Monday, July 30, 2012

My Ongoing Thoughts About “Abstraction”

Abstraction is any art that does not represent observed aspects of nature or transforms visible forms into a stylized image. Another definition (which I prefer) is that abstraction is the extreme simplification of forms, space, and lighting. Any way you look at it, the term defines much of what has been created in the 20th and 21st centuries around the world. It could also apply to works before the twentieth century, which constantly awes me. I’ve talked about the strict interpretation of “abstraction” in previous posts, but I think it always deserves to be repeated just so we don’t get complacent with the idea that “abstraction” is a twentieth-century invention.

Japanese landscape painting ultimately derived from Chinese models, but quickly developed a distinctive Japanese style that was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. Chinese landscapes often hinted at great distance with large blank areas that indicated mist, usually between the foreground and middle ground, and middle ground and background. Suggestion was a key element in Chinese landscapes to intimate distance. It is the “atmospheric perspective” that eventually became part of Japanese landscapes.  It represented the Zen idea of the “vast emptiness” of the soul before enlightenment.

The great tradition of landscape painting in Japan, which persists to the present day, was translated into the woodblock prints that were so popular during the Edo period (1615–1868) in Japan. The heyday of the landscape woodblock prints was the early nineteenth century, characterized by artists such as Hiroshige (1797–1858) and Hokusai (1760–1849). The landscape prints from the early 19th century in Japan had a profound influence on western painting, particularly among the Impressionists.

Totoya Hokkei (1780–1850) was one of Hokusai’s best students. He had initially studied landscape painting with the noble Kano School, but eventually became Hokusai’s pupil, making his Ukiyo-e debut with illustrations for comic novels around 1800. He continued to produce prints of everyday life, but preferred landscape more and more, particularly after Hokusai published his famous Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji in 1836. While impelled to produce landscapes, his style was quite different from the master. The simplicity and lightness of value sets him way apart from other Ukiyo-e artists who were more concerned with depicting specific places.

In this landscape, Hokkei displays the atmospheric perspective of painting, while reducing the landscape forms to hazy, simplified shapes. The effect is something that would resurface later in the century in Europe in such landscapes as Edgar Degas’ (1834–1917) monotypes.

Forest in the Mountains (MOMA-P3090)
Further examples of pre-20th-century abstract in Japanese art:

(part of the so-called “flung ink school”)

(Kiyohara is a woman)

Examples of Chinese landscape that influenced the Japanese:

Activity: Draw an atmospheric landscape. Using colored chalks, pastels, or charcoal, create a landscape that has the suggestion of depth through the use of smudging the medium. Draw an imaginary landscape in which the foreground, middle ground, and background are each separated from on another by areas of mist (smudged medium). If blending sticks are not available, put a tissue or paper towel over the finger and smudge (blend) areas of medium together to suggest distance between the parts of the landscape.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.22; Explorations of Art Grade 5: 6.32; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.8; A Personal Journey: 5.4; A Community Connection: 4.5; A Global Pursuit: 7.5; Exploring Visual Design: 2, 5; The Visual Experience: 13.5; Discovering Art History: 4.4

Monday, July 23, 2012

Texture in (surprise!) Architecture

One of the Elements of Art is Texture. When one thinks of texture in art, it usually conjures up images of sculpture, ceramics, textiles, and, sometimes, painting. I dare say last on the list of art forms would be architecture. However, texture has been a significant aspect of architectural style since ancient times, which can be seen all over the world. Texture can exist in architecture on both exterior and interior surfaces. This week’s blog will focus on the exterior of buildings as a manifestation of texture. It is achieved in a number of ways, as you will see.

The Temple of Hera II at the Greek colony of Paestum in Italy (ca. 460 bce) was built after the classic Greek temple design had been established in the 7th century bce. This temple is missing the sculpture that would have adorned the pediment, thus creating texture. Also, the line of fluted flank columns (pteron) creates not just a rhythmic recession visually, but also visual texture.

Raja Rani Temple, ca. 1000 ce, in Bhuvanesvara, India, is a fine example of the “medieval” Hindu style of northern Indian temple. The rounded tower and roof of the entrance hall are symbolic of the cosmic mountain. They are enriched by hundreds of sculptures and decorative plaques that give the immediate impression of a textured surface. 

Milan Cathedral, 1387–1450, is a Late Gothic gem that qualifies not only for the element of texture, but also the element of implied line (in the buttress piers). The complex surfaces are comprised of buttress piers topped by pinnacles, and walls enlivened by a rich sculptural program. The textural effect, both visually and physically, is akin to looking at lace.

