Monday, October 31, 2016

An Autumn Idyll from Japan


One of the most fascinating things I learned (among many fascinating things) while studying Japanese culture and art when in college, was that Japanese scholars would routinely debate the virtues of an autumn over a spring garden, or vice versa. I had an epiphany in this philosophical exploration once while I lived in Chicago, when I saw an ostensibly dead garden in November, with dried up chrysanthemums. A light snow had covered the dying blossoms and other brown aspects of the garden and I realized that my vote would be for an autumn garden! Just as I appreciate the way Luminist artists (of the Hudson River School) captured the essence of autumnal landscape color and light, Japanese artists are particularly adept at summing up, very succinctly, the essence of autumn.   

Sakai Hōitsu (1762–1828, Japan), Autumn Leaves and Chrysanthemums. Ink and colors on paper fan mounted as an album leaf, 6 3/4" x 19 3/16" (17.2 x 48.7 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-731)
What more appropriate symbols for autumn than turning maple leaves and chrysanthemums. I just love mums, and, they are the official flower of Japan and a symbol of the imperial family. The Japanese liken the radial symmetry of the mum to the sun’s rays. And after all, who doesn’t think “autumn” when one sees mums?

This is a sedate piece for Sakai, who was the standard bearer for the Korin school of painting during the later Edo period (1615–1868). The Tokugawa military dictators (shogun) who ruled Japan during the Edo period virtually isolated Japan from the rest of the world. Japanese artists therefore looked to Japanese art of glorious periods from the past. The master Ogata Korin (1658–1716) “founded” the Korin school that further cemented the popularity of the Yamato-e style (meaning Japanese picture) of the Heian period (794–1185), considered the classic Japanese style.  

Sakai was the leader of the so-called “Rinpa” school in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This comes from “pa,” meaning school, and “Ko[Rin]” for the founder’s name. Sakai was so enamored of Ogata’s style, that he studiously copied his works, often on the back of screens by the late master that he owned!

Kitagawa Sosetsu (ca. 1620–ca. 1690), Autumn Flowers. Ink, color, and gold leaf on paper, mounted on wood as six-fold screen, 56 13/16" x 132" (144.3 x 335.4 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-3022)

This beautiful byobu (six-fold screen) displays autumn’s seasonal flowers, except for the chrysanthemum! Visible are ivy, bush clover, mallow, coxcomb, and grasses. Yamato-e imagery often seems to float on a vague background made all the more vague by the gold leaf. It’s easy to see why Impressionists gravitated to Japanese painting because of the spontaneity of composition. In fact, this screen was once owned by American Impressionist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926).

Yamato-e was the opposite of Kara-e “Chinese picture,” symbolized by the Song Dynasty (960–1279/1280) classic style of monochromatic brush landscape paintings. With emphasis on dramatic composition, nature simplified to shapes, and extravagant use of gold leaf, screen painting of this period was truly Japanese in outlook. 

Kitagawa Sōsetsu was a pupil of Tawaraya Sōsetsu, who was either a disciple or son of Tawaraya Sōtatsu (1576–1643), considered a founder of the school that specialized in the decorative Yamato-e style, which led to such masters as Ogata Korin. Sosetsu's work is typical of this "first generation" of painters of the Rinpa style.

Kanō Eisen’in Michinobu (1730–1790), Waterfall and Autumn Foliage. Ink and color on silk hanging scroll, 51 3/4" x 17" (131.5 x 43.2 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1326)
There’s nothing I enjoy more than getting drawn into a landscape in the Kara-e style. One of the actual goals of Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, established during the Song Dynasty in China, was for the viewer to be able to imagine taking a “stroll” through the painting. I really do like how Edo artists took the Chinese technique of mist to suggest depth to an almost abstract dimension.

Michinobu was one of a long line of painters who took the Kanō name from the founder of the Kanō School, Kanō Masanobu (1434–1530). Through the centuries the Kanō School was the favorite of the samurai and noble classes and was steeped in the tradition of monochromatic Chinese painting. During the early 1700s, the school’s style had adapted decorative, overly realistic nature painting in bright colors. This style was called Nanpin after the Chinese painter Shen Nanpin (1682–after 1762), who had introduced a more scientific approach to painting nature to Japanese artists.

Michinobu was one of the last great leaders of the Kanō School, who tried to return the school to the school’s Chinese-inspired roots. He was the son of Kanō Eisen Hisnobu (1698–1731), who had also led the school. It was traditional in Japan for artists to either be adopted by their mentor, or to take the name of the mentor as a badge of honor. Needless to say, from the 1400s to the 1800s there were a lot of Kanōs!

Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770), Autumn Moon in a Mirror, from the series Eight Parlor Views, ca. 1766. Color woodblock print on paper, 11 1/2" x 8 5/8" (29.2 x 21.9 cm). © Davis Art Images. (8S-4159)
I couldn’t resist closing with a Harunobu. His prints are so charming and really show a lot about every day middle-class life in Edo Period Japan. This view of a maid fixing her boss’s hair is typical of the subtlety of Japanese art. Although the title alludes to the moon in the mirror, the moon is not visible. We can only imagine it. The only other hint that it is autumn is the cockscomb outside the window. Eight Parlor Views is an awesome series that shows the occupations of middle-class women in the household.

Little is known about Harunobu’s life or art education. The sophistication and elegance of his prints, however, may indicate that he came from a middle-class or samurai family. His prints followed the convention of the Ukiyo-e style until he began producing the twelve-color (12 separate blocks of wood) prints after learning the new process in 1765.

Harunobu’s style of elegant, slender figures, both male and female, established a style that was emulated by artists who followed him, including Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815) and Utagawa Utamaro (1753–1806). His work is widely viewed as the beginning of the “classic period” of the Ukiyo-e style. He not only documented the courtesans and actors of the pleasure quarters, but also depicted middle class genre scenes and even street vendors.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 5.Studio 27-28; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19, 4.20, 4.Studio 19-20; A Global Pursuit: 7.1, 7.5; Experience Printmaking: 3, 4; Exploring Painting: 9, 11; The Visual Experience: 13.5; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.4

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Letters Are Beautiful


I learned long ago how venerated calligraphy is in some cultures, and we speak of that in many of our Davis books. A short while ago as I was reading about contemporary Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar, whose art form is whole gallery rooms covered in Kufic calligraphy, I began to ponder (as art historians will) how we Westerners perceive writing.

It’s unfortunate that many no longer know how to write cursively, but what do we say when we see the writing of somebody who still does? Do we say/think “Oh what beautiful art!” or “Oh, you have beautiful handwriting!”? At first I was, like, well, in the West, most people view handwriting as they would a chair or plate, as a utilitarian form of expression.

As I looked through our images, however, I realized that throughout history there have always been examples of fine art that also happen to be legible writing. Ah ha moment. If we currently consider furniture and ceramics fine art, then I’m proposing to do the same with handwriting. You decide! 

Ancient Egypt, relief of Lady Wadjkaues, 1971–1926 BCE, from Tomb 3 at Deir el-Bersha. Painted limestone, 14 1/2" x 23 1/4" x 1 3/4" (37 x 59 x 4.5 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-707)
There is such a beautiful elegance to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are basically pictographs that were codified into a written language around the same time (ca. 3000 BCE) that Egyptians established the formulas for depicting the human figure and objects. Since hieroglyphics were closely related to the Egyptian religion and funerary ritual, hieroglyphics and art were connected intimately, as well. Many of the symbols used in hieroglyphics actually represent the word for what they depict, and were taken from the codified forms seen in reliefs and paintings. This relief defines Wadjkaues as the mother of Sep, the scribe of royal monuments, and the wife of Amenemhat, the “governor” of the Upper Egypt Hare Nome (province).   

Ancient Guatemala, Mayan, Stele 3 from the Great Plaza, Tikal, ca. 600–900 CE. Image © 2016 Davis Art Images. (8S-21030)
Tikal was the second largest city of the Classic Period (ca. 600–900 CE) in central Americas. European “scholars” have dubbed the Mayan glyph writing system “hieroglyphics” because all they could think of to compare it to was the ancient Egyptian writing system. Most of the monuments and stelae on the Great Plaza date from the 700s CE. The stelae on the plaza represent rulers on one side with glyphs on the other. The Mayan glyph system can be traced back to extant examples from the 200s BCE. The glyphs are read in columns two glyphs wide from top to bottom then back to the top of the next column. The stela sculpture of Tikal was intricately painted. The earliest known dynastic monument stele displaying Tikal's emblem glyph dates from 279 CE.

