Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How Old Is This?

Japan, Bowl with wave and bamboo design, 1700s–mid-1800s. Porcelain, width: 8 1/8" (20.6 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4963)
Lately, I can’t seem to get away from seeing “abstraction” in all sorts of places. I came across this wonderful Japanese bowl from the mid-1700s to mid-1800s and was sort of wowed by it. If we remember the basic definition of abstraction as “reduction of a subject to the simplest forms,” then this bowl qualifies.

Interestingly, the Japanese, although their ceramic tradition is probably among the oldest on the planet, did not develop their own porcelain until after 1592, when the military dictator Hideyoshi (died 1598) conducted a failed invasion of Korea. Since Korea was the conduit to Japan for many artistic genres from China, Hideyoshi brought back Korean ceramic artists who had trained in porcelain production in China. Thus porcelain was “born” in Japan and rapidly flowered during the early 1600s. No more importation of Chinese porcelain for the Japanese court!

This bowl bears the wave and bamboo design. Waves, among the strongest forces of nature, often symbolize a protection against other strong (negative) forces. Bamboo, a sturdy plant that is simple and unadorned by flowers, symbolizes prosperity (sturdiness) and frankness and openness (unadorned). The two motifs make an interesting pair, with the silhouetted bamboo that imitates an ink painting, and the wave pattern that imitates screen painting or an ukiyo-e print. The asymmetry and simplified forms are uniquely abstract compared to floral porcelain from the same period in the West:

Chelsea Porcelain Factory, Plate, ca. 1763–1765. Soft-paste porcelain. © Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC. (MIN-34)
Ho hum, right? No analyzing this as an example of abstraction.

Jutta Sika (designer, 1877–1964, Austria) and Josef Böck Porcelain Factory (1828–1960, Vienna), Plate, ca. 1901. Porcelain and enamel, width: 19.1 cm (7 1/2 “). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder. (MOMA-D0662)
Let’s zoom ahead to the period when abstraction actually poked its head into art in the West during the Art Nouveau style. It flourished between the 1890s and roughly the first 20 years of the 1900s. The reason I mention Art Nouveau is because one of the influences on Western Art Nouveau was the linearity and simplification of natural forms in….Japanese art. I’m not quite sure which forms in nature this plate represents. I suspect that the forms on the right side should be displayed on the bottom, as the cups and bowls from this pattern are oriented thus. That way it looks like a totally abstracted wave pattern.

Jutta Sika was an interesting woman. She was trained in the graphic design field. In 1901 she was one of the founding members of Wiener Kunste im Hause (Viennese Art at Home), a foundation that was a precursor of the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna, which was the Austrian equivalent of the Bauhaus. She was a strong believer of integrating all the disciplines in the arts whenever possible. She also worked as a fashion designer.

Here are two works that show how the wave pattern and bamboo appear in other art forms, but are oh-so-similar:

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858, Japan) Awa Province, Wind and Waves at the Whirlpool of Naruto, #55 from the “Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces” series, 1853 and 1856. Color woodcut on paper, 14 1/4" x 9 9/16" (36.2 x 24.4 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1401)

Japan, Sprays of Bamboo, two-fold screen, 1700–1800. Ink, color and gold leaf on paper mounted on wood frame, ca. 66 15/16" x 72 7/16" (170 x 184 cm). © Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-309)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.17-18 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 2.6, 5.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.5; Experience Clay: 4; Exploring Visual Design: 7; The Visual Experience: 10.6, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.4

Monday, May 18, 2015

Recognize This Artist?

