Monday, December 5, 2016


I happen to burn a lot of incense, because I think it’s nicer than any of those spray products that immediately fall to the floor and dissipate. And who wants a plug-in air freshener that runs up the electricity bill? But I digress. Recently, I had some incense fired up and noticed this interesting layer of incense smoke in my living room. I noticed when I walked through it, it made really interesting swirls and patterns, and I thought (long story short), that would be interesting to paint. I haven’t attempted it, yet, but here are some artists who have depicted smoke in a variety of ways.

Ancient Mexico, Mayan, Male (Priest?) Burning Incense, tripod plate, ca. 500–800 CE. Painted earthenware, width: 11" (28 cm). Private Collection. Image © 2016 Davis Publications. (8S-11240)
Incense was burned at every major ceremony throughout Mayan lands. The painted forms on Mayan ceramics are basically shapes with contour lines around them. The incense smoke is nothing like what I saw in my apartment. It’s been simplified here to a single line coming up from the censer in the dignitary’s hand.

Ceramic arts were practiced by Mesoamerican peoples starting from the time of the Olmec (ca. 1500–400 BCE). The most important objects were vases and jars meant to hold offerings in tombs and incense burners, which were also used during burial ceremonies. Like most Mesoamerican art, most objects come from grave sites. Many ceramic objects have survived from the Mayan culture because of their traditions of including ceramics in burials.

Mayan ceramics were shaped using the coil or slab method. Tripod plates were created with the coil method with the feet applied before firing. Such tripod plates were meant to hold (food) offerings for burials.  

Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858, Japan), The Kilns by the Hashiba Ferry on the Sumida River, print #37 from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857. Color woodcut print on paper, 14 3/16" x 9 7/16" (36 x 24 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-772)
I’m a big fan of Hiroshige, but I seriously think that the artists who carved and printed the multiple blocks for each of his subjects deserve special admiration. I’m really liking the nuances achieved with the ink used in the smoke coming up from the kiln. The rounded kilns in the foreground are those of tile-makers in the Imado neighborhood, with pine needle piles between them for fire.

Although Hiroshige is best known in the West for his Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido (1830), he was equally renowned in his own time for One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. He published it late in life at a time when he renounced the material world to become a monk. This may account for the overall quiet tone of the subjects, where humor is only evident in details. Faces on the small figures are either hidden or nondescript, there are no merry crowds, and snow scenes have a somewhat somber air. 

Currier and Ives (publisher, firm 1834–1906 New York), Prairie Fires of the Great West, 1871. Hand-colored lithograph on paper, sheet 11" x 15" (27.9 x 37.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4804)
This print has double smoke action going on in it, from the train and from the prairie fire. Aside from this being an ironic juxtaposition of American technology versus our rapidly dwindling wilderness, it’s also a bit of a scary/exciting thought to be in a train watching a huge prairie blaze.

Nathaniel Currier’s firm was first called “Currier and Stodart” in 1834 (1813–1888). In1835 the firm was "N. Currier, Lithographer" which lasted until 1852, when he hired bookkeeper James Ives (1824–1895). Currier started out doing print jobs for various companies as well as architecture firms, and experimented with news events (particularly disasters), fashion prints, memorials, and portraits of prominent people. His 1840 print of the sinking of the steamer "Lexington" garnered him national attention.

Currier expanded his subjects to landscapes, genre scenes, and documentation of the US expansion in the West. That subject dominated his print output after the Civil War (1860–1865). This print comes from the last decade of the famous hand-colored lithographs, painted in watercolors mostly by a group of young women.

Although chromolithography was perfected by the time of the Civil War, Currier and Ives only issued limited edition prints in the process. After Currier retired in 1880, chromolithography took over. 

James Rosenquist (born 1933, US), Night Smoke, 1969–1970. Color lithograph on paper, composition 16 7/16" x 21 7/8" (41.8 x 55.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 James Rosenquist / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P2878rovg)
Wouldn’t you love to see multi-colored factory smoke like this instead of gray/brown smoke from American industry? This print comes from a lovely colored chalk study from the same period. Rosenquist began producing prints in order to reach a larger market with his imagery in the late 1960s.

