Archive for December, 2009

Venetian Red Salutes the Decade

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contemporary Art, Drawing, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Public Art, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2009 by Liz Hager

We thought a Venetian Red salute to a decade of art would be a fitting subject for a final post in 2009.  Admittedly, we weren’t interested in throwing up an amalgamation of critically-lauded highlights of the decade. Rather, we wanted to share with you our own very personal short list—a selection of artists, whose work when we were able to see it during the past decade inspired us emotionally and artistically. We hope that our list will motivate you to collect and share your own list of “art in the aughts.”

William de Morgan, Vase, 1888-98,
earthenware painted with luster glaze. (V&A Museum.)

2000
This little vase opened up two big worlds to me—William Morris and the Ottoman Empire.  In the winter of the Millennium, I didn’t know much about Morris, his workshops, or devotees. My education began unexpectedly on a visit to the V&A one morning. As the textile galleries were closed, I ambled through the V&A’s cavernous rooms, eventually ending up in the ceramics galleries. After hurrying by the cases filled with fussy 18th-century pieces, I came to this gem, a small vase by William de Morgan. Such a gorgeous design and luxurious glow! I later learned a great deal about de Morgan, including his passion for things Middle and Far Eastern. Lusterware was one of his  enduring interests.

As the Ottomans before him, De Morgan made luster glazes by mixing metallic oxides with white clay and gum arabic. He would have packed the painted pieces closely in a kiln and fired at a low heat. At the critical moment, he would have added dry material, such as sawdust, and after a brief, but intense firing period, the kiln would have been shut down, closing off the source of oxygen. The resulting smoke-filled environment produced the irresistible iridescence. —Liz Hager

Henri Michaud, Untitled, 1968.
Collection of Catherine Putman, Paris.

2000
My pick for 2000 is Untitled Passages, a show of work on paper by Henri Michaud at the Drawing Center in New York. Henri Michaud (1899-1984) was born in Belgium and was mostly known as a poet. In his youth he was attracted to the Surrealists, and he admired the work of Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico—but his independent nature kept him apart from all movements and isms.  Michaud felt there were things beyond words that he could not capture in his poetry, and his drawings were experiments with creating work that hovered between writing and drawing.  He drew, scratched and threw ink on to paper to make illegible marks, letters that were part of no alphabet, simple calligraphic marks that had no conscious meaning—Michaud was drawing from l’espace du dedans (the space within). In the 50s and 60s, Michaud also experimented with the drug mescaline and his “mescaline drawings,” done under its influence, using ink, acrylic, watercolor and gouache and collage, represented this state of intense, heightened awareness, the fluidity of time and space, the bridge between control and abandon. Michaud’s drawings and paintings are about the journey, the passage of time and life. From his unconscious, under the influence of drugs or not, his work  reveals itself as part lexicon, part landscape, with evocations of cellular structures, maps, water, membranes, clouds, planets, beasts and insects—a hidden, interior universe made visible. —Christine Cariati

Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500,
oil on limewood, 26.38 x 19.25 in.
(Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Seated Woman, 1907
oil on canvas.
(Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich)

2001
The two paintings above hang in buildings across a plaza from one another in Munich. Although it didn’t strike me at the time, juxtaposing them in this setting amply demonstrates the evolutionary paths that painting traveled during the four centuries that separate the two portraits.

When I was learning to paint as a teenager, the Dürer self-portrait was one of my favorites. That gaze casts a powerful spell. The incredible precision with which Dürer elaborates every strand of fur, every lock of hair, garnered my respect (still does). When I was finally able to see the portrait in the flesh, although I hadn’t thought about it for years, it still packed a mighty punch.  And yet, for all the pyrotechnics of the Dürer, my older self favors the Kirchner for its electrifying color palette. —Liz Hager

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Pauline Astor, 1898/9
oil on canvas, 96 x 50 in.
( The Huntington Library.)

2002
Sargent has always been one of my favorite painters for the sheer virtuosity with which he applies paint, particularly in the depiction of fabrics. The strong connections between Gainsborough and Sargent had somehow eluded me until a 2002 trip to the Huntington.  Gainsborough’s Blue Boy also hangs there and the luxury of viewing the two in such proximity demonstrated how much Sargent ‘s portrait owes in form and style to Gainsborough’s. And how much they both owe stylistically to Van Dyck.

The connections among the three are freaky. To wit: Pauline Astor was 18 years of age, the same age as Jonathan Buttall when Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy. Sargent was 43 years old at the time he painted Pauline, the same age as Gainsborough when he painted The Blue Boy. It was 129 years after the death of Van Dyck that Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy; and it was 129 years after the creation of The Blue Boy that Sargent began painting Pauline.  —Liz Hager


Mark Lombardi, World Finance Corporation and Associates, 7th version,
1999, 69 x 84 in.

