Monday, November 30, 2009

Mayan Honduras

We in the western hemisphere don’t have to look very far to find a civilization that rivals that of ancient Greece and Rome. The Mayan culture in Central America thrived for almost 3000 years in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Remnants of this great culture were still around to fight the Spanish when they invaded and occupied Central America in the 16th century, and Mayan cultures continue to this day in parts of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Rather than always looking to Greece and Rome as the fount of all artistic standards, I think it is useful to look at the beautiful artwork of native American cultures to see a fresh perspective on western aesthetics.

Although Copán was probably occupied during the Pre-Classic (c1500 BCE- 250 CE) and Early Classic (250-600 CE) Periods, it was during the Late Classic Period (600-900 CE) that Mayan Copán flourished. Most of the monuments and sculpture on the Great Plaza date from the 8th century. Copán is not as large as other Mayan cities, and the pyramids and plazas are of more modest size, but the sculptural decoration of the buildings and the sculpture are the most ornate of any Mayan site.

Stele H stands on the Great Plaza, the main ceremonial court of the city. The stele was dedicated to the ruler Eighteen Rabbit (Waxak Lahun Ubah K'awil), one of the last rulers of Copán. The figure, in elaborate feathered headdress and jaguar kilt, was originally brightly painted. The features of the face are considerably softened, and they may represent a portrait of Eighteen Rabbit. In the elaboration of the glyphs, the steles at Copán are unequaled. Each ruler is identified in hieroglyphs on either the side or back of the stele. The hieroglyphs and costume details are deeply carved and give the impression that the stele is a free-standing sculpture. It is however, a relief, only carved on one side.

Under each stele at Copán is a chamber which contained small caches of objects such as blades and pottery that were meant to be offerings. The steles all face small, low platforms that are called "altars,” although the use of these platforms is unknown. Stele H is near three altars, all of which contain serpent head carvings which represent the same god (Quetzalcoatl) as the serpent heads at Chichén Itzá.

Eighteen Rabbit was one of the last rulers of Copán, the thirteenth of a dynasty of sixteen rulers. He was taken as a captive by the ruler of another city. Soon after, between 800 and 900 CE, the population of Copán drifted away and the city was abandoned, much like many other Mayan cities. Mayan hieroglyphs consisted of human, animal, plant, and abstract forms. Where the name of the ruler is not apparent, a prominent feature of the hieroglyphics designates the ruler. This ruler was named for the appearance of a rabbit below the Mayan symbol for the number eighteen among the hieroglyphics on the back of the stele.

This site has lots of excellent photos of Copán.

Monday, November 23, 2009

More Art in Everyday Life: Ancient Greece

As I’ve mentioned before, I resist the western art historical tendency to consider the art of ancient Greece and Rome as the high points of artistic achievement, in a broad view of art around the planet. Don’t get me wrong, Greece and Rome were marvelous civilizations with impressive artistic achievements, the influence of which still affects aesthetics in the West. However, when looking at art from ancient Greece and Rome, I tend to focus on the miscellaneous arts. As we saw in my posting on May 26, the miscellaneous arts from classical antiquity are truly awe inspiring and fascinating, especially since so much aesthetic effort went into pieces meant for daily use. Such, I feel, is the case with ancient Greek ceramics. Many people believe that these beautifully decorated, elegantly shaped vessels were meant merely as decoration, but, the majority of the shapes were meant for everyday use around the house.

Ceramic arts in Greece and the Greek Islands date back to the Neolithic period, in coil- and slab-built forms. The potter’s wheel was introduced during the 18th century BCE from the ancient Near East. From the 9th to 8th centuries BCE the majority of Greek ceramic shapes evolved into forms that endured into the first millennium CE. In Attica, the two main ceramic centers were Corinth and Athens. By 550 BCE Athens was the chief ceramic center of the Mediterranean, exporting wares to northern Africa, Asia Minor, Sicily, Italy, and even as far as France, Spain, and the Crimea. All ceramic shapes were made for actual use, and their form corresponded to their function.

The kantharos was a drinking vessel. It was associated with Dionysos, the god of wine and grape cultivation (referred to as Bacchus in Roman mythology). Dionysos supposedly always carried around a kantharos and it was never empty. The association with Dionysos makes the decoration of this kantharos very relevant: the exuberant satyrs were constant companions of Dionysos. The use of satyr decoration on these drinking vessels was particularly popular in the Greek colonies in Anatolia, one of the distant lands Dionysos was thought to have visited when he was a young adult. The high, looping handles of the cup – a traditional feature of the kantharos – form the pointed ears associated with the satyr’s physical make up.

Technically this cup is painted in one of the two chief styles: black-figure. This is the technique of depicting a figure (or face in this case) in black on the red ground of the vessel. The other style, red-figure, depicted figures in red on a painted black background. Despite the somewhat creepy features of the satyr, the form is elegant and symmetrical, especially in the graceful, looping handles.

The British Museum in London has many examples of Greek ceramics.

Featured Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Monday, November 16, 2009

Art in Everyday Life

While looking at images for the revision of one of our books, I came across an image of a metal pitcher from the 1930s. It had such clean, modern lines that it could easily be mistaken for a contemporary work. It got me to thinking about how there is extraordinary beauty in everyday objects used around the house. Indeed, many of these objects from the past end up in museums’ design collections as examples of beauty and utility. That goes especially for ceramic objects. Tableware ceramic objects can be found in the collections of most museums. Although this object is not exactly tableware, it is an example of a period style in American art that is one of my favorite stylistically: Art Moderne.