This is a particularly fascinating work by Rosenquist compared to his needle-sharp detailed forms oddly juxtaposed with one another. The single subject is easily identified, and he has cleverly added smudges of black ink to imitate the carbon that used to rain down from factory chimneys before the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. Although stylistically different from his well-known paintings, the subject fits right in with his fascination with the domination of American culture by the obsession with technology and “progress”.

Cai Guo-Qiang (born 1957, China), Peony Postage Stamps, 2008. Lithograph and gunpowder smoke on adhesive paper, sheet of stamps 4 11/16" x 4 3/8" (11.9 x 11.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Cai Guo-Qiang. (PMA-4237A)
This is just a brilliant work that I include because it’s got remnants of smoke on it from gunpowder (in the form of small firecrackers) being fired. When one checks out the verso of this sheet, one can see little burn holes!

Cai's work is certainly scholarly and philosophical in the best tradition of Chinese art, but he also tries to shatter traditional conceptions of subject matter, materials, and style. He also questions traditional ideas about drawing in both East and West. Cai 's unusual choice of gunpowder and fireworks as materials for his artwork stems from his childhood in China, where fireworks historically developed.

He began experimenting with gunpowder drawings between 1986 and 1995 while staying in Japan. Many of Cai's gunpowder works are inspired by the Maoist dogma of "destroy nothing, create nothing." He produced two editions of Chinese stamps, one floral, the other of the Great Wall. He contrasts the timeless nature of the Great Wall with the momentary destruction of the gunpowder. In this work, he placed small firecrackers on the blank areas of the sheet of stamps, resulting in scorches and burns.

Zoe Strauss (born 1970, US), Fireworks, Lansdowne, PA, 2009. Inkjet print on paper, 12" x 18" (30.5 x 45.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Zoe Strauss. (PMA-7357)
I conclude with another of my favorite artists. Strauss’s exploration of the time-honored Snapshot Aesthetic style of photography is simply brilliant. Instead of shooting the fireworks at their brightest moment, she focuses on the aftermath of their firing and dropping. Now this, of all the images for this posting, comes the closest to the incense smoke I saw in my living room! I also think it’s very nice that for years Strauss sold her Inkjet prints in a makeshift gallery under I-95 in Philadelphia for $5 each.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.22; A Community Connection: 1.5; Experience Printmaking: 4, 6; Exploring Visual Design: 12, The Visual Experience: 10.6, 13.4, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 17.2

Monday, November 28, 2016

Sudo Reiko and NUNO

About a year ago I introduced you to the fiber art of Reiko Sudo and NUNO Corporation of Japan. We currently have an exhibition in the Davis Art Gallery of a Japanese-born fiber artist, Mihoko Wakabayashi, who produces fabulous shibori (tie-dye) and Saori (unconventional weaving techniques) works, and it put me in mind of Sudo. Even more so because we acquired some new examples of her company’s awesome textiles from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I just had to show them off!

In 1984 Reiko Sudo and Jun’ichi Arai (born 1932) started NUNO Corporation, a company that produces textiles with an emphasis on unusual combinations of materials and techniques. The company was founded in order to produce textiles with traditional Japanese aesthetics in an eco-friendly manner. In 1987 she took over full leadership of the NUNO design team.

Sudo’s designs artistry with the latest technological developments in Japanese industry. The preferred materials at NUNO are silk, polyester, cotton, nylon tape, and hand-made paper. One of Sudo’s earliest personal experiments in novel materials was the exploration of a variety of ways of using plastic. To reduce the company’s ecological footprint, NUNO always uses leftover scraps of materials in unusual combinations to produce new textiles. Many of the technologies used by NUNO are adapted from Japan’s traditional “crafts” culture involving, but not restricted to, salt shrinking; mud-dyeing; rust-dyeing; caustic burning; fatiguing by hand, chemicals, or machine; and graffiti decoration.

Nuno means “cloth” in Japanese. The materials produced by Sudo and NUNO are not mass-produced, but combine hand-manipulation with industrial milling that keeps costs low. The fabrics can serve a variety of uses, from clothing to interior design.

Paper Roll textile, 2002. Nylon tape (chemical lace), width: 32 11/16" (83 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7143)
From what I understand, this chemical lace process is basically the weaving of the nylon tape onto a water soluble base material with a pattern (such as corn starch paper?). This leaves only the lace when the base is washed away.

Origami Pleats textile, 1997. Heat-set polyester plain weave, 36" x 23' 4" (91.4 x 711.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7136)
This beautiful pattern is hand-pleated!

NUNO Kasane textile, 2005. Silk organdy with fabric appliqué and steering-wheel embroidery, width: 41" (104.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7137)
The NUNO Kasane textile is in a technique called tsugihagi (patchwork). It is made with various silk remnants of NUNO projects.

Kibiso Futsu Crisscross textile, 2008. Double-weave (“futsu”) with criss-crossing raw silk, silk cocoon (“kibiso”), and cotton yarns, width: 31 1/2" (80 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7142)
This technique uses the previously discarded outer layer of the silk cocoon that protects the finer silk inside. NUNO created a social network for retired silk weavers who hand-weave the kibiso textiles in northern Japan.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.31, 6. 31-32 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.27, 5.27-28 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.10; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4, 3.5; A Community Connection: 5.2; The Visual Experience: 10.8, 12.4; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Monday, November 21, 2016

The "Things" of Art

I really like introducing you to artists I’ve just begun to appreciate, especially if their work is a breath of fresh air on an otherwise dreary day. That certainly applies to the work of Ufan Lee. As I learned more about him I gained an instant appreciation for his point of view. Like many artists I have learned about, he is far from a one-dimensional spirit.

Lee U-fan (or Ufan, born 1936, Korea), Untitled, 1973. Gouache on paper, 30" x 22" (76.2 x 55.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2016 Lee Ufan. (BMA-5308)

Lee Ufan (Korean Lee Woo-Hwan) was born in Gyeongsang province, now in South Korea. He is an artist, philosopher, poet, and an art theorist. He was raised in a traditional Confucian-style home where he was given a classical training in what has been considered traditional scholarly pursuits, which includes calligraphy, poetry, and painting. He studied art at Seoul National University, interrupting his studies in 1956 to visit relatives in Japan. There he studied Western and Japanese philosophy. After graduating in 1961, he decided to return to art, preferring visual expression to writing.

His early emphasis was sculpture, and installation in avant-garde, constructed works. He was one of the founding members of a group of modernist artists who form the Mono-ha movement, the first indigenous Japanese example of modernism. Mono-ha emphasized the use of natural raw materials arranged in random ways. “Mono-ha” means “School of Things.” The movement was a contrast to, and critique of, the Western movements of the period (such as Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism) that were tied to aesthetic manifestos. Mono-ha emphasized a comprehensive experience of media by way of their abbreviated or momentary arrangement. The movement was a pivotal moment in the development of modern art in Japan and South Korea.

Lee’s paintings from the early 1970s through 1984 (called From Point and From Line), similar to this work, were based on the traditional respect for brushwork in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese painting. Many of his paintings are monochromatic, much like traditional landscape painting. There is definitely, in this work, the sense of respect for a particular brush stroke, and the blank background as contrast. In many of his works, Lee broke with tradition in the use of canvas rather than paper.

If this fascinating artist’s work reminds me of anything, it’s the work of a fabulous African American artist who started painting abstract works after she retired from teaching—Alma Thomas: 

Alma W. Thomas, (1891–1978 US), Red Rose Cantata, 1973. Oil on canvas, 69" x 50" (175.3 x 127 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0641)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Global Pursuit: 4.2, 4.5; Experience Painting: 2; Exploring Visual Design: 8; The Visual Experience: 13.6

Monday, November 14, 2016

What type of Balance? You Decide.

I probably shouldn’t be using the word Balance after the latest election. Let’s ignore that by doing some visual exercises. I’m always intrigued with the issue of “balance” in a work of art (one of the Principles of Design, as you know). Everyone has seen a work of art that isn’t the same on one side as it is on the other (asymmetrical balance), but somehow it seems balanced at first glance. The following, except for the first one, are up to you to decide which of the types of balance they are! I’ll give my vote and you decide if I’m wrong.

Ancient Guatemala, Zaculeu, Structure I, 200s–900s CE. Image © 2016 Davis Art Images. (8S-22037)

I understand that the tenets of ancient Greek architecture established the “classical canon” of balance, symmetry, and calm, blah blah blah, but I don’t understand why art history books couldn’t use other examples out there in the world to demonstrate symmetrical balance? After all, what is more “classic” than the classic Mayan period (big circa 250 to 900s CE) in central America?

Zaculeu, about 3.21 kilometers (2 miles) from Huehuetenango in the Guatemala highlands was not as remarkable in architecture and artifacts as the Lowland Mayan cities such as Kaminaljuyú. However, it was the capital for the Mam Maya people (who still inhabit the area), and endured the longest against the Spanish invasion under Pedro de Alvarado (1485–1541) until 1525!

Structure I dominated the Main Plaza in Zaculeu, and is the largest (restored) structure in the city. It is a classical Mayan pyramidal structure with eight superimpositions interrupted by a central ceremonial stairway. It is a splendid example of symmetrical balance. And no, I don’t believe that the ancient Egyptians sailed to Central America in papyrus boats to teach the indigenous people how to build pyramids!


Charles Demuth (1883–1935, US), Boat Ride from Sorrento, illustration for the book Beast in the Jungle by Henry James, 1919. Watercolor and graphite on paper, 8" x 10" (20.3 x 25.4 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2189)
I totally love the watercolors of Demuth, especially his views of Provincetown, and these sort of mystic illustrations he did for the angst-ridden books of Henry James. Initially trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Demuth had already abandoned his academic training to concentrate on watercolors and gouache before World War I (1914–1918). These were coming into their own as stand-alone media, embraced by artists who experimented with modernism because of their easy fluidity. Demuth ultimately became a master of water-based media on a par with Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).

Demuth's mature style was informed by Cubism he had seen at the 1913 Armory Show of European modernism, and from his group of friends in New York that included Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), the pioneer Dadaist and Surrealist, and Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), an American modernist who had dabbled in non-objective abstraction after stays in Germany and Paris. Demuth’s filmy watercolor layers in this work approximate the fragmentation of form of Cubism, while conveying the story of the book.

At first look this may seem to be symmetrically balanced, but closer inspection shows many digressions. The woman’s hat makes her figure taller. The volcano on the right is lower than the town on the left. But, there’s a nice pyramid between the two visitors and the oarsman with his oars.


Papua New Guinea, Dance ornament, 1800s. Wood, turbo petholatus opercula (shell), pigment, 7 1/2" x 19" x 2 1/2" (19.1 x 48.3 x 6.4 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1613)
New Guinea, divided between Irin New Guinea (part of Indonesia) and Papua New Guinea, is the location of the greatest number of dissimilar cultures in Melanesia. It is also the island of the most varied artistic production in Oceanic art. Papua New Guinea is a very prolific region of artistic expression, especially along the Sepik River, located in the northeast of the Asmat region.

Sculpture, painting, or carving adorns almost every object of secular and ritual life.  By decorating each object in everyday life with art, it has been traditionally believed to bring the world of the spirits into active participation with the world of humans.

This ornament is tricky. A first squint would seem like symmetrical balance, just like with the Demuth. Closer inspection however reveals differently. It depicts a bird/animal seated on the fin of an elegantly arced fish. The arc of the plume balances the arc of the fish differently, as does the beak of the creature with the head of the fish.


Seo Taek (active 1700s to early 1800s, Korea), Gibbon Family in Pine Tree. Ink on silk mounted as hanging scroll, 33 1/8" x 15 3/4" (84.1 x 40 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6884)
The earliest historical record of developed painting in Korea is found on painted baskets from the first 100 years BCE. A more substantial record of ancient Korean painting remains on the painted walls and ceilings of tombs from the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE–668 CE). Those paintings reflect Buddhist beliefs. During the Joseon period, Confucian beliefs rivaled Buddhism in popularity, with an emphasis on scholarship and the artist/scholar idea always part of Chinese art.

By the 1700s, peace in China and Japanese isolation brought somewhat better conditions to Korea. Subtle elements of indigenous stylistic variations reflect a greater degree of independence in Korea.

Little to nothing is known of this Joseon painter, but the artist left us with a charming painting. The arrangement of the monkeys leads the eye dead center, but it does not take away from the beautiful contrast of positive and negative space. However, there are many elements in the tree and monkeys that the negative space does not symmetrically balance.


Muhammad Rafi (active 1600s, Iran), Page of natsiliq calligraphy from a dispersed album. Ink, colors and gold leaf on paper, 7 7/8" x 4 3/8" (20 x 11.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-565)
The first flourishing of Islamic civilization occurred between the 600s CE and 1600s, a period that saw the collapse of the Roman and Byzantine  Empires (ca. 450 CE and 1453, respectively), and the rise of western European nation-states. By the 900s, many regional Muslim powers had developed their own distinct artistic traditions. Islamic artistic traditions differ from those in the West.

Art forms often considered “decorative” in the West—book illustration, glass, metal and textiles—are the major forms of Islamic art. Writing is particularly venerated as it is the means of revealing God’s word. Its primacy as a decorative motif—calligraphy—in architecture is carried into all art forms.

The Safavid period (1502–1736) in Iran is considered the period of renaissance in all art forms, including calligraphy. Nastaliq developed in Iran in the 1300s and 1400s. It is the most fluid and expressive of the scripts. Nastaliq has very short verticals without any "serifs," and deep curved horizontals. It slants to the right in contrast to all the other styles which slant to the left.

The text reads: "May the world be as you desire, the heavens your aid. May the Creator of the world be your protector. May all that you do be according to your wish May the Lord of the World be your guardian. The poor Muhammad Rafi' wrote this, mercy be upon him." Nothing is known about Muhammad Rafi’.

Because the upper right and lower left corners sort of balance each other, my vote for this page of calligraphy is: APPROXIMATE SYMMETRY.

I guess APPROXIMATE SYMMETRY wins the day for me. As I said before, you decide for yourself!

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 17-18 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.Connections, 5.26, 6.36; A Personal Journey: 4.2; Exploring Visual Design: 7; The Visual Experience: 8.7, 13.6, 14.2; Discovering Art History: 4.6, 4.7, 4.9

Friday, November 4, 2016

It’s That Time Again

By that, I don’t mean “it’s November” or “it’s autumn.” I suspect that I’m not the only one who is tired of political ads with mean-spirited denunciations of opponents. Probably, though, each quadrennial election we endure is no worse than any that have gone before, since the first presidential election of 1788–1789. Well, maybe that one was more civilized because George Washington was in it. Voting and elections have not escaped the realm of subject matter in art. Here are three examples from radically different time periods, and, times that were contentious as they are in the present day.

John Sartain (etcher, 1808–1897, born Britain), after George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879, US), The County Election, 1854. Etching, engraving and mezzotint on paper, image: 11 7/8" x 18" (30.2 x 45.9 cm). © American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA. (AAS-126)
I’m not certain why John Sartain engraved this George Caleb Bingham painting in 1854. It may have been because the congressional election of 1854 was fraught with conflict in the Midwest over the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in August of that year, which did away with the Missouri Compromise on slavery of 1820. That allowed Kansas and Nebraska territories to choose to be either slave or free, and led to violent civil conflict in Kansas ultimately called Bleeding Kansas. I’m sure there were many elections fraught with heated rhetoric as the country headed toward the Civil War (1860–1865).

The painting from which this is taken was painted by Bingham in 1852 to commemorate the congressional elections of 1850, in which Bingham unsuccessfully ran for Congress. The opponent, E.D. Sappington, apparently bought votes with liquor. This is Bingham’s wry comment on the foibles of a young American democracy, where, obviously only the men voted (after taking an oath on a Bible, which I did not know). Bingham depicted himself in the center on the courthouse steps probably sketching, ignoring the tomfoolery around him.

Bingham was the first significant painter of genre subjects in American art. Born in Virginia, he was raised in Missouri, and had a solid respect for the hardy frontier people who helped settle the West. His paintings, meant for east coast audiences, elevated frontier people into folk heroes, although the genuine aspects of their hard-living were never glossed over. Like Dutch Baroque genre paintings, his figures are based on real people. Bingham endowed them with a dignity, however, that has sometimes earned his style the name “Missouri Classicism.”

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000 US), The Twenties—Migrants Cast Their Ballots, from the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio, Spirit of Independence, 1974, published 1975. Serigraph on paper, 32" x 24 7/8" (81.3 x 63.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2016 Estate of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BMA-466lwars)
Jacob Lawrence was a keen observer and documenter of the African American experience. His paintings are a valuable historical record of the progress of blacks in the US after the Great Migration. This painting relates the experience of the southern migrants finding it a lot easier to vote in the North than in the South. Despite the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which guaranteed all Americans the right to vote (including African Americans), many southern states passed restrictive laws (such as a land ownership requirement, or a poll tax) to prevent black participation. Unfortunately, aside from jobs and the ability to vote in the North, African Americans still found a lot of discrimination.

The migration (Great Migration) of African Americans from the rural South to northern industrial cities in search of jobs changed the course of history for blacks in America. In cities such as New York and Chicago, the black populations increased dramatically between 1918 and 1925. Cohesive African American communities formed within the cities, and African Americans found a new self-awareness and pride in their heritage. During the 1920s, a significant number of artists were brought together within these large and varied African American communities, something that could not have happened in the rural South. One of the most vital African American communities was in the Harlem section of New York.

The Worcester Art Museum’s copy of this print is currently on view in their exhibit Picket Fence to Picket Line; Visions of American Citizenship.

Zoe Strauss (born 1970, US), Election Day Balloons, Philadelphia, 2008, printed 2011. Digital photograph, Inkjet print on paper, 8" x 12" (20.3 x 30.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Zoe Strauss. (PMA-7255)

We certainly know what this photograph commemorates. It was the election of the first African American president of the US. It was a spectacular moment in American history, and, in typical understated Zoe Strauss fashion, she uses the red-white-and-blue as a symbol for a truly landmark event.

Strauss’ work is reflective of the sophisticated evolution of the Snapshot Aesthetic style of photography. Although the style developed late in the 1800s, it flowered during the 1960s in the hands of such artists as Diane Arbus (1923–1971) and Garry Winogrand (1928–1984). The style mimicked the candid, un-posed, spur-of-the-moment pictures taken by amateurs and middle class families. Interestingly, between the 1960s and the 2000s, the style has been refined to subtly reveal psychological investigation by the photographer.

Works by Arbus opened up a type of personal investigation into subjects that most people see on the street and ignore because it may not be “beautiful.” Strauss’ works address the same phenomenon. Born in Philadelphia, she received her first camera when she was 30. She began photographing the not-well-off areas of Philadelphia, and within ten years was documenting the compelling subject of overlooked realities throughout the country.

While largely self-taught, Strauss’s work displays a sophisticated sense of composition. She is particularly adept at suggestion, and a monumental contrast of positive and negative space. Between 2001 and 2010, Strauss would hold yearly exhibitions of her work in the form of Inkjet prints that she sold for $5 in a makeshift “gallery” under the I-95 underpass in Philadelphia.  

Correlation to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: intro; A Personal Journey: 1.1, 2.3; A Community Connection: 7.6, Experience Printmaking: 5; Exploring Visual Design: 2, Focus on Photography: 7, Discovering Art History: 15.4, The Visual Experience: 9.5

Monday, October 31, 2016

An Autumn Idyll from Japan

One of the most fascinating things I learned (among many fascinating things) while studying Japanese culture and art when in college, was that Japanese scholars would routinely debate the virtues of an autumn over a spring garden, or vice versa. I had an epiphany in this philosophical exploration once while I lived in Chicago, when I saw an ostensibly dead garden in November, with dried up chrysanthemums. A light snow had covered the dying blossoms and other brown aspects of the garden and I realized that my vote would be for an autumn garden! Just as I appreciate the way Luminist artists (of the Hudson River School) captured the essence of autumnal landscape color and light, Japanese artists are particularly adept at summing up, very succinctly, the essence of autumn.   

Sakai Hōitsu (1762–1828, Japan), Autumn Leaves and Chrysanthemums. Ink and colors on paper fan mounted as an album leaf, 6 3/4" x 19 3/16" (17.2 x 48.7 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-731)
What more appropriate symbols for autumn than turning maple leaves and chrysanthemums. I just love mums, and, they are the official flower of Japan and a symbol of the imperial family. The Japanese liken the radial symmetry of the mum to the sun’s rays. And after all, who doesn’t think “autumn” when one sees mums?

This is a sedate piece for Sakai, who was the standard bearer for the Korin school of painting during the later Edo period (1615–1868). The Tokugawa military dictators (shogun) who ruled Japan during the Edo period virtually isolated Japan from the rest of the world. Japanese artists therefore looked to Japanese art of glorious periods from the past. The master Ogata Korin (1658–1716) “founded” the Korin school that further cemented the popularity of the Yamato-e style (meaning Japanese picture) of the Heian period (794–1185), considered the classic Japanese style.  

Sakai was the leader of the so-called “Rinpa” school in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This comes from “pa,” meaning school, and “Ko[Rin]” for the founder’s name. Sakai was so enamored of Ogata’s style, that he studiously copied his works, often on the back of screens by the late master that he owned!

Kitagawa Sosetsu (ca. 1620–ca. 1690), Autumn Flowers. Ink, color, and gold leaf on paper, mounted on wood as six-fold screen, 56 13/16" x 132" (144.3 x 335.4 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-3022)

This beautiful byobu (six-fold screen) displays autumn’s seasonal flowers, except for the chrysanthemum! Visible are ivy, bush clover, mallow, coxcomb, and grasses. Yamato-e imagery often seems to float on a vague background made all the more vague by the gold leaf. It’s easy to see why Impressionists gravitated to Japanese painting because of the spontaneity of composition. In fact, this screen was once owned by American Impressionist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926).

Yamato-e was the opposite of Kara-e “Chinese picture,” symbolized by the Song Dynasty (960–1279/1280) classic style of monochromatic brush landscape paintings. With emphasis on dramatic composition, nature simplified to shapes, and extravagant use of gold leaf, screen painting of this period was truly Japanese in outlook. 

Kitagawa Sōsetsu was a pupil of Tawaraya Sōsetsu, who was either a disciple or son of Tawaraya Sōtatsu (1576–1643), considered a founder of the school that specialized in the decorative Yamato-e style, which led to such masters as Ogata Korin. Sosetsu's work is typical of this "first generation" of painters of the Rinpa style.

Kanō Eisen’in Michinobu (1730–1790), Waterfall and Autumn Foliage. Ink and color on silk hanging scroll, 51 3/4" x 17" (131.5 x 43.2 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1326)
There’s nothing I enjoy more than getting drawn into a landscape in the Kara-e style. One of the actual goals of Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, established during the Song Dynasty in China, was for the viewer to be able to imagine taking a “stroll” through the painting. I really do like how Edo artists took the Chinese technique of mist to suggest depth to an almost abstract dimension.

Michinobu was one of a long line of painters who took the Kanō name from the founder of the Kanō School, Kanō Masanobu (1434–1530). Through the centuries the Kanō School was the favorite of the samurai and noble classes and was steeped in the tradition of monochromatic Chinese painting. During the early 1700s, the school’s style had adapted decorative, overly realistic nature painting in bright colors. This style was called Nanpin after the Chinese painter Shen Nanpin (1682–after 1762), who had introduced a more scientific approach to painting nature to Japanese artists.

Michinobu was one of the last great leaders of the Kanō School, who tried to return the school to the school’s Chinese-inspired roots. He was the son of Kanō Eisen Hisnobu (1698–1731), who had also led the school. It was traditional in Japan for artists to either be adopted by their mentor, or to take the name of the mentor as a badge of honor. Needless to say, from the 1400s to the 1800s there were a lot of Kanōs!

Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770), Autumn Moon in a Mirror, from the series Eight Parlor Views, ca. 1766. Color woodblock print on paper, 11 1/2" x 8 5/8" (29.2 x 21.9 cm). © Davis Art Images. (8S-4159)
I couldn’t resist closing with a Harunobu. His prints are so charming and really show a lot about every day middle-class life in Edo Period Japan. This view of a maid fixing her boss’s hair is typical of the subtlety of Japanese art. Although the title alludes to the moon in the mirror, the moon is not visible. We can only imagine it. The only other hint that it is autumn is the cockscomb outside the window. Eight Parlor Views is an awesome series that shows the occupations of middle-class women in the household.

Little is known about Harunobu’s life or art education. The sophistication and elegance of his prints, however, may indicate that he came from a middle-class or samurai family. His prints followed the convention of the Ukiyo-e style until he began producing the twelve-color (12 separate blocks of wood) prints after learning the new process in 1765.

Harunobu’s style of elegant, slender figures, both male and female, established a style that was emulated by artists who followed him, including Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815) and Utagawa Utamaro (1753–1806). His work is widely viewed as the beginning of the “classic period” of the Ukiyo-e style. He not only documented the courtesans and actors of the pleasure quarters, but also depicted middle class genre scenes and even street vendors.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 5.Studio 27-28; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19, 4.20, 4.Studio 19-20; A Global Pursuit: 7.1, 7.5; Experience Printmaking: 3, 4; Exploring Painting: 9, 11; The Visual Experience: 13.5; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.4