Louise Nevelson (1899–1988, American, born Ukraine), First Personage, 1956. Painted wood, frontal slab 94" x 37" x 11 1/4" (238.8 x 94.1 x 28.6 cm); spiky column 73 11/16" x 24 1/8" x 7 1/4" (187.2 x 61.4 x 18.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, New York. © 2015 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BMA-4956nears)
When I was teaching art history, I guess I was a student’s worst nightmare, because on tests I would not show them images of the works that they had seen in the book and in class. Instead, I would give them other examples of the artist’s work. They had to figure out whose work was on the screen by what they had seen of the artist’s works in class. Of course, I would make it extremely easy by showing them works that were similar to what they had seen, since I knew none of them were committing themselves to life as an art historian (it’s not a bad thing, really). The examples in this post would definitely not have been fair attributions to spring on students if I wanted them to associate these works to what they had seen of Louise Nevelson. Even in my advanced years, I am not immune to being surprised by work that diverges from the iconic works we’ve become accustomed to seeing (and yes, First Personage and Hanging Column are from the same period as the “iconic” Sky Cathedral).

One revolution in sculpture took place in Europe in the second decade of the 1900s when artists began to construct, not carve or model, in three dimensions. These sculptures were composed of everyday materials, and Surrealist artists included discarded and found objects. Although assembled sculptures continued to be produced, in America Louise Nevelson was probably single-handedly responsible for bringing a new significance to the genre.

Although in the 1930s Nevelson’s sculpture was initially influenced by Cubism after she had studied under Chaim Gross (1904 \–1991), during the 1940s she came under the sway of Surrealism. In 1943, she created the first complete room environment in the history of American art with figures she constructed from natural and found objects, including tree trunks. It was at this time that she began collecting debris from the streets of New York. A trip to Mexico in 1950 helped solidify her sculptural vision after seeing ancient Mayan stele sculpture.

First Personage comes from the period between 1955 and 1958 when her one-person shows met with critical success. This was the period of her Sky Cathedral series, which is probably her most recognized type of work. Her found object works transcend Surrealism’s precious vision, adding monumentality and a classical air thanks to their scale.

Hanging Column (From Dawn’s Wedding Feast), 1959. Painted wood, left: 72" x 6 9/16" x 6 9/16" (182.8 x 16.7 x 16.7 cm), right: 72" x 10 1/8" (182.8 x 25.7 x 25.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Estate of Louise Nevelson/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-S0528nears)
The richly textured surfaces, such as Hanging Column (which resembles the Sky Cathedral mode) reflect the highly decorated surfaces of Mayan sculpture. The huge scale of her work (these are both 6 feet high) was compared by critics to Abstract Expressionism painting in that it challenged traditional notions of what sculpture was the way action painting did painting. However, such works also have affinity to Cubism’s multiple, overlapping planes. The scale, when shown with the Sky Cathedral scale works in her environments, shows an unavoidable similarity to the skyscrapers of New York, which Nevelson admitted were an inspiration.

Kneeling Horse, modeled 1932, cast before 1985. Bronze, 9" x 14" x 8" (22.9 x 35.6 x 20.3 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2015 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-1205nears)
This piece shows her Cubist beginnings while studying at the Art Students League under Chaim Gross. It could easily be mistaken for one of his works, I think.

Chaim Gross (1904–1991, US, born Austria), Handlebar Riders, 1935. Lignum vitae, height: 41 1/4" (104.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Chaim Gross / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-S0539gsars)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.vocab and content review; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.32, 6.35, 6.31-32 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.4, 5.25; A Community Connection: 3.2, 8.4; A Global Pursuit: 9.2; Beginning Sculpture: 6; Exploring Visual Design: 2, 3; The Visual Experience: 10.2; 16.7; Discovering Art History: 17.5

Monday, May 11, 2015

Some Thoughts About Stools

Ancient Egypt, Stool, from Saqqara, 1539–1295 BCE. Wood, 9 5/8" x 10 1/8" x 9 1/8" (24.4 x 26.7 x 23.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum of Art. (BMA-4904)

Does furniture have a soul? I sort of think it does. We sit on, lean on, and lie down on furniture for most of our lives. It’s hard to believe that something of our souls does not get infused into the furniture. Some cultures do honor furniture more than just putting it in a rummage sale or giving it to the Salvation Army (which is not a bad thing, of course, because then one is spreading one’s soul around). Putting old furniture in museums should be a rule, because then it’s as if we’re honoring all of the souls connected with a particular piece. And refurbishing vintage furniture is like putting new clothes on an old soul.

