Archive for December, 2008

Ringing Out the Old Year

Posted in Liz Hager, Photography, Pop Culture Miscellany with tags , on December 31, 2008 by Liz Hager

No doubt we’d all agree that this year has been an exceedingly difficult one. (Well why not say the last eight?) At Venetian Red we’re looking forward  to the Year of  Obama with much anticipation.

Tonight, let us raise our digital glasses in a toast . . . 


©2003 Liz Hager

The Color of Genius: Van Gogh’s Night Café

Posted in Artists Speak, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2008 by Liz Hager


Vincent Van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888,
oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 36 1/4″ (©Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark)

In early September, 1888, nine months before he entered the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) wrote a series of letters to his sister Wilhelmina and brother Theo, which detailed his objective in painting The Night Café.  In composite form, this text functions as both a roadmap of the robust complementary color scheme employed by the artist and an evocative explanation of the emotional substance of color, then a driving concern in the artist’s work.

I have just finished a canvas representing the interior of a night café illuminated by lamps. A few poor night wanderers are asleep in a corner. The room is blood red and dark yellow, and there under the gaslight the green billiard table casts an immense shadow on the floor. There are four yellow-lemon lamps with a glow of orange and green. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a rose nosegay. The white clothes of the landlord, watchful in a corner of that furnace, turn lemon-yellow, or pale luminous green.

In my picture of the “Night Café” I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. . . the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. There are 6 or 7 different reds in this canvas, from blood red to delicate pink, contrasting with as many pale or deep greens. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue. I have tried to express the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all of this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulpher.

—Vincent van Gogh. Letters to Theo van Gogh. Written 8-10 September 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, published in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Publisher: Bulfinch, 1991, numbers 533, 534, W07.

The primary, secondary and tertiary colors of the Color Wheel.

In one letter, Van Gogh mused aloud that this color palette would cause his mentor, Hermanus Gijsbertus Tersteeg (note below), to peg The Night Café as “delirium tremens in full swing” (Letter 534).  It may have struck contemporary viewers as Van Gogh feared. Today, however, when standing in front of the painting, one marvels in how effectively the painter deployed that many different shades of green. Further, when one considers Night Café (and indeed other Van Gogh paintings from this decade before his death) in relation to the works of his contemporaries—Monet, Pissarro and Degas—one truly grasps Van Gogh’s monumental genius in the realm of color.

Claude Monet, Montagnes de l”Estére,1888,
oil on canvas, 65 X 92 cm, (© Courtauld Institute of Art, London)

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, 1888,
pastel and charcoal on paper, 18.5 x 23.75″
National Gallery, London)

Camille Jacob Pissarro, Vue de Bazincourt, 1889,
watercolor over graphite on plain weave cotton pasted to pulpboard, 8 1/16 x 10 1/16
Brooklyn Museum)

In viewing the painting its hard to imagine that the painter has managed to effectively utilize  By separating objects from their “local” (true optical) color, the artist freed himself to explore the inner nature of an object—its symbolism and emotional content.  This bit of innovation was to directly influence the next generation of artists, most notably Matisse, and lay the ground work for 20th century artists to abandon realistic representation of objects altogether in search of emotional reality.

Henri Matisse, Interior in Venetian Red, 1946,
oil on linen (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique).

Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch for Composition II, 1909–10,
oil on canvas, 38 3/8 x 51 5/8″
(Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, 45.961.Vasily Kandinsky © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

Jackson Pollock, Eyes in the Heat, 1946,
oil and enamel on canvas, 54 x 43 inches
(The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 76.2553.149.
Jackson Pollock © 2007 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York).

Note: Van Gogh had worked briefly under Tersteeg (1845-1927) when he was employed as a clerk in his uncle’s art gallery Goupil et Cie in The Hague in 1869,  before being promoted and transferred to the company’s London office.

Wider Connections
Van Gogh’s Letters
Van Gogh Museum
The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery
Impressionism and the Making of Modern Art

Your Holiday Gift Has Arrived

Posted in Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2008 by Liz Hager


Lightning bolts appear above and around the Chaiten volcano as seen from Chana, some 30 kms (19 miles) north of the volcano, as it began its first eruption in thousands of years, in southern Chile May 2, 2008. Cases of electrical storms breaking out directly above erupting volcanoes are well documented, although scientists differ on what causes them.


