Monday, September 26, 2016

Artist Selfies

Selfies are actually nothing new. Artists have been making selfies for centuries. It just happens to be easier for everyday folks nowadays to produce self-portraits. I’m presenting you with these historic selfies because they are a) artists with whom you might not be wildly familiar and b) they’re darn interesting people!

Maria Antonia Walpurgis (1724–1780, Germany), Self-Portrait, ca. 1767–1772. Oil on canvas, 49 9/16" x 40 3/16" (126 x 102 cm). Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Photo © 2016 Dr Ron Wiedenhoeft  / Saskia Ltd. (Mgf-0144)

I’m really not into royalty or who is from which noble family, but, this woman is particularly interesting, since her life revolved more around the arts than her “high birth.” She was the daughter of a Holy Roman Emperor, which made her Grand Duchess of Bavaria. She was married to the Elector (Prince) of Saxony, so she was also a princess who ruled as regent after her husband’s death. But, she was also a businesswoman (she established a brewery), a musician, and a painter.

This accomplished self-portrait depicts a sympathetic person, confirmed by accounts of her record as princess. Not only did she write operas and perform in them (at court), she also wrote lyrics for other composers’ operas. She had nine children and was dedicated to raising them, participating very little in all the hoopla in her husband’s court. She is also said to have been committed to distributing food to the very poor.

In this self-portrait she’s wearing a Brunswick dress. It was a two-piece ensemble supposedly modeled on the dress of common people with a waist-length jacket and ankle-length full skirt. I always get a kick out of seeing painters of the past dressed in such fine raiment while holding a palette and brushes!

Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918, Switzerland), Self-Portrait, 1891. Oil on wood and canvas, 11 1/2" x 9" (28.5 x 23 cm). Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva. Photo © 2016 Dr Ron Wiedenhoeft / Saskia, Ltd. (Psf-0192)

As a child I grew up seeing the works of this awesome artist in Bern and Geneva, Switzerland. A lot of his work are murals that marked great moments in Swiss (military) history. What I liked more were his landscapes of the Lake of Thun and the Lake of Geneva, done in a minimalist style with simplified forms and the vibrant colors of Impressionism.

Hodler was born in Bern and studied painting in Geneva and later Madrid. The artists who interested him cover a wide range: Northern Renaissance masters like Holbein and Dürer, the Baroque master Rubens, and Realist painters Corot and Daubigny. Although his early paintings were realistic depictions of Swiss rural life, after a psychological crisis in the late 1880s, his subject matter took on a Symbolist content that was sweeping European art at the time. The Symbolist element was enlivened by his brilliant palette, especially is simplified alpine landscapes.

This selfie has a wonderful confrontational attitude to it. While realistic in style, it exudes Hodler’s vibrant personality. His paintings from this period until his death reflect his search for a reality beyond the physical world. That’s why his landscapes often seem so other-worldly, just like this selfie on a stark blank background.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Lake of Thun, 1909. Oil on canvas, 26 1/2" x 36 3/16" (67.3 x 92 cm). © Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva. Photo © 2016 Dr Ron Wiedenhoeft / Saskia, Ltd. (Psf-0199)

Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869–1907, Poland), Self-Portrait, 1902. Pastel on paper, 13 3/4" x 13 3/4" (35 x 35 cm). Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw, Poland. © 2016 Dr Ron Wiedehoeft / Saskia, Ltd. (Ppf-0039)

Because Poland was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 1800s, the significant art center cities of Krakow and Warsaw had cultural and artistic ties to Vienna and, beyond that, Paris. The son of an established sculptor, Stanislaw Wyspianski studied painting in both Krakow and Paris. In Paris he befriended Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) in 1894, although Gauguin’s bright palette did not drastically affect his more traditional palette.

Wyspianski, who has a museum dedicated to his work in Krakow, was a true Renaissance person. He not only had a successful career as a painter, he also was a playwright, architectural restoration designer, and a designer of stained glass and theater sets. He was allergic to oil paint and eventually preferred pastel.

This artist was one of the first to be invited to join the Vienna Secession in 1897. This was a group of young artists who were dissatisfied with the conservative academic curriculum in Austrian art schools. They also sought to unite the disciplines of design with fine art. Art Nouveau had a major impact on the preferred style of its artists and designers. This selfie is a lovely combination of realism with the floral linearity of Art Nouveau.

