Monday, January 30, 2012

A Forgotten Woman Artist

I always like to introduce you to artists who, I think, have been marginalized in “official” art history surveys of western (or non-western for that matter) art. Because Paris was has been considered the “art center” of the western world in the first three decades of the 20th century, it is hard to learn about certain artists outside of that sphere, especially British women who emigrated there. The atmosphere in Paris in the first decade of the 20th century was so rich that it inspired many artists to bring their work to maturity. Being in a rich artistic environment wherein artists share ideas and techniques and talk about the latest trends has got to be one of the most excellent experiences! Well, Gwen John lived through the period when Picasso was experimenting with Cubism, and when Matisse, Brancusi, and Modigliani were also shattering the ideas of traditional art. However, she remains quite apart stylistically.

Gwen John was the sister of an influential artist of the academic bent with Pre-Raphaelite tendencies. In 1895 she went to the Slade School of Art in London, where she honed her skills in drawing. Drawing would be the hallmark of her oeuvre. She moved to Paris in 1904 and became involved with the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917). It does not seem that she drew any influence from Rodin, except for, perhaps, the pathos that is evident in her painted and drawn works.

After 1910, she concentrated on still life, interiors, and, especially, single figures of women. This portrait is one of many that John did of her friend Chloe Boughton-Leigh. In the painted portraits of Boughton-Leigh, we are reminded of British Romantic painting, particularly the links to Mannerism of the Renaissance. Also, in many ways, the elongation of form reminds one of Modigliani, who was working in Paris at the time. However, the melancholy infused in the figure is seen in many of John’s portraits of women. It could represent her unhappy relationship with Rodin, but it may also relate in a broader sense to the melancholy that infused European Expressionism, a period in European history that was unsettled and on the verge of war.

Gwen John is a unique, singular voice in British painting at a time when all the focus was on Paris (Picasso, etc). Her work is a contribution to Expressionism that is little studied because most of her work was figurative. I find her work to be the British manifestation of Expressionism. Her typical subject matter of women, isolated on a blank background, speaks volumes about the state of women at the turn of the twentieth century, on the cusp of acceptance, and yet not quite there.

Activity:   Draw a portrait of a classmate expressing feelings or mood. First draw the shape of the sitter’s head large on the paper. Be sure that the eyes are in the right spot by looking at the classmate. Add features to show expression. Use pastels, crayons or colored pencils to fill in the portrait. Add background details to help heighten the expression. Color choices for the face can also heighten the expression.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 2.7; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.2, 6.32; A Global Pursuit: 8.1; A Personal Journey: 3.2, 6.1; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 3, 7, 10, 16.6

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mask for Theater

There are so many aspects of Japanese culture that I find absolutely fascinating; I could keep writing this blog for years! As with many countries around the world and throughout history, art is an intrinsic part of many traditional cultural phenomena in Japan. What I especially appreciate about the connection between the arts and Japanese cultural life (such as theater, dancing, and religion) is the emphasis on subtlety. This is particularly true of the time-honored form of theater called Nô (or Noh).

Noh theater originated between the 8th and 14th centuries ce in Japan. It is possibly based on the Chinese form of satirical dance (gigaku in Japan) that involved silent, masked performances accompanied by music. The art form was originally performed in temples in Japan, but eventually became the favored art form of the nobility, samurai class, and shogunate. The present form evolved in the fourteenth century, which became highly symbolic plays that expressed the subjects of pain of loss, revenge, love of family, and honor.

There is often a contrast between the physical and ghost world. Because the Noh involved evocative,    esoteric subject matter, it was favored by the wealthy rather than the middle class. Noh theater presents slow, exaggerated movement, both dialogue and singing from the masked figures and the 6–8 member “chorus,” and  bare stages that have a pine tree painted backdrop. This backdrop was in respect for the centuries old custom of holding Noh plays in temple grounds where the only stage setting was a large wooden platform in a park surrounded with pines. Much of the stark simplicity of Noh plays is reflective of the influence of Zen Buddhism, among which the tenets are serenity, simplicity, and spontaneity.

This mask is one of six types of female characters from Noh plays. As with Kabuki at the time, female roles were taken by men. The masks helped establish the character. There were several types of female masks. This is Shakumi, the strong, beautiful older woman. Shakumi is always distinguished by the stray strands of hair beginning after her crown. This mask might be meant to communicate sorrow at a dead loved-one or missing spouse, longing for a loved one, or regret at actions taken against a loved one. The mask presents the epitome of Japanese female beauty, much of which is actually based on depictions of the Buddha. Interestingly, the teeth are tarred, as gleaming white teeth were considered vulgar, and the eyebrows are shaved off and painted higher, a fashion that indicated the woman was to be considered intelligent.

In the modern period, women as well as men take Noh roles. However, the plays presented are traditional. Many young Japanese actors have become famous for their portrayal of Noh dynasty characters. Noh masks are still made in the traditional manner, carved out of Japanese cypress wood. 

