Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Rookwood, A National Treasure

Rookwood Factory (1880–1967, Cincinnati), Clara Newton (decorator, 1848–1936), Pitcher, 1882. Glazed earthenware, 6 1/2" x 3 3/4" x 2 1/8" (16.5 x 9.5 x 5.4 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5273)
I’m a really big fan of American “art pottery, so you can just imagine me doing a little jig of joy in my office when we recently acquired this gorgeous pitcher from the Brooklyn Museum! If I could fit a kiln into my living room and a potters wheel I’d give up painting, because the decoration of this pitcher looks totally Impressionistic / Expressionistic.

I TOTALLY love Rookwood, because, not only did I once have lunch in the kiln (Rookwood factory is now a restaurant) with my godmother in Cincinnati, but because so many of their works have a painterly quality in their decoration (guess why I like that). Also, in the Fisher Mansion in Indianapolis, every room has a Rookwood fireplace mantle and surround! Gorgeous!

The art pottery movement in America began in the 1870s. It is suggested that the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 exposed American ceramic artists to Arts and Crafts movement ceramics from England. Many artists who later worked for art pottery kilns were inspired by the Philadelphia exhibition. Scholars define American art pottery as a type of ware made from the 1870s to the 1920s. 

Starting in the 1880s, pottery painting had become very popular among American women. It was considered a "refined" occupation for women to undertake. This was due to the fact that the art form could be executed in the home. The popularity of pottery painting among American women spread quickly and pottery societies were formed under women’s leadership all over the country. They soon changed from simply painting pottery to modeling, firing and glazing ceramics. Ironically, an art vocation meant to keep women in the home actually led to hundreds of women working in pottery factories throughout the US.

Maria Longworth Nichols founded the Rookwood Pottery manufactory after visiting the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. She was an enthusiast for decorating ceramics. In Philadelphia she was impressed by the Arts and Crafts style coming out of England, and also of the understated elegance of Japanese ceramics. The common perception at the time was that American ceramics were inferior to European and Asian works. Nichols sought to change that when she established Rookwood, believing that quality ceramics could emerge from an environment filled with talent, ideas and inspiration, regardless of gender. She became the first woman head of a manufacturing company in the US.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on Clara Newton, but apparently she was an artist at Rookwood in the early days. Her decoration of this pitcher soooooo anticipates designs in Art Nouveau art works! Additionally, I wonder if her painterly background was influenced by the recently-introduced-in-America painting style of Impressionism?

Here are some other beautiful works from Rookwood. Shirayamadani was an immigrant from Japan and I find his pieces absolutely stunning. 

Ewer, 1884. Glazed earthenware, height: 11 3/8" (28.9 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-754A)
Kataro Shirayamadani (decorator, born Japan, 1865–1948)  Vase, 1900. Glazed, painted earthenware, height: 17 3/8" (44 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2274)
Edward Timothy Hurley (decorator, 1869–1950), Vase, ca. 1912. “Vellum” glazed stoneware, 9 1/4" x 4" (23.5 x 10.2 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6712)

Correlations to Davis Programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, 6.35-36 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.23-24 studio; A Community Connection: 2.6, 5.2; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; Experience Clay: 4, 5; Exploring Visual Design: 11; The Visual Experience: 10.6, 12.4, 16.5; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

National Monkey Day

I always admit I’m never too old to learn. This week I learned about National/International Monkey Day, which fell on the 14th of December. The commemorative day has only been around since 2000, dreamt up by two Michigan State University art students who subsequently promoted it in their artwork. Since then it has been internationally “celebrated,” the major emphasis being on preservation of primates and their natural habitats. There is monkeyday.com that promotes the holiday and all sorts of primate news, and interestingly, a group named Primates Incorporated that guarantees the welfare of monkeys who leave research labs, private ownership, and the entertainment industry!

This monkey business leads to yet another interesting art historical character, a guy known as the “Professor of Toys”: Shimizu Seifu (18511913) (you can see more of his work in my recent Noble Carp post). Shimizu’s work probably falls on the “Nihon-ga” side of the late 1800s battle in Japan between Western style (“yo-ga”) and Nihon-ga (Japanese style) art. Nihon-ga artists were trying to preserve traditional Japanese art forms and subject matter in the onslaught of Western influences that flooded Japan after it was forced open to Western trade by the US in the 1850s. 

Shimizu Seifu (1851–1913, Japan), Monkey toys, from the series of volumes A Child’s Friends, 1891–1923. Color woodcut on paper, 8" x 5 1/2" (20.3 x 14 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3638)
One of the interesting aspects of the Nihon-ga/yo-ga dichotomy in late 1800s Japanese art is that it provided a springboard for a lukewarm revival of the admiration for woodblock prints. The Ukiyo-e style really flagged in popularity during the 1880s and 1890s. Artists around the turn of the century did a semi-revival of the art form and it was the impetus for a revival of not only woodblock printing but also of traditional subjects such as theater prints, beautiful women prints, and prints chronicling traditional Japanese folk arts, such as toys.

