Monday, August 31, 2015

Photo Phear

George Barnard (1819–1902, US), Portrait of Four Unknown Children, 1846–1853. Daguerreotype on copper plate, 3 5/16" x 4 1/2" (8.5 x 11.6 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P1248)
I am Totally not into getting my photograph taken, especially while on vacation, so I am the last person on Earth who should criticize the way other people come out in photographic portraits. I don’t know which is worse: the “geek-trying-to-look-casually-cheery” look that I achieve when someone points their phone at me, or the “is-that-thing-gonna-explode?” look on the faces of these poor kids from 150 years ago?

From its very inception (1830s), photography was perceived as an ideal medium for portraiture. After the creation of the Daguerreotype process in France, Americans immediately learned the process, launching portrait establishments as early as 1840, earlier than in Europe. A French process introduced to the United States in 1839, the Daguerreotype was by far the most popular photographic medium in the early days of portraiture. Within three years it was wildly popular in the United States.

The Daguerreotype produced a one-of-a-kind image that developed on a highly polished silver-coated copper plate. The image produced was a positive. Because the metal plate was delicate, subject to damage from fingerprints or moisture, it was usually mounted in a case under glass, often in a leather or velvet bound cover. Mounting a portrait likeness in a special case to protect it harkens back to the miniature or silhouette that were treated in a similar fashion.

Of course, there are very few Daguerreotypes in which the sitter is smiling or animated, due to the long exposure time and complicated sequence of actions needed to make the exposure. When Daguerreotypes first appeared, the sitter had to be still for up to fifteen minutes. Head clamps were often used to keep the sitter from moving, as may be the case with these children. By the 1840s, American photographers had shortened the exposure time to a little over a minute if the size of the plate was reduced. It was still a long time to sit still.

George Barnard, born in Connecticut, is most famous for his Civil War (1860–1865) photographs of Sherman’s march through the Confederacy. However, he established his reputation as a photographer in Daguerreotype portraiture. He opened his first studio in Oswego, New York in 1847. From there he became nationally renowned for his Daguerreotype portraits. There is only a little more joy in the faces of these children than there was in the other fashionable form of Daguerreotype portraiture, that of dead people.

Gertrude Käsebier (1852–1934 US), Family Portrait (Clarence White and Family), 1902. Gum platinum print on paper, 8" x 6 1/8" (20.5 x 15.6 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P0573)
Although exposure times diminished rapidly during the late 1800s, I still smile when I see portraits like this with the “just-returned-from-the-funeral” look on the sitters’ faces. Because this portrait was taken by an Aesthetic Photographer, she may have desired this dramatic demeanor.

Aesthetic Photography, or Pictorialism, developed in the late 1800s by artists who felt that the wealth of detail capable in photography was stale and unimaginative. They sought to elevate their photographs from simply a document to fine art. Gertrude Käsebier, trained as a painter in Paris, became interested in photography around 1894. By 1897, she had opened a portrait studio in New York.

The soft edges, atmospheric lighting and thoughtfully posed portrait of fellow Pictorialist Clarence White (1871–1925) was achieved with the gum bichromate process. Platinum on the paper was covered with gum Arabic. The negative would be washed with water and manipulated with a brush, pencil, or eraser in order to alter the background, erase detail, or reduce the surface to the tonality of a charcoal drawing. Water-based dyes could also be introduced to the print during the process.

Like many Pictorialists, Käsebier preferred the platinum process because of the range of tonalities and nuances in hues available. In both her manner of composing the sitter and then manipulating the negative, she intended her portraits to vie aesthetically with those executed in paint. She was considered by other aesthetic photographers of her time to be the best at representing the personality of her sitters.

