Monday, August 3, 2015

The Essence of Essence

I’ve been reading manifestos by several early modernist artists from Europe recently (Kandinsky, Boccioni, Doesburg), and a recurring thought comes out in all of their writings. It is the idea that the physical reality of a subject is less important than art that expresses the essence of the object. It is easy to see how reduction of a subject to its simplest form is related to the idea of the essence of a subject, and thus, how abstraction was nourished. If we extend the idea of essence to the realm of non-tangible subjects, such as music, then we can see how non-objective abstraction developed. In my mind it is also easy to see why these artists were so passionate about the integrity of abstraction!

Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957, France, born Romania), Bird in Space, 1928. Bronze, unique cast, 54" x 8 1/2" x 6 1/2" (137.2 x 21.6 x 16.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-S0103bzars)
I really like Brancusi’s series of “Bird in Space” sculptures because he was not really summing up the physical bird, but the idea of flight, and he summed it up so beautifully. Initially trained as a furniture maker, he also studied under Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) in Paris. Brancusi really liked Rodin’s sculptures that featured fragments of human figures—allusions to the human form rather than the slavish veneration of a perfect human form that academic realist sculptors at the time emphasized. 
      
As early as 1910, Brancusi introduced the bird form as a focal point of abstraction in his "Maiastra." The bird was a perfect vehicle for Brancusi to explore his concentration on the essence of a subject rather than its physical nature. He produced a series of nine bronzes and seven marbles of "Bird in Flight" between 1923 and 1940. The highly polished surface extends the idea of flight and speed even further by allowing the form to reflect and, in effect, merge with its setting, blurring the boundaries between the form and its space.

Ancient China, Yi (vessel for ritual food storage/preparation), 1200s–1000s BCE. Bronze, 8" x 4 1/2" x 3 13/16" (20.3 x 11.4 x 9.8 cm). © Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-268)
A symbol can also represent the essence of an idea or object. In China, the dragon has been a potent symbol represented in art for centuries. It has symbolized positive energy, good fortune, and is considered a sign of perfect balance. For scholars it represents wisdom, enlightenment, and truth. Images of the dragon continue to play an important role in art to the present day.
      
The Chinese mastered bronze-casting by 2000 BCE. The first recorded dynasty, the Shang (ca. 1700–1028 BCE) perfected the production of sophisticated, elegant, and beautifully decorated bronze vessels for ritual use. These vessels, based on forms usually made of wood or ceramic, were symbols of status in wealthy burials. They almost all are decorated with the tao-tieh, a split, flattened dragon face, usually surrounded by elaborate scroll work. This symbol of the dragon was an appropriate one for burials, helping to ensure a successful afterlife.

Papua New Guinea, Yimam People, Hook Figure (Yipwon), 1900s. Wood and shell, 92 15/16" x 7" x 4" (236 x 17.8 x 10.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1609)
The Yimam people live in the Korewori River region of northeast New Guinea. New Guinea is one of the many islands that form the Oceanic region known as Melanesia in the South Pacific. New Guinea is the largest island in the Pacific Ocean. As in Australia, most arts are related to spiritual beliefs and are related to supernatural communication. Rituals and ritual art are primarily the province of men.
     
The hook figures were stored in the men's ceremonial house. They represented spiritual and ancestral forces, or were meant to channel those forces for luck in hunting and warfare. The figure itself represents the external and internal aspects of the spirits. A head and a leg are clearly visible. The central section represents a body, with beautifully carved hooks representing the ribs, surrounding a central element that represents the heart. Although much care went into the carving of ritual objects, they were often discarded or allowed to deteriorate after they had served their function, or were perceived as ineffective.

Max Weber (1881–1961, US, born Poland), The Dancer, 1946. Pastel on brown paper, 18 3/16" x 13 1/4" (46.2 x 33.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5052)
Max Weber, born in Russia, was probably the first American artist who experimented extensively with Cubism. He studied at the Pratt Institute under the influence of modernist painter Arthur Wesley Dow (1857–1922) in New York and then spent 1905 to 1908 in Paris, participating in Cubist and Fauve exhibits. After he returned to the US, his work was a highly personal form of Cubism. Although he returned to more figurative work in the 1920s, there was a Cubist simplification in his work throughout his career.  

