Archive for February, 2009

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part III)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.


matisse-back-ivHenri Matisse, The Back (III), spring-summer 1916,
Bronze, 6′ 2 1/2″ x 44″ x 6.”
(Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. © 2009 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

Like Aguado’s photograph and Friedrich’s Wanderer in a Sea of Fog, the human backside was a prop through which Henri Matisse explored what interested him most, the essential character of things beneath their superficial and fleeting exteriors. Deconstruction and simplification of form were to be Matisse’s great helpmates in this search for essential character, particularly during the years between 1913-1917, a period of great artistic experimentation.

The Back III belongs to a series of bronze bas reliefs that the artist made roughly between 1909 and 1930. Although not conceived by Matisse as a series, the artist returned to this subject repeatedly with a continuity of purpose. Moreover, the panels share artistic DNA, for the artist created each new Back from a plaster cast of the previous relief and altered it through the application of clay.

The earliest panel is lost, but, as a group, the remaining bas reliefsThe Back I, 1908-09; The Back II, 1913; The Back III, 1916; The Back IV, c. 1931— superbly demonstrate the artist’s quest to for the essence of human-ness. The choice of pose in the Back series had its genesis predominantly in Cézanne’s painting, Three Bathers ca. 1880, which Matisse went into massive debt to own, but the artist also professed to have been influenced by Gauguin’s Tahitian Women painting.

With each subsequent state in the Back series Matisse created a bolder reduction of that back form into essential shapes, until he arrived (albeit much later in his career) at the radical and monolithic simplicity of Back IV.  By choosing the back  for this sculptural exploration, Matisse forced himself to search for the essence of female form beyond the most obvious differentiators.

With Back III Matisse reached a certain milestone in his quest for the essential identity of human form. He has reduced the figure to just a long tail of hair connected to the vertical spine, the tell-tale curve of the hip, and an arm gesture that speaks to particularly human ability to rotate the arms.

Interestingly, while human-ness is still very much in evidence in Back III, the human presence has receded. The superficial explanations, such as choice of materials metal—its coldness alienates us—and scale—despite the figure’s life-sized dimensions, Matisse has rendered her to feel more massive than we (we see her as the monument of all women)—apply equally, I think, to earlier versions. And yet they retain elements of the human presence.

I can’t help thinking that this absence is really due to the loss of individuality. In other words, has reducing the human form to its visual essence—by its definition the unvarying or universal “truth”—necessarily eliminated the variation and thus the individual identity inherent in the human form? In the artistic rendering of humans, is it possible to capture both individual and collective identity?

Matisse—Madame Matisse rouge

Henri Matisse, Mme. Matisse (madras rouge), 1907, oil on canvas, 39 1/8 x 31 3/4 ” (courtesy Barnes Foundation)

The process of simplification in Matisse’s work was influenced to some extent by Cubism, but also by the artist’s growing interest in sub-Saharan carvings. He once observed of reductive nature of African art: “they were conceived from the point of view of sculptural language. . . made in terms of their material according to invented planes and proportions.” Due to their essential “planes and proportions,” the aesthetic of these ethnographic items were embraced whole-heartedly by the artist in both his paintings and sculptures.

During the period from 1913-1917 in particular, Matisse made great strides pushing his naturalistic style toward abstraction of form. (He never leapt into pure abstraction, as his images were still derived from external realities.) This exploration was not limited to his sculptural works, as these paintings demonstrate.


Henri Matisse, Portrait of Sarah Stein, 1916, oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 22 1/4″ (SF MOMA)

By 1916, the Matissean decorative exuberance had begun to creep back into his work. Matisse did not abandon abstraction altogether, but it took him until the 1940s and the experimentation with cut-out form to return full-force to this inquiry.

Hidden Identity—Parts I, II, IV

Wider Connections

Matisse’s drawings for the Back Series—I, II

Matisse’s cutouts

Antiques & the Arts: Cézanne’s influence on Modern Art

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part II)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.


It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1818,
Oil on canvas, 94.8 x 74.8 cm
(Courtesy Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

The figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s landscape does not greet us or proudly point the way to the majestic landscape behind him.  Nor is he the variety of puny figure found in some landscapes, who are present mostly to demonstrate the monumental scale of the natural world. The “wanderer” deliberately turns his backside to us, assuming the stance of contemplation. His specific identity is not important.  He’s largely there as a symbolic reminder that this untamed landscape is the vehicle by which we humans experience heightened emotion.

The French sculptor David d’Angers reputedly observed of Friedrich: “Here is a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape.” Thus he perfectly summed up the Romantic’s notion of the natural world. Working at the height of German Romanticism, Friedrich’s paintings referenced nature, not only as the antithesis to human civilization, but as the conduit to experience our deeper selves.

Partially as a reaction to the growing industrialization in Europe, the Romantic movement wound itself around the idea that strong emotion—including shock, horror, fear, awe—and sensitivity was a necessary and desired part of the aesthetic experience. The Romantics believed in the transformative power of the untrammeled landscape. The solitude of remote locales became the optimal environment in which to experience the true physical and spiritual isolation, necessary in itself to emotional depth and a deep understanding of the self. At the time, a mountain pinnacle such as the one depicted in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog would have been ideal, for it was as far away from human civilization as any European could reasonably get.

