Monday, April 29, 2013

My Mask Mania

Burkina Faso, Mask with hornbill and crocodile, early 1900s. Wood, twine and pigment; 127 x 20 x 23 cm (50" x 8" x 9").  © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-275)

Thanks to Steven Tatum at Virginia Tech for educating me about African masks, an art form I’ve long been fascinated by. The variety of forms and uses boggles my Western European accustomed mind! Customs involving the wearing of masks proliferate throughout West and Central Africa. The forms the masks take and the reasons for their use are varied, but a few generalizations can be made for nearly all mask making traditions. The most fundamental property of a mask is that the person who wears it loses his or her own identity and becomes possessed by the spirit of the mask. Another common property of masks is that they are part of an ensemble of materials that make up an entire costume. The carved portion that covers the face, which we normally think of as a mask, is only a portion of the costume.  A mask does not have its full power until all of the other components are attached.  Masks are nearly always worn by men. The exception is a mask worn by members of the women's Sande society in several ethnic groups in the West African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Sande Mask:
Mende People, Sierre Leone, Helmet Mask. Wood, vegetable fiber; 40.64 x 20.32 x 22.86 cm. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-757)

The hornbill and crocodile motif is fairly common in Burkina Faso among the Nuna culture. The Nuna migrated from Ghana in the 1400s. The Nuna historically are farmers who grow a variety of crops, including yams, corn, rice, and beans. Women grow the cash crops that included tobacco and sesame. Fishing and hunting are practiced during the dry season. Animal-shaped masks are the primary sculpted forms of peoples in this part of Africa. Nuna societies are comprised mainly of farmers without social or political stratification.

Belief in a supreme creator is central to Nuna customs. Homes contain family shrines that reflect their dependence on farming and often contain animal masks or sculpture. Animal-shaped masks are the primary sculptural form among the Nuna The hornbill mask is worn on the face with the wearer looking out through the two round eyeholes.  The hornbill symbolizes knowledge and wisdom. The crocodile is related to a water spirit, guaranteeing fertility and prosperity.

The beauty of this mask, aside from the sophisticated carving, is the contrasting patterns. The palette of red, white, and black is typical of Nuna masks.

Studio activity: Animal mask. Look at pictures of animals for ideas and decide what animal is most desirable.  Draw a big shape of the animal’s face, bigger than your head, on heavy construction paper, and cut it out. Cut eye holes to fit your head and add straps. Paint or color the surface of the animal’s head and add other paper shapes such as whiskers and hair in different colored construction paper.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 29-30 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.33-34 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.30, 5.29-30 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.35; A Community Connection: 7.6; A Personal Journey: 7.5, 7.6; Exploring Visual Design: 2, 11; The Visual Experience: 14.3; Discovering Art History: 4.8

Monday, April 22, 2013

Yet Another Facet of Forgotten Art History

Thomas Gross, Jr. (1775–1839, Philadelphia), Chest-on-chest, 1805–1810. Yellow poplar, mahogany, and yellow pine with brass fittings, 210.2 x 109.9 x 57.2 cm (6' 10 3/4" x 43 1/4" x 22 1/2"). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1927)

Like women artists, African American artists have been neglected in the major art history survey texts, especially when it comes to pre-emancipation. I am always delighted to have an epiphany about an artist I never knew much about. Although I must admit, it is extremely difficult to find biographical information about many black and women artists before the end of the 1800s.

During the 1700s and 1800s there were African American artists who achieved significant degree of recognition as artists. Unfortunately, even in the northern United States, it was difficult for African Americans to prosper greatly as artists before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1864. In Pennsylvania, the Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act of 1780 made it a little bit easier for blacks to establish a professional reputation. The act provided that any African American born before 1780 would remain a “slave for life” unless they were legally “freed.”

In the relative “boom” economy after the American Revolution (1775–1783), there was a great demand for the miscellaneous arts, particularly furniture, ceramics, metalwork, and glassware. Many African Americans in the North, and some in the South, were apprenticed to trained artists based on their skills from their African roots.  Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood was home to a sizeable population of free African Americans who provided a thriving artistic service for growing Philadelphia.

Thomas Gross, Jr. was apparently a free black person. He had a prosperous business as a cabinetmaker (furniture maker). As was typical at the time, he also worked as an undertaker because his woodworking skills made him a handy coffin-builder. This chest-on-chest, which mimics the then-fashionable highboy, was a practical storage piece of furniture in a period when closets were not widespread. It reflects the popular neoclassical style of the Federal period (ca. 1783–1830) with its geometric simplicity and pediment top. The chest-on-chest was made in America after the 1750s. Although many of these chests were designed in the Chippendale style, simpler versions like this one form the majority. Unlike the highboy that rested on cabriole legs, the chest-on-chest almost uniformly is supported on bracket feet. The chest-on-chest form was originally introduced in Britain around 1700.