Alan Taylor of the Boston Globe has culled an exquisite group of 187 images from the tens of thousands taken by photojournalists during 2008. These photographs will provoke laughter, anger, tears, wonderment, and outrage. Be forewarned—some of the war photographs are difficult to look at. Look we must, however for these photographs provide a stellar means of grasping the eternal paradox of being human.  There is not one photograph in this collection that isn’t beautiful and poignant in its own way; as an ensemble they function much like a contemporary update of the seminal and enormously popular Family of Man collection, first mounted as an exhibition in 1955 by photographer Edward Steichen.  



Pakistani men try to rescue a donkey buried during an earthquake in Ziarat, about 130 kilometers (81 miles) south of Quetta, Pakistan on October 30th, 2008. Rescue workers searched through the rubble of villages destroyed by a powerful earthquake in southwestern Pakistan that killed at least 215 people. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti/FILE)


Muslim women attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at a mosque in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia on August 31, 2008. (REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas)


The hand of a dead body lies on the ground amongst the rubble of the earthquake ravaged town May 15, 2008 in Beichuan, Sichuan province, China. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)


A bull sarcophagus in which a member of the Ubud royal family was cremated burns during the funeral ceremony Tuesday July 15, 2008 in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Ed Wray)


2008 The Year in Photos: Part 1

2008 The Year in Photos: Part 2

2008 The Year in Photos:Part 3

2008 The Year in Photos: Greek Riots

family-of-man  Family of Man catalog

Miravete de la Sierra—The Town Where Something is Happening

Posted in Digital, Liz Hager, Travel with tags on December 20, 2008 by Liz Hager


Sometimes the virtual world provides a more real experience than the real world. Such is the case of Miravete de la Sierra. 

Miravete is a real town, which lies east of Madrid in the province of Tereul (state of Aragon), just north of the junction of the As 226 and 228. Describing it as a “town,” however, is a gross exaggeration. Twelve elderly inhabitants occupy a hand-full of structures clustered around a few tangled streets. There are no cars in Miravete. Thus, no need for traffic signs. Only one telephone (outdoors, sorry no booth). Rush hour happens around 11 am when the townspeople go out to buy their bread.

Miravete is a somnolent place, seriously anemic or, worse, on the brink of extinction.  Still, its inhabitants like it this way.  In fact, they’re proud of the tranquilidad, defiant even.  

I confess, I’ve never been to the real town of Miravete.  So, how do I know all this? Because I, like hundreds of thousands of other tourists, have beaten a path to the town’s virtual door. But this is not just any door.

The portal is the brainchild of the Madrid office of the Shackleton group, which constructed the town online, complete with guided tour, introduction to the inhabitants, even a competitive goat milking game (no worries for Pokemon though).  

The online world of Miravete is amusing, sweet, sad, destitute, and hollow—in short, it’s an utterly human experience. The Miravete portal succeeds in creating an intimate connection between the viewer and town, one which, it’s safe to say, the average tourist wouldn’t have had while passing through it in the real world. 


Octogenarian Cristóbal Sangüesa, your A-1 Guide to Miravete

Miravete proudly bills itself as a town “where nothing ever happens.” Maybe not in the real world, but in the virtual world, this is a town with a lot going on. 

The Full Story



Miravete—Official site

Bubble Head Dolls—Miravete’s unique merchandising scheme

Photos of Miraveta

Street map

From Mughals to Minis: The Enduring Paisley Pine(cone)

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

© Liz Hager, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

indian-fabric-block-paisleyIndian textile block, single boteh motif, carved wood (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

Very few design motifs have withstood the vicissitudes of fashion as well as paisley. On the one hand, its cacophonous and ebullient elements can be channeled into a sophisticated all-over pattern. On the other hand, individual pine cones can be released on their own to create a simple repeat. Through the centuries its motifs have been endlessly transformed, embellished, and recombined to great success. No doubt paisley has endured because of its versatility; it’s a supremely good example of  textilian natural selection.