Shimizu founded the “Hobbyhorse Club” in 1880 or 1887, which was dedicated to aficionados of traditional Japanese toys. He was a wealthy businessman, artist, calligrapher, and the leading collector of folk art toys during his lifetime. He studied painting and printmaking under Hiroshige III (Sadaime Hiroshige Utagawa, 1842/1843–1894), a pupil of the great landscape master Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858). His large personal collection of folk toys was the inspiration for his publication of the series of ten volumes of woodblock prints, documenting his collection. The Child’s Friend (Unai no tomo) was one of the most comprehensive publications of an ethnographic nature in the history of Japanese art. I think that these prints of monkey toys represent the Japanese macaque, sometimes called the “snow monkey,” with its distinctive red face.

Shimizu Seifu (1851–1913, Japan), Monkey riding a bull toy, from the series of volumes A Child’s Friends, 1891–1923. Color woodcut on paper, 8" x 5 9/16" (20.3 x 14.3 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3646)

Shimizu Seifu (1851–1913, Japan), Monkey and ox toys, from the series of volumes A Child’s Friends, 1891–1923. Color woodcut on paper, 8" x 5 9/16" (20.3 x 14.3 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3725)
In 1906 Shimizu organized the first exhibition ever of traditional Japanese toys, many of them hand- made from common materials, and many from his personal collection. He published the first six volumes of Unai no tomo, and the remaining four were published by the painter Nishizawa Tekiho (1889–1965).

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.22, 4.Connections; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.12; A Community Connection: 8.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.5; Experience Printmaking: 4; The Visual Experience: 3.5, 9.4, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 4.4

Monday, December 7, 2015

Endlessly Engaging (Ancient) Egypt

Naturally occurring pattern always fascinates me, especially when there’s a good art history story behind it. I present you with three ancient Egyptian vessels, all with different, random patterns, and all in different materials. I’m totally in love this week with the first dish of mosaic glass. 

Ancient Egypt, Dish, ca. 1390–1353 BCE. Mosaic glass, width: 4 1/8" (10.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5261)
In Egypt, the first known glass as a component of faience ware, dates from as far back as the Neolithic Badarian culture at the turn of the 4000s and 3000s BCE. The first true glass ware, dating to the 1400s BCE, were actually this type of mosaic glass. Mosaic glass ware is made by fusing pieces of different colored glass. Egyptian vessels were produced by placing pieces of glass of various colors softened by heat—often the remains of broken vessels in the workshop—around a core of sand and cow dung. After glass blowing later became a common way to make glass during the first 100 years BCE along the Syro-Palestinian coast, mosaic glass was made by decorating the surface of hot, blown glass with chips of colored glass and then reheating it and reblowing it.  

Ancient Egypt, Jar, ca. 3600-3100 BCE. Breccia, 5 1/2" x 7 5/16" (14 x 18.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum (BMA-3470)
This vessel dates from the Badarian period. What is to thought-provoking about it is the perfection of form, and the aesthetic considerations for how the random fragments of rock complement the shape. I will admit that I did not know what breccia was before cataloging this vessel. I filed it under “Sculpture” as the art form because it does not really meet the criteria of “Ceramics.” Breccia is rock composed of sharp angled fragments embedded in a fine-grained matrix of sand or soil that has formed over time from erosion, impact, or volcanic activity. 

Ancient Egypt, Funerary vessel of the Priest Amon Neferher, from Thebes, ca. 1479–1279 BCE. Painted ceramic, height: 8 1/4" (21 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5234)
“Keeping up with the Joneses” is obviously not an American invention from the 1950s. Appearances of status obviously mattered even in ancient Egypt. From the earliest period, Egyptians created funerary vessels from both ceramic and hard stones such as limestone, granite, alabaster, and marble. Stone vessels were obviously more durable and preferred by the Egyptians who were filling their tombs with offerings to last an eternity in the afterlife. Carved rather than thrown vessels were more expensive. Even though priests were held in high regard in Egyptian culture, they were obviously not wealthy like the members of the pharaoh’s court. Although this priest Neferher could not afford stone vessels for his burial, he wanted to give the illusion that he was well-off by having the vessels painted to resemble stone.

Correlations to Davis Programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, 3.Studio35-36; A Community Connection: 2.6, 5.2; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Global Pursuit: 1.4; Beginning Sculpture: 5; Experience Clay: 4, 5; Exploring Visual Design: 11; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 10.9, 10.6, 15.3; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 5.3

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Noble Carp?

