Archive for May, 2008

Higher Aspirations

Posted in Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , on May 29, 2008 by Liz Hager


Sean Scully, Wall of Light, Alba, oil on linen, 2001  (©Sean Scully)

While I was writing recently about the quilts of Gee’s Bend (see “Inner Sympathy of Meaning”), I couldn’t stop thinking about Sean Scully’s work. One of my  initial thoughts was to pair the two bodies of work—there seemed to be a lot of fodder for discussion. But the expansive scope of that endeavor quickly became apparent and I wasn’t seeing a way to rein it into a blog entry.  So, I left the comparisons for another venue, acknowledging that Scully’s work would stand alone in its own entry.

Still, as I start out on this discussion, I can’t help but note perhaps the obvious— that despite the difference in materials and process, and beyond their similarity of design (i.e. rectangular blocks of color), both the quilts and Scully’s paintings share a spirituality that derives from a deep connection to the universal human condition. My guess is that the Gee’s Bend quilters were just following their hearts, taking pride in making something beautiful out of a utilitarian folk form,  unconscious of any “deeper” meaning all of us might ascribe to the pieces.

Sean Scully, on the other hand, is very deliberate and passionate about using abstract form to explore our Ur-emotions. He once explaned:

“I’m interested in art that addresses itself to our highest aspirations. (Abstract art) allows you to think without making oppressively specific references, so the viewer is free to identify with the work. It’s a non-denominational religious art. I think it’s the spiritual art of our time.”

Not bound to figurative references and the biases each of us harbors about them, Scully is able to explore all aspects of humanity untethered.  As a lover of patterns, I marvel at the way he creates complexity by repeating a simple shape without succumbing to repetition itself.  I respond on an inexplicable, instinctual level to his use of layered color.  There’s something at once both vibrant and soothing about the combinations. Further, in applying the paint so that vestiges of layers beneath show through, Scully has created a sort of living, breathing thing.

Look at them long enough and the compositions begin to suggest places you’ve been. In Wall of Light, Alba (above) I can see a sunny harbor on the Mediterranean (millions of geraniums) or perhaps the pine-scented mountains of Eastern Turkey with their chalk-y outcroppings.  His Figure in Grey series remind me how grey New York can be.

Sean Scully once confessed: “Every day I look at the sky to capture the colour of the day with an anxiety to achieve a synthesis between the cultural world, natural world, and personal world.” High aspirations indeed.

Inner Sympathy of Meaning

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , , on May 27, 2008 by Liz Hager


Lorena Pettway, Quilt (Gee's Bend)

Loretta Pettway, Quilt (4 block strips), ca. 1960
78 x 73 inches
(Courtesy Quilts of Gee’s Bend).

Loretta Pettway has spent her whole life in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a tiny rural community largely cut off from the rest of the world since after Civil War by a cruel trick of nature. The Alabama River meanders around the town in a horseshoe shape creating a virtual island out of the community. Ferry service ran sporadically until the 1960s, when it stopped altogether. This physical isolation guaranteed that generations of Gee’s Benders would remain wretchedly poor and pretty well ignorant of the world at large—much less the New York art scene.  Ironically, it was this very isolation that enabled the Gee’s Bend women to preserve their rich and beautiful tradition of quilting, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters.  In a further twist of irony, the quilts themselves have become the means by which the contemporary community has reconnected with the world beyond the bend.

At the de Young exhibition of the quilts last year, I vividly remember the moment when I turned the corner from the hallway into the first exhibit room. That first group of stunningly bold pieces took my breath away.  I was dumbstruck. How could so traditional a folk form created by a group so isolated from the modern world appear so. . . well, strikingly modern? In their abstracted and geometric patterns, the quilts displayed an uncanny kinship to the  60s and 70s paintings of Frank Stella or maybe even Barnett Newman.