While not concerned the figure’s identity, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog nonetheless delves into the notion of identity, at least in the way the Romantics might have pondered it. The figure is not a random person plucked from obscurity;  it happens to be Friedrich himself. The painter himself stands on the rocky outcropping lost, we presume by the stance, in melancholic thought induced by the wild and shrouded landscape.  He is emblematic of the journey toward self-discovery, which is, after all, is at the root of identity.

Wider Connections

Isaiah Berlin—The Roots of Romanticism
Romanticism & the visual arts (a short primer)
Caspar David Friedrich—other landscapes
ColourLovers—Color and the Romantic painters
Goethe’s  Faust

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part I)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on February 24, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.


Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.

—Réné Magritte

onesipe-aguado-woman-seen-from-backOnésipe Aguado, Woman Seen From the Back, 1862,
Salted paper print from glass negative, 12 1/8 x 10 3/16″
Metropolitan Museum)

The human face is a paradox; in the countenance of one is reflected the multitude.  Other human characteristics—fingerprints or retinas, for example—may be more reliable as unique identifiers, yet it is the face that has come to symbolize our sense of self. The face reassures us not only of our own individuality, but of our connection to kin, the Homo Sapiens tribe.

It follows then that a portrait is both a likeness of a particular individual and a mirror of us all. A portrait—the face of another frozen in time—seduces us by inviting us to stare unabashedly. We gaze into the subject’s eyes, and that reflective embrace subtly reminds us of our shared commonality across time and space. Portraits comfort us; we are not alone in this world.

A portrait also records a person  as s/he was seen by the artist and, to some extent, as s/he wanted to be seen by others. And because no work of art is created in a vacuum, a portrait also contains traces of the collective identity—those unique social, political, institutional, and cultural conditions which necessarily influence the specific way a portrait is rendered.  Through the various clues provided or, in many cases, omitted by the artist, we read (or intuit) elements of individual, as well as the collective, identity.

What about Onésipe Aguado’s beguiling photograph from 1862—Woman Seen From the Back? The image shrewdly plays with our notions of portraiture.  On the one hand, the subject is clearly human and our curiosity cannot be contained. Who is this woman and what does she look like?  Without a face, or any telling details of background or visible accoutrements, our focus is directed instead to the exquisite shapes of the sitter’s backside and her costume—the intricate knot of hair, the dots of the comb, the uneven parallelogram of her exposed back, the patterned rectangles of the ruffle, the diagonal folds of her shawl. Though she has no face, this sitter definitely seduces us.

Woman Seen From the Backside is neither fish nor fowl, neither portrait or non-portrait.  Perhaps it is altogether a different genre—a human still life. Though this woman has no individual identity, the photographer has provided the clues that assist us in reading her “collective identity. ”  Through her mid-century costume we can identify her in time (mid-19th century) and  the social strata to which she belong (a woman of some means, unless of course Aguado dressed her, which says something about how the artist saw her). In this way, we do form a tenuous connection with her; she is our kin.

By giving us her backside Aguado has objectified her. And yet, although we can’t see her face, through the backside details, she nonetheless retains an element of humanity. What a feat of magic he has performed!

Olympe Aguado, Self Portrait with His Brother Onésipe, 1853,
Collodion print, 250 x178 mm,
(© Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Estampes et de la photographie)

Aguado did not name his model, which adds to the mysteriousness of the photograph. From the rather pedestrian title the photographer did confer on his image (assuming of course that Aguado himself named it), he clearly had other ambitions on his mind. Interestingly, Maria Morris Hambourg, in her essay for the catalog of the Metropolitan’s The Waking Dream exhibit, surmises that this image is most likely an extension of Aguado’s work investigating photographically-induced foreshortening (i.e. depth of field).

As a mid-19th century photographer, Aguado would have taken subject and compositional cues from contemporary painters. Picturing figures from behind, although rare, was not unknown.  Casper David Friedrich made striking use of this compositional structure  in his 1818 oil Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.

* * * * * *

Footnote: Onésipe and his brother Olympe Aguado learned the rudimentaries of photography from Gustave Le Gray.  Although he had limited engagement with the medium, Onésipe is now credited (along with Edouard Delessert) with inventing the popular carte-de-visite format, although it was patented and popularized by Eugène Disdèri.

Wider Connections

Encyclopedia of 19th-century Photography
More Onésipe Aguado images
Gustav Le Gray at the Getty
“The Rise of Photography in France

The Dreamy Images of Heinrich Kühn

Posted in Female Artists, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on February 22, 2009 by Liz Hager



Heinrich Kühn, Miss Mary and Edeltrude Lying in the Grass, ca. 1910, autochrome (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art).