Marc Quinn (born 1964, Britain), Template for my Future Plastic Surgery Age 80, from the portfolio London, 1992. Screenprint with varnish additions on paper, 33 3/4" x 29 3/4" (85.8 x 67.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Marc Quinn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P4419qiars)

This selfie would make an interesting comparison to that of Gillian Wearing later in this post. The inspiration for this work is obviously much different from that of Wearing’s. This selfie is tongue-in-cheek, rather than an investigation into actual looks or psyche. It was part of a portfolio of prints by eleven different artists, most of them from the so-called Young British Artists group.

The Young British Artists, most of whom studied fine art at London’s Goldsmiths College, was a loose group of artists who began exhibiting together in the late 1980s. They advocated shaking up the contemporary art scene in London through the use of unconventional materials, shocking installations and performance art, and an eye on exploiting the idea of the venal “art market.”

Unlike most of the other YBAs, Quinn studied history and art history at Cambridge University. His artwork is concerned with exploring the similarities and differences between art and science through the device of casts of the human body. This also incorporates the idea of contemporary ideas about beauty, genetics, and the possibilities, scary or not, of manipulating DNA.

This work seems to address the obsession with cosmetic surgery, although with a twist. In Quinn’s work, he turns the table on the idea that body modification be only physical appearance. At 80 he seems to want to be a more talented person through transplantation, with collaged photographs of casts of a violinist’s ear, the tongue of a chef, the nose of an entertainment producer, and a brain represented by a bunch of coral. 

Nara Yoshitomo (born 1959, Japan), N.Y. (Self-Portrait), 2002. Etching and aquatint on paper, sheet: 19 1/4" x 15" (48.9 x 38 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Yoshitomo Nara. (MOMA-P0661)
There are no rules in art that a selfie has to be executed in realism. Selfies can express a person’s inner image without being obsessed with naturalism. I don’t think that anyone would challenge the idea that cartoon-inspired art can deliver a message. One strain of Pop Art in the 1960s emphasized the primacy of comic art and animation as subject matter. This vein was revived during the Neo-Pop evolution in the 1980s, in which Nara played a role.

Nara was born and raised in rural Japan by working parents. He spent most of his childhood alone with his comics and pets. He studied art in Japan and Germany. Nara is the “father” of the Tokyo Pop movement. He grew up in post-war Japan when the country’s economic boom was characterized by a flood of popular culture from the West, including Walt Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons. His paintings, prints and sculptures of big-headed, wide-eyed children and dogs reflect not only Western cartoons, but also Japanese manga (cartoons) and anime (animation).

This self-portrait expresses the simplicity of a child’s rebelliousness, and communicates a restlessness that reflects Nara’s independent spirit and love of things unconventional. He was very involved in the “punk” scene in Japan in the 1990s. However, the figure is balanced, almost in the Renaissance pyramidal manner, revealing one of Nara’s many artistic influences. As a popular contemporary artist with international appeal, Nara’s Pop art can also fittingly be found on a variety of consumer goods such as T-shirts, postcards, CD covers, and skateboards.

Gillian Wearing (born 1963, Britain), Self-Portrait as my Sister Jane Wearing, from the Album series, 2003. Digital print, 55 3/16" x 45 1/4" (140.1 x 114.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2016 Gillian Wearing. (AK-654)
With the elevation in dignity and esteem that artists received during the Renaissance (ca. 1400–1600), self-portraiture came into its own. Down through the history of art, we can cite many famous artists who produced series of self-portraits. These artists created self-portraits that were basically documents of themselves.

Gillian Wearing’s self-portraits, in dress-up as family members, put a new twist to the concept of “family resemblance.”  Based on family photographs, the recreations are aided by elaborate costume and makeup. Using special masks, wigs, body-suits and clothing (with the help of artists from Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London), she transforms herself into family members. The artist’s eyes are the only feature she does not mess with. They present a novel fascination with revealing her identity through her relatives.

Wearing’s fascination with revealing people’s often concealed inner identities brought her international acclaim in 1992. She created a series of photographs of everyday people whom she urged to write their innermost thoughts on pieces of cardboard. Her photographs explore human relationships and social behavior, extended to the private and personal. Her work is clearly influenced by documentary photography and film. Her combination of Snapshot Realism and a quest for delving into the psychological depths of an individual create a stunningly different take on portraiture in the 2000s.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 1 2.7; Explorations in Art 2 2.7-8 studio; Explorations in Art 3 1.1; Explorations in Art 6 1.5-6 studio; A Community Connection 7.3; Focus on Photography 5

Thursday, September 22, 2016

“Kalighat” Art

Indian art certainly has a rich and long history. I especially appreciate the aesthetic aspects of Indian art that have endured for centuries despite the fascinating multiplicity of kingdoms, vastly diverse religions, and numerous occupying cultures Indians have experienced. It’s particularly interesting that new indigenous styles evolved, despite the long occupation of India by the British.

