Monday, May 24, 2010

Japanese Art Nouveau

As long as I talked about Japanese art last week, I might as well stay in Japan after coming across this gem in our digital collection. Years ago someone talked about the earth being a global village. Well, that didn’t just happen because of airplanes and the internet; I believe it started in the late 19th century. After the US forced the opening of Japan to western markets in 1853, the West was flooded with Japanese art, particularly the woodblock Ukiyo-e prints of the nineteenth century. It had a huge impact on western art at a time when western artists were questioning the “tradition” of western styles and iconography. Who would guess that Japanese influence on western art would boomerang?

I’ve already talked about Japanese postcards in a past blog. What I find fascinating about this postcard is the cross-cultural influences. After being forcibly opened to the West, Japanese artists were exposed to western art styles and techniques. Many artists incorporated western perspective into their work, while some adapted western media such as oil paint. One of the most prominent Japanese oil masters was Asai Chu (1857-1907). In 1900 he was sent by the Japanese government to Paris to attend the Exposition Universelle in which his work and the work of other Japanese artists were featured. He became fascinated by the then-current style of Art Nouveau and transmitted that style back to Japan. By 1902 the style was very popular in Japan, gracing not only postcards, but many other forms of graphic arts.

Asai Chu was struck by the fact that western artists of the Art Nouveau style were particularly interested in the work of Ogata Kōrin (1658-1715). Also, artists who worked in the Art Nouveau style had borrowed motifs from Japanese woodblock prints, which had an angular, linear look, incorporating the grids and parallel lines of Japanese interior design depicted in these images, as well as the sinuous, flowing lines of blossoming tree branches, rivers, and kimono designs. The elegant refined detail of work evident in these and other artworks from Japan gave a new aesthetic input, feeding western desire for a new style/decoration for a new century.

Another interesting aspect of this piece is the use of lithography. The first printing press was introduced by Germany in the 1860s. Before that the only printing technique used in Japan was the woodblock. By 1873 the use of lithographs was popular in Japan. It was similar to woodblock printing in that color lithography required a different stone for each color. After 1882, more private publishers used lithography than woodblock prints for postcards, etc. In 1885 they organized the Tokyo Lithograph Union. Lithography had the advantage of being easier to use for mass production than woodblocks.

Let’s sum all this artistic influence flow up shall we? Japan to West to Japan. There you have your “holy cow!” moment of the week.

Check out more Art Nouveau Japanese postcards from the MFA Boston’s phenomenal collection of the genre.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Fabulous Carrying box

I came across this gorgeous little item in our collection the other day, and, once again, I must emphasize how I detest the art form term “decorative arts” (though not quite as badly as I detest “crafts”). There’s just no way you can look at this beautiful little utilitarian object and think “decorative!” An artist designed and made it. Remember my recommendation to see beauty in everyday objects? Well, this beautiful object comes from one of the most fascinating periods of Japanese history, the Edo Period (1603-1868). This period is very well known in the West for colored woodblock prints, but art historians know the period for the wide variety of incredible art forms produced then.

The Tokugawa lords took the shogunate (“shogun” was a military leader) by force in 1603. In order to ensure that no one threatened their power, the Tokugawa rulers enacted strict policies to, in essence, freeze Japan socially. Among the many laws was one that prevented middle and lower class people from buying luxury clothing, jewelry, etc., plus a ban on travel outside of Japan. With such strict laws regulating most aspects of everyday life, Japan experienced a 250 year period of peace. With peace came an increase in demand for luxury items among the upper classes, while merchants and artists (the lowest two stations of the social order) profited from this demand.

The merchants and artists spent their newfound wealth on the rich cultural atmosphere of the cities’ theater and red-light districts, as well as on personal adornment. One way around the sumptuary laws (laws restricting luxury dress) was to buy kimonos of a plain cloth on the outside, lined with luxurious, costly silk inside, out of sight. Another way was to acquire costly items such as this inro which were easily concealed. Inro, carried by noble and commoner alike, were a small series (commonly three to six) of nested boxes hanging from the kimono’s obi (sash) by a silk cord. They were made for carrying anything small such as identity seals or medicine. Much like a miniature chest of drawers, the inro boxes were held together by a silk cord that went through holes down one side, under the bottom box, and up the other side.

