30 April 2011

Kobayashi Kaichi: From Nouveau To Deco In Showa Japan

 I continue to find new things to admire in the Leonard Lauder Collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, for instance these woodblock prints by  the little known artist from Kyoto, Kobayashi Kaichi.
Leonard Lauder (b. 1933),  son of Estee Lauder and brother of Ronald Lauder, co-founder of the Neue Galerie in Manhattan,  began collecting  postcards at  the age  of six.  By the time Lauder donated his collection to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2003, it numbered in the thousands.  

The public began to get an idea of the breadth of the collection the next year through an exhibition - and book - The Art of the Japanese Postcard.

Among other surprises, a neglected area of Japanese art emerged.  The early Showa period between the two world wars is often overlooked by westerners,  who focus instead on the revelation of ukiyo-e prints first seen in the west during the (ate 19th century.
After the devastating earthquake of 1923, the city of Tokyo modernized  as it rebuilt, and a new generation of young men and women adopted aspects of western sophistication in clothing, sports (skiing, golf), and art.   The mixture of influences from Art Nouveau and Art Deco is distinct from the western versions.

To the English-speaking audience, Kobayashi Kaichi (1896-1968) remains something of a  mystery.  Born in Kyoto, he created several sets of prints on popular themes for the Sakuraiya Publishers there during the 1920s.    The romance of youth was a favorite subject. and, although it may seem sentimental to our eyes, to his contemporaries these images expressed the height of westernized sophistication.   Taisho chic was essentially the style of the affluent urban Japanese, usually young and single, enamored of western clothes and movies.

What distinguishes Kobayashi Kaichi's work is its harmonious blend of disparate styles.  At a distance from the centers of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, he was free to use the elements that fit his modern version of traditional Japanese prints.  His perspectives are arbitrary, his colors flat, and his inclusion of detail is governed by aesthetics, not reality.   In the series Evening of Sorrow, this universal personal drama of waiting is enacted against an imagined architectural background that seems to float somewhere between fin-de-siecle Vienna and a Hollywood film set.
Images: Kobayashi Kaichi, images undated, from the Leonard Lauder Collection at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
1.- 4.  from the series Evening Of Sorrow.
5. from the series Lyric Dolls: Sadness of Youth.
6. from the series Blue Birds.

7. Ace of Hearts from the series Youth.

25 April 2011

Helen Hyde And Bertha Jaques

Whenever I look at this photograph of Helen Hyde (1868-1919) I wish I could have known her.  The charm, pluck, determination and artistic sense of this picture turn out to be true to life.

Bertha Jaques was a twenty-five year old printer when she first read about Helen Hyde's work in The International Studio (1898).  “With the confidence of early enthusiasm, I wrote Miss Hyde that I did not believe in adding color to etching and would like to know what she had to say about it.”  Hyde responded, sending along two of her own color etchings, and a friendship was established. The two women met four years later when Hyde visited Jacques at her Chicago home.  In between times Hyde spent three years in Japan, studying and working with Japanese print makers.  She may have been the first American to make woodcuts in Japan.
Hyde’s career began with color etching.  She was born in the small town of Lima, in western New York on April 6, 1868,  but lived most of her childhood at the other end of the States in San Francisco. A wealthy aunt financed Helen’s education at Wellesley College.
Her studies took Hyde to New York, Paris, and Berlin, but what was more unusual was her determination to study in Holland, spurred by affection for Dutch painting.  When Hyde returned to San Francisco she began to illustrate children’s books, Moon Babies and Jingles From Japan, etc..  During the fifteen years that she lived in Japan, Hyde had two homes: a winter home in Toyko and a summer home at Nikko, in the north.
In Japan, Hyde apprenticed herself to Kano Tomonobu, the ninth and last of the respected Kano school of brush painters. She learned the traditional method of drawing bamboo:by dipping one corner of the brush into black ink and the other into gray.  Then to sweep upward with one side of the brush and down with the other and – viola! 
Jaques writes that this training was responsible for the unique look of Hyde’s woodblock prints.  “They are direct, flowing and graceful in line.” Jaques also recognized in Hyde’s characters the charm and lack of grotesquerie that separated her work from the traditional Japanese masters.  Hyde’s prints also have a distinctive palette of apple green, rose pink and a blend of the two that produces an olive shade.
Like other contemporary women artists, notably Mary Cassatt, Hyde often featured mothers and children in her work.  In her correspondence, she referred repeatedly to her works as her "children" in a manner that may strike a modern reader as odd.  As a single woman who worked unapologetically  and traveled widely.   Hyde may have responded to the unease that a successful professional woman aroused.  These days it is the charm of Hyde's work and her unselfconsciousness in cross cultural boundaries that makes for unease.
Sometimes, the images just require a bit of explanation, as in Teasing The Daruma   Daruma was a sage of India who fell into a meditation that lasted nine years, to be awakened by a rat nibbling on his ear . This probably explains why he is usually portrayed with an irritable expression.  Chagrined at being caught sleeping,  the daruma cut off his eyelids and threw them on the ground.  A tea bush grew up on the spot, whose leaves kept him awake.  Typically, a Daruma toy is weighted on the bottom so children can knock it over and it will spring back up.

