Monday, August 27, 2018

“Hmm, Ginko Leaf or Toothbrush?”

Ippitsusai Bunchō (1725–1794, Japan), The Toothbrush Shop Yanagi-ya, ca. 1770. Color woodcut print on paper, 12" x 5 7/8" (30.4 x 14.9 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1089)

I just got a crown on a tooth this week, so I thought I’d do a teeth-themed posting. Goodness knows I don’t love going to the dentist, but he’s a really good one, so I’m no longer “white knuckles in the chair.” They also don’t have to mark “Runner!” in fire engine red on my file. While I was lounging in the chair waiting to be freed, I contemplated the history of dental care in art. I decided to skip Medieval German treatises “On the Pain of Teeth,” in favor of lighter subjects. Because autumn is just around the corner, I chose this print of a young woman comparing the shape of fallen ginko leaves to the toothbrush used at the time in the Edo Period (1615–1868). It’s so clever!

If you ever wondered how people used to clean their teeth before toothbrushes, there are websites about that. Between 1498 and 1600, the Chinese started using brushes of pig hair glued to bone or bamboo handles. In India, people cleaned their teeth with sharpened sticks since ancient times. This apparently caught on in Japan, but, of course, they refined it. By the time of the Edo period, the Japanese were using the fusayoji and the tsumayoji for oral hygiene. The fusayoji is the closest thing to a toothbrush, I think: it’s a thin willow tree/shrub branch that has been tufted on the end. This treatment was combined with the trsumayoji, a toothpick made from the same tree. Shops that sold toothbrushes were called yojiya (willow shops).

In this print, the young woman curiously compares the shape of the ginkgo leaf with the fusayoji displayed on the top and third shelves. The second shelf contains the tsumayoji. The bottom shelf contains tooth powders (bosuna), the first of which were developed during the first quarter of the 1600s.

Like many of the ukiyo-e artists, the life of Ippitsusai Bunchō (1725–1794) is relatively unknown. He is believed to have trained with a minor master Ishikawa Yukimoto (dates unknown). His earliest works appear in the 1750s, mostly courtesan and actor prints. In actor prints, however, Bunchō is thought to have pioneered—along with the artist Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)—actor prints that were actual portraits rather than stereotypes. He also collaborated with the master Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770).

Bunchō’s style is obviously influenced by both Harunobu and Shunshō, although his figures of both men and women are on the slight side, whereas Shunshō’s are tall. Since I’m not an expert, I would easily have mistaken this print for Harunobu, particularly because of the detailed background illustration, a hallmark of Harunobu’s prints. But I’ve seen other prints by Bunchō where his figures’ proportions are out of whack, which I’ve never seen in Harunobu.

The print below brings up another topic that is bound to come up when discussing dental hygiene in the Edo period: the tradition of Ohaguro (literally “black teeth”) or teeth-blackening. 

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806, Japan), Portrait of an Escort as the Heroine “Osan” from the play “The Almanac-Maker’s Tale,” from the series Four Busts of Dramatic Heroines, ca. 1798. Color woodcut print with mica on paper, 14 ¾" x 9 13/16" (37.5 x 24.9 cm). © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1411)

The tradition of teeth blackening began to flourish during the Heian Period (794–1185 CE) in Japan among members of the nobility. The practice was widely used by married women of all classes as a sign of health and wellbeing, because it was believed that blackening the teeth prevented decay. The process is practiced to the present day in some rural areas of China and Southeast Asia. It was outlawed in Japan in 1870. Iron filings soaked in vinegar oxidized, turning the vinegar black. This was sometimes added to tea where the tannins helped make it a dye. It was applied to the teeth with a tufted bamboo brush.

I’ve read many theories about why this was considered attractive, though I find it a bit creepy. One theory is that since women in the Heian period began to use extremely white makeup (as one sees nowadays on geisha), which made their teeth appear yellow, they chose to blacken their teeth. I have also read that gleaming white teeth were considered vulgar (before contact with the West). I remember a line from Murasaki Shikibu’s (973–1031) novel Tale of Genji where the prince (Genji) is staring at one of his many sons and remarks “his teeth were charmingly brown.”