2003
An exhibition of Mark Lombardi’s drawings, Global Networks, was at The Drawing Center in New York in late 2003. In his drawings, Lombardi kept track of political and financial misdeeds on a global scale, linking people and events related to various scandals from the 1960s-1990s. Politics aside, Lombardi’s drawings are things of beauty in themselves. His work was art, not political reporting. Lombardi’s drawings, often very large and delicately drawn in pencil, call to mind the charts of the ancients that delineated arcane knowledge. These works portray webs, networks, labyrinths. The lines arc and loop and intersect, creating order out of chaos. His work seems to be about elusive connections, the flattening of time and space and the fleeting nature of truth. Lombardi’s reputation as an important artist was beginning to take hold when he committed suicide in 2000, at the age of forty-eight. —Christine Cariati

Diane Arbus, Boy with a Toy Hand Grenade, 1962.

2004
Because it included all her published works, many photographs never before exhibited, diaries and other paraphernalia, SF MoMA’s 2004 show “Diane Arbus” was the most complete survey of her work—no, her life—ever assembled. Arbus’ work kindled my early photographic fires; in fact, she was the first artist to inhabit my consciousness. (A copy of the catalog of her small posthumous 1970 show at MoMA is still a prized possession.) The SF MoMA did not disappoint. Arbus’ iconic pictures looked every bit as unconventional as they did in the 1960s. But the truly exciting elements for me in this show were her diaries and the pictures of her studio; they added a dimension of insight I couldn’t have possessed earlier.

Larry Sultan, Boxer Dogs Mission Hills, from the “Valley” series, 1998-2002.

Additionally that year, MoMA mounted an exhibit of Larry Sultan’s Valley series—shots taken inside SoCal tract-homes turned pornographic studios. Though Sultan sought a different message through his work, these photos of a hidden world owe a lot to the territory uncovered by Arbus.  Sultan died earlier this month. He was only 63. —Liz Hager

Maggie Orth, Leaping Lines, 2005
woven circuitry in Jacquard weave, 16 x 72 in.

2005
As a design museum there is none better than the Cooper Hewitt. The “Extreme Textiles” exhibit in 2005 presented a large and fascinating array of cutting-edge textiles. Loosely grouped into categories—stronger, faster, lighter, smarter and safer—the exhibit demonstrated resolutely that fabric isn’t just for making clothing. Maggie Orth’s electronic fabric, designed with an ever-changing surface pattern controlled by software, struck me as one of the most interesting combinations of art and technology I’d ever seen.—Liz Hager


Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Woman (‘Sibyl’), 1480
Panel, 46.5 x 35.2 cm.
(Stedelijke Musea, Memlingmuseum – Sint Janhospitaal, Bruges.)

2005
Memling’s Portraits, an exhibition of 20 of the 30 existing portraits by Netherlandish painter Hans Memling (c.1435-1494), was at The Frick Collection in the late fall of 2005. Memling was an apprentice to Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, where he learned the still-new technique of oil painting from van der Weyden, the first Netherlandish painter to master the medium. Memling is more famous for his religious paintings than his secular work—his superb Nativity and Virgin and Child paintings are masterpieces of tenderness and true religious feeling. In 1465 Memling moved to Brussels, where he did very well painting portraits of wealthy Flemish and Italian emigré families. As in all his work, the exquisite detail and use of glazing showcase Memling’s mastery of technique. In the middle ages, when life was fleeting, and death often came early, portraiture was a means of providing a record, proof of existence. By the 15th century things had changed a bit and portraiture also became a way of  documenting one’s wealth and status. Memling’s portraits are criticized for being cool, because the subjects rarely look at the viewer, and are lost in introspection. While it is true that the portraits are not easy-to-read psychological studies, I felt strongly that Memling’s attention to detail, his faithful recording of what he saw in these faces, made them quite revealing. The subjects are undeniably serene and enigmatic, but I felt that I came to know something very significant about these people. In many of the portraits, Memling placed his sitters by a window, through which we see landscapes and glimpses of buildings and activity that add another very interesting dimension to his work, an innovative device that later Italian painters admired and emulated. —Christine Cariati

Loretta Pettway, Quilt, ca. 1960,
corduroy tied with yarn, 84 x 84 in.

2006
I can vividly recall the moment when I turned the corner into the first exhibit room at the de Young’s exhibit of “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. A group of stunningly-bold pieces nearly took my breath away.  I was dumbstruck: how could so traditional a folk form created by a group so isolated from the modern world appear so strikingly modern? In their abstracted and geometric patterns, the quilts displayed an uncanny kinship to the paintings of Frank Stella or maybe even Barnett Newman from the 60s and 70s.

I felt deep emotion basted into the panels of these quilts. As I moved through the exhibition, the pieces offered me something the work of the Minimalists never has—quiet but intense joy. The reverence and love was palpable. They emanated a kind of spirituality. —Liz Hager

Fra Angelico, The Coronation of the Virgin,
tempera on panel, 10 5/8 x 14 5/8 in.
(Cleveland Museum of Art.)

