Monday, December 28, 2009

Hiroshige Winter Wonderland

Since we’re in the midst of “The Holidays,” I thought I would show you all a nice snow scene (as if we haven’t had enough so far this month on the East Coast). Now, I’m the first to admit that I really love the early American snow scenes of artists like Thomas Birch (1779-1851), George Durrie (1820-1863), and Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), but my favorite all time snow scenes are those of Ando Hiroshige. His snow scenes really give the viewer the sense of feeling the cold air and the smelling the fresh air of a winter snow. Some art historians have called Hiroshige the “master of snow and rain,” because he produced so many prints with artistically challenging weather conditions. We can only marvel at the skill of the wood block carvers of his period.

Woodblock prints were known in the Far East since the 8th century CE. The medium was used for literary material, but the production of prints as stand-alone art was not explored until the Edo Period (1615-1858). The rise of an increasingly more prosperous urban middle class caused a demand for a cheap alternative to original paintings. Woodblock prints developed quickly for mass consumption, documenting everyday life in Japanese cities, changing from moment to moment with popular fashion. Because of the transience of fashion and artistic tastes in urban centers, the style is called Ukiyo-e: images of a floating world.

Landscape painting was still the preferred medium of the nobility and upper classes. Woodblock artists had always produced copies of famous paintings even before the Edo Period, but by the late 18th century landscape prints were out of fashion. Hiroshige continued, in woodblock prints, the great tradition of Chinese and Japanese landscape. The gifted pupil of Toyohiro, he achieved his master’s status at the age of fifteen. Hiroshige produced prints of urban beauties (bijin) and Kabuki actors until 1823 when Hokusai’s landscape series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji was first published. This influenced Hiroshige to produce Famous Views of the Eastern Capital in 1826, and thereafter to focus on landscapes. His most famous series, of course, was the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido for which he produced the sketches starting in 1830.

This print comes from a series commissioned by the poet Taihaido, whose literati circle wanted their poems immortalized as prints depicting scenes of the subjects of their verses. The upper part of this scene bears the three or four line verse of the poem. Mount Asuka is the lowest mountain in Tokyo. It also appears as a subject in Hiroshige’s own series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji published in 1852. This print is unusual in that instead of using the white of the paper, Hiroshige appears to have used lead white for the snow flakes. They have subsequently turned black from chemical decomposition in many versions of the print.

This is an awesome website about Hiroshige’s landscape series.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Canadian Photography

I’m returning to a Canadian artist again this week because this work reminds me of two things I think we tend to forget: 1) Photography was an art form that evolved in Canada the same as it did in Europe and the United States (and central and south Americas); and 2) First Nations (Native Americans) are not a purely United States phenomenon. The bands that inhabited the North American continent before European settlement extended from the southern US all the way through to northernmost Canada. Many of the Plains bands are found in both the US and Canada. This website is a very valuable listing of the native bands of both Canada and the US. As in the United States, there were Canadian artists who found members of First Nations to be interesting and often “exotic” subject matter for early photography.

Photography developed steadily throughout the nineteenth century in Canada. In fact, the first photographic studios in the western hemisphere were opened in Montréal and Québec in 1840. Taste for subject matter, stylistic trends, and photographic techniques developed at the same pace as in the United States.

In the 1850s and 1860s there was a renaissance in photographic activity in Montréal. One of the most successful firms was that of William Notman (1826-1891), an émigré from Scotland. Scotland was the land of such pioneer photographers as David Octavius Hill (1802-1870), Robert Adamson (1821-1848), and James Annan Craig (1864-1946). Notman had worked in a drygoods store as late as 1856, and a year later set up a photographic studio. He had learned the Daguerreotype process in Scotland. His business soon became successful because of the elegant and professional portraits he took. Portraiture was the main subject matter in early photography.

Notman’s oldest son, William McFarlane, became a partner in the business at the age of 15. He was already an accomplished photographer. In 1884, at the age of 17, William McFarlane made his first of eight trips across Canada to document the spread of white settlement along the Canadian Pacific Railroad. While William McFarlane’s father was renowned for his urban portraiture and pictorialist genre scenes, the son was adept at documenting life in Western Canada, particularly the sweeping landscapes.

