered abstraction in the early 1900s began their careers painting in either an Impressionist or Post-Impressionist style, because by that time, Impressionism had become almost institutionalized. The same goes for Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s in America. By the mid- to late 1950s it was practically academic in its dominance over modernism. Artists who eventually explored other forms of modernism in reaction to Abstract Expressionism were unavoidably influenced by it when they were developing their mature styles.

Jasper Johns is perhaps most famous for his paintings and prints that feature images of the American flag or target, both obviously potent symbols of American culture (next to the dollar sign, I guess). This connects him to Pop Art’s explorations of representational imagery that emerged in the very late 1950s and early 1960s. But, I have just recently found it unfortunate that Johns’s name is so frequently only associated with Pop Art. Like many artists, Johns’s body of work is incredibly varied and complex, and I find it a bit irritating to merely link him to Pop Art because he used aspects of mundane American culture as subject matter.

Johns was born in Georgia and raised in South Carolina. He studied art at the University of South Carolina and Parsons School in New York in 1948. After service during the Korean War (1950–1953), Johns returned to New York, where he met another seminal artist of Pop Art: Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008). He and Rauschenberg, who was already using gestural painting as part of his work, formed a close association, inspiring and influencing one another’s art until 1961. 

Rauschenberg ushered Johns into the art scene in New York, at the time dominated by Abstract Expressionism. The two artists worked together closely until the early 1960s, both acquiring from Abstract Expressionism the brush work of action painting, but little else. Little by little their work moved away from Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. Of major impact on both their bodies of work was a viewing of the Surrealist and Dada works, particularly the found object works ("readymades") of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1958. Johns's work expanded as he incorporated the painting technique of Abstract Expressionism and the incorporation of banal everyday objects into it.

These paintings from Johns’s early mature work show how he combined Abstract Expressionism’s painterly surface with something that was anathema to the Abstract Expressionists: reference to everyday objects or symbols. Ironically, Johns’s titles—“Flag,” “Numbers,” “Target,” and the like—do not leave the impression of any literary, symbolic, or romantic intent, even more anathema to Abstract Expressionists. They are merely convenient vehicles to contrast with the beautiful painterly surface. What I like the most about these early works is that, unlike the American flag, the reference to American culture does not hit the viewer over the head, it is so subtle. I am, no doubt, not the first art historian to consider Johns’s importance to lie in his being a bridge from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. Interesting fact, make of it what you will: Johns once stated that he conceived of the American flag subject after dreaming about painting it.

Other “bridge” works: 

Tango, 1955. Oil and encaustic on canvas, 42 7/8" x 55 1/8" (109 x 140 cm). Private Collection. © 2015 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (8S-27041jovg)

Painting with Two Balls, 1960. Mixed-media, 64 15/16" x 53 15/16" (165 x 137 cm). Collection of the Artist. © 2015 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (8S-27050jovg)

False Start, 1962. Lithograph on paper, 18" x 13 3/4" (45.7 x 34.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2015 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-2200jovg)

I personally love Johns’s lithographs, because I remember from school the joy of working with a litho stone and the textural possibilities involved. Lithography was a favorite medium of Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), one of the “action painters” of Abstract Expressionism. Look at how fluid de Kooning’s lithograph is! I’ve seen one of his lithographs in which he used a floor mop as a “brush!” 

Willem de Kooning (1904–1997, US, born Netherlands), The Preacher, 1971. Lithograph on paper, 29 15/16" x 22 7/16" (76 x 57 cm). Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH. © 2015 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BIAA-44kgars)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 4 6.35, 6.35-36 studio; Explorations in Art 6 5.25; A Community Connection 6.2, 8.4; Experience Painting 7; Experience Printmaking 6; Exploring Painting 12; Exploring Visual Design 6, 8, 10; The Visual Experience 9.3, 9.4, 16.7; Discovering Art History 17.1, 17.2

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gently Waft into Fall

Elizabeth Otis Boott Duveneck (1846–1888, US), Autumn Foliage, 1882. Oil on wood, 35 15/16" x 10" (91.3 x 25.4 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3527A)
Since I don’t know many people who enjoy seeing summer end, I use the words “gently waft” instead of “fall” for this post. What better way to mark—not celebrate—the end of summer than with a beautiful work of art celebrating the major splendor of fall: Nature. So many artists who often exist under the radar, and so little time… Elizabeth Boott was the wife of the Dark Impressionist painter Frank Duveneck (1848–1919). Her paintings are beautiful, especially her nature paintings and landscapes. They don’t have all that Baroque-inspired tenebrism of her husband, but the delicacy of her work really is a beautiful counterpoint to her tragically premature death.

