Monday, November 26, 2018

November Birthday of a Brilliant Artist

Neda Al-Hilali (born 1938, US, born Czechoslovakia), Atlantis, 1976. Cast paper, 14' x 8' 9” (427 x 249 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. © 2018 Neda Al-Hilali. (8S-19419)

I have come to the point where I no longer like to designate artists to any particular medium. This is due to the fact that so many artists do not confine their interests to a single medium. All the same, there are some artists who are pioneers in certain media, which I feel I must mention when discussing their work. Neda Al-Hilali, a sculptor and installation artist as well as a painter, is definitely an artist you should you know about when the subject of the fiber arts renaissance of the 1970s comes up.

The first recognition of fiber arts as a fine art form in the West came with the Arts and Crafts movement that developed in the 1860s in England and spread throughout Europe and the US. The next revolution in fiber arts came with the Bauhaus in Germany (1919–1933) under the leadership of Anni Albers (1899–1994). The Feminist Art Movement of the 1960s and 1970s reinvigorated fiber arts under such renowned artists as Claire Zeisler (1903–1991), Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), and Miriam Schapiro (1923–2015). In the 2000s, fiber arts are more vibrant than ever.

Al-Hilali participated in the landmark “fiber” show Deliberate Entanglements in 1971 at UCLA Galleries. For her, it was the culmination of years experimenting with textiles that led to room-sized fiber installations, such as Nar in the Deliberate Entanglements show. Like many of the artists working in textiles and textile techniques at the time, Al-Hilali did not want her work to be confined to wall hangings and other stereotypes of fiber art. Early on in her studying textile arts at UCLA (1961–1965), she searched for ways to make traditional textile arts into three-dimensional art forms. The fact that fiber pieces are such obvious references to textiles led her to explore the three-dimensional possibilities of paper.

Al-Hilali experimented with knitting with paper, as well as manipulating paper into constructible pieces by running it through a printing press. Because the printing press she was using was only three feet (91.4 cm) long, she began to plait together sections of manipulated paper such as is seen in Atlantis. This piece explores the pressing of the paper until it becomes glossy, to which Al-Hilali added paint. In Atlantis, Al-Hilali explored a variety of textures and a range of painted designs, all unified within a “knitted” grid of individual paper sections.

Al-Hilali was born in November 1938 in Czechoslovakia during World War II (1939–1945). Clothing privations meant that she learned from her mother how to take old materials or garments and create something new. She also learned how to knit. While living in Baghdad, she was fascinated with the numerous types of embroidered textiles she saw in the market, and gradually decided that pursuing textile arts was her passion. This came to fruition when she moved to California in 1961 and began studying weaving at UCLA. From there, she went on to teach at Scripps College in Claremont, California, where she continued to pursue her passion for textile art, combining it with installation and painting.

Atlantis is composed of hundreds of fragments from pressed out paper that is shaped and painted. Al-Hilali referred to the individual pieces creating the surface texture as “tongues.” Her exploration of paper culminated in a giant installation called The Beach Occurrence of Tongues (1975), the first installation that relied on paper as the primary medium. Atlantis certainly depicts the idea behind the Tongues works. 

Neda Al-Hilali, Atlantis, detail, 1976. Cast paper, 14' x 8' 9” (427 x 249 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. © 2018 Neda Al-Hilali. (8S-19419)

Monday, November 19, 2018

A Meal and a Plate for It

John James Audubon (1785–1851, US) and Robert Havell, Jr (engraver, 1793–1878), Wild Turkey, Male, plate 1, Volume I of The Birds of America, 1835. Hand-colored engraving and aquatint, sheet: 40" x 27” (101.6 x 68.6 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1334)

This week, I’m going to recognize Thanksgiving with works of art, rather than odes to a holiday that has evolved from “giving thanks for blessings” to gluttony and narcissism (gee, narcissism in this day and age?).

What could be more fitting this week—for humans, not the bird—than to show my preferred and the most elegant image of the American turkey? According to Audubon’s own notes, the wild turkey was his favorite bird to illustrate. It was the largest species in his publication The Birds of America. He also noted that he agreed with Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) that the turkey should have been chosen as the national bird of the US.