It probably doesn’t occur to most people to view a fish as a symbol of heroic qualities, unless maybe it’s a whale or a shark. In Japan, the carp (“koi” in Japanese) is a symbol of courage, persistence, success, and strength of character. These traits have been accrued over the centuries, based partly on the fish’s ability to swim upriver (like salmon in the Western hemisphere) and up waterfalls in order to mate. This bravery has been likened to that of the samurai. I find it fascinating that such a simple life form could inspire such noble symbolism. 

Keisai Eisen (1790–1848), Carp, 1830. Color woodcut on paper, 28 3/8" x 9 13/16" (72 x 25 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (MFH-368)
Late Edo period Ukiyo-e artist Keisai Eisen is primarily known for his landscapes and nature scenes in woodcut print format. His prints of beautiful women (bijin-ga) are among the most baroque of the late stage of the “first Ukiyo-e” period. He also did numerous depictions of carp. The carp jumping the waterfall to get to its mating place is part of a Chinese legend (“liyutiaolongmen”) in which few carp are brave enough to make the final leap up a certain waterfall after swimming upriver. Those who are able to leap over the mythical “dragon gate” at the top of the falls are transformed into dragons. I guess this covers the traits of persistence and success in achieving goals. 

Kanō Tanshin Morimasa (1653–1718), Carp Ascending a Waterfall, 1668. Ink and color on silk hanging scroll, 39 7/16" x 16 1/8" (100.2 x 41 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-788)
Morimasa was the son of Kanō Tanyu. The conservative Kanō School was a group of painters who preferred the Chinese style of painting and traditional subject matter of nature and landscapes, compared to the genre scenes and entertainment figures of the Ukiyo-e artists. They were the preferred artists of the nobility and the shoguns’ court. Here Morimasa depicts the timeless subject of the brave carp leaping up the waterfall. Sometimes these depictions are almost anthropomorphic as the fish are depicted with fins flailing, eyes bulging and mouth open as if gasping for air. 

Ohara Koson (1878–1945), Carp and Wisteria. Ink and color on silk, 15 15/16" x 6 9/16" (40.5 x 16.7 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1041)
After being forcibly opened to the West in the 1850s, Japanese art took two avenues, artists who were influenced by and sometimes adapted Western painting (“yoga” or Western pictures) and artists who insisted on maintaining Japanese traditions in art, “Nihonga” or Japanese pictures. Koson is one of those artists who combined both strains. He has painted a traditional theme with a Western-style realism and a logical suggestion of depth. Here two carp are linked with wisteria, a flower that blooms in the late spring. As such the wisteria is a symbol of fertility. Carp are also symbols of abundance because they produce so many eggs. Two carp together symbolize a happy marriage. 

Shimizu Seifu (1851–1913), Carp Toy on Wheels, from a ten volume series A Child’s Friends,” published 1891–1923. Color woodcut on paper, 8" x 5 5/8" (20.3 x 14.3 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3681)
Even Japanese toys celebrate the noble carp. 

Ohara Shoson (1875–1949), Carp Beneath Wisteria, ca. 1935. Color woodcut on paper, 14 ¾" x 10 5/8" (37.5 x 27 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2641)
I included a second Ohara school artist because this is just such a beeeeautiful print. It never fails to impress me the nuances that the woodblock printers achieve with color, and the fidelity of registration within the lines! The carp is not only thought to be brave like a samurai in its persistence in swimming against the current, but also when caught, it is said that the carp lies still under the knife, much like the samurai facing a sword. 

China, Wine jar with carp and aquatic plant motif, 1300s. Porcelain with underglaze blue cobalt decoration, 11 15/16" x 13 3/4" (30.3 x 34.9 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4947)
In China, the carp is called “li” pronounced the same as the character for “profit,” and the character for “strength” or “power.” The “Dragon’s Gate” myth about the carp originated in relation to a large waterfall on the Yellow River.

Correlations to Davis Programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.14; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 5.25, 5.25-26 studio, 6.35-36 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.20, 4.21-22 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.22, 4.21-22 studio, 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.12; A Community Connection: 6.2, 8.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.5; Experience Clay: 4, 5; Experience Printmaking: 3, 4; Experience Painting: 4; The Visual Experience: 3.5, 9.3, 9.4, 13.4, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.3, 4.4

Afterthoughts About Being Thankful

Lewis Wickes Hine (1874–1940, US), Tipple Boys and Drivers, Maryland Coal Company mine near Sand Lick, Grafton, West Virginia, 1908. Gelatin silver print, 4 3/8" x 6 1/4" (11 x 16 cm). © Davis Art Images. (8S-20644)

Now that we’re done saying how grateful we are for all the food with which we stuffed ourselves on Thanksgiving, and for our iPhones, and the gift of being able to drive one person per car to work every day…etc., I’d like to reflect on something we should really be thankful for: that we didn’t have a childhood that was more like a hard-working adulthood. And these boys didn’t get to drive to work listening to the car radio or an MP3 player. Lewis Hine was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century in my mind, because his art opened up people’s eyes to the massive abuse in child labor.

