Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A National Treasure

Every so often it dawns on me how artists can be more than the production of their art. They can evolve to be a great gift from their country, their culture, and act as representatives of humankind’s indomitable spirit in general. Not to be immodest, but, the world would be a better place if artists ran it. Otherwise, why would busted-down philosophies like Nazi Germany, the “Cultural Revolution” in China, and the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia target artists, intellectuals, writers, etc.? Yary Livan, a master of Cambodian ceramic art, has brought his culture’s tradition to New England and has been sharing it with students since 2001.

Yary Livan (US, born 1954 Cambodia), Elephant Vessel, 2006. Glazed white stoneware, 9" x 10" x 10.5" (22.9 x 25.4 x 26 cm). Collection of the Artist.

Were you aware that archeologists think that Cambodia may have been the origin of rice cultivation and bronze casting in southeast Asia? Archeologists have also found evidence of ceramics being produced in Cambodia as early as 4000 BCE. At the height of its power during the so-called Angkor Period (ca. 790–1200s CE), the Khmer culture controlled a region that included most of Southeast Asia including Laos, Vietnam, and part of Thailand.

Traditional ceramics as far back as the pre-Angkor period were wheel thrown and decorated with incised patterns. Glazed ceramics appeared during the 800s CE. The production of ceramics in animal form or with animal decoration became prominent between the 1000s and 1200s. Archeological evidence indicates that indigenous ceramic production declined after that period because of increases in the import of Chinese wares.

Traditional Cambodian ceramics continued to be produced into the 20th century, primarily for household use and storage. The vast range of vessel designs—both household and ritualistic—was depicted often in bas-relief on Angkorean temples. The Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh was a major source of education in traditional Cambodian ceramics up until the turmoil of the 1970s.
Yary Livan studied ceramics at the Royal University starting in 1971. When Pol Pot and his stooges took over Cambodia in 1975, not only did they force city dwellers into the country to cultivate rice on communal farms, they also targeted artists (and other groups) for either execution or imprisonment. Because the Khmer Rouge had to build new communal dwellings and prison camps, they needed roof tiles. Livan’s mother suggested to the authorities that Livan knew how to build wood-burning kilns to produce roof tiles, and so he survived the Reign of Terror (1975–1979).

During the 1980s and 1990s Livan was in a series of refugee camps. Amazingly, for that entire period he did not pursue his art form. In 2001 he was granted political asylum in the US and went straight to Lowell, MA. In 2002 he became a visiting ceramic artist at Harvard and in 2005 he began teaching ceramics in the Lowell public schools.

In 2012 he built a traditional wood-burning kiln in association with Middlesex Community College where he became an adjunct professor. Livan has stated that a wood-burning kiln can achieve effects not possible with a gas-fired kiln. He also admits that glazes often do not come out of the kiln the same color twice.

Elephants have been revered animals for more than 2000 years in Cambodia. They were used not only as work animals when building large temples such as Angkor Wat (1100s), but they were also ridden in royal processions (with gold-covered tusks!) and in battle. They hold as honored a position in traditional Cambodian culture as they did in Indian culture. It’s no wonder that Yary Livan produces works that feature the elephant. The work below is from the heyday of the Angkorean period, but it does not quite have the elegance or delicate workmanship of Livan’s piece above. 

Cambodia, Elephant vessel, 1000s–1100s CE. Earthenware, height: 4 3/4" (12.1 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3518)
If you are anywhere near New England, I highly recommend that you check out this exhibition of Yary Livan’s ceramic art at the Ayer Lofts Art Gallery in Lowell, MA. I’ve seen many of his works and to say that the glazes and beautiful incised and applied decoration are mind-blowing is an understatement. The subtlety of his glazing is absolutely a delight to see. I am particularly a fan of an eggplant-color of glaze that he achieves.

Livan was made a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow in 2015. That’s not why I recommend you see his art work. It’s because he’s just a darned amazing ceramic artist that will thrill you with his shapes and glazes. This is why I consider him a national treasure. I think he may be the only Cambodian ceramic artist working in the US in traditional Cambodian ceramics and a wood-burning kiln. 