Correlations to Davis programs:  A Community Connection: 5.4, 6.4, 7.2; Exploring Visual Design: 9; Focus on Photography: 1, 3, 5; The Visual Experience: 9.5, 16.4, 16.9; Discovering Art History: 12.4, 14.5

Monday, August 24, 2015

Vacation Blog

Charles Demuth (1883–1935 US), Stairs, Provincetown, 1920. Gouache and pencil on board, 23 1/2" x 19 1/2" (59.7 x 49.5 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P4200)
I’m off on a week’s vacation in Provincetown, which, as you may know, has been the home of a thriving art colony since the late 1800s. The Provincetown Art Association was founded in 1914, encouraging summer students to paint by the sea (which they still do), with a lot of modernism influence from European artists who had migrated here. I have learned that for two decades there was a resistance to the influx on modernism in Ptown, but, it persisted as one of the most active locations for modern experiment in America, especially after the Great Depression (1929–1940). Let’s look at some artists who worked in Ptown. I always think of Charles Demuth first when I think if Ptown, because of all the American modernists of his period, he, most of all, took influences from European modernism and created a truly American vision of it.

Initially trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, already before World War I (1914–1918) he had abandoned his academic training to concentrate on watercolors and gouache. These were coming into their own as standalone media, embraced by artists who experimented with modernism due to their easy fluidity. Demuth ultimately became a master of water-based media on a par with Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).

His mature style was informed by Cubism he had seen at the 1913 Armory Show of European modernism, as well as from his group of friends in New York. They included Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), the pioneer Dadaist and Surrealist, and Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), an American modernist who had dabbled in non-objective abstraction after stays in Germany and Paris. He was also a steady participant in Alfred Stieglitz’s (1864–1946) modernist experimental Gallery 291 in New York, where Demuth’s works mirrored the modernist experiments of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) and photographer Paul Strand (1890–1976), whose reductive, close-up, angled works have been given the name Precisionism.

Demuth, while influenced by modernist experiment, kept his work firmly rooted in his American experience—his life growing up in Lancaster, PA, and his summers in Provincetown, where he produced this gorgeous, Cubistic work. I swear I’ve seen these stairs on my many trips to Ptown. And you can bet I’ll take watercolors to Ptown so that I can do a pale imitation of some of these great artists who painted there and possibly soak up their auras!

Blanche Lazzell (1878–1956, US), Sketch for an Abstraction, 1924. Graphite on paper, 10 5/8" x 8 1/4" (27 x 21 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2015 Blanche Lazzell Estate, West Virginia University, Morgantown. (BMA-5111)
American art retreated from modernist experiment that had flourished before World War I, mostly because Americans—tired of the horrors of the European war—rejected anything European, including abstraction. There was a brave group of artists who founded the group American Abstract Artists in 1936 in New York to promote such work in this country. Blanche Lazzell was one of the original members of that group.

Born in West Virginia, Lazzell knew by the first decade of the 1900s that she wanted to be an independent-thinking woman artist. She studied at the University of West Virginia, and at the Art Students League in New York. She, however, rejected academic avenues and travelled to Europe in 1912, where she became enthralled with the copious amounts of experimentation in abstraction. She stayed in Paris a year and returned to West Virginian in 1913. In 1915, she went to the Provincetown Cape Cod School of Art for the summer. She went back in 1916, when she became proficient in woodblock printing. In 1918 she moved to Ptown permanently.

This study for a painting was quite revolutionary, when viewed in comparison to what was dominating American art at the time: American Scene Painting. It shows a personal adaptation of the Cubist visual vocabulary.

Karl Knaths (1891–1971, US), Geranium in Night Window, 1922. Oil on canvas, 24" x 20 1/8" (60.9 x 51.1 cm). The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (PC-198)
One of my favorite American modernists from the Ptown period is Karl Knaths, maybe because his name is Karl or because he’s a Midwesterner, like me, and maybe because he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I also went briefly. Born in Wisconsin, he studied in Chicago, where he received academic training in painting for four years starting in 1912. When the 1913 Armory Show traveled  to Chicago, Knaths was a student guard for the exhibition, and was immediately drawn to the modernism he saw from European artists, particulary the Cubism of Picasso, but especially by the late, faceted landscapes of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906).

