Monday, August 31, 2009

African Metal Casting


As you probably know by now, I think it is unfortunate when stylistic, technical, or aesthetic trends in the arts are only considered in some art history textbooks in comparison to Western (European and American) art. What is more unfortunate is when Western art is used as the "standard" by which the same art forms from other parts of the world are judged. When the cast metal sculptures of the Benin Kingdom of Nigeria first came to light in Europe after the British sacked the city of Benin in 1897, Europeans could not believe the sophistication and realism of the works, preferring to attribute the lost-wax casting technique as learned either from the Portuguese or the ancient Egyptians. Art historians now believe that is definitely not the case.

The lost-wax casting process is one in which a plaster or baked clay mold is made over a clay model. Once the mold is removed the interior surface is coated with wax. The wax castings are removed and a heat-resistant mixture (investment) is poured on both sides creating an inner and outer mold. The mold is baked in a kiln and the wax runs out, and molten metal is added to the mold, filling in the space where the wax was, essentially the "skin" of the sculpture (see The Visual Experience 3rd edition page 260 for a detailed explanation of the technique). This technique has been around since at least the fourth millennium BCE, and certainly by the first or second millennium BCE in sub-Saharan Africa. The process and style of metal sculpture of the Benin Kingdom probably evolved simultaneously with those of the neighboring Yoruba and Ife cultures.

The Benin Kingdom is an ancient culture that gained prominence in the 15th century CE under the king (oba) Ewuare who established the empire's political organization and consolidated its territory by conquering Yoruba lands to the east. The political structure was like a fiefdom, with chiefs who ruled villages answerable to the oba. Despite the arrival of Portuguese traders in the late 15th century, the Benin maintained independence until the 19th century. When the British brought the sculptural treasures of Benin City to Europe it initiated the large-scale importation of African art to Europe. The objects were originally called Benin "bronzes" although most of the works, like this one, were of brass.

This beautiful little work shows the typical seen of loyalty and homage to the king by lesser nobility. It is a high-relief sculpture in which the lack of background or surrounding decoration heightens the ceremonial aspect of the scene. Such plaques were meant to decorate the columns and walls of the oba's palace in Benin City. They commemorated great moments in an oba's reign, and also were meant to represent the oba's continuing presence after his death. Other subjects in Benin metal sculpture were commemorative heads of kings and their relatives, court scenes, animals, and hunting scenes. The figural realism may have come down to Benin artists from the Nok Empire which flourished in Nigeria between 500 BCE and the 2nd century CE. The Nok were noted for their tin mining and iron smelting, both sophisticated industries for this time period.

Featured Collection: Cleveland Museum of Art

Learn more about metal sculpture and the lost-wax process in Davis Art Images set 8-D076: Metal Sculpture

Monday, August 24, 2009

Wearable Art

By now you are probably aware that I am more than uncomfortable with the word "craft" when it comes to a myriad of art forms outside of painting, sculpture, and architecture. I've already railed against the use of the term "decorative arts" to describe such myriad art forms, and the term "minor arts" (which I don't think is used that much any more) is probably the worst. I have seen so many truly awesome works of art in what was traditionally considered "craft" media that I can never refer to them any other way than as works of art. In fact, I see these works of art sometimes and want to go home and snap all my paint brushes in half. Such was my "epiphany" when I first saw the work of Jeung-Hwa Park, an awesome fiber artist.

There has never been a period in history when fiber arts were not an integral part of artistic production throughout the world. Think medieval tapestries in Europe, silk kimonos in Japan, ancient Peruvian textiles, American quilts! The first recognition of fiber arts as a true art form in the West came with the Arts and Crafts movement that developed in the 1860s in England and spread throughout Europe and the US. The next revolution in fiber arts came with the Bauhaus in Germany (1919-1933) under the leadership of Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers. The feminist art movement of the 1960s and 1970s reinvigorated fiber arts under such renowned artists as Claire Zeisler, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Miriam Schapiro. In the 21st century fiber arts are more vibrant than ever, as evidenced in the work of Jeung-Hwa Park.

