Archive for the Textiles Category

Venetian Red Bookshelf: A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Posted in Book Review, Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

A. S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book is a complex tapestry of a book. It begins in 1895 and ends during the Great War. It is woven through with sensuous descriptions of textiles, pottery glazes, art, clothing and sexual longing, as well as musings on what it is to be an artist or a writer.

As usual, Byatt’s writing is erudite, some would say to a fault. The Children’s Book is unrepentantly intellectual, filled with long, complex digressions on art and nature—and it basks, unashamedly, in the life of ideas. In The Children’s Book, Byatt mines all of her interests—history and natural history, the visual arts, literature, fairy tales, the decorative arts—and weaves them together in an epic tale of two generations of several artistic families (including nearly 20 children) who live in the Kentish countryside.

Victoria & Albert

How could I not love a book that begins in the South Kensington Museum, (later the Victoria & Albert), and immediately engages us with lush descriptions of the forms, ornamentation and glazes of gorgeous decorative objects? The main characters live in a house decorated in the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement, with furniture and wallpaper by William Morris and his cohorts. Their lives are, at first glance, idyllic—Midsummer parties on vast lawns, with theater and puppet shows, open conversation about sexuality, talk about the suffragette movement, the Fabian Society and Socialist idealism. But there’s a dark undercurrent that quickly becomes apparent—a web of adultery, selfishness and secrecy.

William Morris

Byatt is particularly good at illuminating the irony in the disparity between her characters’ professed beliefs and the way they live their lives—whether in the social, sexual or artistic realm. Byatt also doesn’t shy away from showing us the destructive effect that parents’ misguided creativity can have on their children. Most ominously, the carnage of the coming war looms unseen, and many of the children we meet in the opening chapters will be casualties of that war. We feel tragically helpless, even as we worry about the ill effects of  their haphazard upbringing, we suspect these children will not live far into adulthood.

1895 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian age, when the cult of childhood began. It was the heyday of children’s literature—J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and E Nesbit were writing their masterpieces. In fact, Byatt’s heroine, Olive Wellwood, who lives with her husband Humphry and their seven children in a country cottage called Todefright—a beloved children’s writer of dark, somewhat Germanic versions of English fairy stories—is largely inspired by E Nesbit. Olive says:

Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really — is really what holds it all together.

Other characters suggest hybrids of H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence—and writers Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have cameos. It is also a conflicted age. As Byatt writes, “people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex,” at the same time showing “a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.”

This novel has a multi-stranded narrative, touches on many complex issues and has an enormous cast of characters. Among the interesting characters are Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, and Benedict Fludd, a tempestuous and visionary potter (based largely on Eric Gill), who is also a monstrous, sexual predator. (Byatt’s choice of names, such as Cain and Fludd, seem somewhat biblical.) The book is filled with artists and political idealists. Midway through the book, many of the characters, in various combinations, attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and there are riveting descriptions of the exposition and its exhibits—including the work of Klimt, Rodin and Lalique.

Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900

The action often grinds to a halt while Byatt lectures us about pottery glazes, the history of puppet theater or discourses on social issues. Each character’s clothing is lovingly detailed, works of art are described, fairy stories told, historical facts abound. Many find this surfeit of digression an irritant in Byatt’s work, and think the book overstuffed with ideas and descriptions. I can’t really dispute Byatt’s verbosity and her tendency to lecture. Nevertheless, Byatt’s descriptive abilities border on the sublime, and I relish a novelist who thinks—no, knows— that art is important, and who invents characters, for all their serious flaws, who are engaged with the moral struggle to define (or evade) their responsibilities, assess their gifts and search for (or resist) some kind of enlightenment through creativity.

If you decide to read the book, I recommend you slow down and enjoy the ride, including the numerous side-trips and detours. It may, as some critics argue, be too much, but in my opinion, most contemporary novels offer way too little—so I’ll vote  for an excess of ideas, beautifully described, any day. If you’ve read The Children’s Book, please share your thoughts with Venetian Red.

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Venetian Red Archives: The Power of August

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contemporary Art, Design, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles on August 3, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Aside from Julius Caesar, Augustus is the only Roman Emperor to have a calendar month still named after him. Today, we reach into the Venetian Red archives to showcase six of our most interesting posts, hoping that they will be blessed with similar endurance.

Florine Stettheimer, Soiree, 1917-1919
Oil on canvas
(courtesy Beinecke Library, Yale University)

1. “Florine Stettheimer: ‘Occasionally a Human Being Saw My Light'”:  Stettheimer was a dedicated, accomplished artist who was full of contradictions. She wanted to both avoid the critical spotlight and achieve recognition for her work. In her paintings and poetry she created and re-created the narrative of her life.  Christine Cariati uncovers the nuances of this under-appreciated artist’s work.