Aside from the mid-1800s documentation of the Civil War (1860–1865), and some early documentation of squalor in American cities in the late 1800s, Lewis Hine was one of the first photographers to explore the idea of “documentary photography.” Perhaps because Hine, born in Oskosh, WI, lost his father at an early age, he developed an early empathy for people who experienced loss or hardship. At any rate, he studied sociology in college.

After graduating from Columbia University in 1903, Hine began teaching botany and nature studies at the Ethical Culture School in New York. The school trained people to help serve the less fortunate and improve their lot in life through public service. In 1905 Hine’s boss gave him a camera as a teaching aid and to record school activities. His interest in social reform led almost immediately to his first documentary series in the same year. He set out to document the uncaring treatment of immigrants on Ellis Island. Those photographs were first published in 1908 in Charities and the Commons.

In 1908 Hine quit teaching to become a photographer and investigator for the National Child Labor Committee. He felt that photography as social documentation was light that was required to illuminate the dark places of social existence. Between 1908 and 1916 he traveled widely, documenting child labor abuses. Hine called his photographs “photointerpretations,” because he felt that they were interpretive. Later scholars, however, consider them documentary.

Between 1910 and 1912 Hine’s photographs featured the young boys (called “breaker boys”), usually between 8 and 12 years old, who worked in the coal mines of Pittston, PA. They worked—typically 13 days on and 1 off for $5 a week—breaking mined coal into relatively uniform sized pieces by hand and separating out impurities such as rock, slate, sulphur, clay and soil. Breaker Boys often worked 14 to 16 hours a day.

I wonder what they were thankful for on Thanksgiving? Or did they work on Thanksgiving? And, darn it, they couldn’t even listen to their MP3 player to break up the drudgery of their work day like so many of us do in offices.

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Community Connection: 6.4, 7.2, 7.3; Focus on Photography: 3, 5, 7; The Visual Experience: 9.5, 16.6

Friday, November 20, 2015

More Wearable Art

You may remember that I introduced you to the fiber art of Korean Jeung Hwa-Park, whose work is fabulous, back in 2009. Now I’ve discovered this wonderful Japanese artist who bowls me over by the beauty of her textile designs just the same! Reiko Sudo is my favorite artist of the week. The complexity of her aesthetic vision, design, and production processes is truly inspiring. As I’ve said before (I think I did), if I wasn’t a painter I’d want to be a ceramic artist, and if I wasn’t a ceramic artist, I would want to design and make fabulous textiles.

Reiko Sudo (born 1953, Japan), Jelly-Fish Fabric, ca. 1994. Polyester, 20'9" (overall) x 2'8" (637.5 overall x 86.4 cm). Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Work © 2015 Reiko Sudo. (MOMA-D0609) 
Like many of Sudo’s fabrics of polyester, the Jelly-Fish pattern textiles relies on the technique of scrunching and binding with thread. The fabric is dyed and then the folds are heat-set.

Reiko Sudo just does the neatest things with fabric. Sudo originally wanted to become a designer of kimonos, but failed the entrance exam. She went on to study textile design at Musashino Art University. In 1984 she and Jun’ichi Arai (born 1932) started NUNO Corporation, a company that produces textiles with an emphasis on unusual combinations of materials and techniques. The company was founded in order to produce textiles with traditional Japanese aesthetics in an eco-friendly manner. In 1987 she took over full leadership of the NUNO design team.

Sudo’s designs combine technology/industry and artistry. She gains influence for the development of new techniques from articles on Japanese industrial development. The preferred materials at NUNO are silk, polyester, cotton, nylon tape, and hand-made paper. One of Sudo’s earliest personal experiments in novel materials was the manipulation of plastic. In an effort to reduce the company’s ecological footprint, NUNO always uses leftover scraps of materials in unusual combinations. Technologies used by NUNO adapted from Japan’s traditional “crafts” culture include salt shrinking, mud-dyeing, rust-dyeing, caustic burning, fatiguing by hand, chemicals or machine, and graffiti decoration.

NUNO means “cloth” in Japanese. The materials produced by Sudo and NUNO are not mass-produced, but combine hand-manipulation with industrial milling that keeps costs low. The fabrics can serve a variety of uses, from clothing to interior design. 

Mica Fabric, ca. 1994–1995. Polyester, 19’'7" (overall x 2'9" (600.1 overall x 83.8 cm). Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Work © 2015 Reiko Sudo. (MOMA-D0617)
Sudo designed the Mica pattern in 1995. The semi-transparent and plain-woven polyster is wrapped into a tight ball. Heat-setting the materials results in randomly pleated surface. This is a perfect example of the combination of industrial woven fabric manipulated by hand. 

