Friday, October 30, 2015

The Beauty of Wayō Shodō

Unknown Artist, Japan, Page containing a calligraphy of a poem by Lady Ise (875–938 CE), from a portfolio Anthology of Thirty-Six Poets,” 1108–1112. Ink, silver ink, and ground mica-infused white ink on paper, mounted in 1929 as a hanging scroll, 8" x 6 1/4" (20.3 x 15.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2816A)

Did you known that the Japanese did not have a written language up until the 400s CE? I find cursive Japanese so incredibly beautiful. The story behind its development is very interesting, and I bet you can’t take your eyes off of this page from a collection of poems! The chrysanthemum design is a woodblock print in white ink infused with ground mica, which sparkles (you can’t really make that out in a photograph). So sumptuous!

In 784 CE the Japanese emperor Kammu (737–806 CE) moved the capital from Nara to Kyoto in order to escape the constant interference of the Buddhist monks in Nara, and establish a strong centralized government based on Chinese models. Within 100 years of the move, official embassies to China ceased because of political turmoil there. Without the dominance of Chinese artistic models, Japanese culture thrived in the wealthy imperial court in Kyoto, ushering in a period of literary, artistic, and architectural flourishing. The dedicated patronage of aristocrats in the court encouraged the development of indigenous religious and nascent secular art.
The Heian period was also a period that saw a rise of provincial military clans organized in a feudal system. These clans continually challenged the emperor’s power and insisted that Japan reject the overwhelming amount of Chinese influence on Japanese culture. The first important novel in world literature, the "Tale of Genji" by Murasaki Shikibu, appeared during the Heian era. Despite constant political turmoil during the Heian Period, it is considered the period during which the foundational classics of Japanese painting, literature, and sculpture were produced.
From the 400s to 700s CE, the Japanese began to incorporate Chinese characters into a written language. Chinese calligraphy at that time was already very advanced. Initially, Japanese calligraphy was called "karayō shodō" or "Tang (dynasty) style." The oldest extant Japanese script is dated 615 CE, a commentary of the Lotus Sutra composed in standard Chinese script. Although the imperial court in Kyoto encouraged the use of Chinese characters in literature and official documents, by the end of the Heian period, the "wayō shodō"— Japanese style—was already developing.
The period of the late 800s through the 900s is sometimes called the era of the Three Brushes, named for three prominent calligraphers who helped shape the Japanese style. Of the three, the contributions of Ono no Kichikaze (894–966) are considered the most important, and he is thought to be the first person to form a truly unique Japanese style. The Japanese cursive style was a natural result of the increasing need of artistic expression in calligraphy that would accompany gestural landscape paintings in poems. Like the Chinese painters of landscapes, landscape artists modeled their brush strokes on calligraphy brush strokes.
The script of this poem is the "wayō shadō," a style developed at the imperial court. The poem by a woman of the court is thought to have been commissioned for the sixtieth birthday of the Emperor Shirakawa (1053–1129) in 1112. This poem leaf was separated from a collection of some 190 pages of poems, written on paper that was sumptuously decorated with woodblock printed chrysanthemum flowers in white ink made of shimmering ground mica. Additionally, there are pages with pine branches, bell flowers, maple leaves, and birds stenciled in silver leaf. The anthology of poems was executed by twenty of the leading calligraphers of the period. Such luxurious collections of writings are typical of the aesthetic heights that the Heian period art reached.

Two other examples of the Japanese cursive style of calligraphy:

Ogata Gekko (1859–1920), Index from the portfolio Women’s Customs and Manners, 1897. Color woodcut on paper, 14" x 9 15/16" (35.6 x 25.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2373).

Hashimoto Dokuzan (1868-1939), Calligraphy of Freely Having Nothing is my Poem. Ink on paper, hanging scroll, 53 5/8" x 13 1/8" (136.2 x 33.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4664)

This website features profiles of many prominent Japanese calligraphers through history:

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 4.24; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 5.26; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.27; A Global Pursuit: 7.5; A Personal Journey: 4.2; Discovering Art History: 4.4; Exploring Visual Design: 1; The Visual Experience: 3.4, 13.5

Monday, October 19, 2015

Stories of Ruler Portraits

Since (ugh) election time coming around once again, let’s look at some interesting portraits of people who were never elected (except for the last one). There are always interesting tidbits about these sovereigns from the past. POP QUIZ: What do the first and last guys have in common? (answer at end) 

Ancient Egypt, Ptolemy II (309–246 BCE), between 285 and 246 BCE. Limestone, from Benha il-Assel, 17 15/16" x 13 15/16" x 8 1/4" (45.5 x 35.5 x 21 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4903)

Ptolemy II was the son of the dynasty’s founder, Ptolemy Soter (ca. 367–ca. 283 BCE). Aside from the questionable success of military endeavors to expand Greek Egypt’s power in the eastern Mediterranean, he was a good diplomat and established a strong relationship with Egyptians, as well as a thriving economy, allowing Egypt autonomy from Greece. He actively encouraged the Egyptian religion and artistic conventions, while also following those of the Greeks. While Egyptian pharaohs had always been considered gods themselves, he established the cult of the “brother god,” a practice that would have profound influence on the cult of the emperor in the Roman Empire. 