The Cubism movement emphasized the idea of time as a component of two-dimensional art. The Futurists added the idea of the time component including movement (dynamism). Weber produced numerous studies of dancers in the Cubist vocabulary, using it as a way to distill the basic idea of a dancer’s movements. 

James A.M. Whistler (1834–1903 US), Nocturne, Blue and Silver, ca. 1872–1878. Oil on canvas, 15 1/2" x 24 3/4" (39.4 x 62.9 cm). © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. (GM-50)
Whistler’s concern for abstract qualities found expression in a number of paintings (and prints) on the “nocturne” subject. While it is tempting to consider it the influence of Impressionism, Japanese art, particularly the prints of Hiroshige, were the major impetus. Like his portraits, Whistler worked with a limited palette to emphasize the surface of the painting. In 1872, Whistler declared that violinist friend Francis Leyland (1832–1892), who was devoted to Chopin, influenced his use of musical terms in his painting titles.
      
While the title of this series of paintings, “nocturne,” alludes to the French tendency to equate art with music, the painting itself relies heavily on the Japanese idea of art as decorative and aesthetically valuable rather than philosophical. Like Japanese prints, which had fascinated Whistler, the scene of the Thames in London is reduced to simple, horizontal bands. While the bands astutely imply recession, they also help create a flat surface that verges, like Monet’s late water lily works, to deny the traditional Western perception of painting as a two-dimensional window into a three-dimensional “world.”

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974 Mexico), Essence of a Tree, 1965. Oil on panel, 47 1/2" x 12" (120.7 x 30.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2015 David Alfaro Siqueiros / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BMA-5106sqars)
Siqueiros was one of the “big three” of Mexican muralists (including Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco). A member of one of the armies vying for political control during the Mexican Revolution (ca. 1910–1917) and a labor activist from a young age, he studied art in both Mexico and Europe. He was affected by the frescoes of Michelangelo (1475–1564) and illusionistic Baroque ceiling and wall paintings. His murals in Mexico, on a variety of themes of social justice and a more equitable society in Mexico, are characterized by dramatic, often violent movement; distortion of forms; and a limited palette.
      
Siqueiros often used tree-like forms in his murals to act as divisions between themes within a greater composition. This extraction of the essence of a writhing, gestural tree is typical of his Expressionistic mural forms.


Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.7, 2.22; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.5, 6.25, 6.26; A Personal Journey: 6.1, 6.5, 6.6; A Community Connection: 1.1; A Global Pursuit: 1.1, 1.3; The Visual Experience: 1.1, 2.1; Discovering Art History: 1.2, 2.1

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Neglected Japanese Printmaking Master

Gosōtei Hirosada (ca. 1819–1864), Middle sheet of triptych: Onoe Tamizō as Soma Tarō (right), Arashi Rikaku II as UtōYasukata (center), and Mimasu Daigorō IV as Takeichi Buemon (left) from the Play “The Story of Tarō, Scion of the Soma Clan,” in the Wakadayu Theater in Osaka, 1850. Color woodcut triptych on paper, 9 13/16" x 20 15/16" (24.8 x  53.4 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5816)
Gosōtei Hirosada (ca. 1819-1864), Onoe Tamizō as Soma Tarō (right), Arashi Rikaku II as UtōYasukata (center), and Mimasu Daigorō IV as Takeichi Buemon (left) from the Play “The Story of Tarō, Scion of the Soma Clan,” in the Wakadayu Theater in Osaka, 1850. Color woodcut triptych on paper, 9 13/16" x 20 15/16" (24.8 x  53.4 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5466)

I’m pretty sure there’s generally a misconception about the Ukiyo-e phenomenon in Japanese art. It is certainly one I had until I recently came across hundreds of gorgeous woodblock prints by a relatively obscure Ukiyo-e master, but master he was! The misconception, my misconception, is that the Ukiyo-e style was an Edo (Tokyo) art movement. The style name, “pictures of the floating world,” refers to the transient pleasures of life, primarily those in the pleasure districts (Yoshiwara) of cities. This was where Kabuki theater, brothels, restaurants with Geisha entertainment, and fancy teahouses were located. I never thought about the fact that most Japanese cities probably had Yoshiwara and, thus, the appeal of documenting the glittering fashions and events of those locales in multiple-woodblock prints. I have subsequently learned about the thriving print scene in the city of Osaka, and its active theater district, of which Hirosada was a major player.