This stool, found in a noble tomb in Saqqara, is similar in style to stools found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (ruled 1336–1327 BCE). Although furniture is one of the few genres of art that were not specifically involved in the funerary process, the favorite furniture of a deceased person was included in tomb burials to accommodate the needs of the deceased in the afterlife. I have a feeling the Egyptians did not coin the phrase “you can’t take it with you” when viewing all of the worldly stuff they packed into their tombs.

Stools were the most common furniture item in Egyptian homes, having either a curved wooden seat or woven cane seat. They were also the most common item left in tombs. They were common furniture items already in the Old Kingdom (ca. 2650–2152 BCE). By the time of the New Kingdom (1539–1295 BCE), stools had morphed into elaborately carved and decorated items of status. Egyptians invented the folding stool, handy for commanders on the battlefield. Those were decorated lavishly to represent the military leader’s status. This simple stool may have belonged to someone of not-so-high rank, although fancy cushions would have augmented it. Such an elegant design, however, would not have been made for a commoner. Various types of convenient furniture were definitely the province of the upper classes. 

Asante Culture, Ghana, Chief’s Stool, 1900s. Wood, 19" x 8 1/2" x 11 1/2" (48.25 x 21.6 x 29.21 cm). Private Collection, © Davis Art Images. (8S-10518)
The equating of a piece of furniture with the status of a person is not unique to the ancient Egyptians. Although, equating the stool itself as a vehicle for the soul of the deceased is a little different from the Egyptian custom. Traditionally in the Asante culture in Ghana, stools acquired a very special status all their own based on who owned them. The stools of rulers were considered particularly blessed with the owner’s soul, and would be given libations and stored in a special place of honor to commemorate the deceased owner’s wisdom, and be consulted by the living. In some ceremonies, stools were traditionally blackened and presented with libations as signs of honoring the deceased owner of the stool. During the annual Yam Festival, they were traditionally fed samples from the new yam crop.

Common person and community leader alike had their own stools that were then assumed to carry their soul after death. Only the stool’s owner may sit on it because it holds that person’s personal power. Stools would be commonly tipped on their side when not in use by their owner to prevent anyone else from sitting on them or to avoid malevolent forces. The form of Asante stools is typically a curved seat with central columnar support, often augmented with four legs, and decorated. The form of the stool is thought to imitate that of the Golden Stool in the Asante capital of Kumasi, the state stool that represents the line of the Asante kingship and is not technically owned by its current occupant.

Liberty and Company (firm established 1875, London and Paris), “Thebes” Stool, ca. 1880–1883. Ebony, ivory, mahogany, rosewood and leather, 14 1/2" x 16 1/2" x 16 1/2" (36.8 x 41.9 x 41.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4154)
And now we progress from status of a deceased person in the afterlife, through the stool bearing its owner’s personal life essence, to just plain crass status in the physical world. The mid to late 1800s in European and American art and architecture was dominated by revival styles that borrowed everything from ancient Egypt to the Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo. Egyptian Revival rose to importance in the 1830s after the second publication of studies and folios of prints of Egyptian architecture and antiquities from Napoleon’s 1798–1799 campaign in Egypt. “Egyptian” decorative arts remained popular from that period through the Art Deco of the 1920s and 1930s in both Europe and America.

Needless to say, only wealthy people could indulge in buying revival style furniture made with such expensive materials as ebony, ivory and mahogany. Among people with money, “keeping up with the Joneses” meant buying furniture for one’s home in The Latest and most fashionable revival style. Unfortunately, having lots of money does not always mean lots of good taste, for many homes displayed numerous types of revival styles together, some of which were a hodge podge of period styles all in one piece. This stool is an example of a refined revival piece, tastefully done to be as archeologically accurate as possible. Compare its construction to the real Egyptian example. It’s so different from the overstuffed armchairs with sphinx heads on the arms, covered in decorative “hieroglyphics!”

