Monday, August 30, 2010

Importance of Portraits I: Early American Sculpture

It seems unbelievable, but there are only five more weeks before this blog reaches 100 posts. To celebrate the milestone, the next five entries will focus on an important subject taught in art classrooms: Portraiture. These entries will give an overview of the types of portraits produced from a variety of cultures and in a variety of art forms. Let's begin with American sculpture:

Portraiture is one of the oldest types of subject matter in the history of art. Even prehistoric cave painters represented themselves by registering their presence in their paintings by blowing paint over their hands, creating a unique signature (actually, quite eerie). I make it a point to do a self-portrait of myself every couple of years just to keep in practice, although I stink at portraits of other people (just ask my sitters). David Gilmour Blythe has piqued my interest for some time after reading nineteenth-century newspaper articles about his antics. Apparently he was quite an eccentric, but, what is fascinating about him is his absolute conviction about the importance of art and its connection to American society. His veneration of the French hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, in the years leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865) is quite revealing of his reverence for the new republic and just how art fit in as an important component.

Fine art during the Colonial period consisted almost entirely of painting. In the early colonial period, painting was confined to signs, mantle overpaintings, carriage decoration, and advertising. When the colonies began to be prosperous, and up until the Revolution, portraiture was the primary subject matter of painting. This was due in large part because of the colonists’ aspirations to demonstrate their prosperity in the same way as their English forbearers through commissioned art.

Sculpture was limited to architectural ornament, as well as gravestone and sign carving. After the Revolution, the influence of the Neoclassical style in European art helped encourage an increasing appreciation of sculpture in America among the growing, affluent middle class. While most of the sculpture produced in the first half of the nineteenth century consisted of neoclassical portrait busts and allegorical and mythological figures, a vein of naïve, self-taught sculpture did exist. Like naïve painting, many of these sculptors were self-taught.

Blythe was born to immigrant parents on the Ohio frontier. He showed an aptitude for art at an early age, producing portraits of family and neighbors, caricatures, and satirical depictions of local events. At sixteen he was apprenticed to a wood carver and produced whittled emblems and architectural decoration. A restless romantic, Blythe spent years thereafter wandering the length of the Ohio River valley as an itinerant portrait painter. He eventually settled for some years in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

Blythe’s skill as a portraitist earned him the commission to carve a figure of Lafayette (Marie Jean Paul Joseph Roche Yves Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, 1757- 1834) for the Fayette county courthouse in Uniontown. He carved the figure of the Revolutionary War hero using an adze which gives it the rough-hewn quality. Although the figure is well-proportioned, it is stiff and lacking the refinement of Blythe’s contemporaries, such as Clark Mills, Hiram Powers, or even William Rush. The rigid pose is reminiscent of the formality of ancient Egyptian figures.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Meiji Ukiyo-e

I always like introducing you to artists who are not on the radar in mainstream art history. I know, there are so many, so where do I start? In one of my little “epiphany moments” of sorts, this week I was privileged to add works to our collection by Ogata Gekko, a Japanese printmaker of the late 19th to early 20th century. Now, we all know that Japanese prints influenced European art, particularly Impressionism, starting in the 1860s. However, the prints that influenced European artists were from the 18th and early 19th centuries, for example, Hokusai. While Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were benefiting from the influence of Japanese prints from earlier periods, Gekko was continuing the tradition in a new direction.

The Meiji “restoration” of 1867 ended over 200 years of the feudal dictatorship of the Tokugawa shogunate. Under the guise of once again “revering the emperor” as the supreme ruler, certain military families methodically transformed Japan, at an astonishingly fast rate, into a modern, westernized, industrial country. This all occurred after Japan was forcibly opened to western trade by Commodore Perry of the United States. With that opening to western trade, Japanese artists were able to see art from Western Europe more than ever before. Many western influences crept into Japanese prints, including the illusion of depth, monumentality of form, and western chemical aniline dyes imported from Germany.

Ogata Gekko was somewhat of an anomaly compared to past artists in the woodcut print field. He does not appear to have done the traditional apprenticeship to a master artist, and apparently was self-taught. His early career was as an illustrator and designer of advertisements. Influenced by traditional Chinese painting, his early career as an artist was as a painter, illustrator, and decorator of lacquer work. In the 1880s he became interested in printmaking in the Ukiyo-e style. While the historical Ukiyo-e style produced subjects of beauties, actors and landscapes, Gekko preferred genre subjects, landscapes, and particularly animals and plants. Among his favored subject matter was the depiction of animals in grassy settings.

