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

Friday, March 18, 2016

National Women’s History Month

Poland, Portrait of Queen Anna Jagiellon, ca. 1586. Oil and tempera on wood panel. © Czartoryski Museum, Cracow, Poland. (8S-5778)
To celebrate National Women’s History Month I would like to introduce you to a woman who is not in many history books about Europe. However, she played a very important role in her home country of Poland at a time that was crucial in Polish history. Additionally, she was a massive patron of the arts.

Poland’s long history, like that of many of the lands in the post-Roman Empire world, was fraught with divisions, takeovers, and territorial partitioning up until the 1800s. Poland’s establishment as a kingdom is traditionally linked to the Piast dynasty established ca. 966 CE by Mieszko I, the first ruler of the Polanie mentioned in written records.

Although Polish rulers tried to establish Poland as a major north-central European power in the Western mode, it was made difficult by the constant interference of the popes, the Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia, and later Russia. Between the late 1300s and mid-1400s, Poland realized a period of relative autonomy and power with its partnership with Lithuania. The long reign of Casimir IV (1447–1492) marked the age of one of the new monarchies of Western Europe. Poland became involved in international affairs, and by the end of the 1400s, Casimir’s heirs were elected kings of Hungary and Bohemia, and grand duke of Lithuania.

Into the “golden age” of the period of the Sigismunds came Anna Jagiellon (1523–1586). She was the daughter of Casimir IV’s youngest son, King Sigismund I the Old (reigned 1506–1548). On the death of her brother Sigismund II (reigned 1548–1572), who had no heirs, Anna became the first woman to be the monarch of Poland. In the days when who ruled a country often was determined by the stupid idea of arranged marriages between ruling families, Anna married (1576) later in life to Stephen Bathory (1533–1586), Prince of Transylvania, who became her co-regent.
While queen, Anna was responsible for ushering in the Northern Renaissance into Poland. She sponsored several major building projects, including the Royal Castle in Warsaw. This portrait, very possibly the work of a German or British artist, depicts a strong, independent woman whose reign and family were responsible for effecting a closer relationship between Poland and Western Europe.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade: 3 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, Studio 1-2; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.2, Studio 1-2; A Community Connection: 6.2; A Global Pursuit: 4.4; Experience Painting: 2, 6; Exploring Painting: 4, 6; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 15.9

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


I vaguely (I’m lying) remember the word “mod” used during the late 1960s to describe anything that was slightly “edgy” (I hate that word) and “hip.” It encompassed everything from hippie-inspired garb to International Style furniture. It also included all sorts of modern design that displayed anything other than a conventional aesthetic. Here are some classic mod textile designs from a period when I imagine they would have been featured in a shop on Carnaby Street (THE mod street in London during the late 60s for avant-garde everything).

The textiles displayed in this post were all produced by Heal’s, a venerable furniture/interior design/textile design company in London that’s been around since 1810, but has never hesitated to break the mold when it came to contemporary design. In the second decade of the 1800s, they introduced feather-filled mattresses into Britain. This replaced the centuries-old practice of straw mattresses. I’ve slept on a straw mattress, and it isn’t conducive to a comfortable night’s sleep.

In the 1830s, Heal’s was one of the first firms to place advertisements in the book jackets of serialized novels (such as those of Charles Dickens). In 1917 they started the Mansard Gallery in their store on Tottenham Court Road in London as a venue to see avant-garde art. This gallery was the first to feature the work of Modigliani in Britain.

Soon after 1933, Heal’s began to exhibit pieces of distinctly radical Bauhaus designs, including pieces such as the Barcelona furniture of Mies van der Rohe. During World War II (1939–1945) they produced parachutes for the war effort, leading to the introduction of Heal’s Fabrics. By the mid-1950s, they were marketing designs in such progressive styles as Mid-Century Modern, International Style, Scandinavian, and ultimately the coolest of mod designs, Pop Art and Op Art.

Here are some examples from their mod period:

Barbara Brown (born 1932, Britain) for Heal’s (1810 to present, London), Frequency textile, 1969. Printed, textured plain weave cotton, 55 1/2" x 48 1/2" (141 x 123.2 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6285)

Brown was the most high-profile designer of the period for Heal’s, starting in the early 1960s. Many of her designs from that period reflected Op Art. This push-pull illusion was a hallmark of Op Art. 