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.35-36 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.23, 4.23-24 studio; A Community Connection: 5.2; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Global Pursuit: 1.4, 1.5; The Visual Experience: 12.4, 14.3, 15.3; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.8, 5.3

Monday, May 4, 2015

Abstraction is Nothing New

Ancient Egypt, Figurine of a Woman, ca. 1696–1539 BCE. Terra cotta, 4 11/16" x 1 7/16 x 1/2" (12 x 3.7 x 1.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5018)

I’m making a declaration: artists were inspired to create abstract art thousands of years ago. When one (and by “one” I mean a person reading an art history text) reads about any art that pre-dates the early 1900s that shows extreme simplification, the author inevitably says that it “has an almost abstract” quality. Then there are the other words usually paired with abstract ancient art: extreme simplification, stylization, idealization, conceptualization, etc. Two of the most basic definitions of abstraction are “the reduction of forms to their simplest state”(simplification) and “an artwork that does not represent objects of the observed physical world” (stylization). I propose that the study of ancient cultures now include such subjects as “The Abstract Wing of The Second Intermediate Period in Ancient Egypt.”

Going all the way back to the earliest dynasties of the Old Kingdom in Egypt (ca. 2650–2184 BCE), the realistic depiction of human beings and animals is readily evident. Naturally, the realism was softened when depicting rulers or members of the nobility so that they looked like fresh, young, perfect human beings. For more humble officials and their families, the realism was often more spot on. Even in the hyper realism, though, there is a stiffness and simplification of forms that could “hint at abstraction.” This may be partially because of the block-like, rigid formality of the pose of the figures, a convention that lasted almost 3000 years in Egyptian art.

This figurine dates from the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt, ca 1696–1539 BCE. This was a chaotic period when the Hyksos, a Semitic people from the east, invaded and occupied northern Egypt. They ruled as the Fifteenth Dynasty, while Egyptian princes of the Thirteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth ruled southern Egypt from Thebes. Kamose (reigned ca. early 1540s BCE), the pharaoh in Thebes began a rebellion that eventually led to the destruction of the Hyksos dynasty. His brother Ahmose (reigned ca. 1539–1514 BCE) restored a united Egypt under Dynasty Eighteen.

The purpose of this figurine is not known, although it bears similarities to pre-dynastic female and male figures that are extremely simplified excepting, the details of their anatomically specific parts.  Compared to the realism of funerary sculpture of this period, this is refreshingly original. Various theories explain this figurine as Nubian (Kushite), the Upper Nile culture, or simply the product of an “unofficial” artist who was not following the accepted artistic conventions.

It reminds me of the abstract Akua ‘Ba figures from the Asante culture (traditionally matriarchal) in Ghana that were traditionally carried by girls to help teach them about motherhood, and by pregnant women to ensure a healthy birth. The Akua’Ba are marvelous abstract summations of some of the traditionally held ideals of feminine beauty.

Asante People, Ghana, Akua’Ba, 1900s. Wood, height: 13 3/8" (34 cm). Private Collection. Image © Davis Art Images. (8S-10517)

Here are a couple more examples of ancient Egyptian abstraction. I really like the block expressions of individuals, so similar to the seated scribe genre. And do we see a little Giacometti in the standing male figure?

Block Statue of Ay, ca. 1327–1323 BCE. Limestone, 18 1/2" x 10 x 12 3/16" (47 x 25 x 31 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-570) 
Figurine of a Man, ca. 1986–1759 BCE. Copper, 5" x 1 1/2" x 1" (12.7 x 3.81 x 2.54 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-1003)

And here is a 20th century artist who was there when they “invented” abstraction in the early 1900s. I wonder which inspired him more: ancient art or “primitive” art?

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920, Italy), Head of a Woman, 1910 / 1911. Limestone, 25 5/8" x 7 1/2" x 9 3/4" (65.2 x 19 x 24.8 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-S0080)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.4; A Community Connection: 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 1.4; Beginning Sculpture: 2; Experience Clay: 3; Exploring Visual Design: 10; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 15.3; Discovering Art History: 5.3