Knaths was one of many modernists who never studied abroad, but garnered rich influence from European abstraction through personal research in literature, and contact with other American artists interested in modernism. He was particularly affected by Vasili Kandinsky’s (1866–1944) book “On the Spiritual in Art,” which inspired Knaths to make a connection between his painting and music. In 1919 Knaths moved to Ptown, finding an active community of artists interested in modern experiment, away from east coast cities that were then dominated by American Scene Painting. During the course of the 1920s, Knaths was an active voice advocating for a more prominent place for modernist artists in annual Ptown exhibitions. In 1927 he helped establish a separate annual exhibition for modernism there.

Knath’s beautiful, personal version of Cubism combined the faceting seen in the work of Braque and Picasso with the bright palette of Juan Gris (1887–1927). By the 1930s he had established a strict formula for his abstraction, based partly on Mondrian and Kandinsky, although his work never strayed totally for physical reality.

Hans Hofmann (1880–1966, US born Germany), Still Life, 1939. Oil on board, 35" x 30 15/16" (89 x 76 cm). Private Collection. Photo courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago. © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-17511hmars)
Oh boy, I have a lot of favorites when it comes to painters who love COLOR, and Hans Hofmann is one of them! As a German who studied in Paris, rather than Berlin, to absorb modernism, Hofmann’s painting style is an amazing synthesis of Cubism, Fauvism, and Expressionism, which I think you can see in this painting.

After teaching in Germany, Hofmann was invited to teach in the US in 1932. Fortunately he stayed here, because Hofmann’s contribution to the development of Abstract Expressionism and an indigenous American modernist movement cannot be undervalued. When he arrived in 1932, he found American art stagnating in the Ash Can School, Social Realism, and American Scene Painting. He recognized that American modernism was “repressed,” and needed a voice. He established the Summer School for Art in Provincetown in 1935. 

Hofmann not only transmitted the abstract vocabulary of Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism to his American pupils. The modernism that grew out of their experience with Hofmann was further energized by the particularly American energy that resulted after the US emerged as a superpower after World War II (1939–1945). By 1937, due in large part to Hofmann’s considerable persona, modernism became part of the annual exhibitions in Ptown. Many of the Abstract Expressionists and their circle were Hofmann students in Ptown, including Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) and Arshile Gorky (1904–1948).

Robert Motherwell (1915–1991, US), Personage with Yellow, Ochre and White, 1947. Oil on canvas, 71 15/16" x 53 15/16" (182.8 x 137 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Robert Motherwell Estate / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P1947movg)
I will admit that I did a little happy dance four winters ago when I discovered Robert Motherwell’s studio/house on Commercial Street in Ptown. It was right after I had begun to really dig into the importance Provincetown played in the development of American Modernism, and it just felt like one more verification that I was on the right track in my ideas about a phenomenon that does not get a heck of a lot of coverage in American art history texts.

Like Arshile Gorky and William Baziotes (1912–1963), Motherwell was one of the Abstract Expressionists most impacted by Surrealism in his work. He trained under Swiss-American Surrealist Kurt Seligmann (1900–1962) in New York in 1941. In 1943, the Chilean Surrealist Robert Matta (Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren) (1911–2002) encouraged Motherwell to explore collage, a medium to which he would frequently return. Matta had studied with Hans Hofmann in Ptown. Motherwell’s earliest paintings were combinations of forms inspired by Picasso’s work, and ovoid and geometric shapes that would symbolize his later paintings.

Motherwell bought two studios/houses in Provincetown starting in the late 1950s, after he married fellow abstractionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011). He enjoyed painting by the ocean, perhaps influenced by his upbringing in California.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Community Connection: 2.2, 6.2, 7.4; Experience Painting: 2, 4, 6; Exploring Painting: 12, 7; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.6; Discovering Art History: 15.2, 17.1

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Realism Backlash?

Ernesto de Fiori (1884–1945, Germany, born Italy), Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, 1929. Tinted plaster, 13 7/8 x 6 x 7 1/2” (35.9 x 15.2 x 19.1 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-2380)
After the horrors experienced by Europeans in World War I (1914–1918), the brakes were more or less put on to the prevailing trend towards modernism and abstraction, although certainly many artists still pursued such goals. Of course the opposite of this was true with the Dada artists, a relatively small group at the time. In the “school” of Paris, artists such as Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) typified the sort of restrained abstraction tied to traditional subject matter and emphasis on recognizable form that emerged after the war. This charming sculpture comes from the between-the-wars period. It is by a very interesting artist, my Discovery of the Week: Ernest de Fiori. If art historians ever have trouble nailing classifications for artists’ styles, the between-the-wars period is a fertile period to explore. Let’s also look at other sculpture produced at the same time as de Fiori’s.

