Archive for August, 2009

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Illustration, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , on August 31, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. “Dark Day Picks” highlights current exhibitions, new installations, art world tidbits, and, as in the case today, books that have recently made an impression on us. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Contemporary Jewish Museum—Maurice Sendak, There’s a Mystery There. Sept 8, 2009—Jan.19, 2010. What child does not fall in love with Sendak—the lovely relationship between mother and son in the Little Bears series (which Sendak illustrated), the gluttonous treat of the miniature Nutshell Library, and lucky Max, of Where the Wild Things Are, who went to his room without supper, but still managed a most exciting adventure? Sendak’s stories are universal and timeless, all the more rich from having been informed by the sadness and complexities of the Holocaust, the rich memories of his parent’s lives in Europe, and his own childhood experiences with his Jewish relatives.


Thatcher Gallery, USF Wangxin Zhang—Detour (New Works). August 21-October 1. Perhaps best known for his life-size ceramic sculptures depicting modern day versions of Xian’s Terracotta Warriors, Zhang’s new work addresses current cultural and political topics relating to present-day China and US.

Triangle Gallery—Stephanie Peek: Uncertain Riches. Sept. 8—Oct. 17. Lush floral compositions, making use of the infinite pattern opportunities in nature.

A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: The Duchess of Alba

Posted in Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Lace, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles with tags , , , , on August 25, 2009 by Liz Hager


Editor’s Note: This is the seventh installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include: Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Queen Elizabeth, Nicholas Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement XIII, Gloria Swanson; or click here for all posts in the series.

Goya Duchess of Alba

Francisco Goya, Mourning Portrait of the Duchess of Alba, or The Black Duchess, 1797,
oil on canvas, 210.2 x 149.3 cm
(Hispanic Society of New York)

No people are more associated with the fashion of black lace than the Spanish. No lace is more linked with black than French Chantilly. And no painting more delightfully illustrates these intertwined traditions than Goya’s 1797 portrait of the Duchess of Alba.

The Dowager and Her Devotee

Goya painted many portraits of Dona María del Pilar de Silva, the 13th Duchess of Alba, possibly even as La maya desnuda. Were they lovers? That’s a question that’s set tongues to wagging since the liaison in Andalusia that produced the portrait above.

Certainly, they were an unlikely pair. Goya’s humble origins would have placed him well out of social range of the Duchess (second in line behind the Queen) were it not for the fact that he had been appointed court painter for Charles IV in 1789. Goya was charming; the Duchess was flamboyant and provocative. She had endured a loveless, childless marriage. Her husband, the 13th Duke of Alba, had died the year before and, according to custom, the Duchess retreated to her summer residence for a period of mourning. Goya followed, making numerous sketches, etchings and paintings of her over the many months. From the many sketches of that period which are not of Dona María, but resemble her, it is clear that she was never far from his thoughts.

Goya places her in a landscape unencumbered by distractions, she alone holds the viewer’s gaze. He depicts her in mourning costume;  though a style more likely worn by the maja, or peasant classes in Spain, than by the aristocracy, it is by no means simple or austere.  A black lace mantilla, which alluringly snakes itself around her, performing double duty as a headdress and fashionable shawl over her traditional Andalusian ruffled mourning dress.

Chantilly mantilla

Mantilla of Chantilly lace with velvet insets.

On the Dowager’s fingers are two rings, one stating “Alba,” the other proclaiming “Goya.”  The Duchesse also points words—sólo Goya (“Goya alone”)— on the ground in front of her. The first word was hidden for many years by paint and varnish, but when it was revealed after a cleaning in 1960, speculation heated up once again. The record shows that Goya and Dona María parted unhappily after their sojurn in Andalusia. It remains a mystery as to whether sólo Goya represented her true feelings at the time or just his secret wish.

The Duchess  died at 40 under sinister circumstances. The mantilla passed largely into history, though black lace is still worn by many women of an older generation as a religious head covering in some countries and by all non-Catholic female dignitaries meeting the Pope. Chantilly lace, of course, was immortalized in the Big Bopper song.

La Dentelle

Undoubtedly the best-known of the black laces, Chantilly is a bobbin lace worked in silk threads, rather than the more common flax or cotton. Named for the French town of its origin, Chantilly is distinguished by its fine Alençon-type réseau (netting) and outlined motifs—mostly floral patterns. The strong but comparatively light weight of this lace once made it suitable for an especially wide range of fashion accessories—the delicate covers of parasols and fan pages, as well as large shawls, although sizes of the latter was severely limited until 1758, when a French lacemaker from Calvados discovered the invisible seaming technique called point de racroc.

