Monday, July 27, 2009

Incan Painting of the Spanish Colonial Period

Last Saturday night, I started a new landscape painting by doing a sketch in linseed oil-thinned oil paint. You’ve read about my art historian geekhood on this blog, but now you’ll hear about the artist-geek half which is me. The morning after I start a painting I absolutely love the smell in my living room/studio of linseed oil and turpentine. I’d have to say that excitement goes all the way back to fourth grade when my daddy (who was an artist and engineer) bought me my first oil paints and taught me how to use them. This all got me wondering about other artists first exposed to the medium. Many non-western cultures had no experience with oil paint yet developed wonderful traditions in the medium. Continuing my fascination with Mesoamerican art from last week, I started thinking about the Peruvian school of painting shortly after Spanish conquest. Were the native Incans who were trained by Spanish Baroque artists as thrilled with oil painting as I was in fourth grade? Could they have been mesmerized by the medium as I was? (I know, I’m a geek!)

The Inca were a small highland culture who established their rule in the valley of Cuzco, Peru, around 1100 CE. The city of Cuzco was their capital, and by 1350, they had extended their rule to all of the areas close to Lake Titicaca in the south as well as the valleys immediately east of Cuzco. They also controlled northward to the upper Urumbamba River. By 1450, their empire stretched from Quito in present-day Ecuador to central Chile, a territory of 3,000 miles.

Cuzco was always a center of artistic production during the Inca empire. After the Spanish conquest (c1531–1532), Spanish artists who arrived in the Viceroyalty of Peru taught their techniques to native artists. Within fifty years of the conquest, native artists had mastered European styles, techniques, and compositions and were producing portraits, religious, and narrative works.

The Inca before the conquest had no portrait painting comparable to the European tradition. They appropriated it to portray their ancestors and honor their independent past. Throughout the colonial period, portraits of Inca rulers in the European style were prized by colonial aboriginal nobility as evidence of their aristocratic forebearers.

This portrait of Tupac Yupanqui is probably based on a series of works executed in the 1570s as a gift to King Phillip II of Spain. The series was reissued in oil between 1726 and 1730. Tupac Yupanqui ruled the Inca between 1471 and 1493, and was the son of Pachacutec. He led the conquest of the Chimú Empire in 1470, and doubled the size of the Inca Empire. While the portrait bears all the hallmarks of the Spanish Baroque style, the native artist was careful to include all of the symbols of ritual regalia that marked the Inca rulers.

After a series of rebellions by Peruvian natives in the late 18th century, the confidence of the Spanish invaders was shaken. Inca portraits such as this were forbidden and many destroyed. Some series were hidden, and this portrait may come from one of those. When Peru gained independence from Spain in the nineteenth century (1821), the Inca portraits again enjoyed popularity, especially among travelers to Peru, another way the portraits left the country.

Featured Collection: Brooklyn Museum of Art

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mayan Ceramics

I find it very interesting (in my geeky, art historian way) to contrast the art of cultures from all over the non-western world and compare them to the “epitome” of aesthetics in the West, ancient Greece, and Rome. One of my favorite cultures to study is that of the Mayans of Central America. Not only did the Mayan civilization rival the Roman Empire for longevity and cultural influence, it was flourishing (c250–600 CE) at a time when the Roman Empire was declining and Europe was entering the so-called Dark Ages (c500–1000). It is also interesting to contrast the art of two or more non-western cultures. Just for fun, compare this Mayan work with ceramics or sculpture from, say, China, India, or Japan at the same time. I think it makes for a fascinating comparison.

The early Pre-Classic (c1000 BCE–250 CE) Mayans occupied Chiapas in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala until between 400 and 50 BCE when they began to spread to the Yucatan Peninsula. After centuries of egalitarian village living, they adapted a hierarchic, autocratic, city-state way of life. Although the reasons for the change are unknown, the platform pyramids, organization of cities, and the rule of warrior-priests represent the influence of Olmec culture and that of another early city-state culture in Teotihuacán.

Ceramic arts were practiced by Mesoamerican peoples from the time of the Olmec on. The most important objects were vases and jars meant to hold offerings in tombs, as well as incense burners, which were used during religious and burial ceremonies. Like most Pre-Columbian art, most objects come from grave sites. Large, sculpted clay figure ceramics such as this are typical of the Late Classic Period (c600–900 CE). Their emergence as a primary form of sculpture coincided with the cessation of the production of large scale, in-the-round stone sculpture, such as that at Copán. The use of pigments on ceramic objects was not a dominant element in Mayan work until after 600 CE.

This incense burner is a combination of molded sections and applied strips of decoration. Such objects were heavily used in Mayan society where all aspects of the society revolved around the religious rituals. Incense burners were often mass produced. As is the case with this one, the faces, limbs, and attributes were produced in molds and assembled. The figure represented in this piece is possibly that of the religious functionary known as a Chilam. The Chilam was a shaman-like person who interpreted and transmitted messages from the gods to priests. The messages that were transmitted determined what kind of human sacrifice would be done. Such unusual facial features were common in Mayan ceramics. The Mayans delighted in depicting everyday, often crude, activities and gestures.

