Monday, December 19, 2016

First Snow Response

In the last week we had our first measurable snow in Massachusetts. I’m totally the kind of dork who’s all “it’s so pretty to walk around when it’s snowing.” And since there are not many things in life that don’t remind me of art, I thought of winter landscapes. I think snow scenes in art are one of the most enjoyable types of comfort food for the eyes. There’s just such a variety! 

Utagawa Toyokuni III (Kunisada I) (1786–1864, Japan), Twelfth Month: Snow, Moon and Style of Winter Dress. Color woodcut triptych on paper, height of each panel: 13 7/8" (35.3 cm), width of whole: 29 5/8" (75.3 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-450)
You knew I would show a Ukiyo-e print with a snow scene, because I’ve said before what an admirer I am of those woodblock artists. I used an umbrella last week when it snowed, though not with such flare as these folks. The samurai on the left has the most gorgeous patterned outfit of all of those featured in this print. It goes to show how influential the prints were on fashions of the period.

Kunisada was the son of a relatively well-known poet in Edo, whose artistic talent manifested itself early. His ability was noticed as a youth copying actor prints. In 1800 he became an apprentice under Utagawa Toyokuni (1769–1825), whose name Kunisada subsequently adopted (1842) to honor the master.

Kunisada became a great master—one of the last greats of the late Edo period—in his own right, adapting, like his master, all of the range of popular ukiyo-e subjects. Like Toyokuni, Kunisada favored actor prints, a specialty of the Utagawa school. Although Kunisada started out producing primarily actor prints, he eventually branched out into bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) and, in the 1830s, he dabbled briefly in landscapes.

Willard Metcalf (1858–1925, US), The First Snow, 1906. Oil on canvas, 25 7/8" x 29" (65.7 x 73.7 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-69)
The American artists who absorbed the Impressionist style really did an awesome job of it! It’s almost scary. This winter landscape just begs the viewer to walk through that misty landscape. The ability to invite a viewer to take a stroll through a painted landscape was one of the tests of traditional Chinese and Japanese landscapes. Metcalf has succeeded.

Metcalf, born in Lowell, MA, first studied in Boston. Like many of his colleagues, he studied in Paris in the 1880s (1883–1886 to be precise). He gradually learned to prefer the short, clean brush work of Monet and his colleagues, and also dabbled in the dot-like brush work of the Pointillists. Unfortunately, by the time this work was painted—around the time the Ash Can School artists broke onto the scene—Impressionism really wasn’t a cutting-edge movement anymore.

Metcalf’s favorite subject was landscapes. He especially favored those of New England. His works of the northeastern landscape earned him the unofficial moniker of Poet Laureate of New England Hills.

Alexander Calder (1898–1976, US), Snow Flurry I, 1948. Sheet steel and steel wire, painted, 7'8" x 6'8" (239 x 209 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-S1085caars)
If this work isn’t exactly whimsical (I usually despise that word when discussing a work of art), it is certainly imaginative and clever. I think it gives the same amount of interest in the sense of depicting nature as the Metcalf painting.

Calder was the son and grandson of academic sculptors. After he went to Paris in 1926, he never reached back to that heritage. His moving toys and figures of the late 1920s became part of his famous “Circus” installation that became a big sensation in both Paris and in the US.

Although the Russian artists in the early 1900s had experimented with the concept of motion in sculpture, Calder achieved it extensively and uniquely. The “Circus” and other early works had been moved by cranks and motors. He abandoned those soon after when he figured out that air currents could make stuff move if he worked in materials that were light enough. I think it was Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) who called Calder’s works “mobiles.”

Anne Truitt (1921–1983, US), Spring Snow. Acrylic-painted wood, 8'6" x 31 1/8” x 7 7/8" (260 x 79 x 20 cm). Image: Davis Art Images. (8S-3996)
I know we aren’t in Spring, yet, but I was intrigued with this lovely piece by Truitt. She’s such an interesting and complex person, I hesitate to categorize her work as Minimalism, although this piece was part of an exhibition at the Emmerich Gallery in New York on Color Field artists.