There is no doubt that in the Ukiyo-e genre of printmaking, Edo (Tokyo) set the fashion not only in subject matter, but also stylistically starting in the late 1700s. Prints of the Kabuki theater evolved at that time, popularized by Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769–1825), who is equally famous for his actor portraits and interior views of Kabuki theaters. Toyokuni I established the Utagawa “school,” literally artists schooled by him who later adopted his surname Utagawa. These artists included the famous landscape artist Hiroshige (1797–1858), Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), and Kunisada (1786–1864, who also went by the moniker Toyokuni III). Many Osaka print artists studied under the Utagawa artists, and transmitted the fervor for Kabuki prints to that city from Edo. Notable aspects from Edo prints were the oban format (large prints), triptychs of actors set against theatrical backgrounds, and the large head prints (okubi-e). Within these Edo stylistic traits, however, the Osaka prints have a certain provincialism that informs the drawing style composition. Additionally, Edo prints were home of the aggressive Kabuki style (aragato, or, wild acting), which stressed universal ideas of heroism, fighting and display. I think this Kunisada aptly demonstrates that preference.

Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III, 1786–1864), Ichikawa Danjūrō as Unno Kotarō Yukjuji (Disguised as Yamagatsu Buō) in the play “The Barrier Gate” at the Ichimuraza Theater in Edo, 1828. Color woodcut on paper, 8 1/4" x 7 7/16" (21 x 18.9 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2671)
Osaka artists preferred the wagoto style, which emphasized speech and gesture. It was a more thoughtful and self-effacing style, which focused on individual human interaction rather than bombastic universal concepts. Little is known about Hirosada, save that he is thought to have apprenticed to an Utagawa school artist of Osaka, and studied alongside that artist in Edo with Kunisada. Hirosada is undoubtedly the most prolific of the Ukiyo-e print artists during the late flourishing of the art, which took place after the Tenpo Reforms of 1842, morals laws that banned Kabuki theater and prostitution and prints of those pleasures. By 1847 the laws had relaxed, but many artists, like Hirosada, started the practice of making exclusive sets of prints for discriminating clients. The prints from this period were jewel-like, printed in bright, enamel-like colors on thick paper.

Hirosada pioneered formats in Osaka such as the triptychs of large head prints, in which the characters interact with one another as they do the full-length characters in triptychs. Look at the gorgeous color in the ghost scene above. It is conceivable that Hirosada obtained his format of large head prints from Kunisada, but his prints are much more mannered, and the drawing is a little less sophisticated in the features. I am no expert on the subject, but I have never seen a large head print from the Ukiyo-e genre in which the figure busts the picture plane as the actor does in the center of this large head triptych. Don’t even ask me how that is achieved.

Gosōtei Hirosada (ca. 1819-1864), Nakamura Tomijurō II as Toki Hime (right), Onoe Tamizō II as Sasaki Takatsuna (center), and Arash Rikaku II as Miuranosuke (left) in the Play “A Chronicle of Three Generations in Kamakura” at the Minami Theater in Kyoto, 1849. Color woodcut triptych, 9 3/4" x 20 15/16" (24.8 x 53.4 cm)  © Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA-5610)
Hirosada’s work is a wonderful example of the last flourishing of a remarkable genre of printmaking lasting from the late 1840s to the late 1860s. The Osaka school of printmaking never really achieved such a rich and vibrant school of prints during the Meiji period (1868–1912), and it certainly never attained a greater print artist than Hirosada.


Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.9; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2, 1.1-2 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.4; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.4, 1.1-2 studio; A Personal Journey 1.3, 4.2; A Community Connection: 8.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.5; Experience Printmaking: 3, 4; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 12; The Visual Experience: 3.5, 9.4, 9.12, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.4

Monday, July 13, 2015

Horse Worship

Benjamin Marshall (1768–1835, Britain), Favorite Hunter of Lady Frances Stephens, 1799. Oil on canvas, 24 5/8" x 29 1/2" (62.6 x 74.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1261)
I recently became reacquainted with the British painting mania for horse portraits and hunting scenes that flowered between the late 1600s (in both Holland and Britain) and early 1800s. In the 1700s, this fad became so widespread among those with lots o’ money (who could afford to own a horse and go hunting), that a whole school of “horse and sporting” painters developed in Britain. George Stubbs (1724–1806) was the king of the horse painters, and published a book in 1758 on horse anatomy that is still referenced today, “The Anatomy of the Horse.” This whole genre is really an example of how the horse has been idolized throughout the history of humankind, since they were referenced in cave painting over 35,000 years ago. I can’t think of any animal that has served humankind in so many vital capacities as the horse. Truly, after the dog, human’s best friend!

The “animal and sporting” painters did not limit their work to animals, but were also skilled portrait painters of people. Most often the people portraits were part of the portrait of their most cherished horse or hunting dogs. In Britain, the cultivation of fine horses was definitely an upper-class pursuit, so that horse portraits such as Favorite Hunter of Lady Frances Stephen were obviously status symbols. One has to admire the fidelity to the textures of the horse’s hair accentuating the musculature accurately, and the noble air Benjamin Marshall’s portrait has given the horse. Marshall was a student of Stubbs. Since the demand for horse portraits was so great, Marshall concentrated on animals as a large part of his body of work, both painted and engraved. Another aspect of the horse and sporting paintings was portraits of race horses, often with their owners. Marshall spent most of his career living in Newmarket, London, near a race track.

Nicholas W.S. Leighton (1847–1898, US), Two Horses by a Wayside Trough, 1883. Oil on canvas, 7" x 9 1/8" (17.8 x 23.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3608)
Because American painting was heavily influenced by British painting during our early history, horse portraits became a moderately popular genre in the US as well. However, American horses were usually working horses from farms that had won county fair competitions, rather than pampered horses reserved for hunting or racing.

Ancient Greece, Horse, ca. 1750–725 bce. Bronze, 2 7/8" x 3" (7.3 x 7.7 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-860)
As in Britain, horses in ancient Greece represented wealth. Good pasture was expensive and very little money came from the government for their upkeep in time of war when they were used in the cavalry. They were used essentially for upper-class pastimes such as hunting and racing. Horseracing was such a big sport that it was incorporated into ancient Olympic games. Another major source of the love of horses came from religious stories of the gods traveling in chariots and of course from the famous winged horse Pegasus. Praises of the gods’ virtues always included their excellent horse skills. It was a common practice for people to make offerings at temples of small votive figures of horses such as this.

China, Horse, 618–907 ce. Glazed earthenware, 17 3/4" x 18 1/2" x 5 7/8" (45.1 x 47 x 15 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4900)
Throughout China's long history, no animal has played such a significant role in both society and art as the horse. Since its domestication about 5000 years ago, it became a vital way with which the Chinese defended and extended their kingdom. During the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1528–1028 bce), horses and their vehicles were buried with their owners to serve them in the afterlife. The Western Zhou period (1027–771 bce) measured military strength by the number of chariots available to a kingdom. During the Han Dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), the Chinese spent vast sums of money to import better quality horse from the West. During the Tang Dynasty (618–907 ce), horses were improved with better breeding practices, and through the importation of Arabic-style horses from the Middle East. From the Zhou Dynasty (1027–256 bce) through the Song Dynasty (960–1279 ce), the human and horse sacrifices were replaced by ceramic figures such as this glazed earthenware piece, as well as figures of familiar human attendants. The Han and Tang Dynasties are most renowned for the tomb figures of horses. The horse, like the dragon, was also an important religious symbol for the Chinese. Like the dragon, horses were thought to be able to fly. They were believed to be able, like the dragon, to carry the deceased to the home of the immortals (the afterlife). 