During the Edo period, ohaguro was practiced mainly by samurai, women of a certain age (over eighteen), and by geisha and courtesans. The woman depicted in this Utamaro print is from a series in which Utamaro executed portraits of famous courtesans in the roles of famous Kabuki plays. Osan was the wife of an almanac-maker. Her husband’s frequent absences made her yearn for a lover, or, in another twist, to punish her husband who is cheating with her maid Tama. Either way, it ends badly. The play was extremely popular during the Edo period, and was written by Chikamatsu Manzaemon (1623–1724).

Correlations to Davis programs: Experience Printmaking: Chapter 4, art history; The Visual Experience: 3.5, 13.5; Discovering Art History 4E: 2.3, 4.1; Discovering Art History Digital: 2.2, 4.1

Monday, August 20, 2018

A Lyrical August Gift

Tam Van Tran (born 1966, US, born Vietnam), Untitled, 2007. Acrylic, spirulina, pencil, collage and staples on paper, 12" x 12" (30.5 x 30.5 cm). Image © 2018 Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. © 2018 Tam Van Tran. (AK-3837)

I’m always wowed by color. And when I found out that the landscape-like backgrounds of this artist’s work are derived from pond scum powder (spirulina is the source, considered a healthy additive to food), then I had to share it with you! Aside from having a wonderful sense of complementary colors, this artist has produced a body of work that is so varied, only a link to more of his work will explain.

Tran’s family fled Vietnam after the collapse of South Vietnam in that stupid war (1955–1975, I refuse to capitalize the word “war”). They moved to Denver, where Tran painted his interpretation of Impressionism as a child. He subsequently studied at the Pratt Institute (BFA 1990) and later obtained a degree from the School of Film and Television at UCLA (1996).

Since the 1990s Tran has worked in such a variety of formats that I must simply refer you to the gallery website linked above. What attracts me to his work is his sense of color, and that fact that his works transcend both painting and sculpture. Formally his works seem very Western, but thematically I can’t help but think of landscape. And what’s interesting in these pieces is that the landscape is brought into the third dimension. You never saw Picasso do a redefinition of the picture plane quite like this, did you?

Tran lists his long-standing influences as the Buddhist idea of non-duality (the absence of self, separate from ego), popular culture, and processes in nature. The last one I attribute to the three works I’m showing you. These works have such wonderful references to landscape—a centuries old staple of Asian art—and, yet, become extremely personal by combining decorative motifs that are purely Western.  

Tam Van Tran (born 1966, US, born Vietnam), Untitled, 2007. Acrylic, spirulina, pencil, collage and staples on paper, 17 ½" x 14" x 4 ½"  (44.5 x 35 9/16 x 11.4 cm). Image © 2018 Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. © 2018 Tam Van Tran. (AK-3836)

Tam Van Tran (born 1966, US, born Vietnam), Untitled, 2007. Acrylic, spirulina, pencil, collage and staples on paper, 16" x 14" x 4 7/8" (40.6 x 35.6 x 12.4 cm). Image © 2018 Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. © 2018 Tam Van Tran. (AK-3835)

Monday, August 13, 2018

Eye Candy for August

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933, US) for Tiffany Studios (1902–1932, Corona, NY), Vase, designed ca. 1900. Green glass with gold leaf, height: 10" (25.4 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5549)

I can’t think that anybody doesn’t find the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany and his designers to be absolutely beautiful specimens of glass art. Seeing some of his windows recently in Boston reignited my admiration for what that artist achieved. More are currently on view at the museum here in Worcester. Tiffany did not have a simple path to enacting his artistic vision, either. The son of Charles Tiffany (1812–1902), the founder of Tiffany and Company jewelry store in New York, he relied time and again on his father’s company to keep his studios solvent. And thank goodness for that!

