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