Althea McNish (born 1930s, Trinidad) for Heal’s (1810 to present, London), Caribe textile, 1962. Printed unbalance plain weave cotton, 38 1/2" x 48" (97.8 x 121.9 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6292)

McNish was the first British designer with African roots to gain an international reputation for her textile designs. This design definitely displays the influence of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), one of her declared influences.

John Plumb (born 1927, Britain) for Heal’s (1810 to present, London), Chiricahua  textile, 1960–1965. Printed cotton plain weave, 50" x 45 1/2" (127 x 115.6 cm)  Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6295)

Although Britain didn’t have its own post-war abstract school, this textile totally reminds me of the gestural wing of Abstract Expressionism in the US.

Evelyn Redgrave (born ca. 1944, Britain) for Heal’s (1810 to present, Britain), Stipple textile, 1969. Printed cotton plain weave, 52 ½" x 49 7/16" (133.4 x 125.7 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6299)

Redgrave was another mid-century designer whose Op Art textile designs gained an international reputation. This piece really reminds me of the paintings of Victor Vasarely (1906–1997).

Arno Thoner (born 1940s, Netherlands) for Heal’s (1810 to present, London),  Undulation textile, 1966(?). Printed cotton plain weave, 47 1/4" x 48 3/4" (120 x 123.8 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6315)

Op Art-inspired designs like this (it reminds me of Richard Anuszkiewicz paintings) were hot and “mod” until the first half of the 1970s. 

Daan van Golden (born 1936, Netherlands) for Heal’s (1810 to present, London), Rhythm textile, ca. 1962–1965. Printed cotton plain weave, 53" x 50" (134.6 x 127 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6316)

One of the many influences in Golden’s exciting designs was Abstract Expressionism. That influence is clear in this textile. It reminds me of a Willem de Kooning lithograph that he put on the litho stone with a floor mop!

Zandra Rhodes (born 1940, Britain), Textile, ca. 1965. Printed cotton plain weave, 23 1/4" x 23 1/4" (59.1 x 59.1 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6313)

Rhodes designed really awesome New Wave fashions in the early 1980s. For the mid-1960s, this textile is pretty forward looking, combining elements of Pop Art and the random abstraction of the Abstraction-Création group of the late 1950s.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.Studio 23-24; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 5.2; A Global Pursuit: 9.4; Exploring Visual Design: 11; The Visual Experience: 10.8, 12.4, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

It’s the Little Things in Life

I despise the terms “decorative arts” and “minor arts” to categorize any art work that is not a painting, print, photograph, or sculpture. I prefer the word “miscellaneous arts,” because small, often utilitarian works of art are just that—ART. Counted among these (by me) are all of the precious little luxuries that we often overlook for their fine aesthetics, probably because they are…usable. Let’s take joy in little art works this week.

George W. Shiebler & Company (1876–1910, New York and Brooklyn), Napkin ring, 1876–1890. Sterling silver, 1 15/16" x 1 15/16" (4.9 x 4.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6868)

When I was born, my Swiss relatives gave me a silver napkin ring with my name on it (well, it says “Karli” actually). Whenever we go for a visit over there, there’s a napkin ring for my use. I don’t know many places where napkin rings are used anymore, but it sure makes a person feel refined!

This lovely example is from an American firm that showed good old American business ingenuity, buying out several competitors and getting the rights to use their dies for all types of gorgeous silver and metalware. Shiebler and Company made quality sterling silver tableware, novelty items, souvenir spoons, and jewelry. They were most famous for their Classical Revival items in the “Homeric” and “Etruscan” design. Lucky “G.F.R.” to have such a nice napkin ring.

Woods and Chatellier (1899–ca. 1931, New York), Card case, 1890–1910. Silver-gilt metal with sapphire knob, case 3 3/8" x 2 7/8" (8.6 x 7.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art  (PMA-6860)

Speaking of refined, here’s a case for calling cards. Calling cards were like the business cards of the 18th and 19th centuries. If a person went to visit someone who wasn’t home, they would leave their card (on a silver tray held by a butler, no doubt). This is not so different from the way people swap business cards nowadays, but wouldn’t it be nice to carry business cards in such a spiffy little case?

