Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Early Renaissance Sculpture

Flanders, Unknown Artist, Head of Christ, early 1400s. Gessoed and painted wood, 11” x 7 5/8” x 8 3/8” (27.9 x 19.4 x 21.3 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-800)

Just this week, I became reacquainted with this BEAUTIFUL head from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, probably from Flanders/Burgundy. Being half-Swiss I naturally gravitated in college to the study of the Renaissance in northern Europe. I’ve been to many, many churches in Switzerland and have found some of the most amazing (sometimes) life-sized sculptures, including a Lamentation group in the cathedral in Fribourg. The reason this head from Albright-Knox struck me is that northern European Renaissance art is often denigrated when compared to what was going on in Italy during that “rebirth.”  As you probably know by now, I’m not a big fan of Italian Renaissance art, because it is used by many art historians as a “measuring stick” in all other art, including non-western art.

There is not a strong tradition of freestanding sculpture in northern Europe during the Renaissance in Europe until the 1500s. The strongest tradition of sculpture in northern Europe came in the form of jamb figures in northern churches. Northern artists were not surrounded by the sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome, as were Italian artists of the period. Northern sculpture tended to continue the Gothic tradition of emphasis on the emotional / spiritual, rather than the physical.

That being said, I find northern Renaissance sculpture to be particularly compelling because of the emotional content, as opposed to the Italian Renaissance emphasis on classical balance and calm. This head of the crucified Christ, probably from a life-sized lamentation group, is particularly stunning in its realism and striking pathos (especially in the barely open eyelids). Wooden sculptures such as this were usually painted, often with a thin layer of plaster or gesso over the wood.

Ironically, this application of paint copies classical Greek sculpture more than Italian Renaissance renditions of their ideas of classicism in pure white stone or marble. Regardless of religious conviction, this head is profoundly beautiful in its carving, as much as I would admire the head of a bodhisattva or the Buddha from Asia.
While Italian artists consciously attempted to reproduce the ancient Greek and Roman emphasis on the physical body (they had lots of nude sculptures to copy), northern artists emphasize a sort of expressionistic spiritual force. This was manifested particularly compellingly in German works in the Zackenstil (zig-zag style), that obsessed with pointed, often amazingly complex drapery, that effectively obscured most reference to the physical body underneath. Riemenschneider is one of my favorites who dealt with this. Notice in his Saint Stephen how there are very few references to the underlying body parts beneath the zig-zag drapery, although hands and face are treated very convincingly.


Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455, Italy), Aaron, from the Gates of Paradise, Baptistry, Florence, c. 1425–1452. Gilt bronze. Davis Art Images. (8S-12666)


Donatello (c. 1386–1466, Italy), Saint John the Evangelist, 1408–1415. Marble, height: 82 11/16” (210 cm). Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. (8S-5840)
When we look at Italian works from the same period as the Head of Christ, we see striking similarities to the Riemenschneider of a century later. Ghiberti has certainly mastered the contra-posto (hipshot) pose from antiquity, and Donatello has certainly indicated the body masses beneath the robes similar to antique models. However in both artists’ work, the exuberant drapery of the Gothic period (c. 1200–1400) persists. And notice the similarity of the treatment of the beards on the two Italian examples compared to our Head of Christ. I wonder if one has to part a goatee and add curlers to achieve that look?

While the Flemish sculpture is certainly realistic, the Italian examples seem much more like portraits rather than interpretations of facial features. All in all, although I have an abiding love of northern European sculpture, I can’t say I like it more than the Italian examples from the same period. The art historian in me appreciates the qualities of both styles.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Community Connection: 3.2, A Global Pursuit: 4.4, Discovering Art History: 10.1, The Visual Experience: 15.8, Beginning Sculpture: 5

Monday, May 19, 2014

Americans Abroad

Charles Caryl Coleman (18401928, United States), A Shower of Ashes Upon Ottaviano, April 14, 1906. Pastel on blue-gray paper, 10 ½” x 8 7/16” (26.8 x 21.4 cm). © Brooklyn Museum of Art. (BMA-3164)
This offering is not so much about Americans abroad as it is for my admiration of any artist who can work in pastels. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how I always longed to become proficient in the medium. It is considered a painting medium, because pastel is a ground pigment suspended in chalk and gum (mixed with a little bit of water or oil) instead of oil. It is worked the same way as oil painting, from the dark underpainting to light. While many think of it as a drawing medium like chalk, believe me, it is not that easy. I’ve tried it and ripped up all of my attempts. I’ll stick with true oils! However, I still love what other artists have achieved with this medium.