Deborah Butterfield (born 1949, US), Horse (Standing), 1977. Mud-fiberglass mixture with branches, 77 15/16" x 97 5/8" x 33 13/16" (198 x 248 x 86 cm). Photo Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago. © 2015 Deborah Butterfield / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (8S-21581bfvg)
Butterfield is renowned for her remarkably intuitive depiction of horses in a variety of found objects, and in found objects that are cast into more durable metal parts. She was born the same day as the Kentucky Derby, and attributes that auspicious birth date with her affinity for horses and the horse as subject matter. Although early on she had thought of studying to be a veterinarian, she instead decided to study sculpture. The horse became her primary theme from the very beginning of her career in the 1970s. She alternates her time between a horse ranch in Bozeman, MT and a studio in Hawaii. Butterfield does not make sketches for her horse sculptures, but rather “draws” the outlines of the animal with her found objects. She prefers to portray horses at rest rather than in motion, because she feels that at rest the gesture or movement are contained within her forms due to the materials she uses. Some recent works are constructed of metal casts of tree branches. Butterfield’s sculptures capture the essence of horses as faithfully as do Marshall’s paintings.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.connections, 4.23-24 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.9-10 studio; A Personal Journey: 5.6; A Community Connection: 3.2, 5.4; A Global Pursuit: 6.4; Beginning Sculpture: 4, 6, 2; Discovering Drawing: 9; Experience Clay: 3; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 10.2, 13.4, 15.4, 16.3, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 4.3, 6.2, 17.5

Monday, July 6, 2015

Happy Fourth of July Week


Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828, France), Bust of Benjamin Franklin, 1779. Marble, 21" x 13 1/2" x 10" (53.3 x 34.3 x 25.4 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2761)

I would really have liked to have been around when George Washington was our first president! That must have been such an exciting (and challenging, to be sure) period in which to live. Everything about the new country was, well, new. Considering that Neoclassicism was a rising star art style in Europe at the time of our Revolution (spurred on by the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii in 1748), it’s no wonder that Americans embraced the style after our victory in the Revolution. What more perfect style—a harking back to the ancient democracy of Greece—to adorn the new country? On an art historical note (of course), one of the pioneers of Neoclassicism was intimately, as an artist, connected with the new United States: Jean-Antoine Houdon.

Houdon grew up in an art academy near Versailles, where his father was caretaker. At 15 he studied sculpture under the prominent sculptor Michel Ange Slodtz (1705–1764), an artist whose classicism was infused with Baroque drama. After receiving a scholarship for the French Academy in Paris, he studied under Carle Vanloo (1705–1765), a painter who specialized in genre scenes that were informed both by Bourgeois Baroque and Rococo sensibilities, and Francois Dandre-Bardon (1700–1785), whose scenes of classical history were infused with Baroque intensity. From 1764 to 1768 he studied in Rome, a time when the excavation of Pompeii excited new study of classical art. His study of ancient Roman art, and anatomy with a surgeon, banished the Rococo style from the direction of his personal style into one of classicism and physical realism.
      
Although his work was well received on his return to Paris, he never secured royal patronage. His patrons were mostly intellectuals, wealthy middle class, and foreigners. The Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–1784) admired his work and set him on the path to major commissions among German nobles, which landed him subsequent work in countries across Europe.
      
Houdon first met and befriended Ben Franklin when he joined the Masons in 1778, while Franklin was negotiating France's help for the American Revolution. Houdon did several versions of Franklin, in both marble and terra cotta. They are all busts, reminiscent of the ancient Roman penchant for memorializing ancestors, especially in the aspect of the incisive, unvarnished realism. Though a couple—in which Franklin is clothed in ancient garb—have a slight idealization, Houdon's mastery of anatomy produced a sensitive, revealing portrait that exudes intelligence, as well as gentleness.

Life mask of George Washington, ca. 1785. Plaster, 12" x 9" x 4" (30.5 x 22.9 x 10.2 cm). © Library Company of Philadelphia. (LCP-55)

Houdon’s friendship with Franklin led to commissions of prominent men of the new republic. In 1781 he executed a bust of John Paul Jones (1747–1792), the American naval hero of the Revolution, and, in the same year, a portrait of Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette (1757–1834), the French aristocrat who fought for the United States. In 1785, the state of Virginia wanted a commemorative sculpture of Washington, and Houdon sailed to America in September, returning to France in December. While here, he spent two weeks at Mount Vernon. Imagine our humble, reserved future first president getting life masks made of his face and having his arms, legs and chest measured by Houdon! This plaster version comes from that life mask. Doesn’t look like our dollar bill, does it?