Peplos Kore, 530-525 BC
Marble, about 4 1/2 feet (statue only) not including plinth,
(courtesy Acropolis Museum, Athens)

2. “Bewitched by the Peplos Kore”: Buried on the Acropolis for more than 2000 years, the Peplos Kore was among the shards of figures found during an archeological dig in the 19th century. Liz Hager explores the reasons this celebrated sculpture continues to bewitch.

James Leman, silk design, 1706/7
Watercolor on paper

3. “James Leman and Anna Maria Garthwaite: Silk Weavers of Spitalfields”: French Huguenots revolutionized the silk weaving industry in England in the 18th century. Christine Cariati explains why three centuries later the gorgeous designs of master designers James Leman and Anna Maria Garthwaite still dazzle. . .

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Louis XIV, 1665
Marble
(Chateau de Versailles)

4. “The History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Louis XIV”: A multi-talented artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini virtually single-handedly created Baroque Rome. In April 1665 he went to Paris to work on designs for the east facade of the Louvre, then the royal residence. The project was not a success. This meeting of French and Italian aesthetics provides Liz Hager with an opportunity to explore 17th century lace and the fashions it spawned.

Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Carthusian, 1446
Oil on oak, 11.5 x 8 in.
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

5.“Petrus Christus: Portrait of a Carthusian”: The best portraits exert a magical power to reach across the centuries and seize a powerful hold upon our imagination. Christine Cariati decodes much of Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Carthusian, but the portrait keeps some secrets to itself. . .

Mark Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950
Oil on canvas,
(Private Collection)

6. “Notes from the Studio: Swagger & Despair”: Liz Hager explores what it means to be an artist in search of an audience.

Insects in Art: The Busy Bee Has No Time for Sorrow

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Illustration, Installation, Painting, Printmaking, Textiles, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Seest thou the little winged fly, smaller than a grain of sand?
It has a heart like thee, a brain open to heaven and hell,
Withinside wondrous and expansive; its gates are not closed;
I hope thine are not.                       — William Blake

While rather squeamish about actual insects, I am entranced by images of insects in art—in still-life, natural history illustration and design. As Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) wrote:

It is indeed true that art is omnipresent in nature, and the true artist is he who can bring it out.

Albrecht Dürer, Stag Beetle, 1505
Watercolor on paper
Getty Museum

Dürer’s beautiful and dignified watercolor of a beetle is an early embodiment of the Renaissance respect for nature—Dürer was among the first of his contemporaries to give an insect center stage in a work of art. In antiquity, insects had been included in trompe l’oeil and memento mori paintings to demonstrate technical virtuosity and as symbols of evil and death, while butterflies represented transformation and resurrection. Insects in themselves were considered unworthy of consideration as subjects for painting.

By the 17th century, the obsession with natural history—and with insects as a miraculous part of the natural world—took precedence, and symbolism was left behind. Insects became subjects of study and fascination. Dürer, as always, ahead of his time, brings his masterful draughtsmanship to his watercolor, of a beetle—which he considered a finished work of art, not a study.

Francesco Stelluti‘s Melissographia, 1625, was the first scientific illustration done with the aid of a microscope and included three magnified views of a bee.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Forty-One Insects, Moths and Butterflies, 1646
Etching from Muscarum Scarabeorum
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) was a Czech-born master printmaker, whose natural history illustrations have an elegant sense of pattern and design. Cabinets of curiosity were the rage among collectors of the day, and assemblages such as this would part of the display. Hollar’s illustrations were likely influenced the engravings that Jacob Hoefnagel did from his father Georg Hoefnagel‘s original drawings.

Like many still-lifes of the period, Hoefnagel’s natural history studies often had a somber message. The title of his piece, below, which features flowers, a chrysalis, insects and a moth above a dead mouse reads: Nasci. Patri. Mori. (I am born. I suffer. I die.)

Jacob Hoefnagel, Archetypa Studiaque Patris Georgii Hoefnagel, 1592
Engraving
Private collection, Switzerland

Alexander Marshal (c.1620-82) is famous for his beautifully drawn florilegium (flower-book) which he worked on for thirty years, until his death. This lovely butterfly study, above, was painted from one in the collection of naturalist, gardener and plant-hunter John Tradescant the Younger (1608-62) when Marshal was a guest at his house in London in 1641.

Robert Hooke, Ant, from Micrographia
London, 1665
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

John Covel, Natural History and Commonplace Notebook, 1660-1713
Drawings and notations by Robert Hooke and others
The British Library

Robert Hooke, Eye of a Fly, from Micrographia, 1665
Engraving
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

The work of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) is extraordinary in its detail and accuracy. Hooke’s Micrographia is a landmark work in natural history illustration. It contains thirty-eight copperplate engravings, his subjects all brilliantly translated from his keen observations under the microscope to an authentic, beautifully rendered two-dimensional image.

Mark Catesby, Nightjar and mole cricket, detail, c. 1722-6

Mark Catesby‘s (1682-1749) life work was his The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. His work really captures the life force of his subjects, and in this case, the predatory demands of survival.

