Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Layered Magnificence

Miyashita Zenji (1939–2013, Japan), Flower Vase, 1998. Colored stonewares, 15 ¼” x 10” x 5” (39 x 25.5 x 12 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. © 2014 Miyashita Zenji. (BMA-5093)

I am eternally grateful for the ability to be “wowed” on a continual basis when I see works of art/artists I’ve never seen before! This may just be the art historian nerd in me, but I think anyone would have to admit that Miyashita Zenji’s ceramic works have a major “wow factor.” Once again, I present you with a Japanese ceramic artist who continues the incredibly rich and millenia-old history of Japanese ceramic art.

There were two schools of thought among ceramic artists in Japan after World War II (1939–1945). One group emphasized the continuation of the venerable, centuries old traditions in stoneware, earthenware, and porcelain that began with some of the earliest decorated ceramics in the history of Earth. Another group came out of Nitten (Japan Art Exhibit) in 1946, which advocated exploration of western styles and new techniques.

The Nitten group eventually led to the establishment of the Association of Modern Artist Craftsmen (their word, not mine, because Miyashita’s works are not “craft”).  This group in turn spawned numerous groups that explored avant garde styles in ceramics, and by the 1950s had moved modern Japanese ceramics from the impetus of purely “works for use” to “works for contemplation.” Miyashita’s mature art evolved out of this fertile atmosphere in Japan of the 1950s.

While growing up, Miyashita decorated porcelain with his ceramicist father Miyashita Zenju. He later studied academic ceramic art, but in the early 1950s he was eventually drawn to the offshoots of the Nitten group that looked outside of Japan for modern trends in ceramics. He won 18 exhibitions with the group throughout the world. His mature style had evolved by the early 1970s when he began producing stoneware works of art in multi-colored layers. The artist used a colored clay (saidei) technique in which light-toned clay is colored with a variety of natural stains. Miyashita applies these extremely thin layers of clay in irregular bands to cover the surface of each vessel. Ranging in gradient tones from deep purple to faint pink or from dark blue to the palest green, these layers transform into distant hills, drifting clouds, or rolling waves.

A look at the interior of Miyashita’s vessels reveals the very thin layer strips that form the outer design. On the exterior of the vessel, each layer has a very slight, thin ridge, which adds a three-dimensional quality to the pattern. Miyashita’s designs are truly meant for contemplation, because I would hate to ruin a beautiful vase like this by sticking flowers and water in it! It’s sculpture!

Studio Activity:  A layered clay experience. Form equal-sized, thin square sheets (about 6” x 6”) of three different colored clays. Using a plastic knife (like one used on a picnic) or wooden clay carving tool, carefully cut into each layer, making sure not to disturb the layer below it, and create a design, either a landscape, seascape, or abstract design, in which all three colored clays are revealed. Either smooth the finished edges into each other, or leave a slight ridge to mark where one color begins and the other ends.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.studio 17-18; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, studio 35-36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: studio 29-30; A Community Connection: 2.6, 5.2; A Personal Journey: 3.4; The Visual Experience: 10.6

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Luxury Item

R.J. Horner and Company (1886–1915, New York), Desk (Secretary), 1890–1895. Wood, metals, Mother-of-pearl inlay, and brass mounts; 42 ¾” x 32” x 19 3/4" (108.6 x 81.3 x 50.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4456)

I don’t know about you, but when I write (a letter, or anything else), I like to spread my arms out on a table or drawing board. I guess I’m just not one for luxurious living. But this little drop-down desk totally fits the bill for a person of refinement to write a quick note or shopping list. My brother has one from the 1700s and I don’t see how he can even fit a sheet of paper on the writing surface! It’s fine for writing post cards though. The secretary was popularized starting in the mid-1700s and the form endured in popularity through the end of the 1800s. In the 1700s, the form was perfected by French cabinetmakers. When every past style under the sun was revived during the mid- to late 1800s, new life was breathed into it.

Robert Horner opened his first store on West 23rd Street in New York. Realizing that the burgeoning middle-class could not afford his “European novelties,” Horner advertised “first-class and medium quality furniture.” At the time he opened, his furniture was produced on site, using mahogany, oak, and other hardwoods. His artists decorated the furniture in all of the popular revival style carving motifs of the day, sometimes verging on being overly decorated. In 1891 Horner began to import European-produced revival styles while continuing to produce pieces in New York in the latest fashions. Major revival styles he featured in his showrooms were Louis XV, Louis XVI, Baroque, and Mannerism Revival.

Horner’s company survived the Financial Panic of 1893 (the worst financial downturn in the US up to that time), and thrived once again when the economy recovered. It was during the Panic that Horner admitted that new furniture, particularly his elaborately decorated works, was a “luxury” for Americans struggling to survive the financial downturn. However, he persevered serving both the upper and middle classes. Some of the “medium quality” forms he pioneered were partner (two-sided) desks, hall trees (hat/coat racks), and parlor sets (sofa and chairs). Horner’s was the first furniture store to establish a sales floor at the top of his building featuring complete interiors meant to give buyers design tips. This established a trend in furniture stores that survives to the present day.