In July 1907 inveterate scientific tinkerer and photographer Heinrich Kühn (1866-1944) rendezvoused with Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Frank Eugene in Bavaria, where the four of them tested a new process called autochrome. Commercially introduced by the Lumière Brothers in 1906, autochrome is an additive color plate process, whereby a glass slide is coated with starch and silver halide granules, exposed to light, and processed into a coloured transparency on glass, which can be viewed by holding up to light or projecting onto a screen.

Through continued experimentation with the autochrome process, Kühn created some of his most striking images—the dreamy, romantic photographs of his family and friends.  Like other Pictorialists, Kühn believed in manipulation of the photographic negative to achieve painterly ends. While others chose to manipulate the image through the negative, no hand is overtly present in Kühn’s photographs. With their soft-blur focus and steep compositional angles, these images of Miss Mary (Mary Warner?) and Edeltrude (his daughter) are as beautifully rendered as any painting. Kühn has imbued the scenes with idyllic charm; absent the distraction of details around them, the two women exist in a reverie all their own. Further, were it not for the clues provided by their costumes, these photographs with their large abstracted shapes might be mistaken for more contemporary works.

Largely as a result of these works from the period between 1907-1910,  Kühn has become known as the foremost representative of the Pictorialismus (photographic pictorial) movement  in Austria.


Heinrich Kühn, Miss Mary and Edeltrude at the Hill Crest, ca. 1910, autochrome (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Not too long after 1910, however, Kühn abandoned the Pictorial style for a straight-forward approach that would show off the medium’s strength for capturing the “real world.”   By the end of World War I, Stieglitz and Steichen too had moved on. The movement officially died when Stieglitz dissolved the Photo-Succession and his Camera Work magazine.

Wider Connections

Elizabeth Pollock—Heinrich Kühn: An Exhibition of 100 Photographs

Heinrich Kühn in the Art Institute of Chicago

Anzenberger Gallery—Heinrich Kühl portfolio, images ca. 1910

Imagon lens, a Heinrich Kühn invention

20th century autochromes

San Francisco’s Upper Crust

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Public Art, Sculpture, Site Work with tags , , , , on February 18, 2009 by Liz Hager

© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved


All photos in this post—Patrick Dougherty, Upper Crust, 2009, willow branches, Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza, San Francisco (photos ©Liz Hager).

In the dead of a West Coast winter, when violent squalls relentlessly pummel us for days on end, any hint of gentler spring is a welcome thing. Thanks to the San Francisco Arts Commission and artist Patrick Dougherty, the sycamore trees at the Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza (between City Hall and the Library) are already bursting with new growth. Through the magic of arboreal hair extensions, Dougherty has enhanced the pollarded trees with glorious crowns of willow saplings woven into fanciful swirling shapes. Huge hats, as the title of the piece—Upper Crust—suggests. The finished piece is a site-specific sculpture that runs roughly 150 long and eight feet high. It is such a convincingly natural integration that a pedestrian passing the installation work last Friday asked this VR contributor whether the trees grew this way. If only!


The sapling weave is Dougherty’s signature style. In the case of Upper Crust, the finger- to wrist-sized willow saplings (supplied by Pescadero Farm) were assembled in a process not unlike the one described by the artist about a previous work:

The first phase is to harvest some bigger saplings which I put firmly into the ground to serve as a structural base. Next I imagine my sticks as lines with which to draw, and I pull piles of young saplings through these structural supports. This builds up a beautiful surface which looks much like a line drawing on a sheet of paper. Finally I “erase” or hide the blemishes with flourishes of very small sticks.

Actually, beyond the artist these large pieces require a small crew (often local volunteers) to execute. SFAC first presented Dougherty with a bunker-style building on Chrissy Field. The artist saw too many serious logistical problems with that site, and the project relocated to Alioto Piazza. Actually, the city may have benefited from the move. In 2006, Dougherty executed an ambitious and fanciful facade for the Max Azria boutique in LA. It’s difficult to imagine topping that in another venue, so perhaps San Francisco ended up with a really special Dougherty. Additionally, a striking and unusual “conversation piece” is good news for the underutilized Alioto Piazza.


Upper Crust evokes natural objects—bird nests, hay stacks, cocoons, and beehives. But it also reminds us of man-made objects including unruly baskets, gnome hats, African huts, Hobbit houses, crone cottages, and even the Marie Antoinette (or Marge Simpson for that matter) coif. It cannot be coincidence that so many of the associations in Dougherty’s artwork hark back to childhood, as this is when the artist discovered his muse material: “Picking up a stick back then {i.e. in his childhood} and bending it seemed to give me big ideas, and I was able to capitalize on those childhood urges from long ago.”

Dougherty began his career making pedestal-size sculptures from sticks but his work quickly evolved to monumental scale. In part because they both fashion wood into natural forms, there will be the inevitable comparison of Dougherty to Andy Goldsworthy.  It would seem that wood is the only point on which the two converge. First, Goldsworthy works with a broad array of materials, while Dougherty works only with wood saplings. Further, Goldsworthy’s site works are all about impermanence. Even with his longer lasting structures—Spire in the Presidio or Stone River for example—the point is still the gradual decay (disappearance) of the piece, albeit centuries for certain materials.

