Archive for June, 2008

A Question of Ornament: Owen Jones & Adolf Loos

Posted in Architecture, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2008. All Rights Reserved

Proposition 5: Construction should be decorated. Decoration should never be purposely constructed. —Owen Jones, one of 34 design propositions in The Grammar of Ornament

Ornament is a crime. —Adolf Loos.

Owen Jones, Plate XLV (detail), Persian Ornament, from The Grammar of Ornament
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In the opening paragraph of his The Grammar of Ornament, first published in 1856, Owen Jones (1809-1874) makes the following claim: “From universal testimony of travellers it would appear, that there is scarcely a people, in however early a stage of civiliz ation, with whom the desire for ornament is not a strong instinct.”

In the early 20th century, architect Adolf Loos was to prove him wrong.

Trained as an architect, Jones was a key figure in the history of British design, who in addition to interiors, designed fabrics and wallpapers. In the early 1830s, on a Grand Tour of Europe,  he made a detailed survey of the ornament in the Alhambra, which he published in 1842.   He was a key participant in the Great Exhibition of 1851—this spurred him on to develop a series of style “courts;” rooms displaying different designs and furnishings, as part revamping of the Crystal Palace. Conceived as a companion piece to this project,  The Grammar of Ornament was lavishly illustrated and detailed in its analysis.  This was his manifesto—Jones abhored the mis-use of ornament through constant, but uneducated, repetition and advocated that society “get rid of the acquired and artificial…and develop natural instincts.” The book quickly became the definitive design sourcebook and with it, Jones became a highly-influential “style guru” to generations of successive architects and designers. William Morris/Arts & Crafts Movement, as well as of architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, were among his acolytes.

Adolf Loos, Looshaus, Michaelplatz 3, Vienna.

Adolf Loos (1870-1933) is remembered today most for the role he played in fin de siècle Vienna as a vigorous denouncer of ornament. He launched his controversial views in 1897 through a series of published essays, which addressed the excesses of traditional Viennese design, particularly as exercised by the Jugendstil (Austrian Art Nouveau) movement.  These theories culminated in 1908 with the publication of a short essay entitled “Ornament and Crime.” To Loos, the lack of ornament on architecture was a sign of spiritual strength, an aesthetic beauty that only those who lived on a higher level of culture would appreciate. As he expounded in the essay:  “The urge to ornament oneself and everything within reach is the ancestor of pictorial art. It is the baby talk of painting. . . the evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.”

Although I could not find a reference in Loos’ writings to the Owen Jones work, he must have been familiar with it, it seems likely that it was a part of his early professional education.  Loos’ stance on ornament was like a swift current in the river that flowed from Belle Époque to Modernism. The core (i.e. architectural form) was quickly emancipated from its clothing and jewelry. Le Corbusier considered Loos’ essay as “an Homeric cleansing” of architecture.  Could the Loos manifesto have been a progenitor of the Sullivan’s enigmatic adage—”form follows function” (itself an adaptation of a line of poetry from sculptor and classicist Horatio Greenough)?  I’ll keep searching. . .

Except for the architecturally-literate, perhaps not many today could identify a Loos building, though his legacy is omnipresent in our 21st-century world. Think hard on often you see a post-1920s building with scrolls, figures, floral elements, or, for that matter,  exterior moldings, capitals and cornices, and you will understand the magnitude of acceptance for his ideas. It follows then that the tastefully neutral, textured, but pattern-less interiors, so perennially popular with contemporary designers, are also a Loos legacy, if indirectly through the example of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.  On the other hand, our persistent desire to pattern walls, sofas and pillows (often with historically-mined material) seems to me to be an obvious link to Jones. Some of us like the ornamental, even in the midst of our minimalist world.

Thankfully I say, the two camps still happily co-exist.

The Rabbit Hole

Owen Jones
The Grammar of Ornament


Owen Jones, Textile Reformer

Adolf Loos
Ornament & Crime

Extract—Adolf Loos: The Art of Architecture by Joseph Mascheck

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Eminent Victorians: Julia Margaret Cameron and Virginia Woolf

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , on June 23, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

(Top) Julia Margaret Cameron, Julia Jackson, albumen print, ca. 1867; (Bottom) George Charles Beresford, Virginia Woolf, platinum print, 1902.

While on the subject of Julia Cameron. .  . (see Alice of the Pure Unclouded Brow) I couldn’t help noticing the many portraits of a contemporary of Alice Liddell, a pure pre-Raphaelite beauty, Julia Prinsep Jackson (top).  Julia Jackson was one of Cameron’s favorite sitters; she happened also to be her neice, daughter of Cameron’s sister Maria.   Julia Jackson (1846-1895) married Sir Leslie Stephen (writer and critic) and they begat Virginia (1882-1941), who later married Leonard Woolf, as well as artist Vanessa, who would be a founding member of The Omega Group. V. Stephens looks were distinctive—the long narrow face and those bug-y eyes!— and the portrait above of her has been pretty widely circulated. Still, I was surprised to learn of Virginia’s connection to Cameron.  Julia Stephens died when Virginia was just 13,  and this event was to haunt the writer for many years.