William Blake, The Sick Rose, from Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789

No artist captured the contradictory aspects of nature with more force and beauty than the great visionary Romantic poet, illustrator and printmaker, William Blake (1757-1827.) Blake, who described the human imagination as “the body of God,” and died singing and clapping his hands at the vision of heaven that awaited him—was nevertheless able to beautifully describe the dark, destructive aspect of nature.

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Lens Aldous, Head of the Flea, c. 1838
Hand-colored lithograph, poster for Entomological Society of London
Hope Library, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Two more impossibly detailed images of the heads of insects. Above, Lens Aldous was a specialist in micrographic illustration. The year this image was made, Charles Darwin was Vice-President of the Entomolgical Society of London.

Jan Swammerdam, The Book of Nature; Or, The History of Insects, 1758
Engraving
Cambridge University Library

The drawing, above, of the head of a male bee, is in a book from Charles Darwin’s personal library. Microscopic studies were extremely important to the development of Darwin’s theories about evolution.

R. Scott, Arachnides, Myriapoda, c.1840

This illustration, above, is not just an inventory of types of spiders, it also shows the predatory nature of these creatures—note the bird in the grasp of the giant spider.

Jan van Kessel, Insects and Fruit, c. 1636-1679
Oil on copper
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Jan van Kessel, Insects on a Stone Slab, c. 1660-70
Oil on copper
Kunstmuseum, Basel

My favorite painter of insects is Jan van Kessel (1626-1679.) As with his bird tableaus, van Kessel created mini-universes teeming with life in his natural history scenes. His works are mostly small oil paintings on copper or wood. Often studies like these were made into prints for natural history collectors.

Justus Juncker, Pear with Insects, 1765
Oil on oakwood
Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

There are many 17th century still-lifes in which insects do not have center stage but instead play a supporting role. This beautiful painting by Justus Juncker (1703-1767) presents the pear as a sculptural form—the dramatic lighting and its isolation on the pedestal gives it a mysterious and monumental presence. Again, there are intimations of mortality—the plinth is chipped and cracked, and the small tears in the skin of the fruit has attracted insects.

Maria Sibyla Merian, Branch of guava tree with leafcutter ants, army ants, pink-toed tarantulas, c. 1701-5

I can think of no more intriguing examples of botanical art than the work of artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717.) Merian began her entymological studies at thirteen, when she embarked on a study of flies, spiders and caterpillars.  In 1705, Merian published her stunning Metamorphosis, a folio of 60 engraved plates of the life cycle of the butterflies and insects of Surinam, where she’d been on expedition from 1699-1701. I love the way Merian plays with scale, conflates species and creates drama with her lively and energetic compositions.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Passion flower plant and flat-legged bug, c. 1701-5

Maria Sibylla Merian, Vine branch and black grapes, with moth, caterpillar and chrysalis of gaudy sphinx, 1701-5

Insects also fired the imagination of Victorian fairy painters. Their work was full of creatures that were half-human/half-insect—and elves and fairies ride around on the backs of butterflies and birds. This costume sketch, below, is from Charles Kean‘s production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream which was produced at Princess’s Theatre, London, in 1856. Shakespeare’s play was an abiding theme in paintings of this genre.

Joseph Noël Paton, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, detail, 1849
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Scotland Edinburgh

John Anster Fitzgerald, Faeries with Birds, detail

In the area of design, textile designers have also made good use of insect imagery, for example, this charming and colorful insect design from France, c. 1810.

And, below, Dagobert Peche‘s vibrant Swallowtail design done for the Weiner Werkstätte c. 1913.

In 1926, master of French Art Deco design, Emile-Alain Seguy painted this beautiful pattern of butterflies and roses.

Seguy was perhaps most famous for his amazing series, Insectes, done in collotype with pouchoir.

Contemporary artist Jennifer Angus creates large-scale installations made from petrified insects that are reminiscent of Victorian cabinets of curiosities. Angus’ work, with its kaleidescopic imagery, is an amalgam of science and art. It is highly decorative but is also meant to educate the viewer about the important role of insects in our environment.

Jennifer Angus, Grammar of Ornament, 2004
Installation, University of Wisconsin

Angus gets most of her bugs through harvesters in Southeast Asia, and recycles insects from piece to piece. A link to a podcast about Angus’ 2008 show at the Newark Museum, Insecta Fantasia, is below:

Before humans drew plants, landscapes or images of themselves—they drew animals and insects. The fascination with the natural world and the creatures that share our planet is ancient and enduring. I am grateful to the artists whose sustained intense observation and attention to detail have brought these creatures to life on the page.

The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom,
No clock can measure…
—from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

Malian Bogolanfini and Cultural Identity

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , on March 1, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Malian bogolanfini cloth (courtesy African Textiles)

A recent visit to the “Rhythm and Hues” exhibit at The (San Francisco) Museum of Craft and Folk Art stimulated me to think about the ways in which textiles—their motifs, patterns, methods of production, even the articles of clothing fashioned from them—define identity. Bogolanfini, the traditional “mud” cloth of Mali and a centerpiece of the exhibit, is an excellent reminder of the mutations to cultural identity that occur when the local traditions of a “developing” (though decidedly not primitive) country collide with the modern-world (i.e. Western) aesthetic.

