Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Memorial Day

I think it’s appropriate—with so many new veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—to salute American soldiers this Memorial Day. My daddy was a veteran of the army in World War II (Pacific) and it never fails to amaze me how so many veterans go through harrowing experiences in war and are expected to come home to resume normal lives. Unfortunately, since Vietnam, it has become harder for veterans to achieve this. I would like to reflect on one of the most divisive, destructive, and deadly wars in US history—the Civil War (1861–1865) —and the effect it had on art. It is really unfortunate that there are so many soldiers who have become anonymous. This photograph of an unknown soldier sort of sums up my feelings about war and the waste of lives. But this portrait also points to the pride in our military and their dedication to defending this country.

The Civil War was the first war documented by photography. Unfortunately, it was the war that resulted in many advances in the art form. The importance of photography from that period on was its ability to document facts without any emotional or subjective interpretation. Matthew Brady was one of the earliest and most prominent of the early photographic portraitists in the US. But it was his Civil War photographs that made him one of the most important photographers in the early decades of photography.

Brady was the son of poor Irish immigrants who arrived in New York in the mid-1830s. In the 1840s he was introduced to the artist Samuel F.B. Morse (1791–1872, inventor of the telegraph), who had introduced the Daguerreotype process to the United States. By 1844, Brady had established a portrait studio, and by the 1850s, he had fashionable portrait studios in Washington, DC and New York. He was a friend to politicians and other members of elite society. He had an unerring sense of what the public wanted, and set high standards of quality.

Sensing that photography was destined for more than just being a commercial enterprise, he closed his portrait studios and set out to document the war in 1861. He had sturdy wagons constructed for carrying the glass plates, chemicals, and other equipment. During the war, Brady risked his life to take many of the photographs himself, although he still relied on numerous assistants, many of whom never got credit for their work. This straight portrait of a soldier is typical of his aesthetic for the venture: he was recording historical fact. This iconic portrait of an unknown soldier is emblematic of the power of photography even at this early stage in its development.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Art of Fiber


The Davis Art Gallery is currently holding a show called The Art of Fiber. It has always interested me that fiberarts were considered a “minor art.” It is one of the oldest art forms next to ceramics. Speaking as a person who considers a beautifully presented plate in a restaurant as a work of art, I have a hard time considering something like this carpet anything less than a work of art. How often do we say something like a donut or bouquet from a florist is a “work of art”? I guess this could be considered my ongoing ode to things in everyday life that are works of art although they are not observed as such. 

Textiles were used for a variety of purposes outside of clothing by all members of Islamic societies. Unlike Western Europe, where furniture was designed to elevate activities off the cold, damp floor, a rug or mat was sufficient to keep down dust and provide warmth during the brief cold season. The use of textiles instead of furniture meant that one room could serve multiple functions. Curtains and rugs were hung on the wall, provided privacy in doorways, and served as dining and sleeping cover for the floor. Cushions were used to support people while eating. 



Textiles were particularly important for nomads, who used material to carry their belongings. As nomadic groups entered into mainstream Islamic society, their tent types were adapted for use by the wealthy, varying in size and the luxury of materials used. Luxurious textiles were known in Muslim lands from the earliest period, for the Koran speaks in several places of the sumptuous fabrics to be enjoyed in Paradise (Koran 22:23, 35:33, 55.54). Additionally, the Prophet’s cloak figures prominently in many parts of the Koran. Four fibers were used for textiles in Islamic lands: wool and linen around the Mediterranean, and cotton and silk in Asia.  This piece is particularly interesting for the combination of wool and silk. Wool and silk were typical combinations in European tapestries during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Activity: Making a Yarn Painting. Sketch an animal or plant on a piece of cardboard or composition board. Use squeeze bottle glue to initially outline the subject in black yarn. Fill in the subject and background in various colors of yarn.  For large areas where the yarn needs to be laid down in concentric rows, use a brush to apply the glue.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.36 studio, Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.31

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

An Ode to Mothers


In my ode to mothers, after Mother’s Day, I dedicate this blog to my blessed mother who passed several years ago, and my dear mother-in-law. When I think of how much grief my mother put up with raising twin sons alone after my daddy was killed, I always think of mothers who put up with a lot worse, including losing children in wars. We certainly now have many mothers who have lost sons and daughters in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I’d like to offer this print by Charles White as a tribute to mothers who have put up with a lot more than just a pair of “tornado twins,” and who represent the backbone of every society on the planet. Often I feel that just having one day devoted to mothers is entirely not enough. They’re on duty 24/7 year round!