Chantilly Lace

Shawl made of black Chantilly lace (made in Bayeaux), mid-19th century.

Black lace first arose as a fashion need in the 16th century (predominantly as a symbol of mourning or matronliness). By the 17th century, equal quantities of black and white Flemish lace show up in purchase records. Regrettably, portraits of the era serve as the only record of the uses of black lace; almost none of the early specimens survive, because the iron-oxide mordant used to fix the black dye caused the threads to rot. (Synthetic dyes would fix this problem in the 19th century.)

The earliest Chantilly laces were made from cream-colored, not black, silk threads.  Blonde, as it was called, was a fragile lace, since the thin passive threads were required to support the heavier worker thread. Moreover, at the time it was thought to have no real artistic value, and thus was not considered fashionable. Further there was a huge demand from Spain and her colonies for black lace.  Legend also suggests that in the mid-17th century, Catherine de Rohan, local Duchesse of Longueville, established a school in her nearby castle at Étrepagny, thereby putting Chantilly on black lace-making map.

Whatever the reason, local lace-makers were able to overcome the traditional difficulty in working with hard-to-see black threads. Over the years lacemakers there experimented—with twisting and netting, grounds and motifs—eventually settling on the distinctive two-twist tulle ground and elegant flowers and garlands in relief for which Chantilly became known.

Diego Velázquez—Lady with a Fan, 1635

Diego Velázquez, Lady with a Fan, 1635
oil on canvas, 95 x 70 cm
(Wallace Collection)

Given the proximity of production to Paris, Chantilly lace soon became fashionable with the French court. Chantilly thrived under Louis XIV‘s patronage of lace and received a further boost with the arrival of his Spanish-born queen, María-Terésa, who widened the scope of its use. Although it remained in fashion through the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, the French Revolution proved generally disastrous for lace making in France. Production in Chantilly ceased after large numbers of lacemakers, viewed as royalists, were guillotined in 1793.

Vintage Chantilly lace, 20th century.

Napoleon sponsored its revival in the years between 1804 and 1815. By the 1840s, Chantilly reached the apex of its popularity, although by this time the majority of lace in the Chantilly style actually came from Bayeux, Calvados and Grammont (Geerardsbergen) in Belgium, where the lace was produced more cheaply. Although revived once again in the 1860s, sadly high-quality imitations were then being manufactured on various machines. The demise of the shawl at the end of the 19th century sounded the final death-knell for hand-made Chantilly lace.

Wider Connections

Susan Waldmann—Goya and the Duchess of Alba

Goya: Crazy Like A Genius (Robert Hughes documentary)

Museo Virtuale delle Arte Tessili (a rich resource on the needle arts)

A Lace Lover’s Diary

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags on August 24, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. “Dark Day Picks” highlights current exhibitions, new installations, art world tidbits, and, as in the case today, books that have recently made an impression on us. Get a jump on a week filled with art.


Cain Schulte, 714 Guerrero Street, SFOwen Schuh, The Conceit of Counting. Schuh builds the structure of his paintings by adding single drops of oil or acrylic paints until a pattern emerges.  Deeply interested in the relationship between nature and logic, the artist works toward a representation of nature using abstract concepts of math.

111 Minna Street Gallery, SF—Kelly Turnstall & Ferris Plock, Sea of LoveThe latest large-scale collaborative exhibition by San Francisco-based artists Ferris Plock and Kelly Tunstall explores relationships between sailors and mermaids, stories of lost love and misguided navigation, the diversity of creatures inhabiting the oceans and their individual roles as different vessels of possibility. Through August 29.

Donna Seager Gallery, 851 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA—Group Exhibition introducing Jylian Gustlin. These mostly figurative works underscore the artist’s pre-occupation with shapes and patterns. Through August 29th.

