Monday, March 29, 2010

A Real Tea Party

While I’m on the subject of cartoons – because of the current exhibit in the Davis Art Gallery – I thought it might be fun to see a cartoon of a tea party, since that phrase is in the news lately. While the subject of this print seems a little more genteel than some of the recent tea party events, the point of this event on the eve of the American Revolution, interestingly enough, parallels the beliefs of current tea party participants: protest of the perception of big government. This print shows us that the unflattering portrayal of political adversaries in cartoons has a long history in western art. When you think of great socio-political cartoonists and caricaturists of the past, who comes to mind? Hogarth? Daumier? Goya? Nast?

The latter part of that century saw the rise in satirical artwork in Britain and Europe that mocked prevailing mores and political figures. Many such cartoons addressed legitimate grievances against social ills of the time such as alcoholism or abuse of power by politicians. Other cartoons, however, were nasty nationalistic bashing of other cultures. British satirical artists particularly enjoyed bashing America (for obvious reasons) and France. American artists of the period were equally as venomous in their depictions of the British.

The eighteenth century is often called the Age of Enlightenment because of the wealth of forward-looking philosophy, science, and art. It’s also called the Age of Revolution because, naturally, of the American Revolution (1776-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799). After the re-discovery and excavation of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii (1748, 1764, 1804), an avid interest in classical antiquity, Greek democracy, and the Roman Republic flourished. In art, this engendered the movement called Neoclassicism. In politics, it led many of America’s founding fathers to advocate revolution.

This print documents a gathering of many prominent women of Edenton, North Carolina in October, 1774. This was the year the Continental Congress passed resolutions encouraging Americans to boycott tea, cloth, and other products imported from Britain. The women signed a petition supporting those “near and dear” to them, i.e., their husbands who were active in resisting British authority.

Aside from the fact that this print depicts American women displaying their patriotism, it also documents a revolution of sorts for women. At the time, women were not allowed to participate in politics, nor was it deemed appropriate for them to sign petitions. The British artist obviously alludes to this impropriety in the crude way he depicts most of the women. It suggests that the people leading revolutionary thought in the colonies were wealthy people with nothing better to do. This is emphasized in the foreground where a child is being bothered by a dog rather than tended to by its mother. The gathering was not called the “Edenton Tea Party” until some time later, as a way of vying with the notoriety of the Boston Tea Party.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Day of the Dead Satire

The Davis Art Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of the work comic artists. Since the gallery is on the same floor as our offices, I get to see the artists’ works every day. Naturally, I’ve since become more aware of caricature and cartoon art in the Davis Art Images collection. This genre of art has been around a long time, but nowhere is it a more fascinating sidebar to history than in Mexican art from the turn of the twentieth century. Two artists are known for their cartoons of the calavera (skull), Manuel Manilla (1830-1890/1895) and José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), who is sometimes unjustifiably credited with “inventing” the theme. Indeed, Posada may have been a protégé of Manilla.

Under the harsh dictator Porforio Diaz (1830-1915), many illustrated journals and broadsides nurtured the flourishing of satirical art, despite the threat of retribution by Diaz’s regime. These publications criticized the corrupt government, wealthy aristocracy, and the social abuses of the Roman Church. The most famous cartoons to emerge from this nascent period of the Mexican Revolution (began c1910) were those depicting the calavera (skull figure). The calavera theme dates back to ancient Mexican societies which, in yearly rituals, mocked Death and its supposed hold over humanity. The Spanish conquerors at first tried to quash such ceremonies, but it soon became part of All Saints Day (November 1st), also known as the Day of the Dead.

Little is known about the life of Manuel Manilla. He began producing prints in 1882, making approximately 500 engravings in the service of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo in Mexico City. These prints had to do with various elements of the Mexican middle class, including the circus, bullfighting, magic scenes, and the Virgin Mary. An artist of the people, sharing concerns about the corruption of the Diaz dictatorship, he began to popularize the calavera prints in the late 1880s. Originally produced for the Dia de los Muertos, Manilla conceived of the calavera as the traditional leveler of society, proof that all people are equal, no matter what their station in life. He depicted the calavera interacting in every aspect of Mexican society. His work surely was an influence on the more famous Posada, who began working for Arroyo in 1892.