Audubon’s Birds of America was a landmark artistic endeavor in ornithology (the study of birds). Precursors of such studies date back to the Renaissance. Immediate precursors were The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, published before the Revolution by the British scientist Mark Catesby (1682–1749), and Alexander Wilson’s (1766-1813, Scotland) American Ornithology. Wilson’s publication is quoted quite often in Birds of America. Wilson’s notes in turn often referred to specimens in the first American science museum founded by the brilliant early American artist and scientist Charles Willson Peale (1738–1815).

Audubon, born in Haiti and raised in France, immigrated to the US in 1803. From 1819 on, his passion was the study of the native animals of the US. He always produced life-sized watercolors. His usual format showed one example of the bird in profile, set in a background he thoroughly researched. Early in his studies, he devised a way of posing the dead bird (which he often participated in shooting) upright within a wire grid.

The Havell engravings were produced on double elephant folio paper, the largest paper available for printing at the time. The copper plate engravings were based on either the watercolor studies or oil paintings Audubon produced of the birds. Audubon supervised the printing and coloring the works in Havell’s London workshop. Audubon probably never envisioned the storerooms of Walmart and supermarkets overloaded with frozen turkeys this time of year! 

Turkey, Dish, from Iznik, 1500–1525. Quartz-clay-glaze frit, height: 15 ¾" (40 cm). © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1377)

I chose a beautiful plate on which to serve the turkey from a brilliant school of ceramics. And, no, the blue-and-white ceramic is not purposely chosen from “Turkey” because of the holiday, I just wanted to make sure a small turkey would fit on it.

Iznik in Turkey has been a center for ceramic (and glass) production since ancient times. It was an ancient Roman center (called Nicaea then) during the Empire (ca. 27 BCE–476 CE). The city is also thought to have produced ceramic tile decoration for buildings during the Byzantine Empire (ca. 330s–1453 CE). It was during the Seljuk period (1037–1326) that the distinctive “Chini” type of ceramics were developed for architectural decoration. This evolved into many distinctive wares during the Ottoman Empire (1326–1923), when the Iznik ceramics were at their peak of popularity.

Between the 1500s and 1600s, ceramic arts flourished under the Ottomans, and Iznik thrived as the main center of supply for ceramic tiles for decorating buildings. Chinese porcelain had been known in Islamic lands since the 1400s. Many Iznik artist adapted Chinese decorative styles as competition, particularly the blue-and-white wares that were perfected during the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

As the Ottoman Empire increasingly looked toward political and economic expansion in the late 1600s, the interest in protecting the trade in Iznik ceramics declined. So, too, did production of the wares perfected during the 1400s and 1500s. Because the glaze and clay formulas were passed down from father to son, and with lack of imperial support, the Iznik secrets died out during the 1600s. This problem was compounded by the rise in sophisticated European ceramics and imitations of Iznik, as well as Japanese and Chinese, wares. This plate from the early 1500s represents the zenith of the Iznik blue-and-white wares.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Awesomeness in Two Media

Natalija Goncharova (1881–1962, Russia), Landscape 47, 1912. Oil on canvas,  21 ½" x 18 3/8" (54.6 x 46.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P2279goars)

Throughout the history of art, artists have worn many hats. In that, I mean artists have not always stuck to one medium. This is true globally. In Western art, during the first twenty-five years of the 1900s, Russian artists were pioneers in modernism, producing the first totally nonobjective art. This coincided with the evolution of Cubism with Picasso and Braque, De Stijl with Mondrian and Doesburg, and German Expressionism. Russian modernist artists hoped that the Revolution of 1917 would usher in an appreciation for a revolution in the arts. Unfortunately, this was quickly quashed. The Communist revolution needed art to be realistic enough to convey the party line. So, many Russian artists moved to other parts of Europe so that they could explore their individual forms of modernism.

Natalija Goncharova,
along with Vasili Kandinsky (1866–1944), was one of the founding members of the German Expressionist group Blaue Reiter (1911). In 1912, she helped organize the avant-garde art group Osliny Khvost (Donkey’s Tail) in Moscow with her future husband, Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964). Although at the time she was influenced by Futurism—the offshoot of Cubism that emphasized movement and industrial energy—her work ultimately embodied a variety of abstract influences that eventually played out in her costume and fashion designs.

