Monday, August 25, 2014

An Epidemic Satirized in Art

Franz Dörbeck (1799–1845, Germany), published by Thomas McLean (1788–1875, London), Cholera Preventive Costume, 1832. Hand-colored lithograph, 15" x 11" (38.1 x 27.8 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4347)

With the current focus on the Ebola outbreak, let’s reflect on the many epidemics that caught the world’s attention in the 20th and 21st centuries: bird flu, SARS, swine flu, flesh-eating bacteria, and not to mention HIV are some that have garnered a lot of fear. Obviously, the 21st century is not the first time period in history to experience such outbreaks, in fact, things were much worse before the medical community understood the nature of viruses and bacteria, knowledge of which started in the mid-1800s. Also, in the 21st century, we do not tend to see art on a large scale that chronicles such epidemics, unless it is politically or socially oriented.

Cholera was one of the Ebola epidemics of the 1800s, as was Malaria and Yellow Fever. This was all before scientists such as Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and John Snow discovered the existence of viruses and bacteria. Certain bacilli (bacteria) in drinking water is what caused the massive cholera outbreaks in the 1800s. It is thought to have originated in India, and migrated to Northern Europe and the US in the early 1800s because of the British Empire’s frequent trade with India. It assumed particularly dire outbreaks as early as 1830 in London. These outbreaks lasted until the end of the 1800s when improved public water treatment evolved. Cholera was also a problem in the US until the late 1800s when water treatment plants in major cities were improved.

This print reflects the then current assumption of the miasmatic transmission of the disease (air-borne basically). This idea was ages old, dating back to the Black Death (bubonic plague) of the late Roman Empire (ravaged the empire in the 400s and 500s ce), and of the 1300s (killed nearly a quarter of the population of western Europe). The idea that cholera was air borne was disproved starting in the 1850s when John Snow demonstrated that it was caused by contaminated drinking water. The print basically mocks the idea of herbs and breathing apparatus to ward off the disease.

Satirical prints, both politically and socially oriented, evolved in Britain during the 1700s, and reached particularly sophisticated levels after the 1810s. Rather than explaining people’s efforts to avoid cholera, these prints, like the one below, served to mock people who were superstitious about the spread of the contagion. I think it’s a great thing that doctors nowadays understand germs and contagious disease, even when they spread as Ebola has in western Africa. Here are the examples of preventive measures mocked in the above print:

--copper breast plate
--bag of sand
--band of pepper and juniper berries around the neck
--ear cotton with camphor
--vial of vinegar under the nose
--pound of coriander root
--juniper tree
--ten friction bushes in a cart

The print ends by saying: “By exactly following these directions you may be certain that the Cholera will attack you first.”

Here’s the female equivalent of the above print. I think the dog is really cute with his sprout of juniper for a tail.

Franz Dörbeck (1799–1845, Germany), Cholera Preservative Woman, ca. 1832. Color engraving, 27 x 23 cm (10 5/8 x 9”). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1562)

Here are examples of artists’ reaction to contemporary epidemics.

Sue Coe (born 1951, US), Doctor Giving Massage to an AIDS Patient, from the “New Provincetown Print Project” portfolio, 1993. Linoleum cut and monotype with ink additions. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2014 Sue Coe. (MOMA-P2562)
Eric Avery (born 1948, US), Art for Medicine, a folded broadside, 2003. Offset lithograph, 11 x 7 ¼” (27.9 x 18.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, © 2014 Eric Avery. (PMA-3984B)

 Correlations to Davis programs: A Community Connection: 8.2, A Global Pursuit: 3.1, Experience Printmaking: 6, The Visual Experience 9.4

Monday, August 11, 2014

Design for Living with Flair

Christopher Dresser (1834–1904, England, born Scotland), Jug, designed 1881. Glass, silver-plated metal, teak, 8 1/2 x 5 3/4 x 5 7/8” (21.6 x 14.6 x 14.9 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3465)

William Morris (1834–1896, British) is not the only artist who can be associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800s. I uncovered this artist in our collection who, in many ways, was what could be considered the first “industrial designer.” Unlike Morris, Christopher Dresser saw no problem in designing utilitarian works of art that could be mass-produced industrially, as long as the design was sophisticated. And, boy, is his design sense sophisticated! In many ways he’s a forbearer of the Bauhaus, who took Morris’ emphasis on hand-crafted utilitarian art and applied it to mass production, without sacrificing a fine aesthetic.

I’m a painter, and yet, like most art historians I appreciate the ENTIRE gamut of artistic endeavor. I’m particularly drawn to the Arts and Crafts (geez I hate the term “craft”) movement of the late 1800s, because it was a rebellion against the industrialization fervor and sought to return to endowing every object in daily life with an aesthetic that was hand-made. Perhaps the idea was a naïve idea in a way, since mass produced furniture, ceramics, and metalwork, for example, were big profit items for companies that catered to the increasingly prosperous middle-class.

William Morris pioneered a movement that quickly spread to the US, where he emphasized fine aesthetics in everyday utilitarian objects. While Morris was based in Britain, a similar aesthetic arose in Glasgow, Scotland where Dresser was born, around the Scottish artist Charles Rennie MacKintosh (1868–1928).

