Monday, April 24, 2017

The Bill for Art


No, this is not some sort of philosophical jaunt through current government threats to cut all funding for the arts and libraries, though goodness knows that could be a college dissertation. Actually, yesterday I realized I was going to be late paying our cable bill and the art history nerd in me suddenly came up with the idea to show you works of art that feature different uses of the word “bill” in the title.  

William Harnett (1848–1892, US, born Ireland), Still Life—Five Dollar Bill, 1877. Oil on canvas, 7 7/8" x 12 3/16" (20 x 31 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2804)

Brought to the US as an infant from Ireland, Harnett was apprenticed as a silver engraver for currency as a youth. Obviously, that led to a life of crime (art)! In 1886, New York police grabbed this painting from the bar where it hung and Harnett was arrested for counterfeiting! A judge looked at the painting and told Harnett to avoid such “mischief.” Harnett never painted money again, but another trompe l’oeil artist, John Haberle (1856–1933) made it his specialty. I don’t know if he was ever arrested.

Harnett turned to painting in 1866, studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the National Academy of Design in New York. In New York, he first began to exhibit still-life paintings. He preferred still life because he could not afford models. Harnett’s preference for still life was reinforced when he went to London and Frankfurt in 1880. He was much impressed by Dutch Baroque still life, which he studied carefully while in Europe. 

Senufo People (Ivory Coast), Hornbill (Porpianong Bird), 1900s. Wood, metal and pigment, height: 63" (160 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-753)

Large sculptures of the hornbill bird (Porpianong) were traditionally commissioned by the Lo and Poro societies of the Senufo as representatives of fertility. The Porpianong was traditionally considered the “founder” of the Senufo people. Worn traditionally on the head during dance or processions, the sculptures depict the bird’s long bill touching a fertilized stomach, a symbol of procreation. The wings are usually represented as a square with painted designs.

Hornbills mate for life and are considered to share in the raising of their young. They protect their young by spreading out their wings. This would probably account for the square, shield-like wings in many Porpianong sculptures.

The Senufo people (also called Siena and Sene) are an ethnic group living in Ivory Coast, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Many of them live in the Middle Volta valley, between the Bagoe, Bani, and Mouhoun Rivers in West Africa. Senufo ancestry is not fully known, but they are believed to have migrated northward from the area around Odienne in Ivory Coast. They are now known as distinctly northern, central, and southern Senufo. They have traditionally worshipped ancestors and earth spirits, but many have converted to Islam since the 1700s.

Courier Lithograph Company (printer, ca. 1848–1926, Buffalo, NY), copy after Charles E. Stacy (1873–1926?, US), “Buffalo Bill” Cody—I Am Coming poster, ca. 1900. Chromolithograph on paper, 26 ½" x 40 9/16" (67.3 x 103.1 cm). © 2017 Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC. (SI-18)

I’m not even going to touch on the implications of Cody’s Christ-like “I am coming” statement on this poster. In fact, I’m not touching at all on the questionable ethics of his “Wild West Show.” I’m using his name merely as a vehicle to give praise to a 19th century sensation: the chromolithograph.

Chromo—or color—lithography works much on the same principle as multiple block woodcuts, using a litho stone for each color. Alois Senefelder (1771–1834, Czech-German), the developer of the black and white lithograph around 1798, had envisioned color lithography, but never realized it. The first patent taken out on chromolithographs was in 1837 in France. The first chromos were produced in the US in 1840.

By the post-Civil War (1860–1865) period in the US, chromolithography had created what some critics called a “chromo civilization.” By the 1880s, when the fad was fading, it was said that 4 out of 6 homes in the West were decorated with chromolithographic copies of either Currier and Ives prints or schlocky genre scenes. The great lithographer Louis Prang (1824–1909) pushed the sale of cheap chromolithograph reproductions of art, because he felt that art was not only for the elite.