De Fiori studied art at the conservative Academy of Visual Arts in Munich starting in 1904. There he met and formed an artistic bond with the academic-romantic Swiss sculptor Hermann Haller (1880–1950) and the German romantic-Expressionist Karl Hofer (1878–1955). In Ernesto’s work I see a lot more of Hofer, and then in others I see a lot more of Haller, especially his full length figures writhing in academic angst. From 1911 to 1914 he lived in Paris, participating in the lively, experimental artistic milieu there, although he gravitated more toward the work of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) than he did to Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) or Henri Matisse (1869–1954).

After serving briefly as an Italian newspaper correspondent during World War I (1914–1918), he went to Zurich from 1917 until 1921, when he moved to Berlin and became a German citizen. His time in Zurich was the period when the radical Dada group developed, whose manifesto questioned the very nature of art. Ernesto rejected Dadaism and wrote an article critical of its aims, saying that art should maintain a connection with tradition and express the sentiments and intuitions of the world, which he considered reborn, rather than destroyed by the war.

Ernesto’s sculpture, at first strongly influenced by Haller, during the 1920s, began to be less schematic, and more sensitive to the human form. His works had always shown the Expressionist tendency to reflect varied emotional states, from angst to tranquility. The 1920s was the period of Ernesto’s first portraits. This lovely portrait of his wife reflects the influence of the serene quality of Hofer’s paintings, the mottled surface of Rodin’s sculpture, and the serene psychological aura of his wife, something akin to the gentle romanticism of Paul Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907).

Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988 US), Portrait of Anna Marie Merkel, 1929. Bronze, 13 1/2" x 8 1/4" x 8" (34.3 x 21 x 20.3 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2015 Estate of Isamu Noguchi / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-29ngars)
Noguchi was born in California, but spent much of his childhood in Japan with his father’s family. He moved to Indiana at 13. While in college, he took night courses in sculpture. A 1926 exhibition of Brancusi’s sculpture in New York had a profound impact on Noguchi. He abandoned his pre-medicine studies, obtained a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and went to Paris, working in Brancusi’s studio from 1927–1929.

Brancusi’s work of the early 1920s was realist, based on the night courses he took with the academic Italian sculpture Onorio Ruotolo (1888–1966). Inspired by Brancusi’s massively reduced forms, however, Noguchi developed a personal abstract, which often combined high finish with rough texture. The works have a lyrical expressiveness, respect for the natural material, and a mystic quality inherent in Japanese art, grounded in the reduction of form learned from Brancusi.

This portrait from his early period with Brancusi shows an awareness of the surfaces of Rodin, something reflected in Ernesto’s portrait. It also shows Noguchi’s innate ability to get to the heart of the subject, whether realistic or abstract.

Chana Orloff (1878–1968, France, born Ukraine), Head of a Woman, 1922. Bronze, 13" x 7 9/16" x 9 1/2" (33 x 19.3 x 24.2 cm). Photo © The Museum of Modern Art, New York  (MOMA-S1272)
Orloff was a Ukranian figurative sculptor. She immigrated to Palestine when she was eighteen because of the persecution Jews faced in Ukraine. Initially introduced to dressmaking as a vocation, she went to Paris in 1910 to study to be a teacher in the art form. Once there, she discovered her passion for art and never turned back to dressmaking. She studied at the Russian Academy in Montparnasse and befriended sculptor/painter Modigliani, the expressionist-abstract sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967, Belarus), and Lithuanian abstract sculptor Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), whose work at the time was figurative, bordering on Cubism.

Orloff herself was heavily influenced by Cubism in her early works. She first showed her work in the progressive Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1913, and by 1916 was showing in important exhibitions in Paris. Orloff’s reputation was well established by the 1920s, particularly for her portraits. Her work combined the reductive surfaces of Cubism, with a romanticism reminiscent of the work of Aristide Maillol (1861-1944).

