Monday, December 27, 2010

Three Friends of Winter

I’m celebrating the beginning of winter by showing you an image that goes along with the Looking and Learning Theme for December in our SchoolArts Magazine: Stories. I don’t really dig the endless winters in New England, but it’s helpful to see beauty in nature as a way of getting through it. And when I saw this gorgeous little work from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, I did some digging about the story behind it. Why would an artist depict pine, bamboo, and plum together? Why are they associated with winter? Ah, there’s the crafty part of this week’s blog: the combination of these three plants is actually a harbinger of spring (yes, spring). Looking out the window right now as the snow comes down, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to think about spring, especially when there’s a STORY.

Plum blossoms and bamboo have a long history as venerated subject matter in Chinese and Japanese painting. Little did I realize that when they are grouped together in a work of art, they are called the Three Friends of Winter, or Three Auspicious Friends. Plum blossoms bloom earlier than any other flower in the spring, even in severe winter weather. Pine and bamboo are hardy enough to withstand winter weather as well. So the Three Auspicious Friends are three plants that survive in winter and look beautiful doing it.

The combination in Japanese is called Sho-Chiku-Bai: Sho (pine) represents longevity, Chiku (bamboo) represents perseverance, and Bai (plum) represents courage. Longevity, perseverance, and courage are handy attributes for plants to have in winter. However, these symbolic qualities are also applied to people in Japanese art. Courageous literary characters are often represented in kimonos with plum blossom, bamboo, or pine patterns.

Chōsui Yabu was an artist who created prints in the ukiyo-e style, depictions of the pleasures of city life of Edo period Japan (1615-1868). Ukiyo-e artists also produced surimono, greeting cards printed privately as gifts for New Year, cherry blossom time, announcements, or other special occasions. Surimono were more or less a standard size and almost always contained a poem. Look at the expressive line in the cursive Japanese on this card! The card most likely celebrated the coming of spring.

Surimono rose to popularity during the 18th century, and endured in popularity until the end of the 19th century, when Japanese publishers began mass-producing greeting cards from earlier surimono designs. Interspersed with some other woodcuts, here are some additional examples of surimono designs.

Correlations to Davis programs: School Arts Looking and Learning for December, Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade: 2 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.6; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; A Global Pursuit: 7.3; A Community Connection: 8.2, 8.4; The Visual Experience: 9.4, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 4.4

Monday, December 20, 2010

Not What You Would Expect!

I really don’t usually go Lady Gaga over the International Style of architecture. However, I was recently scanning some Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) buildings into our collection, and was actually impressed with the simple elegance of some of their designs. I don’t know if there are any clearer examples of how the International Style can reflect an on-going classicism in western architecture. All right, so post-and-lintel does get a little old, but SOM buildings also can be used as examples of elements and principles of design: line, form, texture, and space (elements); and symmetrical balance, unity, emphasis, and rhythm (principles).

In the late 19th century, architects such as Henry H. Richardson (1838-86, US) pioneered the construction of large public buildings by using a steel "cage" frame to support the walls and roof rather than wood or stone. The steel frame made it possible to build taller buildings with thinner walls and more windows, because the exterior walls did not have to support the weight of the roof and floors.

This new kind of architecture was further developed by the Bauhaus architects during the period between 1918 and 1933. They eliminated exterior weight-bearing walls in steel and ferroconcrete (reinforced concrete) architecture. The outside wall became a "skin" of glass with metal or masonry as enclosure rather than support. Such a form of enclosure is known as a "curtain wall". It became an integral part of 20th century architecture, called the International Style because of its world-wide popularity.

SOM spread the International Style in cities throughout the world. It typically consisted of a square or rectangular mass with slender stilts at ground level. I find this housing unit in Wisconsin to be a refreshing change from the glass box style so typical of SOM in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s SOM moved away from the strictly vertical glass box and experimented with many novel configurations of building masses. The only concession in this building to SOM’s earlier style is the stilts supporting the asymmetrical upper masses

SOM is perhaps the most famous international architecture firm. Opening in Chicago in 1936, they became instantly famous in 1952, designing the first curtain wall office building in the United States, Lever House in New York. Since that time they designed many famous buildings, some at the time the tallest buildings in the world, including the Hancock CenterSears Tower in Chicago. They recently won many awards for the current tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai (150 stories!). and

Check out the Lehman College website for a brief bio of the company.

Though your eyes may glaze over at the number of glass box skyscrapers, SOM has done some truly beautiful, classical International Style buildings. My favorite are the sweeping horizontal examples.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.1, 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.32, 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.20, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.12; A Personal Journey: 8.1; A Global Pursuit: 2.4; The Visual Experience: 11.5; Discovering Art History: 16.1

Monday, December 13, 2010

Venerable Painting School


In the 21st century, when millionaires get tax breaks and people are judged by the type of car they drive, it’s nice to be able to retreat and look at art with a simpler outlook on human existence. And by art, I’m not talking about massive canvases or room-size installations: I’m talking about fan paintings from Japan. They are a beautiful and fascinating genre of painting, and gave me my “blissed out” moment of the week. Fan painting is truly an example of finding beauty in small things, something from which 21st century culture – both East and West – could take a lesson. It is also an attitude which I like to stress from time to time: bliss in everyday objects.

After the introduction of Zen Buddhism into Japan in the twelfth century, there was a renewed interest in Chinese painting. The landscape traditions of Chinese painting were translated into impressionistic, brushy works in Japan. These landscapes were suggestive, often contrasting vast emptiness with mountains or lakes. This positive-negative space emphasis implied the Zen ideas of the emptiness of the human soul. There was a stress on simplicity, spontaneity and calm. The predominantly monochromatic paintings were a contrast to colorful, decorative, and often highly detailed traditional Japanese paintings.