Jeung-Hwa Park was born in Korea and designed sportswear before coming to the US to study fashion. At the Rhode Island School of Design she took classes in machine knitting and shibori, eventually earning an MFA from RISD's textile department. Shibori is a Japanese term for a method of dyeing that involves binding, stitching, folding, twisting, or compressing material. In the West the technique is known as tie-dye. Trial and error informed Park that silk and wool were best suited to her techniques. In her current work she continues to experiment with resist-dyeing, incorporating a variety of inclusions in her tied-off materials. The three-dimensional results are what the artist describes as "wearable sculpture."

This scarf comes from a series of works by the same title. In her pieces Park incorporates the idea of yin/yang, the Eastern principle of merging of opposites. The scarf is both soft and firm. The artist seeks to create a harmony between the age old processes of tie-dyeing and felting with a modern aesthetic for form and pattern. Living in New England, she has been inspired by nature, and many of her works, like this one, incorporate that inspiration. The artist is also a teacher of Korean and of fiber arts appreciation to adults and children.

Featured Collection: Museum of Fine Art, Boston

Wearable Art blog

Smithsonian 2010 Craft Show

Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show November 2009

Fiber Arts magazine is an awesome resource for articles and images of fiber, basketry, paper making, and more.

Awesome website of the Textile Museum in Washington

Monday, August 17, 2009

Jewel of Architecture

I don’t know about you, but I have several spots on the globe that are “dream vacations.” Egypt, Japan, and Greece come to mind. But one city that I would truly like to visit has a World Heritage Site in it (the Imam Mosque), and the city itself is like a museum of gorgeous architecture: Isfahan, Iran. The city has suffered neglect and decline over time, but a new generation of Isfahanis is making a concerted effort to restore historic buildings in this jewel of the Middle East (interesting article from the Smithsonian on the subject). My favorite building in Isfahan is the Mosque of Shaykh Lutfullah. Pay particular attention to the entrance porch, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

After nine centuries of disunited and foreign (Turk and Mongol) rule, the Safavid dynasty united Iran under Shi’ism. The rule of Shah ’Abbas I (died 1629) marked the high point of the Safavid period. He moved the capital from the insecure western border (Qazvin) to Isfahan in central Iran in 1598. In order to shore up Safavid influence and prestige, ’Abbas planned a massive building program in Isfahan, building some of the most beautiful structures in Islam. His new city extended to the south of existing Isfahan.

This mosque is unique among Safavid mosques in its design. It lacks all the characteristics of a mosque, such as an entrance courtyard, covered galleries, or minarets. It consists of a single octagonal, domed room surrounded by service areas. Typical of the Safavid buildings in Isfahan, it is covered in glorious ceramic tile mosaics.

The muqarnas on the entrance porch are more pronounced than in the Friday Mosque in Isfahan, and covered with ceramic tile mosaics. Muqarnas are stalactite-like projections from a wall or dome in a tiered arrangement. The muqarnas are individual sections of molded plaster fitted together. The circular dome rests on the squinches (an architectural device that provides transition from a square building to support the base of a dome) formed by the eight walls forming the octagon.

The building was named after a distinguished scholar and teacher, Shaykh Lutfallah Maysi al Amili, who went to Isfahan at ’Abbas’s request and took residence on the site. The building only took the shaykh’s name after his death in 1622/1623. It is sometimes thought to have been a royal chapel, though there is no record of that type of building existing in Safavid times. The original intent of the building is still unclear.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mannerism Ars Medica

With all the talk about health care reform these days, I thought it would be fun to take a look at how people in the past viewed the health care field, in art of course: apparently not that differently from today. Parodies, satires, and downright cartoons about the medical profession have been popular in the West since the Middle Ages (c1000–1400). Rampant in these images of doctors — most notably the popular medieval “Dance of Death” series, where death in the form of a skeleton seizes all strata of society — is the perception that doctors consider themselves something of demi-gods among humans. To look back at a Renaissance image of the medical profession, I chose my favorite Mannerist printmaker, Hendrik Goltzius. Apparently doctors’ fees were not any better during the Renaissance than they are now.