This case was made by another New York firm (there were a lot of them at the time!) that specialized in jewelry, boxes, and novelties. It has a little bit of an Art Nouveau feel to the floral decoration. I’m just sorry we can’t see the sapphire knob.

Gillinder and Sons (1861–1930, Philadelphia), Toothpick holder, 1876. Frosted (pressed) glass, 4 1/4" x 4 3/4" x 2 1/2" (10.8 x 12.1 x 6.4 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6195)

I vaguely remember as a child toothpicks being more readily available on restaurant tables. I’m not quite sure when that practice ended, but toothpicks would sure get noticed in this swell little piece. This would also be a good match holder, but that’s another whole category of “little art”—the “match safe,” which closed completely.

Gillinder and Sons was started by a British immigrant who came to the US in 1853 and worked for a time at New England Glass Company before establishing his own firm in Philadelphia in 1861. Frosted glass such as this was the most prized form of Gillinder, achieved with the use of etching acids. Gillinder was famous for its detailed animal decorations.

Japan, Stationery box, 1600s. Lacquered wood with mother-of-pearl inlay, 3 1/8" x 9" x 11" (8 x 23 x 28 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-3450)

Very few people write letters any more. It’s all texting, Messenger, and emails. But there was a time when a box of stationery was a special gift, especially if it came in a box like this! Letter writing in Japan was practically an art form in itself, almost like poetry. Needless to say this is no cardboard stationery box from the local CVS that gets thrown away when it runs out of paper!

The Tokugawa shoguns (military dictators) ruled Japan from 1615 to 1868. During that time, they isolated Japan from any foreign influences via trade, thus ensuring a flourishing of indigenous arts. One of the traditional arts that continued to flourish during this period was lacquer work. Lacquer has played an important part in Japanese culture for more than two thousand years as a protective, decorative finish for items made from leather, wood, paper, bamboo, and metal. Japanese lacquer is harvested from the sap of the lacquer tree (Rhus verniciflua). It is applied to an object with a brush or spatula. Lacquer hardens to a waterproof finish in a controlled environment of high humidity and temperature.

France, Fan, 1850–1860. Silver foil over paper on painted and gilt wood sticks, 2 7/8" x 6 3/8" (7.3 x 16.3 cm. © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2435)

I know that the days before air conditioning when most women carried a fan are long gone, but many people – of both genders – nowadays still use fans. Let’s face it, nothing speaks elegance and refinement like the gentle flicking of the wrist with a fancy fan! In the 1930s and 1940s, non-air conditioned movie theaters used to give paper fans to customers— male and female—that bore company advertising. When it’s hot in church during the summer, people fan themselves with the program—what a perfect opportunity for a beautiful real fan!

When fans were a virtual necessity as part of a woman’s ensemble, they were often beautifully painted in the latest style of either painting or miscellaneous arts. This fan displays the Rococo Revival taste that was all the rage during the mid-1800s.

Koma Koryū (ca. 1775–1850, Japan), Five-part “Inro.” Black-lacquered wood with mother-of-pearl, gold, and silver inlays, 3 1/2" x 2 1/4" (8.9 x 5.7 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2425)

The inro developed during the late 1500s as a way for men to carry herbal remedies, seals, and coins. They were suspended from the obi (wide waist band) of traditional dress. A decorative ojime, usually of carved wood or ivory held the drawers together at the top knot of the cord, and a carved netsuke (a larger bead-like element) kept the inro from slipping out of the obi.

During the Tokugawa (Edo) period, not only did the dictators isolate Japan from trading with foreign countries, they also issued sumptuary laws restricting what classes could wear luxury clothing and accessories. One way prosperous merchants and middle class men could demonstrate their glamour and good taste was with a beautifully decorated inro hanging from their obi. This beautiful example is proof that inro decoration reached its zenith of refinement during the Tokugawa shogunate.

Félix Bracquemond (1833–1914 France), and  Auguste Rodin (1840–1917 France), Hand mirror with relief (Rodin) of Venus Rising from the Seafoam, ca. 1900. Gold, enamel and ivory handle, 12 11/16" x 6 3/8" x 1/16" (32.2 x 16.1 x 1.2 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CM-490)
I’m not so sure that hand mirrors are used so much anymore either. As a slob, I only use the bathroom mirror to make sure I’m not a complete mess before going out. When women had time (and servants to help them) to get ready for going out, hand mirrors helped with the finishing touches to the face and hair. Hand mirrors were especially handy for travelling, though I’d be afraid of seven years’ bad luck when it inevitably would break it. Mirrors such as this would come as part of a complete set including brush and comb. The hand mirror has a history as far back as Ancient Egypt, where they took the form of highly polished bronze or brass that had been beaten as thin as cardboard.