Ogata Korin was a master painter, known primarily for his stunning six-part screens (byobu). His most famous screens usually depicted close ups of elements of nature, such as irises, cherry blossom branches, or birds, isolated on a background of gold leaf. He also worked in ceramics and lacquer. This inro is similar stylistically to many of his screen painting, with the herons isolated against the gold leaf of the rushes and black lacquer background. The blank background and simplified shapes of grass and birds create a decorative yet descriptive composition.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Picturesque Eldercare

I present to you yet another example that disproves the conventional wisdom that “one can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I had another one of my “eureka!” moments this week while researching eclectic styles in architecture. I came across images of Blaise Hamlet which is outside of Bristol, England, and let’s just say I wanted to crawl right into my computer monitor. What charming architecture! AND, it was built to house retired folks, this at the beginning of the nineteenth century! An early form of assisted living – I think so! So not like warehousing people in nursing homes. Aside from the fascinating fact that Blaise Hamlet was an early form of assisted living, it also is a highlight on the little known element of Romanticism known as the Picturesque style.

When we think of the art of the Baroque period in Europe, several descriptive terms come to mind: grandiose, formal, theatrical, classical, and, need we say it, overblown. During the mid- to late 18th century, English artists and philosophers became engaged in a fascinating debate about the qualities of landscape. The debate evolved to the point where English newspapers included columns devoted to descriptions of walks that afforded the most spectacular views of gardens, landscapes, estates, etc. One even sees this aesthetic in the novels of Jane Austen, who described Blaise Castle in her novel Northanger Abbey as “the finest place in England.”

The Picturesque style emerged after the publication in 1794 of Sir Uvedale Price’s (1747-1829) book Essay on the Picturesque. The word “picturesque” comes from the Italian pittoresco which means in the manner of painting. Price’s ideal of natural beauty was associated with the carefully contrived landscapes of such Baroque painters as Claude Lorrain (1600-1682 France) and Salvator Rosa (1615-1673). Uvedale’s book essentially emphasized a middle ground between urban design and landscape, although the style eventually took on anti-urban tones.

John Nash designed Blaise Hamlet for the retired workers from Blaise Castle estate at Henbury. Blaise Castle was owned by John Scandrett Harford (1785-1866), a wealthy banker and Quaker abolitionist. Nash’s design for Regents Park and Saint James Park in London are an example of the synthesis of the urban/rural trains of thought, while Blaise Hamlet emphasizes the rural “sublime.” One of the key aspects of the Picturesque was the “pleasing” harmony of buildings and landscape, and the “appropriate” proportions of landscape to architecture.

In architectural terms, Blaise Hamlet is a good example of the Picturesque, freeing architecture from the tyranny of symmetry (of the classically inspired Baroque architecture). Looking at Sweetbriar Cottage conjures up ideas of variety, irregularity, asymmetry, roughness of texture, and a romantic harking back to medieval cottages. The Picturesque style was a huge influence throughout Europe, and, in architecture, led to the eclecticism of many revival styles in the nineteenth century, particularly Gothic.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Celebrate Spring with Art

Now that spring is busting out all over (finally), I thought we’d celebrate it with this gorgeous little piece from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It’s one of my favorites in my little mental art museum. It is also yet another instance that confirms what I have always tried to get across: there was never a time in the history of art when women did not play a significant role, either as artists, patrons, or mentors.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Fidelia Bridges was orphaned at the age of 16. At that age she developed what would be a life long friendship with Anne Whitney, the pioneer woman sculptor. The two discussed art and women’s place in society. Whitney encouraged Bridges, who had a growing interest in painting, to pursue a career in art. Bridges studied painting under William Trost Richards in Philadelphia. At the time he was influenced by the English Pre-Raphaelite movement that emphasized a detailed study of nature with botanical accuracy.

Bridges set up her own studio in Philadelphia in 1862. Richards sponsored her among his wealthy patrons there. At this time she was exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1867 she went to Rome for a year, staying with Whitney, who was now the head of a group of women artists who wish to work without the strictures of American society. After this trip Bridges began to form her mature style, quite apart from Richards’ influence.

Bridges turned entirely to watercolor at this time. Her work varied little in subject matter throughout her career: close-ups of small fragments of nature such as flowers, grasses, and birds, focusing on minute details in vibrant colors. She was elected as an associate at the National Academy of Design in 1874. She also received many commissions for lithographic prints from Louis Prang and Company, a rival of Currier and Ives.

By the 1870s, Bridges had moved away from the all-over detail of her Pre-Raphaelite-inspired style, at times moving toward almost Asian simplification of the subject. This piece is typical of her work from the 1870s with its dramatic emphasis of positive and negative space between the flower and the neutral background. The Asian influence is also seen in the asymmetrical arrangement of the flower in the composition. Despite the simplification in the work, Bridges has managed to produce a work with an amazing amount of detail of natural light. Works such as this compare favorably with the “Flowers and Birds” series woodcuts of Hiroshige (1797-1858), although it is not known if Bridges ever saw such work. She was primarily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite emphasis of focus on details of nature.