Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Cats" by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

The cat stands on the edge, neck curved up like that of a hissing snake. Milky, round eyes stare out from a diminished head. Black shadow falls across the creature's back in the shape of a wing with feathered texture across the edge. Is this cat or chimera, feline or sphinx?

A whisper of a figure in the background is muzzled by the upright companion's aggressive stance. A passive state of mind comes across with ears and eyes cast down and the hatch-marks across the head and back like so much background debris.

The house cat at rest seems a domesticated loaf, but in the right moment, under the right lighting, we see that within all tamed beasts, wild seed can still germinate.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Prophetess" by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

In 1937 the Nazi Party organized an exhibit called Die Ausstellung "Entartete Kunst" (in English, the "Degenerate Art" Exhibition) to run concurrent with the Great German Art Exhibition, and thus showcase the dangers of so-called cultural disintegration.

Confiscated works of modern art by artists such as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff were hung in a haphazard manner alongside mocking and critical slogans, such as "Nature as seen through sick minds." Artists were specifically criticized for finding inspiration from "primitive" people such as Africans, Polynesians, and Gypsies, insulting German womanhood, distorting natural forms, and exhibiting a lack of artistic skill.

The Degenerate Art Exhibition included over 50 of Schmidt-Rottluff's works. I do not know if this particular woodcut (created in 1919) appeared in the exhibition. However, it (and most of Schmidt-Rottluff's work) easily fits the bill for all the Nazi's criticisms: there's an obvious African art influence, a woman's face is depicted in a way which is unflattering and unfeminine by conventional, Western standards, the human form is highly stylized so as to be more emotionally expressive than naturalistic, and the overall design is simplistic.

This portrait cuts through the distractions of dazzling craft and pretty imagery. The woman soothsayer speaks loud and clear as she gestures with her hand for dramatic emphasis. She transforms into something alien, yet somehow familiar. Her form is her message, a juxtaposition of primal past and future unknown.

Indeed, for us in the year 2014, she has already arrived, her predictions made manifest in the postmodern age.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Student Work: "Ladybug" and "Cricket"

I teach through the Wagner Free Institute for Science's SNAP program. Right now my kids are studying Entomology for the science curriculum, and for the complimentary art portion I'm having them create woodcuts inspired by insects.

Two of my kids showed up the day we did drawings on blocks, but they didn't show up for either of the carving days. This deeply disappointed me since I knew their drawings would make awesome woodcuts. So today I took those blocks home and did the carving for them.

Hopefully the kids will come back on the days we are printing and get to see how the process of woodcut printmaking transformed their drawings. In the meantime, here are the proofs of Cam's Ladybug and Christian's Cricket. (Both are approximately 4" x 4".)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

"Orwell's Cat"

"Orwell's Cat" 
5.5" x 8" (paper) 4" x 4" (image) 
Artist's Proof 

Someone on Etsy who liked my Cats A-Z prints asked if I'd do a print inspired by a photograph of George Orwell circulating around the Internet with his cat peeking out from behind him (see below). 

The request added: 

"I like the idea that he had a cat who wrote stuff only not as good,obviously." 

I'm all about the anthropomorphism of animals. So I came up with this. I tried to be subtle and put a pencil behind the cat's ear, but that's difficult since cats don't have ears like humans. I like the black and white, but I also did a hand-colored one and I think I like it better. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Goshikibara" by Hiroshi Yoshida

The eyes deceive.
We see the green expanse,
The still, gray waters,
We think we apprehend
The distance to the mountain.
From this viewpoint
All seems possible.
We see all necessary steps
At once, and think
We simply need to
Take one step at a time.

But the mind cannot comprehend
The heart cannot accept the
Brevity of life.