Bracquemond is probably most noted for his elegant Art Nouveau designs for all types of the miscellaneous arts, particularly ceramics. The interesting part of this mirror is the Venus figure provided by Rodin, who by 1900 was already a well-established sculptor.

Van Cleef and Arpels Firm (founded 1906, Paris), Vanity case, ca. 1950. Gold and diamonds, 9/16" x 3 1/2" x 2 3/4" (1.5 x 9 x 7 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art  (CL-704)

The term “vanity case” used to apply to clunky, box-like luggage meant to hold beauty supplies for women when they traveled. Of course, now that no one wants to wait for the luggage carousel at the airport, that size of bag is usually stuffed into the overhead, holding everything, including clothes. I’m not sure what this size vanity case would hold, except maybe cigarettes, although it’s sort of big for that. Probably a small square of makeup and a mirror.

Van Cleef and Arpels was founded by the married couple Estelle Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef. Since its founding, the company specialized in luxury jewelry for the richest of the rich. They are perhaps best known for their Art Deco and Art Moderne designs during the 1920s and 1930s. Most of their jewelry is covered in diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies. I certainly wouldn’t flash something like this around at an airport these days!

Técla Jewelers (firm 1906 to present, Paris and New York), Perfume vial, ca. 1906–1910. Agate, gold, and rubies, 3 1/4" x 15/16" (8.3 x 2.5 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-317)

Before the advent of pocket-sized atomizers of scents, a person of good taste and glamour would carry a vial like this and dab a bit behind each ear and on the wrists. Once again, something encrusted with rubies and gold is not something I’d flash around in public anymore. What I find so beautiful about this little piece is that it is carved out of agate.

The Técla firm, like Van Cleef and Arpels, specializes in luxury (in other words, expensive) jewelry. They were particularly popular during the 1920s and 1930s, featured in many glamourous magazine ads. At one time they had stores in New York, London, Berlin, Nice, and Biarritz, with the flagship store in Paris. World War II (1939–1945) caused them to shut down all stores except Paris, but they continue to this day as a source for high-end jewelry and novelty items like this perfume vial.

Peru, Traveling trunk (Petaca), 1700s. Cowhide, leather, wood, 16 1/2" x 27 1/2" x 19" (41.9 x 69.9 x 48.3 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3214)

Trunks have been used as the principle method of transporting personal goods since the ancient world. Between the Middle Ages and the early 1800s, many people used trunks as furniture instead of beds or chairs. And one always sees trunks lashed to the top of the stagecoach that comes into Dodge on Gunsmoke. Trunks were a valuable luggage item for trans-oceanic travel when only ocean liners were available. They’ve gone the way of the dinosaur for the most part now, with impatient modern humanity able to fly everywhere with soft-sided, easy-to-stuff-in-the-overhead bags for personal goods.

When the Spanish conquered and colonized central and south America (Peru in 1532), they sought to duplicate their culture in every way, right down to precious miscellaneous art objects for everyday use. Petacas like this were based on one of the earliest traditional European forms of traveling trunk. The strong rawhide of this example is 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) thick! In Spain, these trunks would have been lined with remnants of Islamic silks, while in Peru they were lined with indigenous woolen textiles. Beauties like this were status symbols for wealthy colonists.

George W. Shiebler and Company (1876–1910, New York/Brooklyn), Tea strainer, 1880–1890. Silver with traces of original gilding, 6 3/8" x 2 7/8" (16.3 x 7.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6876)

My brother still uses the Art Nouveau silver tea strainer from my family when he makes loose tea. I guess the new-fangled tea balls that most people use for loose tea do away with the need for strainers during pouring. I just think it looks really elegant in any period costume drama on PBS when someone pouring tea uses a strainer.

Aside from their Neoclassical decorative motifs, Shiebler was really well known for all sorts of floral forms in their silver utensils. This silver tea strainer is particularly delicate in its form and—honestly—the height of refinement!