Monday, January 24, 2011

Art History Déja Vu?

Do you ever stop and wonder if there really isn’t anything new in subject matter or style in art? Sometimes I stop and look at what I’m painting and think: “Why bother, landscape’s been done before.” Then I realize that my own personal contribution to the genre is what is new, because no two artists have probably ever thought EXACTLY the same about either their style or subject matter throughout the history of art. That being said, it is still very interesting to look at similarities in style and subject matter, and although there is no written evidence to support a theory, conjecture on “Oh, sure, the other artist MUST have seen that.” Such is the case with the subject of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis and one theory about how it influenced depictions of the Madonna and Child in Christian art.

Some scholars point to the numerous depictions of the ancient Egyptian Goddess Isis (wife of Osiris, lord of the underworld) with her infant son Horus as models for early depictions of Mary with baby Jesus. Why is this pointed to as an early model for artists making art for Christians? The cult of the goddess Isis, which ballooned in popularity during the first century CE, rivaled Christianity for devotion during the early days of the Christian church.

One might say that Romans rapidly lost faith in the Greek/Roman pantheon of gods during the civil wars, barbarian attacks, and general mayhem of the empire. Isis was the goddess of mothers, childbirth, and the home, among other things. This nurturing pedigree would appeal to soul-sick Romans just as the Madonna and Child did to Christians who were constantly brow-beaten about sin and repentance during the Middle Ages.

Most of the artists who created works for early Christians were not themselves Christian, and I think it is completely possible that they used the very popular image of Isis/Horus as a model for another mother and child theme. I’m not even going to go into the background story of Isis, with its drama of betrayal, death, and resurrection. Another possible source for laying the groundwork of a popular Christian subject was Greek and Roman depictions of Venus and Cupid. Although they are another mother and son pairing, it’s a stretch when you compare garments, or lack thereof.

The thing I find charming about this little sculpture is, despite the fact that this is quite late in the evolution of Egyptian art, the figures are depicted in the same, hieratic, stiff, immobile pose as that seen on figures from two millennia earlier. Their bodies are perpendicular to each other and are solidly attached to the throne. Isis is often depicted with a throne on her head, and her name means literally “seat.” Perhaps that is why her posture so closely mimics the geometric throne. She also sometimes wears the cow’s horns and solar disk of Hathor, as she does in this version. Her hand is most often shown to her bosom to indicate mothering/nurturing.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 4.1, 9.1; A Global Pursuit: 1.1; The Visual Experience: 15.3; Discovering Art History: 5.3

Monday, January 17, 2011

Art Breaking the Law?

Having said last week that I’m “not a big fan of realism,” I’ll punish that thought again by showing you a work by a master realist. I just came across this work in passing, and it reminded me of an interesting story about this particular painting and the artist who painted it. If you’re thinking that an artist could never been arrested for his work, then let’s think back to the Baroque period when Caravaggio was condemned by the Roman church for “blasphemy,” and when Daumier was thrown in prison for “insulting” the French king Louis Philippe, not to mention Hitler’s complete shutdown of the Bauhaus artists as “degenerate.” I do like the paintings of William Harnett for his technical mastery, but this has to be one of my favorites just because of the story that goes with it.

I’ve discussed the American preoccupation with realism in previous posts. Among the other styles explored in America during the late nineteenth century, trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) realism represented the survival of a strain in American art dear to Americans. Its precedents include Flemish and Dutch Baroque still life, and closer in time, the work of Charles Willson Peale, especially his Staircase Group, to which George Washington allegedly once tipped his hat. I have always thought that trompe l’oeil realism by Harnett and others was a reaction to the increasing popularity of photography at the time.

Harnett was trained in painting at the National Academy in New York. He went to Europe in 1880, first to London, then to Frankfurt and Munich, at the time the home of a large group of expatriate American artists who painted in the painterly Dark Impressionism style influenced by Dutch and Spanish Baroque. Harnett instead preferred super realism, primarily still life since he was too poor to afford models. His still life paintings recall the work of then-contemporary French photographer Charles Aubry, whose work he probably saw.

While Harnett is most famous for his hunting accoutrements on the back of a door, and small still life of various newspapers, he introduced a new subject: money – not just money as part of a larger still life, but as the single focus. Here’s where the “crime” comes in. In 1877, he produced this painting, which was hung in a saloon in New York. In the nineteenth century in America, counterfeiting currency was a big problem. It is estimated that by the time of the Civil War (1860-1865), a third of paper money in circulation in the US was counterfeit. Thus, authorities were wary of anyone who could so expertly reproduce money as an art subject. This painting was confiscated and Harnett arrested. A judge admonished him that such a talent “so capable of mischief: should not be encouraged. Harnett never painted money again.

