Monday, December 19, 2011

What price (art) education?

I just recently heard yet another news story about a state (California) proposing to cut massive amounts of money to education (and you know art education is right up there at the top of the cut). Immediately following was a story about a deceased movie star’s jewels fetching over 100 million dollars at auction.  Okay, am I the only one who sees the irony in this? 100 million for jewels from an actor, while cutting millions from education? Where are these jewel-buyers when education is on the line? And if those buyers are from foreign countries, shame on them, too, because we’re in a world-wide recession. Unfortunately, it isn’t just 21st century entitlement. Has valuing the acquisition of art with a “pedigree” over the educating children always been the norm? Could somebody spending 9 million dollars on a ring possibly think of donating that much money to a local school district? Or another more worthy cause? Please!

To illustrate this point, let’s look at the case of Vincent van Gogh. During his lifetime, van Gogh struggled with acceptance as an artist and for sales. He epitomized the artist who loved nature and expressed that through his paintings. He also epitomized the artist who struggled to get his art recognized, but ended his life feeling he was a failure. He only sold one painting during his lifetime.

The last year of his death, van Gogh became recognized in many countries of northern Europe. Within a couple of years of his death, imitators appeared copying his work. By the 1920s, copies of van Gogh’s work clouded the true number of legitimate works attributable to the artist. So, within ten years of van Gogh’s death, people were making money from his style. (I’m sorry, but this doesn’t even look like an early van Gogh to me.) I think this is equally contemptible as people paying millions of dollars for Hollywood jewelry, no matter how beautifully it’s made.

As the income gap widens and people speak their minds about inequality, times such as these should help us reevaluate our priorities. Perhaps the “one percenters” of the world will finally see the value of quality education for all (and thus higher quality of life) over mere material possessions.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Looking at Stained Glass

Stained glass is predominantly a Western art form. When we think of stained glass, we think of Gothic cathedrals, right? Stained glass is believed to have originated from Byzantine (ca. 500 –1453) mosaics that used glass tesserae (squares of cut glass) in multiple colors. Stained glass began to adorn Western churches during the Medieval period (ca. 500–1300). The earliest examples remaining date from between 1000 and 1050. Stained glass was a significant art form from that period through most of the 16th century, primarily in Western religious structures. In Western art history books, stained glass disappears in writing until the mid- to late-nineteenth century. A renaissance in the art form began at that time. Brone Jameikis was a major force in stained glass art.

Two stylistic movements led to the rejuvenation of stained glass as a major art form in the West: Gothic Revival (flourished ca. 1830s–1860s), a style born out of the Romantic movement  in which any past style was fair game for imitation (the style was mostly in architecture and furniture); and the Arts and Crafts Movement (flourished 1860s to early 20th century), which was a conscious revival of past styles, particularly Medieval, with an emphasis on the quality of hand-crafted decorative arts as a reaction to mass-produced objects of the Industrial Revolution. Stained glass was a major factor in both movements, and, in the late nineteenth century, became increasingly a medium taken up by women.

In both the nineteenth and twentieth century, painters often began working in stained glass (including John La Farge), but the period saw the rise of artists dedicated to glass (such as Louis Comfort Tiffany). Into the 21st century, artists dedicated to stained glass abound. Jameikis is an artist whose body of work was primarily stained glass.

Jameikis was born in Vilnius, Lithuania. Her earliest memories of stained glass were of being fascinated with the windows of a Gothic church in Vilnius and the colors produced by the light going through them. That became a life-long fascination in her work. Jameikis worked primarily in slab glass, one inch thick pieces held together by epoxy resin rather than lead. While her works reflect an understanding of the structure of traditional stained glass, they also recall the fragmentation of form of modernist movements such as Cubism.
This window is an image of the Virgin Mary holding a lotus. The lotus was an ages old symbol of purity and spontaneous generation, both reflecting Mary’s position of divine birth in Christian doctrine. The thickness of the glass gives the piece a more luminous and glittering appearance than traditional stained glass because of the refractive qualities of slab glass. One of Jameikis’ most enduring monuments in stained glass is her work for the church of Saint Peter in Honolulu.