My fascination with Charles Caryl Coleman, aside from his mastery of pastels, is the fact that he shared a viewpoint about art prevalent in the mid to late 1800s in both Europe and America. It was the idea about the “superiority”of the art of the Renaissance before Raphael (14831520, Italy). Some art historians call this taste “Pre-Raphaelite.” I call it an academic movement that perpetuated the western ideal of the “supremacy” of ancient Greek and Roman art that was so dominant in the 1800s.

Coleman was born in Buffalo, NY. Unlike his contemporaries of the Hudson River School, he was among those American artists who gravitated towards European schools. He would be the second generation of American artists to do so, the first including Benjamin West (17381820) and John Singleton Copley (17381815). He was not affected by the Impressionist tendencies of some Americans who studied in Europe, namely Childe Hassam (18591935). Coleman intially studied with the academic painter William Holbrook Beard (18241900) in New York.

William H. Beard (18201900, United States), March of Silenus, c. 1862. Oil on canvas, 45” x 35” (114.3 x 88.9 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-196)
Coleman moved to Paris in 1859, where he studied under the artists of the Barbizon School, a group of realists, many of whom painted outdoors. One of his teachers was Thomas Couture (18151879 France). He also painted with the American Elihu Vedder (18361923).

Thomas Couture (1815-1879, France), Head of a Woman, 1876. Oil on canvas, 18 x 15” (45.7 x 38.1 cm). © Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-754)


After serving in the Civil War (18601865), Coleman returned to Europe, eventually settling in Capri in 1880. He joined a community of ex-patriate American artists working in the classical/academic style. 

Herein lies my fascination with his work. He documented many of the eruptions of Vesuvius on the mainland, including that of 1906 that wiped out the town of Ottaviano. I can’t think of a more ominously beautiful rendition of such a catastrophe. I’m sure Coleman did these studiesand that from 1913from observation. 

Charles Caryl Coleman, View of Vesuvius, Effect at 11:25 am, December 21, 1913. Pastel on paper, 24 3/16” x 18” (61.4 x 45.6 cm). © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-1653)
They are absolutely, stunningly beautiful and they vie admirably with any studies of nature produced by the Impressionists! Interestingly, at the time Coleman produced these beautiful pastels, the American artists who had pioneered Impressionism in the US were slowly being considered “passé.” Go figure.

Correlation to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19, 4.23; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.7; Exploring Painting: Chapter 8; Experience Painting: Chapter 3

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Comfort and Ingenuity

Thomas E. Warren (1808–?, designer, United States); and American Chair Company (1826–1958, Troy, NY, maker), Centripetal Spring Chair, c. 1849–1858. Cast-iron, wood, modern upholstery and trim, original fringe, 34 ¼” x 23 ½” x 28 ¼” (87 x 59.7 x 71.8 cm). © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-3500)

One of the most charming things, I think, is the enthusiasm of American designers after the “Industrial Age” kicked off in the early- to mid-1800s. The phenomenon led to the mass-production of many every-day things, including furniture. Unfortunately, it also led to the mass-production of crap. The rapid mass-production in factories of everything from furniture to vases is what encouraged  the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s. The Arts and Crafts movement was appalled by mass-production and wanted artists to get back into designing and creating their own works, including furniture. That being said (and don’t shoot me now) I find this chair strangely elegant, if notwithstanding, very uncomfortable. (Added note: what’s with the wheels on late 1800s furniture? Answer: convenience and mass production. It allowed increasingly busy people to move furniture from one room to another without having to buy sets of furniture for each room!)