In a broader sense, the image of the calavera is fascinating because it is practically a universal image in art of the western world. The subject of Death confronting people from every station appears in the Death Dance cycles of Europe (particularly northern Europe) in the Middle Ages (c1000-1400), which continued to be popular through the Renaissance period (c1400-1600). The calavera images of Manilla and Posada were a great influence on the art of the Mexican muralist such as Diego Rivera (1886-1957), who viewed the subject as an artistic bridge of subject matter between the ancient native Mexican cultures and the Spanish conquerors. The strong tradition of graphic arts in Latin America, in which Manilla played a key role, would also nourish many subsequent printmakers, most notably those who formed the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Peoples Graphics Studio) founded in Mexico in 1937.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Native American Art “Revival”

When we think of “Native American art,” we tend to think of ceramics, weavings, hide objects, and quillwork. Painting (whether on canvas, paper, or wood) was not an Indian tradition until contact with whites. One of the most famous genres of Indian painting is the hide paintings of Plains cultures who documented their history after contact with whites. Personally I’ve always found the painting done on Pueblo ceramics to be among the most amazing and sophisticated two-dimensional examples of First Nation cultures. Pueblo and Navajo cultures also did not have a tradition of pictorial narrative, but many artists of those cultures began to experiment with narrative art in the early twentieth century. This was in part due to anthropologists and literati who realized many traditions of First Nation life were vanishing and they encouraged native artists to create art as a record.

The pictorial movement got its greatest impetus after the establishment of a formal art program at the Santa Fe Indian School in 1932. Non-native art teacher Dorothy Dunn (1903-1991) established the Studio, a painting program for high school-aged students. Dunn purposely did not teach western artistic ideas about perspective, plasticity, or complex composition. Instead she insisted that her students work in styles influenced by traditional Pueblo art forms such as weaving and ceramic decoration. The Studio School generated a flattened, stencil-like style that stressed subject matter. This style, known as the “Studio Style,” came to be considered “traditional Indian art” by many dealers and museums.

In the 1960s, the Studio Style was reevaluated by Native artists who considered the style a stereotype and a forced traditionalism. The Institute of American Indian Art also felt that the stylized paintings no longer adequately expressed the breadth of First Nation artistic aspiration. However, it is possible that few contemporary developments in First Nation art could have taken place without the foundation established by The Studio, which produced the first group of successful (in terms not only of sale but of wide-scale exposure) Native artists in the twentieth century.

Abel Sanchez, known as Oqwa Pi (Red Cloud) was educated at the Santa Fe Indian School under Dunn. After graduation he was commissioned to paint murals there. He returned to San Ildefonso where he spent his life as a farmer and painter. He was very respected by the people of his pueblo and was elected governor of San Ildefonso six times. When he died, the All-Indian Pueblo Council and governors of nineteen New Mexico Pueblos signed a resolution of sorrow and presented it to his widow, Nepomucena Sánchez.

The Snake Dance, practiced by many of the Pueblos, is thought by scholars to have traditionally been a water ceremony, as snakes were considered guardians of springs. Today it is primarily held to honor ancestors and ensure adequate rain. The Pueblo First Nations consider snakes “brothers” who are able to transmit their prayers to the spirits and ancestors in the afterlife.

The Wheelright Museum of the American Indian has an exhibition running until April 2010 of painters from the Santa Fe Indian School.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Pictorialist Photographer

One of my favorite periods in the history of photography is from the early period, when there was a debate in artists’ circles as to whether or not photography was “fine art.” Ironically, when photography first emerged in the nineteenth century, some painters latched onto it as a way of providing studies that would make their work more realistic. Then, there were the Impressionists who painted directly outdoors to capture every nuance of light and color – essentially their eyes were the camera. At the same time, there was a strong trend in photography to imitate painting, in an effort to be accepted as “fine art” (traditionally a term reserved by academics for painting [but, only certain subject matter of course], and sculpture]. As was true in most avant-garde movements, women were pioneers of the new medium.