Activity: A faux stained glass panel. Materials: wax paper, crayons, black construction paper, glue, a hot iron. Have students design a relatively simple stained glass window, possibly abstract. Students shave various colors of crayons onto the wax paper (placed over a study drawing) following the shapes in the drawing, and cover the shavings with another piece of wax paper. Applying the hot iron to this will fuse the shavings together. Black construction paper can be then cut out to frame the various areas of color. 

Correlations to Davis programs:  Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 11; The Visual Experience: 10.9

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Love of Mosaics

I’ve been fascinated with mosaics since I took a tour of the upper mosaics of San Marco in Venice. I believe I never really stopped and thought about the intricate nature of the art form. I even saw mosaics designed by Tintoretto! However, the art form is not really the main point of this blog, although I will leave you with a technical description of the process. What fascinates me about the mosaics at Hammam-Lif (near Tunis) in Tunisia is what they represent in a broader sense about humanity. Here are Roman mosaic artists decorating a Jewish synagogue! There have always been points in history where cultures (regardless of religion) have co-existed peacefully and profitably! I’ll throw a few instances out: Nasrid (Islamic) Spain (1232–1492); Cochin, India; and yes, many cities within the vast Roman Empire. The lesson contemporary human beings have yet to learn is that we can learn from each other for mutual benefit.

As you all know, a mosaic is a pattern or picture made by embedding small pieces of stone or glass (the pieces are called tesserae) in cement on surfaces such as walls, floors, and ceilings. Mosaics seem to have originated in the Mediterranean region, primarily invented as inexpensive flooring of pebbles. Artisans soon discovered that pebbles of varying colors could be arranged to form decorative patterns. Pebble mosaics were popular throughout Roman times because pebbles were durable and cheap. Romans were interested in realism in their sculpture and painting, and desired mosaics, too, to have more pictorial realism. The Romans began cutting stones into desired shapes, which revolutionized mosaic-making.

Despite official intolerance, Jewish communities thrived throughout the Roman Empire.  Carthage, which the Romans wiped out in the BCEs, eventually was rebuilt (contemporary Tunis) as a major port and source of wheat and other commodities during the first century BCE.

Like many of the cities in the far flung regions of the empire, Tunis became a cosmopolitan center of art and cultural life, including a large, prosperous Jewish community. What is novel about Hammam-Lif is that synagogues were decorated with human and animal figures (frowned upon in most Israeli art in the ancient period).

Interestingly, the Jewish people (like the early Christians living within the Empire) had to rely on local (Roman) artists to decorate their synagogue. This mosaic is profoundly Roman in style, and the symbolism within a synagogue is an open question. What is amazing to me, regardless of where the Romans spread their influence: Look at the nuances of shading in the figure’s face! This was done by multi colored stones and clay tesserae!

Activity: Cut small squares out of pieces of different colors of construction paper. Pick out a design, such as a face, plant, or abstract pattern, and glue the squares to a black piece of paper. The black paper will form a background that can indicate lines within the design.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.22; A Personal Journey: 2.1; Exploring Visual Design: 6, 11; The Visual Experience: 210-211; Discovering Art History: 6.3

Monday, November 28, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving: Thankful for American Impressionism

Wrapping up my Thanksgiving period blogs is a big Thank You for the painting movement called American Impressionism. When I think of movements that have influenced my own painting, American Impressionism is right up there with French Impressionism itself, and German Expressionism. Up until the time of the American impressionists, there were no inroads into the entrenched realism that dominated American painting. I guess I really just like artists who buck the established system—at the time the National Academy in New York that held itself to be the arbiter of American artistic taste.

Just as happened in France in the 1870s, Impressionism was slow to catch on with critics and the public in the US, starting in the 1880s when French impressionist works were exhibited in America. When American artists painting in the style began exhibiting in the 1890s, they too initially found a cool reception. American patrons preferred didactic realism in the form of genre scenes, portraiture, and descriptive landscapes. While American impressionists presented depictions of real landscapes, their approach with broken color and active brush work did not initially fare well. Their style was considered unsophisticated by academic hacks.