From a very early point, Chinese-influenced painting was the favorite art form of rich people: the nobility, the samurai, Buddhist scholar/monks, and members of the military government: the shogunate. Perhaps the most influential group of painters in Japanese history were those of the Kano “School,” an atelier founded in Kyoto by Kano Masanobu (1434­­­­­­–1530). The school, which specialized in Chinese-style painting, consisted of an extended family of artists that also included artists who were adopted, or who adopted the Kano name out of respect. The school was closely aligned with the shogunate, and thus secured the most lucrative commissions from the upper classes.

The school did not have a single distinctive style, and indeed, eventually merged the Chinese style with elements of indigenous Japanese painting. Kano Tsunenobu was a direct descendant of Masanobu, achieving the position of imperial household painter in Kyoto in 1704. Like prominent artists in every culture, Tsunenobu produced not only large scale works (screens, hanging scrolls and handscrolls), but also smaller works such as albums and fan painting. This fan displays the Zen idea of understated simplicity, with the Japanese use of gold leaf and color.

Used by men and women alike, fans had many applications in Japan, including making signals and as a sign of rank. They were also important in dance performance, and in kabuki theater.

View more fan paintings from various cultures: Group 1, Group 2

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.5, 4.20, 6.31; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.6, 6.33, 6.34; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19, 4.20; A Global Pursuit: 7.3; A Community Connection: 4.3; The Visual Experience: 13.5; Discovering Art History: 4.4

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bauhaus Master

I’ve come across this gorgeous work by an artist who should be one of the major features in any textbook concerning not only the history of art, but also of design. Herbert Bayer was a true pioneer of modernism, not only in painting, but also in graphic design, architecture, and landscape architecture. But, naturally, I’m drawn to his painting, especially since many of his works from the 1960s on are in the Op Art/Minimalism spectrum using fabulous color. Bayer is interesting not only because he was a pioneer modernist and designer, but also because of his tenure in the Bauhaus in Germany.

Out of the civil wars, ruined economy, and social strife that ensued in Germany after World War I (1914-1918), a revolution in art was born. Fertile artistic currents circulated through Europe after the war, especially in Berlin and Paris. The new school that was founded in Weimar, and directed by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) was called the Bauhaus (literally “buildhouse”). It was dedicated to the interdisciplinary combination of fine art and crafts, a search for universals of form, and a promotion of aesthetics in industrial production. Basically, art, architecture, and design merged to form a new modernist aesthetic.

The Bauhaus was an amazingly vital and nurturing atmosphere for early twentieth modernism, boasting teachers such as Paul Klee (1879-1940), Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944), László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), and Herbert Bayer. Bayer started out as a student, and after completing his training became the head of the newly founded school of print and advertising in the Dessau Bauhaus (1925). The Dessau Bauhaus issued their own books and magazines that espoused the modernist fusion of art and design. In 1928 Bayer left for Berlin to concentrate on his own work. He subsequently worked as a graphic designer and artistic director of an advertising agency, and became art director of Vogue magazine Paris.

The entire time Bayer worked as a graphic designer, he still dedicated time to his painting, photography (and collage), and development of new fonts. His painting evolved from a brand of Surrealism, through Minimalism, into a type of chromatic Op Art. This painting comes from his Op Art period, although it harkens back to a theme that we see in his posters from the 1930s, the grid. I have a hard time deciding if the grid in his works was just a clean design choice, or was it influenced by Cubism of the early 20th century. Compare Bayer’s grids with the paintings of Paul Klee in which he used tiny squares of color to form compositions. The comparison is interesting. This painting definitely has both Op Art and Minimalism possibilities, and, of course, the color is absolutely beautiful.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 3.15, A Personal Journey; 7.1, A Global Pursuit: 4.2, 8.1; The Visual Experience: 5.3; Discovering Art History: 17.2.

Monday, November 29, 2010

19th Century Abstraction?

Did you ever suddenly stop one day and ponder a word that is commonly used/over used in art appreciation texts? I just started thinking about the word “abstraction.” We all know that the term is used to describe art from the twentieth century. The basic definition of abstraction is any art that does not represent observed aspects of nature or transforms visible forms into a stylized image. Well, in my mind, that sort of describes art that is labeled “naïve” or “primitive” (we all know how much I despise that term). In my mind, “abstraction” could pertain to any of the art that is produced by self-taught, so-called “naïve” artists. If that is the case, then we can talk about abstraction existing in art from around the world that does not strictly follow observed reality.

Emily Eastman was most likely one of the early American women artists who learned drawing and painting as a “lady-like” past time. She was born in Louden, New Hampshire, and was active as a watercolorist during the 1820s and 1830s. Her body of work consists primarily of watercolor “portraits” of women’s heads adapted from fashion prints. Consistent with traditional Folk Art, Feathers and Pearls displays an interest in accurate detail in costume and hair, particularly in the feathers, while the face is flattened and stylized. The boldly arched eyebrows; porcelain-like, expressionless face; and corkscrew curls of her hairdo is an accomplished if naïve characterization.

The simplicity of the work of such artists as Eastman influenced women artists during the twentieth century. They were not only seeking to honor the earliest American women artists, but were attracted to the simplicity and stylization which was easily translated into abstraction in the twentieth century. Most of the watercolors attributed to Eastman are of this same pose, head slightly tilted to the side, with elaborate “Grecian” style headdress and hairdo that were part of the Neoclassical movement so popular in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Check out these other examples of nineteenth-century American “abstraction.”