Born in Maryland, Truitt earned a degree in psychology before World War II (1939–1945), and worked as a psychiatric nurse during that war. During the day, she wrote poems and short stories. She wed a man who worked for the State Department and they traveled all over the place, including Japan from 1964–1967.

She studied sculpture for the first time academically in 1949 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in DC, and then at the Dallas Museum of Art. It was after that she began to explore various media and techniques, including cast cement and steel welding. She settled on what would be her signature style in 1961. She never categorized her work as an emphasis on geometric form or color. 

Peter Doig (born 1959, Scotland), Pink Snow, 1991. Oil on canvas, 8' x 6'6" (243.5 x 198 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2016 Peter Doig / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P0595digars)
Yes, here’s a painting with a person walking around in a merry daze as the snow falls. I particularly like Doig’s work because so many of his paintings seem like waking dreams. And his surfaces are such complex layers of color and depth, especially his non-snow landscapes.

Doig was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, but lives and works in Trinidad. He grew up in Trinidad and Canada and studied art in London. By the 1990s he had already established a reputation for his semi-abstract landscapes, which he has said are a mixture of Edvard Munch (1863–1944) and Canadian landscape painters. The Canadian landscape painters I can see. What I really like are the big snowflakes in whitish, yellow and orange. He’s very famous for his works that include (usually abandoned) canoes and the series “Lapeyrouse Wall.”

Hella Jongerius (designer, born 1963, Netherlands) and Nymphenburg Porcelain Factory (maker, 1747-present, Nymphenburg, Germany), Winter Candleholder, 2007. Hand-painted porcelain, 5" x 8" (12.7 x 20.3 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Hella Jongerius. (PMA-6407)
I really like contemporary artists who are able to throw a visual curve, which is the response I got from this set of vessels she designed for Nymphenburg. I don’t really expect to see a competent ode to classical art these days, especially not in porcelain, but it sure is a treat when you come across it. I thought “old man winter” was a good way to end this post. This piece is simply stunning for its surfaces!

Jongerius was born in De Meern, near Utrecht. She actually investigated woodworking before getting a design degree from the Eindhoven Design Academy. She currently designs textiles, furniture, and ceramics for a number of different firms. While in school she emphasized textiles, although a ceramics piece that she had designed earned her more attention.

Jongerius is interesting because she combines hand-crafting and hand-painting with mold work. She also combines classical aesthetics with contemporary sensibilities. This candleholder comes from a set of vessels called “The Four Seasons,” a stunning set of wine jug, tea pot, hand mirror, and candleholder.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Peruvian Splendor

If you are one of those folks (I’m not) who believe that the highest point in aesthetics was attained in the art of ancient Greece and Rome, then you probably do consider the period after the downfall of the Roman Empire, roughly 500–1000 CE, the “Dark Ages.” I don’t, because art did not cease to exist, but actually flourished. Besides, I can cite you (and I have in previous posts) numerous cultures that flourished aesthetically at the same time all over the planet. I believe these cultures achieved as equal a level of sophistication in their arts as ancient Greece and Rome. I’m talking here about the indigenous cultures of the ancient Western Hemisphere, Peru in particular. I’m particularly interested in the Wari culture, which doesn’t get as much attention as the later Inka.

The Wari culture developed in the Ayacucho mountain valley in central Peru. It flourished between 500 and 1000 CE, same as the Tiawanaku culture of Bolivia, a culture that influenced Wari art forms. The culture is named after its major city, from which Wari influence spread out over much of central and south Peru. The Wari culture extended its influence through conquest and was probably the first centralized Andean government, which became the basis of the Inka culture. 

The Wari produced some of the most tightly woven textiles among the Andean cultures, famous for the importance of their textile arts. Wari textiles often contained 200 threads per 2.54 centimeters (1 inch). Like the Tiawanaku culture, Wari textile artists used an interlocked tapestry technique which ultimately was one of the most prized skills among later Inka artists. Like the Inka, the capitals of the Wari and Tiawanaku cultures were centered in the Andean highlands where the humidity and seasonal rains allowed few textiles to survive. Desert conditions along the Pacific coast and inland river valleys preserved many of the textiles now found in museums. 