This photograph comes from William McFarlane’s third trip west from 1889 to 1890. On that trip he took his younger brother George as an assistant. In contrast to his more famous dramatic landscapes, this intimate portrait of a member of the Blackfoot First Nation has the quiet dignity and respect that marked the portraits of his father. Notman saw his images of Indians as documents of a vanishing way of life, and therefore valuable historical records. When the Notman studio closed in the early twentieth century, over 400,000 photographs, many of them from William McFarlane’s expeditions, went into the collection of the Musée McCord at McGill University, Montréal.

The Sherman Hines Photography Museum, Liverpool, NS, also has a sizeable collection of Notman photographs, both father and son.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mayan Textiles

I am always fascinated when I stop to think about indigenous cultures that have flourished culturally for many, many centuries. True, we in the west consider the ancient Greek and Roman cultures as our distant ancestors, but our society (the US) did not originate on this continent. The Indian cultures of Central and South America form the largest indigenous populations in the Americas. Despite colonization by the Spanish, they have amazingly maintained many distinctive art forms that truly have their antecedents in ancient times. This is definitely true of the Mayan culture of Guatemala. And let’s keep in mind that the classic period of the Mayan people, when their culture was at its height (around 250 to 900 CE), was the time of the “Dark Ages” in Europe, while India and China were in their “Golden Age.”

The Mayan culture can be traced back as far as 1500 BCE, and at its height extended from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize north to the Yucatan and as far west as Tabasco and Chiapas in Mexico. The culture subdivided into numerous city-states. Some of the major cities in Guatemala were Kaminaljuyú, Tikal, Monte Alto, and El Baúl. Like many cities throughout Mayan territory, many of the Guatemalan cities were abandoned during the Post-Classic period (c900-c1500).

In many ancient Mesoamerican cultures textiles were second in value only to gold. They represent among the highest achievements of ancient Central and South American cultures. Not only were beautiful textiles used to wrap bodies for burial and worn as everyday garments, they were also used for ritual purposes, to mark stages of life, represent social status, or indicate region. Cotton was one of the major Mayan crops along with beans, squash, corn, and cacao. The Mayans developed sophisticated textiles using the backstrap loom.

Mayan families continue to pass down the tradition of weaving textiles from generation to generation in the 21st century. This tourist textile was woven on the backstrap loom, the type of loom used since ancient times. The backstrap loom is a simple, mobile type of loom consisting of sticks and a strap worn around the weaver’s waist to apply tension to the threads while fabric is woven. The quetzal is a beautiful, colorful bird native to the tropical regions of Central America. It has been a traditional artistic motif since ancient times. Indeed, the bright colors of this weaving reflect the vibrant colors of the native bird.

Click here to view some more examples of contemporary Central American weaving.

This site has an Interesting overview of the various branches of Mayan culture in Guatemala.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Canadian Sculptor

Among the many new museum collections we are continually adding to our digital image archive, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery of Buffalo, NY is one of my favorites. What a wonderful collection of contemporary art this museum has! By far one of the neatest artists I’ve ever studied is Jackie Winsor. I love any sculptor who emphasizes the beauty of the material worked and uses the material’s properties to accentuate the form. I am a big fan of all of Winsor’s cube sculptures, especially her Burned Piece, but I find myself rapidly falling in love with this gem from the Albright-Knox. If it doesn’t sum up the aesthetics of Minimalism, and yet display aspects of Process Art, nothing does!

In the 1960s and 1970s, Minimalism, Process Art, and Pop Art countered the subjective tendencies of Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism, which held sway in the American art world from the 1940s to the 1960s, emphasized the truthfulness to the medium, primarily painting: an idea prevalent in art since the time of the Impressionists. The movement also emphasized a rejection of lyrical, narrative, or historical connotations in a work of art. Minimalism emphasized the process and psychology behind a work of art. In the work of Jacqueline Winsor we see a sophisticated implementation of the minimalist aesthetic much like the work of Sol LeWitt. Like many minimalist sculptors, Winsor’s works are meant to be incorporated into the viewer’s space.