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8, 5.25; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1; A Personal Journey: 1.2, 6.1; A Community Connection: 3.1, 6.2; The Visual Experience: 9.3

Monday, November 22, 2010

American Art Pottery Pioneer

I’ve told you all about American Art Pottery in a previous blog. It’s a fascinating topic, because it is evidence of the major impact of women artists on the American art scene, one of the earliest instances. If we look at the number of women involved in ceramics in Cincinnati alone, we realize what a craze art pottery became between the 1870s and the first decade of the 1900s. Not only did these artists form ceramic clubs and societies, many women were founders of major art pottery firms. Many museums at the time were buying art pottery the year it was made, as is the case with this Mary Louise McLaughlin piece. This is evidence of how highly esteemed an art form “art pottery” was, and still is today judging by the prices such works fetch in auctions.

Mary Louise McLaughlin was a pioneer in art pottery. She studied furniture carving during the late 1860s in a studio in her native Cincinnati, and was also introduced to pottery painting in the same class. Ceramics thereafter dominated her interest. Her book entitled “China Painting: A Practical Manual for the Use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain” (1877/1911) sold 23,000 copies, indicating the growing popularity of art pottery in the US.

In the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, McLaughlin exhibited her work and sold more pieces than fellow exhibitor Mary Longworth Nichols, the founder of Rookwood Pottery. At that exhibition McLaughlin was greatly impressed by an exhibit of French faience (a glaze with high glass content) ceramics and decided to go about finding a way to imitate that glaze with slip underglaze decoration. This technique involves a colored slip (clay mixed with water to a creamy consistency) applied to a vessel in combination with a colored silicate glaze over it. She experimented with combinations of colors and what resulted was the “Cincinnati Faience” glaze. She formed the Cincinnati Pottery Club in 1879, and the enthusiasm with which the “Cincinnati Faience” was received nation-wide helped spawn the craze for art pottery in the United States.

This ovoid form with Art Nouveau decoration is typical of the period when McLaughlin experimented with glazes that imitated metal. These glazes on porcelain were the start of what McLaughlin called “Losantiware.” In this particular piece she was imitating the patina of oxidized copper. Typical of most glazes that came from many pottery firms in Cincinnati, the glaze is thickly and evenly applied, with yellow underslip painting added to give the color a warm richness. This imitation of metallic effects won McLaughlin a medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, A Global Pursuit: 5.4, A Community Connection: 5.1, The Visual Experience: 10.6

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Color, Color, Color

I just love cultures where art forms are considered more valuable than gold (let’s tell that to Wall Street). I find it especially interesting when what is considered valuable in non-Western European aesthetics is what has been denigrated in Western art history as “decorative arts.” Gosh, I hate that term – it always conjures up notions that the art form is somehow less valuable or aesthetically worthwhile than “fine arts,” such as painting and sculpture (the old Western Europe/US standard). Fortunately, since the 1970s, fiber arts have become more appreciated in the West as fine art, especially since the feminist art movement of the 1970s. As I’ve said in previous posts, I consider everything ART that is produced by an ARTIST, no matter what medium (and this includes chefs, fashion designers, etc., I could go on and on).

In pre-conquest Central and South America, textiles were considered the second greatest commodity after gold. Weaving in pre-conquest American cultures was an art form passed down for mother or grandmother to young women, usually between the ages of seven and eight years. During pre-conquest times, woven material was used as a means of exchange, tribute, payment, and gift. The tradition persists to the present day. Central and South American textiles are now sold internationally.

Weaving is comprised of a warp (the vertical threads) and the weft (the horizontal threads). To this day, traditional weaving in Central America is done on the backstrap loom. It is comprised of several parallel sticks between which the warp threads are stretched. The front rod holding one end is tied to a tree or pole. The back rod holding the other end of the warp is secured to the weaver’s waist with a leather strap wrapped around the body.

The common width of the loom, and therefore the cloth produced, is usually 30 inches (76.2 cm). Most large pieces of clothing are made of several lengths of cloth joined together. Tzute is a general word used to refer to a wide variety of square or rectangular utility cloths that are village specific. The cloth is used as basket covers, baby carriers, and carriers for bundles of goods. Pattern often indicates function of the cloth. Tzutes are not only used for carrying but are also worn over the shoulder or folded on the head, according to regional tradition. They are worn by both men and women.

The fiber arts of Central and South American aboriginal cultures continue a tradition that is thousands of years old (from c2000 BCE). They pre-date the hey-day of western cultures such as the periods of ancient Greece and Rome (c700 BCE to 5th century CE).

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.36, Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.31; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.10; A Global Pursuit: 5.3; A Community Connection: 1.3; The Visual Experience: 10.8, The Visual Experience: 14.4; Discovering Art History: 4.9

Monday, November 8, 2010

Contemporary Colorist

Since most autumn foliage colors are waning, I thought I’d provide you with some eye candy of color in the form of a gorgeous painting, and an artist I just recently learned about. I’ve become a big fan of Sheila Isham since we acquired images of several works of hers from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. Being primarily a colorist myself in my own painting, I always appreciate artists who celebrate the joy of pure color in their work. What a nice way to celebrate autumn!

Sheila Isham’s life is almost as colorful as her paintings. After receiving a BA at Bryn Mawr College, she became the first woman to enroll in the West Berlin Academy of Fine Arts. While in Berlin, she encountered German expressionist painting for the first time. After four and a half years in Berlin she and her career diplomat husband moved to Moscow. In Russia, she immersed herself in traditional Russian art, as well as that of the avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century. Check out the work of these two early Russian modernists and see if you can’t note the aspects of their work that inspired Isham.

Natalija Goncharova, Rayonism: Blue-Green Forest. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © Estate of Natalija Gocharova/ARS, New York.




Mikhail Larionov, Rayonist Composition: Domination of Reds. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © Estate of Mikhail Larionov/ARS, New York.