Tunic, from the South Highlands. Cotton and camelid fiber, 35 13/16" x 57" (91 x 144.9 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1286)
The sophisticated and complex weaving of tunics such as this example marked it as a garment meant only for the ruling class or dignitaries. The weaving is so tight, and the thread count so high, that tunics of this size could often contain as much as nineteen miles (30.77 kilometers) of thread!

The square construction with a slit opening at the neck is typical of the tunics that ultimately influenced Inka textiles artists, and, too were worn only by the elite. It is no wonder that such sophisticated textiles were prized above gold as a status symbol. This tunic has a repeated motif of a winged being holding a staff and wearing a feathered headdress. Like most Wari textiles, the forms consist of bold geometric simplification. 

Mantle fragment or carrying cloth, from the South Coast, 600–1000 CE. Cotton, camelid fiber, 11 7/16" x 15 3/8" (29.1 x 39 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4769)
Most Andean textiles have a vertical cotton warp with a cotton and camelid weft. Camelid fibers are the wool from alpacas, llamas, or vicuñas. This fragment bears a repeated motif of stylized camelid figures. If part of a garment, it was most likely worn by a male. 

Detail of a tunic fragment, ca. 700–1100 CE. Camelid brocaded plain cotton, overall 18 1/16" x 18 1/4" (46 x 46.5 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CM-461)
The textiles for the ruling class were so sophisticated, that it is probable that fine textile production was overseen as an art form by the religious/ruling class in the form of a special guild. Stylized, actually abstracted, supernatural beings are a staple of subject matter among Andean textile artists. This particular material probably depicts a being called “The Sacrificer,” symbolized by the trophy head held aloft by the figure's left hand. The figures in these panels progress from highly stylized/abstracted figures to figures reduced almost solely to geometric shapes.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.32, 6.31-32 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.10; A Community Connection: 1.5; A Personal Journey: 3.3; Exploring Visual Design: 8, 11; The Visual Experience: 10.8, 14.4; Discovering Art History: 4.9

Monday, December 5, 2016


I happen to burn a lot of incense, because I think it’s nicer than any of those spray products that immediately fall to the floor and dissipate. And who wants a plug-in air freshener that runs up the electricity bill? But I digress. Recently, I had some incense fired up and noticed this interesting layer of incense smoke in my living room. I noticed when I walked through it, it made really interesting swirls and patterns, and I thought (long story short), that would be interesting to paint. I haven’t attempted it, yet, but here are some artists who have depicted smoke in a variety of ways.

Ancient Mexico, Mayan, Male (Priest?) Burning Incense, tripod plate, ca. 500–800 CE. Painted earthenware, width: 11" (28 cm). Private Collection. Image © 2016 Davis Publications. (8S-11240)
Incense was burned at every major ceremony throughout Mayan lands. The painted forms on Mayan ceramics are basically shapes with contour lines around them. The incense smoke is nothing like what I saw in my apartment. It’s been simplified here to a single line coming up from the censer in the dignitary’s hand.

Ceramic arts were practiced by Mesoamerican peoples starting from the time of the Olmec (ca. 1500–400 BCE). The most important objects were vases and jars meant to hold offerings in tombs and incense burners, which were also used during burial ceremonies. Like most Mesoamerican art, most objects come from grave sites. Many ceramic objects have survived from the Mayan culture because of their traditions of including ceramics in burials.

Mayan ceramics were shaped using the coil or slab method. Tripod plates were created with the coil method with the feet applied before firing. Such tripod plates were meant to hold (food) offerings for burials.  

Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858, Japan), The Kilns by the Hashiba Ferry on the Sumida River, print #37 from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857. Color woodcut print on paper, 14 3/16" x 9 7/16" (36 x 24 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-772)
I’m a big fan of Hiroshige, but I seriously think that the artists who carved and printed the multiple blocks for each of his subjects deserve special admiration. I’m really liking the nuances achieved with the ink used in the smoke coming up from the kiln. The rounded kilns in the foreground are those of tile-makers in the Imado neighborhood, with pine needle piles between them for fire.

