Monday, September 29, 2014

Cross-Cultural Connections

India / Pakistan  Head of a Bodhisattva, from Gandhara, late 100s to early 200s ce. Black slate, 12 7/16” x 10” x 9” (31.11 x 25.4 x 22.86 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-71)

It’s amazing to me how connected the cultures of the world are. One can no longer separate east and west when we see the art of northern India / Pakistan during the early years of Buddhist art. Buddha’s life is considered by scholars to date between the late 500s to early 400s bce.

The earliest images of the Buddha appeared during the time of the Kushan dynasty in India (ca. 50–320 ce). The Kushan Dynasty replaced the Mauryan Dynasty (322–185 bce), the dynasty that unified various states into a distinctive Indian kingdom after the invasion of northern India by Alexander the Great (died 323 bce). It was during the Mauryan Dynasty that Buddhism was adopted as the official religion, but it was under the Kushan Dynasty that Buddhist art had its first flowering. The Kushan moved to India in the first century bce from the western border of China (the Chinese called them the Yuezhi).

Although the Kushan did not seem to have intended to conquer northern India, these Caucasian, nomadic peoples filled a power vacuum left by the disintegration of the Mauryan dynasty. They became affluent trading with the Roman colonies in what was left of Alexander’s western colonies. This is evidenced in the large issues of gold coins that bore likenesses of Greek, Roman, Hindu, Iranian, and Buddhist deities. This indicates the cosmopolitan, tolerant attitude of the Kushan rulers. After the rise of the Sasanian Dynasty (222–650 ce) in Iran, and the rise of other states in northern India, Kushan rule declined.

Enduring, however, are the first images of the Buddha. They are variously labeled “Mathuran” (after one of the Kushan capitals) or “Gandharan” in style. In the city of Gandhara, the meeting of Buddhist thought and the Greco-Roman sculptural style resulted in one that transferred the features of Apollo to the Buddha and bodhisattvas (saints). The Gandhara Buddha/Bodhisattva style is a perfect example of the merging of Roman realism with Indian conceptualism. The rounded face is indicative of the Indian tendency to geometricize the classical western style. The Gandharan style is typified by an oval face, long straight nose, arched eyebrows, and cupid’s bow lips. It is modeled on the face of Apollo with a moustache added. The wavy hair tied in a bow, a Greek hairstyle, emulates the Buddhist conception of the ushnisha or top-knot on the Buddha’s head. The jewelry is both western and Indian. 
There is much turmoil in the world these days. But I always have hope for humankind coming together as a “global village” when I learn about cultures like the Kushan, who were at the crossroads of Asian and Western cultures, and amalgamated them into their own peacefully.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 5: studio1/2; A Global Pursuit: 3.5; Beginning Sculpture: 5; Discovering Art History: 4.2; Exploring Visual Design 1, 2; The Visual Experience 13.2

Monday, September 15, 2014


Ruth Henshaw Bascom (1772–1848), Portrait of Mary Davis Denny, 1839. Pastel and charcoal over graphite with paper collage on blue paper, 20 x 15 1/8” (50.8 x 38.4 cm). © Worcester Art Museum (WAM-383)
I’m showing you Ruth Henshaw Bascom’s work as a celebration of the new show in the Davis Art Gallery, “Drawing: The Art of Making Marks.” Drawing was not really considered a “fine art” medium until the late 1800s. However, there were many artists, particularly women, who explored the many ways of creating finished works of art in the genre. Actually, up until the late 1800s, drawing was considered a “genteel” pastime for women, along with decorating ceramics, needlework, quilting, etc. Long before Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent established drawing and watercolor as fine art media, Bascom showed just how an accomplished drawing could be a great work of art.

Bascom was an apparently self-taught artist born in Leicester, Massachusetts. Her second husband was a minister, and they traveled to many towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire because of his profession. They eventually settled in Gill, Massachusetts in 1836. The majority of her profile portraits were produced there, depicting family members and neighbors.

