Monday, June 29, 2015

Too Nice to Put on the Floor

Spain, Textile fragment, 1300s or 1400s. Silk lampas weave with satin weave ground and plain weave pattern, width: 16 1/4" (41.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1003)

Spain, Textile fragment, ca. 1400. Silk lampas weave with satin weave ground and plain weave pattern, 21 3/4" x 10 13/16" (55.3 x 27.5 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CM-525)

Every so often I learn about a period in history in a certain place that seemed to have everything going for it—relative peace, flourishing economy and vibrant artistic culture, and a government that encouraged the co-existence of a variety of religions. It doesn’t seem to have happened very often in history. It did briefly in Spain under the Nasrid kingdom, and beautiful art was produced, as well as fabulous architecture.

These beautiful textile fragments from Spain are examples of an art form that had a major impact in Western Europe during the late Gothic and Renaissance periods. Textiles from Islamic lands flowed into Western Europe during the 1300s and 1400s, facilitated by Venice’s trade with the Byzantine Empire, and through Muslim Spain’s contacts with North Africa. In Arab lands, such textiles were used not only as garments and rugs, but also as wall hangings and window and door coverings. The lampas weave was a favored technique in Muslim lands. It was a doubleweave technique with two wefts, one above another, with the second creating a raised motif. Doubleweave textiles were not reversible.

Obviously such imported items were luxuries for the well-to-do. Not only were these textiles from the Middle East considered valuable and beautiful, most people did not use them as rugs, but rather as either wall hangings or even table cloths. Their patterns had a huge impact on the textile factories in Flanders, the prosperity of which fueled the Renaissance in the Low Countries. Here are three examples of these textiles popping up in northern paintings:

Johannes Vermeer (1632–-1675, Dutch), The Concert, ca. 1665. Oil on canvas, 28 1/2" x 25 1/2" (72.5 x 64.7 cm). © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. (GM-48)
In the foreground we see Middle Eastern textile used as a tablecloth.

Hans Holbein, the Younger (1497–1543, German) The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 81 1/8" x 81 5/8" (206 x 207.4 cm). © The National Gallery, London. (DAH-1021)
In this work, an Islamic textile is a tablecloth, while a Flemish silk textile forms the background.

Willem Kalf (1619–1693, Dutch), Still Life, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas, 25 3/8" x 21 3/16" (64.4 x 53.8 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0853)
Another luxurious table cover.

Muslims took over large parts of Spain in 711 from the Visigoths. In the 700s the Muslim capital was Córdoba. After the fall of these Umayyads in the 1000s due to increasing pressure from Christian kingdoms of Spain, the Muslim rulers were reduced to the southern part of Spain. The Nasrid Dynasty, founded by Muhammad I al’Ghalib (died 1273) controlled Jaén, Almeria, and Málaga, ruling from Granada. Granada became a leading cultural center of the Muslim world, encouraging scholarship in science, mathematics, and the arts, with thriving Christian, Muslim, and Judaic communities peacefully coexisting. Even after the Nasrid downfall in 1492, art forms and styles of the Islamic world persisted in Spanish art, and continued to have influence on the rest of Europe. Textiles from the Middle East and Asia continue to be a major export art form to the present day.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.31, 6.connections, 6.31-32 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.10; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 5.2; A Global Pursuit: 4.4; Exploring Visual Design: 11; The Visual Experience: 10.8, 14.2; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.7

Monday, June 22, 2015

An Art Historian’s Cure for Modernization Regret

Richard Upjohn (1802–1878 US), Kingscote, 1839–1841, Newport, Rhode Island. Photo © 2015 Davis Art Images. (8S-6977)
I get the sads whenever I walk a certain way to work, because I pass an old, late 1800s house now stuck between a sidewalk and entrance to a parking garage. It is all boarded up and covered over with obvious “modernization” attempts from the 1950s or 1970s, but the brick still shows in spots and there’s a gorgeous Mansard roof. I ruefully reflect on all of the fabulous historic architecture that has been ruined by well-meaning attempts at “updating.” I guess that’s better than tearing down, but not by much. My cure for the sads is to share with you a beautiful house that everyone should see at least once in his or her life. It covers one of my favorite topics, architecture revival styles. Newport, Rhode Island is like a huge museum of architectural revival styles that haven’t, thank goodness, been updated.

Kingscote was commissioned by a wealthy southerner from Georgia, George Noble Jones (1811–1876), of Savannah, Georgia. His idea of an ornamental “country cottage” in Newport was one of the earliest examples of the trend in which rich people turned Newport into a showcase for revival architecture styles. Like many rich people, he wanted the house to impress his neighbors with the very latest fashion in architecture. He chose Richard Upjohn, who had just moved to New York from Boston. Upjohn was already famous for his work in the Gothic Revival style that had taken America by storm in the early 1830s. In contrast to his two plantations in Florida, Chemonie and El Destino (Leon County), Jones desired a New England country cottage to escape hot summers in Florida. The idea Upjohn came up with for him was a Gothic Revival “cottage” based on then current ideas of what medieval tournament tents looked like.

