26 February 2019

"I am out with lanterns"

"I took at the time a memorandum of my several senses, and also of my hat and coat, and my best shoes - but it was lost in the melee, and I am out with lanterns, looking for myself."
   -  Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Holland, around 20 January 1856

Like Emily Dickinson, the Japanese women portrayed in Taisho art were out looking for themselves in the world. What world is this, we may ask. 

Taisho was the art of in-between, sandwiched between the days of Commodore Perry and World War II.   It attracted little attention in the West  until Leonard Lauder donated his impressive collection of Taisho postcards and prints to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, followed by a successful exhibition  The Art of the Japanese Postcard in 2004. 

In the 1920s Japanese artists had a love affair with influences from  western art:  the exaggeratedly long lines of  Art Nouveau  and the streamlined aesthetic of Art Deco (that last an anachronism that only came into use when Bevis Hillier wrote a book with that title in 1966).  

Caught between strict norms dictating female behavior and the pull of modern popular culture, Japanese women styled their conflict between traditional Japanese behavior and modern insouciance.  Their ambivalence was reflected in Taisho art, its kimono-wearing bobbed-haired women and even its inanimate objects - electric light cords hanging from paper lanterns.  We may chafe at the limited opportunities available of office work, shop clerking, or waitressing but for the women dubbed modan gaaru these were doors opening toward the fresh air of freedom.  

Kaichi Kobayashi (1896-1986) was a remarkably sophisticated and worldly designer from Kyoto who began making wood block prints during the Taisho period (1912-1926), so named for the Emperor Taisho.  Kaichi Kobayashi was not alone in drawing impossibly reed-tall women; he had numerous counterpoints in western art, especially in Vienna.

Image:
Kaichi Kobayasha  -  "Woman Standing near Lamp Post" from the series Deserted Street Lanterns, Taisho, early Showa Era, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

18 February 2019

A Little Seamstress


"Fashions are changing in the sphere.
Oceans are asking wave by wave
What new shapes will be worn next year.
And the mountains, stooped and grave,
Are wondering silently range by range
What if they prove to old for change.

The little tailors busily sitting
Flashing their shears in rival haste
Won't spare time for a prior sitting -
In with the stitches, too late to baste.
They say the season for doubt has passed.
The changes coming are due to last."
 -  "A Change of World" by Adrienne Rich, New York, W.W. Norton: 1951

Adrienne Cecile Rich was just twenty-one when W.H. Auden chose her first book for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. What Auden had to say about Rich's poems sounds similar to a superficial assessment of the desirable attributes of a good seamstress when he described them as being "neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them."  Some have dated Rich's political consciousness and her feminism to her third collection Snapshots of a daughter-in-law published in 1963; I detect it right here at the beginning.

I like to think that Vuillard's little seamstress is as subtly revolutionary as Rich's poetry.  The Nabis (nabi is the Hebrew word for Prophet) came together in 1890s Paris to begin the revolution that gradually revealed abstraction as the root of all two dimensional art.   Their art was representational but it took an unexpected turn toward pure design.   We understand major changes backward through time.  The young girl bent over her sewing emerges out of a decorative background that, in other works by Vuillard, would dominate or even imprison the human.  We can only guess at what she might be thinking; Vuillard probably didn't have a clue.  But from our vantage point we can see around the next corner and know change is coming.

Image:
Edouard Vuillard - The Seamstress, c.1893, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

11 February 2019

Travelers in the Desert


The last nights of the year,
            kind, departed spirits return
to Encantado as stars,
    meander
           down dark streets and hallways
                       peer into windows,
congregate around cribs
           again leave glowing glints
of themselves;
      intertwine with our dreams,
shine on bare boughs,
            pines, and cactus spines.

 - "Encantado" by Pat Mora, from Encantado: Desert Monologues, Tucson, University of Arizona  Press: 2018.

On paper one easily draws a line with a ruler and pencil." - Jose Salazar Ylarregui, 1851, on drafting a national boundary between the United States and Mexico

What seemed at a distance to be a featureless wasteland turns out to be a readable landscape to the people who are its familiars.  At night the sky is so dark that stars loom overhead like portents waiting to be read. Although the desert border is arbitrary and difficult to pin down on the ground, generations of border dwellers have regarded the inhospitable terrain as a barrier in itself.   A different kind of line was drawn in 2016 to designate Bears' Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, the cultural home and sacred landscape of  the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, and Ute peoples.