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.5-6 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, 6.35-36 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.10, 2.9-10 studio, 4.23-24 studio; A A Personal Journey 3.1, 3.4; Community Connection: 5.2, 2.6; A Global Pursuit: 8.5; Experience Clay: 4, 5, 6; The Visual Experience: 10.6, 13.3; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.5

Friday, July 8, 2016

World Watercolor Month

July is World Watercolor Month. I’m always happy to celebrate a medium in which I am really not terribly good. I have a feeling it’s because I’m an impatient Virgo who can’t stand to patiently build up translucent layers of color as one ought to do. When I was first in grad school in painting courses, I was using watercolors and gouache. My teacher said, “you’re trying to do in watercolor what you should be doing in oils.” So, there you have it, I’m not a watercolorist. But let’s celebrate the art of those who are accomplished.

Watercolor has been an art medium since cave paintings, when natural elements were mixed with water to make paints. For centuries artists made their own watercolors by grinding natural ingredients such as ochre, ashes, and various plants and mixing it with water. In the early Renaissance (ca. 1400–1600) watercolor was often only used to tint woodcuts or other prints. Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) is credited with creating highly finished watercolors of animal and plant studies that advanced the medium toward finished fine art status.

British landscape artists of the 1700s are credited with advancing stand-alone-watercolors-to-fine-art status. By the period of Impressionism (ca. 1870s–1890s), watercolors had arrived as works of art in their own right. Many painters in oil held exhibitions of just their watercolors for the first time around the turn of the 1900s.

Egypt, A Peacock Basin, leaf from a dispersed Automata manuscript Treatise on Ingenious Mechanical Devices, by al-Jazari, probably from Cairo, 1354. Opaque watercolor, gold leaf and ink on paper, 13 3/4" x 8 1/4" (35 x 21 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1381)

I’m guessing this device does not use a live peacock as a spout, but this illustration does not indicate how the water gets from the reservoir into the bird. The written word has always been important in cultures of Islamic faith, to the point where writing (calligraphy) is an art form. From the middle Islamic period (ca. 750–1200) on, therefore, book illustration was an important art form. Every kind of book was illustrated except the Qur’an. In Arab lands, the favored medium for book illumination was opaque watercolor.

Manuscripts dealing with automata—mechanical devices that usually incorporated moving figures—were immensely popular in both Europe (in the Middle Ages ca. 1000–1400) and the Arab world. The Turkish scientist, engineer, and mathematician Ismail al-Jazari (1136–1206) made many advances in the field of automata devices. He is thought to have created some remarkable automatons, including a clock shaped like an elephant with a puppet striking a bell for the hour. Al-Jazari’s devices were usually powered by water that turned a cam shaft. I don’t really know where that is in this design, but this fountain/basin would certainly be a conversation starter at a party.

Iran, Cover of a prayerbook that contains passages from the Qur’an, 1729. Ink opaque watercolor and gold leaf on paper mounted to lacquered pasteboard, 3 11/16" x 2 1/4" x 3/4" (9.4 x 5.7 x 1.9 cm). © Brooklyn Museum  (BMA-2249)

If I owned a beautifully illustrated book like this, I’m sure I wouldn’t carry it around for fear of somehow damaging the work of art that is its cover! The Safavid dynasty in Iran, which ruled from around 1526 to the mid 1700s, is considered one of the periods when art really flourished, particularly architecture, ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and book illustration. Iran under the Safavids grew prosperous because of their strategic location on the trade routes between India and China with Europe.

Contact with Europe brought Safavid artists in contact with European art. Safavid rulers encouraged European artists to relocate to the Safavid court. Floral decoration is a mainstay in mosque, textile, and mausoleum decoration, usually in an abstracted style. This realistic floral painting is possibly indicative of the influence of European botanical studies of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. 

American, Miniature of Elizabeth Sewell Salisbury, 1787–1789. Watercolor on ivory, 1 1/2" x  1" (3.8 x 2.5 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-648)

Watercolor is such a mystery to me technically anyway, but I really can’t figure out how artists got it to stay on a piece of ivory. They must have scored it somehow to make the surface porous? However they did it, watercolor-painted ivory miniatures are one of the most fascinating forms of portraiture ever! They flourished between the 1500s and mid-1800s, when the Daguerreotype photographic portrait more or less killed the genre. Miniatures were meant to be keepsakes of either a loved one far away or of a departed loved one. They were either worn or displayed on a small stand.

Portrait miniatures were madly popular in the American colonies and the early Federal period. Like all other forms of art, they were status symbols. Many prominent portrait miniaturists were women artists. This miniature is an exact copy of a painted portrait in oil of a member of one of the wealthy Salisbury family of Worcester, MA, big supporters of the American Revolution (1775–1783). The original oil was painted by Christian Gullager (1759–1826), a popular society portraitist of the post-Revolution period. Gullager even painted a portrait of President Washington.