Dougherty’s work is paradoxical. On the one hand, Upper Crust, like the shelter structures it conjures up, is a deliberate and methodical construction. On the other hand, it’s dynamic, all about movement.  A frenetic energy courses through Upper Crust. It’s as if a tornado had whisked through the allée, whipping the tree branches into disheveled peaks.  In this chaotic state, the work exudes agitation.

As a site-specific piece made from natural materials, Upper Crust is a unique in the world of public artwork.  It enlivens and invigorates what is for all intent an invisible public space.  One hopes that citizens will pause a few moments from their normal rush through (or around) Alioto Piazza to contemplate Dougherty’s work. . .  allow their imaginations, like those absent birds, to take flight.


Upper Crust is one of a series of artworks in SFAC’s ongoing program for the plaza. The artwork will be in situ until November 2009.

Patrick Dougherty will talk about the work on Monday, February 23rd at 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM in City Hall (public welcome).

Wider Connections

Patrick Dougherty’s website

More Dougherty images

Out of the Cellar (video), Brittany

Arrival of materials truck

Manolo Valdés at Alioto Piazza

Venetian Red on Andy Goldsworthy

Childhood Dreams, the process of constructing a Patrick Dougherty

San Francisco Arts Commission

Ethnography by the Bay, Artifacts (Part II)

Posted in Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2009 by Liz Hager

The observation Karen Armstrong makes about Palaeolithic peoples applies equally to many tribal societies today—

Today we separate the religious from the secular. This would have been incomprehensible to the Palaeolithic hunters, for whom nothing was profane. Everything they saw or experienced was transparent to its counterpart in the divine world. Anything, however lowly, could embody the sacred. 

—Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (p. 15)

Along with the usual suspects on display at this year’s Tribal & Textile Arts show—i.e. African masks, numerous Oceanic shields and a number of  Colima figures—there were a few stunning and thought-provoking items, obvious and subtle invocations of the sacred. A small selection of these follows. 

Architectural Element, Borneo


Architectural element (Dragon motif), Borneo (Kenyah tribe?), hardwood with pigment, probably early 20th century (courtesy Primary Source).

Located in the South China Sea just north of Java, Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Not an independent entity, it is divided into four main precincts administered by the nations of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia.   The island is a giant mountainous rain forest, and tribes traditionally live both in the highlands and along the river ravines. 

All interior Bornean peoples make use of carved and painted elements in the construction of their longhouses, granaries, mausoleums, and other buildings. While the gods don’t normally interfere with human life, the forest is filled with malevolent spirits. As spirits are thought to enter a building through the front door, a lot of Kenyah tribal carving takes the form of powerful figures placed on various parts of the building. In addition to carving beams and posts, they apply distinctive finials, like the one above, to the roofs of their buildings.  

This finial probably represents the all-powerful dragon or perhaps a lizard or other reptile. Surely a lowly forest spirit would be frightened out of its wits by this regal and imposing being. Additionally,  those spiked tentacles would  prevent a bolder spirit from slipping through. Although somewhat faded, lime enhanced pigments (similar to milk paint) are usually added for bold visual effect. 

Fertility Figure, Papua New Guinea


Fertility Figure, Papua New Guinea (tribe ?), wood, (courtesy Michael Hamson Oceanic Art).

Unusual for her splayed pose, the robust articulation of this female fertility figure visually demonstrates what anthropologists working in Papua New Guinea have long observed—that tribal men are generally in awe of women’s natural fertility.  Except for the articulation of female sexual organs, the figure is without surface ornamentation found on so many of the objects from Papua New Guinea. The lack of design enhances the eye’s focus on the purity of the form and lends uniqueness to the object. 

Fumi-e, Japan


Fumi-e, stone and cast bronze, before mid-19th century (courtesy Axel Michels).

Fumi-e (fum-ee-ay), literally “a stepping on picture,”  was a representation usually of Christ on the cross or the Virgin Mary used during the Edo period by religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate (rule of  Ieyasu Tokugawa)  of Japan. 

The Portuguese brought Christianity to Japan when they first landed in Kyushu in 1542.  The Japanese barons on Kyushu welcomed foreign trade particularly for their supply of new kinds of weaponry. They tolerated the subsequent Jesuit missionaries, thinking that their presence would diminish the power of the Buddhist monks.   In 1629, however, persecution of Christians (Kirishitan) began in earnest in Nagasaki, and scores of monks were martyred.   During this time, suspected Christians were required to step on a fumi-e, the idea being that true believer would never defame the religion by stepping on an icon. If individuals would not renounce their religion, they were tortured and even killed. Executions sometimes took place on Mount Unzen, because bodies could be dumped into its volcano.

The use of the  fumi-e was officially abandoned in April 13, 1856, when the Japanese opened their ports to foreigners, although some remained in use until Christian teaching was placed under formal protection during the Meiji period.

What makes this particular fumi-e rather unique is that it doesn’t depict the crucified Christ. Rendered in the style of of 12th and 13th century Greek and Byzantine icons, it may be a rare depiction of the triumphant Christ (seated upon the throne) or possibly an image of St. Peter or St. Paul.