Gekko’s style was unique in woodblock printing because he eschewed the strict linearity of earlier Ukiyo-e in favor of a style that imitated brush work. He must have driven his woodblock carvers and printers crazy with his technique. This print comes from a series of shishikiban (square prints), which were his favored format for depicting close-ups of nature. While this print contains traditional elements such as suggestions of depth with mist, open composition, and emphasis on minute elements of nature, there is a definite western influence on the insistence on three-dimensional space in the concentric ripples in the water, and the diminution of detail in the far background.

Gekko was the first internationally acclaimed Japanese artist. He displayed his prints at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, the Paris World Exposition in 1900, and the International Exposition in London in 1910. At the 1903 Saint Louis’ World’s Fair, he received a medal for one of his prints.

Gekko was born Nakagami Masanosuke, but took the name Ogata in 1884, in honor of the famous 17th century painter (learn more about him in my blog post from May 17). The name Gekko means “moonlight.” Gekko believed that he was upholding the tradition of Ukiyo-e. Perhaps that is why one of his first woodcut editions was a series of calendar pages called “Twelve Months of Ukiyo.”

This website has an awesome amount of the varied work of this brilliant artist, plus extensive biographical information.

Monday, August 16, 2010

American Domestic

When I lived in Chicago, I would take frequent walks around the various neighborhoods to scope out the gorgeous late 19th and early 20th century domestic architecture. I would habitually develop Architecture Envy. This involves an intense wish to live in a fabulous early Chicago house that one has just seen during a stroll, but knows one could never afford. As I say, I was routinely afflicted with this condition, anyone who has been to the neighborhoods immediately surrounding downtown Chicago knows what I’m saying. There are two neighborhoods on the southwest side that have row after row of bungalow style homes, it’s fabulous. One can see those on the way to Midway Airport from downtown.

The Arts and Crafts movement, an English reaction against mass-produced arts, found willing adherents in the United States when it was introduced in the 1880s. The emphasis of the movement was hand-crafting and natural materials, with a preference for historically-inspired styles. The movement led to all sorts of eclectic combinations of influence, such as crossing Japanese art with medieval European art. Nothing is a stranger combination of east and west than the bungalow style.

Although most Americans -- including me until recently -- assume that the bungalow was an American inspiration because we see it from the east coast to the west coast, the basic design came from India. The term actually originated in India, where the native population built low houses surrounded by verandas which provided a central living space with surrounding rooms and porches for sleeping. The name “bangla” came from the Indian province of Bengal (now Bangladesh). The British occupiers of India took the style and added aspects of the “English Cottage” style (mostly a Gothic/Romanesque revival style, very “quaint”) and introduced the style to Europe.

The bungalow style became popular in Europe as a design for summer retreats, and as such, was introduced in America by Boston architect William Gibbons Preston (1844-1910), who built a version of it on Monument Beach, Cape Cod. Books illustrating the style and plans of bungalows were published widely in America, and multitudes of identical bungalows were built across the country. Eventually the form came under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement. Despite the variations, there are several common features, seen in this example as well: heavy eaves on a low-pitched roof; asymmetrical facades; prominent verandas with heavy supports; and combinations of materials – brick, stucco, and stick work.

The style lost favor in the 1920s with period revival styles that resumed popularity until the 1950s. Interestingly, at one time, the Sears catalog sold complete bungalow homes of pre-cut pieces ready to be assembled on the home site!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Unique Artist of His Time

I generally find myself drawn to the work of artists whose names are not routinely discussed in the House of Art History. Adolf Dehn is one of those artists. I find the period between World War I (1914-1918) and the Great Depression (1929-1940) particularly fascinating in American art. It was a period that promised momentous changes in American art, but eventually left few American artists actually realizing those momentous changes in their own work.

The First Armory Show in New York in 1913 was the first introduction to avant-garde art movements from Europe for most Americans. At that exhibition, Americans saw Symbolism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Expressionism, among other styles. Although the Armory Show was panned by the public and critics alike, it initiated a brief period of modernist experiment among some American artists. The Great Depression more or less spelled a temporary hiatus for modernist experiment, during a period when most artists worked on government mural projects extolling the virtues of American life in social realist style.