After Moscow, Isham and husband moved to Washington, then Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, Isham studied classical Chinese culture and calligraphy. She appreciated the abstract possibilities of calligraphy and has incorporated that sense into many of her paintings since. Later, she also went to India to study sculpture. When Isham returned to New York in the late 1960s, she immediately began producing abstract paintings. At the time, Op Art and Pop Art were the fad in the art world, and her abstract, colorful paintings were not appreciated by critics. However, like the abstract expressionists, Isham focused primarily on color. While inspired by the spiritual ideals of eastern art, she does not consider color to be intellectual, but rather intrinsically emotional.

This work reflects her Chinese experiences. In essence, the fire in heaven helps a person curb evil and further good. In many paintings after this, Isham features animals. The receding and advancing fields of luscious color remind me of the wispy clouds in Chinese traditional painting from which dragons appear.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.14, 6.35; A Personal Journey: 7.1, A Community Connection 9.1; A Global Pursuit: 9.1; The Visual Experience: 5.8, 7.2, 9.3, 9.11, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 3.2, 17.3

Monday, November 1, 2010

Empathetic Photographer


The creative impulse is universal; I think we can all pretty much agree on that. I think we can also all agree that photography is fine art. It’s always neat when photographers document other creative people, especially in little-known, overlooked locales. Such is the intention of Marcela Taboada’s series “Women of Clay.”

Photography studios appeared in Mexico only a few years after the development of the Daguerreotype in the 1830s. As was true in Western Europe and the US, early photography in Mexico was primarily used for portraiture and documentation of specific places. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, many Mexican artists traveled to Europe and were exposed to modernist experiments in all art media, including photography. Since that time, Mexican photography has been in the vanguard of contemporary art.

Marcela Taboada is an established independent photographer who lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. With a degree in graphic arts and design, Taboada’s photographs have appeared in various newspapers and magazines from Mexico and around the world. She has taught photography, and coordinates yearly photography workshops in Oaxaca with American photographer Mary Ellen Mark. She has won awards and stipends from institutions around the world as well.

Women of Clay is a photographic series that chronicles the lives of the women of the small Indian town of San Miguel Amatitlán, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. It belongs to the Mixteca Baja people. The town is high in the Sierra Madre Mountains, where water only lasts about four months a year and must be carried from great distances for basic needs. The women of the town build their own houses, using the water to make clay bricks. In order to support themselves, the women sew footballs. Taboada hopes that by focusing on the character of these hard-working women, it will open the door to possibilities of even greater help in their daily lives.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art 1: 2.7, 2.8; Explorations in Art 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art 4: 1.2, 2.7; Explorations in Art 5: 1.1; A Personal Journey: 2.1, 6.1, 8.3; A Community Connection: 1.3, 7.2, 9.3; A Global Pursuit: 5.3, 9.3; The Visual Experience 9.5, 16.8

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Politics-Fashion Connection

Because another election day is rolling around, I thought it might be interesting to explore another connection between politics and art. I’m not talking about the signs or “costumes” we see at tea party rallies, nor am I talking about political cartoons or grandiose history painting. You may never have considered it, but politics can influence fashion. The one major example that comes to mind for me is the period around the time of the American and French revolutions, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

While classical (i.e. ancient Greek and Roman) art was influential on western art and architecture from the time of the Renaissance (c1400-1600) on, it received fresh vigor during the eighteenth century. The discovery of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1748, and the subsequent aggressive excavation programs provided new material to inspire artists. Classical art began to have an impact on fashion in the mid- to late 1790s, inspired by the clothing seen on women in ancient Greek vase paintings.

Adapting a narrower silhouette for women’s attire and simplified hairstyles (based too on the ancient world) was in part a reaction to the ridiculous extremes of the preceding two decades. That was the period epitomized by Marie Antoinette and the ridiculous side hoops, impossibly corseted diaphragm, and hairdos that were piled up so high they often needed to be on a collapsible wire cage in order to get through doorways. In comparison to the fashions of the 1770s and 1780s, some critics of the new fashion accused women of being scantily clad. Whatever the opinion about the fashion, the rising waistline and simplified hair styles amounted to an emancipation of women from the artifice of the previous period.

After the success of the American Revolution (1776-1783) and French Revolution (1789-1799), designers in France (already then considered the fashion capital of the West) consciously borrowed elements from classical antiquity for women’s fashions. Of course the French experiment in democracy ended when Napoleon became emperor (1805), however, French fashions persisted in the neoclassical style.

The style was eagerly adapted throughout Western Europe and, especially, in America. Americans viewed their new country as the first true democracy since antiquity, so even classically inspired fashion was seen as appropriate. Because the style flourished during Napoleon’s reign, it is often called the Empire Style. This beautiful, simple, and elegant dress is from Philadelphia, the most influential city in the early American republic. The Empire Style was loosely based on the ancient Greek chiton, essentially a rectangle of material that was pinned or belted at the waist and buttoned at the shoulder. (see the caryatid from the Erechtheum in Athens). The high waist and narrow silhouette persisted in women’s clothing into the 1820s, although the train disappeared around 1810.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art 1: 5.30; Explorations in Art 2: 6.35; Explorations in Art 3: 6.31; Explorations in Art 5: 2.10; A Personal Journey: 3, A Community Connection: 3.1; A Global Pursuit: 6.1; The Visual Experience: 3.3, 12.4, 16.3; Discovering Art History 12.1

Monday, October 18, 2010

An African Photographer

In looking at the history of art, I always try to appreciate art that is under-appreciated. Photography has been accepted as an art form since the early 20th century, although is it rarely studied outside of Western Europe or America in western art history. But, let’s think of art forms, long under-accepted in the West, in Africa. We tend to think of masks, textiles, and ancestor figures when “African Art” is brought up. The photographer Seydou Keïta is a brilliant example of the richness of African art in the post-colonial period. His native Mali achieved independence from the French in 1960. Keïta’s portraits document Mali’s transition from a cosmopolitan French colony to an independent country. Keïta’s art also shows how art enhances the dignity of every human being.

