Thursday, October 13, 2016

Letters Are Beautiful

I learned long ago how venerated calligraphy is in some cultures, and we speak of that in many of our Davis books. A short while ago as I was reading about contemporary Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar, whose art form is whole gallery rooms covered in Kufic calligraphy, I began to ponder (as art historians will) how we Westerners perceive writing.

It’s unfortunate that many no longer know how to write cursively, but what do we say when we see the writing of somebody who still does? Do we say/think “Oh what beautiful art!” or “Oh, you have beautiful handwriting!”? At first I was, like, well, in the West, most people view handwriting as they would a chair or plate, as a utilitarian form of expression.

As I looked through our images, however, I realized that throughout history there have always been examples of fine art that also happen to be legible writing. Ah ha moment. If we currently consider furniture and ceramics fine art, then I’m proposing to do the same with handwriting. You decide! 

Ancient Egypt, relief of Lady Wadjkaues, 1971–1926 BCE, from Tomb 3 at Deir el-Bersha. Painted limestone, 14 1/2" x 23 1/4" x 1 3/4" (37 x 59 x 4.5 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-707)
There is such a beautiful elegance to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are basically pictographs that were codified into a written language around the same time (ca. 3000 BCE) that Egyptians established the formulas for depicting the human figure and objects. Since hieroglyphics were closely related to the Egyptian religion and funerary ritual, hieroglyphics and art were connected intimately, as well. Many of the symbols used in hieroglyphics actually represent the word for what they depict, and were taken from the codified forms seen in reliefs and paintings. This relief defines Wadjkaues as the mother of Sep, the scribe of royal monuments, and the wife of Amenemhat, the “governor” of the Upper Egypt Hare Nome (province).   

Ancient Guatemala, Mayan, Stele 3 from the Great Plaza, Tikal, ca. 600–900 CE. Image © 2016 Davis Art Images. (8S-21030)
Tikal was the second largest city of the Classic Period (ca. 600–900 CE) in central Americas. European “scholars” have dubbed the Mayan glyph writing system “hieroglyphics” because all they could think of to compare it to was the ancient Egyptian writing system. Most of the monuments and stelae on the Great Plaza date from the 700s CE. The stelae on the plaza represent rulers on one side with glyphs on the other. The Mayan glyph system can be traced back to extant examples from the 200s BCE. The glyphs are read in columns two glyphs wide from top to bottom then back to the top of the next column. The stela sculpture of Tikal was intricately painted. The earliest known dynastic monument stele displaying Tikal's emblem glyph dates from 279 CE.

Britain, Page with a decorated initial D from the Book of Hours of Salisbury Cathedral, ca. 1390. Ink and tempera on paper, 7 11/16" x 5 7/8" (19.5 x 14.9 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-1915)
From the collapse of the western Roman Empire in Western Europe during the 500s CE until the late 1300s, manuscript illustration and decoration (i.e. illumination) was the primary form of painting. In the early Middle Ages (ca. 500s to 1000s), most books were copied in monasteries or convents exclusively for religious use. When secular people started patronizing copies of sacred books, they demanded more lavish editions, including pictures. This moved book copying from the religious to the lay realm. The establishment of guilds for artists between the 1100s and mid-1200s effectively eliminated the need for priestly copyists. Professional calligraphers copied the books, so there is a wide variety of styles in the way they copied the Latin. The book of hours was an exclusive domain of the wealthy, a book of prayers to be said throughout the day. Lavishly decorated initial letters such as this mark the beginning of a prayer or gospel. Ironically, another “wow” development—moveable type—in the 1450s spelled the death knell for the genre of lavishly painted (and expensive) illuminated manuscripts. 

Iran, Title page from a copy of the Shahnama (“Book of Kings”), 1536. Ink on paper, 15 7/8" x 9 13/16" (40.3 x 25 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2893)
Paper was introduced to Islamic lands during the mid- to late 700s CE by the Chinese. This made the copying of books a lot easier than using animal skin, and cheaper. It also opened up the possibility for wider dissemination of books to the general public. Aside from the Qur’an (which was never illustrated with pictures), a variety of books began to be illustrated starting in the 1000s. This included scientific treatises, epic poetry, histories, and scholarly studies. This is a frontispiece from a Book of Kings, the epic poem about Persian rulers from ancient times to the time of Muhammad by the Iranian poet Abul-Qasim Firdawsi (940–1020). Arabic calligraphy is so gorgeous. I can’t tell if this is Thuluth or Towqi’ script, but it sure is elegant. 

