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.