Origami Pleats Scarf, 1997. Polyester, 17 1/4" x 59" (43.8 x 149.9 cm). Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Work © 2015 Reiko Sudo. (MOMA-D1251)

The Origami Pleats textiles technique was developed by Mizue Okada. 100 percent polyester organza was folded repeatedly at sharp angles and then permanently heat-pressed. Color was added to suggest depth. 

Kinugasa Mushroom, 2007. Cotton and rayon, 130'4" overall x 3'3" (614.7 overall x 101.6 cm). Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Work © 2015 Reiko Sudo. (MOMA-D1317)
This lacy, web-like fabric imitates the lacy veil on the Japanese kinugasa mushroom. It is made with a special steering wheel embroidery machine, where most functions are controlled by the feet allowing the operator to manipulate the needle to produce the repeated circular perforations. 

Baby Hairs, 2007. Cotton and saran (strontium aluminate-impregnated nylon), 20'9" overall x 2'8" (632.5 overall x 86 cm). Photo © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Work © 2015 Reiko Sudo. (MOMA-D1315)
I’m not sure how this material is produced. The saran has a phosphorescent quality that can be seen in close-up.

To see more fabulous fabrics designed by Reiko Sudo and NUNO, visit their website: www.nuno.com. They have nice close-up views of some of their textiles.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.31; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.10; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.23-24; A Community Connection: 5.2; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Global Pursuit: 7.5; Exploring Visual Design: 6, 11; The Visual Experience: 10.8, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.4

Friday, November 13, 2015

Utilitarian Object or Sculpture?

First of all, let me clarify the use of “utilitarian” or “decorative arts.” These are unfortunately terms art historians are stuck with from the 1800s art history gods in Western Europe. I personally look at a beautifully presented meal as the work of an artist, so, let’s go from there. Anyway, sometimes, when entering new images into our digital collection, I really have to stop and think about how to categorize an object. Last week’s blog that showed furniture in which the sculptural element almost overruled the utilitarian aspect of the piece got me thinking (oh-oh). Now, I wouldn’t normally consider, say, a vacuum cleaner fine art. It seems, though, in the 21st century, that designers of utilitarian objects have that in mind for a whole variety of products. And then, when one thinks about it (oh-oh), one realizes that this has always been the impulse of designers/artists! Here are some examples I picked to give you a moment to mull over my question: Is it utilitarian or sculpture, or both?

Ancient Egypt, Head of the Coffin of Horankh, ca. 700 BCE. Gessoed and painted wood, with obsidian, calcite and bronze inlay, near life-sized.  © Dallas Museum of Art. (DMA-59A)
Nearly all of the arts in ancient Egypt had some relation to their religion and their belief in the afterlife being a continuation of earthly life. To that end, their tombs were filled with objects that contained likenesses of themselves, many meant to capture the ka after it left the mummified body if it got temporarily lost on its way to the afterlife. Before the Ptolemaic period, it was customary for wealthy Egyptians to have elaborate carved, painted, and inlaid coffins. Yes, a coffin is a utilitarian object, I guess (though you only use it once), but, I don’t have the “coffin” category of decorative arts. So, this beautifully carved and painted, idealized coffin lid goes under “sculpture.”

Ancient Peru, Moche Culture, Effigy vessel, 400-600 CE. Painted earthenware, 12 15/16" x 8 1/4" x 7" (33 x 21 x 18 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (MFH-628)
While the Moche culture of Peru also believed in an afterlife as a richer version of earthly life, the purpose of the many types of effigy vessels (animal, deity, human head) is still not clear to scholars. Many have been found in burials, and it is thought that is because they were considered objects of status. This is perhaps borne out by the fact that equally large numbers of effigy vessels have been excavated from family compounds. I know it is thought that these vessels were mold made, but, I saw dozens of these portrait jars in April in an exhibition on the Moche, and there were no two alike. Some of them are compellingly realistic, even down to showing faces that had been disfigured by the sandfly-borne, flesh-eating disease leishmaniasis. I categorize these as “ceramics,” but in my mind this genre of object is sculpture!

France, Potpourri Vase, ca. 1890, copy of 1757 original from Sèvres Porcelain Factory. Hard-paste porcelain, enamel painted and gilt, 15" x 14 1/4" x 9" (38.1 x 36.2 x 22.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1120)
Why would anyone copy an example of overly decorated froufrou from the Rococo period (ca. 1700-1730s)? It just conjures up images of conspicuous consumption, noblesse oblige, and, dare I say it, a lack of taste? But, the Rococo Revival was big from the mid-1800s to the 1890s, so here we have this gem. It’s ironic that a style that really only flourished after the death of Louix XIV (1715) to around the time of the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii (1748) was so lavishly revived in the mid-1800s! I appreciate the use of this genre of vase, a step up from the bowl of potpourri on a coffee table. But subtlety is not the hallmark of the Rococo style. I stuck this in because so many Rococo objects were so over the top in three-dimensional form (arabesques, volutes, etc) that they could easily stand on the mantle as an odd knick knack that needs constant dusting. That said, I still categorize this as “ceramic.”  