James Tissot (1836–1902, France), Capital Letter Z, from the Appendix to the portfolio The Life of Our Savior Jesus Christ, 1886–1894. Ink on paper mounted on board, 4 11/16" x 4 11/16" (11.8 x 11.9 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2556)
James Tissot was a society painter of scenes of middle class life during the 1870s and 1880s with little or no connection to Impressionism other than an interest in fashionable urban life. He began producing more religious subjects after he traveled to Egypt and the Middle East. Subsequent to his trip and scads of studies of indigenous costume, architecture, and even flora, he produced a portfolio of 350 watercolors on the Life of Christ. The book, entitled The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ also for some reason included three pages of decorated letters like this. They’re each lovely, although I didn’t know Tissot was also a graphic artist. This is from page 354 of an appendix called Pen and Ink Drawings, which included hundreds of figure studies from the Middle East.
Robert Indiana (born 1928, US), LOVE, 1967. Screenprint on paper, 34" x 34" (86.3 x 86.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2016 Robert Indiana / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P3147inars)

Since Pop Art elevated Campbell’s Soup and comic books to the status of fine art, it’s only fitting that beautiful lettering (in Clarendon Black font) also be accorded the same honor. Everyday lettering was part and parcel of Pop Art. Although Indiana initially was drawn to color field painting of Abstract Expressionism, he was drawn to the early 20th-century movement of Precisionism, which examined aspects of American culture in extreme close-up.

Indiana’s gift to Pop Art came from his main inspirations of traffic signs, commercial signage and stencil lettering. Unlike most of the Pop artists, however, his LOVE works were social commentary, aimed with irony at the hollow usage of the word by the hippies, and as an obvious counter to the Vietnam War (1959–1975). 

John Baldessari (born 1931, US), I will not make any more boring art., 1971. Lithograph on paper, 22 3/8" x 29 9/16" (56.8 x 75.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2016 John Baldessari. (MOMA-P1033)
If ever writing was elevated to an art form in Western art, it was as part of the Conceptualist movement. It is little wonder that, in a period when the nature of art was under serious reevaluation in the 1960s, that the movement of Conceptualism evolved. It was the logical end result of several movements that questioned the status quo in the art world: Pop Art, New Realism, Performance, and Minimalism.

Conceptualism incorporates Pop's use of language combined with Minimalism's emphasis on process rather than object. Conceptual artists consider the idea to be the work of art. Already in 1967 the Minimalist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) had expressed the belief that the planning and decisions around an idea were superior to execution of a work. As it was for many Pop artworks, the Dada movement is considered the ancestor of the concept of idea as art. I’m not sure which 1960s movement Baldessari’s statement references.

Edward Fella (born 1938, US), Dead End, poster advertising graphic design exhibition at the Pasadena Art Center, 1995. Lithograph on paper, 17" x 11" (43.2 x 28 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2016 Edward Fella. (MOMA-P1207)
I bet you didn’t know that the first font developed that did not imitate handwriting was Garamond in 1490! That paved the way for the development of hundreds of fonts through the 2000s. Edward Fella is a graphic design artist whose work has also had a major impact on the world of typography. His earliest works for clients were humorous combinations of drawing and lettering. He ultimately designed unique, personal fonts by cutting and pasting parts of various fonts in startling combinations. His unique style developed during the Postmodern and Deconstructivist periods, when traditional perceptions of design and beauty were under reevaluation. Ironically, what started out as unique works of art in his hand-drawn type and inkblot icons are now part of Emigré® font sets.

Glenn Ligon (born 1960, US), Untitled (Rage) #2, 2002. Mixed-media on canvas, 74 7/8" x 82 5/8" (190.2 x 209.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-141)
The work of African American artist Glenn Ligon is proof how words not only act as works of art, but have particular power when they do so. Ligon’s use of language has a power that far outdistances works of Conceptual art. Born in Brooklyn, he took art classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during a period when he witnessed not only racism, but discrimination against other minorities, as well. His rage (fittingly part of this title) at discrimination is channeled through long discourses, which he carefully presents as a two-dimensional work of art.