Correlations to Davis programs:   Explorations in Art Grade 1: 5.29-30 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.33-34 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.30, 5.29-30 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.35; Exploring Visual Design: 2, 7, 8, 10

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Subject as Art

Did you ever find it hard to decide what the most significant aspect of a work of art is? This can happen when we look at a work and find multiple levels of meaning, aside from purely aesthetic concerns. The works of many contemporary artists show a reverence for not only styles of the past but of techniques and materials, to the point where those become some of the most compelling aspects of the work.

Yoon Kwang-cho is an acclaimed ceramic artist from South Korea. He studied in Seoul, and, like many of his peers, he derived inspiration from the ceramic tradition of Korea’s past. Korea’s long history of ceramic production dates back at least to 5000 bce. Yoon was particularly inspired by punch’ong ware, a type of stoneware popularized between the 14th and 16th centuries [the Joseon Dynasty period (1392-1910)], which was an indigenous Korean ware. A variety of decorative techniques including stamped, incised, and inlaid motifs is indicative of punch’ong. Typically, the design is achieved with an initial blue-green glaze covered in white slip through which the design is scratched.

Although inspired by styles from the past, Yoon’s forms are not typical of traditional Korean wares. They are triangular, elliptical, and rectangular, almost impossible to achieve on the wheel. His forms are slab-built and often take on the spirit of sculpture rather than pottery. While emulating ancient decorative techniques, he also infuses his works with a modern aesthetic.  

Yoon feels that an artist should put heart into his or her work, feeling that punch’ong works lie beyond the concept of traditional aesthetics, and reflect aspects of nature itself. Interestingly, this piece conveys a time-honored Buddhist tradition from China, Korea, and Japan in the copying of the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is a Mahayana Buddhist text, one of the most popular of Buddhist scriptures, concerned with the perfection of wisdom. Yoon used a nail to incise through the slip.

There are many other examples of works of art that emphasize subject just as much as technique or form:

Mark Dion is concerned with our throw-away society and the impact it has on the environment. Works such as Neukom Vivarum focus on the reverence for untouched nature, ironically “packaged” in an installation. (ART21DI-169)

While we admire the beauty of ancient Egyptian coffins, we sometimes forget that the ritual of mummification and burial were essential to Egyptian beliefs about resurrection after death. All the most significant art that has come down to us from ancient Egypt revolves around the funerary rituals. (DMA-59A)

Posters are the easiest way to see subject matter trumping style. During World War II (1939–1945), posters carried important messages to the public, such as this one to warn people about how to dress during blackouts. (MOMA-D0541)

Activity: Create a rectangular, triangular or multiple-sided vessel out of clay using the slab method. After the shape is complete, create a design using personal symbols. Sketch out symbols that mean something personally, and arrange them on paper before committing them to the vessel with a nail, pencil, or other pointed object.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3 17-18 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 6.29-30 studio; A Global Pursuit: 4.3; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 6, 10, 11; The Visual Experience: 10.6, 13.6

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Happy Festive Days

In Switzerland, the time between Christmas and New Year is called “Feschttage,” which I guess could loosely translate to “holidays.” I prefer to think of it as “festive days.” In that spirit, as a bright burst into the New Year, I present to you the work of a painter I find Amazing (yes with a capital A): Linda Besemer.  Like many of the artists I show you, she is a true original. Abstraction, Hard Edge, Minimalism, her work covers it. My take on her work— as a painter—is a love of color. Too bad some artists like Mondrian didn’t include more color in their minimalist work!                                    

Besemer’s work is an exploration of pure color and the very nature (plasticity and physicality) of the two-dimensional painting medium. Her works challenge traditional ideas about art, and even abstraction itself. Without the benefit of support of any kind, Besemer creates sheets of pure acrylic paint with patterns on both sides. Like this one, they are often draped over an aluminum rod, further confounding the strict definition of “painting.” In her assertion of the medium itself as subject, Besemer follows a distinguished line of feminist artists starting in the 1970s whose work shatters the perceived boundaries of fine art.

Besemer’s process involves painstaking precision so that preferred colors are juxtaposed with one another after the fold. She applies thin skins of acrylic paint on a sheet of glass, peeling it off after it dries. The paintings in her fold series are inevitably dynamic tour-de-force of hard-edge compositions, although the contrast of the front and back patterns introduces the perception of space and of the paint as a three-dimensional object. This is a total reinvention of the concept of the picture plane!

Besemer received her BA and MFA at Indiana University and Tyler School of Art. She teaches at Occidental College in Los Angeles. In recent works, she has introduced curving lines creating an Op Art type of visual movement.

Activity: Create a nonobjective artwork with either Organic lines and shapes or geometric lines and shapes that expresses a mood. Draw several large shapes first. Add more lines and shapes to create a feeling of mothion. Add color to embolden the message of the work.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Community Connection: 9.1; A Global Pursuit: 7.2; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12