Monday, June 30, 2014

More Unsung Heroes: Early American Modernist Art

Alfred Maurer (1868–1932, United States), Head of a Girl, 1929. Oil on board, 29 13/16” x 19 13/16”   (75.7 x 50.3 cm). © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-2945)

I have long been a big fan / advocate for the importance of the earliest American artists who sought to buck the European-inspired academic system of history painting and realism. This “bucking” began with The Ten, American artists who studied in France and brought Impressionism to American art in the 1880s and 1890s. While the trend of American artists studying Europe was not new at the time—artists as far back as the 1700s had migrated to Europe to become “masters”—it was new in that the artists of the late 1800s and early 1900s were not trying to conform to the stodgy, conservative styles that the major European academies espoused. For artists drawn to abstraction in the early 1900s, this must have been particularly daunting when they returned to the US. American patrons had a traditional obsession with academic realism. Alfred Maurer is one of my heroes because he steadfastly pursued modernism, even during the Great Depression (1929–1940), which virtually crushed any interest in abstraction in the American art-viewing public.

It takes a lot of guts to buck the Art Establishment. While the academies of the US followed the same boring formula that major European academies were—i.e. realism, history painting, landscape—there were artists in the US who did not follow this trend. Maurer is unique because he grew up studying in the stifling atmosphere of the conservative National Academy of Design in New York. While there he was recognized as an excellent portraitist. However, his portraits were inspired by the works of expatriate American James A.M Whistler (1834–1903) and William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), whose work represented a departure from the American obsession with absolute realism.

Maurer lived in Paris between 1897 and 1914 (the beginning of World War I). While there he associated with other Americans interested in the avant-garde, such as Arthur Dove (1880–1946). He was most impressed after meeting Henri Matisse (1869–1954), whose freedom of color and emphasis on shape affected his work. He was also affected by the efforts of proto-Cubism.

When Maurer returned to the US his work began to reflect the bold colors of the Fauvist palette and the geometric lines of Proto-Cubism. Respected by his fellow modernists in America, he exhibited in 1909 in Alfred Stieglitz’s (1864–1946) Gallery 291—the first gallery in America to show modernism—and, also the Armory Show of 1913 that featured the most up-to-date European modernism.

After the Great Depression began in 1929, American artists turned toward social realism in large numbers, but Maurer continued throughout his career to explore aspects of the modernism that had inspired him in Europe. Works such as this display the multiple influences from European modernism from about 1908 to 1924. The jagged linearity reflects Expressionism, while the angular portrait reflects the influence of African masks that were a direct influence on early Cubism (and the depiction is particularly reminiscent of Modigliani). Compare it with other portraiture from the same period:

Eugene Speicher (1883–1962, US), Portrait of Red, 1933. Oil on canvas, 21 ½” x 17 ¾” (54.6 x 45.1 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-1745)

While these portraits have a peculiarly American beauty and unapproachable reservedness to them, they in no way approach the experiment of Maurer. Here are more of his works that show how ahead of his time he was. I’m sure the Abstract Expressionists knew of the work of artists such as Maurer, and built on him.

My question is this: Why are abstractionists of the pre-Depression era not Art History Household names?  Frankly, Maurer’s work inspires my own painting far more than that of Benton, Hopper, Marsh, or Kuhn, all of whom were active at the same time.

Studio activity: Create a portrait in an abstract style. Use charcoal, spray fixative, and colored pencils or chalk on thick paper. Base your work on the common properties of the human face, but make it recognizable as a portrait, using a photo of a family member or friend as a guide. In order to make it abstract, emphasize the important features of the face that make the subject interesting or different.

