Monday, January 25, 2010

The Forgotten Impressionist

Pastel is a medium I have always dearly wanted to master but have never quite gotten a handle on. I’ve seen masters such as Jean-Étienne Liotard or John Singleton Copley who did portraits in pastel that look like photographs and I’m like, “How did he do that?” My few tries with pastels ended up with most of it on the back of my hand. Enough said, I can’t do pastels. But, Pierre Prins could do pastels. As with the above mentioned artists, I’m like, “How’d he do that?”! Unfortunately, he is one of those artists who has been more or less ignored in the history of art because his work plays a sort of side step to what was happening at the time: Impressionism. Despite that, his work compares favorably to Impressionism, and at the same time the Impressionists were prowling the environs of Paris for subject matter, Prins was right there with them.

The Realism movement in Europe of the 1850s to 1860s emphasized direct observation and depiction of nature without any romantic, literary, historic, or allegorical overtones. Much of the subject matter of the movement was the life of the common folk, but what really blossomed was landscape painting. Painters in France such as Charles Daubigny (1817-1878) and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) advocated painting directly outdoors instead of in the studio (Daubigny had a barge as a floating studio so he could paint outdoors). This was a MAJOR influence of young impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) and realist Édouard Manet (1832-1883). It was to the circle of realists who painted in and around Fontainebleau (Monet painted there early in his career) that Pierre Prins was drawn.

Prins particularly favored the work of Corot and Daubigny. In the 1860s he met Manet who became a life long friend. Like Manet, he was always on the fringe of the Impressionists. He never took part in any of the Impressionist shows that were held from 1874­­­­­­–1886, and his work never realized commercial success, although he worked side by side with Impressionists. Only in 1890 did he have a show dedicated to his pastels in the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. In 1897 his work was compared by critics to that of the realist Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet.

This work clearly shows Prins’s enthusiasm for working outdoors from what he observed. In the history of art there are many artists who delighted in depicting the nuances of clouds. Using the pastel medium, Prins excelled in his studies of clouds at various times of day. His favorite subjects were depictions of the sky and sunsets. In 1907 Prins was shown in a gallery where critics were enthusiastic about his work as an “accomplished Impressionist,” this at a time when Picasso produced the ground-breaking Cubist work Demoiselles d’Avignon. Many of the works Prins showed at the time were thirty years old, ironically.

There is an island in the Seine near Chatou now called the Île des Impressionistes. The Impressionists liked the spot because they felt it offered good subject matter of reflections on water and views of the surrounding countryside. The Musée Fournaise on the Impressionists Island has a collection of Prins’ work, as well as the history of the famous painting by Renoir done when the building was a restaurant, Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Monday, January 18, 2010

East-West Influence

In keeping with my constant grousing about the Western obsession with the influence of Classical and Renaissance art on subsequent periods in Western art history, I would like to focus on a period when Japanese art influenced American art (that influence is referred to in French as Japonisme). The US Navy forcibly opened Japan to trade with America in the 1850s, ending 200 years of Japanese isolation from foreigners (except for limited trade with the Dutch). Trade exposed American artists to the richness of Japanese art, which included porcelain, silk, painting, and printmaking. The Japanese color woodcuts were particularly influential on Western art, especially the artists of the late Ukiyo-e such as Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Hokusai (1760-1849), who were landscape specialists. We can definitely see the influence of Hiroshige in the work of Bertha Lum.

Lum was born in Iowa and studied art at the School of the Art Institute from 1895 to 1900. At the time, printmaking enjoyed a renascence due largely to the influx of Japanese woodcut prints. The Arts and Crafts Movement – which emphasized the rejection of mass-produced in favor of handmade art – encouraged artists to design and carve their own wood block prints. Lum studied under Frank Holme (1868-1904), primarily a newspaper illustrator, who experimented with multi-block color woodcuts.

When Lum married in 1903, she and her husband went to Japan on their honeymoon. While there, she was particularly impressed with the work of Hiroshige. Lum also spent much of her time in Japan looking for wood block printers. Before she returned to the US she bought tools for making prints and got basic information about how to use them. Back in the US she began producing wood block prints which she drew and cut herself. Her earliest prints were nostalgic scenes of Asia, primarily Chinese and Japanese in flavor.

In 1907 Lum returned to Japan, this time with the intention of studying woodcut printing under established Japanese artists. Other American artists, such as Helen Hyde, were also in Japan studying the woodblock technique at a time when the popularity of the medium had dwindled in that country. Lum apprenticed to both an engraver and a printer, and had to study quite awhile before they would allow her to produce her own work. For many years after that she cut and printed her own work, but eventually employed assistants to do the actual printing. She was successful selling her prints in California. In 1922, after living in Japan again, she finally settled in Beijing, where she regularly exhibited her prints and paintings. She lived on an off in China until 1953 when she returned to the US for good.