Jacqueline Winsor is the descendant of three hundred years of Canadian ship captains. She moved to Boston during her adolescence. She studied at Yale Summer School for the Arts, the Massachusetts School of Art in Boston, and eventually earned an MFA from Rutgers University. She emerged in the 1960s along with Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse, anti-minimalists whose work was also called "anti-art" or "eccentric abstraction.” A member of the post-Minimalist generation, Winsor inherits the Minimalists' preference for simple geometric shapes, though her works are handmade, and their surfaces are more various and tactile than Minimalism's impersonal, machine-honed planes.

Winsor’s early works included many dense coils of rope; saplings bound by rope; and many works that involved the twining, wrapping, and layering process. In the early 1970s she became aware of sculptor Richard Serra’s emphasis on material, weight, and space. In 1974 she began a number of works based on the cube which have become the hallmark of much of her oeuvre. The cube is a rational and non-referential form that was emblematic of the minimalist aesthetic. In 55 x 55 the pine strips are arranged vertically. The 28 vertical sticks are separated horizontally by small one-inch sections of pine creating three “floors,” trisecting the cube into four sub-sections. The title of this work was derived from the sum of 28 areas of wood (positive space) and the alternating 27 areas of air (negative space) which are of equal importance to Winsor.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mayan Honduras

We in the western hemisphere don’t have to look very far to find a civilization that rivals that of ancient Greece and Rome. The Mayan culture in Central America thrived for almost 3000 years in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Remnants of this great culture were still around to fight the Spanish when they invaded and occupied Central America in the 16th century, and Mayan cultures continue to this day in parts of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Rather than always looking to Greece and Rome as the fount of all artistic standards, I think it is useful to look at the beautiful artwork of native American cultures to see a fresh perspective on western aesthetics.

Although Copán was probably occupied during the Pre-Classic (c1500 BCE- 250 CE) and Early Classic (250-600 CE) Periods, it was during the Late Classic Period (600-900 CE) that Mayan Copán flourished. Most of the monuments and sculpture on the Great Plaza date from the 8th century. Copán is not as large as other Mayan cities, and the pyramids and plazas are of more modest size, but the sculptural decoration of the buildings and the sculpture are the most ornate of any Mayan site.

Stele H stands on the Great Plaza, the main ceremonial court of the city. The stele was dedicated to the ruler Eighteen Rabbit (Waxak Lahun Ubah K'awil), one of the last rulers of Copán. The figure, in elaborate feathered headdress and jaguar kilt, was originally brightly painted. The features of the face are considerably softened, and they may represent a portrait of Eighteen Rabbit. In the elaboration of the glyphs, the steles at Copán are unequaled. Each ruler is identified in hieroglyphs on either the side or back of the stele. The hieroglyphs and costume details are deeply carved and give the impression that the stele is a free-standing sculpture. It is however, a relief, only carved on one side.

Under each stele at Copán is a chamber which contained small caches of objects such as blades and pottery that were meant to be offerings. The steles all face small, low platforms that are called "altars,” although the use of these platforms is unknown. Stele H is near three altars, all of which contain serpent head carvings which represent the same god (Quetzalcoatl) as the serpent heads at Chichén Itzá.

Eighteen Rabbit was one of the last rulers of Copán, the thirteenth of a dynasty of sixteen rulers. He was taken as a captive by the ruler of another city. Soon after, between 800 and 900 CE, the population of Copán drifted away and the city was abandoned, much like many other Mayan cities. Mayan hieroglyphs consisted of human, animal, plant, and abstract forms. Where the name of the ruler is not apparent, a prominent feature of the hieroglyphics designates the ruler. This ruler was named for the appearance of a rabbit below the Mayan symbol for the number eighteen among the hieroglyphics on the back of the stele.

This site has lots of excellent photos of Copán.

Monday, November 23, 2009

More Art in Everyday Life: Ancient Greece

As I’ve mentioned before, I resist the western art historical tendency to consider the art of ancient Greece and Rome as the high points of artistic achievement, in a broad view of art around the planet. Don’t get me wrong, Greece and Rome were marvelous civilizations with impressive artistic achievements, the influence of which still affects aesthetics in the West. However, when looking at art from ancient Greece and Rome, I tend to focus on the miscellaneous arts. As we saw in my posting on May 26, the miscellaneous arts from classical antiquity are truly awe inspiring and fascinating, especially since so much aesthetic effort went into pieces meant for daily use. Such, I feel, is the case with ancient Greek ceramics. Many people believe that these beautifully decorated, elegantly shaped vessels were meant merely as decoration, but, the majority of the shapes were meant for everyday use around the house.