This secretary is remarkable in its restrained decoration and carving. That said, I still couldn’t see this in a regular middle class home, although its restrained amount of decoration may have qualified it for Horner’s “medium quality” category. Although it could be lumped under the umbrella stylistic term of “Rococo” or “Colonial Revival” that encompassed everything from Baroque to Louis XVI, often in lurid combinations in one piece, the secretary is actually quite a nice imitation of the Queen Anne style (early 1700s, England and America). It is a copy of a design by Duncan Phyfe (1768–1854), who worked extensively in the Queen Anne style.

The ball-and-claw foot, cabriole leg with acanthus carving on the knee (yes, furniture parts are named after body parts), and the shell between the drawers are all part of Queen Anne decorative vocabulary. The original Queen Anne style was very restrained. The gallery rail along the top of this piece and mother-of-pearl inlay on the drop front are concessions to the 1800s abhorrence of a vacuum, i.e., decoration.
Horner’s company moved to 36th Street and Fifth Avenue to take advantage of the trend of people moving north in Manhattan. In 1915 Horner merged his company with George Flint’s to form Horner and Flint. This piece still bears the porcelain plaque on the back with Horner and Company’s name.

Studio activity: Design a luxury furniture item. Luxury means fancy; not necessary, but conducive to pleasure. Using a pencil, design a luxury chair. The elements of the chair, such as the legs, back, and seat need not be what makes it luxurious. Using color pencils or markers, decorate the chair in a fancy way that would make it difficult to relax while sitting on it. After drawing the decorations, make a contour line around all the shapes of decoration, and the basic chair itself, making sure not to draw any of the chair lines over the elements of decoration.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.34; studio 35—36; Explorations in Art Grade 4: studio 15—16; Discovering Art History: 2.2; The Visual Experience: 12.4

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hierarchical Size

Hierarchy is the level of importance allotted to an object, or, for the sake of this posting, a person. Hierarchical size deals with the principle of design known as proportion. Proportion has to do with the relationship of the size of one element of a work of art to another other. When one figure unnaturally dwarfs other figures in a work of art, it usually means that that person is more important than the others and is the center of attention, i.e. the subject matter.

Ancient Egypt, Block statue of Senwosret-senebefny and Itneferuseneb, ca. 1836–1759 bce. Quartzite, 26 7/8” x 16 3/8” x 18 1/8” (68.3 x 41.5 x 46 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4913)
Egyptian women, even those in the nobility, held little power in ancient Egypt. The power the did have was centered in the home: overseeing the household and managing the household budget. Although not always the case in Egyptian funerary sculpture, wives and members of the family of the deceased are minimized in importance. Block sculptures such as this one for Senwosret-senebefny, an official in the Twelfth Dynasty (1937–1759 bce), depict the deceased squatting on the ground covered in a cloak. The small figure is Itneferuseneb, most likely Senwosret-senebefny’s wife. Such funerary art was popular because there was a lot of surface to cover in hieroglyphics with praise for the deeds of the deceased.

Ancient Egypt, Family Group, mortuary statue, ca 2371–2298 bce. Limestone (probably painted originally), height: 29 1/8” (74 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-548)
This funerary commemorative portrait of a minor official, a little over two feet tall, has the minimized wife included, as well as the apple of the deceased’s eye, a male child. The pose of arms glued to the sides and one foot advancing is a convention in Egyptian sculpture that lasted through the period of Roman domination that ended in the first 500 years ce. Another convention seen through Egyptian history is the wife’s affectionate hand resting on her husband.

Pietro Lorenzetti (1280–1348, Italy), Madonna and Child with Friar Donor, 1320s. Tempera and gold leaf on wood panel, 49 9/16” (126 x 76 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-448)
Lorenzetti and his brother Ambrogio, who were from Siena, were instrumental in bringing Italian art into the beginnings of the Renaissance with their insistence on realism, monumentality, and plasticity. However, some older elements of Gothic art remain: the shallow, shrine like space, the use of gold leaf, and the miniature monk donor kneeling at the feet of the object of veneration, the Madonna and Child. During the Renaissance, donors such as this monk would have been depicted the same size as the religious figures. This was all part of the Renaissance emphasis on the individual and their accomplishments.