Being a woman of independent means from a wealthy Boston family, Lizzie Boott Duveneck was able to pursue seriously a profession as a painter. She initially trained under William Morris Hunt (1824–1879), an American Barbizon painter—a group of painters who emulated the realist landscape paintings of the French Barbizon painters near Fontainebleau outside of Paris. Barbizon painting emphasized authenticity in depictions of nature, and ambient light gleaned often from painting outdoors, a radical new practice. Hunt had begun the first ever classes for women artists in Boston in 1868. She then trained with the Barbizon landscapist Thomas Couture (1815–1879) in Paris, and briefly with her future husband Frank Duveneck in Munich.

The relationship between Duveneck and Boott lasted for most of a decade. Boott convinced Duveneck to move to Florence, where she lived with her father, and encouraged him to try to enter works in the official Salon in Paris. I think she actually managed to get Duveneck to lighten his palette from his Dark Impressionist style seen in his Munich paintings of the 1870s, particularly portraits. Lizzie’s style was light struck, delicate, and celebratory of nature. Although her first show of oils was in Boston, she also exhibited in Florence and Paris, particularly her watercolors.

Here is the complete set of panels, probably meant for decoration in dining or drawing room door panels. 

All five panels together at the Brooklyn Museum: Autumn Foliage, Rhododendrons, Apple Blossoms, Rhododendrons and Poppies. © Brooklyn Museum (BMA-3527)
Duveneck’s isolated flower paintings remind me of the work of Fidelia Bridges (1834–1923), another Massachusetts native trained in the same realist vein. Bridges painted in the influence of the American Pre-Raphaelites who were fanatical about accurate detail in depictions of nature. Her work is a little less lyrical than Lizzie’s. There’s something very monumental and classical about her work. 

Fidelia Bridges (1834–1923, US), Wisteria on a Wall, 1870s. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 14" x 10" (35.6 x 25.6 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1170)
I’m also including in this ode to autumn Alma Thomas, not because she’s underappreciated, but because I love her colors. Also, I think she has a fascinating history: in 1924 she was the first woman to graduate from Howard University’s new major in art; she taught art in grade school in Washington, DC for 35 years; she went from photo realism to abstraction in her late 50s; and she only started seriously exhibiting her work in her 70s! She went through the color field painting style briefly under the influence of then-current Abstract Expressionism. However, her fascination with nature—particularly the leaves rustling in the window outside her windows—led her to her mosaic-style color field paintings that are absolutely the hallmark of her work. 

Alma Thomas (1891–1978, US), Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 57 15/16" x 50" (147.3 x 127 cm). Photo © The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (PC-556) 
Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.20, 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.2, 1.3, 1-2 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6 5.25; A Community Connection: 5.4, 6.2, 8.4; Experience Painting: 5, 6; Exploring Painting: 7, 12; The Visual Experience: 9.2, 16.4, 16.7

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Consistent Concretist

Carmen Herrera (US, born 1915 Cuba), Untitled, 1952. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 25" x 60" (63.5 x 152.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Carmen Herrera. (MOMA-P5120)

I recently learned about an artist who turned 100 this past may. Turning 100 is fabulous, and even more fabulous is discovering that this artist was ahead of her time stylistically in painting, but did not sell her first painting until she was 89! Unlike Alma Thomas, who began painting when she retired from teaching, Carmen Herrera painted steadily for 60 years before she started gaining international attention in the early 2000s. I’m not sure if the word “concretist” is real (my spell-check says it isn’t), but it’s as good a word as any to describe Herrera’s work.

Long before World War II (1939–1945), the great De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931) sought to redefine abstract art as “concrete art,” because he felt that the term “abstract” denigrated non-objective work when discussed in terms of “reduction” or “simplification.” He indicated that there was nothing more concrete than pure, non-objective art. The geometric, minimalist abstraction pioneered by the De Stijl artists and some artists from the Bauhaus, such as Josef Albers (1888–1976), did not disappear after World War II, when Abstract Expressionism and its European counterparts, l’Art Informel and Tâchisme, dominated modernist experiment. It persisted in the work of artists like Carmen Herrera.