Ceramic arts in Greece and the Greek Islands date back to the Neolithic period, in coil- and slab-built forms. The potter’s wheel was introduced during the 18th century BCE from the ancient Near East. From the 9th to 8th centuries BCE the majority of Greek ceramic shapes evolved into forms that endured into the first millennium CE. In Attica, the two main ceramic centers were Corinth and Athens. By 550 BCE Athens was the chief ceramic center of the Mediterranean, exporting wares to northern Africa, Asia Minor, Sicily, Italy, and even as far as France, Spain, and the Crimea. All ceramic shapes were made for actual use, and their form corresponded to their function.

The kantharos was a drinking vessel. It was associated with Dionysos, the god of wine and grape cultivation (referred to as Bacchus in Roman mythology). Dionysos supposedly always carried around a kantharos and it was never empty. The association with Dionysos makes the decoration of this kantharos very relevant: the exuberant satyrs were constant companions of Dionysos. The use of satyr decoration on these drinking vessels was particularly popular in the Greek colonies in Anatolia, one of the distant lands Dionysos was thought to have visited when he was a young adult. The high, looping handles of the cup – a traditional feature of the kantharos – form the pointed ears associated with the satyr’s physical make up.

Technically this cup is painted in one of the two chief styles: black-figure. This is the technique of depicting a figure (or face in this case) in black on the red ground of the vessel. The other style, red-figure, depicted figures in red on a painted black background. Despite the somewhat creepy features of the satyr, the form is elegant and symmetrical, especially in the graceful, looping handles.

The British Museum in London has many examples of Greek ceramics.

Featured Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Monday, November 16, 2009

Art in Everyday Life

While looking at images for the revision of one of our books, I came across an image of a metal pitcher from the 1930s. It had such clean, modern lines that it could easily be mistaken for a contemporary work. It got me to thinking about how there is extraordinary beauty in everyday objects used around the house. Indeed, many of these objects from the past end up in museums’ design collections as examples of beauty and utility. That goes especially for ceramic objects. Tableware ceramic objects can be found in the collections of most museums. Although this object is not exactly tableware, it is an example of a period style in American art that is one of my favorite stylistically: Art Moderne.

Art Moderne was the stylistic descendant from Art Deco, with which it is sometimes confused. Whereas Art Deco was all about surface ornament and fine craftsmanship of decoration, Art Moderne was more concerned with clean lines, curving and shiny surfaces, and an absence of ornament. It was inspired by modern American industrial society, airplanes, and automobiles. The style was perceived as a common person’s alternative to the more elaborate Art Deco. Art Moderne is characterized mostly in architecture and decorative arts.

The Hall China company introduced single-kiln firing of its wares as opposed to firing the body and the glaze separately. The process fused together the body and glaze at a temperature of 2400 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing the glaze to penetrate the body. The process created the first lead-free pottery glaze in the world, as lead compounds would not work in such high firing temperatures. Hall designed no fewer than 47 new colors for the single-fire process, producing bright colors never seen in American pottery before. In the 1930s, with the rise in use of refrigerators, Hall developed a line of refrigerator-wares, to which this pitcher belongs: pitchers, butter dishes, cheese dishes and leftover savers. The streamlined shape, horizontal banding, and rounded edges of this pitcher all mark it as firmly in the Art Moderne style.

J. Palin Thorley was a third-generation ceramic artist in England. He was trained at such prestigious ceramic factories as Wedgwood. He brought his talents to American industrial potters. In Williamsburg, Virginia, he created replicas of colonial ceramics from the Craft House Museum. In contrast, he also created avant-garde wares such as this pitcher in the Art Moderne style.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Northern Renaissance Engraver

I like showing you works from the Renaissance period in northern Europe. This is partly because my mother was Swiss and I wrote my master’s thesis about a Swiss Renaissance painter (yes, Switzerland, too, had a Renaissance period), and partly because northern artists emphasized often extreme realism as opposed to the blah-blah-blah perfection of antique classicism in Italian Renaissance art. Printmaking was an important medium during the Renaissance in the North, so much so that prints were collected in the same way paintings were. Some of the earliest museums established during the late 16th century, as I’ve mentioned, were collections of graphic arts, and not simply copies of paintings. Nowhere was printmaking a more revered and highly developed art form than in Germany.