Although Hiroshige is best known in the West for his Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido (1830), he was equally renowned in his own time for One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. He published it late in life at a time when he renounced the material world to become a monk. This may account for the overall quiet tone of the subjects, where humor is only evident in details. Faces on the small figures are either hidden or nondescript, there are no merry crowds, and snow scenes have a somewhat somber air. 

Currier and Ives (publisher, firm 1834–1906 New York), Prairie Fires of the Great West, 1871. Hand-colored lithograph on paper, sheet 11" x 15" (27.9 x 37.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4804)
This print has double smoke action going on in it, from the train and from the prairie fire. Aside from this being an ironic juxtaposition of American technology versus our rapidly dwindling wilderness, it’s also a bit of a scary/exciting thought to be in a train watching a huge prairie blaze.

Nathaniel Currier’s firm was first called “Currier and Stodart” in 1834 (1813–1888). In1835 the firm was "N. Currier, Lithographer" which lasted until 1852, when he hired bookkeeper James Ives (1824–1895). Currier started out doing print jobs for various companies as well as architecture firms, and experimented with news events (particularly disasters), fashion prints, memorials, and portraits of prominent people. His 1840 print of the sinking of the steamer "Lexington" garnered him national attention.

Currier expanded his subjects to landscapes, genre scenes, and documentation of the US expansion in the West. That subject dominated his print output after the Civil War (1860–1865). This print comes from the last decade of the famous hand-colored lithographs, painted in watercolors mostly by a group of young women.

Although chromolithography was perfected by the time of the Civil War, Currier and Ives only issued limited edition prints in the process. After Currier retired in 1880, chromolithography took over. 

James Rosenquist (born 1933, US), Night Smoke, 1969–1970. Color lithograph on paper, composition 16 7/16" x 21 7/8" (41.8 x 55.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 James Rosenquist / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P2878rovg)
Wouldn’t you love to see multi-colored factory smoke like this instead of gray/brown smoke from American industry? This print comes from a lovely colored chalk study from the same period. Rosenquist began producing prints in order to reach a larger market with his imagery in the late 1960s.

This is a particularly fascinating work by Rosenquist compared to his needle-sharp detailed forms oddly juxtaposed with one another. The single subject is easily identified, and he has cleverly added smudges of black ink to imitate the carbon that used to rain down from factory chimneys before the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. Although stylistically different from his well-known paintings, the subject fits right in with his fascination with the domination of American culture by the obsession with technology and “progress”.

Cai Guo-Qiang (born 1957, China), Peony Postage Stamps, 2008. Lithograph and gunpowder smoke on adhesive paper, sheet of stamps 4 11/16" x 4 3/8" (11.9 x 11.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Cai Guo-Qiang. (PMA-4237A)
This is just a brilliant work that I include because it’s got remnants of smoke on it from gunpowder (in the form of small firecrackers) being fired. When one checks out the verso of this sheet, one can see little burn holes!

Cai's work is certainly scholarly and philosophical in the best tradition of Chinese art, but he also tries to shatter traditional conceptions of subject matter, materials, and style. He also questions traditional ideas about drawing in both East and West. Cai 's unusual choice of gunpowder and fireworks as materials for his artwork stems from his childhood in China, where fireworks historically developed.

He began experimenting with gunpowder drawings between 1986 and 1995 while staying in Japan. Many of Cai's gunpowder works are inspired by the Maoist dogma of "destroy nothing, create nothing." He produced two editions of Chinese stamps, one floral, the other of the Great Wall. He contrasts the timeless nature of the Great Wall with the momentary destruction of the gunpowder. In this work, he placed small firecrackers on the blank areas of the sheet of stamps, resulting in scorches and burns.