Goncharova was born in central Russia and attended high school in Moscow. She studied at the College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, deciding to become a painter. She met Larionov, a key pioneer of Rayonism, in 1900, and at the same time was influenced by Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. The link between Impressionism and Rayonism is interesting—Impressionism stressed the color of physical objects in light and reflected light, while Rayonism emphasized the visualization of light rays (color) bouncing off of and reflecting the forms of physical objects, rather than the objects themselves. Landscape 47 is firmly in her Rayonist period. 

Natalija Goncharova and Mybor Boutique (1922–1936, Paris, Marie Borde Cutolli maker), Woman’s evening dress, ca. 1926. Silk with silk appliqué, metallic thread and wool yarn embroidery. Height center back: 40 ½" (102.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-9253goars)

Goncharova had her first and largest one-person show in 1913. She displayed works inspired by Russian icons and also works in a Cubo-Futurist and Rayonist style. She began designing costumes and stage sets for Sergei Diaghilev’s (1872–1929) avant-garde and internationally (Europe) acclaimed Ballets Russes (Russian Ballets).

With the advent of the disastrous (especially for Russia) World War I (1914–1918), Goncharova and Larionov first immigrated to Geneva (1915), and ultimately settled permanently in Paris in 1917. Paris at the time was one of the European centers of modern art experiment. She produced remarkable costumes inspired by her Russian heritage, influenced by the paintings of contemporary avant-garde art movements such as Cubism and Rayonism.

Between 1922 and 1926, Goncharova created designs for the fashion boutique Maison Mybor, designing unique clothes inspired by the international avant-garde. In her fashion designs, she bucked what was considered traditional, incorporating an intimate intertwining of images, including music notation, letters, fragments of words, and textual messages. This dress contains references to musical instrument forms, but also reflects the influence of her Rayonist paintings.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Beauty Over Chaos

Marsden Hartley (1877–1943, US), Winter Chaos, Blizzard, 1909. Oil on canvas, 33 15/16" x 34" (86.2 x 86.4 cm). Image © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-276)

I’m purposely avoiding any art that has to do with elections because of this week’s voting. I’m so disappointed with the political climate in this country, I want to show a beautiful work of art to take your mind off of the ridiculous state this country is in. Marsden Hartley is an awesome painter and a pioneer American modernist at a time when it was not fashionable. I will point out that the title of this gorgeous Hartley piece contains the word “chaos.”

In the early 1900s, American avant-garde art was largely influenced by European modernism, primarily movements in France (Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism), Germany (Dark Impressionism, Symbolism, Expressionism), and Italy (Futurism). American artists who had been abroad established original contributions to these styles and, in many cases, they made these styles uniquely American.

Marsden Hartley—as I’ve blogged before—was one of those artists who just exploded with originality after traveling to Europe. Although he spent time in Europe between 1909 and 1912, he had studied in New York between 1899 and 1905. This was the period when he became acquainted with European modernism, particularly all of the offshoots of Neo-Impressionism. Neo-Impressionism had spread from France into Switzerland, Italy, and, to a lesser extent, Germany.

In 1908, Hartley moved to a remote farm in Stoneham Valley, Maine. He stayed through a severe winter until March of 1909 and produced a large number of paintings in the Neo-Impressionist style. He had seen works by the Neo-Impressionists (such as Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard) at Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 in New York. He had also seen works by the Italian Swiss artist Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899)a Neo-Impressionist who painted scintillating alpine landscapes in a pseudo-Divisionist stylein the German magazine Jugend. Segantini’s method of building form in short, thin swipes of pure color is now called the “stitch” method.

Winter Chaos, Blizzard was part of Hartley’s first one-person shows, held at Gallery 291 in 1909. The success of that show enabled him to go to Europe for six years. Although his stitches are larger than those of Segantini, they serve the same purpose to build form. The brushwork of stitches is so tight and space is so condensed that there is very little sense of depth. The emphasis is on the two-dimensional surface rather than as illusionistic landscape. Works from this period came the closest to total abstraction of any of Hartley’s work, including his symbol paintings from Germany. 

Marsden Hartley, Winter Chaos, Blizzard, brushwork detail, 1909. Oil on canvas, 33 15/16" x 34" (86.2 x 86.4 cm). Image © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-276)