Dehn is considered one of the master printmakers of the mid-twentieth century. Having studied art in his native Minnesota and the Art Students League in New York, his first jobs as an artist were illustrating magazines. He met Ash Can School artists George Luks and John Sloan and found that he shared their interest in depicting realistic scenes of city life. While living in Europe between 1921 and 1929 he produced lithographs which satirized the excesses of wealthy members of society. He also became fascinated with landscape, particularly mountain landscape. Dehn’s first one person show of his lithographs was in 1930 right after the collapse of the world economy, and it initiated a period during which he worked primarily on public art projects.

In 1937 Dehn made the crucial decision to paint in watercolor. Standard Oil hired him to do watercolors of their extensive holdings. After World War II, during the 1950s and 1960s, he achieved financial success with his painting. Although Abstract Expressionism was the big thing at the time, he refused to take his landscapes into abstraction because he felt it was too personal of a style and not understandable to the general public. However, while one sees regionalism, social realism, and Japanese landscape painting in his work, Dehn was capable of producing watercolors of lyrical fantasy. Some Fish is one of those works. While the fish forms are depicted with a certain amount of realism, they have an almost whimsical, aware quality to their faces, and they float in an unspecified environment.

Another favorite watercolor by Dehn is the two flute players hovering in mid-air.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bullies Psychedelic

With all the talk about bullying in schools, I thought I would show you Virgil Marti’s work. This piece, I would like to assume, is dedicated to all of us who were the ones on the receiving end of bullying. I certainly was in high school, where I was 6’1”, 104 pounds (true story, it’s on my first driver’s license). What a wonderful form of pay back, years later, to immortalize your tormentors in a work of art! You might know I could find an art historical connection to this idea. Throughout the history of art, artists have immortalized their detractors, critics or naysayers in works of art that have come down to us as fine art. Think Daumier, Goya, Thomas Nast, among others. Marti’s work also is an indication a characteristic of 21st century American society: the über-analysis of feelings, intentions and wishes.

Installation art has been around for quite awhile. It really hit its stride in the 1960s and 1970s, but, if I want to be a picky art historian, I can find examples going waaaaaay back. Installation art is basically the establishment of a particular environment (temporary most of the time) in a gallery, building space, or even outside in nature by an artist or group of artists. It usually consists of the artist building/taking away elements that change the very nature of the space. Does that mean ancient Egyptian burials were environments? Technically, yes they were environments meant to provide for the deceased in the afterlife. Come on, a tomb full of rich artworks not an environment?

Some installation artists create a new environment by covering a gallery with their paintings on the gallery walls itself. Barry McGee comes to mind instantly, as does Arturo Herrera, Robert Gober, and Matthew Ritchie. Others use light to manipulate the viewer’s perception of the gallery space, such as Dan Flavin, James Turrell, and Stephen Knapp. In a previous blog post I mentioned that painter Florine Stettheimer created the first modern installation in 1916 when she transformed the gallery showing her paintings into a feminist environment. Louise Nevelson followed suit in her exhibits of her found object constructions that dominated entire gallery spaces. Many installations have bordered on performance pieces, and vice versa. Most notable among those is Claes Oldenburg’s Store of 1961, where he rented a store front in New York, created objects of muslin and painted plaster, mostly of food items, and sold them like a grocery store.

Virgil Marti is interested in the relationships between art and interior decoration. While his latest installations transform gallery spaces into psychedelic combinations of mirrors, macramé, and other objects referring to faded grandeur, many of his early installations were wallpaper events. These wallpapers were based on tacky wallpaper designs he saw while growing up in the Midwest. Marti created this unusual wallpaper by combining yearbook photographs of junior high school bullies he had known with traditional French wallpaper. He swapped out the peaceful country scenes from each oval with a yearbook portrait. A master printer, Marti hand-printed his Bullies on Tyvek, a synthetic paper-like material.

Despite the questionable “taste” of the wallpaper, it does cause the viewer to ponder on the title and the perception of bullies. Many years after experiencing bullying himself in his school, Marti found a way to creatively express his feelings on the subject with this room installation of wallpaper. This piece certainly ensures that you will never look at traditional, decorative wallpaper the same way again.

Do any K-12 art teachers out there use art to deal with bullying?