Venetian Red Notebook: Windows on Russia

Posted in Architecture, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Travel with tags , , , on August 19, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Russian Window

Russian folk art reached the height of popularity with the builders and woodworkers of rural Russia in the 18th-19th centuries. From simple peasant cottages to log-built estates for wealthy merchants, timber houses were decorated with elaborate painted wood carvings. Russia is sometimes referred to as a nation of woodcutters, and this tradition is evident in the wooden houses in the Golden Ring, the historical towns and cities that lie to the northeast of Moscow. These towns represent one thousand years of Russian history, a time and place that saw the lives of great figures in Russian history unfold, including Alexander Nevesky, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. It was in these towns that the Russian Orthodox Church first took hold, so there are many wonderful examples of Russia’s greatest architecture—monasteries, onion-dome churches and cathedrals.

In the rural houses of the Golden Ring, elaborately carved wooden decorations also appeared on the edges of roofs and balconies, but were most beautiful as window surrounds. The carvings were uniquely Russian, an amalgam of Russian folklore motifs, Baroque embellishment and the graceful linear quality of Art Nouveau. They combine flowers, leaves and geometric shapes with stylized depictions of  birds and animals, as well as mythological creatures, such as the Sirin—a creature of Russian legend that has the face and chest of a woman and the wings and feathered tail of a bird, most often an owl.

SirinSirin, Lubok picture, 19th century

These pictures, from a Golden Ring travel brochure, show the inventiveness of the  wood carvers. The houses and the window surrounds were painted in wonderful colors which highlight the beauty of the designs.

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Window

The three pictures below were taken by a friend last year on a trip to Russia.

Russian Inn
Russian Inn near Vladimir, 19th century

Russian Inn
Russian Inn near Vladimir

Russian House SuzdalRussian House, Suzdal
Photos: Courtesy Victoria Tupper Kirby

In many areas of Russia, these wonderful embellished houses have fallen into ruin, a staggering number have been lost. In the Golden Ring, quite a few have been restored on site, while others have been moved to “open-air museums” and are a popular tourist attraction in northeast Russia.

This window surround was included in a recent exhibition, Carved and Colored Village Art from Tsarist Lands, at Pushkin House, London that was held from May 18th-June 10th, 2009. Note the two mythological bird figures on the top.

Russian Window—Pushkin House
The catalog from the show, by Robert Cenciner and John Cornall can be found here.

Russian Windows, Pushkin House

Dark Day Picks—James Elkins’ “What Painting Is”

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on August 17, 2009 by Liz Hager


On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. “Dark Day Picks” highlights current exhibitions, new installations, art world tidbits, and, as in the case today, books that have recently made an impression on us. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Pollock—No 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) detail

Jackson Pollock, No I., 1950 (Lavender Mist), detail of lower left center
oil on canvas
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

What is painting?

Typically, art historians answer that question with a litany of the who and what for facts of painting—the social, financial, and political forces that conspired to bring a work into being. After all, their job is to securely place a work within the (academically-assigned) progression of human endeavor. An art critic may add nuance to this discussion by dissecting the position of the work on the artist’s evolutionary arc or opine on the painting’s merit by comparing it in compositional terms to works by other artists.

Authors of painting manuals answer by showing us how to paint—they divulge the secrets of achieving different effects with the many painterly substances.

In his 1999 book What Painting Is, James Elkins takes a different approach. He explores the why of painting, every bit as fascinating and important as the what for and how. Elkins points acknowledges that painting is a metamorphic act, simply put, “the name for what happens when paint moves across a blank canvas.”  The book is his thesis on the experiential process of transforming basic material substances—once pulverized stone (pigment) and water (oil). In this regard, painters in their studios are very much like alchemists in their labs—they wrestle, coax, redo, and every so often miraculously succeed in converting their raw materials into something of transcendent beauty.

It may seem far-fetched to compare painting and alchemy, particularly in the post-Enlightenment world of chemistry:

Despite all its bad press, and its association with quackery and nonsense, alchemy is the best and most eloquent way to understand how paint can mean: how it can be so entrancing, so utterly addictive, so replete with expressive force, that it can keep hold of an artist’s attention for an entire lifetime. Alchemists had immediate, intuitive knowledge of waters and stones, and their obscure books can help give voice to the ongoing fascination of painting.  (p.7)

“The alchemical sisters,” from Johann Daniel Mylius, Philosophia reformata (1622), emblem 10.

A Professor of Art History at The School of the Chicago Art Institute who trained as a painter, Elkins does bring substantial authority to his central proposition: that the essence of a painting is in the visible and invisible processes that went into creating it. Using details from range of paintings—from Sasetta, Monet, Debuffet, Pollock, Rembrandt, Nolde, among others—Elkins discusses the similarity in the processes painters (and alchemists) go through to create their magic.