India, Picture of a Woman, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor on paper, 18 1/8" x 11" (46 x 28 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2575)

While large parts of India were still ruled by the Mughal Empire (1526–1756), the British ruled major parts of India through the British East India Company (a trading corporation) from 1600 to 1858. From 1858 until 1947, the British established total control—politically, economically and militarily—over almost all of present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The Persian influence of Mughal painting faded under British occupation, as regional schools reasserted indigenous painting styles and subjects. Major Indian cities, however, developed academies based on the stifling, conservative style of the Royal Academy in London.

Kolkata (Calcutta), in West Bengal, was the center of Britain's (economically motivated) "empire" in India. It was also a center for the Westernization of Indian art under British rule. Kolkata attracted many Bengali folk artists in search of employment, aside from those from the northern courts that gradually disbanded under the British. The reassertion of Indian folk art by rural Bengali artists, with faint touches of Western influence that started in the 1820s, has been called "Kalighat" style. This was named for the area around the Kali temple in Kolkata where many of the artists settled.

The vibrant Bengal folk art tradition adapted to the changing social conditions of colonialism in the creation of subject matter that was a combination of traditional Hindu subjects with single images of everyday life. Modifications on tradition included the use of watercolors instead of natural pigments, and the infusion of genre to reflect modern urban life. Unfortunately, modern printing techniques such as lithography, which made for cheap mass-production of images, eventually led to the waning in popularity of these works of art.

Narashima, the Man-Lion Avatar of Vishnu, ca. 1910. Opaque watercolor with ink, and silver leaf on paper, 17 5/16" x 11" (44 x 28 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-594)
The liveliness of this depiction of the 4th avatar of the god Vishnu is typical of the energetic compositions of Kalighat artists. It shows Vishnu’s defeat of the demon tyrant Hiranyakashipu in his man-lion form. Hiranyakashipu had gained virtual immortality from Lord Brahma and used his power to persecute the devotees of Vishnu. When he sought to kill his own son Prahlad, who was devoted to Vishnu, Vishnu intervened as Narashima and saved him. This is a fairly traditional interpretation of the god’s avatar, with only hints at Western influence in the shading of the limbs to indicate volume, and, don’t miss the demon tyrant’s Western buckled shoe!

Man Seated in a European Chair with a Nargila Pipe, 1880. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper, 17 15/16" x 10 3/4" (45.5 x 27.4 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-346)

Did you know that the nargila pipe (hookah, huqqah) was developed either in Iran or India during the 1500s to “purify” tobacco smoke through water? Tobacco was introduced to the Safavid court in Iran during the late 1500s by Europeans, and ultimately to the Mughal court in India where smoking tobacco became popular among wealthy Indians. I’m not sure if the fact that this guy is sitting in an imported “European” chair makes him wealthy, but he is also wearing those buckled European shoes.

Woman with a Parrot, ca. 1875. Ink on paper, 18 3/16" x 11" (46.2 x 27.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-3005)

Quick sketches like this show how the Kalighat technique led to a vast simplification of form. The demand for affordable indigenous art encouraged the use of techniques that maximized output, thus the simplification of form and quick contour sketches without detail. The background was typically left unfinished for expediency's sake. Works such as this would have appealed to everyday Indians, but the style had a major influence on modern Indian art of the 1900s and to the present day.

Krsna and Radha, late 1800s or early 1900s. Opaque watercolor with polished accents on paper, 16" x 10 1/2" (40.6 x 26.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4513)
The love and struggles of Radha and the god Krsna are among the most popular subjects in Indian art. Their love is so legendary, that events in their lives are chronicled in numerous texts, including the Harevamsa (“Legend of Hare Krsna”), the Gita Govinda (“Song of Krsna”), the Rasikapriya (“Connoisseur’s Delight,” a love poem about heroes and heroines), and Satasai (“Seven Hundred Love Poems”). The sloping perspective of the dais on which the god and his consort stand make this charming painting totally traditional in style.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.4; A Community Connection: 2.2, 6.2; A Global Pursuit: 3.5; Discovering Drawing: 2; Exploring Painting: 10; Exploring Visual Design: 1; The Visual Experience: 9.2, 9.3, 13.2; Discovering Art History: 4.2