Helen Hyde died in San Francisco on May 13, 1919 and was buried by her two sisters in the Hyde family plot near Oakland “under a blanket of white wisteria and lavender iris, which she loved as all her friends loved her.”   Bertha Jaques' Helen Hyde and Her Work is the work of a printer well  known for her generosity toward other artists.

1. unidentified photographer - c. late 1890s  Helen Hyde, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
2. Helen Hyde - The Return, 1907, Art Institute of Chicago.
3. Helen Hyde - Honorable Mr. Cat, 1903, Art Institute of Chicago.
4. Helen Hyde - The Three Friends of Winter - Plum, Pine, Bamboo, 1913, Art Institute of Chicago.
5.   Helen Hyde - The Bathers, 1905, Art Institute of Chicago.
6. Helen Hyde - Teasing The Daruma, 1905, Art Institute of Chicago.
7. Helen Hyde - The family Umbrella, 1914, Art Institute of Chicago.
8. Helen Hyde - The Red Umbrella, 1918, Art Institute of Chicago.
9. Helen Hyde - New Brooms, 1910, Art Institute of Chicago.
10.Helen Hyde -  The Greeting, 1910, Art Institute of Chicago.

To read more about Helen Hyde: HELEN HYDE AND HER WORK: AN APPRECIATION by Bertha Jaques
Chicago, The Libby Company: 1922

You can also read about Helen Hyde at Helen Hyde: A Student of Felix Regamey, posted here  14 August 2009 and ALlittle Redhead  posted here 4 February 2009.
To read more here about Bertha Jaques, see Bertha Jaques: Chicago Printer posted here 26 July 2008.

10 April 2011

Valeria Belletti In Hollywoodland


If not for the zealousness of the Edison Motion Picture Patents Company, this would be a story of  the outer boroughs of New York City.  Few people remember now that the movie industry began in Essex County, New Jersey where Thomas Edison’s lab produced the Vitascope movie projector.. In 1910, movie production companies, looking to avoid paying the high fees charged by Edison , began searching for a new home.  They tried Florida and Cuba, and finally settled on southern California where the sun always shines and the land was cheap.  By 1915 the exodus was complete and Hollywood was the winner.

Scene I:
As they say in the movies: cut to New Jersey, 1924. On a lark with a girlfriend and a hundred dollars in her pocket, our heroine, the daughter of Italian immigrants, is eager to see the world.  Twenty-six years old, Valeria Belletti was bright, plucky, and attractive, and possessed of that contradictory mixture of innocence and sophistication that moviegoers loved.  It was the death of Valeria's mother in 1923 that prompted Valeria and Irma to set off on the cross country railroad to see the capitol of the movies for themselves.  One hundred thousand other emigres did the same thing that year. Valeria's desire to see Hollywood had been kindled when she worked in Manhattan for Lawrence Langer, founder of the American Theater Guild. 
Scene II:

Irma returned home and Valeria stayed, living at the YWCA until she found a job at MGM as secretary to the irascible studio head Sam Goldwyn. By another stroke of luck, Goldwyn was in Europe, giving her three months  to adjust before the boss reappeared. When Goldwyn returned, he had the Hungarian actress Vilma Banky in tow. Even the canny Goldwyn wasn't thinking of talking pictures in 1925, so the fact that his discovery spoke no English did not stop him from immediately casting Banky in a starring role opposite Ronald Coleman in Dark Angel.  "Ronald is certainly good looking and so modest about it that one can't help liking him," Valeria wrote home about her favorite new acquaintance.

