Monday, July 25, 2011

What’s Old is New: Modern Gothic

I am ending this theme with a simply beautiful piece of architecture. The architect who designed it is not a household name in western art history, but I think he should be. Dominikus Böhm’s designs are so simple and elegant, they define “modernism” for the period in which they were built.

From the earliest Christian period in the West, architecture— especially religious architecture— was based on past styles for inspiration. This is what I consider the great historicist/revival nightmare of western art. The earliest church relied on Roman architecture, as did the Romanesque and Gothic. Renaissance and Baroque architecture, too, relied on the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome.

This obsession with the primacy of classical architectural aesthetic was actually broken in the early twentieth century by German architects before World War I (1914–1918). Architects such as Peter Behrens (1868–1940), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), and Walter Gropius (1883–1969) embraced the new machine age and sought to design architecture that updated it with industrial age materials and ideas. This virtually eliminated any historicist decoration.

These architects introduced the glass curtain wall on steel cage construction, cantilevering, and the idea of a building’s design following its function. This was one of the beginnings of the modern skyscraper, as well as the advancements made in American architecture in the late nineteenth century [which, ironically, stuck predominantly with historicist styles, even on high rises, until after World War II (1939–1945)].

Dominikus Böhm (1880–1955) was a Roman Catholic church architect and vestment designer. Although his earliest designs reflect some historicist reference, by the mid-1920s his architecture contained Expressionist elements, such as textured facades, decorative brickwork, and geometric forms. He continued to experiment with Expressionist reinterpretations of the Gothic style and produced many avant-garde churches in Germany.

The experimentation by German architects was stamped out by the Nazis in the early 1930s. Because of the struggle to rebuild Germany after World War II, German modernist architecture did not fully revive until the early 1950s. This gorgeous little baptistery is part of a church complex that emphasizes huge, geometric expanses of stained glass. The simple vertical lines leading to a cornice remind the viewer of the sweeping vertical lines of Gothic expanses of stained glass, but with a clean, modern approach. In that simplicity, it is reminiscent of the curtain walls of early German modernist architecture.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, 6.32; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.16, 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.11, 2.12; A Personal Journey: 8.1; A Global Pursuit: 8.1; The Visual Experience3: 11.4; Discovering Art History: 16.1.

Monday, July 18, 2011

What's New is Old?

I was a child in the 1960s, so I don’t really remember the Op Art phenomenon. However, my last year in high school, our art teacher had us do a drawing in pastels that emulated Op Art. I still have that piece, though the paper is crumbling, and I have to admit the juxtaposition of complimentary colors is optically fascinating. There’s a certain vibration to it that originates with the Post-Impressionists Georges Seurat (1859–1891), Paul Signac (1863–1935), and Henri-Edmond Cross (1856–1910).

The Post-Impressionists believed in the scientific (the way the eye sees color) rather than the observed. Unlike the Impressionists, who painted what they saw in natural light, some Post-Impressionists were interested in the spectrum and the analysis of how we perceive color. They invented the technique of building form from thousands of dots of pure color side by side that merged when observed by the viewer. Op artists were concerned with the same visual perception of a work of art. However, they concentrated on abstraction.

Op Art flourished from the mid-1960s to the 1970s. It was an offshoot of Minimalism, which itself was a rejection of the emphasis on personal statement by the Abstract Expressionists. In both Op Art and Minimalism, the goal was visual purity, reduction to basic geometrics, without the “signature” of personality. Here is where I beg to disagree: in the works of such artists as Bridget Riley (born 1931) and Victory Vasarely (1908-1997), there is totally a signature to their work, and it’s glorious. We are fortunate in that a number of artists have revived Op Art in the 21st century.

Let’s turn to a contemporary artist whose work—I think—is glorious: Susie Rosmarin (born 1950). She has been working in the Op Art aesthetic for a couple of decades (brilliantly, in my opinion). Interestingly, the Texas native likes to stress the expressive nature of lines in her work. She lays down tape, then paint, then tape, then paint, etc., rather than using a computer to prepare her works. While she feels that working with line is inherent in the history of art, she produces works that resonate with 21st century vibrancy. Look at this work and you’ll see how useful it would be to teach the following elements and principles of art: line, value, movement and rhythm.

Learn more about the artists reviving Op Art in an article featured on modernedition.

Mark Grotjahn (born 1968) is another of my favorite contemporary Op artists.

Untitled (large colored butterfly white background 9 wings), 2004. Colored pencil on paper, 182.9 x 121.3 cm (72" x 47 3/4"). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Fund for the Twenty-First Century. ©2011 Mark Grotjahn. (MOMA-P1858)

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 3.15, 3.16; A Personal Journey: 2.2; A Global Pursuit: 1.2; The Visual Experience: 3, 5.2, 7, 8.6, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 17.2.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What’s Old is New

I don’t usually go Gaga over ceramics (well, wait, yes I do!), but when we added this image to our collection I had a “never knew that” moment. Most art history texts cover the ancient Egyptians from pre-dynastic times (Narmer, for example, ca. 31503125 bce). This vase dates from slightly before that. What struck me about this vase is the timeless quality of it. It not only resembles Zen pottery from Japan from the 14th century on, but also of contemporary ceramic artists. That being said, look at the beautiful form! This was done by hand without the potter’s wheel (which emerged in Egypt in the 2000s bce)! This vase could totally be considered “modern”!

There is evidence of agricultural, fishing, and herding cultures as early as 5500 bce in Egypt. Also, these early cultures in Egypt seem to have laid the groundwork for later cultural customs. The Badarian culture is named after the area El-Badari, Asyut, which is in Upper Egypt. It is the earliest known non-nomadic culture in Egypt of the pre-dynastic period (dynasty one dates to 2920 bce).

What fascinates me is that this early Egyptian culture was already performing burial rituals that became the dominant impetus for art in subsequent Egyptian periods. People were buried in shallow graves, often wrapped in papyrus mats, surrounded by objects that were perceived to be needed in the afterlife, such as vases like this filled with food and personal possessions. The bodies were usually buried in the fetal position, oriented north/south, but always with the face turned towards the West. In Egypt, the west—where the sun set— was considered the realm of the afterlife (eventually where Osiris ruled). Imagine spiritual beliefs that lasted 4000 years!

This clay vessel was most likely fired in an open pit kiln. The black border, a typical feature of Badarian ceramics, was most likely the result of turning the heated vessel upside down in finely cut hay or wheat (chaff). It is not glazed, but was burnished (polished with a hot stone). In the Badarian sites, the separation of well-to-do graves apart from others lends credence to the idea of social stratification at this early period.

Compare this to the work of Kitaoji Rosanjin (18831959), a Japanese genius of modern ceramics!

Jar, 1953. Wood-fired stoneware, height: 31 cm (12 1/4"). Photo ©The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the Japan Society. Art ©Estate of Kitaoji Rosanjin. (MOMA-D0116)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1718 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 23–24 studio; A Community Connection: 1.2; The Visual Experience: 10.6, 15.3; Discovering Art History: 5.3