After producing the basic outlines of the abstracted face in charcoal, smudge to create shading, if desired, and then spray with a fixative so that the chalk does not smear. Then apply color to the work, if desired, with colored pencils or chalk. Spray the finished work with fixative so that it does not smear.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.4; A Community Connection: 6.2, 7.4; Discovering Art History: 15.2; Experience Painting: 6

Monday, June 23, 2014

Unsung Heroes

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965, United States), Hoe Culture, Near Anniston, Alabama, 1935–1937. Gelatin silver print on paper, 9 3/8” x 7 5/8” (23.7 x 19.4 cm). © Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Selma and Leonard Zorel. (BMA-4827)
There are many ways to be a hero. I by no means denigrate our men and women in the armed services, who have given their all recently in two wars (one of which should never have happened). But, there are heroes in everyday society, and that includes a lot of artists! One of the most important things about the history of art is that it records the state of humankind when the art was produced. This idea influences style and subject matter. In the Italian Renaissance, it was important for artists to stress the classical knowledge of their patrons, as well as express religious conviction (since the Roman church dominated art patronage).  During the Great Depression (1929–1940), the precursor of the second worse financial downturn—the Great Recession of 2008, instead of relying on mythological, religious, or historical subject matter, many artists during the Great Depression preferred to document what was happening to ordinary, hard-working Americans.

One of the major sources of the Great Depression was the depletion of top soil in America’s heartland, due to unwise over planting and no attention to water. After the Wall Street bankers caused a collapse because of speculation in many areas, the decline in crops (caused by the decimation of the natural eco-system because of over-planting), fostered the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange studied photography at the Clarence White School in New York and after that opened a portraiture studio in San Francisco in 1919. She was very successful for about ten years, turning out pictorialist style, soft focus portraits of mostly wealthy people of San Francisco. The heavy onset of the Depression in the early 1930s caused her to reevaluate the value of providing flattering portraits for the wealthy while so many people were jobless and homeless. This discrepancy caused her to begin to take photographs of the hapless people living on the street.
At first she was not sure what purpose her photographs of the jobless would serve, but she gathered them into an exhibition in 1934. They came to the attention of the Farm Security Administration, and she was hired in 1935 to document migratory farm workers in the Imperial Valley of California. Unlike the other photographers hired by the FSA, she was not required to move to Washington, DC. After the Imperial Valley photographs, she was asked to travel about the Midwest and west to document the huge exodus of displaced farmers who were migrating to California to look for work. This photograph comes from that series.

The US government, under the auspices of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), sponsored the photographic documentation of the plight of tenant farmers and farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl in the Plains states. The original intent behind the photographic program was to record the activities of the government in helping destitute farmers. Ultimately, the stirring photographs of human suffering caused by the Dust Bowl and Depression moved the government to further action to help people. Among the eleven photographers who worked on the project, the photographs of the humanist Dorothea Lange had perhaps the strongest impact on the American public, and are the most recognized symbols of the Great Depression.

Lange was particularly moved by the plight of tenant farmers, both black and white, who had no claim to their land, and yet depended on it for survival. The calloused hands and stark close-up without revealing a particular individual, for Lange, summed up the plight of tens of thousands of tenant farmers who had no recourse but to try to stick it out. Lange also documented the many tenant farmers who thought it was a good idea to uproot and move to California, which was unaffected by the Dust Bowl.

Lange’s photographs were viewed by Congressional committees, and are credited with being responsible for the establishment of migrant camps in 1935. Her photographs of the migration of farmers from the Midwest are also thought to have inspired John Steinbeck to write the book “Grapes of Wrath.” After her work with the FSA, Lange went on the rest of her life documenting the human condition in many parts of the world.

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Community Connection: 7.4, Discovering Art History: 14.5, The Visual Experience: 7.2, Focus on Photography: 5

Monday, June 16, 2014


Norway, Gol “stave” church near Oslo at the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (a replica now exists in Gol), c. 1235–1265. © 2014 Davis Art Images. (8S-26082)

I know there’s a popular cable show called “Vikings.” I’ve watched a few episodes, but, as an historian and art historian, I find it really doesn’t address many of the cultural contributions Scandinavians (Sweden, Norway, and Denmark) made to Western art. I’m especially appalled by the emphasis on the violence. Granted, the Vikings weren’t the most loveable people from the period of the late Roman Empire (c. 284–500 ce) to the early Romanesque period (c. 1000–1200), but, come on, their culture was about more than just plunder and pillage. I think their aesthetic contributions are comparable to those of the “Christianized” Anglo-Saxons in Britain in the period between the 700s and the 1000s. One of their greatest legacies is their artistry with wood sculpture, relief, and architecture.