Carmen Herrera, born in Havana, was one of the post-war Latin American modernists concerned with geometric, minimalist, and optic abstraction in painting and sculpture. Some Latin American artists—who exhibited in both Europe and their own countries—formed groups dedicated to abstraction such as Los Disidentes (Venezuela), Grupo Madi (Argentina), and the Concretists (Brazil). Herrera went back and forth between Paris and Cuba during the 1930s and 1940s, having originally studied architecture at the University of Havana. She studied at the Art Students League in New York between 1949 and 1953, where she was affected by the work of other geometric minimalists, such as Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996), Barnett Newman (1905–1970), and Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923).

Herrera painted this work while at the Art Students League, right before she settled into her studio near Union Square in 1954, in which she still paints to this day. Compared the the action painting dominating the New York art scene at the time, Herrera’s paintings seem to bridge the geometric minimalism of pre-World War II European painting with the Op Art and Minimalism of the 1960s. Even a lot of Barnett Newman’s geometric abstraction is not as beautifully precise as Herrera’s. (She was good friends with Newman and his wife.)

Herrera’s stated purpose in her work is to condense her forms to the simplest, most refined state possible. Recent works feature single colors, sometimes contrasting with unpainted areas of canvas.

I’ll show you four other artists who worked in a similar vein to Herrera around the same time period, with one exception. The first two artists were also geometric minimalists whose work may have impacted Herrera’s direction:

Anni Albers (1899–1994 Germany-US), Wall Hanging, designed 1927. Cotton and silk, 58 1/4" x 47 5/8" (148 x 121 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0133alars)

Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996, US), Untitled, 1946. Gouache on cardboard, 24" x 16" (61 x 40.6 cm). Private Collection. © 2015 Leon Polk Smith Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (8S-18373lpvg)

And here are two artists usually associated with minimalist-optical geometric abstraction, but mostly in the 1960s:

Victor Vasarely (1908–1997, Hungary-France), Gerode III, 1956. Oil on canvas, 70" x 40" (177.8 x 101.6 cm). Private Collection. © 2015 Estate of Victor Vasarely / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-2241vsars)

Frank Stella (born 1936, US), Fez (2). Fluorescent alkyd on canvas, 77" x 77" (195.6 x 195.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P3109slars)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 3.15, 3.16, 3.Connections; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Community Connection: 6.2, 8.4; A Global Pursuit: 5.5; Experience Painting: 9; Exploring Painting: 12; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 9, 11, 12; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.7

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Thailand, Ayutthaya, Fragmentary colossal Head of the Buddha, from the temple precinct of Wat Phra Mahathat, between 1374 and 1388/1395. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-10313)

The look on the Buddha’s face of serenity is probably what some of us acquired after having a three-day weekend for Labor Day. But, this image intrigued me because—as is the case with every religion on the planet that produces images of their deity, from one culture to the next—the differences in style are simply fascinating. The historical dates for the Buddha are ca. 563–483 BCE.

This colossal Buddha head fragment at Wat Phra Mahathat (Monastery of the Great Relic) in Ayutthaya, at one time the capital of Thailand for 417 years (1350–1767), is my favorite of the many Buddha images there, even more than the famous Buddha head being gobbled up by tree roots. Although Ayutthaya fell into neglect starting in the eighteenth century, these Buddha heads are still considered holy, of course. If this interpretation of the Buddha’s wisdom, serenity, and grace is not the epitome of those qualities, then I don’t know what is. Amazingly, there is no single style to the Buddha statues at Wat Mahathat, but this one certainly stands out with its curling mouth.

Buddhism came to Thailand during the 200s BCE when the ruler Asoka (304–232 BCE) in India sent missionary monks there. The earliest extant art works depicting the Buddha are sculpture coming from northern India and Pakistan from the 100s CE. The practice of producing Buddha’s image proliferated quickly throughout the lands where Buddhism spread.