Tiffany’s studio system was not a simple one. Under his scrutiny, his team of talented designers and artists translated his overarching vision to produce fabulous blown glass objects. He publicly credited individual designers, which included many women artists such as Lydia Emmet (1866–1952), Agnes Fairchild Northrop (1857–1953), Alice Carmen Gouvy (1870–1924), and Clara Driscoll (1861–1944). Keep in mind that these artists were often replicating designs conceived of by Tiffany in their own interpretations. All of the pieces in this post contain the LCT initials on the bottom. Whether that was reproduced from an original Louis design, I’m not sure.

Tiffany learned the techniques involved in high-end jewelry and tableware production from his wealthy father’s firm. Initially, he studied painting. His travels through North Africa exposed him to exotic subject matter, but more importantly, decorative motifs in ceramic tile, mosaics, and wall paintings in non-Western styles. After that trip (1870–1871), he turned away from painting to interior design and decoration. His first stained glass project that emerged in 1878 already contained unconventional techniques.

Between the 1880s and 1890s, Tiffany experimented with numerous techniques in glass, mosaics, and tile work. Around 1892 or 1893, he built a glass studio in Corona, NY, where he helped develop colors of glass by blending different colors in a molten state. He achieved subtle effects of shading and texture that Tiffany subsequently called Favrile. Favrile was based on an old-English word for hand-built (fabrile). Tiffany trademarked the name in hand-blown works such as the following objects:

Louis Comfort Tiffany for Tiffany Studios, Flower Vase, designed ca. 1900. Favrile glass, height: 2 7/8" (7.3 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5509)

Louis Comfort Tiffany for Tiffany Studios, Flower Vase, designed 1900–1910. Favrile glass, height: 11" (27.9 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5510)

Louis Comfort Tiffany for Tiffany Studios, Salt Cellar, designed 1896–1919. Opalescent glass, width: 2 7/8" (7.3 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5553)

I’m not really sure of the difference between the opalescent glass and the Favrile. Tiffany described Favrile as an imitation of the iridescent colors on the wings of butterflies or feathers of a peacock. 

I have a feeling that if Tiffany constantly sought his father’s help for solvency since the numerous incarnations of his glass studios were based on financial circumstances. Here are the companies that he instituted:

Louis C. Tiffany and Company (1878–1885)
Tiffany Glass Company (1885–1892)
Tiffany Glass and Decoration Company (1892–1900)
Allied Arts (1900–1902)
Tiffany Studios (1902–1932)
Tiffany Furnaces (1902–1919) and Louis C. Tiffany Furnaces (1920–1928) helped support the other studios by producing the metal frameworks for lamps, desk sets, and other items that combined glass with metal.

I’m not really interested in why he had so many different entities, because the result was so many beautiful works of art, and that’s the important thing.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Artists with August Birthdays

Sakai Hōitsu (August 1,1762–January 4,1828, Japan), Cranes. Two-fold screen, ink, colors and gold leaf on paper mounted on wooden frame, 4'9" x 4'9" (143.5 x 143.3 cm). © 2018 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-152)

Monthly artists’ birthdays are a good way to introduce you to a variety of artists I actually adore, while contrasting art from vastly different cultures. I’m not going to call it “interesting,” but it is certainly notable that both of these artists died in January, almost one hundred years apart. They certainly left a lot of beautiful art behind!