By the turn of the twentieth century, photography was well on its way to being considered a form of “fine art.” Photography served as an important tool in the 1950s and 1960s for documenting performance art, installations, and happenings. Some photographers chose to continue to document society and the rapid changes happening to it. The 1955 “Family of Man” exhibition (curated by Edward Steichen) of photographs emphasized birth, love, and joy, and also touches of war, privation, illness, and death. His intention was to prove visually the universality of human experience and photography's role in its documentation. The exhibition proved that one of the most important impacts of photography on society was its ability to document the state of humankind.

Seydou Keïta eloquently portrayed society of the Mali capital Bamako during a period of transition from a “colony” to the modern African nation. Initially trained as a carpenter, Keïta began pursuing photography after his uncle gave him a Kodak Brownie camera in 1935. He mastered the art of composing printing and subsequently bought a large format camera. In 1948 he opened his own studio in Bamako and quickly built up a successful business of portraiture. His subject matter became primarily portraiture of the burgeoning middle-class and successful business class of the increasingly affluent Mali society. He balanced a strict sense of formality with an intimacy evinced by the props and backdrops (most often native textiles) he had available in his studio. The radio is seen in several portraits of different persons.

After a period of photographing for the Mali government, Keïta retired in 1977. The discovery of his work in the 1980s by French gallery owners led to world-wide recognition in the 1990s. His first exhibit in the US was 1991. His work represents the founding stage of African modernization as experienced in a lively, thriving city (Bamako). By the 1990s he had an archive of over 10,000 negatives. His emphasis on light, subject and framing establishes Keïta among the masters of the 20th century genre of photography.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Focus on Photography, The Visual Experience: 9.5, SchoolArts Magazine Looking & Learning: October 2010 (Commemoration), January 2011 (Place), February 2011 (Time)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pioneer Woman Architect

Being a minimally successful artist (commercially), I always admire artists who succeed in their art when the cards are stacked against them. Yes, I’m talking about women artists again. In the West, women have always participated in society as professional artists, but, up until the late nineteenth century, it was not easy for them. This was due primarily to the fact that, in a male-dominated culture, being an artist was considered “unsuitable” for women. This was especially true about architecture. If it was hard for women to enroll in art academies in the nineteenth century, it was even more difficult to study engineering in order to become an architect. Julia Morgan, however, became the first woman to enroll in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in order to study to become an architect.

Julia Morgan was born in San Francisco and grew up in Oakland. In 1890 Morgan enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, an overwhelmingly male school. She eventually decided on a career in architecture and received a degree in civil engineering in 1894. While studying at Berkeley she attracted the attention of the famous architect Bernard Maybeck (1862-1957), who hired her to work in his studio. Maybeck suggested that Morgan study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the most prestigious architecture school in the world at the time.

At the École des Beaux-Arts, Morgan’s primary training was in historicist (revival) styles. After graduating in 1902, she opened an office in San Francisco. During a period when many architects experimented with modernism, Morgan’s designs tended to be conservative and respectful of her clients’ tastes. She had a large network of women friends from her college days at Berkeley, which helped her obtain many commissions for a variety of buildings.

Morgan designed in a number of revival styles during her career. The majority were built in the then-fashionable Spanish Colonial Revival style. Striking features of the Chapel of the Chimes are the stonework grilles on the arched windows and beautifully carved surround of the entrance. Red-tiled roof, whitewashed walls, arcaded cornices, ironwork, and low-relief carvings completed the style. During her career, Morgan designed nearly 700 buildings, including work on the Hearst Mansion and the rebuilding of the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco after the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 1: 1.1, 2.12; Explorations in Art 2: 6.31; Explorations in Art 3: 4.20, 4.21; Explorations in Art 4: 3.18; Explorations in Art 5: 2.11; A Personal Journey: 8.1; A Global Pursuit F2.2; A Community Connection F2.2; The Visual Experience 11.4; Discovering Art History 16.1; SchoolArts Magazine, Looking and Learning: Place (April)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Importance of Portraits Bonus: A Prince of a Portrait

Of all the portraits I’ve ever come across – and believe me, I’ve been going to museums since I was a wee one – the portraiture of ancient Egypt fascinates me the most. For one thing, Egyptian artists depicted people of every station in life, from pharaohs to common people grinding grain. Egyptian portraits provide an awesome glimpse into the sacred, the believed-to-be-sacred, and the everyday, and provide a unique document of a society thousands of years old. I especially like this portrait of Prince Ankhhaf, because it digresses from the rigid canons of Egyptian art that were established early in the Old Kingdom (c2650-2323 BCE). When you look at this guy’s face, you see a real person with personality!

The cultures of the ancient Near East and Egypt were among the first to produce true portraits. In Egypt, portraiture, like most other art form genres, primarily served funerary purposes. Because the Egyptians believed they would be reborn essentially unchanged into the afterlife, portrait sculptures were important objects in the contents of a tomb. Busts such as this, which was housed within a chapel in Ankhhaf’s tomb, are called “reserve figures.” They were intended to house the ka (life essence or soul) in case the deceased’s body was damaged in any way before ascending to the other world.

Royal portraiture of the time followed strict conventions and was rarely true portraiture. These conventions were based on a canon of proportions that accorded with the Egyptian concept of the ideal human form. Physical imperfections were ignored, in other words, the figures were idealized. These conventions were often disregarded in portraiture of lesser nobles or commoners. This is certainly the case with Ankhhaf. His features are those of a mature, aged man, with bags under the eyes, furrows around his mouth, and a receding hairline. It is indeed a sensitive portrayal of a successful prince. Compare this realism with the royal portrait of Menkaure, successor of Ankhhaf’s nephew Khafre.