The Buffalo Bill is a fine example of a chromolithograph in all its glory, right down to the spit coming out of the buffalo’s mouth. I’m wondering if the running buffalo were taken from one of the numerous studies of thundering buffalo executed by George Catlin (1796–1872) in the early 1800s. Regardless of that, the Courier Company was most famous for its posters rather than its reproductions of paintings. Their most famous posters were done for Buffalo Bill and the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956 Russia), Handbill for “The Bedbug,” a play by Ivan Mayakovsky (1893–1930). Letterpress on paper, 6 7/8” x 10 3/8" (17.5 x 26.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 Aleksandr Rodchenko / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-D1054rdvg)

It’s interesting that so many of the Russian avant-garde artists warmly embraced Communism as a “salvation” from the country’s imperialist past. Ironically, this advertisement is for a play (“Klop” is Russian for bedbug) in which Mayakovsky throws shade on the swindlers and new elitists of the Communist party, who ultimately, in the playwright’s mind, become archaic curiosities in the successful Communist dream state of the future.

Rodchenko was born to a working-class family in Saint Petersburg, studying art in an academic milieu. Moving to Moscow in 1915, he was immediately drawn to the avant-garde, particularly the Suprematist theories of Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935). Malevich believed that pure abstraction helped elevate and express the spiritual. As an ardent Communist in the coming revolution (1917), Rodchenko turned to the abstract theories of Constructivism, based in geometry and the influence of machines and building. Constructivism advocated for social transformation.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Not an Easter Egg


On our planet, the egg has been almost universally viewed as a symbol of rebirth and fertility since ancient times (imagine ancient eyes seeing something living come out of something hard and apparently inanimate!). Cosmic eggs are also the part of many creation stories around the world. Hardly surprising that it was adopted by the early Christians as one of the symbols of Christ’s resurrection. Eggs were symbols in spring equinox ceremonies throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East in ancient days. As we know, many Christian holidays and symbols stem from pre-Christian practices. But, as this is not a religious blog, these interesting works of art are as close as I’m coming to the subject of Easter! 

Unknown American Artist, Egg Salad, ca. 1850. Oil on canvas, 8 ½" x 11 ¼" (21.6 x 28.6 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-133)

This isn’t usually what contemporary American’s conjure up in their minds when they yearn after egg salad. Where’s the mayo? But, honestly, every time I see this painting when I’m at the MFA, it makes me hungry. And what is more representative of the no-nonsense realism—even in the most common things—that characterizes early American art?

As far as the still-life genre in American painting, it really didn’t exist until the Peale family came on the scene in the latter half of the 1700s. Before the second decade of the 1800s, still-life works were confined to botanical studies. Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), the patriarch of the Peale “dynasty,” turned over his successful portrait miniature business to his brother James (1739–1831) in 1795. When James’s eyesight began to fail (go figure) around 1820, he began painting still life.

James is really credited as the instigator of the craze over still life by American patrons, but I’ve always considered Rembrandt Peale’s (1778–1860) portrait of his brother Rubens (1784–1865), Rubens Peale with a Geranium (National Gallery of Art), to be an outstanding early still life (1801). It is thought to have been the first geranium introduced in America, and it really does vie with Rubens for the star spot. 

Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801. Oil on canvas, 28 1/8" x 24" (71.4 x 61 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0381)

Another brother of Rubens and Rembrandt, Raphaelle (1774–1825), was primarily a still-life painter. Two daughters of James, Anna Claypoole (1791–1878) and Margaretta Angelica (1795–1882), were also primarily still-life painters. Mary Jane Peale (1827–1902), daughter of Rubens, carried the Peale still-life painting dynasty into the 20th century! 

Marcel Wanders, designer (born 1963, Netherlands) and Moooi B.V., manufacturer (2001 to present, Breda, Netherlands), Medium Egg Vase, designed 1997. Porcelain, 5 3/4" x 4" x 3 ½" (14.5 x 10.2 x 9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6701)

This is definitely not an Easter egg! An unusual porcelain vessel, it is one of a set of three of differing sizes. What they all share in common is how they were created. The designer, Marcel Wanders, formed the mold from hard-boiled eggs that were encased in latex condoms. But, using unconventional and innovative materials is one of the hallmarks of the work of this Dutch designer.

Wanders was born in Boxtel, Netherlands, and graduated from the School of the Arts in Arnhem in 1988. He first came to attention with his innovative Knotted Chair in 1995 that he made in collaboration with Droog Design in Amsterdam. It is constructed with carbon and aramide fiber cord, and an epoxy resin finish. Wanders emphasizes creating designs that stress humanity and a down-to-earth aesthetic.