Glasgow was one of the most remarkable centers of experiment in modernist design in architecture and decorative arts. Dresser, from his early schooling in London at the Government School of Art and Design was an advocate of merging botany (floral motifs, to put it crudely) with “Arts and Art-Manufacture.” He was also keenly interested in Japanese art. Japanese art was a formative influence on his industrial design, because Japanese reverence of natural forms in art did not manifest itself in a slavish copying of natural forms. Dresser preferred extracting shapes from nature in his designs, searching for the underlying geometric sources in nature.

This jug is so modern in appearance, and yet it harkens to the Zen Buddhist idea of frugality and simplicity in design. It is notably devoid of the florid decoration that sometimes characterizes Arts and Crafts artworks. From the outset, Dresser was interested in designing forms suitable for mass-production. He was a keen advocate of exploiting the industrial revolution of the 1800s for enhancing the aesthetic quality of everyday objects. His designs clearly anticipate the Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s.

Two objects from the 1900s that mirror Dresser’s design aesthetic:

Josef Albers (1888–1976, Germany-US), Tea glass, 1925. Glass, porcelain, steel and ebony, diameter: 3 ½”. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0060abars)

Peter Schlumbohm (1869–1962, Germany/US), Teamaker, 1954. Glass, wood, steel and plastic, 7” x 7 3/8” (17.8 x 18.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-D0092)

Studio activity: Design a glass jug of the future. Using colored pencils or markers, design a glass jug that anticipates what life would be ten years from now. Be sure to include any other materials, such as wood or silver to ornament the design. Think of what people might be doing differently ten years from now and design your jug accordingly. Do you want to incorporate ideas about the environment, climate change, or depletion of natural resources into your design? 

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: studio 23-24, A Community Connection: 5.2, A Personal Journey: 3.4; The Visual Experience: 10.9

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Roesen is still a Roesen by any other name

Severin Roesen (ca. 1815/1816–ca. 1872, US, born Germany), Flower Still Life, 1853. Oil on canvas, 40” x 32” (101.6 x 81.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5287)

I’m a big fan of artists, especially American artists, who may not be household names like Homer, Peale, or Eakins, but who nonetheless had an impact on art during their careers. There is such a broad range of styles in—particularly—1800s American art that sometimes gets glossed over. While Severin Roesen is given passing mention in many art history texts on American art, he was an important influence on a genre of still life that became very popular in the mid-1800s, that of trompe-l’oeil realism (fool the eye realism). In a broader perspective, Roesen’s still lifes really do hark back to the beginning of the tradition of still life as an important fine art subject matter, the 1600s in northern Europe.

Roesen immigrated to the US around 1848 with many other German artists who were fleeing the political turmoil during the unification of Germany. Although his instruction as an artist is not known, he most likely received professional training in oil painting. While in Germany he painted floral designs on porcelain, highly detailed work reflected in his paintings. Once in the US, he initially settled in New York, where he quickly established a firm reputation for his lush still life paintings. Around 1858 he moved to Pennsylvania, ultimately settling in Williamsport, a city in a region where there were many German immigrants, and a thriving lumber industry.

Roesen’s lush, object-packed compositions were painted in brilliant color and meticulously detailed. The abundance of fruit and flowers in his still life paintings reflect the optimism and pride Americans had in their growing country in the period before the Civil War (1860–1865). This optimism at the abundance of the American continent, and the emphasis on extreme realism, were also reflected in the magnificent, sweeping landscape paintings of the Hudson River School during the same period. His style is very reminiscent of Dutch Baroque still life works, particularly the usual setting of the objects on a ledge or tabletop, and the fact that many of the objects had symbolic meaning. For instance, a bird’s nest with eggs in it was a symbol of fertility (the fertility of the American wilderness), while a rose was a symbol for passion, and fallen buds intimate the impermanence of life. While his tightly packed compositions may seem to be casually arranged, the objects are arranged with great care for maximum visual impact and color balance.

Roesen became very successful in Williamsport, painting still life works for the parlors and dining rooms of the local lumber barons. His studio was well known as a meeting place for the elite of the region. Many people would visit his studio to watch him paint. His still life style is a marked contrast to the reserved, sparse still life paintings of the Peale family. He influenced a number of artists, especially John Francis (1808–1886).

Mention of Roesen in public records ends in 1872, most likely the year of his death. His still life paintings remain in many private collections in Williamsport, where there is strong community interest in his legacy.

Here are two Dutch Baroque floral still life painters. Roesen’s painting bears a striking resemblance to them in the wide variety of objects; the shallow, shelf-like space; and the meticulous detail.

Jan de Heem (1606–1683/1684, Netherlands), Vase of Flowers, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas, 27 3/8” x 22 ¼” (69.6 x 56.5 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington. (NGA-P0866)

Attributed to Jacob van Walscapelle (1644–1727, Netherlands), Flowers in a Vase. Oil on wood panel, 15 ¾” x 11 9/16” (40 x 29.5 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-599)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36, Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.8, Explorations in Art Grade 6 1.6, Exploring Painting: 9, Exploring Visual Design: 3 studio, Discovering Art History: 13 activity 1