Bogolanfini is generally defined as the cloth made by Bamana women in the rural areas of Mali, according to a centuries-old, labor-intensive dyeing process that requires local materials and specific methods. It is fashioned into specific tribal garments.

Narrow strips of plain fabric are woven (usually by men) and pieced together into a larger rectangular cloth; the cloth is then dyed in multiple baths of organic material (n’gallama leaves). The “negative” spaces around the desired patterns are painstakingly painted with mud, which reacts by turning those areas of the cloth black.

Contemporary bogolanfini (Courtesy Indigo Arts Gallery)

These geometric motifs are the most important element of bogolanfini. The patterns constitute a language that communicates tribal narratives. Traditionally, only the female producers were fluent in this symbolic language, passing it down carefully from generation to generation. In recent decades, the meaning of the bogolanfini vocabulary has been more widely disseminated. Even so, its complex iconography—which refers to objects, animals, historical events, the mythologies of the tribe, and proverbs—cannot be fully “read” by outsiders.

In the Bamanan society, bogolanfini traditionally is fashioned into special garments—tunics worn by hunters and wraps that girls wore during the excision ceremony and consummation of marriage. Through its association with blood, or, rather, loss of it, the cloth assumed sacred powers of protection.

As producers of this cloth, women were set apart in the tribal hierarchy, empowered as keepers of significant tribal traditions.

Malian bogolan cloth, Dogon region (courtesy University of Iowa Museum of Art)

By the 1970s, bogolanfini tradition had nearly died out, perhaps due to the ever-encroaching exigencies of the Global Village, perhaps to instability caused by the Malian struggle for independence.

Chris Seydou ensemble

In the 1980s, through the efforts of cultural administrators and activists, as well as fashion designer Chris Seydou, Malians rediscovered this “heritage.” Bogolanfini soon mutated into two strains of bogolan—mass-produced fabrics that serve the tourist and fashion markets; and fine art, for which bogolanfini methods were repurposed in a variety of ways. (Ismaël Diabaté and Sidicki Traoré are the best-known Malian artists.)

“Tourist trade” bogolan could be considered a positive development, because the industry provides economic means to segments of the population, which otherwise might be disenfranchised.

Ismaël Diabaté, Little Watermelon, 1998,
Cotton, acrylic paint.

On the other, as is usually the case with an area on the way to full economic development, there’s a sobering catch.

In contrast to bogolanfini, bogolan is produced explicitly for sale by urban males from all Malian tribes. The production and distribution chains are controlled by men; very few women are found anywhere in this industry. Thus, appropriation of a venerable textile tradition has produced a not too subtle shift in the social hierarchy.

Men stitching bags commissioned by Hallmark as part of Bono’s “Red” line, 2007. (Courtesy Fatoumata Berthé In Mali-la)

The mass-produced cloth is fashioned into all sorts of garments and accessories, all of them necessarily disconnected from the original bogolanfini sacral purpose. Additionally, the requirements of new markets have necessitated production “improvements.” Bogolan cotton cloth is machine woven in one piece. Hand painting, if it is part of the process at all, is usually employed through stenciling. Mud may or may create the dark areas; and in bogolan it is often affixed to the traditionally “positive” spaces.

Finally, the original pattern combinations, potent emissaries of a specific cultural identity, have been watered-down for mass consumption, simplified for a public that cannot possibly be conversant in the original symbolic language. Moreover, for non-Bamanans, the cultural traditions embodied by the original language of the cloth, while comprehensible perhaps by some, are largely insignificant to the buying public.  Thus bogolan is doubly detached from its source.

And yet, bogolan clearly retains the aura of boglanfini.

Contemporary “mudcloth”-style blanket

Because clothing is highly visible statement of self, Westerner wearers of bogolan communicate a complicated message about themselves.

On a purely aesthetic level,  boglan telegraphs the wearer’s love of bold geometric patterns and “natural” color combinations. However, even the latter attribute has been confused by the introduction of non-bogolanfini color schemes, as the photo below demonstrates.  On the aesthetic level, bogolan may be no different from other Western-centric design schemes.

On a deeper level, bogolan communicates that its wearer is “exotic;” is open to “the other” (i.e. things beyond him/herself); is at least superficially aware of world cultures, perhaps even has an affinity for specifically African or Malian cultures. The attraction to bogolan might also involve in a (misguided) notion of the “purity” and “simplicity” of “primitive” cultures; i.e. that the wearer appreciates or yearns for the “simpler” life. In these regards, the craze for bogolan seems similar to the 19th-century European fever for all things “Eastern” (see Venetian Red, “From Mughals to Minis”).