Wanders has designed works for many of the major design firms, such as Cappellini (1946–present, Arosio, Italy), Droog Design (1993–present, Amsterdam), Flos (1962–-present, Brescia, Italy), and others. He founded his own firm of Moooi—a tricked up version of the Dutch word mooi, or “beautiful” —in 2000. Wanders also extends his talents to architectural and interior design, and in the last few years the design of home appliances. 

Sudo Reiko, designer (born 1953, Japan), and NUNO Corporation, manufacturer (1984 to present, Tokyo), Big Egg textile, 2003. Polyester organdy with paper appliqué, width 39" (99.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7141)

This fabulous fabric was designed by one of my favorite fiber artists, Reiko Sudo. If you have read my blog for a while now, you know how much I love the revolutionary designs of Sudo. Failing the entrance exam in order to become a kimono designer, she founded NUNO Corporation in 1984 with Jun’ichi Arai (born 1932). Nuno means “cloth” in Japanese. The company is dedicated to designing and producing textiles in combinations of unconventional materials and techniques, according to traditional Japanese aesthetics and in an eco-friendly way.

When they started NUNO, Sudo and Jun’ichi were on the cutting edge, being among the first to use computers to design textiles. Designs such as Big Egg are meant to be versatile, used for fashion or interior design. Big Egg is made from Eichizen washi papers applied to ramie (a fibrous Asian plant stem) ovals and then to polyester. Materials such as this are made in limited quantities and are not mass-produced, industrially milled to simulate the aesthetic of hand-looming. 

Ogata Gekko (1859–1920, Japan), White Rabbit, ca. 1890–1910. Color woodcut print on paper, (9 1/2" x 9 7/8") 24.1 x 25.1 cm. © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2378)

Since this post has a vaguely Easter theme, I couldn’t leave you without a good art work of a rabbit, though it’s no Easter Bunny!

Like Sudo Reiko, I’ve also blogged about Ogata Gekko in the past. I’m fond of artists who don’t quite fit into one stylistic category or another, and he certainly typifies that quality. A devoted follower of Chinese painting traditions, he was renowned in his time for his sophisticated lacquer work. During the 1880s he became committed to the rejuvenation of the ukiyo-e tradition of multiple woodblock prints, although he developed a style that avoided the overt linearity of the tradition prints of that style. His woodblock prints, where possible, imitated brush work. One sees that in this bunny in the gentle shading of the form.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hanami in Spring


Terasaki Kōgyō (1866–1919), Cherry Blossoms and Moon. Ink and light color on silk, 46 ¾" x 18 3/16" (118.8 x 46.2 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1017)

With warm weather finally starting to return, I’m going to continue to celebrate spring with ART. Hanami is Japanese for “blossom viewing,” and is the name given to the annual spring cherry blossom viewing that takes place in Japan between March and May/June. The time span is wide because of the many species of sakura (cherry blossoms) that have different blooming times, and some of very short duration. The Japanese gave the US government more than 3000 cherry trees in 1912, and those have their own Hanami in Washington, DC every year. Naturally, cherry blossoms play a big part in Japanese art.

The beautiful painting above is by an artist who is part of the interesting state of society in late 1800s Japan. While the country was industrializing and “modern(western)izing” at a fantastic rate, there was a lot of push back from Japanese who wanted to preserve traditional aesthetics and values. The veneration of the cherry blossom period is so lovely, it has resulted in masterpieces like this. In Japan, the cherry blossom is the symbol of, naturally, rebirth. In fact, I think I read somewhere that the school year in Japan starts in Spring rather than Autumn, because it is such an auspicious time.

Tersaki was born Terasaki Chutaro in Kyoto, the son of a poor samurai who was in service to a regional warlord (daimyo). Kyoto was the center of the Maruyama/Shijō “school” of painting that was both a reaction to and receptive of Western influence. It evolved out of the work of Maruyama Okyō (1733–1795), a painter school in the traditional Kanō School, who followed the traditions of Nanga (Southern School, or, traditional Chinese monochromatic painting), but who instilled in his work a respect for naturalism through direct observation. He also adapted techniques of Western chiaroscuro (nuances of dark and light) to build form. Terasaki, too, was trained in the Kanō tradition before moving to Edo (Tokyo) in 1888.

