Monday, March 30, 2009

Sophisticated Sculpture = New Guinea

In January, I visited the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland, and I saw dozens of these elegant, monumental Yipwon figures. When you think of sculpture known for delicate and intricate carving, of whose work do you think? Michelangelo? Bernini? Barbara Hepworth? Well, I think that these beautiful sculptures from Papua, New Guinea, rival anything in the west for intricacy and delicacy of carving, elegant form, and powerful spiritual content. Also, these works are a great way to demonstrate one of the ELEMENTS OF DESIGN which are featured in most Davis textbooks and studio books: POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE SPACE.

The Yimam people live in the Korewori River region of northeast New Guinea. New Guinea is one of the many islands that form the Oceanic region known as Melanesia in the South Pacific. New Guinea is the largest of the Pacific islands. As in Australia, most arts were related to spiritual beliefs and supernatural communication. Rituals and ritual art were primarily the province of men.

The hook figures were stored in the men’s ceremonial house. They represented spiritual and ancestral forces, or were meant to channel those forces for luck in hunting and warfare. The figure itself represents the external and internal aspects of the spirits. A head and a leg are clearly visible. The central section represents a body, with beautifully carved hooks representing the ribs, surrounding a central element that represents the heart. Although much care went into the carving of ritual objects, they were often discarded or allowed to deteriorate after they had served their function, or were perceived as ineffective.

Artworks such as this were a major influence on early twentieth century artists in Europe who experimented with abstraction. The extreme stylization of this figure is remarkably similar to the work of Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, and other 20th century modernists.

There is a great book about the Korewori region’s people and art called “Korewori: Magic Art from the Rain Forest” by Christian Kaufmann (2004, University of Hawaii Press).

Monday, March 23, 2009

Calligraphy = line = an element of art

In most of our Davis textbooks and studio books, we talk about the ELEMENTS OF ART. One of the key elements of art is LINE. We can look at line not simply as a way of defining a shape, but also how beautiful line can be when it is in the form of the written word. Almost every culture on earth has elevated the written word to the status of art in the form of CALLIGRAPHY. Most of us are familiar with the beautiful calligraphy in Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. But how many of you have ever looked at the numerous styles of Arabic script? Challenge your students to come up with beautiful scripts from other (non-western) cultures. You will be surprised at how easy it is to connect calligraphy from the past with styles in contemporary graphic design!

“Recite the name of the Lord, who taught with the pen.” These are some of the first words to the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an. The importance of writing, which is emphasized throughout the Islamic holy book, led to the importance of calligraphy as an art form in Arab lands.

Metalwork in Iran, especially that of forged steel, reached its greatest heights of sophistication during the Safavid period (1502–1736). Safavid metal artists produced significant innovations in form, design, and technique. Intricately incised surface inlay was brought to its greatest accomplishment, as was the carving of intricate patterns out of metal.

This plaque was part of a decorative ensemble that adorned the royal tomb of Shah Suleyman II (ruled 1666–1693). It is a magnificent example of pierced steel, a very hard medium to master and control. The medium was pushed to the limits of artistic possibilities during the Safavid period. The plaque was probably formed from a forged piece of steel, openings being created with chisels, drills, saws, and files. Safavid artists preferred steel for openwork because of its durability and tensile strength.

Although this work transcends any artistic accomplishment in metalworking in any Iranian dynasty or region, its stylistic formula is universal within the Muslim world: a verse from the Qur’an on a background of arabesques. The verse reads: “Verily, God and His Angels send blessings on the Prophet” (33.56). The artist of this piece successfully merged calligraphy and background into a decorative whole.

Here is an interesting website about various types of Arab calligraphy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Documenting Native America

WHENEVER we think of Native Americans in the United States during the nineteenth century, we naturally think of the decimation of numerous indigenous cultures in America’s quest to dominate the continent (“manifest destiny”). During the same period, however, there were many who realized what unique and rich cultures Native Americans possessed. Artists such as George Catlin saw the dwindling of Indian nations as a tremendous loss to American culture. He sought to document Indian life in an effort to preserve knowledge of Indian cultures for future generations. How do you think your students would depict contemporary Indian life?

Born in Pennsylvania, Catlin grew up on farms in New York where he absorbed stories about Indians. Although he began a legal career at his father’s urging, he abandoned it in 1821 to pursue a career as an artist. In 1828, he received the inspiration that guided his painting the rest of his life when he witnessed a visit to Philadelphia by a delegation of Indians from the West. He subsequently decided to devote his life to documenting Indians, whom, he felt, had no biographers of their own.

Between 1830 and 1838, Catlin traveled in the West from a base in Saint Louis for five months out of each year, painting the lives of the natives. From his travels, he eventually produced over 600 paintings which he exhibited in his traveling “North American Indian Gallery.” In an effort to reap larger returns from exhibiting and enhance the gallery, improving chances for purchase by the federal government, Catlin issued a lithographic version of his paintings in the “North American Indian Portfolio,” published in London in 1844.