Charles White (1918–1917 US) benefited greatly from the impetus given black artists during the Harlem Renaissance (ca. 1918–1939). The Harlem Renaissance gave him, and other black artists, a cultural orientation. White felt that the writers and artists of the movement gave African Americans an awareness of their cultural identity. There was intent by black artists of the period to reflect African American life rather than follow trends in European modernist circles. That being the case, White’s marriage to artist Elizabeth Catlett (1919–2012) helped introduce him to trends in European modernism that he adopted in his art from the 1930s to mid-1940s. While painting murals for the WPA in the late 1930s, White learned that art could help uplift black people and give them pride in their culture. He decided during this period to concentrate of drawing and graphic arts as his preferred medium.

This print shows the cubist influence in White’s work of the late 1930s and early 1940s, an aspect that he eventually abandoned in the late 1940s because he felt it lessened the human impact of his subjects. Nonetheless, this work makes an important statement in the history of American art, and American society.
It was not just white mothers who suffered the loss of their sons and daughters in World War II (1939–1945). African American mothers also suffered the loss of sons and daughters serving their country in segregated regiments. This print serves to show how mothers are the backbone of every society. Despite the cubistic treatment of the subject, White created a monumental image in a Renaissance-style pyramidal composition. It’s a solid statement about mothers.

Visit www.goldstarmoms.com For more about Gold Star Mothers (those awaiting missing children during war).

Another Mother theme by White: Take My Mother Home 

Activity: Exploring different media to capture expression or mood. Draw a real or imaginary face, making sure to consider realistic proportions. By paying attention to extreme changes in value (light and dark), the portrait can capture a mood or expression. Use media like charcoal, crayon, or soft pencil so that it is easier to achieve a wide range of dark and light values.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.2, 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 Personal Journey: 2.2; A Community Connection: 7.1; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10; The Visual Experience: 4.4; Discovering Art History: 15.4

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Guess Who?

As a painter myself, I find it fascinating to watch a famous painter’s progress from early to late work. In the case of Edgar Degas (1834–1917), I’m always over the top because he is one of my idols as a painter. Just like Monet (1840–1926), he continued to grow as an artist throughout his life. His earliest works are totally in the realm of Realism. Although, I must say, his realist works are forward looking, unlike the stale, academic works of the artists under which he studied. Please enjoy this self-portrait; I think it will give you a different perspective on Degas’ work. Goodness knows it busts the perception that Degas painted nothing but ballerinas under lit by the footlights on stage! With this painting, we’re not talking about Degas as an Impressionist.

Although he initially went to school to study law, Degas eventually studied art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a conservative institution. While there, his major influences were the academic realist Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) and the romanticist Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). From Ingres he learned expressive line while learning expressive color from Delacroix. He also studied in Italy, his father’s homeland, where he encountered the French symbolist Gustave Moreau (1826–1898).  

This portrait displays everything that Degas learned from Ingres, while infusing it with the dramatic lighting of the Romanticism painters. It displays the conservative, academic palette (green-yellow-brown) in which he was trained, so different from the Impressionist palette that most of us are used to seeing in his work. It also displays the influence of Spanish and Dutch Baroque painting that greatly influenced Degas’ early work. The pyramidal, balanced composition is totally in keeping with Renaissance and Baroque portraiture, especially self-portraits of Spanish Baroque artists such as Velázquez. Although Degas has depicted himself in a serious, almost dour attitude, the viewer is drawn to the portrait for its honesty and forthright outward stare. It is not the dull, generalized stare of Renaissance or Baroque portraits.

To me, this self-portrait exudes all of the intensity of Degas’ personality. Degas never partnered with anyone because he thought it would be a distraction from his artwork. This early work shows his affinity for Dutch and Spanish Baroque painting. However, by 1868 he was fascinated by the paintings of Édouard Manet (1832–1883), a realist who turned toward the Impressionist palette in the 1870s.

Activity: Drawing a portrait emphasizing light and dark. Degas emphasized his long nose and small chin in his self-portrait. Draw a self-portrait that emphasizes particular features of the face regardless if it is realistic or not. Using dark-colored construction paper, draw a self-portrait using light colored chalks or colored pencils to emphasize the light-struck surfaces of the face, body, etc.

Correlations to Davis programs:   Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.33 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.2; A Personal Journey: 6.1; Exploring Visual Design: 3, 7, 10; The Visual Experience: 5.2, 16.4; Discovering Art History 12.3