Paisley’s noble and exotic associations have surely enhanced general enthusiasm for the motif. After all, who could resist ornament whose path has traversed such far flung and diverse historical signposts as ancient Babylon, Mughal courts, Napoleon’s North African campaigns, the British Raj,  the Industrial Revolution, and the Summer of Love?

jan-caspar-commeline28094botanic-studyJan & Caspar Commelin, plate from , 1697-1701, hand-colored engravings (courtesy Christie’s)

The characteristic paisley pine cone, or tear drop, was derived from the Indian boteh or buta (a term which stems from the Persian word for flower). The Paisley Museum suggests that the tear drop outline was influenced by a more ancient motif—the Babylonian stylization of the palm leaf. Because palms supplied so many of the necessities of human life—food, drink, fibers for weaving and shelter—many ancient cultures viewed it as the ‘Tree of Life” and absorbed it into their ornamental lexicons.

The boteh began as a fairly simple and naturalistic plant rendering used in both fabric and art; it was an attempt by artists and weavers of the Mughal court to imitate European botanical studies typical of the 17th century. Stylistically, the evolution of the boteh also owes much to traditional Persian floral design, as it was expressed in carpets, tiles, and miniatures. By the 1700s, however, the boteh had become embellished with additional flowers and tendrils. Eventually all those elements morphed into slender conical “tree” with with a bent tip. Finally the motif evolved into the elongated serpentine abstraction that we recognize as a paisley today.

kashmir-shawlAnonymous Indian Artist, Motif from Kashmir Shawl: Pheerozee (Turquoise Color), No. 23, By Order of Mahummud Azeem Khan, ca. 1822 – 1823
Gouache on paper, varnished; sheet: 15 3/4 x 6 1/2″
(©Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Weavers in the province of Kashmir had been weaving fine woolen shawls from as early as the 11th century. Shawls were made from the wool undercoat (pashmina) of  half-wild Tibetan goats and woven according to a specific “twill tapestry” method that can be dated with certainty to the 15th century. This was an intricate and time-consuming process that could take up to 18 months to complete on one loom. The horizontal weft threads alone formed the pattern, but these did not run the full width of the cloth as in plain weave; rather the weft threads were inserted by hand only where a particular color was needed, then woven without the use of a shuttle back and forth around the warp threads.  To create the larger shawl, separately-woven borders were sewn to the primary square, often overbound with silk.

Beginning in the 16th century, the Mughal emperors elevated Kashmiri shawls to noble status, typically wearing them as sashes around their waists or across their chest. (The English word “shawl” actually derives from the Indo-Persian shal, which loosely refers to a “fine woven woollen fabric” not an article of clothing.) Turkistan weavers, enticed to Kashmir for their renown skills, left their mark on the garment, as did later Afghan and Sikh conquerers.

Dochalla (shawl), 18th century, Kashmir,
cotton and silk twill weave
(The Textile Museum)

Legend has it that the European craze for cashmere began at the end of the 18th century, when a blind man from Baghdad visited Kashmir (the northwestern segment of the Indian subcontinent), and was presented with an orange shawl by the Afghan Governor of Kashmir. The blind man in turn gave the shawl to Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Khedive (prince) of Eqypt, who in turn re-gifted it to Napoleon (perhaps as a gesture of peace at the conclusion of French commander’s successful Eqyptian campaigns?). Upon his return to Paris, Napoleon bestowed it upon his wife Josephine, who enthusiastically added the piece to her costume, draping it over her shoulder and arms as was the custom in pre-Regency Europe. For reasons that had as much to do with flattering the Empress as with the luxurious feel of the cloth, Kashmiri shawls soon became an indispensable accessory of Parisian aristocratic couture.  Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Marquise de Sorcy Thélousson features an example of these early “border-only” shawls.

paisley-shawl-1850s-croppedPaisley woolen shawl, 1850s (photo courtesy of Christie’s)

Perhaps there is truth in this legend; certainly by the early 1800s a thriving trade connected Kashmir and Europe. The making of shawls constituted a primary source of revenue in Kashmir in the early years of the 19th century. In 1821, William Moorcroft, an agent for the East India Company, reported counting as many as 50 looms in one house.  Typically shawls were distributed to the East through Central Asian merchants, and to the West by agents in Europe and Russia.