This particular work begins with “The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable; this rage, so generally discounted, so little understood even among the people whose daily bread it is, one of the things that makes history.” It is a quote by the African American writer James Baldwin (1924–1987), whose rage was directed at the perception that, in the US, only white people were thought of as “human.” (from the essay in “Harper’s Magazine” Stranger in the Village, 1953).

Son Man-jin (born 1964, South Korea), Calligraphy, 2005. Ink and color on paper mounted as a hanging scroll, 29" x 19 ¾" (73.7 x 50.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Son Man-jin. (PMA-3633)

 I’m particularly in awe of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean calligraphy, especially since this beautiful art form is produced with a brush similar to that used for painting. The influence of Chinese characters and calligraphy swept through Korea in the 100s and 200s CE (probably) and Japan between the 400s and 700s CE. For hundreds of years after 1350, Korean calligraphy followed the style of a great Chinese calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322). This style remained the underpinning of Korean calligraphy until after World War II (1939–1945) when the Korean governments in both North and South pushed for the use of a native Korean alphabet (Hangul, which emerged in the 1440s).

Son Man-jin’s work demonstrates the new direction taken in contemporary Korean calligraphy. He has taken Chinese characters as his starting point and adds little drawings, color, and extraneous, fluid lines to create a complex, personal calligraphy style. This poem, by the Korean poet Shin Hum (1566–1628), expresses the poet’s observations on the awesome nature of life.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 4.24; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 5.26; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.28; A Personal Journey: 4.2; Exploring Visual Design: 1; The Visual Experience: 3.4

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Beauty of Line

What better way to explore the idea of beautiful lines than with Oceanic art. Oceania is a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean that covers one-third of the planet's surface. Contained in Oceania are the countries of Australia and New Zealand, and the geographic regions of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Let’s look at some art from Papua New Guinea in Melanesia. The geographic region of Melanesia includes New Guinea and islands that extend east as far as Fiji and New Caledonia.

About 27,000 years ago, people from southeast Asia settled the islands north and east of New Guinea. By between 4000 and 7000 BCE they were farming and raising livestock. Archeologists thinks that a culture called the Lapita settled the rest of Melanesia. The extent of their colonizing and even their origin is not known.

New Guinea is divided between Irin New Guinea (part of Indonesia) and Papua New Guinea. The island is the location of one of the largest groups of diverse cultures and artistic expression in Melanesia. It is a prolific region of artistic expression. Sculpture, painting, or carving adorns almost every object of secular and ritual life. By adorning every object in everyday life with art, it has been traditionally believed to bring the world of the spirits into activity with the world of humans. 

Papua New Guinea, New Ireland Province, Canoe prow, 1800s–1900s. Painted wood, 21 1/2" x 5" x 9" (54.6 x 12.7 x 22.9 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-255)
The implied lines in the sculpted features of this prow ornament combine with the painted lines to create a dynamic, complex, and sophisticated art work. New Ireland is in the Bismarck Archipelago, located north of New Guinea. Today it is a province of Papua New Guinea. In New Ireland, large figurative sculpture is rare. Canoe prow figures are among the largest.

Usually when the human figure is involved, the head dominates the composition. Traditionally, such figures would be attached to the prow or stern of a canoe. Even children's canoes have sculpted prow figures for speed and protection. The island of Papua New Guinea is rugged and canoe is the main mode of transportation. These prow figures are elaborately pierce-carved and painted in traditional colors of red, black and white. The bird and animal forms surrounding the human head represent ancestors of the canoe owner's clan who serve as protection, speed, and success.

Papua New Guinea, Sepik River Area, Kwoma People, Shield, 1900s. Wood, 55 1/2" x 15 1/2" x 3 ¼" (141 x 39.4 x 8.3 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1608)
The Kwoma People of the Washkuk Hills have traditionally been part of the unique rituals that are centered on the cultivation of yams. Feasts and rituals were organized yearly to celebrate the events around the harvest, and to ensure the edibility and purity of the yams. The sculpting of giant heads is part of those rituals.