As I moved through the exhibition, the quilts offered me something that most of the work of Minimalists never has—quiet and intense joy. It’s the same emotional chord struck in me by a Rothko painting. Perhaps its that large blocks of color function as a long forgotten, but deeply-ingrained, juju on the human psyche. In their uniquely exuberant, yet dignified way, the quilts connected me the wonder and bliss of being human. I felt a kinship to the Gee’s Bend artists, even though I’d never met them. Ultimately, given the evidence of this beautiful handiwork, should it be such a surprise that despite, or perhaps because of, their separation from the world, the quilters of Gee’s Bend had a profound and universal connection to it?

In the early years of the last century, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the first truly emotive abstract painters, wrote: “the relationships in art are not necessarily the ones of outward form, but are founded on inner sympathy of meaning” (Concerning the Spiritual in Art). Kandinsky believed in the artist as a spiritual teacher.  He strived hard to express the soul of nature and humanity in his work. I believe he would have found true “sympathy of meaning” in the works of Gee’s Bend.

Wider Connections

Mark Rothko (Taschen 25th Anniversary Special Edition)

The Making of an Iconoclast

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on May 21, 2008 by Liz Hager

El Greco — St. Luke Painting Virgin & ChildSt. Martin & the Beggar, El Greco

(Left) El Greco, “St. Luke Paints the Virgin & Child,” tempera and gold on canvas attached to board, ca. 1560-70s? (photo courtesy Painting the Soul by Robin Cormack)  (Right) El Greco, “St. Martin & the Beggar,” oil on canvas, 1597/99 (courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)

A few months ago, while researching the history of Byzantine icons for one of my own art pieces, I stumbled across a picture of El Greco’s (1541-1614) early-career icon, St. Luke Painting the Madonna and Child.  At first, the work startled me—I had not seen it before and never would have made a connection to the El Greco I knew, if the attribution hadn’t been staring me in the face. The subject of El Greco’s icon is a venerable one—the painting of the Madonna icon by  St. Luke, who, as the legendary first to paint her, was himself the first iconographer. Cleverly, El Greco’s painting is an icon within an icon.  The Madonna within conforms to the rigorous standards in pose, style and technique established within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Charming though it was, St. Luke pitched a nasty curve ball into my neat, although broad, compartment labeled “El Greco—unorthodox, passionate, strangely-modern, Italian-trained 16th-century painter.”  Who knew that his artistic roots lay outside the Western-driven Renaissance??? Well, as it turns out, not the art-world at large until recently when a newly-uncovered restoration photograph from 1938 proved the existence of the master’s signature on an icon. As it turns out, St. Luke himself was attributed to the painter only a few years ago.

My personal “uncovery” of this piece surfaced my own questions regarding El Greco’s artistic style.  First and foremost, the flat-plane, lacking perspective, highly-symbolic world of icons could not be farther removed from the humanistic Renaissance and back-to-naturalism Baroque periods in which El Greco lived and worked.  You can see on a superficial inspection that the icon bears little likeness to examples of the artist’s more mature work. How,  if at all, had his early work as an icon maker influenced El Greco’s later style.  In short, how did the painter get from St. Luke to St. Martin?

Certainly, El Greco’s peripatetic lifestyle (Crete to Venice, Rome, Madrid and finally Toledo) with its exposure to a variety of artistic styles, assisted his transformation from the Eastern to Western artistic tradition.  A little from Titian in Venice, a little from Correggio and Raphael in Rome. All artists borrow and reformulate elements into their own original work. There is no doubt that El Greco’s stay in Italy was fruitful in that it produced a major reworking of his stylistic expression.   

And yet, the more I pondered his mature style, the more bewitched I became by St. Luke. By the time El Greco painted his icons (1560s-70s), the bloom was off the Renaissance rose, Michelangelo and Raphael were long gone, and the artistic world was moving through its Mannerist phase toward the Baroque. Against all artistic odds, El Greco latched onto the Mannerist style. It’s possible that he found the artistic isolation in Toledo, far from the orbit of Rome, to his liking. After all, it’s easy to imagine that out in the provinces the artist would not necessarily have felt pressure to keep be au courant.   To the end El Greco embraced the recognizable hallmarks of the Mannerists—e.g. compositions organized in intricate patterns; elongated figures twisted into contorted poses; style for its own clever sake.    But then again there are those most unManneristic of elements, his counterpoints— the otherworldly color palette and pathos so heavy that it almost oozes out of his figures. For me, these are precisely the attributes which elevate El Greco above the Italian Mannerists. Their use of a more conventional palette only draws attention to those silly contorted figures. There is no feeling there!  Without it what’s left is pure artifice. Style for style’s sake. 