Perhaps the most distressing element of bogolan is the uncertainty surrounding bogolanfini’s continued survival. On a profound level, bogolan might signal the defeat of local cultural identity at the hands of Western homogenization.

Contemporary “mudcloth” fabrics for sale on US website

Wider Connections

Melissa Enderle—Images & Sites of Mali

Dress for Sports—A Chance Encounter with Sidicki Traoré

Malian Textiles—Haffenreffer Museum

Victoria Rovine—Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali

World Vision—Mali

Habib Koité—Afriki. A Malian musician, one Africa’s most popular and recognized.  I was first introduced to him by a Putamayo collection, then saw him at Yoshi’s last year. Fabulous, I’m hooked.

Fred Davis—Fashion, Culture, and Identity

“Poetic License”: A Joan Schulze Retrospective

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Embroidery, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , on February 20, 2010 by Liz Hager

Poetic License: A Joan Schulze Retrospective: February 16—May 9 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Click here for PDF of author’s longer piece “Joan Schulze-A Life in Collage” which appeared in Surface Design (Fall 2010).

By LIZ HAGER

Joan Schulze, The Visitors, 2009
Silk, paper, collage, glue, transfer process, machine quilted; 44 x 84 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Since 1970, Joan Schulze has produced a huge body of work, through which she has consistently pushed the boundaries of contemporary textile art. Schulze is an inveterate experimenter, whose longstanding penchant for unconventional materials is abundantly on view in the retrospective show, “Poetic License,” at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.

Joan Schulze, Many Moons, 1976
Cotton, silk, lace; embroidered, appliquéd, pieced, dyed, hand quilted, 90 x 90 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Containing a generous selection of Schulze’s work from the past four decades, “Poetic License” is a tribute to her artistic range. The show presents the visual twists and turns of her career, but it does not editorialize. This strategy has advantages and drawbacks.

Joan Schulze, The Flying Chifforobe, 1984
Cotton, silk, misc.; dyed, pieced, hand quilted, 80 x 60 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Some viewers will find pure delight in discovering various historical treasures on their own. The moments of innovation are here—the lace doilies in Many Moons (1976); the abstraction of quilted landscapes represented by The Flying Chifforobe (1984); the addition of photo transfers to works like Perennial Border in 1989; glue-based transfers (Three Weeks in a Museum, 1991);  the ironic use of real (shredded) dollars in Reserves; the digital printing on fabric first displayed in Object of Desire (1997) ; thread as drawing equivalent (Dancing Lessons); the scattered bits of Velcro, plastic, paint.

Joan Schulze, Objects of Desire, 1997
Silk, paper, photo-transfer processes, machine quilted;  43 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

 

Nonetheless, the true historical import of her innovations might elude a portion of the audience. Over the years, subsequent textile artists have oft copied her techniques, so that by now Schulze’s once-radical vocabulary might appear as common vernacular to the uninitiated.

The show seems to be organized more or less chronologically. The artist’s passion for the visual possibilities inherent in fabric, needle and thread is overwhelmingly clear. Recurring themes in the artist’s work are sprinkled throughout, not grouped.  The passing of time (with the resulting decay) and the nature of female identity are readily identifiable themes in the show. Without explanation, however, many of the important personal references in the pieces may be lost.

Joan Schulze, Frameworks B, 2004
Cotton, digital print; pieced, machine quilted, 14 1/2 x 18 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

On balance much more could have been made by the curator of the arc of Schulze’s career, her place in the world of art.  In this respect, maybe a few dreaded plaques might have been a good thing.

Schulze’s limited formal education in the fine arts clearly has not inhibited her aesthetic sensibility.  A high school class in sewing set her in motion, for it gave her fundamental training in pattern shapes and scrap usage. (Perhaps, more important, it provided her with an introduction the equation Clothes = Power.) Schulze learned embroidery in her 30s and quickly took to it, by 1970 making and selling enough work to leave teaching and work full-time as an artist.

Joan Schulze, Reserves, 2004
12 x 12 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

It’s understandable that Schulze would not feel bound by any particular tradition (either textile- or fine art-based); being untethered has had a positive effect on her, freeing her to “bring everything into the mix.”  Interestingly, many of her techniques are echo those in the fine arts—photomontage clearly but also abstraction, the gestural use of thread, and the layering of diaphanous fabrics, which mimics painted glazes.

Joan Schulze, Dancing Lessons, 2006
Silk, toner drawing, pieced, machine quilted; 40 x 40 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

For some this retrospective will stimulate serious thought about the boundaries of fine art and craft. When Schulze first began quilting, the two were resolutely separate in the mind of the market.  In the 1970s, she struggled to have her work seen as “art.”