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Winter Blossom" by Hung Liu

This is a woodcut of sorts. The artist Hung Liu doesn't make woodcuts in any traditional way. Her process used for this image is described on Magnolia Editions Blog:

"Winter Blossom is a hybrid of two processes, incorporating both traditional and unorthodox printmaking techniques. The image was first cut into a block of wood using a laser, after which further edits were hand-carved by Hung Liu. The woodcut was printed on a Takach etching press using traditional black relief ink; all of the colors in each print (digitally manipulated by the artist) were then registered and printed using a UV-cured acrylic inkjet printer."

This combination of ancient craft and modern, digital technology comes through in the final image. The vertical, green lines behind the portrait remind me of both wood grain and lines of code from The Matrix. The pink flowers that bloom from a gnarly tree branch refer to beauty in nature, and yet they scream urban graffiti through the skilled-yet-hasty way they are rendered.

Photograph of Zhen Fei
The branch and blossoms slither and drip ominously around portrait of Zhen Fei. We see only the face of the legendary concubine, reproduced from a century-old photograph. The garish colors and hidden costume transform her from a mere historical figure to a modern and confrontational presence. She looks directly at us, and yet her face seems impersonal, like a mask. Her silent, doll eyes taunt, reminding us of everything we don't know and will never find out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Seated nude facing right and meditating" by Max Kurzweil

The title says she's meditating, but she appears quite sad to me. A couple days ago I wrote about another Kurzweil woodcut of a woman in despair. But Der Polster was very different from this black and white beauty.

One thing they have in common is the sharp, elegance of the design. Kurzweil might be interested in the human psyche, but unlike many of his more crude and expressive Die Brucke contemporaries, he won't sacrifice polish and form for emotional emphasis.

Because of these priorities, it is easy to see this picture of a woman as a beautiful object even more so than as something which evokes empathy or sympathy. And there's something just a tad creepy in that, not least of all because it seems true to life.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Der Polster (The Cushion)" by Max Kurzweil

This was another one of the prints I saw in an exhibition of Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection  at the National Gallery of Art in DC last weekend. I decided to write about it on its own since it clearly didn't fit in with the more crude and more emotionally charged Die Brucke prints I wrote about previously.

I've seen this image many times in reproduction, but this was the first time seeing it in person. It always sort of reminded me of Mary Cassatt's work, particularly her drypoint and aquatints, such as Woman Bathing (La Toilette) depicted below. Cassatt's women and children always have a sort of genteel atmosphere, no matter what common, everyday activity engages them.
Many of Max Kurzweil's women and girls appear wealthy, gorgeous, and posing in their best for the viewer. But the woman in Der Polster in depicted in a private moment of despair. She buries her face in her arm while one hand clutches the back of her seat.

Despite the emotions happening, this picture is so pretty. The pattern on the couch and the elegant lines outlining the folds in her dress, her hair, and the cushion, one cannot help but enjoy the sheer loveliness of the design. I can only imagine that this woman, when she has fully released her sorrow in seclusion, will lift her head and return to her refined life with grace. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Die Brücke Woodcuts on Display at the National Gallery of Art

Head of Dr. Bauer, Kirchner
While I was in DC this past weekend checking out the Kiyochika exhibition, I also took a stroll inside the National Gallery of Art to check out Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection (on display through June 29.)

I was specifically hoping to find woodcuts by members of Die Brücke, and I was not disappointed. All my favorites were represented: Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel, Otto Mueller, and of course the unmatched Ernst Kirchner. It was the first time I've had a chance to see more than a mere reproduction in an art history book of Kirchner's Five Women In the Street.

I was struck by the large size of many of the portraits, figures, and some landscapes hanging on the walls. All of Kirchner's portraits were larger than life-sized. This, combined by the crude and expressive style, made me feel not only captivated, but shrunk and quieted by their charismatic presence. Kirchner's vividly-colored woodcut Head of Dr. Bauer - with its beady, blue eyes - was particularly monstrous.

Five Women In the Street, Kirchner
This exhibition isn't a particularly complete look at German Expressionism; it definitely left me wanting more, as I I felt it didn't present enough of the most powerful work to really get across the drama and passion behind the movement. But this sampling does at least include work representing all the major players.