Orloff was an important figure in the establishment of an indigenous modernist sculpture movement in Israel. Living in Paris, she received visits by many Jewish artists, Zionist leaders, students and Palestinian art lovers. She also made frequent visits to Palestine. Her first exhibit there was in 1935 in Tel Aviv. She was instrumental in the founding of the Tel Aviv Museum.

Ahron Ben-Shmuel (1903–1984, US), Pugilist, 1929. Granite, 21" x 13" x 12" (53.3 x 33 x 30.5 cm). Photo © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-S1314)
Ben-Shmuel began sculpting in his father’s taxidermy shop. He carved anything from pieces of chalk to rubble from construction sites. Already as a child he discovered that he had a sixth sense for bringing three-dimensional forms out of a variety of materials. His formal training was in a stone yard when he served a three-year apprenticeship as a monument (grave stone) sculptor. He also worked for other sculptors, reproducing their models in stone.

Ben-Shmuel’s “neoprimitive” style evolved from his study of archaic Greek sculpture, the sculpture of ancient Mesoamerican cultures, and Oceanic and African figure sculpture. The work from these cultures confirmed his belief that direct carving of hard materials was the foundation of a solid sculptural style. He sought in his work to physically “think out” his impressions in stone.

Like the unfinished male figures of Michelangelo (1475–1564) that are still part of a block of marble, Ben-Shmuel’s granite forms emerge from the block of stone into stylized, blocky forms that retain the density of the original material. Although powerful in silhouette, the carving is refined, even elegant. Pugilist was part of the landmark “First Municipal Art Exhibition” in New York in 1934.

Suffering from lung disease, Ben-Shmuel turned to painting in the mid-1930s, working in an abstract style. One of his pupils was Jackson Pollock (1912–1956).

Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957, France, born Romania), Mademoiselle Pogany II, 1920. Polished bronze, 17 1/4" x 7" x 10" (43.8 x 17.8 x 25.4 cm). Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-740bzars)
Brancusi's sculpture, although it defies connection with any one avant-garde style in the early 1900s, is universal in that every style that followed him seemed to embrace something from his aesthetic. He originally studied cabinetmaking, then sculpture, before moving to Paris in 1904. There he studied briefly under Rodin, although he rejected the dramatic, angst-ridden figures of that master as too traditional. While he admired Rodin's exploration of segmented natural forms, Brancusi was more interested in reducing such fragments of reality to the utmost simplification.

Brancusi was inspired by ancient, non-western cultures such as African and Oceania, and folk art traditions, any aesthetic that by-passed the western academic tradition. He worked with few themes, usually related to human forms, and rarely deserting the figure. This is the second version of his portrait of Margit Pogany (versions I and III are carved in marble). The figure is reduced to the most elementary of descriptive shapes. The features are reduced to faceted shapes reminiscent of Cubism, although Brancusi's forms contain an elegant decorativeness not evident in Cubist renditions of the human figure with the emphasis on elapsed time.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889–1943, Switzerland), Dada Head, 1920. Painted wood with glass beads and wire, height: 9 1/4" (23.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-S1246tuars)
We end this study of between-the-wars sculpture with one of the most important, pioneering women artists of the 20th century: Sophie Taeber-Arp. She was not only influential in the Dada movement when it began (ca. 1915, Zurich), she was also a pioneering teacher in the early 1900s movement that led to the development of the Bauhaus, merging fine art with functional art.

Taeuber-Arp studied drawing in Davos and at the drawing school of the Museum of Industry and Design in Sankt Gallen. In 1910 she studied at the Reformed Art School in Munich, a ground-breaking school that taught the integration of visual and applied arts. She joined the Swiss Association of Workers in 1915, the same year she met her future husband Jean Arp (1886–1966). At the time Taeuber-Arp was creating collages, small sculptures from assorted common objects, and textile designs. She also performed at the Dada-Evenings at the Cabaret Voltaire and Galerie-Dada in Zurich.