Virginia and her mother were skeins in a familial and social web of the sort that has bound English aristocrats together for centuries—

Julia Jackson’s first marriage was to Herbert Duckworth, a barrister, who died tragically a few years into their marriage. Duckworth might have been a descendent of William the Conquerer, but that illustrious lineage wouldn’t have passed to Virginia, as he was not her father. Interestingly, his descendants are related to Princess Diana. Not to be outdone, however, Virginia was descended on her mother’s side from a page in Marie Antoinette’s court.

Julia Jackson also posed for Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-eminent pre-Raphaelite painter; we know that she was the model for the head of the virgin in  his Adoration of the Magi.

Sir Leslie Stephens’ (Virginia’s father) was a widower when he met Julia Jackson Duckworth. His first wife was the daughter of author William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair).

In 1926, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) wrote an introduction to Julia Margaret Cameron’s (her great-aunt) posthumously-published Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women.

Alice of the Pure Unclouded Brow

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2008 by Liz Hager

Charles Dodgson, Alice Liddell

Charles Dodgson, Alice Lydell, 1859;

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898 ) was a prominent member of Victorian society, who possessed a ministry degree and a lectureship in mathematics at Oxford.  He was described by many as a natural storyteller; from a young age, he wrote poetry and short stories. Long before he published  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll, however, Dodgson had taken up photography as a serious hobby. From 1856 to 1880, he created something on the order of 3000 studio and landscape photographs (although less than a third have survived). In his 20s, Dodgson developed a close and lasting relationship with members of the pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Alice Liddell as AletheaJulia Morgan, Alice-as-Alethea, 1872

(Both above) Julia Margaret Cameron, Alice Liddell as Alethea, ca. 1872

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was born in India, educated in France and married to a jurist 20 years her senior. They lived in India until 1848, when Charles Hay Cameron retired, at which time they moved to London.  In 1863, when she was 40, Cameron’s daughter gave her a camera, thus facilitating the birth of her career as a photographer, predominantly of portraits (eminent and ordinary Victorians) and allegorical tableaux. She was greatly influenced by the pre-Raphaelites—the romanticized themes of her allegories are plucked pretty directly from Rossetti et al.’s playbook.   Many of their circle sat for her, including Dodgson. Cameron was more interested in evoking an emotional aura than in photographic accuracy, and this resulted in deliberately gauzy, out-of-focus images. Diaries record that Dodgson wasn’t so keen on her technique. He thought she was sloppy.

Alice Liddell (Lydell) brought them together, at least briefly, artistically. Alice Liddell was one of eight children of Dr. Henry Liddell and the middle of three daughters. In 1856 Liddell assumed his position as the new Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and it was soon after that the family became acquainted with Charles Dodgson. He began taking the older children on afternoon boating excursions, during which he’d relate fanciful stories to pass the time.  Alice joined the outings slightly later. It was on one such outing with Alice and her sisters in 1862 that Dodgson related the tale which would later become his most famous book.

About this time Dodgson began using Alice regularly as a portrait subject for his photographs. Dodgson made hundreds of works featuring young girls, a lot of them nude. There have been ample rumors and refutations that Dodgson was a pedophile and assertions that these portraits constitute pornography.  From the sweet fetching expression Dodgson coaxed out of little Alice, you can certainly imagine how fond he was of her; you might be inclined to believe he was in love with her.   (Was this the look that inspired the opening lines of poetry— “Child with a pure unclouded brow and dreaming eyes of wonder!”— in Through the Looking Glass?). That fetching look would make an older Alice the perfect pre-Raphaelite model for Cameron’s later photographic allegory of Alethea, Greek goddess of truth. It’s a beautiful, haunting picture.

Is there truth in the rumors? Go ask Alice.

Obama Bling-Bling

Posted in Jewelry, Liz Hager, Politics with tags , , , on June 19, 2008 by Liz Hager

My very own set of Obama bling-bling

Our friend Alison was sporting a set of these twinkly bands one night. I oo’ed and ah’ed; after all, what magpie can resist a shiny, sparkly thing? She proudly referred to her Obama bling, but I thought, since there were two, that “Obama bling-bling” was more appropriate terminology. While the bling-bling flashed away through the evening, I marveled at its many layers of meaning.  First there is the message itself, a simple proclamation of support. Of course this kind of message is bound to be a surprise to anyone who inspects this glittery pair more closely—one doesn’t expect necessarily a message of this sort in “diamonds.”  Perhaps they are a contemporary twist on the popular 60s-era ID bracelets?  (I admit I sported ONE of those for a brief period.) The bracelets are also a daily reminder of an important event on our nation’s calendar. Further,  by wearing them on your right wrist and engaging in a friendly handshake, you might be passing along karmic goodwill (or possibly consternation, if shaking with supporters of other candidates). Would all of us wearing Obama bling-bling automatically greet each other with fist bumps?