The Kashmir shawl arrived in England in the mid-18th century, not probably through France, but through agents of the British East India Company. It’s easy to imagine why it quickly became an article of high-fashion there too, given the British penchant for romanticizing the “mysterious East.” Shawls remained prohibitively expensive until the English devoted considerable resources to producing a domestic copy. Although the earliest imitations of Kashmir patterns came from Edinburgh, the English town of Norwich was the first established European center of shawl weaving.

alfred-stevens-will-you-go-out-with-me-fido-1859Alfred Stevens, Will You Go Out with Me, Fido?, 1859,
oil on canvas, 30.5 x 25.2 inches
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

In 1812, an inventor in the town of Paisley (just west of Glasgow, Scotland) introduced a device that allowed five shuttles to be held on a loom simultaneously, thus greatly facilitated the weaving of multicolored designs. Buddies (citizens of Paisley) excelled at pirating designs and quick turn around of goods, practices that allowed them to soon dominate the trade. With the advent of mechanized looms in the 1860s, the name of the town, like scotchtape, became the brand name for shawls and the design on them.

The Industrial Revolution put the price of woven shawls within reach of every English lady. Paisley proved so popular that European manufacturers eventually dispensed with the weaving altogether, instead using copper rolls to print the designs on a cotton plain weave. In moving to the wider world of patterned fabrics, paisley took its first steps into the mass market. Ironically, it proved so successful as a printed design that, by the later 19th century, even Indian textile producers had taken up the habit of printing paisley designs on cotton, although a lot of their fabrics were hand-printed using wooden textile blocks the one above.

indian-cotton-textileFragment, roller printed cotton, India, early 20th century.

It could have been the introduction of the bustle in the late 1860s that caused paisley’s (temporary) demise. Because bustles disrupted the flow of the large shawl, women largely abandoned the wearing of shawls, substituting shorter jackets. Or maybe, in a classic case of fashion trickle-down, upper-class ladies abandoned Kashmir shawls precisely because they had reached down-market status.

Still paisley managed to hang on through decades six decades of the 20th century as a printed fabric pattern, even if it was from time to time relegated to cravats and tablecloths. As the hippie generation fanned out across Asia on their journeys of self-discovery, it was just a matter of time until paisley was rediscovered. The design element came back with a vengeance. In the “anything goes” era of the late 60s, paisley was liberated from previous constraints, as the boteh assumed oversized proportions and a psychedelic color palette that outstripped even the brightest reds of the 19th century.

Could there be any stronger testament to the enduring fortitude of the little pine cone motif than this dress from a 21st century runway?

Wider Connections

D. O. Wijnands—The Botany of the Commelins

James Trilling—Ornament: A Modern Perspective

James Trilling—The Language of Ornament (World of Art series)

John Irwin—The Kashmir Shawl

Valerie Reilly—The Paisley Pattern: The Official Illustrated History

More paisley images—V&A, 1890s tea gown,  flapper era, 40s60s, 60s

Kashmiri Shawl: From Jamavar to Paisley

Christie’s—Shawl Auction

Scottish Textile Heritage

Paisley motifs collected by William Moorcroft

Paisley, Scotland

Frida Kahlo: What the Water Gave Her

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , on December 10, 2008 by Liz Hager


Painting was a part of Frida Kahlo’s battle for life. It was also very much a part of her self-creation; in her art, as in her life, a theatrical self-presentation was a means to control her world.

—Hayden Herrera, Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo, 1983


Frida Kahlo, What I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me, 1938, oil on canvas, 91×70.5 cm. (Paris, Daniel Filipacchi collection)

As of this writing Venetian Red readers have anointed Cult Offering the site’s top post. With that in mind, we delve again into the work of Frida Kahlo.