Baule People, Ivory Coast, Leopard Stool (royal seat), from Toumodi, 1900s. Painted wood, 17 11/16" x 8 5/8" x 33" (45 x 22 x 84 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2721)
The leopard is a symbol of ruling status throughout the arts of sub-Saharan African cultures. I know that royal seats such as this were reserved for one person, and it wasn’t exactly a chair in the living room to sit on and watch TV. However, did you ever look at a piece of furniture and think it’s just too beautiful to be actually used? Additionally, considering the reserved purpose of this seat, we can see why such special attention is paid to its form. The jaguar with prey in its mouth is an obvious symbol of the ruler’s power over detractors. On top of the leopard is an akan stool that is typical status symbol of rulers of the Asante of neighboring Ghana. The combination of these two symbols is powerful, so, even though I do catalog this as “furniture” (only because of its title), once again, in my mind I’m thinking “sculpture!”

Iatmul People, Papua New Guinea, Suspension Hook, from Sepik River area, Village of Aibom, 1900s. Wood, fiber, shell and pigment, 35 15/16" x 10 15/16" x 6" (91.44 x 27.9 x 15.2 cm). © MFA, Boston. (MFAB-738)

In many Oceanic cultures, sculpture, painting, or carving adorns almost every object of everyday and ritual life. By decorating all objects in their lives, the people of these cultures believe that they can bring the world of the spirits into active participation in everyday life. Like many of the other peoples of the Sepik River region, the Iatmul carve (often elaborate) basket hooks, also called suspension hooks. Figurative hooks suspended from the rafters of ordinary dwellings and lavishly decorated men's cult houses have multiple purposes and meanings. Ordinarily, they were used to hang bags and vessels of food out of reach of dogs, children, etc. More elaborate examples, such as this impressive piece, had religious significance and served to suspend skull trophies. The human forms on the upright shanks may represent ancestors and refer to family and clan myths, assuring the welfare of their community. Since I don’t have a “hook” designation in my database, I’m calling this “sculpture!” It’s also a nice example of the painting style.

Alexander Calder (1898–1976, US), Comb,  before 1943. Hammered brass, 6 1/2" x 3 13/16" x 3/4" (16.5 x 9.8 x 1.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0771caars)
Everyone knows that Calder was a pioneer of kinetic sculpture in his mobiles and stabiles. Many probably also know that he also designed ceramic tile murals, tapestries, carpets, and explored painting. And I’m pretty sure not everyone knows that he designed jewelry as well. If I still had long hair, I’d love to wear this exquisite comb. It’s so modern, timeless, and yet it puts one in mind of the ancient Aegean cultures. I do catalog this as “jewelry,” but it sure makes a beautiful little sculptural form. 

Philippe Starck (born 1949, France), Walter Wayle Wall Clock, 1989. Thermoplastic resin, 10" x 10" x 2" (25.4 x 25.4 x 5.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Philippe Starck. (MOMA-D0592)

I’m not sure how many wonderful historical sources Starck has used in his many fabulous designs. All I know is that sitting at the bar in the Royalton Hotel in New York is like being in a cross between a 1930s film-noir and the bar scene from a Star Wars movie. His designs for everyday objects are so spectacular and inventive, it’s hard to decide which genre I like the best, though, I must say, this clock design is right up at the top of my list. I like Starck’s designs for home objects because he really brings a sculptural aesthetic into utilitarian design. This clock is such an interesting idea. For one thing I like the flipper hands, and the free-form lack of face or numbers flies in the face of the conventional idea of a clock being some strict regulating instrument. If I didn’t know it was a clock, I might think “sculpture” in the spirit of the biomorphic forms of Jean Arp (1886–1966). 

Okayama Sinya (born 1941, Japan), Kotobuki Shelves, 1989. Lacquered wood, 74 3/8" x 35 3/8" x 15 3/4" (189 x 90 x 40 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2015 Okayama Sinya. (PMA-2659)
Okayama is one of the pioneers of postmodern aesthetic in Japanese design, starting in the late 1970s. After working in the design department of a department store chain, he produced the first furniture and lighting fixtures under his own name in 1981. Many of Okayama’s designs suggest the object, object type, or word for which they are named. Other objects relate directly to their names, such as this shelving unit that is designed in the shape of the Japanese ideogram for the word “longevity” or “congratulations.” I’ve included the Kanji or the word, and I can totally see how the shelves relate to it. As much as I would love to consider this unique concept “sculpture,” I’m afraid I’ve cataloged it as “furniture.”