I’ve talked about the history of furniture before in this blog, and how it historically accommodated the various changes in how human beings are comfortable. During the mid- to late 1800s, comfort sometimes went out the window when design was emphasized. However, this chair, designed as an office chair, bucked the trend while highlighting American ingenuity.

Cast-iron has been around since ancient times, but was only exploited in a major way for design purposes starting in the late 1700s, an example of which is the Severn River bridge in Coalbrookdale, Britain. Learn more about this bridge in my post “A Look at Bridges.”

Thomas Pritchard (1723–1777) and Abraham Darby III (1750–1789), The Iron Bridge, Coalbrookdale, Britain, 1776–1779. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-23663)
Cast-iron revolutionized architecture, because slender cast-iron columns allowed for larger windows and less massive masonry in high-rise buildings. Starting in the US, it led to the rapid development of the “skyscraper”.  It also allowed for decorative building facades that were less ponderous and cheaper than stone and brick examples.

The Centripetal Office Chair was exhibited in 1851 at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry in London in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. The building itself was a bold design of cast-iron and glass.

Note: the fountain in the middleground was also cast-iron.

The chair was hailed as a great modern use of industrial knowledge, considering that the springs were modeled on those of the undercarriages of railroad cars. It is actually symbolic of the start of the aesthetic of modern American office furniture. However, it found little success (sales-wise outside the US) after the Great Exhibition, because it was deemed “too comfortable” for a “proper” office atmosphere. I find it fascinating that Warren based his design on railroad car technology, and then thought to “fancy” it up with lavish upholstery, and a decorative fringe to hide the cast-iron steel support. The curvy cast-iron framework is grounded in the Rococo Revival style that was huge between the 1850s and 1860s.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.15-16, The Visual Experience 12.4, Discovering Art History 2.2

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ode to Wood


The Davis Art Gallery just opened a show called “All About Wood.” In that spirit, I’m showing you one of my favorite wood pieces. Several years ago at a Christmas party we played an art history game (yes!) where we had to do charades of an iconic work of art. My friend Christine got this work as was immediately guessed right for her impersonation of Baby Girl. I love Marisol’s work because it combines sculpture with painting.

The Pop Art movement in the 1960s arose in reaction to the domination of Abstract Expressionism in American art. The movement parodied modern American commercial culture. Marisol’s sculptures are often associated with Pop Art because of her witty renditions of everyday American life and her political statements.

Marison was raised in Caracas, Venezuela, and when 11 years old, attended boarding school in New York. After studying art in Los Angeles and Paris, she settled in New York permanently. New York at the time was the center of the Pop Art movement’s exploration of American popular culture. Marisol originally studied painting, but dropped it as her emphasis after seeing rough wooden folk sculpture in Maine. Her work of the 1960s was composed of rough-hewn wooden cores, incorporating everyday objects and painted surfaces.

In 1958, Marisol had her first one-person show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, a major representative of many Pop artists. She also showed regularly at the Estudio Actual in Caracas. In 1963 her work was included in the exhibit “American 1963” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While some critics perceived her work as Pop Art, it involved sophisticated carving and painting. It was evident to other critics that her works were less satirical and superficial than the Pop artists.

Baby Girl is part of a series of works Marisol did on the family theme.

The Family, 1962. Painted wood and other materials, 82 5/8” x 65 ½” x 15 ½” (overall 209.98 x 166.3 x 39.3 cm), in three sections. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2014 Marisol / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-S1000esvg)

In part, the series was meant to explode the myth put forward in American advertising about the “dream” American family. Although the wood mass recalls American folk sculpture, it also strongly recalls the carved stone stelae of Central American Mayan culture in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The verticality and mass of these pieces give Marisol’s work gravity not evident in much of Pop Art imagery.

The gently satirical nature of Baby Girl can be linked to the tradition of satire in the penny press throughout Latin America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Like many of Marisol’s works, Baby Girl represents the common people and reflects the artist’s connection to the Latin American tradition of creating art the public is meant to understand.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 9-10 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 6.3-4 studio; A Global Pursuit: 5.5; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 10.13; Discovering Art History: 17.2: Beginning Sculpture: 5, 6