It’s a seductive comparison, which largely holds a reader’s interest, because most of the discussion on alchemy is kept within range of the uninitiated. Further, Elkins always returns to the discipline of painting, which is the more important topic of the two, afterall. That said, I found some of the alchemic discussions a bit obscure and a few of the analogies to painting slavishly concocted. The chapter on  “Moldy material prima” was brilliant, but my interest waned more than a few times in the chapter on “Coagulating, cohobating, macerating, reverberating.”

Still, the observations on painting are more often than not heady and inspirational. I suspect painters will nod vigorously in agreement. A long passage on Jackson Pollock winds up this way:

Thinking of the painting as a layered sequence, it may seem as if Pollock was actually working toward a kind of order, so that the painting would reveal its creation, step-by-step, to a careful investigator. But Pollock was desperately interested in avoiding the normal structure of drawing and painting. It is rarely possible to follow a stream of paint as it winds its way across the canvas (as museum docents often advise visitors to do). Whatever such a layer became too obvious, he obfuscated it, tangling it back into a pattern as if he were stitching a stray thread. Where marks threatened to become too clear, Pollock let a messy beige drip fall just on top of them, or he held the brush still while it spun a thread of paint, piling up like syrup on a pancake. . .

. . . It may be that what Pollock feared, and wanted most to destroy, was the long continuous contour that would imply a human figure. . .  (p.93)

Dubuffet—The Ceremonious One, detail, 1954Jean Dubuffet, The Ceremonious One (detail of left flank)
1954, oil on canvas

Near the end of the book, Elkins hones in exactly why painters are so addicted to paint:

Oil paint can’t be entrancing just because it can create an illusion, because every medium does that. No: painters love paint iteself, so much that they spend years trying to get paint to behave the way they want it to, rather than abandoning it and taking up pencil drawing, or charcoal, or watercolor, or photography. (though I might argue that watercolor is paint. . .)

It is no wonder that painters can be so entranced by paint. Substances occupy the mind profoundly, tethering moods to thoughts, tangling stray feelings with the movement of the body, engaging the full capacity of response and concentrating it on unpromising lumps of paint and color. There is no meaning that cannot seem to flow from the paint iteself. . .

These are the passages where Elkins nails it for me—a more accurate and eloquent description of the painting process I have yet to find.

Remedios Varo: Alchemy and Science

Posted in Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, Poetry with tags , , , on August 12, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Remedios Varo, Creation of the BirdsRemedios Varo, Creation of the Birds, 1957

Remedios Varo’s small, complex paintings portray a world in which alchemy, magic, mysticism and science co-exist. Varo was a relentlessly inquisitive, intelligent woman of great wit, whose slight build and striking features are often echoed in the humans and hybrid creatures who inhabit her paintings. As a girl she dreamed of travel, but after world events forced her twice into relocation and exile she came detest travel and chose instead to journey inward, exploring her creativity and spirituality through her painting. It is instructive to trace how Varo’s interests, talents and personal history, combined with her place in world events, lead to a merging of subject matter and style that was so uniquely her own.

Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was born Maria de los Remedios Varo y Uranga in Anglés, a town north of Barcelona. When she was a young child, the family traveled for her father’s work, after several years they settled in Madrid. Her father encouraged her artistic inclinations by teaching her how to make mechanical drawings. She also learned about perspective, a device she used often in her work. Her father also took her  to museums—at the Prado she fell in love with the work of Hieronymus Bosch, Goya and El Greco. Varo was enrolled in a Catholic convent school where she rebelled against the strict religious regimen and longed for freedom. From an early age, she was drawn to magic, fantasy and the language of dreams.

Remedios Varo, RuptureRemedios Varo, Rupture, 1955

At fifteen, Varo entered the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, where she crossed paths with Salvador Dalí, and pursued a rigorous course of academic art training. In addition to the traditional required subjects, such as still-life, landscape, anatomy, color theory, mixing of pigments, glazing techniques, architectural rendering, decorative painting and ornamentation, Varo elected to study scientific illustration. In the mid 1920s, art students and intellectuals in Madrid looked to the Surrealists in Paris for inspiration—including the plays of Federico García Lorca, the paintings of Salvador Dalí, and the films of Luis Buñuel.

