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.

By LIZ HAGER

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?

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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.

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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.

By LIZ HAGER

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.

By LIZ HAGER

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

By LIZ HAGER

heinrich-kuhne28094miss-mary-and-edeltrude-lying-in-the-grass-ca-1910

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-kuhne28094miss-mary-and-lotte-at-the-hill-crest-ca-1910

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

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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

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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

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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

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

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

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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. 

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

 

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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

 


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