What I Saw in the Water wasn’t part of the SF MOMA show, but it should have been (although perhaps they wanted it and couldn’t secure it). The painting is one of Kahlo’s most visionary and disturbing;  the sophisticated water fantasy provides the vehicle for a densely-packed portrayal of the artist’s subconscious. It’s almost as if she crammed her entire life into this bathtub scene.  Kahlo returned to the same symbols over and over; many of the items included here can be seen in her other paintings, some without much alteration.

The bathtub environment equates to the womb, which was for the artist a source of both pleasure (, release) and pain. (Frida deeply lamented her inability to bear children). In the years 1937-38, Kahlo’s paintings show a thematic preoccupation with motherhood; this shows up pointedly in examples such as My Doll & I, as well as Girl with a Death Mask.  In “What I Saw in the Water” the painter’s toes emerge from the water pointing up, but also, through the device of reflection, pointing back at the “events” of her life. Her legs are nearly invisible beneath the water, and the clarity of the reflection links it visually to the actual toes. The theme of physical deformity introduced. Moreover, the right foot shows a bleeding sore between the deformed big and second toe. This defect typically accompanies spina bifida, a congenital deformity, which results from incomplete closure of neural tube and a partially unfused spinal cord. Kahlo suffered from the condition, although it wasn’t properly diagnosed until her visit to San Francisco in 1930. It, together with polio and the 1925 streetcar accident, was the root cause of Kahlo’s lifelong battle with neuropathic pain.  In front of the volcano, the small portrait Frida Kahlo’s parents (almost as they appear in My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) allude to the condition—after all, they have passed along this disease to her.  The skyscraper, which extrudes itself from the volcano, while superficially phallic (i.e. passion), also references the straight column of a normal spine, the “well” self that eluded Kahlo during her life.

Kahlo uses the two nude figures on the bed in front of the volcano later in Two Nudes in the Wood or The Earth or My Nurse and I . In the context of that painting, they are generally considered a reference of her bi-sexuality, although the different skin colors typically were used by the artist to symbolize her dual heritage—European and native Indian.

Traditional dresses (not quite tehuanas) similar to the one floating in the foreground of the painting appear in earlier works (Memory of the Heart, 1937) and as a lonely Doppelgänger for Frida in the 1933 “My Dress is Hanging There or New York.”  In “Water” too, the dress must be symbolic of Frida, here a ghostly presence, half submerged, weighed down by a lack of self-confidence.

And where in the painting is Diego, the source of both her passion and pain? There is no portrait representation of him, and yet we know that the man Kahlo referred to as “my child, my lover, my universe” must be here, if only a subliminal presence.  This painting was executed during a time that she and Diego were experiencing marital problems (they would divorce briefly in 1940); moreover it was sandwiched between her affairs with Leon Trotsky and photographer Nikolas Muray. Passion must certainly have been in the forefront of her mind.  Beginning in 1937, flowers and fruits appear in her work—obvious sexual symbols, though when sliced open, they become a reference to her mutilated body. Perhaps the shell shot full of holes in the midground is Diego’s stand-in. Kahlo often used shells to symbolize male and female elements—ultimately Diego and herself.

A finally, the spewing volcano, although perhaps an allusion to Kahlo’s Mexican heritage, could be equated to the act of suppressing her feelings about her body, her relationship to Diego, her self-worth. Inevitably that volcano erupts.

Wider Connections

Hayden Herrera—Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Salomon Grimberg—I Will Never Forget You: Frida Kahlo and Nickolas Muray

PBS—Life & Times of Frida Kahlo

Daniel Filipacchi

Guggenheim Museum Publications—Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, the Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections

Trouvelot’s Natural Art “Brought to Light” at SFMOMA

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , on December 8, 2008 by Liz Hager



Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot, Direct electric spark obtained with a Ruhmkorff coil or Wimshurst machine, also known as “Trouvelot Figure.” photograph, ca. 1888-89 (© Musée des arts et métiers, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Paris)