Engraving* is an example of intaglio printing. Intaglio printing is the opposite of relief printing. The image is cut or incised into a metal plate with various tools or acid. The wide variety of methods gives the medium a large range of possibilities of expression. In engraving, the image is incised onto the finely ground metal plate (most often copper) with very sharp tools such as needles, burnishers, and scrapers. An acid bath then eats into the incised lines from which the print will be pulled, after which ink is rolled across the plate, filling in the incised lines. The plate is then wiped clean, leaving ink only in the crevices. A sheet of damp paper is placed on the plate and the plate is run through a press which forces the paper into the inked crevices and transfers the image. Engraving was the first intaglio process to emerge, most likely from goldsmiths’ practice of incising designs on metal and then inking those designs, pressing them on paper for later reference. Scholars believe this happened in southern Germany in the 1430s.

Israhel van Meckenem was a very prolific printmaker. Son of a goldsmith-printmaker, he produced more than six hundred prints, although only about a quarter are original compositions. It was common during this period to appropriate the compositions of other masters. This print, however, is an original -- the first engraved portrait in the history of printmaking. Typical of northern European realism, he does not idealize his features or those of his wife/business partner. Engraving was a favorite medium for northern printmakers, because of the detailed nuances in shading possible with the sharp tools used to scratch out the image. This print is an excellent example of the use of crosshatching to create plasticity of the figures.

* Engraving is a technique that has endured in popularity through to the 21st century. This link shows examples from different periods (ignoring of course Winslow Homer’s wood engravings).

Featured collection: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Japan/North Carolina Connection

Ceramic traditions vary greatly around the world. In some cultures, the material is considered all-important, while in other cultures, the form or shape is the emphasis. Techniques for production of ceramics vary as well, though there are basic techniques such as coil-built, slab-built, or wheel thrown that are universal. What I always enjoy discovering is the sharing of ceramic traditions across cultures, and sometimes how easily they meld. This is the story of a traditionally trained Japanese ceramic artist who joined a rich historic ceramic tradition in the United States.

Native bands such as the Cherokee and Catawba in western North Carolina had ceramic traditions the extended well before the arrival of white settlers, primarily pit-fired wares. European potters began establishing kilns in the state in the early 1700s, the British in the eastern part of the state and the Moravians in the Winston-Salem area. The earliest wares were earthenware and stoneware produced from North Carolina clay. By 1850, Randolph County was the center of salt-glazed stoneware, while Lincoln County produced alkaline-glazed stoneware. The tradition of these native wares endures to the present day. North Carolina has become an important American center of ceramic art, with over 500 full-time ceramic artists living and producing in the state.

Hiroshi Sueyoshi, a native of Tokyo, was apprenticed as a ceramicist in 1968. He studied at Tokyo Aeronautical College and Ochanomizu Design Academy. He came to the US in 1971 to help design and build Humble Mill Pottery in Asheboro. He continued his studies and work in Virginia, returning to North Carolina in 1973. When he first returned to the state, he worked as a production ceramic artist, producing cups and saucers, bowls, and plates, being paid fifteen cents for every pound of clay made into the vessel. He worked for Seagrove Pottery and Teak’s Pottery as a production ceramicist, and later as a pottery instructor at Sampson Community College in Clinton. He now lives in Wilmington where he is the artist in residence at the Cameron Art Museum.

While he works with the native blue clays of southeastern North Carolina, he also produces pieces in the traditional Japanese medium of porcelain, like this work. While bowls and jars are still his main interest, he has branched out into figurative work as well. One of his sculptures is outdoors at the Airlie Gardens Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden. The tribute to the African-American artist who worked as a ticket-taker at Airlie Gardens contains a portrait of her. This jar was produced in the nerikomi technique, laminating colored clays into blocks with carefully controlled pattern developed through cutting, folding, and reforming the layers clays.

In 2006 Hiroshi was named a North Carolina Living Treasure.