Remedios Varo, 1927Remedios Varo and Josep Lluis Florit, c.1927

Varo’s first marriage to Gerardo Lizarraga in 1930, at the age of 21, allowed her to live away from home and to have the freedom a single young woman of the time would not otherwise enjoy. In 1931, she and Lizarraga went to live in Paris for a year where she loved the bohemian café life of good conversation and the exchange of  socially progressive ideas. When they returned to Spain, they went to Barcelona, at the time a more cosmopolitan and liberal city than Madrid. While still married she began a liason with Esteban Francés—this was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of multiple simultaneous relationships that endured as friendships long after the romances ended.

Remedios Varo—The Useless ScienceRemedios Varo, The Useless Science or The Alchemist, 1955

In Barcelona she met French Surrealist poet Benjamin Perét, one of André Breton‘s closest friends. In 1937, to escape the Spanish Civil War, and while still married to Lizarraga and involved with Francés, Varo moved to Paris with Perét, whom she later married. Thrust into the Surrealist milieu, Varo became somewhat less confident, more reticent. The Surrealists embraced the ideal of youth and beauty and the femme-enfant, claiming that women were the more creative force because they operated more outside reason and logic than men. Of course, in reality, this patronizing attitude left women in the Surrealist movement far outside the inner circle—and there was no place for the mature or aging woman artist.

Remedios Varo—Solar MusicRemedios Varo, Solar Music, 1955

From 1937-39, Varos experimented a great deal, influenced by the work of Max Ernst, Giorgio di Chirico, René Magritte, Wolfgang Paalen and Victor Brauner. In 1939, Franco closed the borders of Spain to anyone with ties to the Republican movement, so Varo could not return to home and family. She was again dislocated by war—in 1940 the Nazis entered Paris, and Varo, along with millions of others, including many of her circle in Paris, became a refugee, eventually ending up in Marseille. At the end of 1941, with Perét in danger, they made a long, arduous journey, ending up in Mexico City, where she lived for the rest of her life and did her mature work.

Remedios Varo—Portrait of Dr. Ignacio ChavezRemedios Varo, Portrait of Dr. Ignacio Chavez, 1957

At first, Varo intended to stay for only a short time in Mexico City and remained isolated among her fellow émigrés. At the time, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera ruled the art world in Mexico City, and as Socialists and champions of Mexico’s indigenous culture, they were hostile to foreign influence, decried the Surrealists as decadent, and did not welcome émigré artists into their midst. It was during this time that Varo became very close friends with the English painter Leonora Carrington with whom she shared a strong interest in the occult, alchemy and mysticism. The two met daily and had a tremendous influence on each other’s work.

Leonora CarringtonThe painter Leonora Carrington

Varo was poor and had to turn to various commercial jobs to secure an income. Over the next few years she made dioramas for a British anti-fascist propaganda office, hand-painted furniture and musical instruments for a high-end decorating firm, and designed costumes for theater and ballet (including working with fellow émigré Marc Chagall designing costumes for the Léonide Massine ballet Aleko, in 1942.) Under her mother’s maiden name of Uranga, Varo did illustration for a pharmaceutical company, Casa Bayer. In these illustrations, done in gouache, she was able to explore her long-held interest in science, and they closely mirrored the direction her personal work was taking.

Remedios Varo—ÂicrocosmRemedios Varo, Microcosm, 1959

1947 was an important turning point for Varo. Making a final break with Perét and the Surrealists, her period of sustained mature work began in earnest. With her lover Jean Nicolle she went to Venezuela for a year. There she was hired to do drawings of parasitic insects for the Ministry of Public Health. The miniature universe she discovered under her microscope had a tremendous influence on her work. Back in Mexico City in 1949, she married Walter Gruen, an Austrian exile who started Sala Marjolín, a prominent Mexico City music store. The financial security gave Varo the opportunity to quit commercial work, set up a studio and devote herself to her personal work.