Ankhhaf was the son of pharaoh Sneferu (2575-2551 BCE), half-brother of Khufu (2551-2528 BCE) (builder of one of the great pyramids), and uncle to Khafre (2520-2494). Ankhhaf oversaw the building of Khafre’s pyramid and the Great Sphinx. This portrait was probably produced at the time he served Khafre. Over time it lost the ears, a small beard, and probably two arms that rested on the low pedestal on which it was placed. It faced the entrance to the chapel as if ready to greet otherworldly visitors. Ankhhaf’s mastaba (tomb), G7510, is the largest in the great eastern cemetery at Giza.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8, Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8, Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.2, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 2.7, Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1, A Personal Journey: 6.1, A Global Pursuit: 1.1, The Visual Experience: 15.3, Discovering Art History: 5.3, SchoolArts Magazine Looking & Learning: October 2010 - Commemoration

Monday, September 27, 2010

Importance of Portraits V: Into the 21st Century

As the wrap-up to my “Ode to the Portrait” series, I couldn’t wait to show you this image by the awesome contemporary artist Gillian Wearing. She is one of the so-called Young British Artists, and has an international reputation for her work in photography and video. Her work sort of sums up how far portraiture has come as a subject matter; believe me, it has transcended by far the ancient notions of memorializing someone for posterity. Compare this “self-portrait” to those of the Renaissance, or even better, to the portraits of ancestors from ancient Rome. In the 21st century, the idea of self has so far exceeded past conceptions, based, I think, on the extreme introspection of artists that we first saw in the early modernism period (think Picasso’s self-portraits at the turn of the 20th century).

In the history of art, we can probably think of Neolithic humans’ cave painting hand “self-portraits” as the earliest portraiture. In the West, we don’t really see many self-portraits until the late Middle Ages (c1000-1400) in manuscript illuminations. With the elevation in dignity and esteem received by artists during the Renaissance (1400-1600), self-portraiture came into its own. Down through the history of art, we can cite many famous artists who produced series of self-portraits: Rembrandt (1606-1669), Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788), Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), and Gregory Gillespie (1936-2000).

The artists listed above produced self-portraits that were basically documents of themselves. Gillian Wearing’s self-portraits, in the guise of family members, give new meaning to the notion of “family resemblance.” Using special masks, wigs, body-suits and clothing (aided by artists from Madame Tussauds wax museum in London), she transforms herself into family members, her eyes being the only consistent feature. Based on family photographs, the recreations via elaborate costume and makeup present an eerie fascination with revealing her identity through her relatives.

Wearing’s fascination with revealing people’s often concealed inner identities brought her international acclaim when she created a 1992 series of photographs of everyday people, urging her subjects to write their innermost thoughts on pieces of cardboard. Her photographs explore human relationships and social behavior, extended to the private and personal. Her work is clearly influenced by documentary photography and film. Her combination of Snapshot Realism and a quest for plumbing psychological depths of an individual make her self-portraits and portraits of others truly a compelling example of portraiture in the 21st century.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art: 1 2.7, Explorations in Art: 3 1.1, Explorations in Art: 4 2.7, Explorations in Art: 5 1.1, A Personal Journey: 6.1, A Community Connection: 7.2, The Visual Experience: 9.6,The Visual Experience: 16.8, Discovering Art History: 3.1, Discovering Art History: 17.6, SchoolArts Magazine: Looking & Learning Oct 2010 - Commemoration, SchoolArts Magazine: Looking & Learning March 2011 - Fantasy, SchoolArts Magazine: Looking & Learning April 2011 - Transformation

Monday, September 20, 2010

Importance of Portraits IV: Animal Depictions

Yes, I’m including a doggie portrait in my ongoing ode to the portrait. Whether a dog, cat, bird, squirrel, ermine, or fish, animals have been part of portraiture in western art since the revival in importance of portraiture during the Renaissance (c1400-1600). Pets and favorite animals have also been popular in the art of many Asian cultures, as well as in Islamic lands. In the 18th century, it was very fashionable in England for people to have portraits painted of their favorite horse, so, yes, I feel totally justified in including this adorable doggie in my “ode to the portrait.” And what better artist to use as an example of the genre than the superlative animal painter, Rosa Bonheur?

Painting in France in the 1830s and 1840s gradually shifted from an emphasis on the exotic and dramatic of Romanticism to an emphasis on extreme naturalism based on acute observation of nature. Whereas Romanticism relied on naturalistic detail in order to tell a dramatic story, Realism used naturalistic detail to depict everyday life without dramatic or romantic overtones. The popularity of Realism paralleled the rise in prosperity all over Europe of the middle-class. As a new class of art patrons, they rejected history painting in favor of scenes recognizable from their own lives.

Rosa Bonheur was initially trained by her father Raymond, a realist landscape painter. She furthered her painting skill by going to the Louvre routinely in her teens and painting copies of great masterpieces. She was particularly interested in the realism of Dutch Baroque painters. Her eye for detail and meticulous realism were already apparent, and she was able to supplement her family’s income by selling these faithful copies. At seventeen she became interested in painting scenes of animals. Horse fairs, cattle markets and domesticated pets were her study material. She also visited slaughter houses to learn the underlying anatomy of the animals she painted.

From her teen years on, Bonheur spurned society’s conventions in many ways, including a preference for wearing pants (for which she had to get written permission from the police) and her hair short. She showed paintings every year at the annual Salon sponsored by the French Academy in Paris starting in 1841. Her biggest triumph was “The Horse Fair” exhibited in the Salon of 1853. It was the most talked-about work of that year and was exhibited in England. From that time on she was an internationally acclaimed artist.