Palenque was not a major pottery center, but it was an important religious and political city-state during the Late Classic Period. Like the other Mayan cities of the Yucatan, Palenque was abandoned in the late 10th century either during an invasion, or because of a prolonged drought or other natural disaster.

Mayan timeline from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Featured Collection: Cleveland Museum of Art

On a side note, I would like to thank OnlineUniversities.com for including Curator’s Corner in their list of the 100 Best Curator and Museum Blogs. It is a pleasure examining the Davis Art Images archive every week and sharing it with the online community.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Poetry as Visual Art

I’ve written before in this blog about my fascination with LINE, one of the Elements of Art. I’ve pointed out that when it comes to calligraphy, line is not only defining the shapes of a work of art: it is the work of art. When one thinks about it, calligraphy actually represents the merging of two art forms: painting and writing. So, there you have it, I’m a sucker for calligraphy, from any culture. One of my favorites is cursive Japanese. It’s so elegant, simple and graceful. Can you think of any art movement in the West where the simple writing of words has been displayed as a work of art? The only thing that comes to my mind is Conceptual Art of the 1960s and 1970s, though, compared to this Taiga scroll, simple western type-face on a piece of paper doesn’t quite match up in visual excitement.

Taiga was born in Kyoto. His father worked at a silver mint but died when Taiga was three. Somehow, his widowed mother managed to afford good teachers in all the classical Japanese and Chinese disciplines. At the age of six, he began receiving instruction in calligraphy at the Mampuku-ji Zen temple, a place with which he would have strong connections the rest of his life. By the age of fourteen, Taiga was a professional artist and distinguished calligrapher.

Taiga is most renowned for his landscape painting, and for being one of the leading painters of the Japanese bunjin (literati) “school.” The literati painters, through their landscapes, expressed the simple pleasures of communing with nature. Like their Chinese counterparts, the bunjin painters often accompanied their paintings with poems of their own inspiration. Certainly, one of the most influential of Japanese poets at the time was the ninth century Ono no Komachi.

Ono no Komachi is considered one of the Immortals of Poetry as early as the early 1000s CE, which is estimated to have been only a couple hundred years after her death. She is widely considered to be one of the first major women poets in the history of the world, and her poetry was widely quoted in Japanese literature. During the Edo period (1615–1867), it was fashionable for great beauties to have themselves immortalized in Ukiyo-e prints as incarnations of the poet.

All of Ono no Komachi’s poems are in the five-line tanka form, almost the only pattern used in Japanese poetry until the haiku became established 800 years later, by dropping the last two lines of the tanka. This scroll is written in Japanese cursive script called sosho. The poem reads:

Was it that I fell asleep
Longing for him
That he appeared?
Had I known it was a dream
I should not have awakened.

Other examples of Japanese calligraphy:

Taiga works at the MFA, Boston.
Taiga works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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

Monday, July 6, 2009

4th of July

What better way to celebrate the 4th of July (I know I’m late) than by presenting a classic work of American realism? I’ve always had a soft spot for the realism that dominated art during the Great Depression (1929–1940), perhaps because I often fondly thumb through the super-realistic drawings my daddy made in high school. Daddy grew up in Illinois and was definitely influenced by regional artists such as Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. What makes the art of this period so interesting is the sympathetic attention to the common person and everyday life. An interesting manifestation of the social realism of the Depression era was the so-called Fourteenth Street School in New York.

When more than one artist works consistently with a particular subject matter or locale and within the confines of style, the group, however small in number, is sometimes referred to as a school. The Fourteenth Street School refers to the artists Kenneth Hayes Miller, a teacher at the Art Students League in New York, and some of his pupils and comrades which included Kyra Markham. The “school” included other notable artists such as Isabel Bishop and Reginald Marsh. These artists depicted the life they saw around them, sometimes with humor or irony, and sometimes with sympathy. For the most part, the artists of this group were influenced by the monumental realism of the Italian Renaissance, however their subject matter was notably banal.

Kyra Markham was a very interesting person. While she studied at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago from 1907 to 1919, she also gained significant experience as an actress on stage and in movies between 1909 and the 1920s, first in Chicago’s Little theater and then in Los Angeles in silent films. While acting, she supplemented her income by painting murals and as an illustrator. In 1930, she returned to concentrate on art when she studied at the Art Students League in New York. In 1934, she studied printmaking which was the pivotal moment in her career as an artist. During the remainder of the Depression, she produced lithographs as an artist on the Works Progress Administration’s artists’ program (1934–1937). She was a member of the National Association of Women Artists, the Southern Vermont Artists, and the Deerfield Valley Artists.

This lovely depiction of a fourth of July celebration is typical of Markham’s realist style. What a great way to celebrate the spirit of the national holiday! It embodies both one of the elements of design, value, and one of the principles of design, contrast.

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