Before its transformation into an art medium, photography dutifully served as a handmaiden to science. Beginning in the mid-19th century, photographers enthusiastically set out to “objectively” record all manner of things, locales, and phenomenon in the natural and man-made worlds. Judging by SFMOMA’s exhibit Brought to Light exhibit (on view until Janurary 4, 2009), the quest to illuminate “invisible” phenomena yielded not just advancements in scientific understanding but most intriguing artistic results.  The images here embrace a scope that ranges from the infinitesimal to the infinite. Amid the numerous insect studies, the microscopic comparison of the structure of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley is a masterpiece of artistic design in its own right. On the other end of the scale, it’s harder to appreciate the novelty of the astronomical images in the show after decades of NASA-driven photography.  For some, the Muybridge motion studies will be a revelation, although regrettably a few of the less interesting ones involving naked women struggle to rise above the level of Victorian-era titillation.

The number of singular gems overshadows the few weaker pieces. The several “Trouvelot figures” similar to the one above are still capable some 150 years later of eliciting a breathy “wow,” even in the face of our technically-sophisticated modern imaging techniques. Though reviled for his introduction of the dredded gypsy moth into the United States, and better known artistically for his telescopic drawings of celestial bodies, Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot also used photography to illuminate the invisible world of electricity. In this endeavor he excelled, achieving stunning otherworldly results.

Strictly speaking, Trouvelot wasn’t innovating, but using photography to recreate an electrical phenomenon already discovered a century before. In 1778 German satirist and scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg conducted a seminal experiment, in which he found that a rapid electric discharge over a non-conducting plate caused the powder on the plate to be arranged in unusual patterns with different characteristics depending on the type of charge. Lichtenberg found that by pressing blank sheets of paper onto these pattens, he was able to transfer and record these images (thus discovering the basic principle of modern xerography). These “patterns” are still referred to as “Lichtenberg figures.” Like snowflakes, each figure displays a unique pattern.

In the late 1880s, Trouvelot found that substituting a photographic plate (emulsion side in contact with an electrode) for Lichtenberg’s insulating plate allowed him to produce “Lichtenberg figures” on the developed photograph. Thus, these photographs of his became known as “Trouvelot figures.”

Modern day applications of this technique abound—

For anyone interested in the history of photography, Brought to Light is an invaluable introduction to many photographers not generally covered in the usual surveys. For those with less scholarly interests, the show is simply a reminder that nature often has no artistic equal.

Wider Connections

Bean Gilsdorf— “The Eye of Science”
Trouvelot on the American Silk Worm
NYPL exhibit
Owl’s Cabinet of Wonders—”Heavenly Visions” post
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg—Waste Books

A Tiny Gem of a Show: Arts of the Islamic World

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , on December 5, 2008 by Liz Hager


Bowl with abstract motifs, 900-1000, NW Iran, slip painted earthware (©photo Liz Hager)

Judging by several visits in recent weeks to the Arts of the Islamic World from Turkey to Indonesia at the Asian Art Museum, this tiny but intriguing exhibit is being overlooked by many in favor of the more promoted Afghani show downstairs.  The Islamic World exhibit contains just sixty items—paintings, manuscripts, ceramics, textiles, metal wares, historic photographs, and even puppets—that span the years from the 10th century to present time. It would be a shame to miss these little jewels, for they encapsulate the truly magnificent and complex design traditions of Islamic world 

Oddly it took a man from Chicago to put San Francisco on the map of Asian art. The pieces displayed in this exhibit are a miniscule part of the original collection of athlete and industrialist Avery Brundage who donated some 5,000 objects to the city of San Francisco in 1960. For a while the works were housed in a Asian Museum’s special wing of the de Young, although it was always Brundage’s intention for the collection to have a home of its own. By the time the new museum moved downtown in 2003, more than half of its 17,000 objects had come from the collector. 

The pieces in this exhibit are testament to the extraordinary flowering of the ceramic arts in Persia, which began in the 8th century as a direct result of the expansion of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula across Mesopotamia to Spain and Saharan Africa. Although they had a long ceramic tradition of their own, Persians were  quick to absorb the techniques of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and contemporary China. 