Although the 1920s began her career path in textile and interior design, she continued to produce works in the Dada aesthetic. Please contrast this head, which Taeuber-Arp maintained was a portrait of a woman, with that of Ernesto. One can probably see the difference in aesthetic point of view! This head is a combination of found objects, something that the Dada artists pioneered, and that the Surrealists brought to perfection. It certainly lacks the “personal touch” of Ernesto’s portrait, although its mask-like appearance implies the influence of Oceanic and African masks that were such a major influence on modernist sculpture at the time.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade: 4 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade: 5 1.1-2 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.4; A Community Connection: 3.2, 7.4; A Global Pursuit: 8.4; Beginning Sculpture: 2, 4, 5, 6; Explorating Visual Design: 8, 6; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 1013, 16.6; Discovering Art History: 14.3, 17.5

Monday, August 10, 2015

Painting or Print?

Copy after Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902 US, born Germany), printed by Louis Prang and Company (1824–1909, born Germany, firm 1860–1897 Boston), Sunset (California Scenery), 1868. Chromolithograph on paper, printed area: 12 5/16” x 19 9/16” (31.3 x 49.8 cm). © American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA. (AAS-155)
Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902, US, born Germany), Valley of Yosemite, 1864. Oil on paperboard, 11 7/8" x 19 1/4" (30.2 x 48.9 cm). © MFA, Boston. (MFAB-377)

Yes, Sunset (California Scenery) is a print. But, what a print! I will admit, before I learned a little bit about art when in college, I would have seen such a chromolithograph in an antique shop and have thought that it was a painting. “Prang’s American Chromos. ‘The Democracy of Art’…” is how these prints were advertised, because the printing process Prang developed was by far the finest chromolithography available at the time. And, by the late 1800s, homes all over America were decorated with these chromos, in lieu of the more expensive oil paintings. These prints are yet another fascinating chapter in, what I call, the IAHOA (eeyah-howah) – Incredible Art History of America. 

The Hudson River School artists opened Americans’ eyes wide to the natural beauty of our new country starting in the 1830s. The aim of these artists was not only to inform, but to inspire. So, we can forgive them if they fudged placement of landscape elements in order to form spectacular compositions, complete with dramatic weather or lighting. It is only natural that some of the artists associated with that “school” would seek bigger and more glorious landscapes to wow their eastern patrons. The opening of the American West was a perfect opportunity for them to load up on spectacular subject matter. Those artists who painted scenery of the West in the traditional romantic-realist style of the Hudson River School are sometimes labeled the Rocky Mountain School.  Since one of Bierstadt’s huge paintings of Yosemite sold for the unheard of price of $45,000 in the 1860s, these beautiful paintings were out of reach to everyday art enthusiasts, and, so, a market was born…for chromolithographs.

Louis Prang, born in Germany, learned the printing processes from his printer father. He immigrated to the US in 1850, forming his own printing concern in 1860 in Boston. His initial profit came from “art bits,” small copies of fine art oil paintings and watercolors that were “sold in all picture stores,” and usually stored in albums. What he pioneered were large format, multi-stone chromolithographs that made amazingly faithful copies of original paintings. For some of his premium quality (and priced) prints, called “Prang’s Prized Babies,” as many as 19 litho stones were used—that’s 19 different colors layered over one another! Prang used oil-based pigments, which created a textured, built up surface that, to the untrained eye, mimicked a real painting.

Prang’s chromos were praised by press and public alike. He also developed specialty items, such as chromolithographic Christmas cards, which were his invention. In the late 1860s he published “Prang’s Chromo: A Journal of Popular Art,” issuing copies of popular American paintings called “Prang’s American Chromos.” They were based on watercolors and oil of then-popular American artists. So popular were Prang’s prints, that he commissioned some painters to produce series of paintings from which copies for chromos were made. Painters of the West such as Thomas Moran (1837–1926) and Albert Bierstadt were commissioned to fulfill this task.