Encantado's obvious precursor is Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.  Published in 1915, it was a collective biography of an imaginary town modeled on Masters' home town in Illinois.  Pat Mora is a child of the southwestern desert, born in El Paso, Texas in 1942, whose parents had immigrated from northern Mexico.   Masters tells his tale through epitaphs given by the dead themselves in the local cemetery; Mora through the overlapping voices of a small town peopled by travelers in the desert.

Not surprisingly, Mora's people of the borderlands are a varied lot.  Some are outsiders like Tuan, a refugee artist from Saigon and Fumio, whose entire Japanese family was in interned in California in during World War II.  The lifers include Lydia, newly widowed, who encapsulates her bereavement: "I buy a potato, to practice cooking for one."  Or Jose, a sign painter childhood memories of blossoming:  "I learned English and how to sweep my school  When other children ran out laughing - I delivered newspapers, but a teacher gave me a pencil, a tablet."  And there is Raul, a retired lens grinder of eyeglasses although lacking in formal education, who muses deeply: "A big man always working, and then: nothing.  Bored, I started wandering away from my body."  Death does make an appearance in Encantado, personified as "Reluctant Death" who  whispers to the living when "it's time."  No voices from beyond the grave here
  
For further reading;
1. Encantado: Desert Monologues by Pat Mora, Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 2018.
2. Voices From Bears' Ears by Rebecca Robinson,  photography by Stephen Strom, Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 2018.

About the artist:
Ynez Johnston (b.1920) is an artist from California who has lived in Meixco and traveled to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952.   Her work combines narrative with abstraction and her own imaginary lands and creatures, human and otherwise.

Image:
Ynez Johnson - Travelers In the Desert, 1956, watercolor drawing, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

07 February 2019

The Stars Hang High


"In the light of the moon, near the sea, in the isolated places of the countryside, one sees, all things take on yellow shapes, indecisive and fantastic." -  from Songs of Maldoror by Comte  de Lautremont, translated by JL. 

Night has been a source of wonder and speculation to artists, a subject so vast that it begs  to be pondered.  Are we immersed in the universe through darkness or do we become deatched from it?  Or both?  Nocturnal journeys under the moon and beneath the stars can induce a sense of vertigo in this "kingdom of the indistinct."   A visual vocabulary that draws on abstraction is certainly well-suited to this subject.

Peter Doig painted The Milky Way  when he was still a graduate student at the Chelsea School of Art.  "At the time I rode my bike every day to Chelsea along the Embankment and was looking a lot at Whistler's quick washy paintings which often had a small figurative element.  The stars themselves came from a star chart of one of my fellow students.  They represented the Milky Way in November which is when I painted them in."
Doig's Milky Way is a masterpiece of indirection.  The reflections in preternaturally still water show  a world where earth has disappeared, become liquid.  Trees and stars both clump and separate in their reflections.  Doig shows us the vastness of the universe in that night sky by placing a young girl adrift in a canoe at the center of the image.



Vincent Van Gogh wrote in 1888, "Often the night seems more richly colored than the day."  Jan Sluijters, agreed with his Dutch compatriot on the evidence of Maanacht IV.  It was at the turn of the century and more than a decade after Van Gogh's death that his work become known to a generation of younger artists who seized on night as a subject for their radical new style.  On his way home from travels sponsored by his Prix de Rome, Sluijters passed through Paris in 1906 and took Fauvism home with him to Amsterdam.   The red halo around the moon in Moonlight illuminates a landscape where everything solid appears to be red-hot.  Oddly enough, I recently saw a photograph of a sunset landscape with water with these same colors.  Who can say definitively that this vision is unrealistic?    At the time he painted Moonlight in 1912, Sluijters was a prominent avant-garde painter who inspired Piet Mondrien whose fame would outpace his own.  

Henri Michaux wrote a poem to explain (!) or obfuscate The Prince of the Night.

"Prince of the night, the double, the gland
of the stars,
from the seat of Death, from the useless column, from the supreme
interrogation.