Ancient Peru, Moche Culture, Portrait Head Vessel, 400–600 CE. Earthenware, 13" x 8 1/4" x 7" (33 x 21 x 18 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (MFH-628)

The Moche culture flourished between 100 BCE and 750 CE on a narrow desert plain between the Pacific and the Andes mountains in northern Peru. The culture is probably most famous for the effigy vessels found in the tombs of the ruling class. The Moche had a stratified society in which the rulers also acted as religious leaders. Like many Mesoamerican and South American cultures, the Moche cities were dominated by central palace/civic worship complexes from which governmental and religious activities were overseen. It is tempting to look at these effigy vessels as portraits of the deceased, but their purpose and inspiration are unknown. The elaborate headdress of this male becomes what is known as a “stirrup” handle. 

Attributed to Yan Liben (ca. 600–673 CE, China), Emperor Wu of Jin (236–290 CE) and Emperor Zhaoli of Shu (162–223 CE), section of the handscroll The Thirteen Emperors, ink and color on silk, height: 20 3/16" (51.3 cm"), overall length: 17' 42" (531 cm). © MFA, Boston. (MFAB-646B)

These figures come from the famous “Thirteen Emperors” handscroll. It was painted during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), an early renaissance of Chinese culture.  The long period of domination of northern China by foreigners that engendered the Six Dynasties Period (220–589 CE), led to a yearning by the Chinese to reunite the country and reestablish the glorious culture that had flourished during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The short-lived Sui dynasty (589–618 CE) failed to do what the Tang dynasty succeeded in doing in the early 600s. The founder of the Tang dynasty, who had much northern blood, successfully managed to control the "barbarian" cultures in the north and west. This reopened the trade routes to the west, and left China once again open to an abundance of artistic wealth and innovation. This scroll depicts illustrious emperors of the Six Dynasties and Han periods. 

Edo People, Nigeria, Head of an Oba, 1575–1650. Bronze, 9 3/4" x 7 1/2" x 7 3/4" (24.76 x 19.05 x 19.68 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-36)

The Edo culture of Nigeria created one of the many fabulous kingdoms of pre-colonial Africa. The Benin Kingdom began to flourish during the late 1400s and lasted until stamped out by the British in the 1800s. They excelled in lost-wax cast metal sculpture of bronze and brass. The Benin Kingdom was a monarchy in which the oba (king) ruled over subsidiary regional chiefs/vassals. After the death of the oba/king, the successor was expected to honor the deceased with the creation of a commemorative head. Heads such as this were placed upon an altar in the palace. Not only did they commemorate the past leader, but they acted as a constant guiding presence of the deceased oba. In Edo culture, the head was considered the center of a person's intelligence, wisdom, authority, and family leadership. One of the honorific names for the oba is "Great Head." 

India, Mughal Dynasty, The Emperor Aurangzeb (1618–1707) on Horseback, 1690–1710. Ink and color on paper, 12" x 8 3/4" (30.5 x 22.3 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-128)

In 1526 the Turk/Mongol leader Babur (1483–1530) founded the Mughal Empire when he invaded and conquered northern India (including present-day Pakistan). Under Babur’s successors, especially the emperor Akbar (1542–1607), the empire grew to encompass three-quarters of the Indian subcontinent. The Mughal emperors tolerated the other major faiths of India, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikh. The exception was Aurangzeb (1618–1707), who tried to abolish the Sikh sect. Aurangzeb (died 1707), a conservative Muslim, disapproved of music and art, and as a result the arts declined during his reign. This is likely a posthumous portrayal of the emperor. Halos such as this were not only meant to signify sainted figures of Islam, but also revered rulers. 

Robert J. Bingham (1824–1910, Britain), Maximilian (1832–1867), Emperor of Mexico, 1864–1867. Albumen silver print on paper mounted on cardstock, 3 1/2" x 2 1/4" (9 x 5.7 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P3439)
This poor slob with the deer-in-the-headlights look—the brother of the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—was prevailed upon by the French in 1863 to become emperor of Mexico, creating a French foothold in the Western Hemisphere. The French invaded Mexico in 1862 in order to force the country to repay its debts to France. Napoleon III (1808–1873), the French ruler, wanted a European ruling Mexico to establish stability after the turmoil of civil war there (after 1855). Maximilian tried unsuccessfully to bring the opposing factions to agreement, angering conservatives with some liberal reforms. After the French withdrew their troops in 1865, Maximilian’s regime quickly collapsed under liberal forces led by reformer Benito Juarez (died 1872). He was captured and executed in 1867. 