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Lesser Known Calder

Alexander Calder (1898–1976, US), Comb, before 1943. Hammered brass, 6 1/2" x 3 13/16" x 3/4" (16.5 x 9.8 x 1.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0771caars)

You are probably familiar with the art of Alexander Calder. He is, in particular, renowned for his invention of the mobile, a term coined by Surrealist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). He is considered one of the pioneer abstract American sculptors, and is also known for his giant “stabiles,” his mobile-stabiles, textile designs, painting, and, something I find among his most fascinating work of all, jewelry.

Calder was born a fourth generation of a family of academic sculptors. During childhood he showed an early interest for constructing stuff such as tools, jewelry, animal figures and game boards from a variety of found materials. Some of his earliest pieces of jewelry were made of wire for his sister’s dolls. He received a degree in mechanical engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken in 1919. While working in the field of hydraulic engineering, he took night classes in drawing.

Eventually, in 1923 he decided to be an artist, enrolling in the Art Students League. He initially emphasized painting. A drawing assignment to illustrate the Ringling Brothers Circus renewed his childhood interest in animals and provided the subject matter for sculptures throughout his career. In 1926 he published the book "Animal Sketching."
Calder moved to Paris for a year in 1926. Between 1926 and 1931, mostly for personal enjoyment, Calder began to make moving toys and figures that eventually became his "Calder Circus." His "Circus" performances—in which he turned cranks to move the figures—were wildly popular in the avant-garde art world in Paris, and soon became so in the US. The circus also started Calder on the path toward a revolutionary exploration of abstraction in sculpture, leading eventually to his mobiles and stabiles.
After “Circus,” Calder began working with wire, in portraits, animals and figures. He pretty much redefined the perception sculpture by "drawing" it in wire in space. Just as the Surrealists had revolutionized the centuries-old tradition of carving or casting with their found object assemblages, Calder had broken tradition, using not the mallet and chisel, but rather shop tools of welding torch, wire cutters, and pliers. By the late 1920s, he applied this technique to a serious study of making jewelry.

Calder first exhibited his jewelry in 1929 alongside his paintings and sculptures. Selling his jewelry at low prices was a way for Calder to earn a living while establishing himself as a sculptor. By the late 1930s, wearing Calder’s “wearable sculptures” became an artsy statement for society women in New York. His designs were unique and were not mass-produced.  I’ve seen several photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) wearing a Calder brooch in bird-form. 

Here are some other examples of Calder’s awesome jewelry:

Cone Bracelet, ca. 1940. Gilt silver, 1 1/2" x 7 1/2" x 3 9/16" (.8 x 19.1 x 9.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-7723caars)

This bracelet makes it easy to understand how Calder transitioned from his wire sculptures to classy jewelry.

These pieces of hammered metals really do remind me of the flat steel shapes seen in Calder mobiles. They also have the same playful, curvilinear shapes seen in Calder’s paintings and textiles designs. These pieces are so classy and must have look so sharp on 1940s fashions.

Brooch, ca. 1940. Hammered brass, steel wire, 4 1/4" x 3 3/16" (10.8 x 8.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-7724caars)

Necklace, 1941. Hammered silver, outer circumference 33 15/16" (86.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0774caars)

Bracelet, ca. 1940. Hammered silver, 3 9/16" x 2 5/8" (9 x 6.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-7725caars)

Buckle, before 1943. Hammered brass, 5 3/8" x 4 3/8" (13.6 x 12.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0775caars)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.11; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.29; A Community Connection: 5.2, 7.4; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4, 7.connections; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 12.4, 16.6; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Friday, September 9, 2016

Summer (Unofficially) Over

Robert Motherwell (1915–1991, US), The August Sea #6, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 71 3/4" x 53 7/8" (182.24 x 136.84 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2016 Estate of Robert Motherwell / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-539movg)

Well, summer is on its way out, so how about a little color to lift spirits? Robert Motherwell is my favorite of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionists, because I get a sense of joy that he imparts to his work in the way he uses color and brush stroke. And he really seems to have loved his four months a year in Provincetown, where this work was painted.