The sculpting of wood is considered a task that ensures that the object created is a suitable dwelling-place for ancestral and natural forces. Shields such as this, which protect most of the holder’s body, were often produced to be displayed at shield feasts during the yam festivities. The parallel chevron lines in the center of this shield frame a face representing a protective family spirit. 

Papua New Guinea, East Sepik Province, Abelam People, Korumbo gable painting, 1900s. Painted bark, 73" x 44" x 3" (185.4 x 111.8 x 7.6 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5132)

 The Abelam are members of the Sepik language group. They are a farming society also involved with the cultivation of yams. Like many of the peoples in Papua New Guinea, traditionally much of their ritual life has been connected with spirits (ngwalndu) who temporarily interact with human beings. The korumbo (or kurambo) is a ceremonial structure, not really a meeting house, meant to lodge the ngwalndu on their visits for ceremonies that celebrate certain stages in the lives of men and women.
The rich artistic expression of the Abelam is dominated by expressive painting. Paint was traditionally viewed as a mystic substance that endowed sculpted images of the spirits activity and power. During initiation ceremonies for young men, artists would carve or paint images of ngwalndu in order to ensure their presence and participation. The concentric lines painted around the eyes of this spirit make it a particularly expressive force.
Papua New Guinea, from Yanaba, Egum Atoll, Milne Bay Province, Canoe splashboard (“rajim”). Painted and carved wood, 52 3/8" x 32 5/16" (133 x 82 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-127)
The Egum Atoll is home of the Massim people who live among the Trobriand Islands. The Massim culture covers an area of about 300 miles southeast and southwest from Milne Bay. It includes partially-submerged mountains and archipelagoes. One of the central cultural events among the Massim is the act of ceremonial gift-giving (kula) between islands.

Carving and decorating canoes is a large part of the kula. The red paint is actually a trade item in the kula, secured from Dobu Island, because it is made from an earth pigment not found in the Trobriand Islands. The canoes contain ornately carved and painted splash boards on both prow (rajim) and stern (lagim). The rajim not only protects from the splashing of the waves, but is endowed with spiritual power to protect the canoe occupants and ensure a successful kula.

The upturned volutes at the top of this board are supported by two bird heads, with two pairs of snakes indicated in relief below. The small holes around the edges were meant to accommodate stringing of seashells as ornament. The white pigment was made by heating sea shells and crushing them into powder, while the black pigment was a mix of charred coconut and banana stalk sap.

I know New Zealand is part of Polynesia, not Melanesia, but I couldn’t help including this gorgeous example of line.

New Zealand, North Island, Maori People, Head, mid-1800s to early 1900s. Wood, height: 8" (20.3 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-756)

Unlike Melanesian cultures such as Papua New Guinea, the Polynesian cultures such as the Maori have not traditionally had such as broad range of art forms. Carved and inlaid wood dominates their artistic output.

The incised lines in this work imitate the tattooing of the face. The spiral is a central motif in Maori tattooing and sculpture. It is thought to have been influenced by the abstracted bird/human design called manaia that decorates many Maori art works. The spiral motif, like the Chinese tao-tieh decoration of the Shang period, may have evolved from interconnected, split, and flattened manaia patterns.

Traditionally, ancestral skulls were mummified and decorated as veneration of the deceased. This example may be a substitute for a damaged skull, or, it may have been part of a bird perch, a net holder, or a canoe ornament. Masks were not worn in Maori culture.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.35-36 studio, 6.Connections; A Global Pursuit: 6.5; Discovering Art History: 4.6

Monday, September 26, 2016

Artist Selfies

Selfies are actually nothing new. Artists have been making selfies for centuries. It just happens to be easier for everyday folks nowadays to produce self-portraits. I’m presenting you with these historic selfies because they are a) artists with whom you might not be wildly familiar and b) they’re darn interesting people!