George Washington, 1788–1791/1792. Marble, height: 74 1/2" (189.23 cm). Virginia State Capitol, Richmond. © 2015 Historic American Buildings Survey, National Parks Service. (APAH-104)

Aside from this regal portrait of our first president, Houdon also executed many busts of Washington, some with pseudo-classical raiment. Other early American notables Houdon sculpted were our third president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and engineer/steamboat inventor Robert Fulton (1765–1815). Ironically, the artist who pursued Neoclassicism with such aesthetic integrity saw his career flag after the French Revolution (1787–1799), when the political opportunist/art dictator Jacques-Louis David (1748–1826) took over the French Academy during the Revolution and under Napoleon’s dictatorship. David’s idea of classicism was grand history painting that somehow edified the French government. He hounded Houdon out of many commissions, even accusing him of being a “counterrevolutionary” at one point. The French Revolution, which was supposed to instate American-type democracy, instead installed an emperor, and the greatest of Neoclassical sculptors saw his career dwindle in his later years.


Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.7; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2, 2.7; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1, 1-2 studio, 3-4 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1; A Community Connection: 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 6.4; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 16.3; Discovering Art History: 12.1

Monday, June 29, 2015

Too Nice to Put on the Floor


Spain, Textile fragment, 1300s or 1400s. Silk lampas weave with satin weave ground and plain weave pattern, width: 16 1/4" (41.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1003)

Spain, Textile fragment, ca. 1400. Silk lampas weave with satin weave ground and plain weave pattern, 21 3/4" x 10 13/16" (55.3 x 27.5 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CM-525)

Every so often I learn about a period in history in a certain place that seemed to have everything going for it—relative peace, flourishing economy and vibrant artistic culture, and a government that encouraged the co-existence of a variety of religions. It doesn’t seem to have happened very often in history. It did briefly in Spain under the Nasrid kingdom, and beautiful art was produced, as well as fabulous architecture.

These beautiful textile fragments from Spain are examples of an art form that had a major impact in Western Europe during the late Gothic and Renaissance periods. Textiles from Islamic lands flowed into Western Europe during the 1300s and 1400s, facilitated by Venice’s trade with the Byzantine Empire, and through Muslim Spain’s contacts with North Africa. In Arab lands, such textiles were used not only as garments and rugs, but also as wall hangings and window and door coverings. The lampas weave was a favored technique in Muslim lands. It was a doubleweave technique with two wefts, one above another, with the second creating a raised motif. Doubleweave textiles were not reversible.

Obviously such imported items were luxuries for the well-to-do. Not only were these textiles from the Middle East considered valuable and beautiful, most people did not use them as rugs, but rather as either wall hangings or even table cloths. Their patterns had a huge impact on the textile factories in Flanders, the prosperity of which fueled the Renaissance in the Low Countries. Here are three examples of these textiles popping up in northern paintings:

Johannes Vermeer (1632–-1675, Dutch), The Concert, ca. 1665. Oil on canvas, 28 1/2" x 25 1/2" (72.5 x 64.7 cm). © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. (GM-48)
In the foreground we see Middle Eastern textile used as a tablecloth.

Hans Holbein, the Younger (1497–1543, German) The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 81 1/8" x 81 5/8" (206 x 207.4 cm). © The National Gallery, London. (DAH-1021)
In this work, an Islamic textile is a tablecloth, while a Flemish silk textile forms the background.

Willem Kalf (1619–1693, Dutch), Still Life, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas, 25 3/8" x 21 3/16" (64.4 x 53.8 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0853)
Another luxurious table cover.

Muslims took over large parts of Spain in 711 from the Visigoths. In the 700s the Muslim capital was Córdoba. After the fall of these Umayyads in the 1000s due to increasing pressure from Christian kingdoms of Spain, the Muslim rulers were reduced to the southern part of Spain. The Nasrid Dynasty, founded by Muhammad I al’Ghalib (died 1273) controlled Jaén, Almeria, and Málaga, ruling from Granada. Granada became a leading cultural center of the Muslim world, encouraging scholarship in science, mathematics, and the arts, with thriving Christian, Muslim, and Judaic communities peacefully coexisting. Even after the Nasrid downfall in 1492, art forms and styles of the Islamic world persisted in Spanish art, and continued to have influence on the rest of Europe. Textiles from the Middle East and Asia continue to be a major export art form to the present day.


Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.31, 6.connections, 6.31-32 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.10; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 5.2; A Global Pursuit: 4.4; Exploring Visual Design: 11; The Visual Experience: 10.8, 14.2; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.7

Monday, June 22, 2015

An Art Historian’s Cure for Modernization Regret

Richard Upjohn (1802–1878 US), Kingscote, 1839–1841, Newport, Rhode Island. Photo © 2015 Davis Art Images. (8S-6977)
I get the sads whenever I walk a certain way to work, because I pass an old, late 1800s house now stuck between a sidewalk and entrance to a parking garage. It is all boarded up and covered over with obvious “modernization” attempts from the 1950s or 1970s, but the brick still shows in spots and there’s a gorgeous Mansard roof. I ruefully reflect on all of the fabulous historic architecture that has been ruined by well-meaning attempts at “updating.” I guess that’s better than tearing down, but not by much. My cure for the sads is to share with you a beautiful house that everyone should see at least once in his or her life. It covers one of my favorite topics, architecture revival styles. Newport, Rhode Island is like a huge museum of architectural revival styles that haven’t, thank goodness, been updated.

Kingscote was commissioned by a wealthy southerner from Georgia, George Noble Jones (1811–1876), of Savannah, Georgia. His idea of an ornamental “country cottage” in Newport was one of the earliest examples of the trend in which rich people turned Newport into a showcase for revival architecture styles. Like many rich people, he wanted the house to impress his neighbors with the very latest fashion in architecture. He chose Richard Upjohn, who had just moved to New York from Boston. Upjohn was already famous for his work in the Gothic Revival style that had taken America by storm in the early 1830s. In contrast to his two plantations in Florida, Chemonie and El Destino (Leon County), Jones desired a New England country cottage to escape hot summers in Florida. The idea Upjohn came up with for him was a Gothic Revival “cottage” based on then current ideas of what medieval tournament tents looked like.

As opposed to Gothic Revival churches and public buildings, domestic architecture in the style was a bit more relaxed in applying strict Gothic elements. The main period of popularity for the style in domestic architecture was 1830–1860, but the style remains popular to this day in church building. Kingscote displays typical features of the domestic version: the steeply pitched roof; hood molds over windows; pointed arch windows; pinnacles with crockets; and the most telltale feature, the curvilinear gingerbread trim along the eaves and gable edges. The Jones family sold the house during the Civil War (1860–1865). The new owners expanded the back of the house with a larger dining room designed by McKim, Mead and White (1876), which contained some of the earliest Tiffany glass in the windows.

Richard Upjohn, born in England, was the son of an architect and furniture artist. He became a master mechanic and his family immigrated to the US in 1829. Between 1833 and 1839, living in Boston, he designed many Gothic Revival churches, and the entrances to the Boston Common. Upjohn is credited for popularizing the Gothic Revival style in America, and he pioneered the Italianate style, a combination of Gothic and Renaissance villa inspirations. His book—Upjohn’s Rural Architecture: Designs, Working Drawings and Specifications for a Wooden Church, and other Rural Structures—in 1852 was massively influential, spreading his Gothic Revival and Italianate styles across the United States. In 1857, he was one of 13 architects who founded the American Institute of Architects.