It is interesting in that the exhibition includes these heavy hitters alongside other, lesser-known artists who were not part of that movement, but who were working at the same time and speaking the same language. At first I felt a little confused by the array of works, but after a while it seemed to make sense in that it took Die Brücke out of its own narrow focus and put it in the appropriate larger cultural context.

Monday, April 7, 2014

"Kiyochika: Master of the Night" at the Freer/Sackler in DC

The Sumida River at Night
I had the great pleasure to see this exhibition in DC this past weekend and got an up close and personal look at a significant body of work by Kobayashi Kiyochika. Definitely worth the three and a half hour drive from Philadelphia.

It makes such a difference to see these works in person. Prints tends to be smaller than paintings (these were mostly horizontal, about 15 inches across), which emphasizes a more intimate experience similar to reading a picture book. To look at them on a wall, each framed, and one after another is a kind of peering through windows; quietly spying on a foreign land from a bygone era.

A Steam Locomotive in Hazy Moonlight
Kiyochika came of age during the start of the Modern Era in Japan, and his work is reflective of the dramatically transitional Meiji Period in that nation's history. The old and the new Japan are combined seamlessly in most of the images. For example, in The Sumida River at Night, a woman in a kimono is depicted beside a man wearing a Western style hat. (The "man in the hat" was such a prominent reoccurring image that the museum's curators made special note of it in writing.)

As Kiyochika worked in the traditional ukiyo-e style of woodblock printmaking, it was slightly jarring to see imagery of trains and clock towers depicted in that style. I found myself deeply pondering how both threatening and exhilarating it must have felt for the people who lived through such times to see so much rapid change shaped by foreign influences.

Another reoccurring image in Kiyochika's work is the crack in the sky. In these works, it often seems as if something ominous and disapproving is gathering overhead. There is a feeling of helplessness and being guided by mysterious and powerful forces.

The people in Kiyochika's images seem ghostly and anonymous. They are frequently shown in dark silhouette, and often floating, such as when they cast no shadow on the ground. Since the layers of color are often translucent, figures whose forms cross a highly contrasting horizon line are divided by it. It is as if they are dissipating in the rain or hazy evening light. Things are changing, but this is still the floating world.

Asakusa Bridge and the Great Fire at Ryogoku
I felt particularly moved by the images depicting the Great Fire at Ryogoku and its aftermath. During the fire, the structures of the earth and sky merge into one, breathtaking, seething mass of hot destruction. In one print, the typically quietly floating people spring to life and run, though still translucent, ghostly, and at the mercy of greater forces. Afterward, silent, flat outlines of nondescript humanity drifted across the leveled, ragged landscape.

My only disappointment was that the museum produced no catalog for sale. After seeing all the work, I'd resolved to buy one even if it was pricey. Alas, I walked out empty handed.

You can see some shots of the interior view of the exhibition and read another good review of the exhibition by Farrah Skeiky here. The work is up through July 27th, so if you'll be in or near DC before then, check it out. Admission is free!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

"The Library of Congress" by Unichi Hiratsuka


sometimes while walking
there are moments when
all the structures, both
man-made and natural
come together to form a
truly elegant composition
pregnant with meaning
begging for attention and

it is important not only to
notice these moments, but also
to take pause

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Katt Och Uggla (Cat and Owl)" by Kristina Anshelm

When I was poking around the Internet looking for more information on Eva Stockhaus, I discovered this amazing Swedish printmaker, Kristina Anshelm. (Click here to check out her website.)

Two small hunters have perched side by side. Their claws run parallel to the curve of the branch which supports them. Stripes, dashes, and spots; fur, feathers, and bark - it is a symphony of texture. Moonlight reflects on their patches of white so bright as to obscure the hungers' true forms.

She nods toward him, eyes closed, savoring this moment of togetherness.

He remains wide-eyed and gazing forward, vigilant.