I went to this one gallery. . . many times and (the owner) said “I don’t even know how to talk about your work.” And I said “Just use what you use when you look at a painting: composition, ideas, color.”  Oh, it was like the penny dropped. . . he became one of my best supporters.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955
Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 75 1/4 x 31 1/2 x 8 inches
(MOMA)

Today the distinctions are considerably blurrier, thanks in part to artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, arguably even Julian Schnabel, who have legitimized a “whole world of materials” for use in “fine art.” “Textile art” is a tricky category—the materials often derive from craft traditions, but the end products are usually conceived as art, not as utilitarian objects. In the end, qualifying Joan Schulze as a “textile” artist may limit the way people should think about her art. Does it really matter whether a substrate is quilted fabric or canvas?

In the final analysis, any work of art must be judged on the merit of the ideas it conveys, the dialog it creates with the viewer.  “Poetic License” offers textile and fine arts enthusiasts alike an unparalleled opportunity to decide for themselves where Joan Schulze’s work lives in the House of Art.

Joan Schulze, Figure D, 2009
Paper, collage process, glue; 10 x 8 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Wider Connections

Joan Schulze website
More on the artist—Fiber Scene; Mercury News
The Art of Joan Schulze
The Blogosphere on Art vs. Craft—Raggity Cloth Cafe, Definition of Art (skip down to Art vs. Craft section), Objectivism Online

First Impressions: The Art of Design

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Rugs, Textiles, Wallpaper, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Tile or panel design, W.T. Copeland & Sons, Ltd. (formerly Spode), c. 1880

As much as I love textiles and decorative objects, I am often just as attracted to the designer’s drawings, sketches and samples as to the finished pieces. The objects, no matter how beautiful, are immutable, fixed in the here and now. On paper, it is all possibility—often the line work is graceful and sinuous, the colors are rich and vibrant, and the patterns, free of prosaic form, veer toward the abstract. The flatness of the design is part of what I find so appealing. In two dimensions, the objects are not subject to gravity, they represent that most fleeting thing—the creative impulse. They embody the alchemy of transformation, idea into image, captured in pencil, ink or watercolor.

Dagobert Peche Design for a coffeepot, c. 1920

Design for a Sèvres porcelain cup, Empire period, c. 1800

In some cases, as in the designs of James Leman, the delicious yellows and oranges that are so pleasing to the eye represent various shades of metallic thread— which however sumptuous and elegant in the finished textile, is a completely different visual experience. In Leman’s designs on paper, his lyrical line and masterful layering of abstracted botanical images are enhanced by the warm, saturated colors. As patterns, woven in metallic thread on a heavy silk fabric, they are breathtaking and grand, but no longer have the down to earth, fresh from the garden appeal that they have on paper.

James Leman, design for silk fabric, 1711

I love the annotations on many of these sketches—dates, yardages, cost calculations, style names and numbers—many are in the artist’s hand alongside the images. They are a decorative counterpoint to the design, often extremely graceful and engaging in themselves. You can also see marks and notations made by the printers, engravers, weavers and dyers—the artisans who actually executed the designs. The combination of the drawing and the notations provide a compelling history, tracing the evolution from design to finished product.

Design for candelabra, c. 1840-1873
Elkington & Co. Ltd.

Tin-plate molds, Shoolbred, Loveridge & Shoolbred of Wolverhampton

Tea pots, creamers and sugar bowls, Liberty archive, c. 1900-1912

These working sketches were executed on paper, and, at the time they were created, not considered precious pieces to be treated with great care. As a result, the paper is often yellowed and brittle, and you can see smudges, folds, creases and spills. On many of them you can still see the grids and guidelines—another interesting counterpoint to the pattern and design. I don’t see these designs as mere preliminaries, inferior to a perfect, finished object. To my eye, they are works of art in themselves.

William Morris, Watercolor design for Evenlode, 1883
(design for  cotton fabric, printed by indigo discharge)

William Morris, watercolor design for Redcar carpet, c. 1881-1885

William Morris & Co. wallpaper designs, c. 1860s

I’ve restricted myself to designs for decorative objects, tableware, textiles and wallpaper and resisted the temptation to include designs for furniture, architecture and fashion. I have also deliberately not juxtaposed the drawings with the finished objects made from the sketch, because for me these stand as complete works on their own.

Design for seven-piece coffee set, Sèvres, 1899

The designs below, drawn in pencil or pen and ink, are quite elegant and visually stunning. This page of designs for tea strainers is beautifully drawn, patterned and balanced—and could easily be taken for a contemporary abstract drawing.

Designs for tea strainers, c. 1900-1912
Pen and ink on ruled paper, Liberty, London

In a narrative vein, this delightful Rococo-style sketch of insect figures, for use as a decorative motif, is playful and lively.

Charles-Germain de Saint Aubin (1721-86), sketch for decorative motif

This Wiener Werkstätte floor lamp design has a figurative totem-like quality, and is drawn in a loose and graceful style. Dagobert Peche’s sketches always have a flowing, effortless hand-drawn quality—a wonderful contrast to the elegant formalism of the objects made from his designs.