If you ever want to teach a lesson on positive and negative space, this painting would serve as a wonderful example. Its beautiful composition is also a good example of asymmetrical balance. There were so many wonderful schools of painting active through the Edo Period (1615–1868) in Japan, and they were nourished by the isolation of the Tokugawa dictators, who cut outside contact. This caused Japanese artists to look to lauded styles of past periods. One of the most popular styles that persisted through the Edo Period was the yamato-e, one that had come to full bloom during the Heian Period (794–1185).
Yamato-e (“Japanese painting”) originally flourished in the form of scroll painting, particularly in illustration of literature. It is characterized by decorative surface, contrasting patterns, bright color, and the liberal use of gold leaf. During the Edo Period it became a popular style in screen painting. The screen is called a byōbu, and a two-fold screen is a furosaki (or nikyoku) byōbu. The simplicity of this screen is a striking feature in the yamato-e aesthetic in which nature is reduced to shapes, and is typical of the work of Sakai Hōitsu. Although the birds cast no shadows, they do not really seem to float because they are anchored by the stylized stream behind them. The gold leaf background adds to the decorative effect of the screen, composed of 2" (5.1 cm) square sheets of beaten gold leaf.
Sakai was the son of a samurai, the lord of Himeji Castle in Hyōgo Prefecture. You probably know what it looks like: 

Himjei Castle, 1333, 1346, and 1601–1609. Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. Photo by Bernard Gagnon. CC BY-SA 3.0

Fortunately for us, Sakai shunned the military life and became a painter instead. He was a devoted follower of the Kōrin School of painting, named for its “founder” Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716). This school was sometimes called “Rinpa”: “pa” for school, and “Rin” from Kō(rin). Along with the Tosa and Kanō schools—in both of which Sakai trained—the yamato-e style really flourished up to and through the 1800s. This style is an interesting contrast to the ukiyo-e style with which most Westerners are familiar. Yamato-e painting was favored by the nobility, particularly because of its historical connotations, and was, of course, too expensive for the middle class to afford.

Sakai successfully established a Rinpa school in Edo (Tokyo). He studiously copied many of Ogata’s paintings, often on the back of screens he had painted in his own style. He published two woodblock print albums of Ogata’s work, One Hundred Images of Kōrin and Album of Simplified Seals in the Ogata Style. Talk about hero-worship!

Correlations to Davis programs: Discovering Art History 4E: 4.4; The Visual Experience: 13.5 

George Bellows (August 19,1882–January 8, 1925, US), Gorge and Sea, 1911. Oil on canvas. © 2018 Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC. (MIN-12)

I came to be a big admirer of the so-called Ash Can School artists many, many years ago, first when I discovered Twin Lights, Purple Rocks (1915) by John Sloan (1871–1951) at the Worcester Art Museum. I had never, I guess, thought of the Ash Can artists as colorists, but that painting convinced me they were. What further convinced me was when I saw Vine Clad Shore, Monhegan Island (1913) by George Bellows at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I had never thought of the school as landscape painters, either.

After Vine Clad Shore, I started to note other works by Bellows (and other Ash Can painters) that are infused with an almost Impressionist palette, such as Blue Morning (1909, National Gallery), which is a cityscape. Being a landscape painter, however, I’m so drawn to the landscapes of these artists. I particularly like the broad, fluid brush work of Bellows, no matter what palette he happens to be using. I guess it’s not surprising that they gravitated toward the Impressionist palette, since many of their works—like the Impressionists—lauded everyday city life and were often sketched on the spot.

Unlike the other members of the group of “The Eight,” Bellows was a member of the conservative National Academy of Design in New York that had rejected “The Eight” members’ works and was the impetus for the creation of the “Ash Can School” in 1908. He was elected in 1909, the youngest person ever elected to the academy. Born in Columbus, Ohio, he studied at Ohio State University and then at the New York Art School, where he studied with American Impressionist William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) and Dark Impressionist mentor of the Ash Can painters, Robert Henri (1865–1929).

Works such as Gorge and Sea, above, show the dichotomy of Bellows landscape palettes. It’s dark tonalities and muted colors remind me more of Dark Impressionism than Impressionism. But there is a vitality and an exuberance of paint application that I just really like. Bellows was praised by Academy members for his works that displayed the “American temperament,” whatever that might mean. As much as his cityscapes captured the vitality of city life, so too did his landscape capture the excitement of nature.

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Community Connection: 6.4; Discovering Art History: 4E 15.1