Another artist, John Haberle, ignored Harnett’s warnings to “stop painting greenbacks,” and made the subject his specialty.

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, 2.8; A Personal Journey: 2.4; Discovering Art History: 12.3.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What Do You Know?

I’m not usually a big fan of realism, but when I come across an artist with an interesting background, I like to share it with you. Goodness knows one does not hear much about sports figures transitioning into being artists (except for Rosie Grier and his fiber arts). I’m certain that there are many other stories similar to this one (at least I’ve convinced myself of that) about sports figures having a more “artistic” side and taking up art after retirement. But, sports-to-art is not the topic of this week’s entry. The subject is the stunning art of a unique individual who just happened to have used boxing to further his career as a painter.

Born in Greenwich Village, Anthony Sisti began pursuing drawing at an early age, although his parents did not encourage him. His parents moved the family to Buffalo when Sisti was ten and he began boxing in 1917 in Buffalo. He won the Bantam Weight championship in New York State the next year and boxed for the next 13 years, winning all but fifteen of 100 bouts. He went to Florence to study painting with the money he won from fighting, achieving an advanced degree.

Sisti is supposed to have gone to the Congo with Ernest Hemmingway and undertaken many other adventures. But, it was always his painting that was most important. Late in his boxing career he held a boxing match (1939) in order to garner funds to hold an exhibition of his paintings. During the 1930s he opened an art school in Buffalo and also flew once a week down to Manhattan to teach at the New York School of Applied Design for Women. In 1938 he opened Sisti Galleries in Buffalo, which is credited with helping boost the career of major watercolorist Charles Burchfield.

As a painter, Sisti’s work is reminiscent of influences from then-current trends in American art, such Regionalism and Precisionism. His compositions often resemble those of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, while the insistence on softly faceted and boldly shaped forms resembles the work of Charles Demuth and Preston Dickinson. The bright palette, typical of his work, harks back to Impressionism. This charming village scene implies the influence of Wood, Demuth, and the French Impressionists. Among his more important works is a portrait he did of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.5, 4.21, 4.24; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.4, 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.3, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 6.32; A Personal Journey: 5.1; A Global Pursuit: 4.2, 6.2; A Community Connection: 6.2, 7.1

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Pioneer Art Educator

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was an amazingly fertile period in American art. Between the 1870s and 1890s, thousands of American artists went to Europe to study art. This included the likes of Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, James A.M. Whistler and so many more great names in American art. These artists learned about the latest European styles and subsequently brought their learning back to the US. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts, and the Arts and Crafts Movement were major forces that shaped turn-of-the-century American art, and actually paved the way for modernism in the US. Arthur Wesley Dow is credited with helping to introduce the Arts and Crafts Movement in America.

Looking at the prints and paintings of Dow, one can see the strong influence of the Post-Impressionists and, especially in his prints, Japanese woodcuts. This particular work shows an affinity to the suggestive, open compositions of Japanese prints. Dow was especially drawn to Japanese art because of the emphasis not on perfection, but rather beauty in a finished artwork, especially in utilitarian art. This coincided with the Arts and Crafts insistence that art and utility be wed in all art forms. These ideas formed the basis of Dow’s teaching: no matter what was created, whether a basket, a bowl, or a painting, the result had to be beautiful.

After returning to Ipswich, MA in 1889 after studying art in Europe, Dow began teaching art and producing and selling his own prints and paintings in Boston and Ipswich. In 1891 he opened a summer school where he offered courses in painting, printmaking, photography, ceramics, basketry, and other miscellaneous arts. His insistence on beautiful design, no matter what the medium, meant that no one art form was given more precedence over another, unlike the conservative art academies of the earlier nineteenth century in which painting was favored.

The summer school lasted until 1907 and attracted many famous artists, including photographer Alvin Coburn and artists from the famous Newcomb Pottery studio in New Orleans. Dow subsequently taught at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (where Georgia O’Keeffe, Gertrude Kasebier and Max Weber were his pupils), and Columbia University’s teacher college.

In 1899 Dow published Composition, a resource book for artists and educators that quickly became a handbook for art education in the early 20th century for elementary, middle, and high schools. Many of Dow’s pupils (including many women) were inspired to become art teachers themselves, and spread Dow’s art education theories across the country.

Take a look at some more of Dow’s beautiful prints.

Correlations to Davis programs: School Arts Magazine January 2011 - Place: Looking and Learning; Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.2, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.5, 4.21, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.23, 6.32; A Personal Journey: 5.1; A Community Connection: 8.2; The Visual Experience: 9.4, 16.5