2006
The work of the Italian Renaissance master, Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455) was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 2005 through January 2006. This exhibition of 75 paintings, drawings and illuminated manuscripts was the first comprehensive show of Fra Angelico’s work since 1955.  Much of his later work, the altarpieces and frescoes, are not movable, so the work in this show was on a small scale—such as portraits of the Virgin and Child and intimate narrative scenes. Many of these were fragments from larger works, which gave the viewer an opportunity to study them closely which would not have been possible in their original locations. Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar, was long mythologized, by Vasari and others, as merely saintly, humble and devout. Recent scholarship gives us a fuller picture of the man, and what is now known about this tremendously intelligent painter—who learned much from Masaccio’s masterpiece, the Brancacci Chapel frescoes—only enhances our appreciation of these luminous, color-saturated, intensely gilded, works of art. Fra Angelico is often considered a transitional painter, but he is more than that—his work anticipates the late Renaissance while in a sense perfecting the Gothic. He continues to use the sumptuous pinks, blues and reds of the earlier period, and perfected the Gothic love of gold leaf—using it masterfully not just for halos, but stamped and engraved as draperies and clothing. It was a transporting show, Fra Angelico’s masterful technique enhances the deeply felt spiritual quality of his work. —Christine Cariati

Francis Bacon’s studio.

2007
While in Dublin in 2007 I did make a pilgrimage to see the famous “lost” Caravaggio (spurred on by a reading of the The Lost Painting
which is a most readable book about a work of art). In the process, I stumbled upon an exquisite Vermeer.

But it was at the Hugh Lane Gallery where the faithful and permanent re-creation of Francis Bacon’s studio (i.e. 7 Reece Mews in London)  cast its indelible spell on me.

What a mess! At first scan, I was tempted to conclude that Bacon was a deeply-troubled hoarder. How in the world could he have painted here? And there, amidst the horrifically gargantuan piles of debris—newspapers, photographs, magazines, paint cans, rags, old socks, trousers, a shirt or two—I saw an answer. A carefully-cleared path makes its way through the piles from the door to his easel. It seems as if Bacon knew after all exactly what was most important. . . focus. —Liz Hager

Mauerweg ©2008 Liz Hager

2008
Berlin is a city chock full of museums and galleries, so there was a lot of art to see there in the Fall of 2008.  Curiously, however, it was the Berlin Wall that made the deepest impression on me.

Even in its remnant state, the Wall inspires awe, not just for the wealth of its symbolic meaning, but for the sheer enormity of its once considerable physical presence. Since the Wall came down in 1989, points along its former path are marked by ceremonious memorials—public facilitators of a collective remembrance.

Other segments, however, have been marked by an unobtrusive path—two parallel lines of cobblestones—embedded by turns in asphalt or earth. It struck me that the path was a powerful work of art, although it wasn’t billed overtly as such. Though physically subtle, the message it conveyed was in some ways more compelling than the public memorials. The path too reminds us of the demarcation of a country and the collective pain of a people separated from itself. Given its horizontal nature, however, the path invites one on a personal journey.  I walked the line, traced the past, and in doing so, I couldn’t help but meditate on what that past meant to me.

Finally, like all great works of art, the path embodies a potent axiom of the cosmos.  These cobblestones, already wearing a mantle of moss, gently reminded me that all things irrevocably return to dust. —Liz Hager

Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta (Still Life), 1954,
oil on canvas, 40 x 46 cm.
(Private collection.)

2008
My top pick for 2008 was Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964, a retrospective of his work  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 2008. I went back to see this show over and over. These small paintings, so similar in subject matter and painted in an extremely limited palette, open up as you look at them—the seemingly simple color scheme expands and deepens, and they become monumental in scale. They are very personal paintings, full of mystery—meditations on loneliness, stillness, perseverance. The cumulative effect of seeing so many paintings of Morandi’s at once was astounding. I started to see them as sections of one continuous painting and I’d find myself watching the progress of certain favorite vessels as they changed bearing and grew in presence, dignity and meaning from painting to painting. In fact, for days afterward, every time I looked from my window out at the New York skyline, the rooftops and water towers, in the winter light with a dusting of snow, took on a Morandi-like existence. The quiet, the self-sufficiency, the balance, the stillness of these works put me in a meditative state that lasted for days. —Christine Cariati

2009
William Kentridge is quite possibly the most gifted artist and original thinker working today. From the mail we received in response to our Kentridge post this spring, it’s safe to say that we were not alone in being blown away by the “Five Themes” exhibit at SF MoMA.  In a way, this exhibit does define the decade, for much of the artist’s prodigious output on view was completed in this decade.