As opposed to Gothic Revival churches and public buildings, domestic architecture in the style was a bit more relaxed in applying strict Gothic elements. The main period of popularity for the style in domestic architecture was 1830–1860, but the style remains popular to this day in church building. Kingscote displays typical features of the domestic version: the steeply pitched roof; hood molds over windows; pointed arch windows; pinnacles with crockets; and the most telltale feature, the curvilinear gingerbread trim along the eaves and gable edges. The Jones family sold the house during the Civil War (1860–1865). The new owners expanded the back of the house with a larger dining room designed by McKim, Mead and White (1876), which contained some of the earliest Tiffany glass in the windows.

Richard Upjohn, born in England, was the son of an architect and furniture artist. He became a master mechanic and his family immigrated to the US in 1829. Between 1833 and 1839, living in Boston, he designed many Gothic Revival churches, and the entrances to the Boston Common. Upjohn is credited for popularizing the Gothic Revival style in America, and he pioneered the Italianate style, a combination of Gothic and Renaissance villa inspirations. His book—Upjohn’s Rural Architecture: Designs, Working Drawings and Specifications for a Wooden Church, and other Rural Structures—in 1852 was massively influential, spreading his Gothic Revival and Italianate styles across the United States. In 1857, he was one of 13 architects who founded the American Institute of Architects.

Now this is my idea of “updating”:

John Haviland (1792–1852, original façade), Theophilus Chandler (1845–1929, cornice), and Mitchell / Giurgola Architects (founded 1958, New York) Penn Mutual Building preservation and new construction, 1838 and 1901, and 1974. Philadelphia, PA. Photo © 2015 Davis Art Images. (8S-14746)
When Penn Mutual (founded 1847) needed a new, larger headquarters in Philadelphia, they did not want to completely wipe out the original building. They hired Mitchell/Giurgola Architects to construct the new tower while preserving the beautiful façade of the earlier building. The façade was strengthened with reinforced concrete to preserve it. From what I have seen of many of their projects, the firm is conscious about the historical, cultural, and artistic importance of the interaction of architecture with human beings. What better way to update an old building than by contrasting it with the building that is replacing it?

John Haviland (1792–1852, original façade), Theophilus Chandler (1845–1929, cornice), and Mitchell / Giurgola Architects (founded 1958, New York) Penn Mutual Building preservation and new construction, 1838 and 1901, and 1974. Philadelphia, PA. Photo © 2015 Davis Art Images. (8S-14747)
This is the back (reinforced) preserved façade of the earlier Penn Mutual Insurance Company.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.19, 4.20; A Personal Journey: 8.1; A Community Connection: 4.4; Exploring Visual Design: 1; The Visual Experience: 11.5; Discovering Art History: 16.1

Monday, June 15, 2015

African Realism

Yoruba People, Nigeria, Fragment of a Head (of an Oni?), from Ife, Osun State, 1100–1500. Terra cotta, 6" x 3 1/4" x 3 3/4" (15.2 x 8.3 x 9.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5131)
During the 1800s, when European invaders were exploiting the riches of the African continent, art historians were “astounded” at the richness and variety of African art. They had no knowledge of such venerable cultures as the kingdoms of Ghana or Mali. The astonishment was particularly true in Nigeria, home of ancient, sophisticated cultures such as the Yoruba, the Edo, and Benin. They were flabbergasted that realistic art had dated in Africa in the distant past beyond Africans’ first contacts with Europeans.  

When the British burned and sacked Benin, the capital of the Benin Kingdom, in 1897, they hauled loads of bronze sculptures and ivories back to England. This started the mania for trade in African art among Europeans. They were most agog at the fabulous bronzes, now legendary, incapable of believing that Africans had such sophisticated culture so far back. They theorized that the Edo people learned bronze casting after some mysterious contact with Romans or Greeks who had invaded Egypt and North Africa. As far as I know, the Romans gave up trying to penetrate Africa in the 60s CE when they were looking for the source of the Nile, somewhere in Sudan.

This head from Nigeria shows that while Europe was in the Middle Ages—a period when sculpture emphasized the spiritual rather than physical realism—African art was as sophisticated as anything produced in ancient Greece and Rome. The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria have a long, distinguished history. They trace their origin to the city of Ife (Ile-Ife), the location where the Yoruba’s first king (oni) Oduduwa immigrated around 1000 CE, possibly from the East, and established a line of kings that ruled the Oyo Empire. The empire endured until around the early decades of the 1800s when fractious civil wars sapped the strength of the Yoruba leaders and left the Oyo lands ripe for conquest by the British in the 1890s.