Art Moderne was the stylistic descendant from Art Deco, with which it is sometimes confused. Whereas Art Deco was all about surface ornament and fine craftsmanship of decoration, Art Moderne was more concerned with clean lines, curving and shiny surfaces, and an absence of ornament. It was inspired by modern American industrial society, airplanes, and automobiles. The style was perceived as a common person’s alternative to the more elaborate Art Deco. Art Moderne is characterized mostly in architecture and decorative arts.

The Hall China company introduced single-kiln firing of its wares as opposed to firing the body and the glaze separately. The process fused together the body and glaze at a temperature of 2400 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing the glaze to penetrate the body. The process created the first lead-free pottery glaze in the world, as lead compounds would not work in such high firing temperatures. Hall designed no fewer than 47 new colors for the single-fire process, producing bright colors never seen in American pottery before. In the 1930s, with the rise in use of refrigerators, Hall developed a line of refrigerator-wares, to which this pitcher belongs: pitchers, butter dishes, cheese dishes and leftover savers. The streamlined shape, horizontal banding, and rounded edges of this pitcher all mark it as firmly in the Art Moderne style.

J. Palin Thorley was a third-generation ceramic artist in England. He was trained at such prestigious ceramic factories as Wedgwood. He brought his talents to American industrial potters. In Williamsburg, Virginia, he created replicas of colonial ceramics from the Craft House Museum. In contrast, he also created avant-garde wares such as this pitcher in the Art Moderne style.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Northern Renaissance Engraver


I like showing you works from the Renaissance period in northern Europe. This is partly because my mother was Swiss and I wrote my master’s thesis about a Swiss Renaissance painter (yes, Switzerland, too, had a Renaissance period), and partly because northern artists emphasized often extreme realism as opposed to the blah-blah-blah perfection of antique classicism in Italian Renaissance art. Printmaking was an important medium during the Renaissance in the North, so much so that prints were collected in the same way paintings were. Some of the earliest museums established during the late 16th century, as I’ve mentioned, were collections of graphic arts, and not simply copies of paintings. Nowhere was printmaking a more revered and highly developed art form than in Germany.

Engraving* is an example of intaglio printing. Intaglio printing is the opposite of relief printing. The image is cut or incised into a metal plate with various tools or acid. The wide variety of methods gives the medium a large range of possibilities of expression. In engraving, the image is incised onto the finely ground metal plate (most often copper) with very sharp tools such as needles, burnishers, and scrapers. An acid bath then eats into the incised lines from which the print will be pulled, after which ink is rolled across the plate, filling in the incised lines. The plate is then wiped clean, leaving ink only in the crevices. A sheet of damp paper is placed on the plate and the plate is run through a press which forces the paper into the inked crevices and transfers the image. Engraving was the first intaglio process to emerge, most likely from goldsmiths’ practice of incising designs on metal and then inking those designs, pressing them on paper for later reference. Scholars believe this happened in southern Germany in the 1430s.

Israhel van Meckenem was a very prolific printmaker. Son of a goldsmith-printmaker, he produced more than six hundred prints, although only about a quarter are original compositions. It was common during this period to appropriate the compositions of other masters. This print, however, is an original -- the first engraved portrait in the history of printmaking. Typical of northern European realism, he does not idealize his features or those of his wife/business partner. Engraving was a favorite medium for northern printmakers, because of the detailed nuances in shading possible with the sharp tools used to scratch out the image. This print is an excellent example of the use of crosshatching to create plasticity of the figures.

* Engraving is a technique that has endured in popularity through to the 21st century. This link shows examples from different periods (ignoring of course Winslow Homer’s wood engravings).

Featured collection: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Japan/North Carolina Connection


Ceramic traditions vary greatly around the world. In some cultures, the material is considered all-important, while in other cultures, the form or shape is the emphasis. Techniques for production of ceramics vary as well, though there are basic techniques such as coil-built, slab-built, or wheel thrown that are universal. What I always enjoy discovering is the sharing of ceramic traditions across cultures, and sometimes how easily they meld. This is the story of a traditionally trained Japanese ceramic artist who joined a rich historic ceramic tradition in the United States.

Native bands such as the Cherokee and Catawba in western North Carolina had ceramic traditions the extended well before the arrival of white settlers, primarily pit-fired wares. European potters began establishing kilns in the state in the early 1700s, the British in the eastern part of the state and the Moravians in the Winston-Salem area. The earliest wares were earthenware and stoneware produced from North Carolina clay. By 1850, Randolph County was the center of salt-glazed stoneware, while Lincoln County produced alkaline-glazed stoneware. The tradition of these native wares endures to the present day. North Carolina has become an important American center of ceramic art, with over 500 full-time ceramic artists living and producing in the state.

Hiroshi Sueyoshi, a native of Tokyo, was apprenticed as a ceramicist in 1968. He studied at Tokyo Aeronautical College and Ochanomizu Design Academy. He came to the US in 1971 to help design and build Humble Mill Pottery in Asheboro. He continued his studies and work in Virginia, returning to North Carolina in 1973. When he first returned to the state, he worked as a production ceramic artist, producing cups and saucers, bowls, and plates, being paid fifteen cents for every pound of clay made into the vessel. He worked for Seagrove Pottery and Teak’s Pottery as a production ceramicist, and later as a pottery instructor at Sampson Community College in Clinton. He now lives in Wilmington where he is the artist in residence at the Cameron Art Museum.

While he works with the native blue clays of southeastern North Carolina, he also produces pieces in the traditional Japanese medium of porcelain, like this work. While bowls and jars are still his main interest, he has branched out into figurative work as well. One of his sculptures is outdoors at the Airlie Gardens Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden. The tribute to the African-American artist who worked as a ticket-taker at Airlie Gardens contains a portrait of her. This jar was produced in the nerikomi technique, laminating colored clays into blocks with carefully controlled pattern developed through cutting, folding, and reforming the layers clays.

In 2006 Hiroshi was named a North Carolina Living Treasure.