Bascom had begun painting the profile portraits in 1819 at the age of forty-seven. She used the same technique as silhouette artists, where the sitter cast a shadow on a piece of paper and she would trace the outline. She then filled in the details with pastel. She could be considered one of the first collage artists in American art, because she often added cut paper or shiny metallic paper to indicate beads or eyeglasses. In this work, the white ruffle blouse is cut out and pasted on the figure. Sometimes she cut out the face and pasted it over a different background, such as a landscape. In her diaries, now at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, Bascom writes more about her needlework than her drawings. She did, though, once record that she had painted the floor of her house to resemble a carpet.

Like many women of the period who were not allowed to attend art classes and usually considered drawing as a “respectable” pastime rather than a career, Bascom never charged for her portraits. Like many well-to-do women of her day, she would have considered it inappropriate to charge for her art. However, her profile portraits are an enduring snapshot of the lives of New Englanders in the early 1800s. They reveal solid compositional skills and a capable handling of realistic form.

Here is the rest of the Denny Family:

Ruth Henshaw Bascom, Portrait of Joseph Addison Denny, 1839. Pastel, charcoal, and colored paper collage on blue paper, 19 7/8” x 15” (50.5 x 38.2 cm). © Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-279)

Studio activity: Create a profile portrait. Project a light on a classmate in profile, and fill in the features and clothing with colored pencil, markers, or watercolor. Create a collage by adding cut out construction paper for details such as clothing, hair, jewelry, etc.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1; A Personal Journey: 6.4

Monday, September 8, 2014

Spiritual Color

Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980, United States), Church Fan, ca. 1970. Gouache and graphite on cardboard, punched, stitched and tied with thread, 13 5/8” x 13 5/8” (34.6 x 34.6 cm). Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5100)

The persistence of types of artworks through the centuries always fascinates me. While materials may vary, the artwork still serves the same purpose. I’m sure before air conditioning fans were quite popular things to have when in church, whether it be in the American South, or in the heat of the Syrian desert. Although this fan cannot be labeled exactly “liturgical,” a deeply spiritual African American woman who developed many missionary efforts created it.

Sister Gertrude Morgan was a self-taught artist. As with many African American self-taught artists, she expressed in her work the large role her faith played in her life, and the life of the African American community. Born in Alabama, she moved to New Orleans in 1937. There she started a street mission, a day care center, established a chapel (her “Prayer Room”), and helped found an orphanage. She began painting seriously in 1956. Her work was religious in nature and often revealed her own visions of God. She worked in a variety of cheap, easily available media.

This painted "prayer" fan by Sister Gertrude Morgan uses the vivid, contrasting range of colors preferred by a number of self-taught artists. Narrative in its subject matter, the crowded compositions of her work often record religious visions or parables from the Bible. They also reveal Morgan’s innate aptitude for harmonizing bright color. She instinctively understood the power of certain strong colors to reflect moods or ideas such as simplicity, hope, or optimism. After 1970 her fans depict almost exclusively scenes from the Book of Revelations.

Sister Morgan’s painted fans were handed out to friends and to people who visited her Prayer Room. The idea of church fans was not new. However, in the early Christian church, some fans were reserved for the clergy participating in a service, such as this Syrian liturgical fan. I can just imagine some poor acolyte stuck with the job of fanning a bishop or priest during a church service. The image is of two seraphs, the six-winged angels that protect the throne of God.

Syria, Coptic church, Liturgical fan (flabella), late 700s to early 800s CE. Silver, 16 x 8 5/8” (40.8 x 22 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3462)

And while I’m on the subject of fans, I can’t resist showing you this 1800s beauty from France. It is painted with decoration in the then popular Rococo Revival style. The Rococo period was that of the early to mid-1700s, which stressed arabesque (rocaille in French) decoration and luxurious materials.

France, Fan with gold rocaille decoration, 1850–1860. Silver foil over paper on painted and gilt wooden sticks. © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2435)
 Studio activity: Design a fan in bright colors using symbols that describe your life. Use heavy paper, and after you’ve painted your design cut out the shape of a fan. A fan looks like a triangle except that the top is rounded. Use opaque water-soluble paints such as tempera or gouache.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.34, A Community Connection: 6.2, Experience Painting: 2