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.