What about the “rocks” themselves? To my mind, a more elegant statement than the somewhat pedestrian campaign button.  In one sense, they play off the media’s obsession with Obama as an “elite” candidate. Does the fact that they are fake, meant to simulate real, indicate the wearer’s public acknowledgment of a similar belief about the candidate? On the other hand, rhinestones are affordable by the masses, so in this economy appropriate material for candidate jewelry I think.  They certainly are versatile—elegant enough to pass muster at a fancy (fundraising?) event and yet, these “downmarket” rhinestones are not too ostentatious to sport as everyday wear. 

Dinner finished and Alison left with the Obamawear.  My life was a bit empty until yesterday, when much to my surprise my very own set of Obama bling-bling arrived in the mail, courtesy of my husband. I have a feeling I’ll be wearing these for a good long time.  Come to think of it,  they might be the perfect accessory for a certain celebration in January…

For your own set of Obama bling-bling, contact Carol Vena-Mondt at venamondt@gmail.com (sorry no linkage, so you’ll have to cut & paste). Bracelets are $36. for the pair, which also includes tax and s&h. Carol is donating all net proceeds to the Obama Campaign. 

My Own Piece of Paradise: Uzbeki Suzanis

Posted in Embroidery, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , on June 16, 2008 by Liz Hager

Suzani (detail), silk embroidery on indigo linen panels, approximately 70″ square (courtesy of the author)

When the de Young Museum reopened in its new building in October 2005, a stunning 19th century suzani greeted visitors from a prominent hanging spot in the textile galleries. It was beguiling, and since then I have returned to that suzani time and again, alternately smiling as the electric oranges and reds of its poppy design wash over me and marveling at the intricate and extensive needle work. 

Inspired to learn more about this tribal art form, a whole new world opened up to me, one with a rich marker in history Alexander’s armies, Silk Route caravan camel drivers, Sufi dervishes, Khans, Russian Generals and nomadic warring tribes—the Uzbeks, the Turkomans, the Khazahks, the Kyrgyz—all vying for control of what amounts to a few choice oases in a vast desert. 

Suzani is the common term for embroidered dowry pieces (coverlets for the bridal bed, but also for made to decorate horses, tables, walls) that have been produced for hundreds of years by women in the central Asian countries, the various “-stans,” formerly known as Soviet Republics, but Uzbekistan is generally considered to be the birthplace of the suzani. 

The word derives from ancient Persian word for needle, no doubt a story in itself about the influence of ancient Persian culture in this area. According to tribal custom, a suzani was started when a girl was born. Panels of cloth were hand-woven (most often left uncolored, but sometimes hand-dyed). Each female family member took up embroidery of a separate panel, traditionally using hand-spun silk thread stitched in chain, satin & buttonhole styles. As soon as the bride-to-be was old enough (which turned out to be pretty young), she too took up the work. Each suzani has its own distinctive pattern, because patterns are the bride-to-be’s unique communication to the world. A tree of life, a fanciful garden, the designs are liberally sprinkled with stylized pomegranates, tulips (native to Turkey), and carnations, suggesting a little bit of paradise in the desert.  Often the various motifs carry secret messages, sentiments like “my mother-in-law is a witch” or “my groom’s a wealthy man.” Once the panels were complete, they were sewn together to make the larger bedcover.  Conventional wisdom has it that the quality of the work was a predictor of a girl’s potential value as a wife. However, in all good suzanis you will always find a intentional “mistake” or two. Since only God is perfect, no bride-to-be would tempt the Fates with perfect work.  If you look carefully at the detail below, you will find the error in my indigo suzani.

Suzani (detail), silk embroidery on indigo linen panels, approximately 70″ square (courtesy of the author)

In our world of machine-made, this hand-made form survives for now in Central Asia. I feel lucky to own a few suzanis of my own. Although the cloth is no longer hand-woven, authentic suzanis are still hand-stitched. Uzbekistan is still a fairly desolate and rural country, but in the last decade there has been pressure to modernize. I wouldn’t begrudge any country the opportunity to improve its standard of living, but in the face of the relentless pace of globalization, I am already mourning what seems likely to be the inevitable disappearance of this sweet and honest folk art.