China, Head of the Buddha, ca. 700 CE .Sandstone, 9 5/8" x 5 1/2" (24.5 x 14 cm). © MFA, Boston. (MFAB-669)
Although there had been persecutions of Buddhists between the 400s and 800s CE in China, Buddhism flourished once again during the Tang Dynasty (ca. 618–906 CE).  One of the best proofs of that is the sculptures of the Buddha that date from that period. Tang sculptors set a standard of elegance, grace, and beauty for the face of the Buddha that established the iconography for depictions of Buddha throughout the rest of Chinese art history.

The slightly round, feminine quality of Tang Buddhist sculpture, which was transmitted to Japanese sculpture as well, is sometimes to referred to as the “Tang standard of beauty.” This example is particularly interesting in the hair style. Instead of the repeated row of snail shapes for hair, this Buddha’s hair is arranged almost like a garland of flowers. It may be a Chinese interpretation of the Greek-influenced wavy hair of Gandharan Buddhas.

Buddhist monks reached China by 217 BCE via monks sent from India, but the religion did not take a major foothold there until the Northern Wei period (386–535 CE). Tradition says that Buddhism was introduced to China during the reign of the emperor Han Ming Di (58–75 CE) after he had a dream of a flying golden man. The earliest dated Buddhist image comes from around 338 CE. It is a gilt bronze sculpture in the Indian Gandharan style.

Pakistan or Afghanistan, Head of the Buddha, 300s to 400s CE. Painted stucco, 17 5/8" x 13 3/4" x 13 3/4" (44.8 x 34.9 x 34.9 cm). © Art Institute of Chicago. (AIC-322)

This head of the Buddha shows an interesting transition from the Hellenized Gandharan style of northern India and Pakistan to a more Chinese-inspired style. It displays the severely arched brow and an interpretation of wavy Greek-influenced hair, although the waves seem to be evolving into the snail shapes seen in later versions of the Buddha. The facial features have definitely evolved from the “Apollo”-type Gandharan versions.

Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE) conquered lands in central Asia that bordered northern India in 327 BCE. He was trying to wipe out all vestiges of the Persian Empire.  During the time of the Roman Empire (flourished 27 BCE–ca. 453 CE), these lands became Roman colonies that sat on the western end of the “Silk Road” to China. Another early Indian dynasty, the Kushan (flourished ca. 50–320 CE) of northern India, traded with the Roman colonies and thus was transmitted the Roman version of the classical sculptural style.

As the Greek sphere of influence declined, the Aryans pushed their way back north from Bihar into Afghanistan. This was the beginning of one of India’s greatest dynasties, the Mauryan Empire (ca. 322–175 BCE). Reaching as far south as Mysore, the Mauryans conquered nearly the whole subcontinent. The great king of the time, Asoka (reigned 268–232 BCE), turned his attention from war to Buddhism and became as tireless a missionary as he had been a conqueror. Asoka brought Buddhism to much of central Asia.

Pakistan, Head of the Buddha, from the Gandhara region, ca. 200s CE. Schist, 7" x 4" x 3" (17.8 x 10.2 x 7.6 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2971)

Ever see an image of the Buddha with a mustache?

After the collapse of the Mauryan dynasty (ca. 185 BCE), India broke into several local power centers each vying for supremacy and troubled by harrassment by northern peoples. One of these, the Kushan, had left the western borders of China (called Yuezhi by the Chinese). The Kushan entered India through Afghanistan in the first one hundred years BCE. They had already displaced the Persians in the lands once conquered by Alexander the Great. After establishing a dynasty in India, the Kushans established trade with Roman colonies.

Two significant styles developed between the 100s and 400s CE, the art of Gandhara (now Pakistan) and the art of Mathura (far to the south and east). It was during the Kushan period when the first sculpted images of the Buddha were produced. Because there were no Buddhist figural images before contact with Western cultures, Roman and Hellenistic forms gave shape to sculptures of bodhisattvas and the Buddha.

Gandhara-type Buddhas typically have an oval face, arching high brow, and broad nose. The wavy hair, tied in a ribbon, was a Greek style, as seen in the Vatican's Apollo Belvedere. This fashion detail gradually became the symbolic top knot on the Buddha's head, which was a symbol of his wisdom. The mustache is an Indian characteristic, as is the caste mark on the forehead. Gandhara Buddhist figures had a profound influence on subsequent images of the Buddha. Ironically, in the 500s CE, in the region where the sculpted image of the Buddha was born, an invasion by Huns stamped out Buddhism forever.

