Tuesday, September 27, 2011

An Expressionist Landscape for Fall

Let’s celebrate the official start of autumn with a beautiful little landscape by one of my favorite German expressionists: Emil Nolde. German expressionist landscapes were a big influence on my own painting when I was in school, so imagine my delight when I uncovered this little treasure while cataloging new image acquisitions from the awesome Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo!  Nowadays, we are accustomed to abstraction in art. However, not even 80 years ago a lot of the public had trouble with abstract art. I totally do not understand how such a beautiful use of color could be considered offensive, but before World War II (1939–1945), abstraction was under fire in some parts of Europe as well as being shunned in America. Weird.

Expressionism in northern European art of the early twentieth century was an offshoot of art movements in the late nineteenth century that emphasized romanticism, expressive color, or symbolic (rather than representational) subject matter. The objective in expressionist work was to impart the artist’s feelings about the subject and to elicit an emotional reaction from the viewer.

Nolde is a unique figure among the expressionists. Born in northern Germany near the Danish border, Nolde initially studied woodcarving in Berlin. He studied painting in Munich, and eventually in Paris from 1899–1900, where he came under the influence of the colors of Impressionism. Armed with this bright palette, he returned to an intrinsically German style influenced by Gothic art, featuring emotionally charged subjects in bright color with jagged, often distorted forms. He urged other artists to reject some aspects of western tradition in space and form, and embrace art from non-western cultures, such as African masks and Oceanic art.

In 1906 Nolde was invited to join the German expressionist group Die Brücke in Berlin, a group which Vasily Kandinsky characterized as expressing “inner necessity” in their painting. Nolde left the group a year later, preferring to follow a personal expressionist style. His works featuring figures reflected the influence of non-western masks, while his use of color was an exaggeration of the impressionist palette, and a reflection of the French Fauves’ use of non-local color on forms.

Nolde was a passionate believer in the superiority of the German people, and had a fervent affection for the land. He joined the Nazi party in the 1920s. However, by 1934 the Nazis considered his art too experimental and non-German and he was forbidden to exhibit. His paintings were part of the massive exhibition in 1937 (which included many of the expressionists and also Bauhaus artists) put on by the Nazis called Degenerate Art. The Nazis preferred a perverse type of social realism that extolled patriotic values of the German people through genre scenes and allegories. During World War II, Nolde, in self-imposed exile within Germany, produced only landscapes and floral still life paintings

This little landscape demonstrates Nolde’s love of his native land, expressed in the realm of pseudo fantasy. The brilliant color and vibrant movement of the surface are characteristic of his work throughout his life.

Activity:  Ask students to create a painting about a memory related to weather. Have them choose warm or cool colors to dominate the painting depending on the mood they want to show.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.4; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.5, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.20; A Personal Journey: 5.1; A Global Pursuit: 8.1, 7.3, 6.2; Exploring Visual Design: 4, 5, 6; The Visual Experience: 16.6; Discovering Art History: 14.1

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Nice Summer Landscape for Fall

A friend of mine just framed a painting that I did en plein air (out of doors) as a birthday present. It inspired me to present to you a work that you may not have seen by one of my favorite Impressionists: Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  Every now and then I like to show you a little-known gold nugget by a well-known artist of the past. This, to me, is the epitome of what it means to paint outdoors: a quick sketch that may work its way into a painting in the studio. I know that’s not how the Impressionists worked, but that’s why I paint outdoors: studies during the temperate months in order to fuel me during the winter in my living room studio. I think it’s important, as an artist, to work outdoors and lay down what we see. It can really come back to inform our future works when we think about light, how light affects color, and even composition.

I think this tiny piece is one of the most charming works from Renoir’s late period. It’s obviously a depiction of the Seine at some point out of Paris, probably somewhere near the Café Fournaise in Chatou. The Café Fournaise is now a museum that houses works by many of the companion artists of Renoir who flocked to the suburb of Paris to paint the scenery. What’s wonderful about this work is that it is a quick study, where we see the singular goal of Impressionists to capture a fleeting moment of light and its effects of local color (the color of an object). Also, may I say, it’s just a great little painting!

Renoir departed briefly from Impressionism in the 1880s after visiting Italy and being impressed by works from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque. He returned to Impressionism in the 1890s and continued to work in that style until his death. Despite his on-going predominant interest in the figure, Renoir continued to produce landscapes throughout his career. Unlike his figurative compositions that were done partially outdoors and partially in the studio, he still painted landscapes completely outdoors. This work comes from a period that was dominated by portraits and studies of nudes.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.19, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.19; A Personal Journey: 5.1; A Global Pursuit: 7.1; Exploring Visual Design 4, 6; The Visual Experience: 16.4; Discovering Art History: 13.1

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Woman Behind the Men

Did you ever stop to think about the people behind historic art movements? A professor of mine once said that without wealthy patrons such as the Medici in Florence, the Renaissance would not have happened. As much as I despise the influence wealthy people have on society, I have to admit that without rich people buying art, we probably would not hear about artists such as Jan van Eyck, Antonie van Dyck, Rembrandt, Picasso, or countless other artists throughout time. Is this due to the fact that rich people have insight into art more than any others? NO! Most often in the past it was because the artist proved to be fashionable, displaying the latest tastes. What accounts for the advancement of abstract movements in American art after 1945, a genre that was notoriously entrenched in realism until the 1940s, then? I’ll say it once if I say it a thousand times: women have always had a major impact on art history, and Betty Parsons is one of THE most influential people in American modernism.