Britain, Page with a decorated initial D from the Book of Hours of Salisbury Cathedral, ca. 1390. Ink and tempera on paper, 7 11/16" x 5 7/8" (19.5 x 14.9 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-1915)
From the collapse of the western Roman Empire in Western Europe during the 500s CE until the late 1300s, manuscript illustration and decoration (i.e. illumination) was the primary form of painting. In the early Middle Ages (ca. 500s to 1000s), most books were copied in monasteries or convents exclusively for religious use. When secular people started patronizing copies of sacred books, they demanded more lavish editions, including pictures. This moved book copying from the religious to the lay realm. The establishment of guilds for artists between the 1100s and mid-1200s effectively eliminated the need for priestly copyists. Professional calligraphers copied the books, so there is a wide variety of styles in the way they copied the Latin. The book of hours was an exclusive domain of the wealthy, a book of prayers to be said throughout the day. Lavishly decorated initial letters such as this mark the beginning of a prayer or gospel. Ironically, another “wow” development—moveable type—in the 1450s spelled the death knell for the genre of lavishly painted (and expensive) illuminated manuscripts. 

Iran, Title page from a copy of the Shahnama (“Book of Kings”), 1536. Ink on paper, 15 7/8" x 9 13/16" (40.3 x 25 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2893)
Paper was introduced to Islamic lands during the mid- to late 700s CE by the Chinese. This made the copying of books a lot easier than using animal skin, and cheaper. It also opened up the possibility for wider dissemination of books to the general public. Aside from the Qur’an (which was never illustrated with pictures), a variety of books began to be illustrated starting in the 1000s. This included scientific treatises, epic poetry, histories, and scholarly studies. This is a frontispiece from a Book of Kings, the epic poem about Persian rulers from ancient times to the time of Muhammad by the Iranian poet Abul-Qasim Firdawsi (940–1020). Arabic calligraphy is so gorgeous. I can’t tell if this is Thuluth or Towqi’ script, but it sure is elegant. 

James Tissot (1836–1902, France), Capital Letter Z, from the Appendix to the portfolio The Life of Our Savior Jesus Christ, 1886–1894. Ink on paper mounted on board, 4 11/16" x 4 11/16" (11.8 x 11.9 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2556)
James Tissot was a society painter of scenes of middle class life during the 1870s and 1880s with little or no connection to Impressionism other than an interest in fashionable urban life. He began producing more religious subjects after he traveled to Egypt and the Middle East. Subsequent to his trip and scads of studies of indigenous costume, architecture, and even flora, he produced a portfolio of 350 watercolors on the Life of Christ. The book, entitled The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ also for some reason included three pages of decorated letters like this. They’re each lovely, although I didn’t know Tissot was also a graphic artist. This is from page 354 of an appendix called Pen and Ink Drawings, which included hundreds of figure studies from the Middle East.
Robert Indiana (born 1928, US), LOVE, 1967. Screenprint on paper, 34" x 34" (86.3 x 86.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2016 Robert Indiana / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P3147inars)

Since Pop Art elevated Campbell’s Soup and comic books to the status of fine art, it’s only fitting that beautiful lettering (in Clarendon Black font) also be accorded the same honor. Everyday lettering was part and parcel of Pop Art. Although Indiana initially was drawn to color field painting of Abstract Expressionism, he was drawn to the early 20th-century movement of Precisionism, which examined aspects of American culture in extreme close-up.

Indiana’s gift to Pop Art came from his main inspirations of traffic signs, commercial signage and stencil lettering. Unlike most of the Pop artists, however, his LOVE works were social commentary, aimed with irony at the hollow usage of the word by the hippies, and as an obvious counter to the Vietnam War (1959–1975). 

John Baldessari (born 1931, US), I will not make any more boring art., 1971. Lithograph on paper, 22 3/8" x 29 9/16" (56.8 x 75.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2016 John Baldessari. (MOMA-P1033)
If ever writing was elevated to an art form in Western art, it was as part of the Conceptualist movement. It is little wonder that, in a period when the nature of art was under serious reevaluation in the 1960s, that the movement of Conceptualism evolved. It was the logical end result of several movements that questioned the status quo in the art world: Pop Art, New Realism, Performance, and Minimalism.

Conceptualism incorporates Pop's use of language combined with Minimalism's emphasis on process rather than object. Conceptual artists consider the idea to be the work of art. Already in 1967 the Minimalist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) had expressed the belief that the planning and decisions around an idea were superior to execution of a work. As it was for many Pop artworks, the Dada movement is considered the ancestor of the concept of idea as art. I’m not sure which 1960s movement Baldessari’s statement references.