I personally love her dormeuse, the demure confection of ruffles on her head. Until the middle of the 1800s, it was typical for married women to have a covered head both at home and in public. The dormouse was a French invention originally fashioned to protect the ridiculously elaborate hairdos of pre-Revolution France during sleep. Hence the noun extracted from the verb dormir, to sleep.

Ohara Koson (1877–1945, Japan), Carp and Wisteria. Ink and watercolor on silk, 15 15/16" x 6 9/16" (40.5 x 16.7 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1041)

Among watercolor artists of whom I am in awe are Japanese painters. Their masterful layering of transparent watercolors and ink make me drool. This masterpiece just makes me want to take up watercolor again, but then I always have to remind myself, “remember what your watercolors looked like!” Certainly not as sophisticated as this!

Ohara Koson was active in that fertile, and yet turbulent, period of the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) when Japan rapidly industrialized and drank up the influence of Western art. Japanese artists formed two “camps” in the printmaking genre: the shin hanga (new prints) and sosaku hanga (creative prints). The shin hanga artists believed in doing things the old fashioned way with both subject matter and process, while the sosaku hanga preferred total control over their work. Ohara was part of the conservative shin hanga. While he is known mostly for his prints, his paintings are really stunning.

Shin hanga artists preferred subject matter, as well as style, that was traditional. That may be the case, but this painting has a dose of Western realism in it, along with typical features of Japanese painting: asymmetrical balance, expert contrast of positive and negative space, and open composition.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925, US), An Artist at His Easel, 1914. Watercolor over graphite on wove paper, 15 3/4" x 24 15/16" (40 x 53.4 cm). © Art Institute of Chicago. (AIC-347)

One of my favorite American artists, Sargent, was one of the key forces in changing watercolor from study medium to out-and-out finished fine art in America. In the early 1900s, many museums had subscriptions with him to buy a certain number of watercolors per year, they were so prized. Most know him only as a portrait painter of wealthy American ex-pats in Europe in an Impressionistic mode. But I find his watercolors much more interesting. He and Winslow Homer (1836–1910) were among the first American artists to use the white of the paper for highlights instead of adding white gouache after finishing a piece.

The 1890s were Sargent’s busiest and most lucrative years of portrait painting. By 1900 he tired of the artifice and formulaic nature of depicting wealthy sitters and he turned increasingly to watercolor. In taking up watercolor, Sargent returned to emphasizing painting outdoors (plein-air) that he had learned while studying art in Paris. Between 1900 and 1914 he created more than 700 watercolors, painted almost entirely outdoors, in brilliant pure colors with virtually no pencil outlines.

In order to find subject matter in which he could explore the nuances of outdoor light, Sargent chose locations ideal for that: Florida, the Alps, Italy, and Greece. In 1917 he went to Florida and produced eleven watercolors, all of which were bought by the Worcester Art Museum. One of Sargent's favorite motifs wherever he went was palm trees and palmetto. He delighted in the multiple textures, and tendency to offer many nuances of light and dark.

Diego Rivera (1886–1957, Mexico), Mason, ca.1937. Watercolor on paper, 15" x 11" (38.1 x 27.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2016 Banco di Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museum Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-281riars)

Rivera was undoubtedly one of the most influential artists of the 1900s in the Western Hemisphere. His art work influenced both the development of Mexican modernism, the mural art of the WPA during the Depression (1929–1940), and the Mural Movement in American urban areas in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But, he was no only a muralist. He was also gifted in pastels, charcoal, and watercolor.

Despite going through a Cubism phase while living in Paris (1911–1921), when he returned to Mexico, he was determined to develop a personal style that reflected Mexico’s culture. He was particularly affected by indigenous Mexican peoples, and the art of ancient Mexican cultures had a great impact on the formation of his mature style that emerged in the late 1920s.

Rivera did several watercolor studies of Mexican Indian stone masons. The artist did countless works documenting the humblest jobs in Mexican society among the poorest classes. Like his murals, Rivera's art strove to give dignity to the people whom he believed were the unsung heroes of Mexican culture. Masons, who work on the foundation of buildings, were analogous in Rivera's mind to the soldiers of the revolution who established the foundations of a more equitable society in Mexico.

Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007, US), Untitled, 2003. Mezzotint with watercolor additions, sheet: 27 9/16" x 24 9/16" (70.1 x 62.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Estate of Elizabeth Murray / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P0298murars)

One does not really hear the term “mixed-media” used before the 1900s. After the Dada, Surrealist, and Cubist movements, with the introduction of found objects, collage, and other stuff to painting and sculpture, it sort of made sense to coin the term. Watercolor became one of the media that became part of mixed-media works. Ironically, it is often used the same way it was first used in the Renaissance, as an embellishment to printmaking.

The work of painter Elizabeth Murray progressed from a Minimalist sensibility combined with recognizable forms (the influence of Pop Art) through pieced canvases that represented abstracted shapes. The overriding interest in her work was the unity of idea with form. This she usually achieved through color.

Murray began exploring printmaking in the late 1980s. Color lithography and intaglio processes were among the most frequently used. Murray’s prints reflected the same repertoire of images as seen in her painting. The coffee cup (usually with spillage) is among the most recognizable of those forms. Prints such as this present Murray’s joy in the exploration of color used to unify a composition. 

Wangechi Mutu (born 1972, Kenya), One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwhack, 2004. Collage of cut-and-pasted paper with watercolor, synthetic polymer paint, and pressure-sensitive stickers on transparent paper, 68 1/2" x 42" (174 x 106.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Wangechi Mutu. (MOMA-P1888)

Wangechi Mutu’s work is a powerful representative of the current flourishing of contemporary art in Africa. Her works embody the angst, the damage, and the residual uncertainty left in post-colonial Africa. Her body of work seems biographical, although in a sense she is summing up the state of women in modern Africa. She has termed women’s body’s as “barometers” of current events. Her work references colonial history, current African politics, and the international fashion industry.

Mutu works with cuts outs from magazines, found materials, and everything from fur to glitter. I’m guessing the watercolor was used in the nuanced colors in the corners and at the bottom. Her imagery, while concerned with issues of race, identity, gender, and consumerism, convey both a morbid and a celebratory impulse. This injured woman, seemingly dressed for a festival, is a potent combination of feminist, modern Western and African awareness, creating a type of modern mythology.

Mutu was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and studied at Cooper Union in New York (BFA) and Yale University (MFA). She studied sculpture and anthropology. She lives and works now in Brooklyn. 

Philip Pearlstein (born 1924, US), View of Assisi #5. Watercolor on paper, 25 1/2" x 19 1/4" (64.9 x 48.9 cm). Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH. © 2016 Philip Pearlstein. (BIAA-180pp)

Here’s one beautiful work I could not resist putting in. If you don’t recognize the artist immediately, that’s understandable. Pearlstein is more renowned for his photo-realistic nude models. This piece dates from the period when he was under the sway of Abstract Expressionism. He had just won a Fulbright Scholarship and was touring Italy. His love of landscape is evident.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.9, 2.7, 2.8, 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.2, 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 5.26, 5.27-28 studio, 5.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2, 1.4, 2.7; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.2, 1.6, 4.20, 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 4.23-24 studio; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 1.2, 3.4, 4.5; Discovering Drawing: 6; Communicating Through Graphic Design: 5; Experience Painting: 1, 2, 4; The Visual Experience: 9.2, 9.3, 13.5, 14.2, 14.3, 16.3, 16.6; Discovering Art History: 4.4, 4.7, 13.1

Monday, June 27, 2016

It’s Summer

It seems that every year it takes longer and longer for summer to get here. Then when it does get here, it’s gone in a flash! I can’t think of anything bad to say about summer, well, except when it’s so hot that the spotlight on my easel makes it too hot for me to paint. Speaking of art, here are some artworks with summer themes you may never have seen.

Thailand, Bang Pa-In Summer Palace, Bangkok, elephant topiary in gardens, 1872–1881. Image © Davis Art Images. (8S-10355)

Can you just feel the warmth of the sun illuminating the tops of these “elephants”? The Bang Pa-In was a summer palace for Thai kings built in the 1600s before Bangkok was the capital. It was rebuilt by King Rama V (1853–1910) to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chakri Dynasty.

The gardens were designed with moats and plantings influenced primarily by Versailles (by European landscape architects) because Rama V wanted to give his monarchy a Western image. However members of his court prevailed upon him to request some traditional Thai elements. The topiary elephants were one concession. Ironically, Thailand's empire in Southeast Asia (which included Cambodia, Laos and, parts of Indonesia) was severely reduced by European occupation (mostly British and French) by 1909.