A magnificent draftsman, Kentridge might have been content with just producing his drawings. But thankfully, theater is in his DNA, and his drawings are but vehicles for his inventive and intriguing animated films—What Will Come, Artist in the Studio—as well as his tour-de-force staged pieces—The Magic Flute, The Black Box, and the upcoming Shostakovich opera of Gogol’s The Nose.Liz Hager

William Kentridge in his studio

2009
I have to second Liz’s appreciation of William Kentridge. From the first time I saw his work a decade ago, I have wanted to see more, and Five Themes provided that opportunity. In fact, I’d put Five Themes on my best of 2009 list five times, one for each time I went to see it. The work is so rich and deep, every time you view it, it gets more interesting. Kentridge’s work is inspiring and completely original—thoughtful, personal, political, humorous, satiric and filled with meaning—and with an almost unimaginable level of skill. His sense of stagecraft and the integration of music into his work is masterful. I love the way he crafts his animated pieces, fearless about erasing one image as it morphs in to the next—he’s not worried about holding on to anything, there is always more in the well. I also love the way he involves you in his process, you see and feel his creative process unfolding, literally in the case of Artist in the Studio. I can’t wait to see Five Themes again at MoMA this spring in New York—I am sure the work will reveal itself in new ways in a different location and installation. — Christine Cariati

Wider Connections
Francis Bacon’s Studio
Narrative & Ontology—More on The Boy with Toy Hand Grenade
Inner Sympathy of Meaning—The Quilts of Gee’s Bend
William Kentridge—William Kentridge: Five Themes (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) catalog
Antony Beever—The Fall of Berlin 1945

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Buddha & the Heiress: The Doris Duke Collection of SE Asian Art

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on December 26, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Note: The “Emerald Cities” exhibit at The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco runs through January 10, 2010.  These are the last weeks to view this large collection of Thai and Burmese art all together for an unspecified length of time.  Afterward, for conservation reasons, most of the articles in this exhibit will go back into storage.

Head of a Buddha image, Thailand,ca. 1800,
stucco, 46.4 x 40.6 cm.
(The Avery Brundage Collection, ©Asian Art Museum.)

In 2002, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum became one of only two U.S. institutions to receive a substantial donation of Southeast Asian art and antiques from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. (The other was Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum.) The bequest became the cornerstone of the Asian’s now preeminent collection of 18th- and 19th century Thai, and, to a lesser degree, Burmese art.

Doris Duke, circa 1939.

Doris Duke was a most reluctant celebrity. Born in 1912, she was the only child of James Duke, North Carolina tobacco and power magnate. When he died prematurely in 1925, the 12 year old became the sole beneficiary of his considerable fortune, between $30 to $100 million depending on the source.

Intensely private, Duke spent most of  her life trying to avoid the glare of publicity, hiding from cameras and refusing interviews. Though twice married and often romantically linked, Doris Duke died alone in 1993 at her Beverly Hills mansion. She left the bulk of her $1.3 billion estate to two foundations that bear her name.

Interior of the larger of two rooms in the Coach Barn,
Duke Farms, New Jersey (2002).

On an around-the-world honeymoon in 1935 with her first husband, Duke began a lifelong fascination with other cultures. She was a diligent and thorough student, and over the years, she developed a keen eye for art. Though a shy person, Duke was a bold collector. Over her lifetime, she amassed a large and well-known collection of Islamic art, which is housed at her Shangri La estate in Honolulu.

Miniature temple, Northern Thailand, 1850-1900,
lacquer, pigmented natural resin, paint and gilding on wood.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©Asian Art Museum.)

During the 1950s and 60s, Duke also assembled a lesser-known (though no less extensive) Southeast Asian art collection, an eclectic array of high caliber objects, which she planned to house in a “Thai village” on one of her many properties.  Although her dream of a village was never realized, her zeal for the project propelled her to amass more than 2,000 religious and secular works. Because she was the only Westerner at the time buying works of such stature, Duke’s collection has turned out to be the most important of its kind outside Asia.

Illustrated manuscript of excerpts from Buddhist texts, 1857,
paint, gold, lacquer, and ink on paper.
(Gift of Katherine Ball,  ©Asian Art Museum.)

Nearly 200 pieces from the Duke collection, as well as gifts from other collectors, are on display in the comprehensive “Emerald Cities” exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Some of the pieces have been exquisitely preserved, while others have succumbed to lamentable states of deterioration. (The Asian’s conservation staff labored painstakingly for thousands of hours to bring a great number of these back from the brink.)

Seated crowned and bejeweled Buddha, Thailand, 1825-1900,
paint, gold, and lacquer on wood.
(Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. © Asian Art Museum.)

Despite the individual disappointments, in aggregate the exhibit is a success. First, it is a rare opportunity to view superior artworks from the lesser-studied Asian countries, whose cultures are often overshadowed in the Western world by China and Japan.  Additionally, through the inclusion of scores of 19th-century artifacts, the show illustrates the huge transformation in Thai and Burmese societies during that time through the influx of huge numbers of Chinese and Europeans. But most importantly, “Emerald Cities” brightly illuminates the multiplicity of artistic expression associated with Theravada Buddhism, still the key cultural glue of SE Asia.

Seated crowned and bejeweled Buddha, Burma, 1895,
gilded dry lacquer with mirrored glass, 180.8 x 99.2 cm
(Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. ©The Asian Art Museum.)

The practice of Theravada Buddism centers on devotion to the three “gems”—the Buddha, the dharma (an understanding of his teachings) and the sangha (monastic orders). All the religious works in the show relate to these three elements.