Scene III:
The job duties of a movie mogul's Girl Friday went beyond typing and filing. Valeria was charged with looking for books that could be turned into movies.  To that end, she read constantly, including  Nietzsche, Turgenev, and George Bernard Shaw.  Always eager to learn, she shared what she discovered in letters to Irma.  Valeria was also the courier who arranged for the liquor that flowed freely at Goldwyn's parties. Even in the 1920s the sprawling of Los Angeles affected daily habits.  Speakeasies were few and inconvenient so people  who drank at home during Prohibition required the services of  bootleg couriers.
Scene IV:
Valeria, a petite brunette enjoyed a dazzling array of diversions  horseback lessons at the exclusive Los Angeles Riding Academy,  a ride in a Rolls Royce, and countless parties.  She took up smoking, a daring thing for a young woman, and received a gold cigarette holder.
"You know of course the marriage bond is quite flexible among theatrical people," Valeria confided to Irma in one  letter. Matinee idol Rudolph Valentino was the talk of the movie colony when he left his wife for his co-star Vilma Banky. Banky still hadn't learned English but had managed nevertheless to communicate with the handsome actor. Valeria, though not a prude, reveals a fan-magazine naivete when she writes," I know their relations are not at all intimate, they are just friends."

Scene V: 

The famous are just like everyone else when you see them everyday.  Valeria confided to Irma that she realized that, by persuading Sam Goldwyn to give a screen test to her handsome new boyfriend, she had spelled the end of her romance with Gary Cooper.   By this time Valeria had received several proposals but had turned them all down
The wanderlust that brought Valeria to Hollywood also took her to Europe, where she hoped to see her father,  who had the left the family to return to Italy.   From a weekly salary of $40, she managed to save $1,700 in less than two years. "I'm going to have one more glorious year and then become a dignified woman of uncertain age and live on my memories," she announced grandly.   Valeria sailed for Cherbourg on the Cunard Berengaria in September 1926, but by the time she reached Ventimiglia a telegram waited, with news that her father had died  two months earlier.

Scene VI:
The early months  of 1928 were a precarious time on the  back lots, idled  for  retooling to produce the new 'talkies.'  For once Thomas Edison  got it wrong when he said, "I don't think the talking picture will ever be successful in the United States."
Hollywood, as Valeria Belletti found it, was a frontier city, a place where it seemed that anyone could make their fortune.  Even with encouragement from the successful screen writer Frances Marion (a close friend of Mary Pickford), Valeria lacked the daring to leap from script consultant to screenwriter.  In the days of the silents, women had written half the screenplays produced in Hollywood.  By the time Valeria joined the script department of MGM, working for Cecil B. de Mille, women were no longer promoted.

Scene VII:
Valeria wrote wistfully of her career prospects to Irma but then accepted a proposal of marriage from the boy back home. Tony Baragona agreed to move to Los Angeles and, in August of 1928, the two were married. Valeria became a housewife, an amateur painter, and something of a hypochondriac, doted on by her husband, and the mother of a son. She died in 1959.  Her daughter-in-law Margaret Baragona was the first to realize the treasure of Hollywood history in Valeria's letters.  Published for the first time in 2006, they have been edited by Cari Beauchamp, a film historian and author of the biography of Frances Marion, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood

About that sign.  
Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and a powerful real estate tycoon, whose various syndicates controlled the development of the San Fernando Valley, had the sign erected in 1923 to publicize a new housing development. 

Adventures of A Hollywood Secretary: Letters from a Life at the Studios of the 1920s
by Valeria Belletti, edited by Cari Beauchamp is published by University of California Press, Berkeley: 2006