Ogé (1861–1936, France), President Kruger of Transvaal Offering Pills to Queen Victoria – Pills Dum Dum, 1900. Color metal relief print on paper, 43 9/16" x 29 1/2" (110.8 x 74.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum  of Art. (PMA-3930)

Throughout history, the French have always enjoyed seeing the British have troubles, and vice versa. So, it is not surprising that a French artist drew this cartoon of Britain’s Queen Victoria (1819–1901) during the stupid Second Boer War (1899–1902). That was basically a war fought between Britain and the Dutch colonists for land and control of all of southern Africa, and the rich gold mining industry.  The result of the war was the formation of the Union of South Africa. This cartoon shows the Boer president Paul Kruger offering a sick Queen Victoria Dum Dum pills, a remedy for colds. “Dum dum” was also slang for bullets, hence the rifle he’s carrying. 

Donald Moffett (born 1955, US), He Kills Me, 1987. Color offset lithograph on paper, 23 3/8" x 37 3/8" (59.5 x 95 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Donald Moffett. (MOMA-P3073)

Answer to POP QUIZ: Ptolemy and Reagan are both deified rulers!

Ronald Reagan’s (1911–2004) presidency launched the “Reagan Revolution,” which was basically an anti-big-government movement that has affected American politics to the present day. His presidency was also known for the period that witnessed the collapse of Communism as a viable governmental form in Russia and Eastern Europe, in part because of Reagan’s peace-through-strength stance that led ultimately to better relations with Russia and the end of the Cold War. This artist parodies one of the low points of Reagan’s administration when he unintentionally told a stupid joke over the air before his weekly radio broadcast in 1984 claiming that he had outlawed Russia forever and would start “bombing in five minutes.” Some politicians today still hark back to the “Reagan Revolution” as if it were a religion.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Beautiful Idea…and Building

Louis Bourgeois (1856–1930, US, born Canada), Baha’I Temple of Worship, 1921–1931, Wilmette, IL. Photo © 2015 Davis Art Images. (8S-14101)

Once, while on a plane landing at O’Hare when I lived in Chicago, the sun was going down and we flew in low over this spectacular building. I’ll never forget that sight. And, yes, it was in winter with snow on the ground.

The tenets of the Baha’i faith are pretty straightforward, and immensely progressive. The Baha'i faith resulted from a revelation to the Shiite Iranian Mirza Husayn-Ali (1817–1892), subsequently known as Baha'u'llah (The Glory of God). Baha'u'llah was made to understand that all religions are centered on the same supreme deity, meaning that all world religions are monotheistic, interpreted by various persons chosen as prophets. The three core principles of the faith are: the unity of God, the unity of all religions, and the unity of humanity. The Baha'i Temple in Wilmette, Illinois, was the first Baha'i place of worship constructed in the United States.
The architect of the Baha'i Temple ("The Temple of Light"), converted to the Baha'i faith in 1906 in New York. Born in Saint-Célestin de Nicolet, Québec, he had shown a talent for drawing by the age of 8. Interested in architecture, he apprenticed in a church contractor's office, designing his first church in 1892. He also studied as an apprentice to a sculptor, going to Paris, where he was surrounded by great sculpture from the Gothic through the Neoclassical periods. What enthralled him most, however, was the architecture of Paris. He subsequently traveled to Italy, Greece, and Egypt to absorb many different styles of architecture.

In 1886 Bourgeois was in Chicago and worked with Louis Sullivan (1856–1924), the pioneer of American skyscrapers. A key feature of Sullivan's architecture was exterior decoration that was strongly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, one that borrowed decorative motifs liberally from Medieval, Islamic, and Asian sources. The commission for the Baha'i Temple was proposed in 1909 but not decided in favor of Bourgeois until 1920. 

The Baha'i Temple has a silhouette similar to that of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and, like that building, is characterized by a merging of Western and Islamic styles. The octagonal dome and drum are decorated in a combination of Gothic tracery and Islamic arabesque decoration that encloses a centralized worship space much like the centrally-planned Byzantine churches. Some of the curving and undulating elements of the façade may refer to Art Nouveau. The peers separating the eight sides of the building bear the names of the major prophets of all world religions.

