Monday, April 25, 2016

The Cataracts Paintings

As a painter, I often do not like to contemplate having any sort of illness associated with my eyesight. That’s why, when I discovered a long while back that Claude Monet (one of my Heroes of Art History) had suffered from cataracts, it gave me the willies. I learned that fact at a massive retrospective of Monet’s work that I saw at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1990s, I believe. They had his works arranged in chronological order by date, and one room was dominated by a decidedly, predominantly warm palette. When I read the blurb printed on the wall, it was one of those epiphany moments of art history that I experience (often on a daily basis). I remember when I proceeded to the next room, post-cataract surgery (1922), that his palette had returned to the predominant blues, greens, and violets. How they cured cataracts in the 1920s without zapping them with a laser is another topic I don’t care to contemplate.            

Claude Monet (1840–1926, France), The Japanese Footbridge, 1920–1922. Oil on canvas, 35 1/4" x 45 3/4" (89.5 x 116.3 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P2623)

Claude Monet (1840–1926 France), The Japanese Footbridge, Giverny, 1922. Oil on canvas, 35" x 37" (88.9 x 94.1 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (MFH-818)
In 1893 Monet began to transform the marshy ground behind his house in Giverny into a Japanese garden with a water lily pond and various domestic plants. He also built a "Japanese" wooden bridge. The point to the garden was to contrast two ideas that were central to his work after the 1880s: the gradual dissolution of floral forms, and reflections in water.  He explored the subject of the pond and the bridge 18 times between 1898 and 1900. It appeared less frequently after he was diagnosed with cataracts, when the pond and water lilies occupied the majority of his work towards the end of his life.

Monet began having trouble with cataracts in 1905, but did not see a doctor about it until 1912. He put off the needed surgery until 1923. Cataracts affected his ability to distinguish the cool range of colors, thus many of his works from this period are dominated by bright yellows, oranges, purples, and reds. His brush strokes also became wider and larger because cataracts cause light to blur the contours of objects. These warm paintings were not Monet's intentional stylistic shift; he was merely painting what he saw with the cataracts. This is borne out by the fact that after he had the surgery in 1923, he destroyed many of the orange/yellow works.

I’m glad Monet didn’t destroy all of these paintings from the Cataracts Period. I’m just wondering why he waited 18 years to get the condition fixed? I find these paintings in a warm palette with gestural brush work to be very visually exciting, sort of like Expressionism, which was being explored at the same time. One of the paintings I saw in the AIC exhibit was a painting of Monet’s house in Giverny, and I am ashamed to admit as an art historian, that my first reaction to it was that it was a van Gogh!

Here’s post-cataract Monet:

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Iris, 1923–1926. Oil on canvas, 78 3/4" x 79 1/4" (200 x 201.3 cm). © Art Institute of Chicago. (AIC-7266)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.Connections; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.21, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.9, 2.Studio7-8; A Personal Journey 5.4; A Community Connection: 6.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.2, 8.4; Experience Painting: 6; Exploring Painting: 7, 11; Exploring Visual Design: 4; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.4; Discovering Art History: 13.1

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Malagan

Since I first saw the Rockefeller collection of Oceanic art at the Metropolitan Museum in the early 1990s, I have been enthralled with the sophistication of sculpting, inlay, painted decoration, and combination of materials in their arts. I’m especially fascinated by the variety of art forms involved in the Malagan, the ceremonies held after the burial and mourning of the dead. The masks are especially spectacular.

Oceania is a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean that covers one-third of the earth's surface.  Contained in Oceania are the cultural-geographic areas of Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Melanesia includes New Guinea and the islands that extend eastward as far as Fiji and New Caledonia. Archeological evidence exists that suggests the presence of Homo sapiens in New Guinea as long as 40,000 to 50,000 years ago! They most likely crossed over from Indonesia, settling both New Guinea and, by 38,000 years ago, Australia.

New Ireland is in the Bismarck Archipelago, located north of New Guinea. Today it is a province of Papua New Guinea. Much of the art produced in New Ireland has traditionally centered on ceremonies and feasts to honor the dead (called Malagan). The Malagan was a ceremony to honor a deceased person or spirits of deceased ancestors. Malagan refers to both the ceremonies that occur after burial, and the masks, figures, and posts made for us in them.

Performances, feasts, and dances were organized after the funeral (often one to five years after), when artists were hired to carve masks and complex sculptures that usually incorporated multiple figures. The purpose of the Malagan ceremonies was to help send the soul of the deceased to the realm of the departed, and venerated ancestral spirits. While Malagan sculptures are not portraits of the deceased, they represented the soul, and are thought to have contained the deceased's soul during the ceremony.

Malagan sculpture and masks were owned by particular extended families, commissioned especially for the ceremonies by artists who specialized in producing the Malagan. A range of figures, masks, posts, and boards were created. Some were worn during dances, while some were stored in a special Malagan enclosure.

Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, Malagan Mask, 1800s. Wood, rattan, bark cloth, fiber, Turbo petholatus opercula shells, pigment, 15 1/4" x 9" x 12" (38.7 x 22.9 x 30.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1611)
Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, Malagan Mask, 1800s. Wood, rattan, bark cloth, fiber, Turbo petholatus opercula shell, pigment, 20" x 7 3/4" x 12 1/2" (50.8 x 19.7 x 31.8 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1542)

Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, Malagan Mask, 1800s. Wood, bark, fiber, Turbo petholatus opercula shell, pigment, glass eyes, 12 1/4" x 8" x 10 1/2" (31.1 x 20.3 x 26.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1546)

There are a variety of masks used for specific purposes during the Malagan. The three above are called tatanua, after the dance for which it is used. The mask is danced in pairs or in groups of dancers. The spirit of the deceased was traditionally thought to enter the mask. It is possible that such masks were "portraits" (stylized) of the ideal male. They were meant to honor the deceased, ward off malevolent intentions, and sever the deceased from possessions in the physical world. The feather part on the crown of the mask imitates the hairstyle worn by young men for Malagan ceremonies, in which the head was partly shaved and the hair stiffened with lime.

Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, Malagan Mask, 1800s. Wood, fiber Turbo pehtolatus opercula shell, pigment, 23 1/2" x 11 3/4" x 15 3/4" (59.7 x 29.8 x 40 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1575)
This mask is called ges. The ges was considered to be a potent, sometimes destructive spirit in the bush. The mask was used during the Malagan to threaten those in the community who did not honor the deceased. The ges mask also helped remove spirits of other deceased persons from the area where the Malagan was being held.

Ges masks particularly rarely survive to find their way into museums because they are so intricately carved into delicate forms from a single piece of wood. This example contains an abstracted nose formed out of a bird head biting a snake. The bird and snake motif is common in Melanesian art, the bird representing the spirit world and the snake the human realm. These two realms are in constant turmoil. The drooping eye reminds me of Picasso’s Cubism! No surprise Picasso was heavily influenced by Oceanic art.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 5.Studio29-30; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.Studio33-34; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.30, 5.Connections, 5.Studio29-30; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.34, 6.35, 6.Studio35-36; A Personal Journey: 7.6; A Community Connection: 3.2, 7.6; A Global Pursuit: 6.5; Beginning Sculpture: 5, 6; Exploring Visual Design: 6; The Visual Experience: 7.2, 10.2, 10.15, 14.7; Discovering Art History: 4.6, 4.Activity 2