One of the aspects of Renaissance (ca. 1400–1600) and Baroque (ca. 1600–1750) art is Drama. Many Baroque buildings are huge, with incredibly complex façades. Longleat House, Warminster, Britain (1567–1579) was designed by Robert Smythson (1535–1614). The geometrically balanced mass of the building is relieved by the fenestration and numerous undulations of the facades which gives it a solid texture.

One of the many stylistic influences on Frank Lloyd Wright’s (1867–1959 US) work was Mesoamerican (particularly Mayan) architecture. The textured façade of Ennis House (1924, Los Angeles) reflects Wright’s interpretation of the mosaic stonework that adorned many Mayan monuments in Central America.

Nigeria has had a long tradition of painting and sculpting on the exterior of private and public buildings. This photo shows a woman standing before the carved entrance to her sculpted mud home in Kano, Nigeria. Such designs were traditionally meant to be considered to be symbolic of the family’s status. The mud used to seal the walls was thinned with water until it was the right consistency to allowing carving. The carvings on this house give a variety of textural patterns.

The rejection of the “glass-box” aesthetic of 1960s architecture paved the way for a variety of new styles that explored other ways of thinking about architecture. The Georges Pompidou Center [1971–1977, Paris, by Renzo Piano (born 1933, Italy) and Richard Rogers (born 1932, Italy)], is a fine example. The placement of traditional interior features of the building such as scaffolds, air conditioning and heating ducts on the exterior creates a lively, complex, textured surface.

Frank Gehry (born 1929, US) was an early proponent of Deconstructivist architecture, a style that negated the traditional reliance of a building being composed of balanced, geometric masses. He is particularly known for his titanium-class, undulating facades that defy the definition of rectangular or square interior spaces. His style, however, creates particularly dramatic, rippling facades that display texture not only in the curving shapes, but also in the numerous individual sections of titanium. His Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (1999–2003) is a prime example of his aesthetic.

Activity: Create a textured architectural façade. Using either a flattened rectangular slab of clay, or a thick piece of cardboard cut into a desired rectangular shape to imitate a building façade, design a textured building. With clay, use tools to incise, press, and scrape patterns into the clay, remembering to indicate windows. Small pieces of clay may also be applied to achieve a textured surface. With the cardboard, use bits of found objects to decorate the building “façade,” adding details (such as windows) with markers or colored pencils.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, 6.32; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.16; Exploring Visual Design: 6; The Visual Experience: 11.7, 11.8.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Look at Bridges

I have always had a fascination with bridge construction. How can one not look at them as art? I also have a fear of some bridges, such as those that carry you over a deep, deep chasm. But let’s concentrate on the art factor. Bridges have been around since ancient times, and up until the nineteenth century were constructed primary of stone (in the West) and wood (in the East). Although cast iron was developed in China in the 6th century ce, it was not explored in the West in Europe until the fourteenth century. It was originally used for cannons and shot. Henry VIII initiated the use of English forges for producing cannons out of iron. England soon became a major producer of iron. Iron is strong under compression (in arches that bear weight), but not under tension (such as single beams under a railroad bridge). Armament was one of the main uses of cast iron after the mid-seventeenth century.

Abraham Darby III’s (1750–1789) grandfather invented coke smelting, which greatly improved the production of brass and iron in Britain. His son (Abraham II, died 1763) managed the Coalbrookdale Company ironworks, and established several other foundries, while managing regional coal mines. In 1768 Abraham Darby III took over Coalbrookdale Company ironworks and significantly expanded its production as well as the type of products it offered.

Darby patented a method of making thin, cast iron pots in Coalbrookdale in 1777. His furnaces there became the dominant supplier of these wares. From 1779 to 1781 he built the first cast iron structure for a bridge in the world. The properties of the material (stronger in compression) and the state of engineering at the time determined the form that the bridge assumed. The five semi-circular arches were definitely influenced by the stone vaulting of Gothic cathedrals, and afforded a light, airy feeling to which twelfth century builders could only aspire.

Cast iron quickly became acquainted with light-weight, skeletal structures for buildings. This led to the design and building of the magnificent train stations in Paris, and eventually the Eiffel Tower. The further refinement of cast iron led to the development of steel, which was harder and had a better tensile strength. It became the basis of skyscraper building.