Thomas Affleck (attributed to) (1740-1795, United States), Card table, 1770. Mahogany, oak, pine; 81.3 x 72.4 x 39.7 cm. © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2602)

Unknown artist, Side Chair, 1800. Mahogany. © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2287)

Studio activity:  Design a chest that expresses personality. Take a cardboard box and combine it with cut out shapes in paper to create a unique cabinet. Color it with markers or watercolor, and indicate drawers with a black thin-point marker. Express your personality by extending the basic geometric shape to include curled, folded, and bent shapes on the attached paper.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; A Community Connection: 3.4; A Personal Journey: 3.4; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 7 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

101st Anniversary of Sinking of the Titanic

Frederic Church (1826–1900, United States), Icebergs, 1863.Oil on canvas, 8.25 x 14.29 cm (3 1/4" x 5 5/8"). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-240)

The 15th of April was the 101st anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. In order not to dwell on that morbid subject (but to relate it to art) I’m showing you all one of a series of paintings Frederic Church did on icebergs. Church, the only person to ever be taken as a student by Hudson River School “guru” Thomas Cole (1801–1848) produced a unique series of dramatic paintings of nature that he observed, as well as composite landscapes for dramatic purposes. The Hudson River School style was basically Romantic Realism.

Church’s interest in the Arctic began with the search for Sir John Franklin (died 1847), a British explorer whose expedition to the Arctic ended with the death of crews of two ships, and the search for the bodies of the crews in the following decade. Church’s paintings already emphasized the power and grandeur or nature, and the Arctic north with its ice flows and icebergs fascinated him. He produced several paintings on the iceberg theme from sketches he had seen by actual later expedition participants. He eventually booked passage in 1859 on a ship to the Arctic to study icebergs first hand. The result of that trip was a collaborative book chronicling the trip through the Northwest Passage, called After Icebergs with a PainterThis painting is based on that sojourn, although I am doubtful that this is the iceberg that sank the TitanicWhat I love about this painting is how Church endows all of nature with an awe-inspiring glory through his dramatic placement of the subject and lighting. If I ever see an iceberg in real life and it looks like the ones in the Church painting, I would definitely be awed!

Born in Connecticut, Church was the son of a wealthy businessman. Although his father wanted him to become a businessman or doctor, Church pursued his desire to be an artist. In 1842 and 1843 he studied with local landscape painters in Hartford. Accepting his son’s career choice, Church’s father arranged for him to have two years of lessons with Thomas Cole in New York starting in 1844. He was the only pupil Cole ever accepted for instruction. This would give him an advantage over other aspiring young painters at the time.

Church immediately distinguished himself through his meticulous, detail drawings of the natural world. His eye for detail far exceeded Cole’s: elements of nature being examined seemingly microscopically. Church exhibited for the first time at the National Academy of Design at the age of nineteen, where he exhibited throughout his career. In 1849, at twenty-three, he became the youngest artist ever elected to full membership in the National Academy. By that point he had established himself as the most promising of up-and-coming young painters.

This painting is most likely a study for a larger work. I’ve seen it in person—it’s little bigger than a postcard, so most likely not meant to be a finished work. What’s amazing about it is the atmosphere of being in the cold Arctic Ocean at sunset and seeing these magnificent mountains of ice. Here’s a modern interpretation on the subject.

Robert Moskowitz (born 1935, United States), Iceberg, 1987. Pastel on black paper, 101 x 284.5 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Robert Moskowitz. (MOMA-P3077)

Studio activity: A landscape painting representing something that you find awe inspiring; be it because of dramatic lighting, weather, or view. Choose a photograph from a magazine of a landscape or of a painting of a landscape with dramatic impact. Make notes about the desired colors and shapes. Create a dramatic landscape using colors and shapes, including warm or cool colors or geometric or organic shapes. Use crayons to blend the various shapes and colors together for a harmonious composition. Remember to use a consistent light source in order to enhance drama in the composition.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.21, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.20, 2.19; A Global Pursuit: 7.2; A Community Connection: 4.4; Exploring Visual Design: 9; Discovering Art History: 12. 2.

Monday, April 8, 2013

National Older Americans Month: Aging in Art

Robert Arneson (1930–1992, United States), California Artist, 1982. Painted and glazed ceramic, height: 198 cm (77 15/16"). Photo courtesy of the artist. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA. (8S-27697arvg)

Did you know that April is National Older Americans MonthRobert Arneson died way too soon, and I’m not sure he’d appreciate me featuring him for this theme, but his work shows us how we look at ourselves aging. I think we always need to give a nod to the inevitable, and Arneson certainly did that in this work.

“California Figuration” was something of a rebellion against the East Coast dominance of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. Like Pop Art, it represented a wry look at American culture through recognizable commercial and social imagery. An off-shoot of California Figuration (as epitomized in the work of Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn) was California Pop Art. Also called Funk Art, it emphasized the shoddy, bizarre, and tacky elements of modern American life.

Born in Benicia, California, Arneson’s work was part of a ceramic art movement in the 1950s that eventually elevated the medium to the status of “fine art.” He produced a series of works—much in the spirit of Claes Oldenburg—that parodied diner food, consumer products, and items of clothing. But, by far the most significant of Arneson’s work was his documentation of his own appearance over time through numerous self-portraits, often bearing ironic titles.