For a round up of unusual textiles at this year’s SF Tribal & Textile Arts show, see Ethnology by the Bay, Part I


Wider Connections

Mark Johnson—Art Borneo

More Kenyah finials

Tribal Arts Magazine—The Kenyah-Kayan Tradition

Upper Sepik (Papua New Guinea) Shields

Fertility Goddess (Aiwai Meri)

Lawrence Ethnographic Collection—Upper Sepik River

Haiku Topics on Fumi-e

Ethnography by the Bay, Textiles (Part I)

Posted in Embroidery, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2009 by Liz Hager


Asafo Flag, Fante tribe, Ghana, early 1900s (courtesy Owen Hargreaves and Jasmine Dahl; photo ©Liz Hager)

At noon on Friday, the opening day of the The 23rd San Francisco Tribal and Textile Arts show (2/13-15), the light foot traffic inside the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason appeared equally-divided between the serious collectors and the dabblers interested in furthering their ethnological education.  Along with scores of the perennially-popular Persian & Turkish rugs, Uzbeki ikat munisaks, antique suzanis, African masks, Oceanic shields, African masks and the scattered Kaitag embroideries were a number of unusual and stunning pieces.  

Asafo Flags, Ghana

Asafo refers to the centuries-old “people’s militia” of the predominently Fante tribe in Ghana. Today asafo is not so much a standing army, but an established social and political organization based on martial principles. The tribe makes extensive use of pictorial symbols, which essentially form a system of writing. Similar to proverbs, this syntax preserves and passes along the tribe’s culture. The symbols appear on textiles, pottery, metal castings, wood carvings and architectural elements.  

According to Rebecca Maksel in “Dueling Banners” (Smithsonian Magazine, link below) the cultures of Ghana “boast a repertoire of more than 3,000 proverbs, although only about 200 of these are depicted on flags.” Each company had its own flag—emblazoned with a unique color scheme and symbols—usually commissioned by each captain for the day of his investiture. Flags were displayed during special occasions, festivals and funerals. The above flag from the early 1900s is typical of the form the flags take—a cotton cloth has been appliquéd and painted, in this case with symbols of a tribesman, stars, a flag-like design at the top, and the Union Jack. Is this an historical theme having to do with some specific event under British rule (Ghana did not gain independence until 1957)? Or does it represent the derivation of the company’s source of power (the stars)? 

Pah-soe, Burma


Court Garment/Men’s Pah-soe (lower body wrapper) silk tapestry weave, Burma, mid-late 19th century (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)


Court Garment/Men’s Pah-soe (detail showing typical plaid “fringe”) silk tapestry weave, Burma, mid-late 19th century (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)

The pah-soe is a voluminous wrapped skirt worn by fashionably dressed Burmese gentlemen on festive occasions. This piece is made in the typical way of silk woven in tapestry weave, or  acheik-luntaya (in which the weft does not run selvage to selvage, but is placed in small sections).   The garment was woven in two narrow strips and sewn together.  It is finished off with plaid “fringe,” which seems to be the style for these garments.  This is one of the most gorgeous silk weavings on view at the show—its luscious purply indigo color not well captured in the dim lighting of the booths. 

Ritual Cloth, Nigeria


Ukara, Leopard Society, Igbo Tribe, Nigeria, plain weave/stitch/resist on cotton dyed with indigo, 20th century (courtesy Cathryn Cootner, photo ©Liz Hager).

Like the Asafo flags, this Igbo pictorial cloth is a sophisticated form of communication. The Igbo Leopard Society was a secret society, perhaps established in Nigeria as early as the 1600s, but which flourished mainly in the early- to mid-20th century mostly as a form of shamanism. The shaman transformed himself into an animal (ngbe or leopard) and conversed with the other animals on behalf of the society.  The central society ritual consisted of masquerade processions and dances, in which members wrapped themselves in leopard skins and ukura skirts.  

According to Amanda Carlson in African Folklore: An Encyclopedia (p.299)—

Leopard Society members, who pursue excellence and expertise in the artistic and intellectual facets of nsibidi {symbol language of, among others, the Ejagham and Igbo tribes}, create brilliant displays with their secret knowledge, which once gave them the power to enforce the laws of the society at large. On ritual occasions, members create a dramatic presence by wearing a ukara cloth, which they tie around the waist to form a long skirt…  

Ukara cloth has an array of signs that uniformly cover the surface of the cloth and refer to titled positions within the society, secret rituals, and philosophical concepts. Read as a whole the cloth is a synopsis of the Leopard Society and a symbol of membership. 

This ukara, a bold design of indigo and white, is particularly dense, which causes the eye to linger in order to register its individual components. Despite a multitude of figurative and geometric symbols, the rigid grid assists the eye in both reading the whole design and seeing the individual parts. The design seems to undulate and flow; the indigo and white cause the symbols to pop forward or recede into the background. 