Now for the icons. Icons (from the Greek “eikon” meaning image) were an art form borrowed by the Christians from the Romans in the first centuries AD. At first they replicated the Roman art form—commemorative portraits of the dead, often affixed to the body or coffin as a mask. Gradually,  in the centuries after his death,  they came to display specific images of Christ and the saints, as a method for conveying stories to a flock who wouldn’t have had any knowledge of them.  Fourth-century Christians would have made no distinction between the holy personage himself and the image, believing that Christ, for example, was really present with them through the icon. They believed the icon had divine and miraculous power.  The icon was literally the window to Paradise through which devotions and worship could flow.  As early as the 7th century icon making was not an arbitrary artistic endeavor, but was subject to strict rules of format and technique outlined by the Church. In the 11th century the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires irrevocably split, and Constantinople went on to become the foremost center of the icon industry.  Demand being huge for these religious pieces, production was farmed out to other locales, Crete being a primary one.  To become good enough to have his own workshop, El Greco would have had to master the strenuous the intricacies of the icon tradition, including the very specific rigid poses of the iconic figures, which were highly-symbolic in nature. He would have understood the ritualized color schemes that applied to various clothing worn by the figures. He would have excelled in flat spatial representation, which served to emphasize the subject over distracting background action.  El Greco would have had no need to learn the conventions of perspective, that most Renaissance of inventions.

El Greco was a devout Catholic. Above all, he would have had a deep belief in the mystical power of the icon as a spiritual guide, the means by which he as an Orthodox Christian came to know God. As an icon artist, continually in their presence, he must have felt intense emotion, perhaps awe.  I can imagine that those icons worked their spiritual magic on El Greco day in and day out. I can imagine how he wished to take them with him on his transformational journey. 




No Trifle—William de Morgan & the Iznik Tradition

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, People & Places, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , on May 17, 2008 by Liz Hager


The making of patterns is no trifle—it’s a rare gift to be able to do it.
—Edward Burne-Jones

Ottoman-era tiles, Yeni Camii, Istanbul

Iznik tiles, Yeni Camii, Istanbul.

De Morgan "Mongolian" motif

William de Morgan, Tile, “Mongolian” motif.  (Photo courtesy William de Morgan Tiles by Jon Catleugh)
Note: the Ottoman inspired colors and ogee (double S shape) motif of the vines.

I first encountered William Frend de Morgan’s (1839-1917) tile work at Kelmscott Manor, William Morris‘ summer home in the Cotswold district of England. While I knew something about the Arts & Crafts movement in England, as well as Morris and the better known members of his circle (Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown), I confess, that at the moment of our “introduction,” I knew nothing about de Morgan and his work. Nonetheless, his alluring designs spoke eloquently for him. Beyond the obvious connection to Morris’ design aesthetic, there was something else naggingly familiar about the designs. Armed with this thought, I began to investigate the man and his work.

De Morgan first met William Morris in 1863, and moved immediately into his close circle of artist friends, all of whom were passionate about restoring the hand-crafted arts to Britain. Morris suggested de Morgan work in “the Firm” (at that time Morris, Marshall & Faulkner) by designing stained glass. De Morgan tried it for a while, but gave it up in the early 1870s to concentrate wholly on ceramics. (Not such a long leap, given the similarity in firing techniques.)  De Morgan’s designs are testament to the power of Morris’ vision. The two worked together for many years and de Morgan’s tiles seem to channel the spirit of the master’s aesthetics all-too-adeptly.  But de Morgan was his own artist stylistically, and, as I came to appreciate, he was the first ceramicist to embrace Ottoman-era ceramic design & production methods wholeheartedly.