Gade (born 1971, Tibet), Manuscript Sheet with Buddha, Christ, an Islamic Figure, and Mao, 2004. Mixed-media on paper, 5 3/4" x 20" (14.6 x 50.8 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2015 Gade. (PMA-3514)
The Tibetan artist Gade has combined several historical styles of Buddha in his painting, a pseudo-manuscript page fragment. Historical images of the Buddha usually depicted the Buddha’s eyes downcast in meditation. Gade has chosen the Ghandaran style of wide-open eyes. Gade imitates and practices techniques of classical Tibetan painting, including the modeling of figures. He has always wanted to locate traditional Tibetan art in a contemporary context. In this way his work envisions the tradition separated from religion. Although this piece presents religious figures from three of the world’s major religions, his inclusion of Mao Tse Tung has offended Buddhists, particularly because of the brutal suppression of Tibetan monasteries under China’s “Cultural Revolution.” Gade believes his Chinese father resembles Mao, and both men came from Hunan Province.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1-2 studio; 3-4 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1; A Global Pursuit: 3.5, 4.5; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 10.2, 13.2, 13.3, 13.4; Discovering Art History: 4.2, 4.3

Monday, August 31, 2015

Photo Phear

George Barnard (1819–1902, US), Portrait of Four Unknown Children, 1846–1853. Daguerreotype on copper plate, 3 5/16" x 4 1/2" (8.5 x 11.6 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P1248)
I am Totally not into getting my photograph taken, especially while on vacation, so I am the last person on Earth who should criticize the way other people come out in photographic portraits. I don’t know which is worse: the “geek-trying-to-look-casually-cheery” look that I achieve when someone points their phone at me, or the “is-that-thing-gonna-explode?” look on the faces of these poor kids from 150 years ago?

From its very inception (1830s), photography was perceived as an ideal medium for portraiture. After the creation of the Daguerreotype process in France, Americans immediately learned the process, launching portrait establishments as early as 1840, earlier than in Europe. A French process introduced to the United States in 1839, the Daguerreotype was by far the most popular photographic medium in the early days of portraiture. Within three years it was wildly popular in the United States.

The Daguerreotype produced a one-of-a-kind image that developed on a highly polished silver-coated copper plate. The image produced was a positive. Because the metal plate was delicate, subject to damage from fingerprints or moisture, it was usually mounted in a case under glass, often in a leather or velvet bound cover. Mounting a portrait likeness in a special case to protect it harkens back to the miniature or silhouette that were treated in a similar fashion.

Of course, there are very few Daguerreotypes in which the sitter is smiling or animated, due to the long exposure time and complicated sequence of actions needed to make the exposure. When Daguerreotypes first appeared, the sitter had to be still for up to fifteen minutes. Head clamps were often used to keep the sitter from moving, as may be the case with these children. By the 1840s, American photographers had shortened the exposure time to a little over a minute if the size of the plate was reduced. It was still a long time to sit still.

George Barnard, born in Connecticut, is most famous for his Civil War (1860–1865) photographs of Sherman’s march through the Confederacy. However, he established his reputation as a photographer in Daguerreotype portraiture. He opened his first studio in Oswego, New York in 1847. From there he became nationally renowned for his Daguerreotype portraits. There is only a little more joy in the faces of these children than there was in the other fashionable form of Daguerreotype portraiture, that of dead people.

Gertrude Käsebier (1852–1934 US), Family Portrait (Clarence White and Family), 1902. Gum platinum print on paper, 8" x 6 1/8" (20.5 x 15.6 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P0573)
Although exposure times diminished rapidly during the late 1800s, I still smile when I see portraits like this with the “just-returned-from-the-funeral” look on the sitters’ faces. Because this portrait was taken by an Aesthetic Photographer, she may have desired this dramatic demeanor.

Aesthetic Photography, or Pictorialism, developed in the late 1800s by artists who felt that the wealth of detail capable in photography was stale and unimaginative. They sought to elevate their photographs from simply a document to fine art. Gertrude Käsebier, trained as a painter in Paris, became interested in photography around 1894. By 1897, she had opened a portrait studio in New York.