Sunset (California Scenery) is probably one of the paintings commissioned by Prang for copying by his legion of lithograph artists. These artists must have been incredibly talented people, because this chromo is simply stunning, and really mirrors Bierstadt’s dramatic Luminist depiction of the West. Bierstadt, a fellow immigrant from Germany had made two trips to the West, to the Rockies in Wyoming in 1859, and all the way to California and the Pacific Northwest in 1863. He made hundreds of drawings and oil sketches along the way, which he transformed into enormous studio canvases, sometimes as wide as 10 feet! From the earliest point in his painting career he loved painting mountains, visiting the White Mountains in New Hampshire often for subject matter. Starting in 1853, he spent four years in Germany honing his naturalism skills by painting alpine scenery. It is little wonder that his stupendous depictions of Western scenery convey his enthusiasm and wonder at America’s natural beauty.

Although the chromolithograph fad faded in the last decade of the 1800s—mostly because cheap, mass-produced prints flooded the market—Prang had done the most to establish the market. His high-quality, beautiful prints (over 800 subjects during the firm’s run), like the Hudson River School, opened people’s eyes in post-Civil War (1860–1865) America to the splendor of the American West.

Correlations with Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.21, 4.Connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.4, 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 5.28; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.21, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.8, 2.7-8 Studio; A Personal Journey: 5.4; A Community Connection: 5.4, 6.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.1; Experience Painting: 6; Experience Printmaking: 6; Exploring Painting: 7, 11; Exploring Visual Design: 4, 8, 9; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 9.4, 16.4; Discovering Art History: 12.2

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Essence of Essence

I’ve been reading manifestos by several early modernist artists from Europe recently (Kandinsky, Boccioni, Doesburg), and a recurring thought comes out in all of their writings. It is the idea that the physical reality of a subject is less important than art that expresses the essence of the object. It is easy to see how reduction of a subject to its simplest form is related to the idea of the essence of a subject, and thus, how abstraction was nourished. If we extend the idea of essence to the realm of non-tangible subjects, such as music, then we can see how non-objective abstraction developed. In my mind it is also easy to see why these artists were so passionate about the integrity of abstraction!

Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957, France, born Romania), Bird in Space, 1928. Bronze, unique cast, 54" x 8 1/2" x 6 1/2" (137.2 x 21.6 x 16.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-S0103bzars)
I really like Brancusi’s series of “Bird in Space” sculptures because he was not really summing up the physical bird, but the idea of flight, and he summed it up so beautifully. Initially trained as a furniture maker, he also studied under Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) in Paris. Brancusi really liked Rodin’s sculptures that featured fragments of human figures—allusions to the human form rather than the slavish veneration of a perfect human form that academic realist sculptors at the time emphasized. 
As early as 1910, Brancusi introduced the bird form as a focal point of abstraction in his "Maiastra." The bird was a perfect vehicle for Brancusi to explore his concentration on the essence of a subject rather than its physical nature. He produced a series of nine bronzes and seven marbles of "Bird in Flight" between 1923 and 1940. The highly polished surface extends the idea of flight and speed even further by allowing the form to reflect and, in effect, merge with its setting, blurring the boundaries between the form and its space.

Ancient China, Yi (vessel for ritual food storage/preparation), 1200s–1000s BCE. Bronze, 8" x 4 1/2" x 3 13/16" (20.3 x 11.4 x 9.8 cm). © Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-268)
A symbol can also represent the essence of an idea or object. In China, the dragon has been a potent symbol represented in art for centuries. It has symbolized positive energy, good fortune, and is considered a sign of perfect balance. For scholars it represents wisdom, enlightenment, and truth. Images of the dragon continue to play an important role in art to the present day.
The Chinese mastered bronze-casting by 2000 BCE. The first recorded dynasty, the Shang (ca. 1700–1028 BCE) perfected the production of sophisticated, elegant, and beautifully decorated bronze vessels for ritual use. These vessels, based on forms usually made of wood or ceramic, were symbols of status in wealthy burials. They almost all are decorated with the tao-tieh, a split, flattened dragon face, usually surrounded by elaborate scroll work. This symbol of the dragon was an appropriate one for burials, helping to ensure a successful afterlife.