Betty Parsons was born into a wealthy family and studied with many different artists. Although she studied with many artists in Paris, the defining moment in her life was the 1913 Armory Show in New York, which introduced Americans to European modernism. She considered abstraction a “New Spirit” in art. After teaching art in California, Parsons returned to New York in 1936. Her early paintings were exhibited in the Midtown Galleries, where she was also offered a job.

In 1945, Peggy Guggenheim closed her Art of This Century Gallery in New York, and Parsons agreed to take on many of the artists Guggenheim represented. Her first major show was that of Jackson Pollock in 1947. She subsequently went on to represent many of the nascent Abstract Expressionists, such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Clement Greenberg, the New York art critic who was the biggest “fan” of the New York School artists, once called her the “den mother of Abstract Expressionism.” She went on for three decades to represent avant-garde artists, including minimalists such as Agnes Martin, and color field artists such as Ellsworth Kelly. Her commitment to modernism is an extraordinary, if little reported, legacy in American modernism.

Why do I sing the praises of Betty Parsons? Not only because of her art historical foresight, but also because she was an artist herself. I’ve never trusted art dealers who weren’t artists themselves. Parsons began her career as a painter and ended up producing constructions of found objects. Her works, greatly influenced by Surrealism and Dada, were composed of bits of wood she found on the beach near her home in Long Island. She called her works “carpenter’s throwaways.” The titles, such as Jolly, were extensions of the poetry she loved to write.

Betty Parsons was a true American original who is little written about in mainstream art history texts. Her importance in promoting Abstract Expressionism, as well as other modernist movements, is incalculable.

Activity: A found object sculpture: Using recycled materials (found objects), create a figurative sculpture. Select at least three objects to make a sculpture. Let the materials suggest ideas for the form of the sculpture. Using glue or tape, assemble the materials to suggest a human figure.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35, The Visual Experience; 10.2

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Idea of Tomb Figures

I recently attended the wake of a friend’s mom and couldn’t help but contemplate how contemporary funerary rituals differ from those in world history (especially an open coffin). If you put your mind to it, I’m sure you could name at least a dozen cultures from different areas of the world where it was expected that not only would the deceased proceed to an afterlife that mirrored the physical world, but also took possessions with them in order to make that afterlife familiar. Ancient Egypt, Ancient Peru, Japan, and some cultures in Africa immediately spring to mind. I think in the west we’ve gotten over the idea that we can “take it with us.” Objects such as this tomb figure show that we as human beings are wedded to the physical world in a way that — especially in the distant past — made it hard to let go of the physical life’s pleasures.

There are many similarities to ancient Egyptian tomb figures in Chinese tombs. Not only did they surround themselves with their worldly luxuries such as ceramics and clothing, they also included figures of servants who were meant to, as in Egypt, magically entertain the deceased as the living servants had in life. This was, of course, a step up from Shang Dynasty (ca. 1523–1028 bce) burials which included pets, servants, horses, and guards killed to accompany the deceased (the wealthy, obviously). This was also a practice in some ancient Mesopotamian cultures (2000s bce).

From the Zhou Dynasty (1027–256 bce) through the Song Dynasty (960–1279 ce), human sacrifices were replaced by ceramic figures of familiar human attendants. If you compare the wide range of figures across cultures, they present charming images of domestic life from everyday work (an Egyptian grinding corn) to works such as this Chinese example of a household servant playing music. During the Six Dynasties period (220–589 ce) — the period in which this figure was made—China was more or less in turmoil with numerous rival kingdoms in both the north and south. However, obviously, life (and death), went on. Figures from this period were made predominantly of black earthenware with the face and hands painted. During the Tang Dynasty (618–907 ce), many tombs of the wealthy were painted with scenes of pleasures in the everyday world, such as dancing and viewing a garden.

Activity: Using clay, make a sculpture of a person playing, working or resting. Look at various pictures of people doing a variety of things to select a pose. (Explorations in Art Grade 1)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 9-10 studio, Explorations in Art Grade 2: 5.29–30 studio, Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3-4 studio, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 2.7-8 studio, Discovering Art History: 4.3, The Visual Experience: 13.4