Kiln Man, 1971. Terra cotta, height: 91 cm (35 7/8"). Photo courtesy of the artist. © Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA. (8S-2991arvg)
Hear, 1973. Ceramic, 43 x 43 x 36 cm (17" x 17" x 14 1/8"). Private collection. Photo courtesy of the artist. © Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA. (8S-18538arvg)
Balancing Act, 1974. Ceramic, 102 x 33 x 33 cm (40 1/8" x 13" x 13"). Private collection. Photo courtesy of the artist. © Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA. (8S-18543arvg)
Whistling in the Dark, 1976. Terra cotta, 86 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm (33 7/8" x 20" x 20"). Photo courtesy of the artist. © Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA. (8S-21573arvg)
Nasal Flat, 1981. Ceramic, glazed; head: 118 x 71 x 52 cm (46 1/2" x 28" x 20 1/2"). Photo courtesy of the artist. © Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA. (8S-27694arvg)
California Artist, study, 1982. Conté crayon and oil pastel, 132 x 107 cm (52" x 42 1/8"). Photo courtesy of the artist. © Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA. (8S-26706arvg)

Eye of the Beholder, 1982. Oil pastel, acrylic, and oil on paper, 132 x 107 cm (52" x 42 1/8"). Photo courtesy of the artist. © Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA. (8S-267076arvg)

These self-deprecating biographies in ceramic led to the ultimate statement on California Figuration: Arneson’s self-portrait as an aging hippie artist. His unflinching realistic portrait of himself in denim jacket with pot growing around the pedestal is a tribute to his self-esteem as an aging artist. Many other artists through history have documented their growing older (notably Rembrandt), but none with more humor and irony that Arneson. This self-portrait was created as a response to a New York art critic who denigrated the “provincial” nature of art in California.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 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 5: 1.1-2 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.31-32 studio; A Personal Journey: 2.3; Exploring Visual Design: 2, 6, 10

Monday, April 1, 2013


Milly Steger (1881–1948, Germany),Resurrection, from the periodical Das Kunstblatt, volume 1, number 7 (July 1917). Lithograph, page: 28.5  x 21.8 cm (11 1/4" x 8 9/16"). Museum of Modern Art, New York, Transferred from the Museum Library. © The Estate of Milly Steger. (MOMA-P0960)

Eastertime for Christians just passed and the resurrection of Jesus is the big event of the period. I’d like to explore the term “resurrection” in another context: the “rising from the dead” of a society expressed by a woman artist.

"Expressionism" was first applied to art from the early part of the 20th century, primarily in northern Europe, and predominantly in Germany. It was a style that articulated the stresses of modern life. Artists working in Expressionism believed that the "form" of the work of art grew out of content. In other words, jagged line and dramatic composition were crucial to expressing the artist's solemn, passionate, and sometimes violent innermost vision. German Expressionism was greatly influenced by medieval art and German Renaissance woodcut prints.

Milly Steger’s work reflects a period of great suffering for the German people because of World War I (1914–1918). The movement Expressionism had its inception before the war, but became very articulated during and after the war. “Resurrection,” or “Rising from the Dead,” is most likely not representative of a single individual as much as the entire folk of Germany itself. The emaciated, prone position of the figure reminds me a great deal of Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s (1881–1919) Kneeling Woman with a touch more pathos added.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881–1919 Germany), Kneeling Woman, 1911. Cast stone, 176.5 x 142.2 cm (69 7/16" x 55"). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-S0602)

And let’s not forget the most notable woman expressionist of the period: Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945). Kollwitz produced a whole series on Death seizing various members of society. This came from the medieval German idea of the Totentanz (Dance of Death) and contemplation on the equality of death. This was her response to the horrors in Germany after World War I.

Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945), Death Seizing a Woman, 1934. Lithograph, 51 x 37 cm (20 1/16" x 14 9/16"). The Museum of Modern Art. © Estate of 2013 Käthe Kollwitz/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P2454kzars)

Steger was born in Rheinberg and studied there, then Düsseldrof, and eventually Berlin. She primarily studied art to be a sculptor. Resurrection is most likely a study for a sculpture. In 1911 she fell under the influence of Karl Osthaus (1874–1921). Osthaus was a great patron of contemporary art and established the Folkwang Museum in Hagen, a city in which Steger was very active, contributing many sculptures. The Folkwang Museum held some of the earliest German expressionist exhibits. After World War I she was active teaching sculpture and life drawing in Berlin. Das Kunstblatt was a publication that focused on contemporary art in every art form. The anguished persona, angular and sharp lines and form, and isolation of the figure all heighten the expressionistic content and place Steger firmly within German Expressionism.

Studio activity: Imitating the nuances possible with lithography, draw an imaginary figure expressing an emotion. Use charcoal on heavily textured paper. Remember to consider a consistent light source with which strong variations in light and dark can be exploited. The harsher the lights and darks, the stronger the emphasis on the emotion.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.31; A Global Pursuit: 1.1; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 6; The Visual Experience: 16.6; Discovering Art History: 14.1