Remedios Varo—Woman Leaving the PsychoanalystRemedios Varo, Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst, 1960

In 1955 Varo was invited to exhibit her work in a group show at the Galería Diana. The four important paintings she showed were harbingers of the work she did for the rest of her life. The very positive critical reaction to these pieces led to the offer of a solo show in 1956, which was very well received by both critics and collectors. Perhaps weary of an art scene long dominated by large scale murals, socialist ideology, nationalistic and indigenous themes, collectors responded very positively to her intricately detailed, delicate and  personal work—and the intimate relationship these paintings established with the viewer. Her work was in great demand, and there was always a long waiting list for her new work. For a time, Varo did some portraits on commission but much preferred doing her own work. As a foreigner in a country with a great muralist tradition, she was honored to be asked to create a series of murals for the Cancer Pavilion at the Medical Center in Mexico City. However, her dread of cancer and illness and the extreme difficulty involved in transferring her intricate, detailed, miniaturist technique to a large-scale format caused her to abandon the project.

Remedios Varo—Revelation or the ClockmakerRemedios Varo, Revelation or The Clockmaker, 1955

Finally, all the various threads of her life had come together. Magic and fantasy meshed with autobiography—images of nature in counterpoint with mechanical invention, alchemy as allegory for psychic transformation, elements of architecture and theater—all melded together in this new work. Varo would begin each new piece with a detailed drawing then transfer the image to board. Her technique of thinly applied varnishes and glazes, combined with drips, blotting and scratches, created enormous depth and surface interest. With her mastery of technique, Varo was able to explore her themes, the intersection of nature and the mechanical, creation and transformation. Her narratives unfolded in architectural spaces reminiscent of stage sets. Her work took on the quality of a spiritual journey, encompassing memory, personal history and moments of transcendence and transformation. Varo believed in a balance of science and nature, science and metaphysics, and that man should strive to live in harmony with nature, not try to conquer or control it. These were the enduring themes of her later work.

Remedios Varo—The Penenomenon of WeightlessnessRemedios Varo, The Phenomenon of Weightlessness, 1963

Varo died suddenly, of a heart attack, at the age of 55. This is the last painting she did. Unlike most of her work, there is no human presence—the painting reflects on the cycles of nature and rebirth.

VaroStilllLifejpgRemedios Varo, Still Life Reviving, 1963

Her sudden death was a tremendous shock to her friends and admirers. The poet Rosario Castellanos dedicated Metamorphosis of the Sorceress to Varo and poet Octavio Paz wrote Remedios Varo’s Appearances and Disappearances as a tribute. Here is an excerpt from his poem:

In Appearance she paints Disappearance

Roots, fronds, rays, locks of hair, flowing
beards, spirals of sound: threads of death,
of life, of time. The weft is woven and un-
woven: the unreality that we call life, the
unreality that we call death…only the canvas
is real…

Recommended reading: Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys by Janet Kaplan

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles, Words & Symbols with tags , , , , , on August 10, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. “Dark Day Picks” highlights current exhibitions, new installations, books, or art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Today, a round up of recent articles on fakes.

Nina Kogan (attributed to) Constructivist Composition

ArtNews—The Faking of the Russian Avant Garde. “A six-month ARTnews investigation and interviews with scholars, dealers, and other sources in the United States, Russia, Germany, France, and Spain reveals that the number of Russian avant-garde fakes on the market is so high that they far outnumber the authentic works.”

Financial Times—Chinese counterfeit carpets stain the market. How the Uigher/Han conflict in Xinxiang and Chinese knock-offs of Central Asian carpets are tied together. “We had no idea our decision to block the Chinese [would] be so welcomed by top-of-the-line carpet buyers,” says a Pakistani government official involved in monitoring Chinese traders. “They are glad the Chinese are not coming.”

And farther reaching, this thought-provoking series:

Dan Mooney for Errol Morris, The Girl with Two Pearl Earrings

Errol Morris in The New York Times—Bamboozling Ourselves. Why we want to believe in fakes, forgeries, and imaginary returns.

Venetian Red Notebook: Kuba Cloth, the Geometry of the Labyrinth

Posted in Christine Cariati, Embroidery, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Textiles with tags , on August 7, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth, a raffia cut-pile embroidered textile, has been made by the Shoowa, a small tribe in the kingdom of Kuba, in the Kasai, (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) for hundreds of years. These textiles, embellished with stylized abstracted designs from nature, combine line and surface in an invigorating way that creates movement and depth. Traditionally, Kuba cloth had many uses—as currency, for dowries, clothing, religious rituals and shrouds. The textiles were highly prized and conferred status.