Prince of the broken crown, 
of the divided Kingdom, of the wooden hand.

Petrified prince in the panther dress.
Prince lost.
 - "The Prince of the Night" , translated by JL





Henri Michaux grew up in Brussels and,  after moving to Paris in the 1920s he would denounce all things Belgian in his background. He became quite the explorer of unusual outposts, visiting Argentina and Uruguay, and even writing a book sort of about Ecuador (1929).   His refusal of public appearances and interviews  and even awards gave an impression of an artist fleeing his public.
Disdaining to attach specific meanings to his works, Michaux did his best to repel the attempts of others to impose them.  He made art in very controlled ways to reach an uncontrolled ends.  Ripples of orange, red, blue and even green flow across a black paper background in Le Prince de la Nuit.  Using black as his background color rather than the customary white was another of Michaux's deliberately provocative but inscrutable choices.  It is possible that the royal purple of the throne is  its only decipherable element.
So full of contradictions and prolific in both words and images, it comes a no surprise that the Michaux Archives in Paris are vast, they contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman might have said.

Thanks to Tania for reminding me of  nocturnal paintings by Leon Spilliaert and William Degouve de Nuncques, two Belgian artists.

Images:
1. Peter Doig (b. 1959) - The Milky Way, 1989, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.
2. Jan Sluijters (1881-1957) -  Maanacht IV (Moonlight) 1912, Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, Netherlands.
3. Henri Michaux (1899-1984) - Le Prince de la nuit (Prince of the Night), 1937, Pompidou Center, Paros.

01 February 2019

Edna Andrade: Art & the Mathematics of Nature


Recently the paintings of Hilma af Klint have been on exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, revealing the Swedish artist as a, possibly the, pioneer of abstraction in modern art.  Heretofore, af Klint has been not unknown but her reputation has definitely flown under the radar.   Her international debut took place in 1986, forty-two years after her death, in a group exhibition The Spiritual in Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Just as we can look at her work with fresh eyes, so we may be ready to see the geometric abstractions of American artist Edna Andrade (1917-2008) as more than a soft version of Op Art.

The similarities between the two artists are hard to miss.  While af Klint found in geometric forms,  such as the golden mean and the Fibonacci spiral, evidence of an esoteric divine cosmology, Andrade came to use mathematical proportions in her work as emblems of rhythms in nature.  Various symbolisms may be attached by viewers to the orbiting moons in Ahmet Hello and the cross at the center of Space Frame (at left).  They are, of course, commonly used signs in many different cultures.

However the impact of the paintings is related to their size; af Klint's canvases typically tower over viewers whereas Andrade's square images are typically 50 x 50 inches and the rectangles are similarly sized.  Bold describes af Klint's intent while Andrade's works invite a more intimate experience.

Op Art burst into the limelight with the Museum of Modern Art's 1965 exhibition "The Responsive Eye."   Andrade was not one of the artists included in the reputation-making show.  Nevertheless,  dealers began to take an interest in her work. Andrade later said of the name Op Art: "It's too simple.  It seems to refer too directly to the physiology of the eyes.  It fails to suggest that we are exploring the whole process of perception."  

Andrade's geometric works emanate a serenity that suggests motion and stillness at the same time.  This could describe the dynamic that is visible in a bridge so it is an apt comparison for the art of the daughter of a civil engineer.  There is more to see than dizzying kinetic energy, although she could do that too.  

Andrade said that she turned to abstract painting for the homeliest of reasons.  She was married and teaching school which left her with short periods of time to work on her art.  By working with grids she was able to create a pattern that she could then work on in small amounts as time permitted.  Andrade compared her way of painting to the traditional arts women have practiced is sexist societies such as knitting and needlepoint.  In the 1970s Andrade exhibited with Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro, two artists who worked with Pattern & Decoration, a movement that celebrated arts traditionally practiced by women. 

Read more about Edna Andrade at Locks Gallery.

Images:
1. Edna Andrade - Ahmet Hello, 1967, oil on linen, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
2. Edna Andrade - Space Dream, 1970, acrylic on canvas, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
3. Edna Andrade - Turbo - I-65, 1965, oil on canvas, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
4. Edna Andrade - Twilight Wave, acrylic on canvas, 1973, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia