Monday, July 21, 2014

Head Vessels

John Spiegel Pottery (founded 1880, Philadelphia), Pitcher, late 1800s. Earthenware, height: 6 7/8” (17.5 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4256)

Effigy (portrait, human head, or whole figure) ceramic art (usually male) has been featured in all sorts of wares since ancient times from throughout the world. In many instances it is associated primarily with funeral rites, but often it is pure decoration on functional wares like this interesting piece.

Mugs and pitchers of this sort became fashionable in England in the 1700s, and the interest transferred to the US during the mid- to late 1800s. The Royal Doulton company in England has been the most recognizable source of these “character” or “Toby” vessels. The English examples are usually pseudo-comical characters, sometimes from the English music halls. They inevitably are dressed in 1700s garb. The tri-corn hat affords an easy spout on this pitcher. Interestingly, the fad caught in Japan, which exports these unusual objects to this day.

Chinese and Japanese ceramics were very popular export items to Europeans and Americans starting in the late 1700s. This pitcher imitates the three-color glazes used by Chinese ceramic artists during the Tang period (618–907 ce). The glaze was applied at the top of the vessel and allowed to run down naturally while in the kiln.  An example of the Chinese glaze is below.

China, Tomb figure of a Bactrian Camel. Earthenware, height: 31 7/8” (81 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2742)

“Character” vessels originated in ancient times. The Ancient Egyptians included many effigies of the deceased in their tombs. Particularly important were the canopic jars, in which they stored the internal organs of the deceased, as they believed that the deceased would need their physical body in the afterlife (hence the complicated mummification process of bodies). This jar bears the head of Imsety, Guardian of the Liver.

One also finds head vessels in ancient Greece. Since this is a drinking cup for wine (which the Greeks always mixed with water), I think the satyr’s face is meant to be humorous. For some reason, I find it creepy. Satyrs were half-man, half-goat beings who were thought to be promiscuous, usually because of the effects of alcohol and their affiliation with Bacchus, the god of the grape vine’s results.

Ancient Peru, Portrait Head Vessel, 400–600 ce. Earthenware, 13 x 8 ¼ x 7 1/16” (33 x 21 x 18 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (MFH-628)

Ancient Meso- and Central American cultures are renowned for their ceramics, particularly effigy-type vessels, which included incense burners. Stirrup-spouted vessels like this were usually tomb objects containing various food needs for the deceased. The realistic rendering of the face leads art historians to believe they may have been specific portraits of the deceased, and were undoubtedly not used for everyday household tasks. Meso- and Central American cultures are also renowned for vessels decorated with animal heads.

North American Indian, Mississippian, Seated Prisoner effigy vessel, ca. 900–1400 ce. Earthenware, 5 x 3 x 2 7/8” (12.7 x 7.62 x 7.3 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-476)

The people of the Mississippian culture that populated the regions adjacent to the Mississippi River were avid traders. They are thought to have traded with Mesoamerican cultures from Mexico. Such effigy vessels have not been found in other native cultures. They are thought to have served ritualistic purposes by being placed near deceased persons. A seated prisoner perhaps commemorated a great warrior’s accomplishments during life.

Thomas Davies Pottery Company (ca 1862–1870, Edgefield District, South Carolina), Face vessel. Stoneware, 7 ½” x 7 ¾” (19 x 19.7 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2730)

During the 1850s, several African American potters rose to prominence in this important ceramic producing region of South Carolina, renowned for it grainy type of stoneware. Face pottery such as this was influenced by African traditions, particularly the West African art in which the head of a work is exaggerated in size. The head was considered to house a person’s soul. Works featuring large heads, including pots along with other objects personally associated with the deceased, were often left at burials in Africa.

Zeljko Kujundzic (1920–2003, Canada, born Serbia), Cookie jar, 1974. Ceramic, height: 22” (56 cm). Photo courtesy of the late artist. (8S-18937)

Zeljko Kujundzic combines influences of the native North American Indian arts of the northwest coast, with the stylization and solemnity of Byzantine art from his native Yugoslavia. Unlike the other works in this post, his vessel is not a funerary object. However, it presents the same gravity as vessels left in tombs in previous periods. His works have titles typically such as “Ancestor Figure,” and “Earth Man,” as well as terms referring to Christianity.

Studio activity: Make a slab built effigy pot or mug as a self-portrait. Take a lump of clay and form it into a ball or cube. Using the thumb, create an opening (hole) in what will be the top of the pot, and work the hole bigger, thinning and smoothing the interior and outside of the walls of the pot until it is the desired size and shape. Apply what you think your features resemble, not paying attention to extreme realism. Exaggeration of your features allows the pot to have more impact. Experiment with dripping glazes rather than evenly covering the vessel.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, Explorations in Art Grade 4: studio 23-24, Explorations in Art Grade 5: studio 29-30, Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4 studio exploration

Monday, July 14, 2014

Artists and Refugees

Lewis Hine (1874–1940, US), Italian Immigrants Seeking Lost Luggage, 1905. Gelatin silver print on paper, 5 1/2" x 4 3/8” (14 x 11 cm). Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1853)

 It often astounds me how little we learn from history (and by “we” I mean we human beings: any culture on this planet!). If you need reminding, I mention the massive immigrant / refugee crisis of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when hundreds of thousands of (mostly European) immigrants sought a better life in this country. Sound familiar? In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italian and Irish immigrants were particularly “not wanted,” and many who came, with no money or job skills, were detained and deported. Artists have always documented these periods. Lewis Hine was a photographer at the turn of the century. He wanted to bring to Americans’ attention the hardships these immigrants faced, as well the deplorable conditions in the places they worked.

The flood of immigrants from Europe at the turn of the century gave rise to overcrowding and poverty in large American cities. Lack of jobs and housing created terribly overcrowded tenements and homelessness. Lewis Hine was perhaps the greatest of the photographers concerned with social reform.
After graduating from Columbia University in 1903, Hine began teaching at the Ethical Culture School in New York. The school trained people to help serve the less fortunate and improve their lot in life through public service. In 1905 Hine’s boss gave him a camera as a teaching aid and to record school activities. His interest in social reform led almost immediately to his first documentary series in the same year. He set out to document the uncaring treatment of immigrants on Ellis Island. This photograph comes from that series.
In 1908 Hine quit teaching to become a photographer and investigator for the National Child Labor Committee. Between 1908 and 1916 he traveled widely, documenting child labor abuses. Hine called his photographs  “photointerpretations,” because he felt that they were interpretive. Later scholars, however, consider them documentary.
Hine used photographs such as this one as lantern slides for his lectures, as well as to illustrate pamphlets and magazine articles. His photographs were instrumental in passing child labor laws. As a creator of social documentary, Hine refined the genre by producing photographs that capture the dignity of his subjects by the way he framed and lit them. He continued to photograph workers and laborers until his death. Interest in his work revived during the 1960s when the issue of social reform again came to the fore.

This photograph documents those who were relegated to the Baggage and Dormitory Building of Ellis Island. It was basically a detention, and most likely deportation, center. After the Immigration Act of 1924, regulations were much stricter on who was allowed into the US. Hopefully, this family was lucky enough to qualify to enter.

Correlations to Davis Programs:  A Community Connection: 7.2; Discovering Art History: 14.5; Focus on Photography: 3, 5

Monday, July 7, 2014

Happy Fourth of July!

Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), George Washington (Vaughan Portrait), 1795. Oil on canvas, 28 ¾” x 23 13/16” (73 x 60.5 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0675)

I’m celebrating the 4th of July by showing you one of the many portraits Gilbert Stuart did of our first president, George Washington. I hate to be an overly sappy art historian, but one of my secret dreams is to be around at the time our first president was alive. It must have been such an exhilarating period, everything about our democracy brand new (compared to now with a do-nothing Congress). I know there were plenty of problems to iron out, but I’ve always admired George Washington (he stopped at a tavern at the end of my street in 1776!). The right man for the right job I say. To be totally honest, I’m not a big fan of American artists who emigrated to Britain before the Revolution in order to perfect their style and make more money, but I find Stuart a lot less objectionable than Benjamin West, John Trumbull, and John Singleton Copley who ended their days in Britain. Go US artists!

Gilbert Stuart was exclusively a portrait painter. He returned to the US in 1793, settling in New York, having been in Britain since 1775, under the tutelage of Benjamin West. Apparently, Stuart accrued so many debts in both Britain and, subsequently, Ireland that he decided to return to the US. What is called a “provincial style” by the National Gallery in Washington was honed by Stuart’s contacts with British portraitists, such as Joshua Reynolds and particularly George Romney, whose combination of softened Classicism and the burgeoning Romantic style affected Stuart’s style permanently.

Immediately after returning home he began producing portraits, displaying what he had learned in Europe, with the American prescient for extreme realism. Compared, however to his portraits before the Revolution that emphasized worldly gain and extravagance, his portraits after the Revolution revealed a simplicity of form, costume, and background that combined Romanticism and Neoclassicism. The portraits that Stuart produced after his return attracted a great amount of attention.

Gilbert Stuart, Francis Malbone and His Brother Saunders, c. 1773. Oil on canvas, 36” x 44” (91.44 x 111.76 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-459)

Eager to establish himself with the major players of the Revolution and officials of the new government, he moved to Philadelphia in 1795. Philadelphia was the capitol of the US from 1790 to 1800, when Washington DC was finished. Stuart’s stoic, dignified, monumental realistic style appealed to the members of the new democracy’s government, and it soon attracted the attention of the our first president. His first sitting with the president was in 1795, but the result dissatisfied him and he did another sitting in 1796. The Vaughan style was oriented to the left. Out of the over 1100 portraits produced by Stuart, 104 of them are of our first president.

I may be a Northern Renaissance specialist when it comes to art history, but I love Stuart’s portraits of our first president because he actually got the president to sit for him. Apparently it wasn’t a comfortable session, because Stuart talked a lot. President Washington was a very reserved person and found Stuart’s prattling annoying. Maybe that’s why the president’s cheeks are so flushed? (Like, “Shut up, won’t you!?”)

Correlations to Davis programs: 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; A Community Connection: 3.4, 6.2; Discovering Art History 11.5; Experience Painting: Chapter 6; Exploring Painting: Chapters 7, 10; The Visual Experience: 9.3

Monday, June 30, 2014

More Unsung Heroes: Early American Modernist Art

Alfred Maurer (1868–1932, United States), Head of a Girl, 1929. Oil on board, 29 13/16” x 19 13/16”   (75.7 x 50.3 cm). © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-2945)

I have long been a big fan / advocate for the importance of the earliest American artists who sought to buck the European-inspired academic system of history painting and realism. This “bucking” began with The Ten, American artists who studied in France and brought Impressionism to American art in the 1880s and 1890s. While the trend of American artists studying Europe was not new at the time—artists as far back as the 1700s had migrated to Europe to become “masters”—it was new in that the artists of the late 1800s and early 1900s were not trying to conform to the stodgy, conservative styles that the major European academies espoused. For artists drawn to abstraction in the early 1900s, this must have been particularly daunting when they returned to the US. American patrons had a traditional obsession with academic realism. Alfred Maurer is one of my heroes because he steadfastly pursued modernism, even during the Great Depression (1929–1940), which virtually crushed any interest in abstraction in the American art-viewing public.

It takes a lot of guts to buck the Art Establishment. While the academies of the US followed the same boring formula that major European academies were—i.e. realism, history painting, landscape—there were artists in the US who did not follow this trend. Maurer is unique because he grew up studying in the stifling atmosphere of the conservative National Academy of Design in New York. While there he was recognized as an excellent portraitist. However, his portraits were inspired by the works of expatriate American James A.M Whistler (1834–1903) and William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), whose work represented a departure from the American obsession with absolute realism.

Maurer lived in Paris between 1897 and 1914 (the beginning of World War I). While there he associated with other Americans interested in the avant-garde, such as Arthur Dove (1880–1946). He was most impressed after meeting Henri Matisse (1869–1954), whose freedom of color and emphasis on shape affected his work. He was also affected by the efforts of proto-Cubism.

When Maurer returned to the US his work began to reflect the bold colors of the Fauvist palette and the geometric lines of Proto-Cubism. Respected by his fellow modernists in America, he exhibited in 1909 in Alfred Stieglitz’s (1864–1946) Gallery 291—the first gallery in America to show modernism—and, also the Armory Show of 1913 that featured the most up-to-date European modernism.

After the Great Depression began in 1929, American artists turned toward social realism in large numbers, but Maurer continued throughout his career to explore aspects of the modernism that had inspired him in Europe. Works such as this display the multiple influences from European modernism from about 1908 to 1924. The jagged linearity reflects Expressionism, while the angular portrait reflects the influence of African masks that were a direct influence on early Cubism (and the depiction is particularly reminiscent of Modigliani). Compare it with other portraiture from the same period:

Eugene Speicher (1883–1962, US), Portrait of Red, 1933. Oil on canvas, 21 ½” x 17 ¾” (54.6 x 45.1 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-1745)

While these portraits have a peculiarly American beauty and unapproachable reservedness to them, they in no way approach the experiment of Maurer. Here are more of his works that show how ahead of his time he was. I’m sure the Abstract Expressionists knew of the work of artists such as Maurer, and built on him.

My question is this: Why are abstractionists of the pre-Depression era not Art History Household names?  Frankly, Maurer’s work inspires my own painting far more than that of Benton, Hopper, Marsh, or Kuhn, all of whom were active at the same time.

