Friday, June 26, 2009

Modern Furniture Design

When I was in graduate school, I was extremely fortunate to be a TA (teaching assistant) to the Furniture art historian. What a learning experience that was! As an art history major, I tended to think only painting, sculpture, and architecture had any relevance to history and society, in the West or anywhere else. Wrong! “TAing” (can that be a verb?) in a Furniture History course opened up my frame of reference in the world of art history, and showed me what a lively and integral part all of the so-called “decorative” arts are in the history of art and culture around the world. I personally prefer to call “decorative” arts the “miscellaneous arts.” Never call them “crafts” around me!

Since its production first began in the ancient world, artists designed furniture to conform to the human body and the way it was attired, all in forms that could be pleasingly decorated. Just think of the gorgeous examples from Egyptian and Chinese tombs. The idea of designing furniture to conform to society and the human form remained constant through the nineteenth century. This is true even after the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century saw the advent of mass-produced, machine-made furniture. After the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century—which stressed the return of hand-crafted furniture as an important art form—the idea of creating furniture for reasons other than comfort and utility was born.

Italian designers after World War II have been very influential in contemporary furniture design. They are known for their willingness to design dramatic, often seemingly impractical pieces. Vico Magistretti established himself as a master of simple, even understated design solutions.

Trained as an architect, he began to design furniture in avant-garde forms during the late 1940s. Key to many of his designs was taking common forms from everyday life, such as ladders, and adapting their shapes to his furniture. He was also a pioneer in the use of plastic, tubular steel, and polyester resin in his designs. Magistretti’s goal was to produce simple, elegant furniture that would aesthetically co-exist in an interior that also contained antiques.

The Golem Chair is an example of Magistretti’s love of using an S-curve in his furniture. The back of this simple, three-legged chair is a graceful, elongated S. In spirit, furniture like this fits the aesthetic expressed by the architect of glass-box skyscrapers Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who said “less is more.” The Golem Chair is certainly a stripped down version of common seating (compare it to Charles Eames’s three-legged side chair). Although an elegant design, it does not really conform to the common perception of “comfortable seating.” Indeed, this piece could almost be perceived as sculpture. Many pieces of contemporary furniture design defy the idea of practicality and become stand-alone artworks simply because of the extraordinary inventiveness of materials, decoration, and design.

The MFA in Boston has periodic showings of the most contemporary furniture design.

The Davis Art Images collection has many examples of contemporary furniture from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Check out these chairs by mixed media artist, Heidi Hanson Farrow, former advertising manager for Davis’s SchoolArts magazine.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Native American Quillwork

When I was in grade school, one of our art projects was to collect used wooden matches and then create geometric patterns with them, gluing them side by side on cardboard. It did create an interesting contrast between the burned and unburned ends of the matches, and I actually managed to create stepped patterns with the matches. HOWEVER, looking at this gorgeous object from the Micmac culture of the First Nations, I have no illusions about my future as a competent decorative artist. First Nation cultures are renowned for not wasting any part of animals that they hunt. To me one of the most fascinating art forms to come out of that practice is QUILLWORK.

Unlike other Native arts—such as jewelry and weaving of the Navajo, the ledger painting of the Sioux, and the numerous types of trade art that rely on traditional forms—quillwork is one Native art form that has fallen into relative obscurity. Only recently has it been given renewed attention by several First Nation artists (Orvilla Longfox comes to mind). Quilling is an art form that has been done traditionally only by women.

Porcupine quill work is one of the oldest aboriginal art forms. It is a time-consuming and multi-step process. First, the quills must be sorted according to size, cleaned, and dyed. In the traditional manner, the artist would draw the quills repeatedly through her teeth, making them supple. The quills, split in half down the middle, are then applied to the design. They can be arranged in zigzag pattern, plaited, parallel folded, banded, or woven.

The Micmac (Mi'kmaq) arrived in eastern Canada from the north and west during prehistoric times (about 10,000 years ago). They are members of the Algonquis band of First Nations that includes the Abenaki, the Passamaquoddy, the Penobscot, and the Maliseet. They settled in villages along the Atlantic and inland rivers where they fished and hunted for subsistence. They have communities in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Labrador, and Maine.

Like many native bands, the Micmac more or less gave up decorative quillwork with the advent of European glass beads. However, French Canadians called the Micmac “Porcupine Indians” because of their skill at quillwork. This beautiful container is a late example. The quills are set into the birch bark in zigzag patterns with a star pattern on the lid. Birch bark had many uses for the Micmac, including as a covering for their homes, covering on their canoes, and as “callers,” a conical device used for calling over long distances much like a modern megaphone.

This website gives a lot of information about Native quillwork.

Here you will find a resource for research into womens art.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Postcards and Modernization in Japan

When we in the West think of a “postcard,” we usually think of a note from Aunt Suzie on her vacation in Atlantic City or a card with a picture of a church my brother visited while going around Europe. In the West, postcards developed once European countries and the US had established postal systems and regulated postage. Oddly enough, writing was not allowed on the address side of the postcard in the US until the early twentieth century. Postcards in the West are interesting historically, and sometimes socially. However, in Japan the introduction of the postcard was part of an amazing campaign at modernization begun in 1868 by the Emperor Meiji (reigned 1868–1912). The Japanese believed the industrialization and adoption of western cultural institutions would help them avoid colonization as had beset neighboring countries in Asia.