Until Scandinavians accepted Christianity (Denmark in the 900s, and Norway and Sweden in the course of the 1000s), their buildings were exclusively of wood. It is often theorized that this reliance on wood as a building material is what made the Vikings such able ship-builders. As seafaring folk, the Vikings raided and established settlements in Britain, Normandy, and Tuscany, and their raids extended sometimes to Spain, Germany, and western France. Their master seafaring abilities enabled them to establish colonies in Iceland (c. 860 ce) and Greenland (c. 965 ce).

But, let’s get away from Viking “marauding.” The idea diminishes the focus on their arts. Carving was the primary fine art, from everything from ship prows to the doorways of churches. A characteristic of Viking relief carving was complicated interlace terminating in a leaf or animal head, very similar to Celtic art. The Viking expertise in wood carving and building definitely influenced church decoration. The term “stave church” comes from the basic element of building with wood, particularly ships: a vertical rib upon which were attached horizontal planks sealed with tar. One can see on the Gol church a couple of prow-like sculptures protruding from the uppermost eaves, perhaps reflecting the decoration of the bows of ships. The complex wooden shingling reminds us that architecture can be one of the finest sources for the element of art of “texture.”

Detail of Gol Church
In form, the stave churches were usually in a centrally planned, Greek cross-like organization (wings of equal length from a central worship area). The introduction of stone church construction from mainland Europe, influenced by the blooming Romanesque style of the late 1100s to early 1200s, essentially ended the stave church style, although it was employed sporadically in Scandinavia and the British Isles.  Luckily, many stave churches have survived to this day.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.18, Studio 17–18; A Community Connection: 5.5; A Global Pursuit: 3.4; The Visual Experience: 11, 15.6; Discovering Art History 7.4

Monday, June 9, 2014

Japanese Porcelain Tradition Keeps on Going

Shōmura Ken (born 1949, Japan), Vase, c. 2001. Porcelain with blue underglaze, height: 14 1/2” (36.8 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5168)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but I’m absolutely bonkers about ceramic art, and particularly Japanese and Chinese. This piece especially garnered my attention because it combines respect for traditional methods of decoration with a modernist form. AND, I love the deep cobalt blue underglaze in between each seeming separate lozenge shape. 

This vase represents the traditional idea of the aizome type of porcelain glaze (derived from the idea of indigo blue dyeing of fabrics). In the past, it was one of the two main types of porcelain gazing along with benizome (red dyeing), which characterized Arita ware in Japan. Ken is from the fifth generation working at the Banko kiln in Arita. Early Arita ware was dominated by the underglaze blue on white ground, which is the best known Chinese / Japanese color scheme in porcelain.

The blue and white format came to popularity during the Ming Dynasty in China (1368–1644). Porcelain developed to fruition during the Yuan dynasty (1280–1368), during which Ching’pai milky white porcelain of the late Song period was modified with cobalt blue underglaze called Shu Fu ware, which became the blue-and-white imperial ware of the Ming dynasty. Ceramic artists who migrated to Japan in the early 1600s transmitted this Chinese style to Japan. It was during this century that the Japanese developed their own porcelain. For the first half of the 1600s, Arita’s kilns (founded in 1616) produced predominantly the blue and white wares.

Ken first worked with white and blue wares. He soon developed techniques in the aizome and benizome. He attributes this to his work with stoneware and the exploration of its glazes, which was a brief period in his career. This vase is a masterful contemporary interpretation of the indigo blue underglaze of centuries old porcelains from both China and Japan. Sometimes visible in early blue and white wares is a running and thinning of the blue underglaze. Ken has exploited this aspect in his use of various values of the underglaze indigo blue. The darkest value of indigo blue is seen between each of the leaf-like shapes.