Childe Hassam studied in Paris for three years starting in 1883. Exposed to Impressionism, his palette lightened and he adopted the short, quick brush strokes of Impressionist (and some Post-Impressionist) painters. He returned to New York in 1890. By the mid-1890s, there were many artists painting in impressionist styles. Ignored by the National Academy and largely by the public, Hassam, along with nine other impressionists, formed the Ten American Painters (first exhibit 1898 in New York). The group was devoted to Impressionism, exhibiting outside official venues.

Hassam has always been my favorite of the American impressionists. His landscapes are absolutely gorgeous, and, like most of the American Impressionists (including Mary Cassatt), his interest in depicting the effects of light on color and form did not lead him to the total disintegration of the subject. Later in life, while still working in the Impressionist palette and fluid brush work, Hassam’s works bordered on expressionistic, as we see in this lovely seascape from one of his hiatuses in Cos Cob.

Activity: Using tempera paint and various size brushes, create a fantasy landscape that emphasizes bright colors in either warm or cool families, related lines and shapes to create rhythm. Be sure to repeat the elements to create patterns and movement.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 3.16, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.14, 4.21, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 6.32; A Personal Journey: 5.1; A Community Connection: 5.1; A Global Pursuit: 2.2; Exploring Visual Design: 4, 5, 6, 8.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving: Pioneer of American Genre

Let’s celebrate Thanksgiving with a bountiful kitchen scene from 19th century America!
This really isn’t going to be about a “woman’s domain” or “only women cook”; believe it or not, it’s about a pioneering woman artist. As I have repeated (probably ad nauseam to you all), I feel there’s never been a period in art history when women have not played a significant role. So, one of my thanks at Thanksgiving is for the wonderful history of American art that includes the broad spectrum of the people in this country: encompassing women, African Americans, Native Americans, and all of the immigrants that have made the cultural diversity of this country so rich.

Until the 1870s, women were not allowed into the major art schools in the US. Like their European counterparts, they relied on training from male family members or husbands who were artists. However, there were some vigorous women artists in the first half of the nineteenth century who defied convention in order to achieve their goal to be professional artists. Lilly Martin Spencer was one of those women.

The period before the Civil War (1861–1865) in the US witnessed the rise in popularity in the US of genre painting, particularly scenes of American life. American artists at the time consciously strove to establish an American “school” or art. This perhaps explains why Spencer turned down an offer by a wealthy Cincinnati patron in 1841 to study in Europe. She had taught herself painting at home with the ardent encouragement of her liberal parents. After lessons from local Cincinnati painters she started exhibiting wherever she could in Cincinnati. Her marriage in 1844 did not slow down her career, for her husband took over domestic duties in order to allow Spencer to continue to paint. Sales through the Western Art-Union of Cincinnati starting in 1847 was the beginning of a very successful career. Such art unions sold lottery tickets with engravings of American artists’ paintings, with a drawing to present the painting itself to the winner. These drawings exposed Spencer’s work to a wide section of the American public.

Although she did some portraits, Spencer preferred to concentrate on genre scenes, specifically family life (she herself had borne thirteen children). She studied at the National Academy after moving to New York in 1848. Until the time of the Civil War, her genre scenes vied in popularity with the most notable male genre painter of the period: George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879).

This work was commissioned by the Cosmopolitan Art Association in New York. The association promoted art by women for women. However, the protagonist of this work threatens a spoonful of molasses in the face if the (presumed) male viewer tries an improper advance. The painting is an interesting combination of traditional subject matter with unconventional boldness. The irony is that Spencer was a woman supporting her family by portraying women in seemingly traditional roles. Her handling of the still life arrangements within the painting and the overall domestic scene indicate that Spencer was well aware of Dutch Baroque painting, which emphasized genre and still life.

