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