Maria Antonia Walpurgis (1724–1780, Germany), Self-Portrait, ca. 1767–1772. Oil on canvas, 49 9/16" x 40 3/16" (126 x 102 cm). Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Photo © 2016 Dr Ron Wiedenhoeft  / Saskia Ltd. (Mgf-0144)

I’m really not into royalty or who is from which noble family, but, this woman is particularly interesting, since her life revolved more around the arts than her “high birth.” She was the daughter of a Holy Roman Emperor, which made her Grand Duchess of Bavaria. She was married to the Elector (Prince) of Saxony, so she was also a princess who ruled as regent after her husband’s death. But, she was also a businesswoman (she established a brewery), a musician, and a painter.

This accomplished self-portrait depicts a sympathetic person, confirmed by accounts of her record as princess. Not only did she write operas and perform in them (at court), she also wrote lyrics for other composers’ operas. She had nine children and was dedicated to raising them, participating very little in all the hoopla in her husband’s court. She is also said to have been committed to distributing food to the very poor.

In this self-portrait she’s wearing a Brunswick dress. It was a two-piece ensemble supposedly modeled on the dress of common people with a waist-length jacket and ankle-length full skirt. I always get a kick out of seeing painters of the past dressed in such fine raiment while holding a palette and brushes!

Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918, Switzerland), Self-Portrait, 1891. Oil on wood and canvas, 11 1/2" x 9" (28.5 x 23 cm). Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva. Photo © 2016 Dr Ron Wiedenhoeft / Saskia, Ltd. (Psf-0192)

As a child I grew up seeing the works of this awesome artist in Bern and Geneva, Switzerland. A lot of his work are murals that marked great moments in Swiss (military) history. What I liked more were his landscapes of the Lake of Thun and the Lake of Geneva, done in a minimalist style with simplified forms and the vibrant colors of Impressionism.

Hodler was born in Bern and studied painting in Geneva and later Madrid. The artists who interested him cover a wide range: Northern Renaissance masters like Holbein and Dürer, the Baroque master Rubens, and Realist painters Corot and Daubigny. Although his early paintings were realistic depictions of Swiss rural life, after a psychological crisis in the late 1880s, his subject matter took on a Symbolist content that was sweeping European art at the time. The Symbolist element was enlivened by his brilliant palette, especially is simplified alpine landscapes.

This selfie has a wonderful confrontational attitude to it. While realistic in style, it exudes Hodler’s vibrant personality. His paintings from this period until his death reflect his search for a reality beyond the physical world. That’s why his landscapes often seem so other-worldly, just like this selfie on a stark blank background.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Lake of Thun, 1909. Oil on canvas, 26 1/2" x 36 3/16" (67.3 x 92 cm). © Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva. Photo © 2016 Dr Ron Wiedenhoeft / Saskia, Ltd. (Psf-0199)

Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869–1907, Poland), Self-Portrait, 1902. Pastel on paper, 13 3/4" x 13 3/4" (35 x 35 cm). Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw, Poland. © 2016 Dr Ron Wiedehoeft / Saskia, Ltd. (Ppf-0039)

Because Poland was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 1800s, the significant art center cities of Krakow and Warsaw had cultural and artistic ties to Vienna and, beyond that, Paris. The son of an established sculptor, Stanislaw Wyspianski studied painting in both Krakow and Paris. In Paris he befriended Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) in 1894, although Gauguin’s bright palette did not drastically affect his more traditional palette.

Wyspianski, who has a museum dedicated to his work in Krakow, was a true Renaissance person. He not only had a successful career as a painter, he also was a playwright, architectural restoration designer, and a designer of stained glass and theater sets. He was allergic to oil paint and eventually preferred pastel.

This artist was one of the first to be invited to join the Vienna Secession in 1897. This was a group of young artists who were dissatisfied with the conservative academic curriculum in Austrian art schools. They also sought to unite the disciplines of design with fine art. Art Nouveau had a major impact on the preferred style of its artists and designers. This selfie is a lovely combination of realism with the floral linearity of Art Nouveau.

