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