The soft edges, atmospheric lighting and thoughtfully posed portrait of fellow Pictorialist Clarence White (1871–1925) was achieved with the gum bichromate process. Platinum on the paper was covered with gum Arabic. The negative would be washed with water and manipulated with a brush, pencil, or eraser in order to alter the background, erase detail, or reduce the surface to the tonality of a charcoal drawing. Water-based dyes could also be introduced to the print during the process.

Like many Pictorialists, Käsebier preferred the platinum process because of the range of tonalities and nuances in hues available. In both her manner of composing the sitter and then manipulating the negative, she intended her portraits to vie aesthetically with those executed in paint. She was considered by other aesthetic photographers of her time to be the best at representing the personality of her sitters.

Correlations to Davis programs:  A Community Connection: 5.4, 6.4, 7.2; Exploring Visual Design: 9; Focus on Photography: 1, 3, 5; The Visual Experience: 9.5, 16.4, 16.9; Discovering Art History: 12.4, 14.5

Monday, August 24, 2015

Vacation Blog

Charles Demuth (1883–1935 US), Stairs, Provincetown, 1920. Gouache and pencil on board, 23 1/2" x 19 1/2" (59.7 x 49.5 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P4200)
I’m off on a week’s vacation in Provincetown, which, as you may know, has been the home of a thriving art colony since the late 1800s. The Provincetown Art Association was founded in 1914, encouraging summer students to paint by the sea (which they still do), with a lot of modernism influence from European artists who had migrated here. I have learned that for two decades there was a resistance to the influx on modernism in Ptown, but, it persisted as one of the most active locations for modern experiment in America, especially after the Great Depression (1929–1940). Let’s look at some artists who worked in Ptown. I always think of Charles Demuth first when I think if Ptown, because of all the American modernists of his period, he, most of all, took influences from European modernism and created a truly American vision of it.

Initially trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, already before World War I (1914–1918) he had abandoned his academic training to concentrate on watercolors and gouache. These were coming into their own as standalone media, embraced by artists who experimented with modernism due to their easy fluidity. Demuth ultimately became a master of water-based media on a par with Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).

His mature style was informed by Cubism he had seen at the 1913 Armory Show of European modernism, as well as from his group of friends in New York. They included Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), the pioneer Dadaist and Surrealist, and Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), an American modernist who had dabbled in non-objective abstraction after stays in Germany and Paris. He was also a steady participant in Alfred Stieglitz’s (1864–1946) modernist experimental Gallery 291 in New York, where Demuth’s works mirrored the modernist experiments of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) and photographer Paul Strand (1890–1976), whose reductive, close-up, angled works have been given the name Precisionism.

Demuth, while influenced by modernist experiment, kept his work firmly rooted in his American experience—his life growing up in Lancaster, PA, and his summers in Provincetown, where he produced this gorgeous, Cubistic work. I swear I’ve seen these stairs on my many trips to Ptown. And you can bet I’ll take watercolors to Ptown so that I can do a pale imitation of some of these great artists who painted there and possibly soak up their auras!

Blanche Lazzell (1878–1956, US), Sketch for an Abstraction, 1924. Graphite on paper, 10 5/8" x 8 1/4" (27 x 21 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2015 Blanche Lazzell Estate, West Virginia University, Morgantown. (BMA-5111)
American art retreated from modernist experiment that had flourished before World War I, mostly because Americans—tired of the horrors of the European war—rejected anything European, including abstraction. There was a brave group of artists who founded the group American Abstract Artists in 1936 in New York to promote such work in this country. Blanche Lazzell was one of the original members of that group.

Born in West Virginia, Lazzell knew by the first decade of the 1900s that she wanted to be an independent-thinking woman artist. She studied at the University of West Virginia, and at the Art Students League in New York. She, however, rejected academic avenues and travelled to Europe in 1912, where she became enthralled with the copious amounts of experimentation in abstraction. She stayed in Paris a year and returned to West Virginian in 1913. In 1915, she went to the Provincetown Cape Cod School of Art for the summer. She went back in 1916, when she became proficient in woodblock printing. In 1918 she moved to Ptown permanently.

This study for a painting was quite revolutionary, when viewed in comparison to what was dominating American art at the time: American Scene Painting. It shows a personal adaptation of the Cubist visual vocabulary.