India, Zumurrud Shah Reaches the Foot of a Huge Mountain and is Joined by Ra’im and Yaqut, page from a dispersed “Hamzanama” (Book of Hamza), 1557–1572. Opaque watercolor and gold leaf on cotton cloth, 26 ¾” x 20” (68 x 51 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-646)
The Hamzanama was a recounting of the adventures of Amir Hamza. It is an Indo-Iranian tale much akin to the adventures of Odysseus in Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. This scene certainly rivals the Egyptian examples of minimization in the size of the followers of Zumurrud Shah, the central character in red tunic. Male figures are only slightly larger than female and child figures. Another interesting aspect of this illustration is space. Recession into the background is achieved with vertical perspective. In other words, various elements of the setting are piled one atop the other to achieve the illusion of depth. 

This work, done in a style derivative of the Spanish Baroque, was most likely executed by native artists. Spanish artists who migrated to the Spanish colonies in Central and South America taught native artists oil painting. Like-sized saints, as well as mini-donors accompany the Madonna and Child, the focus of veneration. The painting is interesting in that a wealthy native family who had converted to Christianity commissioned it. Compared to Spanish painting of the time in Europe, it has more of a folk-art aesthetic.

Edward Savage (1761–1817, US), The Savage Family, ca. 1779. Oil on canvas, 26” x 34 5/8” (66 x 88 cm). © Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-104)
The painter, Edward Savage, appears on the far left of this painting, and is practically the only figure represented in what approaches accurate body proportions. The rest of the family has huge heads on spindly little bodies. Although Savage studied painting under expatriate American painters in England, his early style reveals a self-taught quality, especially in the lack of understanding of anatomy and perspective (look at the floor tiles!). However, I still find this piece charming, especially the way the family members are arranged by height, drawing attention to the velvet-covered table in the center of the room (why?).

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2, Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, The Visual Experience: 8.9

Monday, October 6, 2014

Another American Original

Orson Fowler (1809–1887 US), Octagonal house, 1857. San Francisco, CA. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-25846)
I’m always eager to show you examples of true American artistic originality! One such form in architecture is the octagonal house. During a period in architecture that was completely dominated by revival of any style you want to think of from the past, including ancient Egyptian, the octagonal house was a true innovation. In my mind, it could be considered a forerunner of Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea about integrating the interior of a house with the exterior surroundings.

Octagon houses existed in the US before Orson Fowler came along, but they were few and far between. An outstanding example is Thomas Jefferson’s summer residence Poplar Forest near Lynchburg, VA. Also, there were many octagonal schoolhouses in Pennsylvania built between 1790 and 1840, many of which were converted to residences. Fowler, however, promoted the octagonal house into a national fad, started by his 1848 book “The Octagon House: A Home for All.”

Fowler’s background was in phrenology, the study of the shape of a human skull and its affect on the health of an individual. Although he never studied architecture, in keeping with his interest in the health of Americans, he promoted the style for its health benefits. Two design elements of the house made his point: the omnipresent cupola allowed more light into the house over the central stairs; and windows in eight directions encouraged the moving of air through the house. He also advocated for “modern” amenities such as dumbwaiters, speaking tubes, and indoor toilets.

Fowler truly believed that the octagonal house was an economic way to serve the needs of the middle class. In his book he gave tips on how to keep costs low. However, most octagonal houses were built of the finest hard woods, which, in today’s building market, would have been astronomically expensive. Fowler’s book, though, ignited a fad for octagonal houses across the country. Although the initial fad peaked between 1848 and 1885, octagonal houses continued to be popular for people who owned a bit of property, and to the present day because of the light from eight directions, and the greater interior space (when compared with rectangular or square designs).

Because octagonal houses peaked in popularity during the period of American architecture when every past style under the sun was applied to both domestic and public architecture, there is a wide variety of ornament on them. Some are truly plain but most of them share the common features of the cupola, which was an integral part of the Italianate Style (flourished 1840–1880). The San Francisco example comes complete with Italianate cupola, but has restrained Classical Revival elements scene in the pedimented porch, and decorative quoins. Quoins are the faux-brick decoration of the corners of the octagon (quoin means corner in French). Otherwise, it’s a simply elegant building.

Here are some further examples of octagonal houses.

Unknown architect, Octagonal house, ca. 1850–1860. Mechanicsville, NY. Photo © Davis Art Images (8S-25759)
This house has predominantly Italianate features, including the cupola, tall first floor windows with wrap around porch, rounded arch windows, and a prominently projecting eave. Unusual in this example is that each face of the octagon has it’s own peaked gable.

Unknown architect, Octagonal house, ca. 1850–1860. Saco, ME. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-25743)
This example is most likely what Fowler had in mind when he held up the octagonal house as an inexpensive home for everyone. This house has the unfortunate later addition of a porch in back.

Unknown architect, Octagonal house, ca. 1850–1860. Winchester, VA. Photo © Davis Art Images (8S-25765)
Visible in this example are the cupola and bracketed, overhanging eave of the Italianate style. The gingerbread jigsaw ornament of the porch may be a later addition, influenced by the Eastlake Style that flourished 1870–1890.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.19; The Visual Experience 11.5