In the late nineteenth century, women in Europe and America were encouraged to take up photography as an art form because the medium did not require women to enroll in academies or take up life drawing classes. By the 1880s in the United States, the National Federation of Women Photographers had formed and urged women to choose photography as their avocation. Aesthetic photography, called Pictorialism because it imitated painting, was a reaction by certain photographers against the prevailing trend in nineteenth century photography that emphasized a scientific approach. Aesthetic photographers avoided a wealth of detail capable in photographs, considering it stale and unimaginative. They sought to elevate photography to pure art.

Gertrude Käsebier was trained as a painter in Paris before becoming interested in photography around 1894. By 1897 she had opened a portrait studio. In both her manner of composing the sitter, and manipulating the negative, she intended for her photographic portraits to vie aesthetically with painted ones. She worked with the negative to diminish the amount of detail and imitate a painted surface. At the time she was considered by other aesthetic photographers to be a master at presenting the personality of the sitter.

This is a portrait of the wife of one of the leading patrons of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY. Charlotte Spaulding Albright herself was briefly involved in an aesthetic photographic career before she married in 1910. The softened contours of the portrait come from Käsebier’s washing of the negative with water and then using a brush, pencil, or eraser in order to alter the background, erase detail, or reduce the surface to the tonality of a charcoal drawing.

Käsebier was instrumental in forming, along with photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), the group Photo-Secession. This group was dedicated to aesthetic photography. Their shows in New York, starting in 1905, paved the way for the beginning of Gallery 291. This gallery, although originally exhibiting only avant-garde photography, soon displayed the work of early American modernists. It was responsible for introducing abstract European art to America.

View a nice selection of Käsebier images.

Monday, March 1, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different...


I am a big admirer of artists who produce porcelain. I don’t own any, but I sure love to see examples in museums. Porcelain was first produced in China in the first millennium CE and in Japan in the 17th century, but it was not until the first half of the 18th century that European kilns finally learned how to produce the delicate ceramic ware. Once, when I lived in Chicago, I was in a hotel on Michigan Avenue, and was amazed that the lobby was decorated with vitrines loaded with examples of Caughley porcelain. I immediately knew that English porcelain was my favorite of all the 18th century factories.

Porcelain in China is made of kaolin (which is decayed feldspar), powdered feldspar, or decomposed granite. The Meissen firm in Germany was the first European porcelain factory. European porcelain was soft-paste and consisted of clay and powdered glass or frit, fired at a lower temperature than Chinese porcelain. The imitation porcelain was called “china.” Another English version of porcelain was “bone china,” a soft-paste modified with the addition of calcined bone. The only criterion for porcelain in Europe was that it be translucent.

The Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory was the first porcelain factory in England, founded around 1743 by Nicholas Sprimont, who ironically, was a silversmith. While the company produced all manner of tableware, they were most renowned for figures. In 1769 the firm was purchased by the Derby Porcelain Company, and until 1784 was known as Chelsea-Derbyware.

Between the 1740s and 1760, Chelsea wares were based heavily on Meissen designs. Among the most popular of these early designs were animal- and nature-based vessels such as goat-form cream pitchers, conch shell salt cellars, and animal-form tureens. While porcelain vessels such as soup tureens were clearly intended for upper class use, the design of these vessels in such common barnyard shapes as a hen and chicks reflects the Bourgeois Baroque style of the mid-18th century, seen in painting in the work of such artists as Chardin.

Soup tureens first emerged as important pieces of tableware during the late 17th century in the French court. This period was the transition from the Renaissance practice of loading a table with all the dishes needed for a meal, to individual settings for each course. Soup was the first course for peasant and noble alike, and in upper class homes, fancy tureens ceremoniously opened the meal.

The Museum of London has many examples of Chelsea wares.