Zoe Strauss (born 1970, US), Fireworks, Lansdowne, PA, 2009. Inkjet print on paper, 12" x 18" (30.5 x 45.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Zoe Strauss. (PMA-7357)
I conclude with another of my favorite artists. Strauss’s exploration of the time-honored Snapshot Aesthetic style of photography is simply brilliant. Instead of shooting the fireworks at their brightest moment, she focuses on the aftermath of their firing and dropping. Now this, of all the images for this posting, comes the closest to the incense smoke I saw in my living room! I also think it’s very nice that for years Strauss sold her Inkjet prints in a makeshift gallery under I-95 in Philadelphia for $5 each.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.22; A Community Connection: 1.5; Experience Printmaking: 4, 6; Exploring Visual Design: 12, The Visual Experience: 10.6, 13.4, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 17.2

Monday, November 28, 2016

Sudo Reiko and NUNO

About a year ago I introduced you to the fiber art of Reiko Sudo and NUNO Corporation of Japan. We currently have an exhibition in the Davis Art Gallery of a Japanese-born fiber artist, Mihoko Wakabayashi, who produces fabulous shibori (tie-dye) and Saori (unconventional weaving techniques) works, and it put me in mind of Sudo. Even more so because we acquired some new examples of her company’s awesome textiles from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I just had to show them off!

In 1984 Reiko Sudo and Jun’ichi Arai (born 1932) started NUNO Corporation, a company that produces textiles with an emphasis on unusual combinations of materials and techniques. The company was founded in order to produce textiles with traditional Japanese aesthetics in an eco-friendly manner. In 1987 she took over full leadership of the NUNO design team.

Sudo’s designs artistry with the latest technological developments in Japanese industry. The preferred materials at NUNO are silk, polyester, cotton, nylon tape, and hand-made paper. One of Sudo’s earliest personal experiments in novel materials was the exploration of a variety of ways of using plastic. To reduce the company’s ecological footprint, NUNO always uses leftover scraps of materials in unusual combinations to produce new textiles. Many of the technologies used by NUNO are adapted from Japan’s traditional “crafts” culture involving, but not restricted to, salt shrinking; mud-dyeing; rust-dyeing; caustic burning; fatiguing by hand, chemicals, or machine; and graffiti decoration.

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

Paper Roll textile, 2002. Nylon tape (chemical lace), width: 32 11/16" (83 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7143)
From what I understand, this chemical lace process is basically the weaving of the nylon tape onto a water soluble base material with a pattern (such as corn starch paper?). This leaves only the lace when the base is washed away.

Origami Pleats textile, 1997. Heat-set polyester plain weave, 36" x 23' 4" (91.4 x 711.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7136)
This beautiful pattern is hand-pleated!

NUNO Kasane textile, 2005. Silk organdy with fabric appliqué and steering-wheel embroidery, width: 41" (104.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7137)
The NUNO Kasane textile is in a technique called tsugihagi (patchwork). It is made with various silk remnants of NUNO projects.

Kibiso Futsu Crisscross textile, 2008. Double-weave (“futsu”) with criss-crossing raw silk, silk cocoon (“kibiso”), and cotton yarns, width: 31 1/2" (80 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7142)
This technique uses the previously discarded outer layer of the silk cocoon that protects the finer silk inside. NUNO created a social network for retired silk weavers who hand-weave the kibiso textiles in northern Japan.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.31, 6. 31-32 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.27, 5.27-28 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.10; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4, 3.5; A Community Connection: 5.2; The Visual Experience: 10.8, 12.4; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Monday, November 21, 2016

The "Things" of Art

I really like introducing you to artists I’ve just begun to appreciate, especially if their work is a breath of fresh air on an otherwise dreary day. That certainly applies to the work of Ufan Lee. As I learned more about him I gained an instant appreciation for his point of view. Like many artists I have learned about, he is far from a one-dimensional spirit.

Lee U-fan (or Ufan, born 1936, Korea), Untitled, 1973. Gouache on paper, 30" x 22" (76.2 x 55.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2016 Lee Ufan. (BMA-5308)

Lee Ufan (Korean Lee Woo-Hwan) was born in Gyeongsang province, now in South Korea. He is an artist, philosopher, poet, and an art theorist. He was raised in a traditional Confucian-style home where he was given a classical training in what has been considered traditional scholarly pursuits, which includes calligraphy, poetry, and painting. He studied art at Seoul National University, interrupting his studies in 1956 to visit relatives in Japan. There he studied Western and Japanese philosophy. After graduating in 1961, he decided to return to art, preferring visual expression to writing.