Edward Fella (born 1938, US), Dead End, poster advertising graphic design exhibition at the Pasadena Art Center, 1995. Lithograph on paper, 17" x 11" (43.2 x 28 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2016 Edward Fella. (MOMA-P1207)
I bet you didn’t know that the first font developed that did not imitate handwriting was Garamond in 1490! That paved the way for the development of hundreds of fonts through the 2000s. Edward Fella is a graphic design artist whose work has also had a major impact on the world of typography. His earliest works for clients were humorous combinations of drawing and lettering. He ultimately designed unique, personal fonts by cutting and pasting parts of various fonts in startling combinations. His unique style developed during the Postmodern and Deconstructivist periods, when traditional perceptions of design and beauty were under reevaluation. Ironically, what started out as unique works of art in his hand-drawn type and inkblot icons are now part of Emigré® font sets.

Glenn Ligon (born 1960, US), Untitled (Rage) #2, 2002. Mixed-media on canvas, 74 7/8" x 82 5/8" (190.2 x 209.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-141)
The work of African American artist Glenn Ligon is proof how words not only act as works of art, but have particular power when they do so. Ligon’s use of language has a power that far outdistances works of Conceptual art. Born in Brooklyn, he took art classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during a period when he witnessed not only racism, but discrimination against other minorities, as well. His rage (fittingly part of this title) at discrimination is channeled through long discourses, which he carefully presents as a two-dimensional work of art.

This particular work begins with “The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable; this rage, so generally discounted, so little understood even among the people whose daily bread it is, one of the things that makes history.” It is a quote by the African American writer James Baldwin (1924–1987), whose rage was directed at the perception that, in the US, only white people were thought of as “human.” (from the essay in “Harper’s Magazine” Stranger in the Village, 1953).

Son Man-jin (born 1964, South Korea), Calligraphy, 2005. Ink and color on paper mounted as a hanging scroll, 29" x 19 ¾" (73.7 x 50.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Son Man-jin. (PMA-3633)

 I’m particularly in awe of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean calligraphy, especially since this beautiful art form is produced with a brush similar to that used for painting. The influence of Chinese characters and calligraphy swept through Korea in the 100s and 200s CE (probably) and Japan between the 400s and 700s CE. For hundreds of years after 1350, Korean calligraphy followed the style of a great Chinese calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322). This style remained the underpinning of Korean calligraphy until after World War II (1939–1945) when the Korean governments in both North and South pushed for the use of a native Korean alphabet (Hangul, which emerged in the 1440s).

Son Man-jin’s work demonstrates the new direction taken in contemporary Korean calligraphy. He has taken Chinese characters as his starting point and adds little drawings, color, and extraneous, fluid lines to create a complex, personal calligraphy style. This poem, by the Korean poet Shin Hum (1566–1628), expresses the poet’s observations on the awesome nature of life.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 4.24; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 5.26; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.28; A Personal Journey: 4.2; Exploring Visual Design: 1; The Visual Experience: 3.4

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Beauty of Line


What better way to explore the idea of beautiful lines than with Oceanic art. Oceania is a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean that covers one-third of the planet's surface. Contained in Oceania are the countries of Australia and New Zealand, and the geographic regions of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Let’s look at some art from Papua New Guinea in Melanesia. The geographic region of Melanesia includes New Guinea and islands that extend east as far as Fiji and New Caledonia.

About 27,000 years ago, people from southeast Asia settled the islands north and east of New Guinea. By between 4000 and 7000 BCE they were farming and raising livestock. Archeologists thinks that a culture called the Lapita settled the rest of Melanesia. The extent of their colonizing and even their origin is not known.

New Guinea is divided between Irin New Guinea (part of Indonesia) and Papua New Guinea. The island is the location of one of the largest groups of diverse cultures and artistic expression in Melanesia. It is a prolific region of artistic expression. Sculpture, painting, or carving adorns almost every object of secular and ritual life. By adorning every object in everyday life with art, it has been traditionally believed to bring the world of the spirits into activity with the world of humans. 

Papua New Guinea, New Ireland Province, Canoe prow, 1800s–1900s. Painted wood, 21 1/2" x 5" x 9" (54.6 x 12.7 x 22.9 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-255)
The implied lines in the sculpted features of this prow ornament combine with the painted lines to create a dynamic, complex, and sophisticated art work. New Ireland is in the Bismarck Archipelago, located north of New Guinea. Today it is a province of Papua New Guinea. In New Ireland, large figurative sculpture is rare. Canoe prow figures are among the largest.