Like Byzantine icons, images of the Buddha were not considered art objects to be displayed for their beauty, but were regarded as the Buddha himself. The meaning of this seated bejeweled Buddha above would have been interpreted differently by devotees of different backgrounds and status. But the fact that he is robed in royal attire suggests that he is a “Jambupati” Buddha, referring to Buddha’s conversion of vain King Jambupati.  Additionally Buddha’s hands assume the Bhumisparsa Mudra gesture, which would signal enlightenment to devotees.

Vessantara and his wife see
the approach of Vessantara’s father’s retinue,

Chapter 12 of the Story of Prince Vessantara, Central Thailand,
ca. 1850-1900,
paint and gold on cloth, approximate 57 x 46 cm.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©The Asian Art Museum.)

Other than Buddha himself, the most popular subject in Theravada art is the depiction of scenes from the Buddha’s life.  Of particular note for its rarity is a stunning assemble of 13 paintings depicting the life of Prince Vessantara (one of the Buddha’s former selves) . Generally, visual elements were used in conjunction with oral recitations; as such, they were conceived to be used in one temple for a single celebration. Thus, complete sets of this cycle do not generally survive. This set is additionally noteworthy for the many elements of Western art, such as perspective,  that were incorporated into the compositions.

As the dharma spread across India in the decades after the Buddha’s death (given as 483 BCE), differing interpretations of the original teachings led to schisms within the sangha and the emergence of as many as 18 distinct sects of Buddhism. Today, sects fall into two general branches—”southern,” including Theravada, and “Northern” (i.e. sects in China, Tibet, India, Japan, Korea.)

Burmese manuscript of excerpts from Buddhist texts, ca. 1850-1900,
lacquer and gilding on stiffened cloth or paper with wooden covers.
(Gift of Katherine Ball, ©Asian Art Museum.)

Theravada draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. The Pali canon is extensive—the English translation, for example,  fills over 12,000 pages in approximately fifty hardbound volumes, taking up about five linear feet of shelf space! The elaborate manuscript above—an from the Buddhist texts regarding the conduct of monks—follows the tradition form, that is, six lines of text richly adorned with scenes of the Buddha’s life or, in this case, birds and celestial beings.

The holy monk Phra Malai visiting hell, Central Thailand, ca.1850-1900,
gilded bronze with mirrored glass inlay and pigment, 49.5 x 14 cm.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©The Asian Art Museum.)

And finally among the most delicious pieces in the “Emerald Cities” exhibit is the sculptural Phra Malai Visiting Hell. The four figures  emerging from the underworld at the monk’s feet, beseeching him with prayer, are a reminder that Hell is a nasty place, even in the benevolent practice of Buddhism.

Wider Connections

Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma 1775-1950—exhibition catalog
Thai History
Thai Buddhism
Buddha Images—a comprehensive look at the representation of the Buddha in Thai art.
Burmese Art
Backpacking Burma

Venetian Red Notebook: The Virgin of the Andes

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , on December 23, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Virgin of the Assumption, attributed to the Callao school, c. 1750
Oil and gilding on canvas
Collection of Elizabeth K. Fonseca

In 18th-century viceregal Bolivia and Peru there was a melding of cultures that produced many beautiful paintings, textiles and decorative objects. After the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in 1532, the indigenous people were forced to recognize the King of Spain as their ruler and to accept the teachings of Christianity. The Spanish attempted to root out and destroy the Pre-Columbian gods and idols of the indigenous people of the region, but the artists of Cuzco created a new and powerful synthesis of pre-Hispanic and Christian iconography. The art of the Colonial Andes, rooted in brutal conquest and the product of the convergence of two distinct cultures, nevertheless produced a treasure of vital, energetic and beautiful paintings that possess a deep visual and spiritual resonance.

Altar frontal, detail, Chapel of the Holy Family, Cathedral of Cuzco, c. 1745

Original Sin, tapestry, 17th century
Private collection

Pre-Columbian craftsmen, using innovative and masterful techniques, had produced a wealth of beautiful objects forged from precious metals and they also made intricate woven textiles. Both of these artistic traditions flourished in new and diverse forms in the colonial era.

The Virgin of the Mountain, Bolivia, 18th century
Oil on canvas

The Virgin of the Mountain, above, is an interesting example of the merging of Pre-Columbian and Christian iconography. During this period, the Virgin Mary was often represented as the Pachamama, or Earth Mother. Here she is portrayed as part of the Cerro de Potosi, also known as the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) because it is the richest source of silver in the Western Hemisphere. The Augustinian friar Alonso Ramos Gavilán, in one of his theological meditations, wrote that Christ “is a rock without feet, taken from the divine mountain that is Mary.” It is fitting that the Virgin is painted as this mountain, since the indigenous people worshipped the Cerro de Potosi as a queen. In the painting, historical figures intermingle with Christian iconography and pre-Hispanic gods.

Virgin of the Rosary of Guápulo, Cuzco, c.1680
Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another pyramid shaped Madonna, linking the Pachamama with the Virgin Mary. This genre of painting were portraits of the carved, three-dimensional poly-chromed wood statues that were in every church. These statues were revered, bedecked with jewels and intricate garments and believed to have miraculous powers which were transferred to the painted images.