The first postcards were introduced in Japan in 1873. The Japanese postal service had reformed based on the system in England beginning in 1871. For the next twenty-seven years, the Japanese government maintained that it had the exclusive right to publish postcards. Based on the Austrian model that emerged in 1869, color lithography for postcards rapidly replaced the preferred colored woodcut print and a means of printing. By 1887, postcards were the most popular form of mail in Japan. They were offered in all kinds of shops, displacing the establishments that had once sold woodcut prints.

In 1900, the Japanese government announced that it would relinquish the publication of postcards to the private sector. This had immense impact on Japanese society. Postcards were now issued from every corner of Japanese society, including medical schools, the military, artist groups, and even department stores. The postcard made possible the rapid circulation of exciting and innovative visual vocabulary that documented how Japan was rapidly becoming a modern culture.

Subject matter of Japanese postcards during the most flourishing period (1900–1930s) varied from images of women similar to ukiyo-e prints to scenes that symbolized the modernization of Japan. This postcard obviously falls in the latter category. As a scene from downtown Osaka, the card brilliantly shows how the Japanese postcard is a fascinating documentation of the westernization of Japanese culture in the early 20th century. This particular scene also depicts one of the Elements of Art taught in many Davis textbooks: Two-point linear perspective.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a collection of some 20,000 Japanese postcards.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Ancient Roman Realism

While when we think of the art of ancient Rome we tend to connect it to the influence of Greek art, there was a strong naturalistic trend in Roman art that would have appalled Greek artists. True, the Romans admired, and began pilfering, Greek art as early as 212 BCE when they sacked the Greek trading city of Syracuse, Sicily. This pilfered art decorated public buildings and the homes of wealthy Romans. However, Romans preferred extreme realism when it came to portraiture, even of emperors and their families. Interestingly, artists were not a respected class in Roman society as they were in Greece. Therefore, very few, if any, Roman artists’ names have come down to us through history.

While Greek artists stressed idealized, physical perfection of the human figure, Roman artists did not share the idea that physical perfection reflects the divine. Romans were scornful of the luxurious ease of the Etruscan and Greek societies. They were proud of their austere virtues and military valor. This glorification of their military past is reflected in an overall ancestor worship that manifests itself in portrait sculpture starting in the Republican period. Prominent Romans commissioned wax portrait heads, often death casts, of ancestors that were displayed in public processions. Carved and modeled portraits are based on these wax heads, none of which have survived. Greeks produced portrait busts rather than heads as they felt portrait heads resembled a decapitation.

Typical of Roman Republican portraiture is a striving to render the person’s features with a map-maker’s faithfulness to the features. This maintained the air of simplicity stoutly espoused by even the wealthiest citizens. This is evident in this late Republican bust of a middle aged man. His thinning hair, sagging jowls and wrinkled neck would have appalled Greek artists. However, the Roman artist has managed to instill a sense of dignity to the sitter. Despite the emphasis on extreme realism, however, there is a psychological reserve that clearly puts this genre outside of any Greek influences, particularly works from the Hellenistic period.

Roman art in the Louvre museum in Paris.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What Is Realism?

American art has always been characterized by a strong reverence for realism, from the early colonial portraits by artists such as John Singleton Copley, through the Hudson River School, and into the 20th century with Photo Realism. It is always interesting to compare the various types of “realism” that one finds when studying art through the ages. For instance, extremely detailed realism of the physical world was a hallmark of Flemish painting during the Renaissance (c1440–1600). Obviously in the several centuries that elapsed between the van Eyck painting and the Tanner work, artists’ training and focus changed, even though overall a riveting realism was the intent of both of these artists.

Van Eyck was one of the great masters of the Northern Renaissance. Trained as a manuscript illuminator and goldsmith, his works are jewels of observed detail in man’s world. Unlike painting in Italy at the time, which tended to idealize form (an influence of ancient Greek and Roman art), northern artists such as van Eyck used intense direct observation of the physical world to instill the objects in their works with symbolism. Ironically such interest in direct observation did not extend to anatomy, for they had no ancient sculpture with which to study the human form, and there were no anatomy classes.

Tanner was the first African American artist to achieve international recognition. He studied in Philadelphia under the great realist Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) who encouraged him to work from live models. After moving to France, he was influenced by the palette of the impressionists and the interest in dramatic lighting effects of the Realism movement of earlier in the 19th century. This painting comes from the period of the 1890s when Tanner painted many intensely spiritual works.

Let’s concentrate on the differences in the two versions of the same subject. Van Eyck’s is set in a Gothic church, sacred space, whereas Tanner’s is located in the Virgin Mary’s humble room. The van Eyck has uniform lighting, where Tanner’s heightens the dramatic impact by presenting the angel as a column of light. Van Eyck’s perspective is intuitive, non-linear (we learn about linear perspective in many Davis textbooks), where Tanner’s room is logically constructed according to linear perspective. Tanner emphasizes the emotional impact of the event, where van Eyck represents a placid, accepting Virgin. Van Eyck’s Virgin is dressed in queenly raiment where Tanner’s truly looks like a humble girl from Judah.

Now, you compare the two paintings for their similarities!