Dagobert Peche, design for floor lamp, 1920

This sketch for a graceful carafe has a very different presence than the finished piece of heavily embossed silver. As an object, the carafe has weight, volume, shine and a beautifully textured surface. The drawing, flat and decorative, has a very different, wonderful combination of elements. There is a narrative feel to it—the intricate patterning, sensuous curves, twisted serpent handle and amusing squirrel seem to be telling a story.

Arabian shape Claret jug, c. 1880
Workshop drawings of Oomersee Mawjee & Sons, Kutch

This gorgeous ink and wash drawing of a cloche has so much presence and volume. The sculptural decorative element at the top is exquisitely rendered.

Cloche, French, eighteenth century

Much of the inspiration for decorative objects comes from nature, as these floral designs for textiles by Anna Maria Garthwaite illustrate so beautifully. These botanical patterns, which take on a seriousness and formality when woven in silk and brocade, are exuberant on the page.

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design, c. 1730

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design, detail, c. 1730

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design (possibly a copy of a French original) detail, 1733

Some of my favorite designs are for tea pots, tea cups and china patterns. They are drawn in flattened-out, foreshortened shapes to best show the designs—you can really appreciate the quality of line, pattern and detail. The decorative motifs are fanciful, lighthearted and graceful—exactly the qualities treasured in a piece of delicate porcelain.

Tea cup designs, Spode, c. 1846

Majolica design, Apple Blossom flower pot, Wedgewood, c. 1850-1860

Coffee and Tea Cups, Spode, c. 1840

Dagobert Peche, Design for a teapot, c. 1922

Textile designs are executed in both minimalist and very painterly styles. Often you will see only one piece of the design completed painted, with the repeats only sketched in. When the designs are for woven fabric or rugs, you sometimes see the graph paper grids they are sketched on.

Fabric designs from Lyons, France, 19th century

Textile design, factory of Jean-Michel Haussmann, Colmar, 1797

Dagobert Peche, design for tapestry fabric for Johann Backhausen & Söhne, 1912

Textile and wallpaper designs were often collected in sample books—some were for companies and/or designers to keep track of their patterns, others were used to market the fabrics. Sample books for textiles, very popular in the 18th century through the 20th century, provide a wealth of information about the history of pattern design, dyeing techniques and the technical means of production. Often they contain swatches of the actual fabrics, shown in the various available colorways.

Wallpaper and border designs, Manufacture Dufour, Paris, early 19th century

Designs for block print fabric, French,  early 19th century

In 2008, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum mounted an interesting exhibition, Multiple Choice: from Sample to Product, that featured sample books for tableware, textiles for interiors and fashion, wallpaper, even buttons. Seeing these lovely books, which contain such a rich visual history, was quite poignant—in the contemporary design world, with electronic formats taking precedence, the paper sample book is truly a thing of the past.

Among the sketches I’ve referenced in this post, many are by well-known designers, others are from an anonymous hand. Some designs were never turned into objects, others are still being manufactured today. But they all continue to live vibrantly on the page, their yellowed and tattered pages still emitting sparks of inspiration.

Wider Connections

The French Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff

The English Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff

Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte, edited by Peter Noever

The (Mostly) Peaceable Kingdom: Animals in Art

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Illustration, Painting, Printmaking, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Franz Marc, Gelbe Kuh (Yellow Cow), 1911
Oil on canvas
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

The other day, while cleaning out a drawer, I came across a post card of this exuberant painting by the German painter Franz Marc (1880-1916.) In 1911, Franz Marc, along with August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky, founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). They were a diverse group stylistically, but they held common beliefs in the spiritual nature of art, the link between visual art and music and the symbolic use of color to depict emotion. Marc’s paintings of animals, mostly horses, had fluidity, grace and deep emotion. Sadly, while waiting for the paperwork on his artists’ military exemption to come through, Marc was killed by a shell splinter to the head in the Battle of Verdun.

Franz Marc, Blaues Pferd I (Blue Horse I), 1911
Oil on canvas
Stadtische Galerie em Lenbochhaus, Munich

Revisiting Franz Marc’s animals brought to mind other images of animals in art that have caught my attention over the years. They are quite varied in style and tone, but I believe they all say something interesting or profound about the way we see and relate to animals.

Karl Joseph Brodtmann, Lion, c. 1842
Lithograph from Nâturhistorische Bilder Galerie aus dem Theirreiche

The Swiss artist Karl Joseph Brodtmann (1787-1862) was an expert 19th-century lithographer whose natural history studies capture a wealth of detail. His animal portraits are dignified and convey a sense of respect and wonder for his subjects.