European topiary dates from ancient Roman times. Topiary is the practice of training and clipping perennial plants to form shapes, either geometric or organic shapes, such as elephants. Japanese and Chinese topiary, on the other hand, was intended to represent natural elements such as clouds, mountains, or waves. The topiary garden at Bang Pa-in was carried out during a period of revival of architecture and landscape decoration in 1800s Europe influenced by Baroque (particularly Dutch) gardens, when topiary landscape architecture was particularly fashionable.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879, Britain), Summer Days, 1866. Albumen print on paper, 13 7/8" x 11 1/8" (35.3 x 28.2 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington. (NGA-P1068)

I’m not sure if the mopey faces on these models is just the way the British react to hot weather in summer, or if it’s because they had to sit through a long exposure (45 to 60 seconds). In any case, the languid poses are a perfect example of the “Art Photography” that was a popular pursuit within the genre during the 1800s.

In the mid-1800s, unlike painting and sculpture, photography did not require training in the academies, long apprenticeships, or lengthy practice. For these reasons, women were encouraged by photographic journals to use the medium. They would not need to be exposed to nude models in the academies, and they practice the art form from home, still considered the most "appropriate" place for women. In England, amateur photographers like Cameron believed that photography as art should deal with suitable and uplifting themes.

Cameron, born in Ceylon to a British official and educated in Britain, received her first camera in 1864 as a gift. She immediately began to pursue photography earnestly, selling her prints in London. In late 1865, she began using a larger camera that held a 15" x 12" glass negative, rather than the 12" x 10" negative of her first camera. The larger camera helped her create more compelling, up close compositions. She was well-versed in effectively posing her models, mostly neighbors and friends.

Ronald Bladen (1918-1988 US, born Canada), Double Summer, 1987. Aluminum and wood, 46 1/8" x 53 3/4" x 27 1/4" (117.1 x 136.5 x 69.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Estate of Ronald Bladen / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-S0595blvg)

In the work of Ron Bladen, I’m accustomed to seeing his huge, Primary Structures that take up whole plazas or gallery spaces. This piece is much more intimate, though. It follows his tendencies toward minimalism. In my mind it is titled Double Summer because it looks like two lawn chairs folded up on the beach. It’s either that or two of those folding reflectors with a mirrored surface people used to hold to get tan under their chin, in a handy frame? I’m pretty sure my musings are wrong, because it was titled by Bladen and his assistant Larry Deyab while they worked on it during the hot summer of 1987.

Bladen was born in Vancouver, BC to a British steelworker and landscape architect. He himself worked as a ship’s welder during World War II (1939–1945). This job helped him build his monumental Primary Structure pieces of the 1960s, such as his famous The X (1965). He studied both painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Art Institute. During the 1950s he produced gorgeous, non-objective paintings much in the action painting spirit of Abstract Expressionism.

By the early 1960s he was inclined toward the Minimalism phenomenon, which was a direct reaction against Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on process. His gallery-size standing pieces of the 1960s became large wall installations during the 1980s, often with the addition of polished aluminum.

Kenneth Noland (1924–2010, US), Sounds in a Summer Night, 1962. Acrylic on canvas, 69 11/16" x 70" (177 x 178 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Kenneth Noland / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P2175novg)

I completely understand Noland’s choice of colors in this painting. It so reminds me of lying in bed on a summer night with a partial moon bathing everything in a bluish white light. I’m not certain but I think this piece is on unprimed canvas.

Born in the art colony town of Asheville, North Carolina, Noland studied at nearby Black Mountain College (1946–1948), working with Minimalist Ilya Bolotowsky (1907–1981) and geometric Color Field artist Josef Albers (1888–1976). After a year in Paris in 1948, he returned to the US, moving to Washington DC in 1949. His paintings at the time reflected the all-over painting abstractions of l'Art Informel, the European counterpart to Abstract Expressionism.

Noland met Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) and briefly experimented with staining entire, raw canvases. In Washington he encountered a group of painters known as the Washington Color School Painters, among them Morris Louis (1912–1962), who, like Frankenthaler, stained raw canvas with pure color.