Motherwell went to Stanford University in California, Columbia University in New York, and Harvard. He studied art history, literature, philosophy, and painting. He also studied with the Swiss Surrealist Kurt Seligman (1900–1962) in New York. Otherwise, he was primarily self-taught as an artist. In 1941 he met a number of European Surrealists who had fled the madness of World War II (1939–1945). This convergence of abstract modernists and Surrealists in New York during the war would be critical to the development of America’s first indigenous modern movement, Abstract Expressionism.

Motherwell’s earliest paintings reflected attempts to reconcile the total abstraction of Constructivism or De Stijl with the spontaneity of Surrealism. By 1948, with the first of his series Elegy to the Spanish Republic, Motherwell had arrived at a signature abstract style that was neither color field or action painting, but, like Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974), a synthesis of both approaches, on a large scale.

Like the Elegy series, Motherwell did several paintings on the theme of the sea, most likely influenced by his summers on Cape Cod. He also produced series dedicated to Mexico, Africa, and to painting (la Pintura) itself. The following are some more gorgeous examples of the artist’s joy in color:

A la Pintura #XII, 1971. Acrylic on canvas, 108" x 120" (274.3 x 304.8 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2016 Estate of Robert Motherwell / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-401movg)

Untitled, from the Mexican Sketchbook, 1941. Watercolor on paper, 9" x 11 9/16" (22.9 x 29.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Estate of Robert Motherwell / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P4059Jmovg)

Untitled, from the Lyric Suite series, 1965. Colored ink on Japanese paper, 8 15/16" x 11 1/16" (22.8 x 28.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Estate of Robert Motherwell / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P3234movg)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Community Connection: 6.2, 8.4; Experience Painting: 4, 5; Exploring Painting: 12; Exploring Visual Design: 4; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 9.11, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 17.1

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Vacation Time

I was on vacation recently in Provincetown and, being an art history nerd, thought I would give some visual explanations.

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)

Yes, one sees a lot of angular stairs leading up to old buildings in Ptown. These stairs look like the ones going up to the little theater above the Post Office café. Demuth was a regular member of the summer Provincetown art colony, before Abstract Expressionist mentor Hans Hofmann (1880–1966) opened his Summer School there in 1935. Although originally academically trained, Demuth abandoned that style after the 1913 Armory Show in New York, from which he absorbed the influence of Cubism.

The Provincetown art colony was established in 1899. The Ptown Art Association, which now has a museum that’s awesome, was established in 1914 and initiated the practice of yearly exhibitions of the art colony’s student work. By 1916, the colony was proclaimed by the Boston Globe as the largest one in the world with around 300 students!

Tom Purvis (1889–1959, Britain), East Coast by LNER, poster for London and Northeast Railroad, ca. 1928. Color lithograph on paper, 39 1/2" x 49 3/4" (100.3 x 126.3 cm). Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-D1049)

I would probably be doing some of this on the beach if they have big umbrellas like this. I’m not really a beach and sun person. I’m usually laminated with 100 spf sunblock. I often wonder how hot it gets on British beaches in the summer.

England was part of the same poster renaissance as occurred in the rest of Western Europe and the US from about the 1890s to the 1940s. I extend it to the 1940s, because many of the most popular poster artists worked on public safety posters during World War II (1939–1945), including Tom Purvis. Purvis’s graphic design work is interesting, because he could produce almost photo realistic illustrations and then simplified forms like this poster.

This reduction of forms to simple areas of flat color reflects a Post-Impressionist/Cubist influence seen in many other poster artists in Britain at the time as well. Purvis’ posters for the London Northeast Railroad are among his most famous pieces.

Marguerite Kumm (1900–1992, US), Museum Visitors. Drypoint on paper, 3 3/16" x 2" (8 x 5 cm). Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH. (BIAA-375)

There are so many galleries with awesome paintings and a fabulous museum, I spend most my time looking at art on vacation. I might also wander up the street and gaze fondly at the house Robert Motherwell shared with Helen Frankenthaler while I’m at it. He had to build a special door in the second floor studio of that house in order to accommodate the size of his and Frankenthaler’s canvases!

One of the best things to come out of the Great Depression (1929–1940) was the Federal Art Project (1935–1939), part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, established 1935). This was the first ever effort by the US Federal government at arts patronage, meant to ensure the livelihood of American artists during the severe economic downturn. The printmaking program gave artists studios, printing presses and materials, and the means to disseminate affordable art to the public.

Marguerite Kumm, like Mabel Dwight, honed her printmaking skills during the Depression in the FPA. Born in California, she studied art in Minneapolis and Washington, DC. Working for the WPA, she painted murals and produced hundreds of etchings. Like Dwight, they featured everyday life of the American public.