Some other interesting bridges:

Activity: Design a bridge. Using pencil, colored pencil, markers, crayons, or watercolor, design a bridge that spans a small river. Make sure to indicate each shore on which the bridge rests, or indicate any support in the middle of the bridge. Rely on the arch as a basic form, and harmonize other shapes with the arch.

Correlation to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.20; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 5, 7; The Visual Experience: 16.5

Monday, July 9, 2012

Celebrating the Tall Ships

This week the Tall Ships came to Boston, as they usually do to help celebrate the 4th of July. It’s a thrilling spectacle; especially since these are ships from all over the world. This year it was also in celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. I’m always interested in the development of a subject throughout the history of art. The depiction of ships has a long tradition, especially in Baroque Dutch painting of the seventeenth century. While the basic premise is the same, depicting ships on the waves, the intent between the Dutch artists and the American artists was quite different. While the Baroque artists were depicting the power and majesty of the sea, American artists depicted ships—primarily on the inland waterways such as Lake Erie or the Hudson River—as a tribute to the commerce and, after steamers were invented, the ingenuity of this fledgling country.

James Bard was born in New York and until 1845 painted marine views with his twin brother John, mostly watercolors. The brothers were most likely self-taught. After John died in 1856, James continued a very long and productive career, taking advantage of the boom in steamships, his most famous subject. His clients were shipbuilders, owners, and captains. Apparently he frequented the shipyards in order to study details of the vessels there. Thus, his depictions of ships from the Hudson River and in the waters around Manhattan are so accurate in scale and detail that one client remarked that a ship could have been built based on the proportion in Bard’s paintings.

Bard painted over 500 depictions of steamboats, although, based on art critics from the period, his work received little critical notice. Late in his career he became acquainted with the some the other marine painters (see their work below links). As productive as he was, he amassed no great fortune from his work. In a sad irony, both he and his twin John died practically indigent.

Some other American marine painters:

Ed Adams (BIAA-486)
Thomas Birch (BIAA-96)
James E. Buttersworth (BIAA-327)
Thomas Chambers (NGA-P1117)
Drew Clement (BIAA-193)
Fitz Henry Lane (BIAA-29)
Robert Salmon(WAM-217)

And some forebears from around the world:

Allart van Everdingen (CM-82)
Claude Lorrain (NGA-P0720)
Willem van de Velde the Younger (CL-79)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.5, A Community Connection: 4.4; A Personal Journey: 5.4; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2. 5, 7, 10, 12

Monday, July 2, 2012

Happy 4th!, But, Let’s Think About the Wildfires in the West

I wish all of you a Happy Fourth of July! In celebrating living in the awesome United States of America, I would like to take time to focus your attention on the wildfires in the West, particularly Colorado. I saw shocking footage of people’s homes going up in flames and it just upset me a lot. It also got me to thinking that many of you might think this is a contemporary phenomenon. Alas, no, it is not. Wildfires in the West are sadly part of American history. While historically many were started by lightning strikes, the majority were caused by Aboriginal peoples or white settlers and trappers.

Prairie fires were all too common in the 19th century West. They burned the dry grass every spring and fall. Once a fire started, it spread until either rain fell or until it reached a river too wide to jump. This image by George Catlin shows a fire on the banks of the Missouri River in Nebraska, which he visited in the 1830s. Such fires were a great danger to early settlers, as well as to the gigantic herds of buffalo that existed then. This painting depicts the front of the fire, called a headfire. It ran with the wind across miles of prairie.

Born in Pennsylvania, Catlin grew up on farms in New York, where he absorbed stories about Indians. Although he began a legal career at his father's urging, he abandoned it in 1821 to pursue a career as an artist. In 1828 he received the inspiration that guided his painting the rest of his life: a delegation of Indians from the West visiting Philadelphia. He subsequently decided to devote his life documenting Indians, whom, he felt, had no biographers of their own.  

Between 1830 and 1838, Catlin traveled in the West from a base in Saint Louis for five months out of each year, painting the lives of the natives. From his travels he eventually produced over 600 paintings which he exhibited in his traveling "North American Indian Gallery." In documenting First Nation peoples, he also documented elements crucial to their lives, such as the buffalo. He visited Nebraska territory in 1832. His over 600 paintings of his trips to the West not only serve to document First Nations, but also the “wilderness” that was unknown to easterners.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.16; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 2.10; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.9; A Personal Journey: 5.1; A Community Connection: 4.4; Exploring Visual Design 5, 10.