Mannerism was a late Renaissance style. It was a somewhat conscious rejection of the stifling, classically-inspired High Renaissance emphasis on balance, perfection, and calm that had dominated art the first third of the sixteenth century. Mannerist artists preferred dramatic diagonals, elongation of figures, soaring spaces and open compositions. Some of the more prominent Mannerists were El Greco, Parmigianino, Bronzino, and Pontormo. The style originated in Italy, but spread quickly to northern Europe because of the increase of contact between northern and southern artists during the sixteenth century.

Goltzius was the preeminent printmaker of the sixteenth century in the Netherlands. Like Albrecht Dürer in the early sixteenth century in Germany, Goltzius is known primarily for his printmaking oeuvre. He produced this at a time when prints were gaining in popularity as fine art, a trend set by Dürer and Lucas van Leyden earlier in the century. In fact, during Goltzius’ times, the first museums were established that featured primarily graphic arts, and not just copies of paintings. Goltzius greatly admired Dürer’s compositions and style, and, like Dürer, was a master at using the burin, the tool used to gouge metal plates or wood blocks for prints. He achieved this proficiency despite the fact that his right hand had been stiffened due to severe burns he had suffered as a child.

This print comes from a series that documented the various perceptions of doctors by patients. The first of the series was as a “god or angel,” because the physician arrives when the patient is suffering. The next is “as a man or friend,” caring for the patient during recovery. This is the last of the series where the doctor seems to be a demon, surrounded by the tools and books of his profession. The doctor is demonized, because the patient has recovered and the doctor has come to collect the fee.

The print does gorgeously show off Goltzius’ printmaking abilities, with the fantastic texture created by the cross-hatching. The soaring interior space with the oversized bed, attenuated figure of the demon/doctor, awkward scale of the background figures, and emphasis on the diagonal placement of the doctor’s arms are all elements of Mannerism.

Monday, August 3, 2009

“Anonymous” Artists

I visited Cape Cod last weekend and painted with my friend Erika and produced two little landscapes in acrylic. When I got home I thought, “Geez, where am I going to put these?” My paintings are going to move me out of my apartment some day! Such is the case, I’m sure, with many artists who have had only nominal success at showing and selling their work. As you can guess, it got me to thinking about all the artists in history who have either lived in total obscurity, or have had modest recognition by art historians. My mind then wandered over to a whole group of artists who are little known, if known at all by most people who study art: art pottery artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the US. Interestingly enough, many of those artists were women.

During the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, there was a revolt by some decorative artists against the poor quality of mass-produced objects, such as furniture and ceramics. The Arts and Crafts Movement, which arose first in England in the 1860s under William Morris (1834–1896), spread to the United States in the 1880s. The overriding concern of the movement was the return to hand-crafted objects designed and executed by a single artist. Thus, “art pottery” was born, as distinct from commercial, mass-produced wares.

Starting in the 1880s, pottery painting had become very popular among American women. It was considered a “refined” occupation for “well-bred” women to undertake. This was due to the fact that the art form could be executed in the home. The popularity of pottery painting among American women spread quickly and pottery societies were formed under women’s leadership all over the country. They soon changed from simply painting pottery to modeling, firing, and glazing ceramics. Ironically, an art vocation meant to keep women in the home actually led to hundreds of women working in pottery factories throughout the US.

The Rookwood Factory was founded by Mary Longworth Nichols. By 1905, Rookwood’s pottery standards were so high that the firm achieved a success unequalled by other American art pottery companies. Olga Geneva Reed was one of the many women employed at Rookwood to decorate the wide variety of shapes of ceramics produced there. Reed was born in Cincinnati and attended the Cincinnati Art Academy. She worked for Rookwood until 1928. She is primarily known for floral and vegetal decoration on the pottery. She was one of Rookwood’s more renowned decorators, even though today her name is hardly a household word. Her work was so admired at the time that several of her works were exhibited in the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900 under the name of “Geneva Reed.” This lovely piece bears the influence of the Art Nouveau style.

Site with lots of information about Rookwood Pottery and lists of artists.

Rookwood Factory’s main site. I once had lunch in one of their restaurants that is in one of the former kiln rooms. It’s awesome!

Featured Collection: Cleveland Museum of Art

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