Noland's first completely unique statements of Color Field lasted from the mid-1950s to about 1962, after he had discovered the center of the canvas as a focal point for his compositions. Ensuing were paintings where the principal image from concentric circles exactly centered on the square canvas.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (ca. 1527–1593, Italy), Summer, 1563. Oil on lindenwood, 26 3/8" x 20" (67 x 50.8 cm). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Photo © 2016 Dr Ronald Wiedenhoeft / Saskia, Ltd. (Lif-0004)

Every so often, when I look at Arcimboldo’s composite figures, they seem creepy to me, especially the lips. But, this bust of summer does present all the traditional (at the time) attributes of the season, primarily harvested foodstuffs. I guess a contemporary composite image of summer would consist of tubes of sunblock and UV-blocking sunglasses?

Arcimboldo, the son of a painter named Biagio, was born in Milan. His family was well connected with the nobility and church, and Arcimboldo had no trouble securing commissions for frescoes and stained glass in Milan Cathedral. His conventional portraits and religious subjects were apparently accomplished enough to secure him a job as court painter (1562) to the Holy Roman Hapsburg Emperors Ferdinand I (1503–1564) and Maximilian II (1527–1576) for whom he painted conventional portraits.

The Hapsburg court in Vienna was full of Renaissance scientists, philosophers, and eccentrics. It was in this milieu that Arcimboldo executed his series of figures composed of various organic and man-made objects about the Elements and the Seasons, of which this is part. These paintings were presented to Maximilian in 1569. Cleverly composing a figure of fruits, vegetables, and grains fit right in with the Renaissance fascination with witty puzzles, double entendre, and visual games. 

Hella Jongerius (designer, born 1963, Netherlands) and Nymphenburg Porcelain Factory (1747–present, Nymphenburg, Germany), “Summer” teapot  from the Four Seasons set, 2007. Hand painted porcelain, 10 1/2” x 6" (26.7 x 15.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Hella Jongerius. (PMA-6404)

Wrapping up this ode to summer is an artwork from another series dedicated to the Four Seasons, but decidedly less creepy than Arcimboldo…maybe. I’m not a big fan of anything Rococo, but, I think it’s awesome that you see a revival of the style in the 21st century, such an anachronism. Jongerius took the traditional approach of personification for her Four Seasons set: women for summer (teapot) and spring (hand mirror) and men for autumn (wine jug) and winter (candleholder). I like her work, particularly in porcelain, because she does a lot of the work by hand.

Jongerius is a Dutch industrial designer who works in Berlin. She graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. In the true spirit of Bauhaus, Jongerius has always emphasized fusing industry with art, high and low technology, and traditional imagery produced by industrial process infused with hand work. She works for other iconic brands such as Vitra and IKEA.

Europeans went nuts over porcelain when it was first imported during the 1500s. The secret to porcelain manufacturing (kaolin) was not discovered until the 1700s by a German chemist. Nymphenburg was one of the manufactories established (1747) to provide an alternative to expensive imported Chinese porcelain. Nymphenburg is perhaps most renowned for the porcelain figurines they produced of commedia dell’arte characters.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.24, 6.35, 35-36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 3.14; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.24, 21-22, 23-24, 5.25; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4, 7.4; A Community Connection: 7.2, 7.4, 8.4; A Global Pursuit: 4.4, 9.4; Focus on Photography: 2, 3, 5; Experience Clay: 3, 4; ; Exploring Painting: 12; Exploring Visual Design: 7, 9, 12; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 9.5, 10.4, 10.6, 10.14, 13.3, 15.9 16.4, 16.7, 16.8; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.5, 4.activity 1, 9.2, 12.4, 17.3

Monday, June 20, 2016


Ethel Schwabacher (1903–1984, US), Tempest, 1951. Oil on canvas, 30" x 36" (76.2 x 91.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6883)

I always like to be surprised, learning about an artist I know little or nothing about. I’m certain that the names that come to mind when the style “Abstract Expressionism” is mentioned are Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell, and Gottlieb. Well, in my many many years as an art historian, I’ve discovered a lot of artists who hung out with the New York School “star artists,” who are never mentioned in art history texts as Abstract Expressionists. This is particularly true about the women. The whole Abstract Expressionist marketing machine was very loud about the male stars, but many of the women associated with the “group” did not receive affirmation of their art until the 1960s. It’s no wonder the Guerilla Girls had posters which intimated that the only way for women to be represented in a museum was as a nude model for a male artist! Well, I’ve found another artist associated with the Abstract Expressionists: Esther Schwabacher, and her work is Great!