His early emphasis was sculpture, and installation in avant-garde, constructed works. He was one of the founding members of a group of modernist artists who form the Mono-ha movement, the first indigenous Japanese example of modernism. Mono-ha emphasized the use of natural raw materials arranged in random ways. “Mono-ha” means “School of Things.” The movement was a contrast to, and critique of, the Western movements of the period (such as Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism) that were tied to aesthetic manifestos. Mono-ha emphasized a comprehensive experience of media by way of their abbreviated or momentary arrangement. The movement was a pivotal moment in the development of modern art in Japan and South Korea.

Lee’s paintings from the early 1970s through 1984 (called From Point and From Line), similar to this work, were based on the traditional respect for brushwork in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese painting. Many of his paintings are monochromatic, much like traditional landscape painting. There is definitely, in this work, the sense of respect for a particular brush stroke, and the blank background as contrast. In many of his works, Lee broke with tradition in the use of canvas rather than paper.

If this fascinating artist’s work reminds me of anything, it’s the work of a fabulous African American artist who started painting abstract works after she retired from teaching—Alma Thomas: 

Alma W. Thomas, (1891–1978 US), Red Rose Cantata, 1973. Oil on canvas, 69" x 50" (175.3 x 127 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0641)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Global Pursuit: 4.2, 4.5; Experience Painting: 2; Exploring Visual Design: 8; The Visual Experience: 13.6

Monday, November 14, 2016

What type of Balance? You Decide.

I probably shouldn’t be using the word Balance after the latest election. Let’s ignore that by doing some visual exercises. I’m always intrigued with the issue of “balance” in a work of art (one of the Principles of Design, as you know). Everyone has seen a work of art that isn’t the same on one side as it is on the other (asymmetrical balance), but somehow it seems balanced at first glance. The following, except for the first one, are up to you to decide which of the types of balance they are! I’ll give my vote and you decide if I’m wrong.

Ancient Guatemala, Zaculeu, Structure I, 200s–900s CE. Image © 2016 Davis Art Images. (8S-22037)

I understand that the tenets of ancient Greek architecture established the “classical canon” of balance, symmetry, and calm, blah blah blah, but I don’t understand why art history books couldn’t use other examples out there in the world to demonstrate symmetrical balance? After all, what is more “classic” than the classic Mayan period (big circa 250 to 900s CE) in central America?

Zaculeu, about 3.21 kilometers (2 miles) from Huehuetenango in the Guatemala highlands was not as remarkable in architecture and artifacts as the Lowland Mayan cities such as Kaminaljuyú. However, it was the capital for the Mam Maya people (who still inhabit the area), and endured the longest against the Spanish invasion under Pedro de Alvarado (1485–1541) until 1525!

Structure I dominated the Main Plaza in Zaculeu, and is the largest (restored) structure in the city. It is a classical Mayan pyramidal structure with eight superimpositions interrupted by a central ceremonial stairway. It is a splendid example of symmetrical balance. And no, I don’t believe that the ancient Egyptians sailed to Central America in papyrus boats to teach the indigenous people how to build pyramids!


Charles Demuth (1883–1935, US), Boat Ride from Sorrento, illustration for the book Beast in the Jungle by Henry James, 1919. Watercolor and graphite on paper, 8" x 10" (20.3 x 25.4 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2189)
I totally love the watercolors of Demuth, especially his views of Provincetown, and these sort of mystic illustrations he did for the angst-ridden books of Henry James. Initially trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Demuth had already abandoned his academic training to concentrate on watercolors and gouache before World War I (1914–1918). These were coming into their own as stand-alone media, embraced by artists who experimented with modernism because of 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).

Demuth's mature style was informed by Cubism he had seen at the 1913 Armory Show of European modernism, and from his group of friends in New York that 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. Demuth’s filmy watercolor layers in this work approximate the fragmentation of form of Cubism, while conveying the story of the book.