In addition to customs, costume, and accoutrements, Catlin’s depictions of Indians are an invaluable ethnological resource. Like most of his paintings, the composition of this work focuses attention on the main subject, often with little or no background depicted. The figure is presented in a romantic-realist style that was popular at the time. The pose is based somewhat on classical antiquity, in keeping with the romantic notion of Native Americans as noble yet tragic figures. The Iowas were removed from their lands east of the Mississippi in 1830 and forced onto a reservation in present-day Nebraska.

The National Gallery in Washington has over 300 paintings of Indians by Catlin.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington has over 600 paintings by Catlin from his original “North American Indian Gallery.”

Students can learn more about the work of George Catlin with the Smithsonian’s Campfire Stories with George Catlin website.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Earliest Poet of the Americas

When we in the West think of people who take religious orders, we usually think of vows of poverty, self-denial, and a life devoted to prayer and contemplation. We don’t expect the religious life to foster one of the earliest truly remarkable writers of the Americas. It is doubly remarkable, considering the expected role of women in the 17th century, that the earliest recognized poet of the Americas was indeed a woman.

By the end of the 17th century, the Viceroyalty of New Spain, centered in Mexico City, had established social customs and orders based on models of European monarchical societies. Like the upper classes in Spain, the Mexican elite delighted in displaying their status through portraiture.

Juana Inez de la Cruz (1651–1699) entered a convent in Mexico City when she was 17 years old. Educated by her grandfather to read and write Latin and Spanish (he had an extensive library), she moved to live with a wealthy aunt in Mexico City in 1663. In 1664, she was presented at the court of the viceroy. Her wit and intellect made her a darling at court and she became a lady-in-waiting. Wishing to live alone to pursue education, she took on holy orders in 1668. She wrote poetry and music for the wealthy elite of Mexico, although she avoided any writings on theology until late in her life. She also wrote extensively on the benefits of educating women beyond what was customary at the time.

Sor Juana’s cell was more akin to a modern apartment, with sitting room, kitchen, bedroom, and library. She also had servants. She received many noble visitors, including the Viceroy and his wife, and her cell became an intellectual center in Mexico City. Her status is reflected in her portrait. The style is in keeping with the contemporary Spanish Baroque of dramatic contrasts in light and dark to heighten the grandeur of the sitter. Her costly “habit” and jeweled pendant hanging from her sleeve indicate her family’s status, while the disk under her chin depicting the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary equate her vocation as a “bride of Christ.” The proud, direct stare at the viewer is typical of upper class Mexican portraiture, a reflection of the pride the sitters had in their rank and Spanish heritage.

Click here to see the Dartmouth University Sor Juana project containing her literary works.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pioneer Japanese Woman Artist

Every year when March rolls around, I start to yearn for spring. What better way to celebrate that yearning than by presenting an artwork with spring as the subject matter? But this is not just any run-of-the-mill Japanese landscape painter (as if there were such a thing!). This artist was one of the first women to achieve professional status as an artist in 17th century Japan. In western art history, we tend to focus on European and American women artists when discussing the uneven scholarship between male and female artists. What most of us do not think about is that Japanese women faced the same hurdles in forging artistic careers as did their western counterparts.

From the Nara and Kofun periods (c200–794 CE), Japan adopted Chinese artistic and cultural ideas. In painting this meant an emphasis on Buddhist subjects. During the ninth century, Japanese painting steered away from the Tang dynasty style of painting and developed new emphasis on a variety of subjects, including landscapes, portraits, and illustrations of Japanese literature. With the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the 11th century, the Japanese once again turned to Chinese painters, particularly landscape artists, for inspiration, while subtly establishing an indigenous Japanese painting style. One characteristic that distinguished Japanese landscapes from Chinese was the simplification of form.

Kiyohara Yukinobu was the daughter of Kusumi Morikage, a master of the Kano School, a court painting school that favored Chinese inspired landscape painting. Her mother was the neice of the master Kano Tan’yu. At the time, as in the West, women were not encouraged to become artists, much less have a professional career. Kusumi apparently encouraged his daughter’s talent, giving her private lessons, and allowing her to take lessons from other Kano school painters. She was sufficiently well-connected with the art scene in Edo (Tokyo) that she achieved a successful career. Refined brushwork, meticulous detail, and an elegant figure style characterize her work.

This work reflects the reduced complexity, simplification, and suggestion that are elements of Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on spontaneity. Depth is achieved through two major shapes: a winding river and hazy mountain. Spring is alluded to far in the background in the blossoming cherry trees on the side of the mountain.

This website gives fascinating insight into Japanese women artists.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has several Yukinobu’s.