Monday, October 26, 2009

American Pre-Raphaelite

I always like to examine artists who are not written about in a major way in art historical publications (maybe because I’m a painter who will NEVER be written about in ANY art history textbook). Many, many times one will discover a brilliant artist whose work is absolutely fantastic, but who never achieved the notoriety of someone like Winslow Homer or John Singer Sargent. Yes! I’m talking American art! For some reason, American art is often treated as the cousin thrice-removed from Western Art in many art history textbooks, almost like an afterthought, until, of course, we arrive at Abstract Expressionism. This is odd, because the history of American art reflects a consistent influence, naturally, of European art -- especially art from Britain. British influence waned after the Arts and Crafts Movement (flourished c1890-1920 in the US, also known as the Craftsman Movement). The Pre-Raphaelite movement began in Britain around 1848 and became influential in American art in the 1860s.

Realism was a major style in European art starting in the 1840s. It was a reaction to stuffy, academic Neoclassicism and the ridiculous exoticism of Romanticism, both movements of the first four decades of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, these two movements mirrored trends in art that occurred after the Renaissance, during the Baroque period (c1600-1750). It was exactly these “perversions” of Renaissance art – namely art after the High Renaissance and the time of Raphael (1483-1520) – to which the Pre-Raphaelites were reacting. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of painters who formed around 1848 in Britain, determined to restore art to the abundant detail, bright color and intense naturalism of Renaissance art. They were influenced by the writings of John Ruskin (1819-1900), a British art critic who advised artists to emphasize the truth in nature rather than idealized or romanticized realism.

John William Hill, born in London, immigrated to the US with his family as a child, and spent most of his life in West Nyack, NY. He was apprenticed to his father, an engraver, at the age of 10. In 1833 he was elected to the National Academy of Design. Early in his artistic career he worked as a topographical artist for the state of New York, producing watercolors of American cities. Personally he produced many landscapes. In 1855 he read Ruskin’s Modern Art (1843) and came under the spell of Pre-Raphaelite thinking about producing art directly from nature. His subsequent turn to close-up views of nature represents his mature style. He painted most often in watercolor, using tiny brushes usually used in miniature painting, in order to achieve details from direct observation.

By 1870, American Pre-Raphaelite art (also called Realist or Naturist) had waned in public popularity, although artists like Hill continued to pursue Ruskin’s advice that “if you can paint a leaf you can paint the world.” Hill’s son, John Henry, continued to paint in his father’s style in the watercolor medium. John William Hill was one of the founders of the American Watercolor Society.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art has a fine collection of American Pre-Raphaelite works.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Outsider" Art

I really don’t know what I think about the term “outsider art.” Wait, of course I know what I think! I always think it’s unfortunate when any art produced outside of the status quo obsession with ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, and sales galleries is designated as somehow not quite as relevant. This also goes for the terms “primitive” and “naïve,” which I’ve discussed in other posts. When are we in the West going to accept that art is art no matter who produces it, if they are self-taught or not, if they’re of the “western tradition” or not, or if they’re aware of the current major trends in art?

The term “outsider art” was coined in the 1970s as an English translation of the term Art Brut, French modernist Jean Dubuffet’s (1901-1985) label for his huge personal collection of such art that he had starting in the 1930s. Much of the art in this category was produced by artists who were either mentally challenged or physically handicapped. Some of the artists did not even think of themselves as such, and created work purely for personal fulfillment, never intending to show in galleries or museums. 

Another tendency in “outsider art” is that the work is usually created with little or no awareness or interest of other trends in art. The main difference between this art and so-called “naïve” or “primitive” art is that naïve or primitive artists remain in the mainstream of art, even if they fail to practice its style. They accept its subject, technique, and values because they hope for public recognition. 

James Castle was born deaf in Idaho and never strayed very far from the three farms worked by his family. He chose to never read, write, speak, or sign, preferring to immerse himself in his personal imagery. He spent almost all of his waking time producing his art, and even set up shows in chicken coops or sheds, documenting these “shows” with yet other works of art. Despite the fact that he taught himself how to paint, and used uncommon materials such as spit and soot, many of his interiors are solidly modeled forms. He copied letters or words from books in many of his pieces. He achieved velvety chiaroscuro in the use of spit, and most of his works have an overall gray tonality. Unlike many outsider artists, Castle delighted in showing his work to visitors.