Each section of glaze is overlapped like scales or roof shingles.

Studio activity: Design a ceramic vessel with blue on white decoration. Using warm grey numbers 1 to 4 color pencils, design a ceramic vase or other type of vessel. Make the shape bold, indicating either texture or bold geometric shapes. Use the varying degrees of warm grey pencils to indicate shading of the texture or forms. Use indigo, cobalt, or dark blue color pencils to create the design.

Correlation to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grace 2: Studio Exploration 17–18; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35; A Community Connection: 2.6, 5.2; A Personal Journey 3.5; Experience Clay: Chapter 4; The Visual Experience 10.6

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

An American Artist Supporting American Art

J. Carroll Beckwith (18521917, United States), Portrait of Minnie Clark, 1890s. Charcoal and colored pencil or pastel on blue-grey laid paper, 10 ¼ x 6 ¾” (26 x 17.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-3439)

I guess it doesn’t need to be said, that, in the history of art, there are many artists who just don’t get massive exposure. Although they might often be lauded in their day, their works don’t find their way into “official” art history surveys. Well, I’m here to correct that on a weekly basis. I really like finding artists who are not household names, but whose works are beautiful and compelling for the period in which they were executed.  Such is J. Carroll Beckwith, or Carroll Beckwith as he wished to be called. He epitomizes an artist who was working as an agent for art on the verge of modernism, but, whose work—although on the cusp—never quite got there. And there’s nothing bad about that, because his work is Beautiful! And, he was a major advocate for encouraging an indigenous American school of art.

American art really came into a strongly individual nature in the late 1800s. Many artists, like Beckwith, studied in Europe, but often what they brought back was a personal style influenced, though not dominated by, what was going on in Europe, namely Impressionism. Although many art historians are tempted to classify Beckwith as an Impressionist, I find his work to be a fascinating combination of that style with the dogged interest in realism that characterized American art during the 1800s.

What interests me the most about Beckwith—other than his beautiful portraits—is the fact the he was so supportive of struggling American artists during his lifetime. A member of the Artists Fund Society in New York, he worked for the benefit to needy artists and their families. He helped raise money for a new building for the Arts Student League (where he had studied), which also housed the Society of American Artists, the Architectural League, and the Art Guild. The Arts Students League is still housed there in what was then called the American Fine Arts Society.

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926, United States), Woman Arranging Her Veil, c. 1890. Pastel, 25  ½ x 21 ½” (64.8 x 54.6 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-622)

Although Beckwith studied abroad, notably with American John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), his work remained solidly realistic. Beckwith’s portraits always insist on the solidity of the form, while displaying an awareness of the Sargent / French Impressionist emphasis on light and broken form. Compare his solidly modeled form with that of Cassatt. Her work is filled with light and the Impressionist preference for depicting shadow in pure colors rather than black. Interestingly, this drawing by Cassatt displays the same gestural technique as in the Beckwith.

Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944, United States), Young Woman, c. 1900. Ink on paper, 10 x 12” (25.4 x 30.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-3196)

 Minnie Clark was a favorite model of Beckwith’s, and is thought to have been one of the inspirations behind Gibson’s “Gibson Girl” of the 1890s to 1910s. The Gibson Girl was an odd assertion of the modern American young woman with bizarre misogynistic aspects, such as this lovelorn beauty with “arrows” lodged in her heart. The Gibson Girl, though, was an affirmation of the coming emancipation of modern American women, which started during World War I (1914–1918), albeit as a “sex symbol.” One can see this idealization in the portrait of Minnie Clark. What a contrast between Cassatt’s work and that of Beckwith and Gibson!

Studio Activity: Draw a Face with values. Set up a light source to show highlights and shadows either in a self-portrait or portrait. Using charcoal on paper, record the darkest values first. Using white chalk or white color pencil, introduce sharp changes in value. Use a blender to blend the various values from light to dark.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 3 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art 4 2.7; Explorations in Art 5 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art 6 1.2; A Community Connection 2.2; The Visual Experience 9.2