Papua New Guinea, Yimam People, Hook Figure (Yipwon), 1900s. Wood and shell, 92 15/16" x 7" x 4" (236 x 17.8 x 10.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1609)
The Yimam people live in the Korewori River region of northeast New Guinea. New Guinea is one of the many islands that form the Oceanic region known as Melanesia in the South Pacific. New Guinea is the largest island in the Pacific Ocean. As in Australia, most arts are related to spiritual beliefs and are related to supernatural communication. Rituals and ritual art are primarily the province of men.
The hook figures were stored in the men's ceremonial house. They represented spiritual and ancestral forces, or were meant to channel those forces for luck in hunting and warfare. The figure itself represents the external and internal aspects of the spirits. A head and a leg are clearly visible. The central section represents a body, with beautifully carved hooks representing the ribs, surrounding a central element that represents the heart. Although much care went into the carving of ritual objects, they were often discarded or allowed to deteriorate after they had served their function, or were perceived as ineffective.

Max Weber (1881–1961, US, born Poland), The Dancer, 1946. Pastel on brown paper, 18 3/16" x 13 1/4" (46.2 x 33.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5052)
Max Weber, born in Russia, was probably the first American artist who experimented extensively with Cubism. He studied at the Pratt Institute under the influence of modernist painter Arthur Wesley Dow (1857–1922) in New York and then spent 1905 to 1908 in Paris, participating in Cubist and Fauve exhibits. After he returned to the US, his work was a highly personal form of Cubism. Although he returned to more figurative work in the 1920s, there was a Cubist simplification in his work throughout his career.  

The Cubism movement emphasized the idea of time as a component of two-dimensional art. The Futurists added the idea of the time component including movement (dynamism). Weber produced numerous studies of dancers in the Cubist vocabulary, using it as a way to distill the basic idea of a dancer’s movements. 

James A.M. Whistler (1834–1903 US), Nocturne, Blue and Silver, ca. 1872–1878. Oil on canvas, 15 1/2" x 24 3/4" (39.4 x 62.9 cm). © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. (GM-50)
Whistler’s concern for abstract qualities found expression in a number of paintings (and prints) on the “nocturne” subject. While it is tempting to consider it the influence of Impressionism, Japanese art, particularly the prints of Hiroshige, were the major impetus. Like his portraits, Whistler worked with a limited palette to emphasize the surface of the painting. In 1872, Whistler declared that violinist friend Francis Leyland (1832–1892), who was devoted to Chopin, influenced his use of musical terms in his painting titles.
While the title of this series of paintings, “nocturne,” alludes to the French tendency to equate art with music, the painting itself relies heavily on the Japanese idea of art as decorative and aesthetically valuable rather than philosophical. Like Japanese prints, which had fascinated Whistler, the scene of the Thames in London is reduced to simple, horizontal bands. While the bands astutely imply recession, they also help create a flat surface that verges, like Monet’s late water lily works, to deny the traditional Western perception of painting as a two-dimensional window into a three-dimensional “world.”

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974 Mexico), Essence of a Tree, 1965. Oil on panel, 47 1/2" x 12" (120.7 x 30.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2015 David Alfaro Siqueiros / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BMA-5106sqars)
Siqueiros was one of the “big three” of Mexican muralists (including Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco). A member of one of the armies vying for political control during the Mexican Revolution (ca. 1910–1917) and a labor activist from a young age, he studied art in both Mexico and Europe. He was affected by the frescoes of Michelangelo (1475–1564) and illusionistic Baroque ceiling and wall paintings. His murals in Mexico, on a variety of themes of social justice and a more equitable society in Mexico, are characterized by dramatic, often violent movement; distortion of forms; and a limited palette.
Siqueiros often used tree-like forms in his murals to act as divisions between themes within a greater composition. This extraction of the essence of a writhing, gestural tree is typical of his Expressionistic mural forms.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.7, 2.22; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.5, 6.25, 6.26; A Personal Journey: 6.1, 6.5, 6.6; A Community Connection: 1.1; A Global Pursuit: 1.1, 1.3; The Visual Experience: 1.1, 2.1; Discovering Art History: 1.2, 2.1