The strength of Castle’s work comes from his dedication to his art. I hesitate to compare his work to any artists in mainstream 20th century art, except to point out that it compares favorably to works by artists such as Dubuffet, Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and some of the artists of the Arte Povera movement in Italy. I personally find his constructions to be some of his most interesting works, where he ingeniously manipulates scraps of cardboard to define form.

I think I prefer the term “visionary art” to describe outsider art. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a large collection of Castle’s work on their website.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bamboo Artist

Okay, so I’m having “holy cow” moments more often these days! I came across this fabulous sculpture while scanning new images from the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, NC. I never even realized such curvilinear shapes could be achieved with bamboo! What is fascinating is that work stems from the bamboo basket tradition in Japan. (I resisted the urge to use another exclamation point.) This reminds me of the work of the American artist Ed Rossbach who uses all sorts of materials to create vessels and baskets in an endless variety of techniques. Like Rossbach’s work, Ippo’s takes the basketry idiom way beyond utilitarian into sculpture-like pieces of art. Need I reiterate that this is not “craft” but fine art? Also, did you know that bamboo is a species of grass?

Japan has over 600 species of bamboo. Its tensile strength has been compared to steel, and it can be made into just about anything. Bamboo is also edible. The three major species of bamboo in Japan are moso, hotchiku, and madake. Bamboo basketry goes all the way back to the Jomon period in Japan (c3000-200 BCE). Bamboo baskets served a variety of functions in daily life. The appreciation for the aesthetics of woven bamboo textures is evidenced as early as the Yayoi period (c200 BCE-200 CE). Some Yayoi pots were decorated with impressions of bamboo basket patterns.

Over the centuries, the extraordinary craftsmanship and intricate patterns of bamboo basketry have made it a cherished part of such time-honored traditions as the tea ceremony and ikebana (flower arranging), both disciplines considered art forms by the Japanese. Some other uses for bamboo in Japan are archery bows, musical instruments such as shakuhachi (looks similar to a recorder) and flute, chopsticks, tea whisks, and a variety of utensils used in the tea ceremony, furniture, and pipes. In the past couple of decades, bamboo artists have taken the bamboo weaving tradition and extended it into the realm of sculpture.

Torii Ippo was the son of a basket maker. He learned bamboo weaving technique by copying baskets his father had made. The seminal event in his maturing as a bamboo artist was his viewing in a 1959 exhibition of a bamboo flower basket from the imperial court dating to 757 CE. He attributes the power and grace of the piece – which had remained perfectly intact for over 1200 years – as the determining factor to his career as a bamboo artist. While he still creates baskets out of bamboo, many of his pieces such as Lighting God are stand alone sculptures. Most of Ippo’s works combine bamboo and rattan (the stem of a type of palm).

View more works by Ippo in the Tai Gallery, New Mexico.

Another work at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (and just because it’s an awesome museum).

See additional contemporary bamboo artists featured in the exhibit New Bamboo at the Japan Society Gallery in New York.

The Mint Museum has a fabulous collection. Check it out.

Monday, October 5, 2009


As I was strolling through the Davis Art Images archives (don’t roll your eyes, a lot of us art historians have museums of images in our head), I happened by chance upon this lovely, delicate portrait of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), one of my favorite Early American Masters. Silhouettes are a fascinating and extraordinary art form that flourished starting in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. As a boy (yes, I remember that far back) I visited President Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, and there were many silhouettes of his family decorating the wall – that fascinated me. I was further enthralled with the art form when I witnessed, shortly thereafter in a tourist shop in Springfield, an artist producing silhouettes of visitors – with a pair of manicure scissors!!! Again, this is one of those artistic disciplines, like miniature portraits, that amazes me.

The origins of silhouette go back to classical antiquity. It emerged as a popular art form in Europe during the seventeenth century, but the heyday of silhouette was the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries in both Europe and America. It was not only a profitable profession for skilled artists, but was also a fashionable pastime for upper and middle-class people. The art form itself is named after a French finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), who cut silhouettes as a hobby (and, some argue, because of the frugality of his fiscal policies). Traditionally, silhouettes were cut from paper that was white on one side (allowing for a drawing if the artist did so) and black on the other. Variations of the genre were painted silhouettes on paper or ivory, or reverse painting on glass. Silhouette cutting flourishes as an art form to this day. One of the most famous contemporary artists doing work with silhouettes is Kara Walker.