Painting of a Statue of the Virgin of Candlemas
Cuzco school, early to mid-18th century
Oil on canvas, Private collection

The Virgin of Candlemas is celebrated on the feasts of Christ’s Presentation in the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin. A blessing is offered for the candles that represent Christ as a “light for revelation to the Gentiles.” The donors depicted at the bottom sides of the painting are dressed in a combination of indigenous and Spanish clothing and the Inca crown, the mascaypacha, is laid at the feet of the Virgin Mary on a silver plate.

The Virgin of the Rosary of Pomata, Cuzco c. 1700-30
Oil on canvas, Museo Pedro de Osma, Lima, Peru

The Virgin of the Rosary of Pomata was one of the most popular of the Andean Madonnas and many copies of the original painting were commissioned. This painting, likely from the Cuzco school, is beautifully painted with stunning detail. The feathers and plumes on the Virgin’s crown and on the helmets of the angels are an example of how the symbolic use of feathers, a common element in the Christian art of the Baroque and the indigenous art of Cuzco, were synthesized in paintings of that era.

Niño Jesús de Huanca, 18th century
Oil on canvas, present location unknown

Wider Connections:
The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830
The Virgin of the Andes: Art and Ritual in Colonial Cuzco
Art of Colonial Latin America

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Ceramics, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography with tags , , , , , , on December 21, 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, and art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Cantor Arts Center (Stanford University)—From Their Studios. This exhibition highlights the work of 13 professors, including Enrique Chagoya, Robert Dawson, and Jan Krawitz. Through January 10, 2010.

SFO Airport, International Terminal (North 20 Cases)— Scenes from Myths and Daily Life: Ancient Mediterranean Pottery (from the collection of Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology). If you must be at SFO Airport during the holiday madness, a visit to this fine selection of always-exquisite black-figure vases from BCE Greece and her colonies might calm your nerves.

SF MOMA, Caffe Museo—Andrea Voinot. Voinot works productively in the swath between representation and abstraction. Through January 19, 2010.


Artists on Making Art: Bourgeois, Freud, Arbus

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , on December 18, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Louise Bourgeois, Seven in Bed (detail), 2001
Fabric, stainless steel, glass and wood.
Courtesy Cheim and Read, Galerie Karsten Greve and Galerie Hauser & Wirth, © Copyright Louise Bourgeois.

Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois (born 1911) studied art at various schools in Paris (where she was born and grew up), including the École du Louvre, Académie des Beaux-Arts, Académie Julian, and Atelier Fernand Léger. In 1938, she emigrated to the United States and continued her studies at the Art Students League in New York. By the 1940s she had turned her attention almost exclusively to sculptural work. Greatly influenced by the influx of European Surrealist artists, who had immigrated to the United States after World War II, Bourgeois’s early sculpture was composed of groupings of abstract shapes, often carved from wood. By the 1960s she began to execute larger pieces in rubber, bronze, and stone, and later fabric. Bourgeoise draws extensively from her childhood for inspiration. Deeply symbolic, her work uses her relationship with her parents and the role sexuality played in her early family life as a vocabulary in which to understand and remake that history.

I have never mentioned the word dream in discussing my art, while they (the Surrealists) talked about the dream all the time. I don’t dream. You might say I work under a spell, I truly value the spell. I have the privilege of being able to enter the spell, to enter this very arid land where you are likely to find your birthright. To express yourself if your birthright…

Art comes from life. Art comes from the problem you have in seducing birds, men, snakes—anything you want.

What modern art means is that you have to keep finding new ways to express yourself, to express the problems, that there are no settled ways, no fixed approach. This is a painful situation, and modern art is about this painful situation of having no absolutely definite way of expressing yourself. This is why modern art will continue, because the condition remains; it is the modern human condition. . .

All art comes from terrific failures and terrific needs that we have. It is about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognized, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognizing oneself, which is why it will always be modern.

—From an interview with Donald Kuspit (1988), excerpted from Bourgeois.

Lucian Freud, Two Men, 1987/88
Oil on canvas, approximately 48 x 36″.

Lucian Freud
Born in Berlin in 1922 (the grandson of Sigmund Freud), Lucian Freud is indisputably one of Britain’s most powerful figurative painters. Portraits and nudes are his forte, and his subjects are more often than not observed in arresting close-up. His early work was so meticulously painted, that Freud was often labeled as a “realist” or “superrealistic.” However the intensity and subjectivity of his work has sets him apart from the comparatively emotionless British figurative art of the post WWII era.

The painter makes real to others his innermost feelings about all that he cares for. A secret becomes known to everyone who views the picture through the intensity with which it is felt. The painter must give a completely free rein to any feelings or sensations he may have and reject nothing to which he is naturally drawn. It is just this self-indulgence which acts for him as the discipline through which he discards what is inessential to him and so crystallises his tastes. A painter’s tastes must grow out of what so obsesses him in life that he never has to ask himself what is suitable for him to do in art. . .