This terra cotta head, most likely representing an oni, shows that Yoruba sculpture was already highly developed one thousand years ago. Ife court art interprets the human figure with a sensitive, stylized naturalism. The head is not meant to represent an actual person, but shows a person in the prime of life, bearing all of the features considered ideal beauty, with facial decoration that indicates status. As was the case with the bronze oba heads of the Edo and Benin people, these heads are believed to have been made to commemorate a deceased king, and thus were housed in a special palace shrine.

If anyone needs another example of African art that didn’t need ancient Greece or Rome to inform their artists about realism….how about EGYPT?  This head of Tutankhamun is a relatively late example of Egyptian realism, but I chose it because of the regal, stylized realism of the head that I think is similar to the Yoruban head. This head was produced way before Greece and Rome had their classical periods. If Yoruban realism was not an indigenous development, I would vote for influence from Egypt, not ancient Greece of Rome. 

Ancient Egypt, Head of Tutankhamun, 1336–1327 BCE. Sandstone, 11 5/8" x 10 7/16" (29.6 x 26.5 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-725)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1-2 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1; A Community Connection: 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 1.5; Beginning Sculpture: 2; Experience Clay: 3; Exploring Visual Design: 1; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 14.3; Discovering Art History: 4.8

Monday, June 8, 2015

An Intriguing Aspect of “American Scene Painting”

Peter Blume (1906–1992, US, born Belarus), The Shrine, 1950. Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard and panel, 18" x 22 3/4" (45.7 x 57.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2015 Estate of Peter Blume / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (BMA-5050Abuvg)
One super-prime example of why it is often unwise to stick with labels for artists’ styles is the term “Painters of the American Scene,” or “American Scene Painting.” This term is so hugely umbrella-like that it makes certain art historians dizzy (not really). In many texts, studies of the American Scene include Regionalism; Social Realism; Magic Realism (a distant cousin to Surrealism); and plain, unadulterated personal forms of realism. If I had to choose one of those designations to describe the paintings of Peter Blume, Magic Realism comes the closest, but it so does not sum up the breadth of expression in his body of work.

Realism blossomed in American art in the isolationist and ethnocentric aftermath of World War I (1914–1918), particularly during the era of the Great Depression (1929–1939). It was during this time in the 1930s that Blume’s mature work evolved. However, Blume’s form of realism was far from that of Edward Hopper or Thomas Hart Benton. Blume emigrated from Russia with his family at the age of five. He studied art in New York and had his own studio by the age of 18. His historical artistic interests lay in Renaissance painting from both Italy and northern Europe, although, in his obsessive detail of objects from the physical world, his paintings lean closer to the passionate observed realism of Flanders and Germany during the Renaissance. He trained under brothers Raphael (1899–1987) and Isaac Soyer (1902–1981), Russian immigrant artists who were avid realist painters, whose depictions of everyday American life during the Depression could appropriately be called Social Realism.

In 1932 Blume won a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent a year in Italy, which inspired his first major sensation of a painting in 1934: The Eternal City. Inspired while standing in the Roman forum, the jack-in-the-box menacing head of the fascist dictator Mussolini is a portent of rapidly approaching World War II (1939–1945). On the left side of this painting is the Man of Sorrows, Jesus during his ordeal before crucifixion, a running theme in Blume’s work.

The Eternal City, 1934–1937 (dated 1937). Oil on composition board, 34" x 47 7/8" (86.4 x 121.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Peter Blume Estate / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P076buvg)
Throughout his career, Blume maintained his own personal vision in his work, even with the ascendancy of Abstract Expressionism during the 1950s. The Shrine is one of several versions of the Man of Sorrows theme, one that could easily come out of private devotional images from Spanish Renaissance or Baroque art, particularly in the placement of the figure on what looks like a draped altar. In both of these paintings one sees elements of Surrealism, although Blume himself denounced the movement in print because of its theories about unconscious creation and its associations with sensual themes from the subconscious. Many of Blume’s paintings included everyday objects that he observed in his travels around the Northeast. Many of Blume’s post-war paintings reflected the sorrow at its destruction, yet the hope for rebuilding. In The Shrine, Blume’s Surrealist experiment comes the closest to any examination of the psychology of suffering in the badly scarred and emaciated body of Christ. At the same time, it reflects a sense of faith in the tiny pilgrim badges adorning his loincloth—symbols of the faithful, a tradition dating back to the pilgrimages in Europe during the Middle Ages (ca. 1000–1400).

After leaving New York, Blume and his wife moved to Connecticut and grew vegetables. He produced many landscapes and still life paintings. While one is tempted, in this pre-war landscape, to read a contrast between the poppies symbolizing life and hope and the stark, craggy rocks as the coming devastation of war, I see it more as evidence of Blume’s uncanny ability to depict nature in minute detail, almost like Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci. Stones recur in many of his works.