Kantha (Quilts), West Bengal


Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave, West Bengal, ca. 1940. (courtesy John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)


Tiger motif—Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. 1940. (collection of John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)


Yankee Sailor motif? —Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. 1940. (collection of John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)

Kantha are quilted cloths made from old saris, dhotis, and lungis. Used as bed covers or wraps, kantha can from three to seven saris thick, quilted together with the simple running stitch. This stitching gives the kantha a finished effect similar to an American-style quilt, although sari silk imparts a luster and richness not present in the latter bedcover.  The kanthas pictured here are made predominantly of cotton, but that in no way detracts from their value as exquisite and breathtaking textiles.

A long talk with renowned textile authority and dealer John Gillow revealed the engaging story behind the kantha above.  Like many kantha this was produced as a dowery piece, most likely for the daughter of a wealthy (rice) farmer. She may have worked on it, but likely other women of the plantation did the majority of the work. Like many kanthas, this features the central lotus motif. The fancifully-conceived animals that surround the lotus would have been been familiar to the Bengalis—a tiger, a crocodile, peacocks, fish, as well as farm animals. West Bengal is a cultural cross-roads of sorts, hence the Buddhist lotus flower mixed in with an Islamic water carrier (lower left),  women in Hindu-style lengha(?) skirts (lower right), and what Gillow hypothesizes is a “Yank” sailor above the women.   (This being executed in the mid 40s during or after the war.)  The challace (above left) is traditionally filled with rose water, which along with betelnut, is a welcoming gift in Bengali homes. 

Kanthas were also executed in the most stunning of geometric designs. The upper photograph of the two below demonstrates the subtlety of a well-executed reversible design.  As the lower photographic detail shows, great care was taken to continue the stitching design into the background. The hours of work that must have gone into the creation of these extraordinary quilts is mind-numbing. 


Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. mid-19th century. (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)



Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. mid-19th century. (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)


Wider Connections

Tribal Arts homepage

Asafo Flags (images)

Smithsonian on Asafo flags

Inscribing Meaning—Nsibidi 

John Gillow’s books on textiles

Cloth as Metaphor Exhibition

Kantha stitches


A Birthday Salute to Charles Darwin

Posted in Flora & Fauna, Liz Hager, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2009 by Liz Hager


©2009 ECHager

Perhaps no single person has had a greater impact on our conception of the natural sciences than Charles Darwin. Indeed, his theories regarding the competition for scarce resources, adaptability, and natural selection have been co-opted by disciplines beyond botany.  Amazingly, Darwin was not a professional botanist; rather he read much and taught himself by observing.

Darwin was born 200 years ago today into an illustrious family (his grandfathers were Josiah Wedgwood, as famous a potter as his own father Thomas, and Erasmus Darwin, a physician, poet, inventor and philosopher). He was a modest man, plagued throughout his life by doubts and ill health. His first book, The Voyage of the Beagle, was published in 1839 not long after he returned from a five-year sea journey along the coast of south America.  It was on this trip that the young man observed the phenomenon of bio-diversity (in finch populations) that sparked his later thinking.  Although Darwin entered his first insights regarding natural selection in his notebook on September 28, 1838, he kept his ideas to himself for virtually the next 20 years. In the intervening decades, Darwin’s beloved daughter Annie died (1851), he was awarded the Royal Medal for his study of barnacles (1853), and Alfred Russel Wallace published an article on the relationship between varieties and species. The latter sent Darwin into a fit of consternation. “I cannot tell whether to publish now would not be base and paltry,” he commented. Nevertheless, the article galvanized him to finish his manuscript. He presented his ideas formally at a meeting of the Linnean Society (named for the 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus) in 1858. His seminal work  On the Origin of Species (by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) was finally published late the following year. Darwin was 50. 

On the Origin of Species laid out the theory of natural selection through copious observation and minutely-recorded data.  It was a milestone in naturalist thought, but it was not created in an intellectual vacuum. Extremely well-read, Darwin built his ideas upon those of his grandfather Erasmus, botanist John Stevens Henslow, as well as geologists Adam Sedgwick and Charles Lyell, Thomas Robert Malthus‘ influential work  An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).  His contribution postulated that a species’ struggle for survival (competition for scarce resources) led to “natural design, that is survival of the fittest (a phrase actually first coined in 1864 by Herbert Spencer, philosopher and political theorist) and the “principal of divergence,” which suggested that diversification and adaptation led to greater surviving numbers of the species.  Although Darwin could show that variation in species indisputably occurred, he had no idea how it happened. That would be left for 20th-century geneticists to explain.

Given the puritanical times in which he lived, Darwin stopped short in The Origin of Species of suggesting that humans had evolved through natural selection from some lesser life form. But he eventually took up the cause in his subsequent book The Descent of Man, published in 1871.  One can only wonder what Darwin would think about the ongoing dispute in certain 21st-century quarters regarding his theory of evolution. 

Darwin died in 1882. He is buried in Westminster Abbey very close to Isaac Newton. 

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!                                                                 12 February 1809—19 April 1882


Wider Connections

The Sand Walk, Darwin’s “Thinking Path.” 