Activity: Using pencil with colored pencil or markers, have students create an interior that features a common activity in their family, with emphasis on a figure in the work (whether themselves or a family member) interacting with the viewer.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 3.14; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 5.26, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.6; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.3, 1.5

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Still Life Pioneer

Well, we’re coming up on Thanksgiving and I want to express my thanks for many aspects of the arts. One thing I’m totally thankful for is the rich history of American art. I may not always love the obsession with realism, but I appreciate it in early American art because the artists were looking to European models that were popular at the time. AND, in a country where, at the time, only portraiture was truly appreciated in painting, Raphaelle Peale helped make still life a mainstream, accepted subject matter in painting. In doing so, he made a way for people of restricted means to show their good taste without spending a fortune on a portrait.

Raphaelle was the oldest son of Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). He learned how to paint from his father while working in his father’s taxidermy studio. He was established as a professional miniature artist by the time he was twenty-five. During the first half of the first decade of the nineteenth century, Raphaelle and his brother Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860) traveled to major cities all over the east coast painting portraits: Rembrandt full sized paintings and Raphaelle miniatures.

When his health declined in 1815, Raphaelle no longer felt capable of extensive travel hunting down portraiture commissions. He decided to devote himself to still life painting, even though his father disapproved and still life paintings were not nearly as lucrative as portraits. Although he briefly returned to portraiture in 1820, he had left behind as many as 70 still life paintings when he died prematurely in 1825.

Raphaelle emphasized still life subjects almost entirely the last ten years of his life. He can actually be considered the first professional American still life painter. Raphaelle’s still life paintings are simple and austere. His compositions contained a smaller number of objects, often one type. This is perhaps the influence of Spanish Baroque still life paintings he saw while in Mexico, particularly the work of Juan Sanchez Cotan.

In Still Life with Peaches Raphaelle places the still life on a shallow shelf parallel to the picture plane in a shallow space. Although the lighting is diffused, as in all his still life paintings, it originates from the left side of the painting. The diffused nature of the lighting creates luminous, soft-edged forms. Although paying close attention to physical detail, Rapahelle’s works do not emphasize flaws in the fruit.

Activity: Using color construction paper, use a light color of chalk to create a still life emphasizing the lights and darks of the composition. Work from lightest to darkest values. Create values by rubbing away excess chalk, making sure that the forms go through of the nuaces from dark to light-struck.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 5 2.7; A Personal Journey: 2.4; A Community Connection: 3.1; Exploring Visual Design: 3, 7, 9; Discovering Art History: 12.3

Monday, November 7, 2011

Organic Meets Technology

When one thinks of museums that have significant collections of modern design, one inevitably thinks of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Cooper Hewitt in New York; or the Wolfsonian in Florida. One of the things that constantly amazes me, and causes me to appreciate new design, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s dedication to acquiring objects of modern design. We acquired this image a couple of years ago, and every time I look it, I want to go out and buy one! It is absolutely such a gorgeous piece, and one appreciates that beauty even more when one realizes the fantastic technology (I don’t completely understand, come on, I’m an art historian!) that helped create it.

Forms from nature have traditionally served as inspiration for the designers of ceramics, furniture, lighting, and other types of utilitarian objects. Never before, however, did the organic world meet 21st century technology as in the works by the design firm Materialise in France. They have a group of brilliant artists who create works that reflect a modern aesthetic crossed with organic forms, and are designed to be produced by computer. The system called RM (rapid manufacturing) uses a computer aided design as its starting point, and creates the object in three dimensions from a variety of materials (in this case nylon). 




Dan Yeffet’s pieces are elegant works based on forms in nature. He was born in Israel and currently works in Paris. He studied in Jerusalem and Amsterdam, where he started a studio called JellyLab, which he relocated to Paris. While designing everything from lighting to interiors, his firm currently specializes in textiles and art installations. Although Yeffet’s bud vase is decidedly modern in conception, it totally recalls the aesthetic seen in some Art Nouveau objects of the early 20th century.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 3.1; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 6, 12