Monday, November 25, 2013

The Gettysburg Address and Art of Wartime

Isaac Dreyfus and Sons (printing firm, founded 1813, Basel, Switzerland), design by S. Chèvre (dates unknown), A. Lincoln, 1861. Lithograph(?) on silk ribbon, 21.6 x 12.4 cm (8 1/2 x 4 7/8”). © Library Company of Philadelphia. (LCP-65)
Last week was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a ten-sentence ode to the fallen of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863, of the Civil War (1861–1865). The death toll was over 51,000, a staggering number. President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) wrote a speech that still rings true in times of war. His noble wish for reconciliation in the midst of awful bloodshed caused me to muse on art that reflects times of war. All too often, however, it does not reflect Lincoln’s desire for peace. I always remember Yoda’s statement to Luke Skywalker after he had said his father was a great warrior, “Being a warrior does not make one great.”

This is a ribbon meant to commemorate Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. It’s not a flattering likeness, though, goodness knows, what Lincoln was facing would age any person. It is most likely a print copied from one of the many photographic portraits taken of Lincoln by Mathew Brady (1822–1896). In the day with no electronic media, such ribbons also served as campaign propaganda, along with copper tokens bearing a candidate’s likeness, trade cards, and even small effigies of candidates such as puppets and wooden figures. This inauguration image sadly reminds us of the horror the US was about to face in the Civil War.

Ancient Meroë (flourished ca. 700 bce–300 ce), Prince Arikankharer Slaying Enemies, 25–41 ce. Sandstone, 21.4 x 25.4 x 4.9 cm (8 7/16” x 10” x 1 15/16”). © Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-424)
The kingdom of ancient Meroë (southern Nubia, contemporary Sudan) co-existed with ancient Egypt on the southern end of the Nile, and adopted many of their artistic conventions. One such convention, unfortunately, was lauding a ruler as a great military leader in sclupture. Although this prince died young, he is depicted as a zealous defender of his kingdom.

Ancient Rome, Trajan Addressing His Troops, from the Column of Trajan, Rome, ca 112 ce. Marble. © Davis Publications. (8S-4763)
This monument was dedicated to the Roman emperor Trajan (ruled 98–117 ce) and his military campaigns against the “barbarians” along the Danube River (Austria) ca. 102–107 ce. Apparently crushing the native people of Germany, Switzerland, and France was not enough for the Romans. They conquered any culture they thought would be a threat. This column celebrates Trajan’s victory over the Dacians (Austrians) thus (supposedly) lending stability to the Empire. Roman art sought to not only honor ancestors, but also their deeds. Depictions of the deeds of emperors were spread throughout the Empire in the form of public sculpture.

Maya, Cup depicting victorious warriors (members of the Jaguar Guild), ca. 550–950 ce. Painted ceramic, 15.9 x 13.7 x 13.7 cm (6 1/4” x 5 3/8” x 5 3/8”). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1750)

The Maya dominated Central America from Mexico through Guatemala and Honduras. Their culture flourished between 800 bce and roughly 1100 ce. It was unfortunately a society steeped in martial ritual, as many ancient cultures were. The Jaguar Guild was an elite warrior society that is represented here, on a ceremonial cup, as well as in temples and tombs. They wear animal headdresses and the jaguar symbol is belted around their waists.


What war isn’t stupid? This sculpture commemorates an event during the Hundred Years War (begun by the British in 1337) when the English besieged Calais and asked for the six most prominent citizens as sign of surrender. Rodin’s expressionistic depiction of this grim event in French history was influential on modernism in art of the early 1900s.

Diego Rivera (1886–1957, Mexico), Agrarian Leader Zapata, 1931. Fresco, 238.1 x 188 cm (93 3/4” x 74”). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 Diego Rivera / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P0747riars)
Rivera was a leader in the revival of frescoes and wall paintings. He did so in commemoration of the Mexican Revolution (1910). Through his murals, Rivera sought to elevate the Mexican people’s self image as divorced from Spanish conquest. This fresco depicts a famous Mexican revolutionary who was fighting for the rights of poor farmers during the Revolution.

Gino Severini (1883–1956, Italy), Armored Train in Action, 1915. Oil on canvas, 117 x 88 cm (46.1” x 34 5/8”). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 Gino Severini / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P2224svars)
Futurism was an offshoot of Cubism. It emphasized movement and the mechanized age. This work paints a pretty picture of an otherwise grisly phenomenon on World War I (1914–1918). It aptly blends the Cubist emphasis of time elapsed action with the brilliant color associated with Post-Impressionism.

An-My Lê (born 1960, Vietnam), 25 Palms: Infantry Platoon, from the book “Small Wars,” 2003–2004. Gelatin silver print, 67.3 x 96.7 cm (26 1/2” x 38”). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 An-My Lê. (MOMA-P4235)
Lê was a migrant to the US after the fall of Saigon in 1975. She has since used photography to explore the ironies of war and the cost on human lives. This series of photographs documents the training of US soldiers for the war in Iraq. The desolate landscape enhances the idea that war is a waste.

Monday, November 18, 2013

An Ode to “Swiss”


I just returned from a week in Switzerland to visit family. Walking through their churches—stripped of all sculpture, painting, and Biblical stained glass because of the Reformation’s frowning on “idolatry”—I mused that few people realize that the “Renaissance” happened in countries other than Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and Flanders. Also, I think most people do not realize how much Swiss artists have been an intricate part of art history right up to the present day.