René Magritte, Le Mal du Pays (Homesickness), 1940
Oil on canvas, Private Collection

Belgian painter René Magritte (1898-1967) painted Le Mal du Pays at an unsettled time in his life—the Germans had invaded his home town, and he was having marital problems. Magritte was thirteen years old when his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the river, so we can probably safely assume that the angel in black on the bridge, contemplating the void, is Magritte. The meaning of the lion is perhaps more ambiguous, but in his elegant, calm yet alert pose, he seems to be serving as guardian for his human counterpart.

detail from The Unicorn at the Fountain,
second tapestry of the series, The Hunt of the Unicorn,  Flemish, c.
1500
The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lions are very popular subjects in a variety of media. Above, a lion and lioness lounge among the flowers, in a detail from the medieval Flemish tapestry, The Hunt of the Unicorn.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Lion and Tulip, c. 1662

A personal favorite, from Bohemian artist/engraver Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). Hollar was most famous for his etchings of London before and after the Great Fire of 1666, but produced an astonishing quantity and variety of work—portraiture, studies of costumes and contemporary dress, architecture, allegory, landscape, maps and natural history studies of animals and shells.

Nilgai (Blue Bull) Mughal, c. 1620
Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

detail, Shah Jahan Hunting Deer with Trained Cheetahs, Rajasthan, c. 1710
Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tiger Approaching a Waterhole, Kotah, c. 1790
Watercolor and opaque watercolor

detail, Two Princes Shooting Deer; Dogs Hunting Down Boar, Kotah, c. 1660
Opaque watercolor, gold

Indian miniatures are full of wonderful depictions of animals, both peaceful and fierce. Many Indian miniatures have scenes of the hunt, giving the artist an opportunity to paint graceful herds of leaping deer and ferocious tigers, leopards or cheetahs.

Marc Chagall, To My Betrothed, 1911
Gouache
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Marc Chagall, Fantastic Horse Cart, 1949
Gouache and paste;
Blanden Memorial Art Gallery, Fort Dodge, Iowa

Marc Chagall, Monkey Acting as Judge Over the Dispute Between
Wolf and Fox
, 1925-27
Gouache, Perls Gallery, New York

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) incorporated animals into his work in fantastical ways—a man with a head of a bull or a gravity-defying horse and cart are easily integrated into more realistic elements. In his dreamy work, there’s a fluid coexistence between animals and humans—often their characteristics are interchangeable.
Monkey Acting as Judge Over the Dispute Between Wolf and Fox
is one of 100 gouaches that Chagall did to illustrate the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95). The image doesn’t literally illustrate the story, but Chagall does give us a sense of the essence and spirit of their characters.

Chauvet Cave, Lion panel

Chauvet Cave, Black bison superimposed on clawmarks and engravings

The lyric quality of Chagall’s animals brought to mind the cave paintings from Chauvet. These caves, undisturbed for thousands of years, were discovered  in December, 1994. These paintings of lions, bison, aurochs, mammoths, hyenas, cave bears and rhinoceroses are over 30,000 years old, twice as old as the art in the caves at Lascaux. They are beautifully rendered with a tremendous sense of motion and accurate perspective.

William de Morgan, Design for a tile
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Closer to home we have some more domesticated animals. In the example above, William de Morgan (1839-1917) was creating a decorative motif, but he also captured something very endearing and lyrical in these rabbits.

Richard Whitford, A Prize Shropshire Ewe, 1878

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) owned several of Richard Whitford’s (1821-1890) paintings, thus earning him the epithet, “Animal Painter to the Queen.” Whitford mostly painted farm animals, particularly sheep. At the time, breeders of pedigree farm animals would often commission paintings of their prize-winning stock to display alongside their medals and citations. I always thought this sheep had tremendous dignity and presence and I love the way he is integrated into the surrounding landscape.

Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, 1981
Oil on canvas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mark Tansey’s (b. 1949-) The Innocent Eye Test seems like the perfect painting to close out this brief review of animals in painting. Tansey, who is known for his monochromatic palette, is interested in exploring  opposites and contradictions, “how different realities interact with each other.” His paintings are imagined narratives that deal with the fact that in the 19th century, photography replaced the traditional function of painting, which was to represent reality. His work, Tansey says, “is based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformative, fictional.” The Innocent Eye Test is a humorous take on history painting that works on many levels. The assembled “experts,” Tansey’s send-up of art critics, stand by, observing the cow’s reaction to a large-sized painting of two cows in a field. Note the man with the mop on the left. The painting that the cow is gazing at is based on an actual painting, The Young Bull, 1647, by Dutch painter Paulus Potter (1625-54).

Wider Connections:

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

Franz Marc, 1880-1916 by Susanna Partsch

Rene Magritte, 1898-1967: Thoughts Rendered Visible by Marcel Paquet

The Unicorn Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo

The Man Who Drew London: Wenceslaus Hollar in Reality and Imagination by Gillian Tindall.

Gods, Kings, and Tigers: The Art of Kotah, Edited by Stuart Cary Welch

Indian Court Painting, 16th-19th Century by Steven Kossak

Marc Chagall: Painting as Poetry by Ingo F. Walther

Return to Chauvet Cave: Excavating the Birthplace of Art by Jean Clottes

The Designs of William de Morgan by Martin Greenwood

William de Morgan Tiles by Jon Catleugh

The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation by Mark C. Taylor

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