. . . People are driven towards making works of art, not by familiarity with the process by this is done, but by a necessity to communicate their feelings about the object of their choice with such intensity that these feelings become infectious. . .

—excerpted from Lucien Freud, “Some Thoughts on Painting,” Encounter III, no. 1 (July 1954).

Diane Arbus, Triplets, black & white photograph, 1963.

Diane Arbus
Best known for her pictures of dwarves, transvestites, nudists and circus performers, Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was one of the most influential American photographers of the 1960s. She was a pioneer, photographing those things that the public of that era would not otherwise have seen.  Though the settings appear casual, there was nothing improvisational about Arbus’ shots. She spent great amounts of time getting to know her subjects before photographing them, and they often collaborated in the picture-making process.

The younger sister of Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov, Arbus and her husband Allan started out as fashion photographers. In 1959, however, under the tutelage of Lisette Model, Arbus began to pursue her own work. Arbus loved photography for the miracles she felt it performed by accident.

Invention is mostly this kind of subtle, inevitable thing. People get closer to the beauty of their invention. They get narrower and more particular in it. Invention has a lot to do with a certain kind of light some people have and with the print quality and the choice of subject. It’s a million choices you make. It’s luck in a sense, or even ill luck. You can’t avoid it. It’s what’s left when you take everything else away. I think the most beautiful inventions are the ones you don’t think of. . .

. . . There used to be this moment of panic which I still can get where I’d look in the ground glass and it would look all ugly to me and I wouldn’t know what was wrong. Sometimes it’s like looking in a kaleidoscope. You shake it around and it just on’t shake out right. I used to think if I could jumble it up, it would go away. But short of that, since I couldn’t do that, I’d just back up or start to talk, or, I don’t know, go someplace else. But I don’t think that’s the sort of thing you can calculate on because there’s always this mysterious thing in the process.

—excerpted from Diane Arbus, catalog for Museum of Modern Art exhibition, 1972.

Winifred Gill and the Omega Workshops

Posted in Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Embroidery, Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Furniture, Rugs, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Winifred Gill, Sketch of dancers, 1916
Pencil, ink and watercolor on paper
The Bodleian Library, Oxford

Winifred Gill (1891-1981) was one of the unsung heroines of the Omega Workshops. The task of  creating patterns or translating existing designs to be used on textiles, furniture and home furnishings fell largely to the women of the Omega Workshops—Gill, Jesse Etchells and Nina Hamnett among others. Artist Vanessa Bell also helped to produce some of the embroidery and other needlework, but because she was also one of the directors, not as much of the handwork fell to her.

Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops, c.1913

Duncan Grant, design for embroidered firescreen, c.1912
Embroidered by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Collection of Bryan Ferry

It is largely through Gill’s letters and taped recordings from the 1960s, that we know as much as we do about the day-to-day activities at the Omega—their production methods, anecdotes about specific projects and the personalities of the participants. (Gill’s archive was donated in 2009 to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, by her niece, Dr. Margaret Bennett.) Winifred Gill not only had artistic talent, she was intelligent and energetic, with a practical side that enabled her to also manage the business and handle sales.

The Omega Workshops Showroom, 1913

The Omega Workshops, started in 1913 by Roger Fry, was a modernist incarnation of the earlier Arts & Crafts movement that was the legacy of William Morris. Fry was an art critic and painter who wanted to move the British public past the traditions of Edwardian design. He embraced the contemporary European modernist movements—Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and the Futurists—while also cultivating a bit of a Japanese aesthetic, especially through the use of painted screens. The Omega Workshops’ expressive, colorful, bold and abstract designs were the forerunners of the British artist/designer movement that followed mid-century. In 1925, Paul Nash wrote:

The modern movement in textile design began with the establishment of the Omega Workshops.

Paul Nash, Cherry Orchard, 1930
Block-printed silk crêpe-de-chine, Cresta Silks Ltd.

Roger Fry had some experience in interior design prior to founding the Omega Workshops. Among other things, he had built and furnished his home at Durbins, painted a mural at his mother’s home in Cheyne Walk, and decorated the home of his friend, Hubert Crackenthorpe. His co-directors, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were also very actively engaged in the decorative arts, both for themselves and friends, including their home at Charleston.

Photograph of the drawing room at Charleston in the 1930s

Duncan Grant, Interior with the Artist’s Daughter, c. 1935-36
Oil on canvas
Collection of Dick Chapman and Ben Duncan

Fry chose to open the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square, London—then rather a shabby neighborhood—in a regular house, rather than a shop, in order to better integrate the work within a domestic setting. When the workshop ended in 1919, Fry wrote:

I have lost $2000 and five years of gratuitous hand work: I cannot waste more on a country that regards the attempt to create as a kind of Bolshevism.

Over the years, in addition to Fry, Bell and Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Paul Nash, Frederick Etchells and others contributed to the designs. Their clients included George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, E.M. Forster and Gertrude Stein—as well as Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell and others of the Bloomsbury set. Winifred Gill indicates in her letters that there was a lot of collaboration—Grant, Bell and others contributed designs which were stored away and later reworked into patterns for specific products by Gill, Hamnett and many of the other unheralded young women who did so much of the work.