Landscape with Poppies, 1939. Oil on canvas, 18" x 25 1/8" (45.7 x 63.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Estate of Peter Blume / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P0702buvg)
Blume did copious studies of figures and elements of nature for all of his paintings. This lovely little pine tree branch may have been a study for a painting, but is lovely on its own. It has an almost Japanese quality in its craggy branches and asymmetrical composition. It may have been inspired by something he saw during a trip to the Pacific in the mid-1950s.

Untitled (Branch of Tree), 1957. India ink on Japanese paper, 8 1/4" x 11" (21 x 27.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2015 Estate of Peter Blume / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (BMA-5051buvg)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 3.17-18 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.31, 6.34; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 6.34, 6.35, 6.33-34 studio; A Personal Journey: 1.3, 7.4; A Community Connection: 6.2, 7.4; Experience Painting: 6; Exploring Painting: 10; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 10; The Visual Experience: 9.3; Discovering Art History: 15.3

Monday, June 1, 2015

Old Styles, New Techniques

Samuel Gragg (1772–1855, US, active Boston), Side Chair (“Elastic Chair”), ca. 1802–1808. Bentwood ash and maple, 33 3/4" x 18" (85.7 x 45.7 cm) (front seat rail). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4986)

The history of furniture design has always been one of my favorite areas of study. Such study is even more rewarding when I learn about a “first” in regards to American furniture, which was rare in the late 1700s and early 1800s. American furniture designers aimed to please well-heeled patrons who wanted to show their friends how “classy” they were by commissioning furniture in the latest European (mostly English and French) styles. What resulted, thankfully, were not mere copies of European trends, but American interpretations of them. Many of these interpretations are quite elegant. This includes especially Samuel Gragg’s “Elastic Chair.”

When one thinks “bentwood furniture,” the name Michael Thonet usually comes to mind first. But, that is only because he made the technique his signature—practically his only until well into the 20th century—style. Samuel Gragg beat him to it about thirty years earlier. On August 31, 1808 Gragg applied for a Federal patent on his “Elastic Chair.” The chair was inspired by the ancient Greek “klismos” chair, but Gragg’s design was lighter and more flexible. Gragg produced both armchairs and side chairs in the style. One settee in the bentwood process has survived. He finished his chairs with “fancy” or “fantasy” painted decoration (cheaper than carving) of peacock feathers and acanthus leaves, both classical motifs. The front legs end in “goat-hoof” feet, a decorative element from ancient Greek and Egyptian furniture.

Michael Thonet (1796–1871, Austria) (designer), Thonet Brothers (firm founded 1819, Vienna) (manufacturer), Side Chair, c. 1840–1842. Laminated wood, rosewood veneer, and upholstery, (92.1 x 42.9 x 40.6 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, given anonymously. (MOMA-P0834)
If one was being a picky art historian, one could give these chairs stylistic designations such as Greek Revival or Federal Style, but Gragg them called “Elastic” because they gently gave with the sitter. The period immediately following the Revolution (1776-1783) was one in which both Greek and Roman classicism affected all major artforms, including furniture design. The most elegant feature of Gragg’s chair is the fact that the seat back stiles (the vertical framing members of the back) are one piece with the side rails of the seat. To achieve strength and flexibility in these elegant curves, Gragg split rather than sawed the wood so that the grain was parallel with the shape of the chair part.  It was truly an early example of American innovation, and one of the most landmark events in American furniture history.

Gragg was born the son of a wheel maker in New Hampshire. From 1801 until his death he made furniture, primarily seating, in Boston. Although Gragg’s trade cards advertised “Patent chairs and settees” referring to the Elastic Chair, he knew of the Boston clientele’s diverse tastes and produced chairs in a number of fashionable revival styles, including Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival.

Benjamin Latrobe (1764–1820, US), Side chair, 1808. Gessoed, painted, and gilt tulipwood and maple, gilt metal mounts, 234 1/4" x 20" x 20" (87 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2288)
There were many versions of the ancient Greek “klismos,” although, unlike Gragg’s chair, they were carved rather than built of bent wood members. This elegant example by Latrobe, one of the architects of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, has a heavier feel to it than Gragg’s chair. It contains the painted decoration of classical motifs, such as acanthus and confronting chimera, on the back crest rail. It has more the feel of the solid geometry of Neoclassical architecture, rather than the light, positive-and-negative space of Gragg’s. Most people in the early United States could not afford to buy complete sets of furniture for every room in their house. Side chairs were often carried from one room to another during get-togethers, making Gragg’s light chair infinitely more useful than Latrobe’s.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.35-36; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.23-24; A Personal Journey 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 5.2; The Visual Experience: 12.4; Discovering Art History: 2.2