Monday, April 26, 2010

Elements and Principles of Gorgeous Gothic

While choosing images for our supplemental image set for Janson’s 8th edition of the History of Art, I came across one of my “holy cow” moments when looking at the Gothic architecture of Gloucester Cathedral in England. I’m really not a huge fan of Gothic architecture, especially since most art history books treat the subject as if the style only came to fruition in France. I find English Gothic very interesting. Although it was naturally a derivative of the French style, there are subtle differences in emphasis. Always on the look-out for drop-dead gorgeous details of architecture, I hit the brakes when I saw this ambulatory from Gloucester. What a gorgeous set of fan vaults! Let’s talk a little about fan vaults.

A vault is a masonry roof or ceiling based on the principle of the arch. The main section of medieval churches, the nave, was usually covered by a repeating series of vaults, much as the barrel vault is a continuous row of arches forming a rounded vault. The vaults of Gloucester’s cathedral cloister are gorgeous fan vaults. The key element to vaults is the rib, a projecting arch which carries the vault. In a fan vault, the ribs fan out from the piers supporting the vault.

The ambulatory of a cloister connected to a cathedral is the section detached from the main body of the church where monks could meditate in peace. The fan vaults in Gloucester’s ambulatory are further decorated with ribs connecting each rib of the fan. The end effect of this beautiful ambulatory is one of an elegant Rhythm, one of the Principles of Design. Let’s throw in Pattern, Balance, and Unity as further Principles of Design evident in this space. Just for good measure, let’s mention some of the Elements of Design obvious here: Line Texture, and (flowing) Space.

During the mid-12th century, with the rise of a strong monarchy, France became a center of artistic activity, including architecture. As Church architecture evolved from Romanesque to Gothic, it became increasingly refined and structurally sophisticated. In Romanesque architecture, walls are thick and massive, and in Gothic, thin and light. The Gothic pointed arch can not only support more weight than the rounded Romanesque one, but it can also span a variety of bay shapes. The Gothic church, with tall, slender columns, piers, windows and arches, is more vertical than the Romanesque. The new Gothic architecture did not have an immediate impact outside of northern France.

Beginning about 1174 with Canterbury, English churches began to adopt Gothic elements, but they placed less stress on verticality. Some of the unique features of English Gothic churches include: screen-type west facades, main portal on the south side of the nave, and square apses. The fan vaults of the Gloucester Cathedral cloister are among the most famous in Europe, and certainly the most famous in England next to those at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge (which is actually Late Gothic [15th century]).

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Eight


As you probably realize by now if you’ve read this blog, I’m very partial to American art of all periods. But I particularly favor styles and movements that were not particularly favored by critics in their day (go figure). Yes, I’m not a big fan of academic realism, classical or literary subject matter, or emotion-drenched works of art. While the American Impressionists of the 1880s and 1890s were the first American artists to depart stylistically from academic tradition in painting, the popularly-named Ash Can School was the first radical departure from traditional subject matter. I enjoy the work particularly of Everett Shinn, one of the less well-known artists of the group. Because of his interest in atmospheric interior scenes, his works have an intimacy that some of the other Ash Can artists lack.

The Eight Independent Artists (Ash Can School) was a group of eight Philadelphia painters encouraged by their leader Robert Henri (1865-1929) that anything was fair game as subject matter, even gritty street scenes of New York. Born in New Jersey, Shinn, like the other artists of The Eight, began his career as a newspaper and magazine illustrator in Philadelphia. In 1900 he traveled to Paris where it is highly likely that he saw the cabaret scenes of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the French Impressionist. While working in Philadelphia he met John Sloan, William Glackens, and George Luks. Inspired by Henri, these artists moved to New York and painted various scenes of urban life.

This painting shows Shinn’s interest in light and ambience, which he learned in Paris. The palette is different from the Impressionists, but the fluid brush strokes and filmy treatment of light and atmosphere all reveal the influence of Impressionism. The fluidity of Shinn’s brush work may also reflect the influence of Henri’s work, which was grounded in the Dark Impressionism style that ultimately used Baroque painting as an influence. American critics at the time were still not thrilled about Impressionism. They also rejected the Ash Can School artists’ tendency to present asymmetrical, dynamic, open compositions, such as this one, where the focal point is off to one side. Shinn, inspired by Degas, preferred to show vaudeville scenes from the orchestra pit in order to produce interesting lighting effects.

Starting in the 1920s, Shinn seems to have lost interest in painting scenes of urban life. Still interested in theater, his output consisted mostly of theatrical backdrops, including ones for the Ziegfield Follies. He also painted many murals, such as a large cycle on the history of New Jersey in the Trenton City Hall council chamber. His later paintings tended to be sketchy, suggestive nudes in interiors and escapist landscapes, but his work never again reflected an interest in realistic scenes of urban life.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Taste for the “Exotic”?