William James Hubard was a child prodigy who grew up in Norwich, England. At the age of twelve he had mastered and achieved acclaim as a cutter of silhouettes, and by the age of seventeen he was hailed as a master of the art form. By the age of 20, after three years of cutting silhouettes in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia (the period when he did Peale’s silhouette), Hubard set up the Hubard Gallery in New York where he charged 50 cents per cutting. He often stamped the back of his silhouettes “Cut with scissors by Master Hubard without drawing.” Between 1828 and the 1830s Hubard traveled to the South and produced silhouettes of many southern luminaries including Andrew Jackson and John Calhoun.

In 1832, it is believed that the famous American painter Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) persuaded Hubard to begin painting portraits in oil. With the help of another famous Early American Master, Thomas Sully (1783-1872), Hubard set up a painting studio in New York. For the rest of his career he produced primarily oil paintings, and even some sculpted portraits, although his studio still advertised silhouettes (though by this point they were produced by assistants). His most famous painted portrait is of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the longest serving Supreme Court justice in history.

A really fascinating silhouette by a French artist at the PMA.

And, lest we believe that this is strictly a western subject matter, silhouettes are also a popular subject in Japanese art.

Featured Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Korean Folk Art

Every culture in history all over our planet has produced folk art, i.e. art intended for the everyday person, rather than wealthy or noble patrons. Although similar to so-called “primitive” art (a term against which I’ve railed in the past) the artists were often self-trained, folk artists differ from the other because they did not imitate art that was patronized by the wealthy; they produced subjects meant to be appreciated by every day people. And unfortunately, unlike the artists popular with the upper classes, most Korean folk artists are not known by name. In Korea, minhwa is the term for folk art. Along with chaekgado (or ch'aekkori, literally “books and things”), popular subjects included hwajodo (flowers and birds), hojakdo (scenes inspired by popular fairy tales), and sansuhwa (scenery). Fortunately there are artists working in the traditional folk subject matter and style to this day.

When we think of painting in Asia, we naturally immediately think of China and Japan. For centuries, however, Korea played a pivotal role in the region, transmitting culture between China and Japan (especially in the field of ceramics). Always influenced by Chinese art, after a thwarted Mongol invasion in the sixteenth century, Korea became a semi-independent state until it was invaded by Japan in 1910. During the eighteenth century, Chinese influence waned in Korea, and Korean painting came into its own. Everyday life and objects were one of the two most popular genres of Korean painting of the 18th and 19th centuries, next to landscapes. Chaekgado is a late manifestation of the Joseon period (1392-1910).

This panel most likely comes from an eight-fold or ten-fold screen. Such screens were used by common people and nobility alike. The subject is the attributes of a scholar: books, paintings, ceramics, ink stones, pen containers, and musical instruments scattered in bookshelves. The subject itself is actually inspired by the reverence for scholars who esteemed learning and art above all else. This itself was a Chinese tradition, which nurtured the whole school of “literati painting” of scholar/artists. The subject would have appealed to both commoner and noble alike. While the objects are realistically portrayed, their placement within each shelf is somewhat mystical, as if some of them are actually floating. The perspective within each shelf is typical of Chinese and Japanese painting and prints at the time.

Minhwa suffered a decline in popularity in Korea after the Japanese invasion. Ironically, it was a Japanese collector who revived interest in the genre when he established the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo in 1936 to display Korean art. This museum inspired Japanese collection of Korean folk art, to the point now where some of the most outstanding examples reside in Japanese collections. Two recent exhibits have helped to energize interest in minhwa among Koreans: “Happy! Joseon Folk Painting” in 2006 at the Seoul Museum of History, and “Korean Folk Paintings – Diversity and Creativity” (2006) at the National Folk Museum of Korea in Seoul.

View additional panels from the chaekgado screen at MFA.

The Art Institute of Chicago has a gorgeous chaekgado.

An interesting variation on the theme from a Korean antique auctioneer.

This example from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts depicts objects not necessarily related to scholars.

Interesting interview with contemporary minhwa artist Kim Hye-joong from earlier this year.