Portraits of Darwin

The Complete Works of Darwin

Alfred Russel Wallace 

The Man Who Wasn’t Darwin (National Geographic)

David Hockney & the Chief Muse of the Brothers Grimm

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Printmaking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2009 by Liz Hager


David Hockney, Catherina Dorothea Viehmann (frontispiece of Six Fairy Tales), 1969 etching/aquatint.

In 1970 David Hockney and Petersburg Press released Six Fairy Tales, a compilation of 39 etchings and the texts of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s fairy tales, including

Although there have been many subsequent translations and adaptations of the Brothers Grimm’s original 1812 volume, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), the texts in Hockney’s edition were re-translated from the (1962?) version released by  Manesse Verlag in Zürich. 

Hockney produced the portfolio in four separate editions of 100 with 15 artist’s proofs; the artist drew the images directly on copper plates, which were pulled at Petersburg Press.  The folios were hand sewn and bound into a blue leather slipcase. Additionally, each edition contained a discrete set of six etchings culled from the 39 illustratons, which were slipped loose into a pocket in the book’s slipcase. The artist also produced a separate portfolio (one edition of 100), in which each tale and its accompanying renderings where folded concertina-style and individually signed and numbered by the artist.

Sometime later, perhaps in the mid-70s, a trade edition of the book was released, both in full and miniature size. Although mass-produced,  the latter version possesses a precious, magical quality that is in in keeping with the spirit of the Medieval Volk-inspired tales. It’s a unique addition to any collection of illustrated children’s books.


(Left) David Hockney, Boy Hidden in an Egg, 1969, etching/aquatint/drypoint. (Right) David Hockney, Boy Hidden in a Fish, 1969.

What inspired Hockney about The Brothers’ Grimm?  As Karen Armstrong points out in A Short History of Myth, a central purpose of myth is to show us “how to behave.” The Grimm tales are no exception. Chock-full of romance and rescue, familial conflict and truly gruesome violence, the tales are meant as manuals of manners, guides “out of the woods.”



(Left) David Hockney, The Cook, 1969, etching/aquatint.. (Right) David Hokcney, The Pot Boiling, 1969, etching/aquatint.

Peter Webb, author of Portrait of David Hockney, illuminates Hockney’s motivation:

David Hockney had always loved Grimm’s Fairy Tales and had read all 220 of them. He also admired earlier illustrations to them by Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. In 1969 he decided to make his own images. He especially enjoyed the elements of magic in the tales, and his images focus on his imaginative response to the descriptions in the text rather than attempting to concentrate on the most important events in the narrative. They are therefore more than simply illustrations: they stand on their own as images, independent of the stories.

Unlike other illustrator’s renderings, which impart a beauteous overtone to the stories, through his own quirky rendering of characters and details, Hockney has managed to expertly capture the dark magic mood of the tales. Further, as The Cook and The Pot Boiling from “Fundevogel” brilliantly illustrate, the gruesome details need not always be depicted for us to grasp the sinister undertones of the story.  The artist’s depiction of the Enchantress in “Rapunzel” as an androgynous crone sends shivers up the spine. 



 (Left) David Hockney, The Enchantress in Her Garden, 1969, etching/aquatint. (Right) David Hockney, The Enchantress with Baby Rapunzel, 1969, etching/aquatint/drypoint.

And what of Catherina Dorothea Viehmann, Hockney’s frontispiece portrait?  Few readers know that in the height of the Romantic Era the Grimms did not travel the German countryside transcribing stories from simple peasants, but relied on a small network of bourgeois female friends and acquaintances to retell the stories they had heard in various homes. As scholars, the Grimms put their own name on the books they edited, keeping the identity of their storytellers largely secret. In this way, on the eve of German patriotic rebirth after years of occupation by Napoleon’s government, the Grimms were able to maintain the conceit of a vast repository of German Volkskultur.

In the best oral tradition, women recited folk tales to each other to ward off the boredom of household chores and to instruct younger women on the proper way for women to behave. Over half of the 210 stories in the first edition were contributed by women. Family friend Marie Hassenpflug was responsible for “Sleeping Beauty” and “Red Riding Hood;” neighbor Dorchen Wild for “Rumpelstilzchen,” “The Six Swans” and “Frau Holle” (incidentally one of the Grimms’ most popular stories in Germany today). 

Ludwig Emil Grimm, Dorothea Viehmann, charcoal on paper, ca. 1814.

In the spring of 1813 the Brothers met Dorothea Viehmann, an impoverished widow, who by then would have been in her late 50s. The daughter of an innkeeper, Dorothea may have picked up stories as a girl from her mother and even the guests and tradespeople of her father’s inn. Viehmann possessed a photographic memory when it came to recounting the details of her stories; apparently she could stop mid-sentence and retrace a previous section word for word as she had already told it.  Wilhelm confessed: “She comes to visit at least once a week and unleashes (her stories). We take turns transcribing. . . and by now have (made) such lovely progress that we could probably deliver a second volume.” (letter from Wilhelm to his brother Ferdinand—translated by Valerie Paradiz, Clever Maids, pp. 151-152).