As you know, there were many women who made important contributions to Abstraction Expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s in both the action painting and color field genres. Elaine de Kooning (1918–1989), Joan Mitchell (1925–1992), Grace Hartigan (1922–2008), and Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) are among the artists who gradually gained acclaim for their art in the 1960s after the “men’s club” ambience of the 1950s New York School faded. Ethel Schwabacher was part of this group of women artists. She, along with the above mentioned four and several other women are part of a show I really wish I could see at the Denver Art Museum, “Women of Abstract Expressionism.”

Ethel Schwabacher was born in New York. At the age of 5 her family moved to Pelham, where, as a child, she painted in the garden. At 15 she enrolled at the Art Students League of New York. She also studied sculpture at the National Academy until 1921. Her initial training was in sculpture, but she abandoned that in favor of painting in 1927 after she finished an apprenticeship with the academic-realist sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876–1973).

Anna’s foundation in abstraction came when she studied under American Cubist Max Weber (1881–1961) at the Art Students League. It was further cemented by her friendship there with Arshile Gorky (1904–1948). At the time the soon-to-be Abstract Expressionist’s paintings were Cubist and figurative. After 6 years in Europe, during which time she studied the modernist experiment in Paris, she took independent study with Gorky in 1934 and 1936. At that time Gorky introduced her to the Surrealist idea of automatism, the act of painting without conscious control. She was inspired by the biomorphic Surrealist abstract forms of Gorky’s work. From that point on, Schwabacher became interested in expressing her subconscious in paintings. Like Tempest, her works are characterized by automatism in abstract forms, with many of her paintings referencing nature. This painting comes from the year of her husband’s death, and Tempest may have the dual intention of expressing her feelings of loss, anxiety, and separation.

This is typical of Gorky’s work around that period:
Arshile Gorky (1903–1984, US, born Armenia), Water of the Flowery Mill, 1944. Oil on canvas, 42 1/4" x 48 3/4" (107.3 x 123.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © 2016 Estate of Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PRF-0006)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Community Connection: 6.2, 8.4; Exploring Painting: 12; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 17.1

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Expanded Toulouse-Lautrec

Last week I was a jaded art historian. This week I am a socially responsible one. I always feel it is unfortunate when appreciators of art only know one genre of the work of a certain artist. Everyone knows that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was one of the pioneers of the “art poster” and did a lot of innovative graphic design. But many are only familiar for his works concerning the night club Le Moulin Rouge. He executed so many design jobs, I think it’s important for you to see a little bit of the breadth of his work.

Post-Impressionism stressed structure above scientific dissection of the visual impact of light on color. However, this interest in structure was combined with the Impressionist concern with documenting fleeting moments of everyday life. This included spontaneous movement and, to a great extent, the influence of Japanese prints that illustrated scenes of everyday life.

Toulouse-Lautrec excelled at drawing from a young age. He was much influenced by Degas's drawing style, which was grounded in his studies in great drawings by Renaissance and Baroque artists. In 1882 he moved to Paris and gravitated toward the Bohemian section of Montmartre because of the liveliness of that section of the city. He initially painted outdoors like the Impressionists, using oil paint thinned to transparency, which he executed in layers on cardboard. This technique "peinture á l'essence," allowed his sketchy brush work to show through.

Starting in the late 1880s, Toulouse-Lautrec began to create posters in the relatively new process of color lithography for some of the more popular nightspots in Montmartre. His lithography eventually was primarily inhabited by his studies of personages from the neighborhood, illustrations for theater programs, magazines, and novels. His technique was greatly influenced by Japanese prints in the vague, often skewed perspective, open composition, strong contour of shapes, and flat areas of color.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901, France), The Old Stories (Les Vielles Histoires), music sheet cover for collection of poems of Jean Goudeszki (1866–1934 France), 1893. Color lithograph on paper, 19 1/2" x 25 1/8" (49.5 x 64 cm). © Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-715)

Toulouse-Lautrec brilliantly used economy of line in his graphic design to emphasize the main point of the piece. His use of asymmetrical balance mirrors that seen in classic woodcut prints of Japanese Ukiyo-e. In this music sheet cover—of which several versions both colored and not colored were printed—the musician Désiré Dihau (1833–1909) leads the folkloric poet Goudeszki, caricatured as a bear, across the Pont des Arts in Paris.

Toulouse-Lautrec did music sheet covers for other songs of Dihau: The Old Butterflies (Les Vieux Papillons), Nursemaid (Berceuse), and Buy my Pretty Violets (Achetez mes Belles Violettes). Dihau was a famed bassoonist in Paris, who was immortalized in Edgar Degas’ (1834–1917) early work Orchestra of the Opera (1869, Museé d’Orsay, Paris). 