The embroidery is done on a tightly woven plain weave cloth with very fine, softened raffia. The cloth is woven by the men, the embroidery is done by the women. Dyed in earth tones of red, yellow and orange with vegetable dyes, the raffia is pushed down and up through the cloth with a steel needle, then cut in even tufts. There are no knots, and it is packed so densely that the individual tufts are not visible. The textiles combine several tones of color which contrast to form optical geometric motifs that are complex and eye-catching.

The Kuba people have strong design traditions that combine a complex number-based script with the repetition of geometric motifs that are also used in tattoos, body scarification, architecture and basketry. The interlocking diamonds, lines and squares create spatial variations that enliven the cloth with movement. The women work the cloth from left to right, top to bottom, without any preliminary drawings. The single initial element of the design defines the character of the whole piece.

These textiles are unique, yet the visual motifs are very evocative of patterns we see in Western art and craft—they call to mind traditional weaving patterns such as twill, chevron, bird’s-eye and diamond weaves and there are echoes of Byzantine textiles, Art Deco motifs, mazes and labyrinths, M.C.Escher, as well as roads, landscapes and cultivation as seen from an airplane. The visual inventiveness of these works, with their parallel lines, concentric circles, chevrons and diagonals, set off by the tonal shadings, make these textiles endlessly interesting to look at—you always see something new, different patterns and connections constantly emerge.

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba1 cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

To study in detail about the complicated origins and history of Kuba cloth, Venetian Red recommends Georges Meurant’s Shoowa Design, African Textiles from the Kingdom of Kuba, Thames and Hudson, 1986. The 12 examples of Kuba cloth in this post were all taken from his beautiful book.

A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Clement XIII

Posted in Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Lace, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2009 by Liz Hager


Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Nicholaes Tulp, Louis XIV, The Duchess of Alba, Gloria Swanson; or click here for all posts in the series.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Pope Clement XIII Rezzonico,
1758, oil on canvas, 54 3/16 x 38 11/16″
(Museo del Settecento Veneziano, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice)

The Pope

Born Carlo della Torre di Rezzonico into a prominent Venetian family, Pope Clement XIII (1693-1769) was a modest man, who may be best remembered for covering the Vatican sculptural nudes with fig leaves. Though apparently much loved, Clement was a reluctant pope, who by all accounts was nearly wholly  unsuccessful at combating the forces that preyed on the Vatican. His papacy was marked by the struggle between the traditions of the Catholic Church and the ideas of the Enlightenment, whose proponents believed reason could could fashion a better world by combatting ignorance, superstition, and tyranny (and with them the Catholic Church).

Mengs Penitent MagdalenAnton Raphael Mengs, The Penitent Magdalen
1752, oil on canvas, 48 x 64 cm
(Gemäldegalerie, Dresden)

Further, during Clement’s decade as Pope the Vatican came under siege from the Bourbon kings (France, Spain, The Two Sicilities, Parma), who successfully suppressed the Jesuits (Clement’s own order) from all their dominions and subsequently outright appropriated Vatican lands. Concurrently, this anti-Roman movement received further impetus from the spread of Febronianism, a German doctrine claiming to restrict papal power (known in France as Gallicism).

The Painter

Widely regarded in his day as Europe’s greatest living painter, Bohemian-born Anton Rafael Mengs was a highly-paid court painter (first for Augustus III of Saxony and later for Charles III of Spain), whose artistic strength lay in an ability to capture the striking likeness of the celebrities of 18th-century Europe—royalty, potentates, and aristocrats. After an early career in Dresden as a pastel portraitist, the artist returned to Rome (where he had studied art) in the early 1750s.

Mengs self portraitAnton Raphael Mengs, Self-Portrait
1774, oil on panel, 73.5 x 56.5cm
(National Museums, Liverpool)

There he became a close friend and probable lover of the German archaeologist and ancient art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Mengs shared Winckelmann’s enthusiasm for classical antiquity; he became the primary channel through which Winckelman’s ideas on Neoclassicism were spread to artists like Jacques-Louis David, Robert Adam and Josiah Wedgwood. Winckelmann, by 1758 the Controller of Antiquities at the Vatican, must have arranged the introduction to Clement. One wonders whether Mengs, as a man of the Enlightenment, paused over the proposition of painting his intellectual nemesis.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann
after 1755,
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Mengs’ portrait commemorates Clement’s election as Pope; it is one of at least three versions. In comparison to other portraits of Clement , the exceptional quality of Mengs’ representation is clear. Clement was 65 at the time, plagued by physical illness and pain. Mengs has captured for posterity the emotional weariness that must have been Clement’s constant companion in these years; his expression seems to anticipate the magnitude of the struggle ahead. In this achievement Mengs, the enlightened man, may have received his satisfaction. (Clement endured for 10 more years; mercifully, on the eve of an important summit on the Bourbon problem in 1769, he suffered a stroke and died.)