Paul Cocksedge (born 1978, Britain), Pole Light, 2008. Acrylic, LEDs, and concrete base, 68 13/16" x 7 7/8" (174.9 x 20 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Paul Cocksedge. (MOMA-D1212)

This has to be one of my “favorite new things.” I could just see this lamp in so many places in an apartment (well, maybe not on my drawing board or over my easel). It’s so elegant and yet apparently functional, although I’m not sure how bright the light gets. Even if it is a soft glow, this would be a really neat lighted sculpture to have in a dark room. According to their website, “The Paul Cocksedge Studio, founded in 2004 in London, is a design studio that emphasizes innovative design supported by research into the limits of technology, materials and manufacturing processes.” I think it’s really interesting that they design everyday objects with a long side eye to what must be a conventional wisdom about lamp design, in favor of an aesthetic.

Correlations to Davis Programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.35-36 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, 6.35-36 studio, 6.Connections; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.23-24 studio; A Community Connection: 5.2, 2.6; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Global Pursuit: 5.6; The Visual Experience: 10.6, 12.4; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Friday, November 6, 2015

Revival Curiosities

I once was a teaching assistant in a furniture history course in grad school, and have subsequently loved historic furniture and design. One of the mantras we chanted about the history of furniture was that, theoretically, furniture evolves around the human body and the way people are living at the time. I could cite numerous periods in furniture history where I question just how certain styles fit into this idea, but, I’m pretty certain the 1800s saw some of the most over-the-top furniture styles that not only defy practicality, but, well, you’ll see in the following examples. Keyword for the 1800s: REVIVAL STYLES 

Daniel Pabst (1826–1910, US, born Germany), Side chair, ca. 1880. Ebonized cherry and silk (newer) upholstery, 37 1/8" x 21 3/4" x 19" (94.3 x 55.2 x 48.3 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5400)
As you know, a key stylistic trend in architecture and decorative arts during the 1800s in Europe and the US—I don’t call it the “Victorian” period because she was only queen in Britain—was the “revival” of past styles going all the way back to ancient Egyptian. In America, the multitude of revival styles appealed to patrons because it afforded them the belief that they were just as cultured as their European counterparts. What better way to show it off than by having a room full of knock-offs from different periods of the past?

Daniel Pabst was a master cabinetmaker from Germany who hit it big in Philadelphia after immigrating there in 1849. He established a thriving furniture business there, and did much collaboration with the brilliant architect, interior designer, and furniture designer Frank Furness (1839–1912). Furness’s architecture is renowned for its quirky combination of different period styles, and the unusual grouping of forms in the over 600 buildings he designed.

Similarly, Pabst had unique interpretations of historical periods. This chair, for example is variously dubbed Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival, or Renaissance Revival. Honestly, I can’t really see any of those periods in this, but maybe closest to Gothic with the pointed “tracery” carving. The ninety-degree angle of the seat and what little back there is doesn’t seem like it would be comfortable, nor does the scroll-like chair rail on the top of the back. And really, I don’t know what influenced the feet. Is that Pabst’s version of a Gothic ball-and-claw foot? 

Alexander Roux (1813–1898, US, born France), Side board, ca. 1855. Black walnut, 49” x 49" x 24" (124.5 x124.5 x 61 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5381)
While I’ll admit that there are many period styles that I feel should never have been touched by 1800s furniture designers, Mannerism Revival is probably the most appalling (with Palladian Revival a really close second). These two styles branched off from the Baroque Revival style, both of which revived the “grandeur” of the 1600s. What the Mannerism and Palladian strains of the Baroque Revival achieved was to make the word “overblown” seem mild to the grotesque decoration favored in this furniture.

Alexander Roux was not even in France during the Second Empire (1852–1872, the reign of Napoleon III 1808–1873), but he sure dug into the Baroque Revival style when it hit the US. He immigrated to the US in the 1830s and opened a studio in New York by 1837. He was a master cabinetmaker, and by the 1850s was employing 120 people and exploiting new industrial techniques for making furniture, such as steam-powered saws. What is amazing about this piece is the amount of actual carving. The sculpture of this sideboard is more compelling visually than the piece’s intended use.

While Roux supposedly specialized in Rococo Revival—which was BIG in the 1850s and 1860s—this side board just doesn’t look anything like Rococo to me. Like many of the revival styles, designers chose bits and pieces of past styles, often mixing periods in one piece. It has all the exuberant decoration of the Baroque substyles. I really don’t know how comfortable I’d be eating in a dining room with those two dogs staring at me, or the dead hare hanging from the carved headboard. The bust of the rabbit between the two hunting dogs is a nice touch, though. 

British, Three-way chair / sofa, ca. 1850. Wood, fabric, metal, 25" x 50 15/16" x 50 15/16" (63.5 x 129.5 x 129.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5267)
For those of you who remember it, the Addams Family TV show from the 1960s featured one of these curly-cue chair/sofas. This type of furniture would not fit in just any apartment. Such pieces were meant for the halls of museums, reception rooms in large houses, and conservatories. I’ve heard such a piece called a “peekaboo chair,” the idea being that romantic conversation can be carried on discreetly with railings between the individuals. While the piece has elegant curves and is padded everywhere—a big feature of 1800s furniture, the more the better—it is not really a practical piece except in a public space, or for wealthy people with a big house who have lots of parties. It certainly would not be practical in a man cave.