Studio activity: Create a portrait in an abstract style. Use charcoal, spray fixative, and colored pencils or chalk on thick paper. Base your work on the common properties of the human face, but make it recognizable as a portrait, using a photo of a family member or friend as a guide. In order to make it abstract, emphasize the important features of the face that make the subject interesting or different.

After producing the basic outlines of the abstracted face in charcoal, smudge to create shading, if desired, and then spray with a fixative so that the chalk does not smear. Then apply color to the work, if desired, with colored pencils or chalk. Spray the finished work with fixative so that it does not smear.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.4; A Community Connection: 6.2, 7.4; Discovering Art History: 15.2; Experience Painting: 6

Monday, June 23, 2014

Unsung Heroes

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965, United States), Hoe Culture, Near Anniston, Alabama, 1935–1937. Gelatin silver print on paper, 9 3/8” x 7 5/8” (23.7 x 19.4 cm). © Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Selma and Leonard Zorel. (BMA-4827)
There are many ways to be a hero. I by no means denigrate our men and women in the armed services, who have given their all recently in two wars (one of which should never have happened). But, there are heroes in everyday society, and that includes a lot of artists! One of the most important things about the history of art is that it records the state of humankind when the art was produced. This idea influences style and subject matter. In the Italian Renaissance, it was important for artists to stress the classical knowledge of their patrons, as well as express religious conviction (since the Roman church dominated art patronage).  During the Great Depression (1929–1940), the precursor of the second worse financial downturn—the Great Recession of 2008, instead of relying on mythological, religious, or historical subject matter, many artists during the Great Depression preferred to document what was happening to ordinary, hard-working Americans.

One of the major sources of the Great Depression was the depletion of top soil in America’s heartland, due to unwise over planting and no attention to water. After the Wall Street bankers caused a collapse because of speculation in many areas, the decline in crops (caused by the decimation of the natural eco-system because of over-planting), fostered the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange studied photography at the Clarence White School in New York and after that opened a portraiture studio in San Francisco in 1919. She was very successful for about ten years, turning out pictorialist style, soft focus portraits of mostly wealthy people of San Francisco. The heavy onset of the Depression in the early 1930s caused her to reevaluate the value of providing flattering portraits for the wealthy while so many people were jobless and homeless. This discrepancy caused her to begin to take photographs of the hapless people living on the street.
At first she was not sure what purpose her photographs of the jobless would serve, but she gathered them into an exhibition in 1934. They came to the attention of the Farm Security Administration, and she was hired in 1935 to document migratory farm workers in the Imperial Valley of California. Unlike the other photographers hired by the FSA, she was not required to move to Washington, DC. After the Imperial Valley photographs, she was asked to travel about the Midwest and west to document the huge exodus of displaced farmers who were migrating to California to look for work. This photograph comes from that series.

The US government, under the auspices of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), sponsored the photographic documentation of the plight of tenant farmers and farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl in the Plains states. The original intent behind the photographic program was to record the activities of the government in helping destitute farmers. Ultimately, the stirring photographs of human suffering caused by the Dust Bowl and Depression moved the government to further action to help people. Among the eleven photographers who worked on the project, the photographs of the humanist Dorothea Lange had perhaps the strongest impact on the American public, and are the most recognized symbols of the Great Depression.

Lange was particularly moved by the plight of tenant farmers, both black and white, who had no claim to their land, and yet depended on it for survival. The calloused hands and stark close-up without revealing a particular individual, for Lange, summed up the plight of tens of thousands of tenant farmers who had no recourse but to try to stick it out. Lange also documented the many tenant farmers who thought it was a good idea to uproot and move to California, which was unaffected by the Dust Bowl.

Lange’s photographs were viewed by Congressional committees, and are credited with being responsible for the establishment of migrant camps in 1935. Her photographs of the migration of farmers from the Midwest are also thought to have inspired John Steinbeck to write the book “Grapes of Wrath.” After her work with the FSA, Lange went on the rest of her life documenting the human condition in many parts of the world.

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Community Connection: 7.4, Discovering Art History: 14.5, The Visual Experience: 7.2, Focus on Photography: 5

Monday, June 16, 2014


Norway, Gol “stave” church near Oslo at the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (a replica now exists in Gol), c. 1235–1265. © 2014 Davis Art Images. (8S-26082)

I know there’s a popular cable show called “Vikings.” I’ve watched a few episodes, but, as an historian and art historian, I find it really doesn’t address many of the cultural contributions Scandinavians (Sweden, Norway, and Denmark) made to Western art. I’m especially appalled by the emphasis on the violence. Granted, the Vikings weren’t the most loveable people from the period of the late Roman Empire (c. 284–500 ce) to the early Romanesque period (c. 1000–1200), but, come on, their culture was about more than just plunder and pillage. I think their aesthetic contributions are comparable to those of the “Christianized” Anglo-Saxons in Britain in the period between the 700s and the 1000s. One of their greatest legacies is their artistry with wood sculpture, relief, and architecture.