Marc Quinn (born 1964, Britain), Template for my Future Plastic Surgery Age 80, from the portfolio London, 1992. Screenprint with varnish additions on paper, 33 3/4" x 29 3/4" (85.8 x 67.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Marc Quinn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P4419qiars)

This selfie would make an interesting comparison to that of Gillian Wearing later in this post. The inspiration for this work is obviously much different from that of Wearing’s. This selfie is tongue-in-cheek, rather than an investigation into actual looks or psyche. It was part of a portfolio of prints by eleven different artists, most of them from the so-called Young British Artists group.

The Young British Artists, most of whom studied fine art at London’s Goldsmiths College, was a loose group of artists who began exhibiting together in the late 1980s. They advocated shaking up the contemporary art scene in London through the use of unconventional materials, shocking installations and performance art, and an eye on exploiting the idea of the venal “art market.”

Unlike most of the other YBAs, Quinn studied history and art history at Cambridge University. His artwork is concerned with exploring the similarities and differences between art and science through the device of casts of the human body. This also incorporates the idea of contemporary ideas about beauty, genetics, and the possibilities, scary or not, of manipulating DNA.

This work seems to address the obsession with cosmetic surgery, although with a twist. In Quinn’s work, he turns the table on the idea that body modification be only physical appearance. At 80 he seems to want to be a more talented person through transplantation, with collaged photographs of casts of a violinist’s ear, the tongue of a chef, the nose of an entertainment producer, and a brain represented by a bunch of coral. 

Nara Yoshitomo (born 1959, Japan), N.Y. (Self-Portrait), 2002. Etching and aquatint on paper, sheet: 19 1/4" x 15" (48.9 x 38 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Yoshitomo Nara. (MOMA-P0661)
There are no rules in art that a selfie has to be executed in realism. Selfies can express a person’s inner image without being obsessed with naturalism. I don’t think that anyone would challenge the idea that cartoon-inspired art can deliver a message. One strain of Pop Art in the 1960s emphasized the primacy of comic art and animation as subject matter. This vein was revived during the Neo-Pop evolution in the 1980s, in which Nara played a role.

Nara was born and raised in rural Japan by working parents. He spent most of his childhood alone with his comics and pets. He studied art in Japan and Germany. Nara is the “father” of the Tokyo Pop movement. He grew up in post-war Japan when the country’s economic boom was characterized by a flood of popular culture from the West, including Walt Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons. His paintings, prints and sculptures of big-headed, wide-eyed children and dogs reflect not only Western cartoons, but also Japanese manga (cartoons) and anime (animation).

This self-portrait expresses the simplicity of a child’s rebelliousness, and communicates a restlessness that reflects Nara’s independent spirit and love of things unconventional. He was very involved in the “punk” scene in Japan in the 1990s. However, the figure is balanced, almost in the Renaissance pyramidal manner, revealing one of Nara’s many artistic influences. As a popular contemporary artist with international appeal, Nara’s Pop art can also fittingly be found on a variety of consumer goods such as T-shirts, postcards, CD covers, and skateboards.

Gillian Wearing (born 1963, Britain), Self-Portrait as my Sister Jane Wearing, from the Album series, 2003. Digital print, 55 3/16" x 45 1/4" (140.1 x 114.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2016 Gillian Wearing. (AK-654)
With the elevation in dignity and esteem that artists received during the Renaissance (ca. 1400–1600), self-portraiture came into its own. Down through the history of art, we can cite many famous artists who produced series of self-portraits. These artists created self-portraits that were basically documents of themselves.

Gillian Wearing’s self-portraits, in dress-up as family members, put a new twist to the concept of “family resemblance.”  Based on family photographs, the recreations are aided by elaborate costume and makeup. Using special masks, wigs, body-suits and clothing (with the help of artists from Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London), she transforms herself into family members. The artist’s eyes are the only feature she does not mess with. They present a novel fascination with revealing her identity through her relatives.

Wearing’s fascination with revealing people’s often concealed inner identities brought her international acclaim in 1992. She created a series of photographs of everyday people whom she urged to write their innermost thoughts on pieces of cardboard. Her photographs explore human relationships and social behavior, extended to the private and personal. Her work is clearly influenced by documentary photography and film. Her combination of Snapshot Realism and a quest for delving into the psychological depths of an individual create a stunningly different take on portraiture in the 2000s.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 1 2.7; Explorations in Art 2 2.7-8 studio; Explorations in Art 3 1.1; Explorations in Art 6 1.5-6 studio; A Community Connection 7.3; Focus on Photography 5

Thursday, September 22, 2016

“Kalighat” Art

Indian art certainly has a rich and long history. I especially appreciate the aesthetic aspects of Indian art that have endured for centuries despite the fascinating multiplicity of kingdoms, vastly diverse religions, and numerous occupying cultures Indians have experienced. It’s particularly interesting that new indigenous styles evolved, despite the long occupation of India by the British.