Usually when the human figure is involved, the head dominates the composition. Traditionally, such figures would be attached to the prow or stern of a canoe. Even children's canoes have sculpted prow figures for speed and protection. The island of Papua New Guinea is rugged and canoe is the main mode of transportation. These prow figures are elaborately pierce-carved and painted in traditional colors of red, black and white. The bird and animal forms surrounding the human head represent ancestors of the canoe owner's clan who serve as protection, speed, and success.

Papua New Guinea, Sepik River Area, Kwoma People, Shield, 1900s. Wood, 55 1/2" x 15 1/2" x 3 ¼" (141 x 39.4 x 8.3 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1608)
The Kwoma People of the Washkuk Hills have traditionally been part of the unique rituals that are centered on the cultivation of yams. Feasts and rituals were organized yearly to celebrate the events around the harvest, and to ensure the edibility and purity of the yams. The sculpting of giant heads is part of those rituals.

The sculpting of wood is considered a task that ensures that the object created is a suitable dwelling-place for ancestral and natural forces. Shields such as this, which protect most of the holder’s body, were often produced to be displayed at shield feasts during the yam festivities. The parallel chevron lines in the center of this shield frame a face representing a protective family spirit. 

Papua New Guinea, East Sepik Province, Abelam People, Korumbo gable painting, 1900s. Painted bark, 73" x 44" x 3" (185.4 x 111.8 x 7.6 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5132)

 The Abelam are members of the Sepik language group. They are a farming society also involved with the cultivation of yams. Like many of the peoples in Papua New Guinea, traditionally much of their ritual life has been connected with spirits (ngwalndu) who temporarily interact with human beings. The korumbo (or kurambo) is a ceremonial structure, not really a meeting house, meant to lodge the ngwalndu on their visits for ceremonies that celebrate certain stages in the lives of men and women.
The rich artistic expression of the Abelam is dominated by expressive painting. Paint was traditionally viewed as a mystic substance that endowed sculpted images of the spirits activity and power. During initiation ceremonies for young men, artists would carve or paint images of ngwalndu in order to ensure their presence and participation. The concentric lines painted around the eyes of this spirit make it a particularly expressive force.
Papua New Guinea, from Yanaba, Egum Atoll, Milne Bay Province, Canoe splashboard (“rajim”). Painted and carved wood, 52 3/8" x 32 5/16" (133 x 82 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-127)
The Egum Atoll is home of the Massim people who live among the Trobriand Islands. The Massim culture covers an area of about 300 miles southeast and southwest from Milne Bay. It includes partially-submerged mountains and archipelagoes. One of the central cultural events among the Massim is the act of ceremonial gift-giving (kula) between islands.

Carving and decorating canoes is a large part of the kula. The red paint is actually a trade item in the kula, secured from Dobu Island, because it is made from an earth pigment not found in the Trobriand Islands. The canoes contain ornately carved and painted splash boards on both prow (rajim) and stern (lagim). The rajim not only protects from the splashing of the waves, but is endowed with spiritual power to protect the canoe occupants and ensure a successful kula.

The upturned volutes at the top of this board are supported by two bird heads, with two pairs of snakes indicated in relief below. The small holes around the edges were meant to accommodate stringing of seashells as ornament. The white pigment was made by heating sea shells and crushing them into powder, while the black pigment was a mix of charred coconut and banana stalk sap.


I know New Zealand is part of Polynesia, not Melanesia, but I couldn’t help including this gorgeous example of line.

New Zealand, North Island, Maori People, Head, mid-1800s to early 1900s. Wood, height: 8" (20.3 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-756)

Unlike Melanesian cultures such as Papua New Guinea, the Polynesian cultures such as the Maori have not traditionally had such as broad range of art forms. Carved and inlaid wood dominates their artistic output.

The incised lines in this work imitate the tattooing of the face. The spiral is a central motif in Maori tattooing and sculpture. It is thought to have been influenced by the abstracted bird/human design called manaia that decorates many Maori art works. The spiral motif, like the Chinese tao-tieh decoration of the Shang period, may have evolved from interconnected, split, and flattened manaia patterns.

Traditionally, ancestral skulls were mummified and decorated as veneration of the deceased. This example may be a substitute for a damaged skull, or, it may have been part of a bird perch, a net holder, or a canoe ornament. Masks were not worn in Maori culture.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.35-36 studio, 6.Connections; A Global Pursuit: 6.5; Discovering Art History: 4.6