Persian potters were quick learners, but they were also technical innovators, who achieved considerable strides in glazing and firing techniques. Painting on ceramics is tricky—colors can “burn” in a kiln that is too hot or glazes may melt, thus causing the design to bleed.  By developing a reliable double-glazing technique, Persians pushed the ceramic medium to new heights of sophistication, in the process achieving splendid intricacies of surface design. 

Their  production prowess was rewarded beginning in the years after 762, when the new Abbasid caliphate built its capital in Baghdad. Due to proximity, Persian cities grew as centers of ceramic production for the empire, serving the Caliphate, and, as the empire prospered, its citizenry as well. 

The stylized floral design on the slipware bowl pictured belies a delightful intricacy of design elements—abstraction, symmetry, positive and negative space, echoing motifs (dots & circles), and layering. The design was created by first dripping, painting, or splashing a liquid blend of glazes—ground down minerals such as quartz, feldspar or mica—and diluted clay, or slip, onto the bowl’s hard air-dried surface. The bowl was then covered with a transparent overglaze and fired in a kiln, which produced its glossy and smooth surface.  By the time of this bowl’s production, slip decoration was well-established in Persia, although this piece shows demonstrates its creator’s exquisite skill manipulating the liquid slip into fairly elaborate and intricate decorations.

Although this bowl is identified with NW Iran, it bears much resemblance to designs from the Nishapur area in NE Iran, which was once a strategic trade center on the Silk Route. The same remarkably modern color palette, which includes manganese purple, tomato red, olive green, yellow and brown tones, is found occasionally on Nishapur bowls.  Additionally the bowl reveals the characteristic Persian application of  sgraffiato (the technique of scratching  through a layer of colored slip to reveal a different colour or the base body underneath), which by the 10th century was being exploited to the full. 

Do not miss this show—it reminds us that the most surprising things can be wrapped in small packages. 


Brief history of Persian ceramics

 Giovanni Curatola—Persian Ceramics: 9th-14th Centuries

The Glory of Persia

Mighty Impermanence in the Presidio—Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire”

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Public Art, Sculpture, Site Work with tags , , on December 3, 2008 by Liz Hager

In medieval times, a spire announced from afar the location of a church and, more important, its connection to heaven.  It’s not hard to grasp the ecclesiastical association in Andy Goldsworthy’s new piece in the Presidio; after all, it’s sited on a hill above the road and the pinnacle rises visually unobstructed some 90 feet above an open field of dirt.

Spire comes from the Anglo Saxon spir—spike or blade. Predominantly Gothic in architectural origin, the church spire became a symbol of the temporal power and wealth of its religious order (which undoubtedly preached resistance to these kind of earthly temptations). Spires communicated the arrogance of man, who audaciously taunted an Almighty God with the suggestion that human-made structures had mighty permanence. Of course it won’t be lost on many that The Presidio, once a seat of temporal might, is a most fitting locale for Goldsworthy’s iconic piece.

Visit “Spire” on a foggy afternoon as the wind has picked up. If you have the luck to be all alone on the site, you may find yourself thinking about ancient tribal rights. But as your gaze follows the poles to their receding point in the fog, you’ll probably be contemplating your absolute insignificance in the universe. Back down at ground level, however, there is something emotionally comforting in the fortress-like circle of trunks and deep furrows of their bark.

True to Goldsworthy’s artistic principal, “Spire” will not be permanent. With the passage of time the maturing fir and cypress forest planted around it will conceal the tower until it virtually disappears from view. At some point later in this century, the work may cease to exist altogether, as the wood rots, chunks fall off, and Presidio officials step in and disassemble it (government agencies being attuned to libel).

In “Spire, ” Goldsworthy has created the paradox of powerful impermanence. To paraphrase Somerset Maugham: let’s take delight in it while we have it.

Note: Don’t forget to see the free accompanying exhibit Goldsworthy at the Presidio, located in Bldg. 49, next door to the Officer’s Club.

Wider Connections:

Goldsworthy image round up

Venetian Red—”No River Runs Through It: Andy Goldsworthy’s “Stone River” at Stanford”

What others are saying about “Spire”—


Bay Area Art Quake


Kenneth Baker

Philips Garden Blog

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