India, Picture of a Woman, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor on paper, 18 1/8" x 11" (46 x 28 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2575)

While large parts of India were still ruled by the Mughal Empire (1526–1756), the British ruled major parts of India through the British East India Company (a trading corporation) from 1600 to 1858. From 1858 until 1947, the British established total control—politically, economically and militarily—over almost all of present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The Persian influence of Mughal painting faded under British occupation, as regional schools reasserted indigenous painting styles and subjects. Major Indian cities, however, developed academies based on the stifling, conservative style of the Royal Academy in London.

Kolkata (Calcutta), in West Bengal, was the center of Britain's (economically motivated) "empire" in India. It was also a center for the Westernization of Indian art under British rule. Kolkata attracted many Bengali folk artists in search of employment, aside from those from the northern courts that gradually disbanded under the British. The reassertion of Indian folk art by rural Bengali artists, with faint touches of Western influence that started in the 1820s, has been called "Kalighat" style. This was named for the area around the Kali temple in Kolkata where many of the artists settled.

The vibrant Bengal folk art tradition adapted to the changing social conditions of colonialism in the creation of subject matter that was a combination of traditional Hindu subjects with single images of everyday life. Modifications on tradition included the use of watercolors instead of natural pigments, and the infusion of genre to reflect modern urban life. Unfortunately, modern printing techniques such as lithography, which made for cheap mass-production of images, eventually led to the waning in popularity of these works of art.

Narashima, the Man-Lion Avatar of Vishnu, ca. 1910. Opaque watercolor with ink, and silver leaf on paper, 17 5/16" x 11" (44 x 28 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-594)
The liveliness of this depiction of the 4th avatar of the god Vishnu is typical of the energetic compositions of Kalighat artists. It shows Vishnu’s defeat of the demon tyrant Hiranyakashipu in his man-lion form. Hiranyakashipu had gained virtual immortality from Lord Brahma and used his power to persecute the devotees of Vishnu. When he sought to kill his own son Prahlad, who was devoted to Vishnu, Vishnu intervened as Narashima and saved him. This is a fairly traditional interpretation of the god’s avatar, with only hints at Western influence in the shading of the limbs to indicate volume, and, don’t miss the demon tyrant’s Western buckled shoe!

Man Seated in a European Chair with a Nargila Pipe, 1880. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper, 17 15/16" x 10 3/4" (45.5 x 27.4 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-346)

Did you know that the nargila pipe (hookah, huqqah) was developed either in Iran or India during the 1500s to “purify” tobacco smoke through water? Tobacco was introduced to the Safavid court in Iran during the late 1500s by Europeans, and ultimately to the Mughal court in India where smoking tobacco became popular among wealthy Indians. I’m not sure if the fact that this guy is sitting in an imported “European” chair makes him wealthy, but he is also wearing those buckled European shoes.

Woman with a Parrot, ca. 1875. Ink on paper, 18 3/16" x 11" (46.2 x 27.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-3005)

Quick sketches like this show how the Kalighat technique led to a vast simplification of form. The demand for affordable indigenous art encouraged the use of techniques that maximized output, thus the simplification of form and quick contour sketches without detail. The background was typically left unfinished for expediency's sake. Works such as this would have appealed to everyday Indians, but the style had a major influence on modern Indian art of the 1900s and to the present day.