after Domenico Zapieri, Portrait of Clement XIII, 1762
engraving, from Picturae Dominici Zampierii, (New York Public Library)

Clement’s demeanor may detract from the potency of the portrait, but Mengs restores authority through the extraordinary rendering of the pope’s rich vestments. Sheathed in a traditional costume of royal carmine chasuble and white alb, Clement assumes the commanding presence befitting a pope, who at the time was invested with both spiritual and secular power. Mengs undoubtedly did not have a choice in the color iconography; still, it’s a masterful use of the available color palette. (Note how the red garments echo the cross shape.) Each of the many textiles in the painting displays its own luxury—the velvet glows, the silk shines.Not surprisely, Mengs was reputed to have a taste for expensive clothes.

Further, at the edges of the alb Mengs has masterfully captured in detail some of the most beautiful punto di Burano lace of the 18th century.

The Punto

By 1758 the traditions of ecclesiastical lace had been well-established. The Catholic Church was the first patron of lace-making—the skill was taught in its convents, while coveted lace pattern books were kept in monasteries. (Not until the 16th century did lace-making became a lay industry.)

Alb of Venetian Rose-Point Lace 17th c.Alb of Venetian Rose-Point Lace, 17th century

All high ecclesiastical dignitaries were expected to (and still are) possess complete sets of lace garments.  Not only the costume of the clergy—predominantly the dalmatic, surplice and alb—but also sacred items, such as altar fronts, were adorned with lace. The congregation eventually followed suit, dressing in lace for the milestone celebrations in life—christening, death, and later marriage.

Mengs—clement detailAnton Rafael Mengs, Pope Clement XIII (detail showing Punto di Burano cuff)
1759, oil on canvas, 54 3/16 x 38 11/16″
(Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

Along with Flanders, Italy was the birthplace of true lace making. Strictly speaking, most Venetian laces are some variety of the punto in aria (literally “stitch in air”), or needlework (as opposed to bobbin) lace made without any netting foundation. Punto di Burano was made for two centuries on the small island in the Venetian lagoon. By the sixteenth century, the lace was renowned across Europe for rivaling the quality of Flemish lace. By the end of the eighteenth century, Burano lace came perilously close to extinction. (The tradition was revived in the 20th century.)  In particular, it is distinguished by robust floral ornamentation, as opposed to the geometric designs of its more famous cousin, reticella.

Queen Elena of Italy's lace wedding veil, punto di Burano, 1896Marriage Veil (detail) of Queen Elena, 1896, Punto di Burano lace.

Lace makersVenetian Lace Makers, mid-20th century.

Wider Connections

Doris Campbell Preston—Needle-Made Laces and Net Embroideries: Reticella Work, Carrickmacross Lace, Princess Lace and Other Traditional Techniques
Suppression of the Jesuits
Mengs—Reflections on Beauty and Taste in Painting (1762)
Antonio Canova’s Monument to Clement, St. Peter’s
Museo del Merletto, Burano, Venice
Burano lacemakers at work
Mengs in museums

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Printmaking, Words & Symbols with tags , , , , , , on August 3, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. Every Monday we highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a jump on planning a week filled with art.

©Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

New York Times—Michael Kimmelman: At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus. Which of us isn’t guilty of this behavior on some level?

Caldwell/Snyder, 341 Sutter Street, SF—Guillermo Pacheco, Alejandro Santiago, Jose Villalobos. Three contemporary painters from Oaxaca inspired by the unique colors and traditions of this Mexican state. August 6-31

Andrea Schwartz Gallery, 525 2nd Street—WORD Cara Barer, Patrick Dintino, Mitch Jones, Sofia Harrison, Wendy Robushi, Samuel Messer, and others. Text and images, curated by Danielle Steel. August 5-29

Crown Point Press, 24 Hawthorne Lane, SF—Group Show (including Shoichi Ida, left) and Chris Ofili. Both until August 29.

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