Nina Hamnett and Winifred Gill in Omega fabrics
from The Illustrated London Herald, 1915
The British Library

Roger Fry, Portrait of Nina Hamnett, c. 1917
Oil on canvas
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London

Roger Fry, Winifred Gill by the Pool at Durbins, 1912
Private Collection

Part of Fry’s motivation in establishing the workshop was to find a way for young artists to make a living. At the time, Fry was accused of choosing the name Omega because the current usage of the word was “the last word,” meaning that he thought the workshop’s products were the last word in decorative art. But Winifred Gill wrote that Fry chose it because:

He was looking for something, some trademark, that had a name of its own that everybody knew. I think it was very effective because everyone could say Omega and remember it.

Omega also had a ready-made, recognizable symbol, Ω, and all the work of the Omega, produced anonymously, was marked with the Greek letter (and occasionally incorporated into designs.)

Roger Fry, Design for Cadena rug, 1914

Young artists would drop by the Omega, seeking employment, but often Fry politely turned them down—he liked to scout out artists for himself at art schools and exhibitions—and even artists who came highly recommended had to show a portfolio before being taken on. Gill wrote that some of the young artists, like Wyndham Lewis, broke with the Omega because they resented the anonymity of the work—they wanted to claim credit and recognition for their designs.

Omega Workshops, painted lamp bases, 1913

I seem to remember a long time painting the legs of tables. It had come as a surprise to me that black and white size paint would produce blue. When Venetian red was added, a warm mulberry colour resulted which I always connect with Vanessa. She was very fond of it, and we used it a good deal for background on our furniture. Trays too we painted. O yes, and endless candlesticks. When I remember Nina Hamnett at work it is always a candlestick she has in her hand.
Letter from Winifred Gill to Duncan Grant, 1966

Winifred Gill was invited by Roger Fry to join the workshop in 1913. Like Fry, she came from a Quaker family in Surrey, and was, at the time, working as an assistant to Fry’s sister Joan at her philanthropic foundation, as well as attending art classes at the Slade. Gill’s attraction to the Omega was not only for the artistic aspect and because she lauded the attempt to provide support for young artists, but because she also deeply believed in Fry’s pacifist social agenda. Gill played an essential role in running the workshop and beginning in 1915 she served as the workshop’s business manager. During her time at the Omega, Gill made woodcuts, paintings, designs for toys and household objects. In 1919, Gill designed some artificial flowers with Vanessa Bell on commission, to be used as part of a theater set.

Roger Fry, Still Life with Omega Flowers, 1919
Oil on canvas
Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

Gill also designed marionettes with articulated joints which portrayed dancers and musicians. The marionettes were used in a 1917 production of War and Peace: A Dramatic Fantasia a pacifist play written by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson which was attended by W.B. Yeats, Arnold Bennett, G.B. Shaw and Lytton Strachey.

Winifred Gill with her clown puppet Joey, c.1920
The Bodleian, Oxford

The Omega Workshops came to an end in 1919, defeated by the effects of the war, the unreadiness of the British public to embrace new ideas and internal disagreements. However, thought it lasted only six years, the influence of the Omega carries on to the present day.

1946, Miller’s Galleries in Lewes held an exhibition of Omega Workshops products, displayed in a similar fashion to the arrangements at Fitzroy Square. At the time Winifred Gill wrote to Vanessa Bell about the possibility of an Omega room as a permanent fixture at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Vanessa Bell replied:

I hope it may happen for I thought the things at Miller’s in Lewes looked very good, especially the pottery…How long ago all that time seems—it was very strange having it revived for a while…

Painted version of Omega mark used on ceramics

Dark Day Picks—Holiday Fare

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Music & Dance, Painting with tags , , on December 14, 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, and art world tidbits. Today we feature more ephemeral events, all-too-brief sustenance for the holidays.

Y2Y Gallery, 251 Balboa Street, SFNon*Mart‘s Stop & Swap event, December 19th only.  With a focus on post-consumer goods and recycled materials, Non*Mart encourages the use of existing resources in productive ways. The studio/gallery/shop offers a platform for artists who explore a more relational, less commercial means of economic exchange. Imbedded among many similar activities sponsored periodically by the gallery , the Stop & Swap event is a clever re-interpretation of the holiday gift-giving tradition. The perfect antidote to Capitalismas.

If you do have to buy, head over to Creativity Explored’s Holiday Art Show. Though the artists working and exhibiting here may have developmental disabilities, those haven’t prevented them from communicating movingly and effectively through their art. Possibly  you’ll go home with a future Martín Ramírez . . . Through December 23rd.

UC Berkeley, Zellerbach Hall—Mark Morris: Hard Nut.  Quirky, witty, but always in the end reverential where his muses are concerned, Morris turns the classic Nutcracker ballet on its head.  Although Morris has retained the Tchaikovsky score and Hoffman plotline, he’s shifted the action to the swinging 60s, and the setting provides ample fodder for great merriment. See Culture Vulture for expanded view.  Through December 20th.



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