Krsna and Radha, late 1800s or early 1900s. Opaque watercolor with polished accents on paper, 16" x 10 1/2" (40.6 x 26.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4513)
The love and struggles of Radha and the god Krsna are among the most popular subjects in Indian art. Their love is so legendary, that events in their lives are chronicled in numerous texts, including the Harevamsa (“Legend of Hare Krsna”), the Gita Govinda (“Song of Krsna”), the Rasikapriya (“Connoisseur’s Delight,” a love poem about heroes and heroines), and Satasai (“Seven Hundred Love Poems”). The sloping perspective of the dais on which the god and his consort stand make this charming painting totally traditional in style.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.4; A Community Connection: 2.2, 6.2; A Global Pursuit: 3.5; Discovering Drawing: 2; Exploring Painting: 10; Exploring Visual Design: 1; The Visual Experience: 9.2, 9.3, 13.2; Discovering Art History: 4.2

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Lesser Known Calder

Alexander Calder (1898–1976, US), Comb, before 1943. Hammered brass, 6 1/2" x 3 13/16" x 3/4" (16.5 x 9.8 x 1.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0771caars)

You are probably familiar with the art of Alexander Calder. He is, in particular, renowned for his invention of the mobile, a term coined by Surrealist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). He is considered one of the pioneer abstract American sculptors, and is also known for his giant “stabiles,” his mobile-stabiles, textile designs, painting, and, something I find among his most fascinating work of all, jewelry.

Calder was born a fourth generation of a family of academic sculptors. During childhood he showed an early interest for constructing stuff such as tools, jewelry, animal figures and game boards from a variety of found materials. Some of his earliest pieces of jewelry were made of wire for his sister’s dolls. He received a degree in mechanical engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken in 1919. While working in the field of hydraulic engineering, he took night classes in drawing.

Eventually, in 1923 he decided to be an artist, enrolling in the Art Students League. He initially emphasized painting. A drawing assignment to illustrate the Ringling Brothers Circus renewed his childhood interest in animals and provided the subject matter for sculptures throughout his career. In 1926 he published the book "Animal Sketching."
Calder moved to Paris for a year in 1926. Between 1926 and 1931, mostly for personal enjoyment, Calder began to make moving toys and figures that eventually became his "Calder Circus." His "Circus" performances—in which he turned cranks to move the figures—were wildly popular in the avant-garde art world in Paris, and soon became so in the US. The circus also started Calder on the path toward a revolutionary exploration of abstraction in sculpture, leading eventually to his mobiles and stabiles.
After “Circus,” Calder began working with wire, in portraits, animals and figures. He pretty much redefined the perception sculpture by "drawing" it in wire in space. Just as the Surrealists had revolutionized the centuries-old tradition of carving or casting with their found object assemblages, Calder had broken tradition, using not the mallet and chisel, but rather shop tools of welding torch, wire cutters, and pliers. By the late 1920s, he applied this technique to a serious study of making jewelry.

Calder first exhibited his jewelry in 1929 alongside his paintings and sculptures. Selling his jewelry at low prices was a way for Calder to earn a living while establishing himself as a sculptor. By the late 1930s, wearing Calder’s “wearable sculptures” became an artsy statement for society women in New York. His designs were unique and were not mass-produced.  I’ve seen several photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) wearing a Calder brooch in bird-form. 

Here are some other examples of Calder’s awesome jewelry:

Cone Bracelet, ca. 1940. Gilt silver, 1 1/2" x 7 1/2" x 3 9/16" (.8 x 19.1 x 9.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-7723caars)

This bracelet makes it easy to understand how Calder transitioned from his wire sculptures to classy jewelry.

These pieces of hammered metals really do remind me of the flat steel shapes seen in Calder mobiles. They also have the same playful, curvilinear shapes seen in Calder’s paintings and textiles designs. These pieces are so classy and must have look so sharp on 1940s fashions.

Brooch, ca. 1940. Hammered brass, steel wire, 4 1/4" x 3 3/16" (10.8 x 8.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-7724caars)

Necklace, 1941. Hammered silver, outer circumference 33 15/16" (86.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0774caars)

Bracelet, ca. 1940. Hammered silver, 3 9/16" x 2 5/8" (9 x 6.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-7725caars)

Buckle, before 1943. Hammered brass, 5 3/8" x 4 3/8" (13.6 x 12.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0775caars)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.11; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.29; A Community Connection: 5.2, 7.4; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4, 7.connections; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 12.4, 16.6; Discovering Art History: 2.2