Sick Carnot (Carnot Malade!), music sheet cover for Songs from the Chat Noir (night club), 1893. Color lithograph on paper, 10 7/8" x 6 15/16" (27.6 x 17.6 cm). © Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-2086)

Because Toulouse-Lautrec spent so much of his time sketching everyday people, he was able to produce hundreds of humorous caricatures of important people quickly for publication. This advertisement is for a humorous monologue about the French Republic’s people’s fear of losing to illness a capable and immensely popular president, Carnot, after decades of political turmoil. Unfortunately, Marie François Sadi Carnot (president 1887–1894) was assassinated in 1894 by a nutty Italian anarchist. That historical fact makes this humorous monologue all the more ironic. 

A Gentleman and a Lady, theater program cover for the play “The Money” (“L’Argent”), at the Théâtre Libré, 1895. Color lithograph on paper, 12 1/2" x 9 7/16" (31.9 x 24 cm”). © Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-1565)

The diagonal, open composition of this program cover, with its simple masses of color and sparseness of detail, is certainly reminiscent of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. It also shows the penchant of Post-Impressionist artists for reducing subject matter to the most elementary forms. Although it depicts an intimate every-day, casual moment, which was the mainstay of Impressionism, in all other respects it is as far from Impressionism as it can be. The forms in this lithograph remind me a lot of the work of Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940).

The Théâtre Libré was an experimental theater in Paris that operated between 1887 and 1896. It was the first non-commercial theater, and greatly influenced experimental theaters throughout Europe. Among the controversial psycho-realist playwrights whose works appeared there were Ibsen, Tolstoy, and Brieux. I’m not even sure if Toulouse-Lautrec was paid for this work, for the original owner of the theater André Antoine (1858–1943) gave it up as a financial loss in 1894 to another manager.  

Advertisement for the gothic novel The Alarm Bell (Le Tocsin), serialized in the publication “The Dispatch” (La Dépêche)”, 1895. Color lithograph on paper, 21 3/16" x 15 3/4" (53.7 x 40 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-582)

There’s nothing more Goth than some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s scarecrow-like figures. It’s particularly effective for an ad for a gothic novel. This advertisement was commissioned by Arthur Huc, editor of Toulouse’s (Toulouse-Lautrec’s home region) most influential newspaper La Dépêche de Toulouse, and a significant patron of the artist since 1891. On this print, also sometimes called The Keeper of the Castle (Chatelaine), Toulouse-Lautrec used the crachis (spatter) technique in which he created a mist of pigment that simulates airbrush by causing the brush to splatter. He first used that technique in his first poster, the famous Moulin Rouge Concert Bal tous les Soirs (1891).

Poster advertising P. Sescau, Photographer, 1896. Color lithograph on paper, 23 5/8" x 28 3/8" (60 x 72 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-D0757)

Toulouse-Lautrec also designed ads for businesses other than night clubs. This is the only known advertisement he did for the up-and-coming medium of photography. Ironically, in much of advertising in the 1900s, photography replaced lithography. Sescau took many portraits of Toulouse-Lautrec, including one whacky one where the painter was dressed as a Japanese nobleman complete with fan. Sescau popularized an early form of film called ciné roman, in which still photographs were accompanied by voice and music.

Toulouse-Lautrec also portrayed the photographer.

Portrait of Mr Paul Sescau, 1891. Oil and gouache on cardboard, 32 3/4" x 14 1/4" (83.2 x 36.2 cm ). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4885)

Poster advertising The Dawn Illustrated Revue, 1896. Color lithograph on paper, 23 13/16" x 31 11/16" (60.5 x 80.5 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-D0756)

L’Aube was an illustrated art review journal. Toulouse-Lautrec once again used the crachis technique to heighten the effect of early darkness in this poster. Although most of the denizens of the artist’s prints were considered the “underclass” (actors, prostitutes, dancers, artists, and the like), he rarely, if ever, showed the really poor people of Paris. The figures of these poor people attending a garbage cart remind me of the slope-shouldered poor in the prints of Daumier, or the paintings of Millet.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 3.17; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.27, 5.27-28 studio; A Personal Journey: 4.2, 4.3; A Community Connection: 1.2, 8.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.4; Communicating Through Graphic Design: 3, 6; Exploring Printmaking: 6; The Visual Experience: 9.4, 12.3, 12.7, 16.4; Discovering Art History: 13.2.