The hound Barbaro sits next to the wooden bucket and brush with which he has just been scrubbed following a day of hunting. Barbaro was one of the many animals Bonheur kept at the Chateau de By, near the forest of Fontainebleau, which she bought in 1859 as a studio, and which today is a museum dedicated to her art. A typical aspect of her paintings is that she filled her scenes with ambient light. In this one, the light streams in from an unseen door. Although she studied light and atmosphere carefully, she did not adopt the ideas of impressionism, but worked in a traditional yellow-brown-green landscape palette.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 5.28, Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.13, Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.14, Explorations in Art Grade 3: 5.26, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.19, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.20, Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.6, Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.22, A Personal Journey: 6.1, A Global Pursuit: 5.2, A Global Pursuit: 6.1, The Visual Experience: 16.4, Discovering Art History: 12.3, SchoolArts Magazine Looking & Learning October 2010: Commemoration

Monday, September 13, 2010

Importance of Portraits III: Mughal Dynasty

Mughal art, the art produced in the Islamic empire in India, is fascinating because of its blending of artistic traditions from other Muslim lands, indigenous Indian art, and western European influence. As in Western Europe, portraiture became a significant subject matter in art only from the 15th century onward.

Figurative art in Islamic lands was primarily secular, consisting mostly of palace interior decoration and, after the 8th century introduction of paper from China, the illustration of books. From the 13th century on, illustrated books depicting battle scenes, historical events, and even genre scenes flourished.

Islam began to spread in India in the eighth century when Arab armies invaded parts of northern India. By the eleventh century, missionaries from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran were moving to India to further the spread Islam. The Turkish general Qutb ud-Din Aybak (1150-1210) was almost single-handedly responsible for conquering most of northern India (and current-day Pakistan) for Islam. He was made Viceroy of Delhi and eventually moved the capital of Islamic India there. As sultan he was the first Muslim ruler in south Asia. The Mughal rulers of India (1526-18th century) were strongly influenced by the Iranian courts, and imported artists from Iran. The Timurid (1350-1502) and Safavid (1502-1736) dynasties in Iran are considered the high point of manuscript decoration and painting in Islamic lands. Portraiture experienced a renaissance, especially during the Safavid period.

Book arts and painting in Mughal India were reinvigorated in the mid-sixteenth century by Iranian artists. These artists migrated to India when interest in painting and calligraphy waned in the Safavid court. The greatest flowering in Indian painting came during the reign of Akbar (died 1605), a great patron of the arts, when the number of court artists, including some European artists, swelled to one hundred. Bookarts became less important in Iran, and consequently in India toward the beginning of the seventeenth century. Single-page works of art became increasingly popular because lavishly illustrated books tended to be extremely expensive.

Most Mughal portraits in the early 17th century, like this one, were of men. Women did not participate openly in the court, although they were frequently depicted generically in genre scenes. This portrait of an unknown dignitary shows the conventional combined profile/three-quarter pose, where the dignitary is depicted with attributes of his rank. While he carries a large sword to indicate his courage and strength, he also sniffs a flower to indicate his sensitivity and love of nature.

Correlations to Davis programs: EXPLORATIONS IN ART GRADE 1: 7-8, EXPLORATIONS IN ART GRADE 2: 7-8, EXPLORATIONS IN ART GRADE 3: 1-2, EXPLORATIONS IN ART GRADE 4: 7, EXPLORATIONS IN ART GRADE 5: 1-2, A Global Pursuit 3.3, A Community Connection 2.3, The Visual Experience 13.2, The Visual Experience 14.2, Discovering Art History 7.3, Discovering Art History 4.2, SchoolArts Looking and Learning Oct 2011

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Importance of Portraits II: The Renaissance

Throughout the history of art, there have been artists, who, although they did not have a long career, established themselves as a master of a genre. That is true of early Italian Renaissance master sculptor Desiderio da Settignano. Just look at this work and see why he is considered by many scholars to have been the greatest sculptor of children in the history of art. Personally, as an art historian, I am hard-pressed to name another sculptor who managed to capture the fragile, beautiful nuances of a child’s physiognomy as Desiderio did. The only artist of whom I can think who approaches Desiderio’s sense of empathy in his depiction of children, is contemporary sculptor John Ahearn.

The Italian Renaissance evolved over a period of a hundred years between the 14th and 15th centuries. Key factors were: 1. the decline of the power of the Church in Europe and rise of strong nation states, such as the city-states in Italy; 2. the rise in education and affluence of the middle class; 3. the increased interest and emphasis on ancient philosophers, particularly Plato, who had admonished humankind to “know yourself” in order to understand the divine; and 4. the development of printing in the mid-15th century that spread new learning throughout Europe. The prosperity and intellectual climate in 15th century Florence created an artistic flowering unparalleled in Western Europe at the time. It is often viewed as the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Although many of you may think painting was the preeminent art form of the Italian Renaissance, sculpture actually led the way in the persons of such pioneers as Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, and Bernardo Rossellino. These masters established the Renaissance “requirements” of classical realism: balance, harmony, and a sense of dignity and calm. The stylistic parameters that they established resounded through the fifteenth century. They strongly inspired painters to copy the monumentality and three-dimensionality of sculpture, which were ultimately based on antique Greek and Roman models.