Things I didn’t do on vacation:

Japan, To Tomita Beach post card, 1936. Color lithograph on coated paper, 5 7/16" x 3 7/16" (13.8 x 8.8 cm). © MFA, Boston. (MFAB-1081)

Swimming. I think the history of Japanese post cards is more interesting than diving into a pool. I mean, look at the dizzying heights of this diving board. I do find the combination of Western perspective and Japanese love of pattern and asymmetrical composition fascinating, though.

The first postcards were introduced in Japan in 1873. By 1887, postcards were the most popular form of mail in Japan. They were offered in all kinds of shops, displacing the establishments that had once sold woodcut Ukiyo-e prints.

In 1900, the Japanese government relinquished the publication of postcards to the private sector. This had immense impact on Japanese society. Postcards were now issued from every corner of Japanese society, including medical schools, the military, artist groups, and even department stores. The postcard made possible the rapid circulation of exciting and innovative visual vocabulary that documented how Japan was rapidly becoming a modern culture.

Subject matter of Japanese postcards during the most flourishing period (1900–1930s) varied from images of women similar to ukiyo-e prints, to scenes that symbolized the modernization of Japan. 

Mayer, Merkel and Ottmann Lithograph Company (1874–1885 New York), Trade card for Braided Edge Mexican Hammock, ca. 1883. Color lithograph on card stock. © Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, DE. (WIN-114)

Lounging in a hammock. I really don’t know how people take naps in a hammock. Who wants to get a waffle pattern on their backside? Did you know that in the 1800s, it was generally considered “inappropriate” for a woman to lounge in a hammock in public [unless accompanied by two male chaperons in stunning tennis (badminton?) glamour, of course]? Naturally, they would know what’s inappropriate, right? Check out the logical tennis (badminton?) outfits, especially the women’s, complete with bustle and hat. I bet one doesn’t sweat in that getup.

Trade cards like this reached their peak of popularity between the 1860s and 1890s. After the 1890s, more popular forms of advertising included magazines and posters.

Lithography greatly accelerated the evolution of graphic design, particularly for advertising. Developed in the 1790s by Alois Senefelder (1771–1834, Prague, Paris, Munich), the art form quickly replaced etching, engraving, and wood engraving as the primary source for mass-produced prints in advertising and illustration during the mid-1800s. Color or chromolithography began being perfected as early as the 1840s. The heyday of chromolithography, “everyperson’s art,” was the 1860s through the 1890s.

Edward Penfield (1866–1925, US), Placard advertisement for Harper’s August magazine, 1896. Zinc etching on paper, 18 9/16” x 13 1/2" (47.2 x 34.3 cm). © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-D0573)

Wearing a onesie bathing suit while puffing on a cigarette. Yeah, no. While I do appreciate the modesty of the onesie bathing suit, I don’t really think I’d swim off the Cape what with the possibility of being gobbled by a shark. Besides, swimming exposes me to an undue amount of sun! I’m not sure if the woman’s blasé expression in this ad is because of the onesie or the fact that the dude is smoking?

The American poster renaissance occurred at the same time as it did in Europe. It was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement emphasis on instilling utilitarian art, i.e. advertising, with fine art. This idea—and the money to be made—led many painters to create fabulous poster art. This renaissance in poster art lasted in America through the 1930s.

Penfield studied costume and fashion design and painting at the Art Students League in New York in the late 1880s. His first job at a young age was at Harper’s magazine in 1892. A little over a year after starting he produce the first of his 75 iconic placards advertising the magazine.

Penfield was influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec and Steinlen in Paris, Beggarstaff s in England, and Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He distilled all of these influences into a style of simplified forms that established a style copied by many other poster artists of the 1890s, most notably artists like William Bradley.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.3, 2.12, 3.17; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 3.17, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 2.9, 17-18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 5.28, 5.29, 5.Connections; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.3, 5.studio27-28; A Personal Journey: 2.1, 2.3, 2.4, 3.5; A Community Connection: 1.2, 4.5, 4.6, 5.4, 6.2, 7.4, 8.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.5, 8.4; Communicating Through Graphic Design 1, 2, 6; Experience Printmaking: 5, 6; Experience Painting: 4; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 5, 10, 11; The Visual Experience: 3.7, 8.15, 9.3, 9,4, 13.5, 16.4, 16.6; Discovering Art History: 4.4, 15.2