Having blossomed into teen-hood in the 1970s, I often like to compare some of the “art” that emerged in the 19th century with the 1970s. It’s like, “what were they thinking?” Then the art historian in me calms me down and I look at some of the more peculiar pieces from that period in an historical perspective. Historical influences on art in Western Europe were immense: the British “empire,” the numerous French revolutions, the Greek Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Crimean War and, most importantly, the rapid expansion of world-wide trade. All of these factors combined to make the 19th century the century of “anything goes” eclecticism.

Kaolin (the clay used for porcelain) was discovered in Limoges in 1772. This replaced the glass frit-infused clay of earlier porcelain, which was abandoned totally by the Sèvres Porcelain Factory in 1804. The Sèvres factory was bankrupt by 1798 because of the French Revolution (1789-1799). The appointment of Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1847) in 1800 turned the fortunes of the company around. Brongniart was a zoologist, chemist, botanist, and geologist who applied his scientific knowledge to porcelain production. New enamels were invented, new shapes (at the time primarily the Neoclassical style) were produced, and Brongniart designed a new kiln that was more efficient and cost-effective.

Under Brongniart’s tenure as head of Sèvres, Renaissance, Gothic, and even the not-so-long-ago Rococo period styles were copied. In a way, this historic eclecticism was seen as preserving art movements of the past. Often, however, when copying an object or decoration from a previous period, the Sèvres piece dwarfed the original object – bingo, the trademark of 19th century historicism, sort of like the Wild West in the US: the bigger the better and more of it. Not only were porcelain objects covered in enamel decoration, but gold leaf gilding was very popular overall.

This coffee pot is an exception to the over-abundance of decoration typical of the period, but it certainly conforms to the in-your-face design typical of the 19th century in European porcelain. The second half of the 19th century in Europe witnessed a series of international exhibitions displaying fine and “decorative” arts from around the world. Competition between British and French porcelain makers was particularly heated, as each country tried to establish themselves as pre-eminent in design and manufacture. This coffee pot was featured at the London 1862 International Exhibition. It was advertised as being of “oriental” inspiration, a euphemism for anything Asian.

In using an elephant’s head as the motif, this pot is closely aligned to the taste for exoticism that was part of the Romanticism movement of the 1830s through the 1850s. The elephant motif was a popular symbol of magnificence and luxury. This piece features the pâte-sur-pâte (paste upon paste) technique, which involved building up low sculptural relief on the surface of an unfired pot with successive layers of slip. Such pieces gained great popularity in France and England and were expensive luxury items. Marc Emmanuel Solon later brought the technique to the Minton porcelain factory in Staffordshire, England.

The Wallace Collection in London has a large collection of gorgeous Sèvres porcelain.

Monday, April 5, 2010

An Early Feminist Artist

Always on the lookout for artists who have been neglected by mainstream art history, I enjoy when a previously neglected artist finds new appreciation and reevaluation of her work. One such artist is Florine Stettheimer, who was active in the first half of the twentieth century. Even though women had gained some ground during the late nineteenth century as trained artists, the work of women artists was still not widely exhibited in the US. Interestingly enough, it was influential women who were in the forefront of introducing Americans to European modernism in the early part of the 20th century.

Stettheimer was born to a wealthy family from Rochester, New York. She studied painting under academic landscape painter Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) at the Art Students League in New York. Her earliest works reveal that she was a competent draftsperson. She also studied paintings of the Baroque and Rococo artists in Germany, as well as Expressionism. She was particularly affected by the brightly painted interiors of Rococo German pilgrimage churches. She also experienced the experiments in modernism in Paris.

When Stettheimer returned to New York in 1914, she and her sisters Carrie and Ettie soon formed a circle of avant-garde artists which included Europeans such as Marcel Duchamp (1887-1966), Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1958), and Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), as well as Americans like Charles Demuth (1883-1935) and Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). These artists experimented variously with Cubism, Dada, and Expressionism, which perhaps explains why Stettheimer turned her back on academic realism. However, she did not embrace any one European style, preferring to pursue her own path. She produced many portraits of her circle of artist friends, depicting their interactions with the American avant-garde.

Stettheimer’s first and only one person show was in 1916. She meticulously decorated the gallery for the opening, covering the walls with white muslin on which her bright paintings were hung and interspersing bouquets of flowers. She had created the first feminist environment, years ahead of those created by sculptor Louise Nevelson. However, the critics panned her show and paintings, ironically scorning the opening as “feminine.” Thereafter she only showed her works to select groups of people in her New York apartment.

Spring Sale at Bendel’s is a humorous look at the chaotic world of high fashion and New York’s elite. The soaring space she created is reminiscent of the great spaces of Baroque churches, while the high-key palette may reflect the influence of the painted German Rococo interiors. The composition of ambiguous space and willowy, jewel-like figures established a style that matured in her most famous works, the Cathedral series of the 1930s. In her use of fantastic, flattened forms, bright colors, and intentionally naïve space, she created a decorative surface that pointed the way to abstraction of the later 20th century. That fact, coupled with her personally nurturing avant-garde artists at a key moment in the history of American art, makes her a pioneering woman artist.