Karl Knaths (1891–1971, US), Geranium in Night Window, 1922. Oil on canvas, 24" x 20 1/8" (60.9 x 51.1 cm). The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (PC-198)
One of my favorite American modernists from the Ptown period is Karl Knaths, maybe because his name is Karl or because he’s a Midwesterner, like me, and maybe because he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I also went briefly. Born in Wisconsin, he studied in Chicago, where he received academic training in painting for four years starting in 1912. When the 1913 Armory Show traveled  to Chicago, Knaths was a student guard for the exhibition, and was immediately drawn to the modernism he saw from European artists, particulary the Cubism of Picasso, but especially by the late, faceted landscapes of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906).

Knaths was one of many modernists who never studied abroad, but garnered rich influence from European abstraction through personal research in literature, and contact with other American artists interested in modernism. He was particularly affected by Vasili Kandinsky’s (1866–1944) book “On the Spiritual in Art,” which inspired Knaths to make a connection between his painting and music. In 1919 Knaths moved to Ptown, finding an active community of artists interested in modern experiment, away from east coast cities that were then dominated by American Scene Painting. During the course of the 1920s, Knaths was an active voice advocating for a more prominent place for modernist artists in annual Ptown exhibitions. In 1927 he helped establish a separate annual exhibition for modernism there.

Knath’s beautiful, personal version of Cubism combined the faceting seen in the work of Braque and Picasso with the bright palette of Juan Gris (1887–1927). By the 1930s he had established a strict formula for his abstraction, based partly on Mondrian and Kandinsky, although his work never strayed totally for physical reality.

Hans Hofmann (1880–1966, US born Germany), Still Life, 1939. Oil on board, 35" x 30 15/16" (89 x 76 cm). Private Collection. Photo courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago. © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-17511hmars)
Oh boy, I have a lot of favorites when it comes to painters who love COLOR, and Hans Hofmann is one of them! As a German who studied in Paris, rather than Berlin, to absorb modernism, Hofmann’s painting style is an amazing synthesis of Cubism, Fauvism, and Expressionism, which I think you can see in this painting.

After teaching in Germany, Hofmann was invited to teach in the US in 1932. Fortunately he stayed here, because Hofmann’s contribution to the development of Abstract Expressionism and an indigenous American modernist movement cannot be undervalued. When he arrived in 1932, he found American art stagnating in the Ash Can School, Social Realism, and American Scene Painting. He recognized that American modernism was “repressed,” and needed a voice. He established the Summer School for Art in Provincetown in 1935. 

Hofmann not only transmitted the abstract vocabulary of Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism to his American pupils. The modernism that grew out of their experience with Hofmann was further energized by the particularly American energy that resulted after the US emerged as a superpower after World War II (1939–1945). By 1937, due in large part to Hofmann’s considerable persona, modernism became part of the annual exhibitions in Ptown. Many of the Abstract Expressionists and their circle were Hofmann students in Ptown, including Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) and Arshile Gorky (1904–1948).

Robert Motherwell (1915–1991, US), Personage with Yellow, Ochre and White, 1947. Oil on canvas, 71 15/16" x 53 15/16" (182.8 x 137 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Robert Motherwell Estate / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P1947movg)
I will admit that I did a little happy dance four winters ago when I discovered Robert Motherwell’s studio/house on Commercial Street in Ptown. It was right after I had begun to really dig into the importance Provincetown played in the development of American Modernism, and it just felt like one more verification that I was on the right track in my ideas about a phenomenon that does not get a heck of a lot of coverage in American art history texts.

Like Arshile Gorky and William Baziotes (1912–1963), Motherwell was one of the Abstract Expressionists most impacted by Surrealism in his work. He trained under Swiss-American Surrealist Kurt Seligmann (1900–1962) in New York in 1941. In 1943, the Chilean Surrealist Robert Matta (Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren) (1911–2002) encouraged Motherwell to explore collage, a medium to which he would frequently return. Matta had studied with Hans Hofmann in Ptown. Motherwell’s earliest paintings were combinations of forms inspired by Picasso’s work, and ovoid and geometric shapes that would symbolize his later paintings.

Motherwell bought two studios/houses in Provincetown starting in the late 1950s, after he married fellow abstractionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011). He enjoyed painting by the ocean, perhaps influenced by his upbringing in California.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Community Connection: 2.2, 6.2, 7.4; Experience Painting: 2, 4, 6; Exploring Painting: 12, 7; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.6; Discovering Art History: 15.2, 17.1