In Edo Terasaki studied with the Maruyama/Shijō painter Sugawara Hakuryu (1833–1898). Training with Sugawara combined with his Kanō training helped Terasaki develop a unique personal style. This piece probably pre-dates 1893, the year a fire destroyed his body of work in his studio. He thereafter decided to abandon traditional forms of expression and focused on images of beautiful women (bijin) in a more westernized style and book illustration. This painting of cherry blossoms in moonlight definitely reveals the influence of the Maruyama/Shijō style in the sophisticated nuances in value. 

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Cherry Blossoms at Yoshino, from a Snow, Moon and Flowers series, ca. 1832–1833. Color woodcut print on paper, 9 13/16" x 14 15/16" (25 x 38 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1407)

I’m sure none of you questions that I have a soft spot for the founders of the landscape genre in the ukiyo-e style, Hokusai and Hiroshige to be specific. They just seem to capture such elegant, subtle statements of visual experience—such as falling rain and snow, mist, and clouds—that it is no wonder this charming piece is so magnificent. Of course, this print is also a tribute to the artists who actually cut the woodblocks with Hokusai’s drawing and achieved the beautiful nuances in pinks of the blossoms! If you’ve ever seen the cherry blossoms in DC, this is what they look like from a distance.

Hokusai is credited with creating the importance of landscape and bird-and-flower prints in ukiyo-e.  Born the son of an artist, he began drawing in earnest at the early age of five. He is thought to have learned drawing and painting from his father, who painted designs around mirrors he made for the shogun (the military dictator).

Hokusai’s lasting contribution to Japanese art, of course, was the introduction of landscape series of woodblock prints. His "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji" had a lasting impact on the younger Hiroshige, and was so popular that it was published numerous times. His interest in landscapes started when he was in the Shunshō School. Impatient at having to produce actor prints, he studied the landscape tradition of the rival Kanō School, based in the great tradition of Japanese landscape painting.

Hokusai produced several Snow, Moon and Flowers and Snow, Moon, Wind and Flowers series. These poetic series usually contained references to revered poetry about these natural subjects, while featuring them in locations the Japanese traveling public would recognize. I love the wonky angle of the torii (gate) in the background of this print! 

Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891), Cherry Blossoms with Pine Needle Border, from the series Comparison of Flowers, ca. 1880. Color woodcut print on paper, 6 1/2" x 9 7/16" (16.5 x 24.5 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4635)

Shibata Zeshin is such an interesting artist. This print reminds me of his New Year’s Cards (surimono). And those include precisely carved cursive Japanese to boot! Prints in series like this are not a scientific comparison of flora, like Western Florilegia, but rather aesthetic and symbolic. Cherry blossoms, symbols of fertility and rebirth, are a likely companion to the pine, which symbolizes strength and eternity (because it’s an evergreen, I guess). I particularly like the disassembled pine tree in the lower left, comprised of clumps of needles.

Shibata Zeshin lived through tremendous cultural and artistic changes in Japan after the US forced Japan open to Western trade in 1854. The Ansei Earthquake of 1855 destroyed much of Edo (Tokyo), and the Meiji “restoration” theoretically put authority back in the hands of an emperor rather than a military dictator (shogun). 

Shibata was born in Edo, son of an ukiyo-e print artist who had studied under Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793). He began an apprenticeship at age 11 to a lacquer artist. At 13 he was apprenticed to the artist Suzuki Nanrei (1775-1844) to learn how to draw. While studying under Nanrei, he acquired the name Zeshin (“true artist”). He also studied in Kyoto, where he learned about Japanese history and Buddhist traditions, studying the tea ceremony, waka and haiku poetry, and philosophy.

Perhaps because of his training in Kyoto, Shibata resisted the urge to study Western art after 1853 and persisted in paintings that reflected Japanese tradition. He is one of the most traditional of the late artists who worked with Ukiyo-e themes. However, his insistence on tradition makes prints such as this one put Western influence in the rear-view mirror.