In our current age of instant images, it is difficult to imagine the impact that newly-discovered cultures had on the Victorians. Certainly, they were well-familiar with the Greeks & Romans. Beginning in the 1850s, however, as printed cottons from India and ceramics from the Far East arrived in Britain, exotic new design aesthetics were “discovered” by Victorian artists. Under the influence of Owen Jones and his The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1868,  newly-leisured middle-class latched onto the Persian and Ottoman styles in a big way. Elaborate smoking rooms and Turkish baths, both of which traditionally sported tiled walls, became the rage.  The brilliant palette of the Ottoman designs, as well as the juxtaposition of pattern against pattern and fanciful animal and floral motifs would have seemed incredibly exotic, and desirable, to a population which until recently had dressed themselves and their houses for the most part in drab, pattern-less designs. The exhibitions of Ottoman and Persian arts staged by the new South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria & Albert Museum) had enormous and immediate impact on Morris and his circle.

A tireless experimenter, De Morgan vigorously embraced the Ottoman method of production, fascinated by luster, the metallic glaze used by the Ottomans and later Renaissance-era Spaniards and Italians. By 1879, de Morgan had developed a reputation for his “Persian” color palette—ultramarine blue nestled against turquoise and green figure prominently throughout his work. Moreover, he “lifted” without much modification the imaginative peonies, roses, carnations, hyacinths and tulips that grace Iznik ware.   Beginning in the 1870s his designs began to incorporate ogee (double s) and palmette elements,  motifs arguably perfected by the Ottomans.  All in all, de Morgan’s designs were always close to the spirit of the originals, though not exact copies.

William de Morgan was a prolific designer and characteristic Victorian, accomplished in many fields. At the time of his death in 1917 (of influenza) his portfolio of tile designs contained upwards of 1200 drawings. This figure probably doesn’t represent an accurate accounting of his total output.  In addition to painting, he produced five best selling novels.

Wider Connections

Good information on de Morgan through the usual source material on the Arts & Crafts movement is scant. For an in-depth discussion of his life and work, see Jon Catleugh‘s book, William de Morgan Tiles.

Luxury Goods from the Ottoman Court

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, People & Places with tags , , , , , , on May 14, 2008 by Liz Hager

© Liz Hager 2008, All Rights Reserved

One of the many intricately tiled wall designs at Topkapı Palace.
Note the overall emulation of rug design and the ogival motif created by the central vines. (Author’s photo.)

When I finally got to Istanbul last year after many years of delay, I fell utterly and unreservedly in love with the city. As with all world-class cities, Istanbul is a mass of contradictions.  Like Mexico City, it’s big and sprawling (17 million people by some estimates), both decadent and modern, often along the same block. Istanbul offers up the usual downsides of a large city (noise, intense pollution, hoards, hawkers and hustlers). But these soon seem minor inconveniences as you are buoyed along in the current of the city’s incredible historic legacy,  visible around most every corner (not to mention underground). Over the past 7000+ years, hoards — Phoenicians, Hittites, Greeks,  Romans, Seljuks,  Byzantium Christians, and Ottomans—have colonized  the city, leaving all manner of historical footnotes. More than once, I found myself wishing I had brought along my 9th-grade ancient history textbook, just to help keep them all straight.

Undisputedly, it’s the handiwork of the Ottomans on most stunning display in the city.  After a few days of museums, palaces, and mosques, I was reeling, visually intoxicated by the multitude of Ottoman-era ceramics, rugs, embroideries and finely appointed costumes.  The intricacy of Ottoman ornament is truly astonishing. Even the Sultan’s grillwork was wrought with an elaborateness that immediate elevates it to high art.