Now this is my idea of “updating”:

John Haviland (1792–1852, original façade), Theophilus Chandler (1845–1929, cornice), and Mitchell / Giurgola Architects (founded 1958, New York) Penn Mutual Building preservation and new construction, 1838 and 1901, and 1974. Philadelphia, PA. Photo © 2015 Davis Art Images. (8S-14746)
When Penn Mutual (founded 1847) needed a new, larger headquarters in Philadelphia, they did not want to completely wipe out the original building. They hired Mitchell/Giurgola Architects to construct the new tower while preserving the beautiful façade of the earlier building. The façade was strengthened with reinforced concrete to preserve it. From what I have seen of many of their projects, the firm is conscious about the historical, cultural, and artistic importance of the interaction of architecture with human beings. What better way to update an old building than by contrasting it with the building that is replacing it?

John Haviland (1792–1852, original façade), Theophilus Chandler (1845–1929, cornice), and Mitchell / Giurgola Architects (founded 1958, New York) Penn Mutual Building preservation and new construction, 1838 and 1901, and 1974. Philadelphia, PA. Photo © 2015 Davis Art Images. (8S-14747)
This is the back (reinforced) preserved façade of the earlier Penn Mutual Insurance Company.


Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.19, 4.20; A Personal Journey: 8.1; A Community Connection: 4.4; Exploring Visual Design: 1; The Visual Experience: 11.5; Discovering Art History: 16.1

Monday, June 15, 2015

African Realism

Yoruba People, Nigeria, Fragment of a Head (of an Oni?), from Ife, Osun State, 1100–1500. Terra cotta, 6" x 3 1/4" x 3 3/4" (15.2 x 8.3 x 9.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5131)
During the 1800s, when European invaders were exploiting the riches of the African continent, art historians were “astounded” at the richness and variety of African art. They had no knowledge of such venerable cultures as the kingdoms of Ghana or Mali. The astonishment was particularly true in Nigeria, home of ancient, sophisticated cultures such as the Yoruba, the Edo, and Benin. They were flabbergasted that realistic art had dated in Africa in the distant past beyond Africans’ first contacts with Europeans.  

When the British burned and sacked Benin, the capital of the Benin Kingdom, in 1897, they hauled loads of bronze sculptures and ivories back to England. This started the mania for trade in African art among Europeans. They were most agog at the fabulous bronzes, now legendary, incapable of believing that Africans had such sophisticated culture so far back. They theorized that the Edo people learned bronze casting after some mysterious contact with Romans or Greeks who had invaded Egypt and North Africa. As far as I know, the Romans gave up trying to penetrate Africa in the 60s CE when they were looking for the source of the Nile, somewhere in Sudan.

This head from Nigeria shows that while Europe was in the Middle Ages—a period when sculpture emphasized the spiritual rather than physical realism—African art was as sophisticated as anything produced in ancient Greece and Rome. The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria have a long, distinguished history. They trace their origin to the city of Ife (Ile-Ife), the location where the Yoruba’s first king (oni) Oduduwa immigrated around 1000 CE, possibly from the East, and established a line of kings that ruled the Oyo Empire. The empire endured until around the early decades of the 1800s when fractious civil wars sapped the strength of the Yoruba leaders and left the Oyo lands ripe for conquest by the British in the 1890s.

This terra cotta head, most likely representing an oni, shows that Yoruba sculpture was already highly developed one thousand years ago. Ife court art interprets the human figure with a sensitive, stylized naturalism. The head is not meant to represent an actual person, but shows a person in the prime of life, bearing all of the features considered ideal beauty, with facial decoration that indicates status. As was the case with the bronze oba heads of the Edo and Benin people, these heads are believed to have been made to commemorate a deceased king, and thus were housed in a special palace shrine.

If anyone needs another example of African art that didn’t need ancient Greece or Rome to inform their artists about realism….how about EGYPT?  This head of Tutankhamun is a relatively late example of Egyptian realism, but I chose it because of the regal, stylized realism of the head that I think is similar to the Yoruban head. This head was produced way before Greece and Rome had their classical periods. If Yoruban realism was not an indigenous development, I would vote for influence from Egypt, not ancient Greece of Rome. 

Ancient Egypt, Head of Tutankhamun, 1336–1327 BCE. Sandstone, 11 5/8" x 10 7/16" (29.6 x 26.5 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-725)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1-2 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1; A Community Connection: 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 1.5; Beginning Sculpture: 2; Experience Clay: 3; Exploring Visual Design: 1; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 14.3; Discovering Art History: 4.8