Pochoir Portfolios: E.A. Seguy’s Floréal

Posted in Liz Hager, Textiles, Wallpaper with tags , , , , on June 12, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2008. All Rights Reserved

E.A. Seguy, color pochoir from the Floréal portfolio ca. 1920

While on an excursion in New York a few years ago I stopped by Leonard Fox Rare Books, eager to view fabrics designed by painters Sonia and Robert Delaunay. The Delaunays’ textiles were well worth the visit, but it was the experience afterward—leafing through the stunning portfolios of E.A. Seguy’s work—that was for me like the rich butter chocolate icing on the cake—so delicious I just couldn’t stop myself from consuming to the point of sensory overload.  Considering the prolific output of this designer, I was surprised and dismayed to find that very few of the particulars of his life are a matter of public record. In fact, according to Leslie Overstreet, curator of rare books at the Smithsonian and author of Botanicals, the designer’s identity is today still largely a mystery. (Intriguingly, “he” might even have been a “she.”)

Seguy was active predominently in Paris between 1900 until the early 30s. He produced produced eleven albums of illustrations and designs including Les Fleurs et Leurs Applications Decoratives (1900), Samarkande—20 Compositions en Couleurs dans le Style Oriental (1914), Floréal (1920), Papillons (1924), Insectes (1924), Bouquets et Frondaisons (1926), Primavera—Dessins et Colori Nouveaux (1929), Suggestions (1930), and Prismes—40 Planches de Dessins et Coloris Nouveaux (1931).

The brilliance of the color scheme typical of Seguy’s designs was due to their execution in the pochoir illustration technique, essentially the hand-stenciling of watercolor or gouache colors onto a black printed design. Pochoir is said to have been developed by the Chinese in the first millennium, but pushed to aesthetic heights by the French between 1800-1920.   Generally the decorative portfolios were produced as a kind of style manual for textile, wallpaper and murals, much like Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament was an earlier generation.

The natural world was Seguy’s main source of inspiration.  The bug designs are probably Seguy’s best-known works, deservedly so. The artist beautifully rendered his exotic and sumptuous butterfly subjects in a level of detail befitting curiosity cabinet specimens and, yet, there is no mistaking that a superb eye for decorative pattern has directed the whole exercise.

E.A. Seguy, Beetle Pattern ca. 1925-30

Though the bugs were incomparably unique, it was the Floréal collection that tugged at my aesthetic heart strings.  Seguy straddled the Arts Nouveau and Deco styles. In the Floréal designs,  the legacy of the Art Nouveau style is right before you—the fanciful, naturally-inspired, swirling forms associated with Nouveau are in abundance. But the designs also anticipate the bodacious color schemes and geometric obsession of the Deco style. In that sense, the portfolio is a wonderful document of a decorative style in transition, a fascinating design artifact even.  Leaving it at that description though wouldn’t do the collection complete justice. Simply put, Floréal is a rich and opulent luxury.

Wider Connections

Textile Designers—A fabulous visual resource on the history of textile design.

Hmong Appliqué

Posted in Embroidery, Liz Hager, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , on June 10, 2008 by Liz Hager

Hmong Appliqué

Appliqué is a needlework technique in which pieces of fabric are sewn onto or embedded into a ground cloth. I was introduced to Hmong appliqué work by way of similar appliqué by their “cousins,” the Miao people.  It was only some time later that I connected this beautiful work to a vague memory I had of the last years of the Vietnam War when hundreds of thousands of Hmong arrived in the US after fleeing Laos and Vietnam in the wake of retribution for their part in fighting the communist forces. The one thing I clearly remember is the news reports of the conditions in the Thai refugee camps where the Hmong were stranded for months.   

Historically, the Hmong have been a nomadic peoples. (Hmm…why is it that so many nomadic tribes have such wonderful textiles?) Perhaps originally from Siberia or Mongolia, they arrived in China many centuries ago. In the 19th century, they migrated from southern China to the mountainous regions of Laos and Vietnam.

The Hmong have remained very much a traditional tribal people, who have a long and highly-developed tradition of needlework. Primarily, it’s their way of embellishing and differentiating festive dress. But pa ndaus (or paj ntaub), as the Hmong refer to these appliqués, are also used in everyday ways, to carry babies, for example, and as a pictorial way to tell stories.  A square pa ndau such as the one above is known as a nob ncoo and would be presented to a bride and her mother by the prospective in-laws. This nob ncoo is different in the sense that it isn’t made from the typically bright jewel colors favored by the Hmong, although brown isn’t completely unknown in their color scheme.   The designs are a kind of code, secret symbols that refer to things in the Hmong’s lives.  The spiral pattern above is a popular motif and is referred to as “elephants foot.”

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