Monday, June 25, 2012

A Horse is a Horse, Of Course

I’m always interested in artistic motifs that seem particularly important to certain cultures. What motif recurs in our world now? We’re so bombarded with imagery in contemporary society that I can’t think of one image that is currently iconic. One particularly revered subject in the past was the horse, particularly in China. Perhaps no animal has had a greater impact than the horse throughout China’s long history. It was domesticated in northeastern China as early as 5000 years ago. During the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600–1100  bce), horses were so honored that they and the vehicles they pulled were buried in tombs with their owners to ensure a successful transition to the afterlife. As the Chinese kingdom grew, horses became a necessity for transporting goods and maintaining contact between parts of the far flung empire, as well as waging military campaigns. While horses have been depicted in the art of many cultures the world over, it seems to me that the Chinese pay special attention to according their artwork of horses a particular air of dignity and elegance.

This horse head dates from the late Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty in China (ca. 206 bce–220 ce) was one of the richest periods of Chinese art in all media. The image of the horse played an important role in the religious beliefs of early China. It was closely associated to the dragon, where both were thought to be capable of flight, carrying their riders to the home of the immortals (the afterlife). The ability to fly has always been associated with survival in Chinese art. This gorgeous, elegant example of a horse’s head is most likely part of a full figure sculpture. Such ceramic horses are most famous from the Tang Dynasty (617–907 ce) tombs in which they were included in lieu of horse cadavers.

The horse has played an interesting significance in many other cultures’ art. In the West, the horse was a symbol for women, while the bull was the symbol of the male (go figure). Without dwelling on the beauty of the horses in the TV show Gunsmoke, let’s look at some other significant horse subjects from throughout art history.

Haniwa figures were placed around tombs in ancient Japan. They were meant, as in ancient Egyptian and Chinese tomb objects, to serve the needs of the deceased in the afterlife.

In ancient Greece, horses were considered just slightly less important than the gods. They were a symbol of wealth, because pasture for horses was basically only available to the wealthy.

At the same time it was a sign of “rank” to have one’s portrait painted full-length, it was fashionable in late 18th and early 19th century Britain to have a portrait of one’s favorite horse (see George Stubbs). The intent was the same – to display one’s status and “good taste”.

Although initially intending to be a veterinarian, Deborah Butterfield chose to be an artist. She moved to Montana and has been best known for her sculptures of horses. In the last 30 years she has depicted horses in an astonishing range of media, including automobile parts, plaster, and branches and mud.

Activity: A beautiful animal. Using a slab of clay, carve a favorite animal. Look at pictures of animals or observe them at a local zoo. Make a clay slab. Cut out the shape of the animal so that the shape touches all four sides of the slab. Create textures using different tools such as paper clips, pencils, etc.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.5-6 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.13, 3.15-16 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 2.8, 2.10, 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.21, 4.22; A Global Pursuit: 4.5; Exploring Visual Design: 2; The Visual Experience: 13.4; Discovering Art History: 4.3

Monday, June 18, 2012

What is “Contemporary Art”?

What comes to mind when you think “contemporary art”?  I find it interesting that Picasso and Abstract Expressionism are still considered, by some, to be “contemporary” in the 21st century! Many, many stylistic trends of the last fifty years have been repeated/augmented/copied. Also, many, many people only think of the West (Europe and America) when it comes to contemporary art. I introduce you to a Japanese artist who is truly contemporary and who fuses eastern and western aesthetics: Yoshitomo Nara. Nara is truly a unique artist who defies the terms “modernism” and “contemporary” in his works. Actually, he challenges what the term “contemporary” means. I’m all for dropping the categorization of art, because it smacks of the 19th century academies with their “standards” about what could be considered “fine art.” Though, as an art historian, I am always drawn to finding parallels in an individual artist’s works…. Also, self-portraits are really rare in the history of Japanese art. Hmmm….

One strain of Pop Art in the 1960s emphasized the primacy of comic art and animation as subject matter. It was a particularly strong vein among the Pop artists (called Chicago Imagists, or Hairy Who) in Chicago. This vein was revived during the Neo-Pop evolution in the 1980s.

Nara was born and raised in rural Japan by working parents. He spent most of his childhood alone with his comics and pets. He studied art in Japan and Germany. Nara is the “father” of the Tokyo Pop movement. He grew up in post-war Japan when the country’s economic boom was characterized by a flood of popular culture from the West, including Walt Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons. His paintings, prints, and sculptures of wide-eyed children and dogs reflect not only western cartoons, but also Japanese manga (cartoons) and anime (animated television shows). The isolation of the figures, usually on blank backgrounds, could also reflect the boredom and loneliness of his childhood.

Self-Portrait does not only express the simplicity of a child’s fierce independence, but also communicates a malaise that reflects Nara’s independent spirit and love of things unconventional. However, the figure is balanced, almost in the Renaissance pyramidal manner and reveals Nara as a sensitive painter. One of Japan’s most popular contemporary artists, Nara’s Pop-like art can also fittingly be found on a variety of consumer goods such as t-shirts, postcards, CD covers, and skateboards.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in art Grade 1: 2.7, 2.8; Explorations in art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in art Grade 4: 2.7; Explorations in art Grade 5: 1.1; A Global Pursuit: 7.3, 9.1; A Personal Journey 3.3, 6.1; A Community Connection: 8.2,  9.1; The Visual Experience: 16.8; Discovering Art History: 17.6