This composition by Lum is very reminiscent of the landscapes of Hiroshige. Especially similar is her use of positive and negative space, as well as the simulation of weather conditions. Hiroshige was known as a master of rain and snow scenes in his woodblock prints, and Lum’s work admirably mirrors the influence of those works.

A Google search for Lum’s name comes up with a nice selection of her beautiful prints.

The Hanga Gallery that handles prints by Lum.

Learn more about Japanese Ukiyo-e prints in my post about Hiroshige.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Pattern and Decoration

In one of my weekly (geekly?) “holy cow!” epiphany moments, I came across this gorgeous specimen from the Brooklyn Museum of Art by Joyce Kozloff. Not only do I love the work of Kozloff because she was a pioneering feminist artist, but especially because of the complex compositions. Let’s just say I would not have the patience to produce paintings of this intricacy. The Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s helped expose a broad gamut of styles of women artists in the male-dominated art world. In a sense, Kozloff was a pioneer among pioneers in her insistence on the integrity of traditional women’s aesthetics (such as quilting, embroidery, and ceramics). She was also largely responsible for removing the stigma from the Pattern and Decoration movement within the Feminist Art Movement.

One idea to emerge in the Feminist Art Movement was the inherent differences in form between the art of men and women. Many women sought to identify the formal qualities found universally in women’s art that had been suppressed or denigrated by the male-dominated art establishment. Some of these qualities included emphasis on line and detail, sensuous surfaces and forms, collage, grid, and patchwork.

Kozloff was born in New Jersey. Her earliest works were Hard Edge Minimalism, which she ultimately found unsatisfying. A trip to Mexico in 1973 exposed her to the intricate stone mosaic of ancient Mexican ruins and the elaborate decoration of Mexican Baroque churches. She eventually transferred her interest from Mexican architecture to the ceramic tile decoration of Islamic architecture. Sixteen-Point Star Pattern graphically demonstrates this influence in patterns that one can easily imagine seeing on buildings in Isfahan, Iran or in the Islamic buildings in Spain.

Kozloff’s paintings, such as this one, contain influences from three then-concurrent painting styles: Hard Edge, Color Field, and Decoration. She retained the structure of Hard Edge, enhancing it with abstract patterns placed within a grid of various small color fields. When she worked, Kozloff first meticulously established the grid and designs of the patterns. Since the 1990s Kozloff’s work has been inspired by close-ups of antique maps, often applied to non-flat surfaces.

In the 1970s, Kozloff’s emphasis on pattern was one of the elements that helped break down the traditional barriers between fine arts and decorative arts. It was a period when Fiber Arts came into their own. The distinction between fine and decorative arts has more or less been minimized since the 1970s.

DCMoore Gallery has selected works of Kozloff’s current work.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mesoamerica-North American Connection

I just finished my part of work on the revision of our studio book about clay and so I thought I would show you a ceramic artwork this week. As an art historian, I enjoy making connections between cultures. There are many native cultures in the US, particularly from the East to the Midwest, that don’t get as much study as Plains or Southwest cultures. I find Mississippian cultures fascinating.

The Mississippian cultures of mid-United States, which flourished from 900 through 1700 CE, descended from the so-called “mound-builder” cultures of the late prehistoric period. The Mound Builders constructed mound lodgings and burial chambers of pounded earth with thatch roofs.

The Mississippian cultures included the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Chicamauga, Chisea, and Shawnee bands, among many others. The earliest report of European contact with these cultures indicates that the cultures built their towns on the mound foundations left by their ancestors. The Mississippian cultures were primarily farmers who raised vegetables, tobacco, and corn. After the middle of the eighteenth century, they acquired horses, cattle, and pigs from the English settlers and began raising a considerable number of livestock.

The Mississippian cultures had an extensive trade network by land and via the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers that extended from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. Although no actual Mexican artifacts have been found at Mississippian sites, artistic evidence exists of contact with the Mesoamerican Mexican cultures.

Some of the greatest Mississippian artworks are ceramic renderings of human beings. This type of rendering, which was probably influenced by the Mesoamerican culture in Mexico, is noticeably absent (other than in abstracted form) from Plains, Woodlands, Pueblo, and California art. These effigies are thought to represent ancestor figures that would have been placed near a deceased person during burial ceremonies. They also appear on pot handles and lids.

Another theory is that, like the Mesoamerican culture that influenced them, the Mississippian peoples had special societies that honored warriors. The pose of this figure is a common characteristic of these sculptures and may represent part of a ritual dance performed in these warrior guilds. The simplification of form, which includes the flattened pyramidal nose, is also an element of Mesoamerican influence.

This Illinois educational website has a good overview of Mississippian cultures.

This is a good website with overview of Mississippian art.

The MFA in Boston has an awesome collection of First Nations ceramics from all over the US.