Baha’I Temple of Worship, Entrance. Photo © 2015 Davis Art Images. (8S-14102) 

The main entrance door bears a scalloped, horseshoe arch similar to those seen at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, and the Great Mosque in Cordobá.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 1 1.1; Explorations in Art 2 6.31, 6.33; Explorations in Art 3 4.20; Explorations in Art 4 3.16, 3.18; Explorations in Art 5 2.12; Explorations in Art 6 4.19, 4.20; A Community Connection 7.4; Exploring Visual Design 1, 7, 8; The Visual Experience 11.4, 16.6; Discovering Art History 16.1

Monday, October 5, 2015

German American Heritage Month

The more things change, etc. I get really irritated with people who say in speeches that immigrants to the US should “speak American.” For one thing, “American” isn’t a language, it’s a nationality. For another thing, this attitude is as old as this country. Already during the colonial period, even up until the time of the Revolution (1776–1783), English-speaking colonists were afraid that English would die out as the majority language in America. And, no, it wasn’t Spanish they were afraid of—it was German! Well, even though Britain claimed east-coast America as “crown colonies,” immigrants from different parts of Europe also settled here during the 1600s and 1700s. German immigrants were settling in America for almost as long as British. Let’s celebrate German American Heritage Month by showing early examples of German American art!

Interesting fact: Pennsylvania German is often mistakenly called Pennsylvania Dutch, either because many of the Germans came through the Netherlands when they migrated, or because of early colonial confusion of the German word for “German,” which is “Deutsch.” 

Unknown, Pennsylvania, Birth Certificate of Johannes Axer, 1794. Watercolor on paper, 7 7/8" x 12 9/16" (20 x 32 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2454)
War and religious persecution of Lutherans by Roman Catholic nations were the main reasons for the German migrations to America in the 1600s and 1700s. William Penn (died 1718), who “acquired” the Pennsylvania colony in 1681, was the first to offer the colony as refuge for German Protestants. The first immigrants landed in Philadelphia in 1683, with another large wave of migrations in 1710. By 1717 the German population of Pennsylvania was 20,000, and by 1740 it had doubled. Ben Franklin recorded that there were 100,000 Germans in the colony in 1766. Unfortunately, through the 1700s, many of the German immigrants were too poor to afford ship passage to the US and were forced to sign agreements (in English), to work off their fare as indentured servants once they arrived here.  

The migrants were from every conceivable sector of German culture: farmers, day laborers, craftspeople, stone masons, and builders. It is little wonder why there is such a variety of artwork left by these zealous, hard-working colonists. By the late 1700s, German migrants could be found in Maine and New York up to Buffalo. Settlements grew throughout Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), into the Ohio Valley, and down to Tennessee and Kentucky. Germans had settled in most of Maryland, especially Baltimore, down along the Shenandoah Valley, through North and South Carolina, and on into Georgia. As the west opened, settlements grew in Missouri and Wisconsin. 

Henry Young (active mid-1800s, US), Baptismal Record of James David Musser, 1852. Watercolor on paper, 9 13/16" x 7 7/8" (25 x 20 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2648)
Much of the art of Pennsylvania German artists reflects a self-taught aesthetic. The decorative motifs such as flattened birds and flowers come from textile designs. The majority of painting in watercolor is in the form of decorated documents, such as this birth certificate and baptismal record. Though few “portraits” exist in the 1700s, by the early 1800s naively drawn “portraits” appear more and more in these documents, where the text takes a back seat to the standing couple. Note that by the 1850s, these descendants of the German immigrants are writing their documents in English. The stylized, flattened flowers and quilt-derived sunburst designs are giveaways that this Musser family is Pennsylvania German. 

Attributed to John Neis (1775–1867, US), Pie plate, 1786. Red ware ceramic, lead glaze, sgraffito decoration, width: 11 3/4" (29.8 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1629)
This dish was made from high-quality clay found under the wet topsoil of Pennsylvania's low-lying plains. Southeastern Pennsylvania's terrain supported farms and potteries, so by 1810 ceramics kilns could be found in almost every township in Buck's County. Besides producing ceramics on the wheel, Pennsylvania German potters adapted the British technique of making plates such as this by draping a damp slab of clay over a convex mold to form the plate. The inscription on this plate (which I absolutely cannot read) and some of the outlines and coats of the musicians is done in sgraffito work, incised lines that reveal the red of the clay underneath. 

Unknown, Pennsylvania, Chest (Kast), ca. 1793, Painted pine and poplar, 25 9/16" x 49 9/16" x 22 7/16" (65 x 126 x 57 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1925)
Another prevalent art form among the Pennsylvania German was furniture. Because many of the German immigrants were not affluent, their furniture reflects the lives of less well-off people back in Germany. For working class people, chests such as this were essential, and often the only type of furniture they owned. Chests indeed sometimes doubled as beds. This is a custom that dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe (ca. 1000–1400). Typically, Pennsylvania German furniture was painted, because the German immigrants could not afford furniture with expensive inlaid wood decoration (marquetry), or veneered furniture. The stylized flowers are similar to those seen in the two watercolors.

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: 6.35-36 studio; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 2.6, 5.2, 6.2; Experience Clay: 3; Experience Painting: 4; Exploring Painting: 5; Exploring Visual Design: 11; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 10.6, 12.4; Discovering Art History: 2.2