Desiderio was from the stonecutter’s town of Settignano, a town where even Michelangelo learned about the properties of Italian marbles. There is a contrast in surfaces between the two sculptors’ work, however. While Michelangelo expertly carved the surface of marble into hard, well defined planes, Desiderio’s contours were more softened and less defined than Michelangelo’s. His works seem to imitate the emphasis of reflected light off of the resilient young flesh. Although Desiderio’s career was short, he excelled in capturing the essence of soft flesh and gently reflective surfaces, particularly in figures of women and children. While the uncarved pupils of the eyes convey a timeless, classical element, the asymmetrical position of the shoulders shows an energy and sense of movement.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 7-8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 7-8, Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1-2; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 7; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1-2; A Personal Journey: 3.2, 6.1; A Global Pursuit 4.1; The Visual Experience 4.3, 6.3, 10.2, 10.13, 15.8; Discovering Art History: 9.1

Monday, August 30, 2010

Importance of Portraits I: Early American Sculpture

It seems unbelievable, but there are only five more weeks before this blog reaches 100 posts. To celebrate the milestone, the next five entries will focus on an important subject taught in art classrooms: Portraiture. These entries will give an overview of the types of portraits produced from a variety of cultures and in a variety of art forms. Let's begin with American sculpture:

Portraiture is one of the oldest types of subject matter in the history of art. Even prehistoric cave painters represented themselves by registering their presence in their paintings by blowing paint over their hands, creating a unique signature (actually, quite eerie). I make it a point to do a self-portrait of myself every couple of years just to keep in practice, although I stink at portraits of other people (just ask my sitters). David Gilmour Blythe has piqued my interest for some time after reading nineteenth-century newspaper articles about his antics. Apparently he was quite an eccentric, but, what is fascinating about him is his absolute conviction about the importance of art and its connection to American society. His veneration of the French hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, in the years leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865) is quite revealing of his reverence for the new republic and just how art fit in as an important component.

Fine art during the Colonial period consisted almost entirely of painting. In the early colonial period, painting was confined to signs, mantle overpaintings, carriage decoration, and advertising. When the colonies began to be prosperous, and up until the Revolution, portraiture was the primary subject matter of painting. This was due in large part because of the colonists’ aspirations to demonstrate their prosperity in the same way as their English forbearers through commissioned art.

Sculpture was limited to architectural ornament, as well as gravestone and sign carving. After the Revolution, the influence of the Neoclassical style in European art helped encourage an increasing appreciation of sculpture in America among the growing, affluent middle class. While most of the sculpture produced in the first half of the nineteenth century consisted of neoclassical portrait busts and allegorical and mythological figures, a vein of naïve, self-taught sculpture did exist. Like naïve painting, many of these sculptors were self-taught.

Blythe was born to immigrant parents on the Ohio frontier. He showed an aptitude for art at an early age, producing portraits of family and neighbors, caricatures, and satirical depictions of local events. At sixteen he was apprenticed to a wood carver and produced whittled emblems and architectural decoration. A restless romantic, Blythe spent years thereafter wandering the length of the Ohio River valley as an itinerant portrait painter. He eventually settled for some years in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

Blythe’s skill as a portraitist earned him the commission to carve a figure of Lafayette (Marie Jean Paul Joseph Roche Yves Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, 1757- 1834) for the Fayette county courthouse in Uniontown. He carved the figure of the Revolutionary War hero using an adze which gives it the rough-hewn quality. Although the figure is well-proportioned, it is stiff and lacking the refinement of Blythe’s contemporaries, such as Clark Mills, Hiram Powers, or even William Rush. The rigid pose is reminiscent of the formality of ancient Egyptian figures.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Meiji Ukiyo-e

I always like introducing you to artists who are not on the radar in mainstream art history. I know, there are so many, so where do I start? In one of my little “epiphany moments” of sorts, this week I was privileged to add works to our collection by Ogata Gekko, a Japanese printmaker of the late 19th to early 20th century. Now, we all know that Japanese prints influenced European art, particularly Impressionism, starting in the 1860s. However, the prints that influenced European artists were from the 18th and early 19th centuries, for example, Hokusai. While Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were benefiting from the influence of Japanese prints from earlier periods, Gekko was continuing the tradition in a new direction.

The Meiji “restoration” of 1867 ended over 200 years of the feudal dictatorship of the Tokugawa shogunate. Under the guise of once again “revering the emperor” as the supreme ruler, certain military families methodically transformed Japan, at an astonishingly fast rate, into a modern, westernized, industrial country. This all occurred after Japan was forcibly opened to western trade by Commodore Perry of the United States. With that opening to western trade, Japanese artists were able to see art from Western Europe more than ever before. Many western influences crept into Japanese prints, including the illusion of depth, monumentality of form, and western chemical aniline dyes imported from Germany.

Ogata Gekko was somewhat of an anomaly compared to past artists in the woodcut print field. He does not appear to have done the traditional apprenticeship to a master artist, and apparently was self-taught. His early career was as an illustrator and designer of advertisements. Influenced by traditional Chinese painting, his early career as an artist was as a painter, illustrator, and decorator of lacquer work. In the 1880s he became interested in printmaking in the Ukiyo-e style. While the historical Ukiyo-e style produced subjects of beauties, actors and landscapes, Gekko preferred genre subjects, landscapes, and particularly animals and plants. Among his favored subject matter was the depiction of animals in grassy settings.

Gekko’s style was unique in woodblock printing because he eschewed the strict linearity of earlier Ukiyo-e in favor of a style that imitated brush work. He must have driven his woodblock carvers and printers crazy with his technique. This print comes from a series of shishikiban (square prints), which were his favored format for depicting close-ups of nature. While this print contains traditional elements such as suggestions of depth with mist, open composition, and emphasis on minute elements of nature, there is a definite western influence on the insistence on three-dimensional space in the concentric ripples in the water, and the diminution of detail in the far background.

Gekko was the first internationally acclaimed Japanese artist. He displayed his prints at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, the Paris World Exposition in 1900, and the International Exposition in London in 1910. At the 1903 Saint Louis’ World’s Fair, he received a medal for one of his prints.

Gekko was born Nakagami Masanosuke, but took the name Ogata in 1884, in honor of the famous 17th century painter (learn more about him in my blog post from May 17). The name Gekko means “moonlight.” Gekko believed that he was upholding the tradition of Ukiyo-e. Perhaps that is why one of his first woodcut editions was a series of calendar pages called “Twelve Months of Ukiyo.”

This website has an awesome amount of the varied work of this brilliant artist, plus extensive biographical information.