This piece is executed in a more tasteful rendition of the Rococo Revival style than the Roux piece, although the only Rococo elements I can discern are the cabriole legs terminating in the arms. An interesting feature of this piece is how low to the ground it is. Many chairs and sofas of the 1850s and 1860s were built low, and often without arms to accommodate the skirts of women at the time which featured massive hoops and petticoats underneath (the crinoline). With short legs on the furniture, a woman could sit discreetly without the hoop tipping up to reveal her ankles (they were considered naughty at the time). 

Warren E. Thomas (1808–?, US, designer), Centripetal Spring Chair, ca. 1849–1858. Cast-iron, wood, modern upholstery, original tassle fringe, 34 1/4" x 23 1/2" x 28 1/4" (87 x 59.7 x 71.8 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3500)
The Rococo Revival style had many uses, including zesting up office furniture. Believe it or not, this is often considered the forerunner of the modern office chair. “Centripetal” is the opposite of centrifugal, and I don’t really understand how that applies to this chair. It has an interesting parallel to architecture in that the frame is cast iron, a material that, at the same time, was being used in building construction, sometimes whole facades. The industrial design of the chair was downplayed by the froufrou Rococo overstuffed upholstery and the tasseled trimming (“passementerie”) along the seat that hid the C-springs that allowed tilting in four directions.

The Centripetal Office Chair was designed by an inventor and manufactured by the American Chair Company of Troy, NY. The chair was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace (another cast iron masterpiece of building) in 1851. However, the chair never really took off outside the US. It was considered too luxurious for office workers. The chair had all the features of modern office chairs excepting an adjustable back. It swivels in four directions, rotates 360 degrees, and has casters for easy movement.  

Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893, Britain, designer), Sussex Corner Chair, ca. 1865. Ebonized oak and rush, 27 3/4" x 22" x 22" (70.5 x 55.9 x 55.9 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-D0426)
In many ways, furniture revival styles were often a reaction to mass-production and the industrialization of furniture production. The most aggressive reaction to mass-production was the Arts and Crafts Movement that grew in Britain in the mid-1800s. It was spearheaded by a group of artists who had a romantic vision of the Middle Ages, and a romantic notion about living surrounded by hand-crafted furniture.  Some of the artists associated with this movement were painters who had formed a group in 1848 called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, believing that the greatest period in painting was the Renaissance before the High Renaissance.

Ford Madox Brown was a member of the Pre-Raphaelites, and a co-founder of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company in 1861, the beginning of William Morris and Company. Morris and Company spearheaded the Arts and Crafts Movement in designing furniture, stained glass, wallpaper, and tapestries in the Medieval taste. Brown designed stained glass and furniture. He is credited with “discovering” a “simple country chair” in Sussex that became the basis of his designing furniture for Morris’s company. For the Medieval lovers, the Sussex chair summed up the simplicity and utilitarian nature of Medieval furniture, even though the only furniture most people had in the Middle Ages were chests or benches. Madox Brown is said to have designed eight variations on the Sussex chair.

Sussex furniture was valued for being light and moveable. I can see the corner chair being convenient in a crowded ballroom, but I’m not sure how I would sit in it to read a book or watch TV? 

François-Rupert Carabin (1862–1921 France), Bookcase, ca. 1889–1890. Walnut and iron, 9'8" x 6'8" (300 x 210 cm). Private Collection, Paris. © Davis Art Images. (8S-27886)
Yes, I saved the best (worst?) for last. Did you ever wonder where the line between sculpture and furniture is? Well, I think this artist’s work definitely blurs the distinctions. Carabin was an accomplished sculptor, photographer, and designer of medals and ceramics. He is generally considered a product of Art Nouveau, though to me the connections with Art Nouveau are tenuous. His work represents, I guess, the Art Nouveau emphasis on unconventional, realistic depictions of nature?

Interestingly, Carabin became famous after he spent a year carving this piece for a wealthy businessman. Although Carabin was a co-founder of the Society of Independent Artists, this piece was not accepted in one of their exhibitions because it was not considered sculpture. Art critic Gustave Geoffroy (1855–1926) decried the judgment saying that Carabin’s piece was part of a “new kind” of art. Well, whatever one considers it—furniture or sculpture—it isn’t a piece I’d want in my apartment, especially with “Truth,” “Wisdom,” and “Contemplation” lolling around on the top!

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.Studio 35-36; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6 4.Studio 23-24; A Community Connection: 5.2; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience: 12.4; Discovering Art History: 2.2