Outside of the knotted rugs, Iznik pottery must be Ottoman Turkey’s greatest glory.  The distinctive tiles and tiles were originally made in the city of Iznik, just across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul.  A city with its own venerable history, Iznik lived a good part of its life as Nicea, a place of great import to the early centuries of the Christian religion.  In 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the hugely- important First Council of Nicea, which brought rival factions together in a resolution of conflicting beliefs. With the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century, Nicea became Iznik. Although pottery had been made in the city since Byzantine times, it was under the Ottomans that the pottery developed its distinctive look. İznik vessels were originally made in imitation of the highly-prized Chinese Ming porcelain, the latter available as early as the 14th century to Ottoman sultans via the Silk Route trade.  Before 1520, Iznik ware was decorated mainly in blue (cobalt oxide) and white. Over time, the color palette extended beyond these to  include purple (manganese), red (silica and iron oxide), green (copper oxide), turquoise, grey and black.   Interestingly the Iznik potters could not replicate porcelain (made of clay), so they “faked” it with glass and sand. A minor point in the face of such stunning surface designs.

To be sure,  there are loads of places in Istanbul to see beautiful Iznik tiles and porcelain. But there is no place more stunning than Topkapı Palace, built by Sultan Mehmet, to celebrate his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The palace was home to successive rulers until the victory of the Allies in WW1 dissolved the Ottoman Empire. The palace, now a museum, is extensive and complex, rooms follow rooms which lead to courtyards and more rooms. At every turn is a stunning full-wall Iznik tile design. Look up and you’ll see tile decorated ceilings. It seems as if every nook and cranny covered with tile, a pasha’s feast for the eyes.  And, if that weren’t enough, inside the old palace kitchens is a large display of 15th and 16th c. Chinese porcelain, a fitting homage to obsession that begat a style.


Iznik Plate in the Istanbul Archeology Museum (Author’s photo)

A Crimson Fez

Posted in Fashion with tags , , , , on May 12, 2008 by Liz Hager


My fez is never far away.

I’ve had my fez for 15 years.  I’d like to claim I purchased it in a souk in Istanbul or Casablanca, but the truth is I got it right here in SF in a long-gone dusty little store on Polk St.  I’ve never actually worn the hat outside the house. It’s too small for my head. Far from making an elegant fashion statement, it just looks dopey perched atop my crown.  Even so, my fez is worn around the edges and a bit faded. More annoying, no matter how well I clean it, there always seems to be a thin layer of dust impressed into its felt-like surface. But to part with my fez would be unthinkable.

It must have been that luscious crimson that first spoke to the colorist in me. Some sources will tell you that the distinctive red hue was derived originally from the dye produced from the bright red berries of the Turkish kızılcık tree (Cornus Mas), a relative of the common American dogwood. Others will say the dyes were first made in Fez.  Many other ethnic groups sported their own version of the fez.  How did the eponymous hat come to be associated predominantly with the Ottoman Turks?

Wikipedia reports that the conical shape is of ancient Greek origin and that the Turkic tribes adopted the hat after they conquered Greek Anatolia.   I like the more poetic explanation from a  guide and imam in Fez. He claimed that 19th c. Ottoman Turks came to Fez seeking education, as it was a renowned center of learning in the Muslim world. They took the hats back with them, and fellow Turks began referring to them as fezzes.

This we do know: in 1826, as part of sweeping reforms, Ottoman sultan Mahmud II, abolished the elaborate turban headdress in favor of the simple fez.  Some historical pundits have suggested that it was because this brimless conical hat was less cumbersome in the bowing motion of daily prayers. The correct action of genuflection with a fez on has eluded me—I did not have to tilt my head very far for the hat to fall right off.

In 1925, Mestafa Kemal Attatürk, who led Turkey into the modern age, outlawed the fez, considering it a too-ethnic symbol of Turkey’s “backwards” past, an object of ridicule by the citizens of more modern nations. Punishment for defying the edict was severe and the fez went underground.

There are still a few fez holdouts in the world—Indonesians and Shriners, for example. But then again the hat as a item of daily costume for men has largely disappeared throughout the “modern” world.  Too bad, I say.

Wider Connections

Jeremy SealA Fez of the Heart: Travels around Turkey in Search of a Hat

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