Until Scandinavians accepted Christianity (Denmark in the 900s, and Norway and Sweden in the course of the 1000s), their buildings were exclusively of wood. It is often theorized that this reliance on wood as a building material is what made the Vikings such able ship-builders. As seafaring folk, the Vikings raided and established settlements in Britain, Normandy, and Tuscany, and their raids extended sometimes to Spain, Germany, and western France. Their master seafaring abilities enabled them to establish colonies in Iceland (c. 860 ce) and Greenland (c. 965 ce).

But, let’s get away from Viking “marauding.” The idea diminishes the focus on their arts. Carving was the primary fine art, from everything from ship prows to the doorways of churches. A characteristic of Viking relief carving was complicated interlace terminating in a leaf or animal head, very similar to Celtic art. The Viking expertise in wood carving and building definitely influenced church decoration. The term “stave church” comes from the basic element of building with wood, particularly ships: a vertical rib upon which were attached horizontal planks sealed with tar. One can see on the Gol church a couple of prow-like sculptures protruding from the uppermost eaves, perhaps reflecting the decoration of the bows of ships. The complex wooden shingling reminds us that architecture can be one of the finest sources for the element of art of “texture.”

Detail of Gol Church
In form, the stave churches were usually in a centrally planned, Greek cross-like organization (wings of equal length from a central worship area). The introduction of stone church construction from mainland Europe, influenced by the blooming Romanesque style of the late 1100s to early 1200s, essentially ended the stave church style, although it was employed sporadically in Scandinavia and the British Isles.  Luckily, many stave churches have survived to this day.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.18, Studio 17–18; A Community Connection: 5.5; A Global Pursuit: 3.4; The Visual Experience: 11, 15.6; Discovering Art History 7.4

Monday, June 9, 2014

Japanese Porcelain Tradition Keeps on Going

Shōmura Ken (born 1949, Japan), Vase, c. 2001. Porcelain with blue underglaze, height: 14 1/2” (36.8 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5168)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but I’m absolutely bonkers about ceramic art, and particularly Japanese and Chinese. This piece especially garnered my attention because it combines respect for traditional methods of decoration with a modernist form. AND, I love the deep cobalt blue underglaze in between each seeming separate lozenge shape. 

This vase represents the traditional idea of the aizome type of porcelain glaze (derived from the idea of indigo blue dyeing of fabrics). In the past, it was one of the two main types of porcelain gazing along with benizome (red dyeing), which characterized Arita ware in Japan. Ken is from the fifth generation working at the Banko kiln in Arita. Early Arita ware was dominated by the underglaze blue on white ground, which is the best known Chinese / Japanese color scheme in porcelain.

The blue and white format came to popularity during the Ming Dynasty in China (1368–1644). Porcelain developed to fruition during the Yuan dynasty (1280–1368), during which Ching’pai milky white porcelain of the late Song period was modified with cobalt blue underglaze called Shu Fu ware, which became the blue-and-white imperial ware of the Ming dynasty. Ceramic artists who migrated to Japan in the early 1600s transmitted this Chinese style to Japan. It was during this century that the Japanese developed their own porcelain. For the first half of the 1600s, Arita’s kilns (founded in 1616) produced predominantly the blue and white wares.

Ken first worked with white and blue wares. He soon developed techniques in the aizome and benizome. He attributes this to his work with stoneware and the exploration of its glazes, which was a brief period in his career. This vase is a masterful contemporary interpretation of the indigo blue underglaze of centuries old porcelains from both China and Japan. Sometimes visible in early blue and white wares is a running and thinning of the blue underglaze. Ken has exploited this aspect in his use of various values of the underglaze indigo blue. The darkest value of indigo blue is seen between each of the leaf-like shapes.

Each section of glaze is overlapped like scales or roof shingles.

Studio activity: Design a ceramic vessel with blue on white decoration. Using warm grey numbers 1 to 4 color pencils, design a ceramic vase or other type of vessel. Make the shape bold, indicating either texture or bold geometric shapes. Use the varying degrees of warm grey pencils to indicate shading of the texture or forms. Use indigo, cobalt, or dark blue color pencils to create the design.

Correlation to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grace 2: Studio Exploration 17–18; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35; A Community Connection: 2.6, 5.2; A Personal Journey 3.5; Experience Clay: Chapter 4; The Visual Experience 10.6