In all Dorothea Viehmann contributed over 40 stories, to the Grimms’ second volume,  including “Cinderella,” “The Goose Maid” and “The Devil with Three Golden Hairs.” Ironically, Viehmann’s heritage was French Huguenot, so the likely origin of her stories was not Germany at all. 

The Grimm family included two other brothers. Ludwig Emil became an artist, who among other endeavors illustrated his brothers’ fairy tale books. In the 1819 edition of Children’s and Household Fairy Tales, his portrait of Dorothea Viehmann appeared as the frontispiece, although one wonders with what attribution. When David Hockney re-instated Viehmann to her position as Chief Muse for the Brothers Grimm, he revealed a part of the Grimms’ own secret history. 

Wider Connections

David Hockney

Culturistas on David Hockney

The Annotated Brothers Grimm—Essays by A.S. Byatt; 150 illustrations by artists including George Cruikshank, Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham.

Bruno Bettelheim—The Uses of Enchantment

Valerie Paridiz—Clever Maids: The Secret History of The Grimm Fairy Tales 

Brothers Grimm background

Manesse Codex (translated and transcribed by Jacob Grimm)

All That Glitters: Michael Tole at Cain Schulte

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2009 by Liz Hager



Michael Tole, Untitled (Clover), 2008, oil on canvas (photo courtesy Cain Schulte).

Virtuoso technique aside, Michael Tole’s paintings of Fabergé eggs on view at Cain Schulte until February 21 don’t quite hit the mark. True to the Photorealist tradition, Tole creates paintings from photographs, in this case his own shots.  Unlike some Photorealists, who meddle with the photographic image on the way to completing the painting, Tole faithfully and meticulously constructs his paintings down to the depth of field focus effects and double images presumably found in the original photographs. To be sure, Tole must be admired for his dexterous rendering of these images. Their voluptuousness surpasses even the most accomplished of Photorealists.

But technique alone does not a great painting make. It’s got to have substance. And Tole’s choice of subject matter makes this part problematic.

For contemporary audiences it is nearly impossible to separate the Fabergé eggs—aureate and bejeweled tschochkes first created in 1885 by court jeweler Carl Peter Fabergé for Tsar Alexander III —from the garish excess they came to symbolize in the 20th century as collectables for the obscenely wealthy.  This seems to be Tole’s point:

Although I haven’t the money or desire to buy these pricey trinkets, I find them intriguing both visually and for what they represent as consumer objects and signs of class. I find that successful American capitalists buy reproductions of symbols of European Feudal power as symbols of their own success contradictory, but also strangely telling about the truth of the “American Dream.” I then transform their likeness, through a digital medium, then back into painting (a traditionally elite European art form like the eggs themselves), and finally creating [sic] a new consumer product for an even more elite clients. The final painting is even more Rococco than the original egg.

Nonetheless, I suspect many viewers will feel detached from this subject matter. In fact, detachment seems to be the rallying cry of this collection. Tole has removed all evidence of himself as the painter of these works. The canvases are covered with just one layer of a thin airbrush-like wash with nary a brushstroke in sight.  The artist claims to have distanced himself emotionally from his subject matter; moreover, he asserts that not being versed in the subject matter has been an advantage:

Together the unfamiliarity of the subject matter, and the distance created by the photograph create an objectivity that allows me to see the inherent beauty of these vignettes unencumbered by the learned affinity, apathy or distain that one who is more familiar with them might feel.  The subject matter often feels taboo to my understanding of what art is, yet the newly-created images of them feel seductive.

Tole’s claim to objectivity is suspect. Finding the eggs interesting for their representation of “consumer objects and signs of class” and seeing the “inherent beauty of these vignettes” rings loudly with a point of view, subjectivity even.

Additionally troubling is the fact that Tole hasn’t portrayed the original eggs, but reproductions he chanced upon in a gift shop at the Dallas Galleria. (This is a subtle fact not immediately obvious from the paintings themselves, but from the literature that accompanies the show.) With only 50 in the world, the original Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs are rarified items indeed. In 2004 one of the eggs in Malcolm Forbes’ collection up for auction was estimated to bring $18-24 million.  A copy of the Forbes’ egg will set you back $2,500, within reach of a great many Americans and less expensive than Tole’s paintings of them, as it turns out. It isn’t altogether clear what Tole really trying to communicate with these reproductions (paintings) of reproductions (photographs) of reproductions (the eggs)? That money doesn’t buy class? The contradiction inherent in buying reproduction luxury goods?  That even ersatz glitziness seduces?  This doesn’t feel like a big bold idea or at least unmined territory.

Whatever the message, like the eggs themselves, Tole’s paintings exist as conceits, beautiful and fanciful extravagances for the elite.  These times beg for art that runs deep, that feeds our wounded psyches. My psyche wanted more substance from this show.

Michael Tole: What World Behind Those Ruby Eyes
Cain Schulte, San Francisco

Wider Connections

Michael Tole

SprayBlog interview with Michael Tole

Hen Egg—Fabergé that started it all

More Fabergé

The Photo Realist tradition: Richard EstesAudrey FlackEric FischlClive Head, Jack Mendenhall, Linda Bacon

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