As part of the stylistic term “Northern Renaissance,” the Swiss version was a very short-lived period. It was fueled by the wealth of booty taken from the Flemish ruler Duke Charles the Bold (died 1477), who tried to establish a Flemish kingdom from Flanders through Alsace to Italy through Switzerland, but the Swiss defeated him in Murten (Morat) and then Nancy. The brief explosion of money available for art commissions was extinguished in the Protestant Reformation that evolved in Switzerland around 1523–1525. Most artists assisted in the destruction of their own artworks that depicted Biblical scenes.

Bern was an active center of painting and also stained glass works. Most painters supplemented their incomes by doing stained glass. Many Swiss artists of the period naturally visited Rome and other Italian centers of art to learn the latest style.  After the Reformation, allegorical, classical and mythological scenes were popular, as was, particularly, the celebration of lineage through windows donated to churches by wealthy families. This window, dedicated to a wealthy burger of Bern, displays the peculiar influences that dominated Swiss art through the 1600s: a combination of the Danube School and Italian Renaissance classical motifs.

Here are some other Swiss artists you may not know:

Jost Amman (1539–1591), Head of a Bearded Man, 1572. Ink and white wash on blue prepared paper, 15.6 x 11.5 cm (6 1/8” x 4 1/2”). © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P1034)
Amman, born in Zürich, was a prolific draughtsperson and printmaker. Unlike Gössler, he reflects more of the Danube School (German) influence in late Renaissance art, and he carries on the tradition of the great German Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). His work is quite similar to the German artist Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538). Works such as this allude to the Swiss penchant for mercenary military service.

Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789), Portrait of François Tronchin, 1757. Pastel on parchment, 38 x 46.3 cm (15” x 18 1/4”). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-45)
Although Liotard, a Genevois, studied and worked in Paris, he produced most of his portraits of the influential people of Geneva. Tronchin was a lawyer, writer, and art collector in Geneva. Liotard ably incorporates the 1700s Rococo style. While stressing a reserved elegance, Liotard endows the portrait with a dignity that alludes to his scholarly accomplishments. His beautiful pastel portraits measure up to the ablest French Rococo portraitists.

Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807), Portrait of Helena Mecinska, 1790s. Oil on canvas. Private Collection, Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-6487)
Born in Chur in Graubünden, like most women artists of her time, Kauffmann was trained by her artist father. She moved to Rome where her portraits became fashionable among English visitors. She subsequently moved to England for several years. Returning to Italy, she married a Venetian artist, and was buried in Rome with great pomp. Her portraits reflect the Neoclassicism of late 1700s and early 1800s painting. This portrait of a noble Polish woman in Rome is very similar to those of another prominent woman artist of the period, the French Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755–1842).

Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859–1923), Poster for Compagnie Française des Chocolats and des Thés, 1895. Color lithograph on paper, 30.7 x 23.2 cm (12 1/16” x 9 1/8”). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-951)
Starting in the late 1800s, Switzerland became a major influence in graphic design, particularly in poster art. Born in Lausanne, like many Swiss artists of the period, Steinlen migrated to Paris. His lithographs betray the influence of the French Post Impressionists, particularly the group called the Nabi, who reduced compositions to colored shapes and areas of contrasting patterns. Although he began as a painter, his major influence is in poster design.

Meret Oppenheim (1913–1985), Object, 1936. Fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon, saucer width: 23.7 cm (9 5/16”). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 Estate of Meret Oppenheim / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-S0108opars)
Born in Germany of a Swiss mother from Delémont, Oppenheim first exhibited the fur tea cup in Switzerland in 1936. She studied in Paris under such avant-garde surrealists as Jean Arp (1886–1966, born France), Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966, Switzerland), and André Breton (1896-1966, France). She exhibited in Surrealist exhibitions until 1960. Object takes an everyday piece and subjects it to the subconscious combination of irrational elements (such as the Chinese gazelle fur on a tea cup).

Paul Klee (1879–1940), Young Moe, 1938. Gouache on newspaper mounted on burlap, 53.0 x 70.8 cm (20 7/8” x 27 7/8”). The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. © 2013 Estate of Paul Klee / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PC-197klars)
Although associated with Germany because of his tenure at the Bauhaus, Klee was born and died in the Canton of Bern. He was a friend of my grandfather’s sister Helena. His personal form of fantasy had connections to Surrealism, but also the fragmentation of Cubism. This work combines both strains of early modernism.

Le Corbusier (Charles Édouard Jeanneret, 1887–1965), Notre-Dame-du-Haut, 1950–1954, Near Ronchamps, France. Photo © 2013 Davis Art Images. (8S-15093)
Born in La Chaux de Fonds, Le Corbusier became a French citizen in 1930. He is one of the pioneers of the International Style in architecture, in both the organic and geometric strains. This pilgrimage chapel is a perfect example of the organic strain emphasis on groupings of masses as opposed to strict geometry. Both strains avoid any undue surface ornament or allusions to classical architecture.

Silvia Bächli (born 1956), Lines 39, 2007. Ink on paper, 198.8 x 149.9 cm (78 1/4” x 59”). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 Silvia Bächli. (MOMA-P4358)
Basel-based artist Silvia Bächli is famous for her sparse, intricate drawings. Her work documents detailed aspects of the physical world. She believes that the drawing exists beyond the edge of the paper, so that her works take on the nature of close-up objects. Lines 39 could represent the weave of a textile, or merely Bächli’s interpretation of that. She currently is also working with photography.