At first look this may seem to be symmetrically balanced, but closer inspection shows many digressions. The woman’s hat makes her figure taller. The volcano on the right is lower than the town on the left. But, there’s a nice pyramid between the two visitors and the oarsman with his oars.


Papua New Guinea, Dance ornament, 1800s. Wood, turbo petholatus opercula (shell), pigment, 7 1/2" x 19" x 2 1/2" (19.1 x 48.3 x 6.4 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1613)
New Guinea, divided between Irin New Guinea (part of Indonesia) and Papua New Guinea, is the location of the greatest number of dissimilar cultures in Melanesia. It is also the island of the most varied artistic production in Oceanic art. Papua New Guinea is a very prolific region of artistic expression, especially along the Sepik River, located in the northeast of the Asmat region.

Sculpture, painting, or carving adorns almost every object of secular and ritual life.  By decorating each object in everyday life with art, it has been traditionally believed to bring the world of the spirits into active participation with the world of humans.

This ornament is tricky. A first squint would seem like symmetrical balance, just like with the Demuth. Closer inspection however reveals differently. It depicts a bird/animal seated on the fin of an elegantly arced fish. The arc of the plume balances the arc of the fish differently, as does the beak of the creature with the head of the fish.


Seo Taek (active 1700s to early 1800s, Korea), Gibbon Family in Pine Tree. Ink on silk mounted as hanging scroll, 33 1/8" x 15 3/4" (84.1 x 40 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6884)
The earliest historical record of developed painting in Korea is found on painted baskets from the first 100 years BCE. A more substantial record of ancient Korean painting remains on the painted walls and ceilings of tombs from the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE–668 CE). Those paintings reflect Buddhist beliefs. During the Joseon period, Confucian beliefs rivaled Buddhism in popularity, with an emphasis on scholarship and the artist/scholar idea always part of Chinese art.

By the 1700s, peace in China and Japanese isolation brought somewhat better conditions to Korea. Subtle elements of indigenous stylistic variations reflect a greater degree of independence in Korea.

Little to nothing is known of this Joseon painter, but the artist left us with a charming painting. The arrangement of the monkeys leads the eye dead center, but it does not take away from the beautiful contrast of positive and negative space. However, there are many elements in the tree and monkeys that the negative space does not symmetrically balance.


Muhammad Rafi (active 1600s, Iran), Page of natsiliq calligraphy from a dispersed album. Ink, colors and gold leaf on paper, 7 7/8" x 4 3/8" (20 x 11.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-565)
The first flourishing of Islamic civilization occurred between the 600s CE and 1600s, a period that saw the collapse of the Roman and Byzantine  Empires (ca. 450 CE and 1453, respectively), and the rise of western European nation-states. By the 900s, many regional Muslim powers had developed their own distinct artistic traditions. Islamic artistic traditions differ from those in the West.

Art forms often considered “decorative” in the West—book illustration, glass, metal and textiles—are the major forms of Islamic art. Writing is particularly venerated as it is the means of revealing God’s word. Its primacy as a decorative motif—calligraphy—in architecture is carried into all art forms.

The Safavid period (1502–1736) in Iran is considered the period of renaissance in all art forms, including calligraphy. Nastaliq developed in Iran in the 1300s and 1400s. It is the most fluid and expressive of the scripts. Nastaliq has very short verticals without any "serifs," and deep curved horizontals. It slants to the right in contrast to all the other styles which slant to the left.

The text reads: "May the world be as you desire, the heavens your aid. May the Creator of the world be your protector. May all that you do be according to your wish May the Lord of the World be your guardian. The poor Muhammad Rafi' wrote this, mercy be upon him." Nothing is known about Muhammad Rafi’.

Because the upper right and lower left corners sort of balance each other, my vote for this page of calligraphy is: APPROXIMATE SYMMETRY.

I guess APPROXIMATE SYMMETRY wins the day for me. As I said before, you decide for yourself!

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 17-18 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.Connections, 5.26, 6.36; A Personal Journey: 4.2; Exploring Visual Design: 7; The Visual Experience: 8.7, 13.6, 14.2; Discovering Art History: 4.6, 4.7, 4.9