December 16, 2014

At the Met: Warring Beauty

Helmet in the Shape of a Sea Conch, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; iron, with gold and silver inlay.

I enjoy wandering into the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Arms and Armor collection from time to time. In the European gallery 371, the small men clad in shining steel sit atop small horses (humans and horses were much much smaller in the 16th century), also covered in armor. They are gorgeous and frightening. My favorite gallery in this extensive collection is 377, Japanese Arms and Armor. Here I can ponder Homo sapiens's deep attachment to aggression while looking at freely inventive and beautiful objects worn for war. These were armor for Samurai, Japan's warrior elite. As described on the Met's website at the samurai link:
Mastery of the arts of war was by no means sufficient. To achieve and maintain their wealth and position, the samurai also needed political, financial, and cultural acumen.
Samurai were patrons of Buddhism, of the arts of painting and theater and calligraphy; some were poets. Knowing this, it is not surprising that a helmet would express such creativity, and such careful observation of a natural object.

Helmet in the Shape of a Sea Conch detail

That object, a sea shell, is inlaid with delicate designs in gold and silver, adding a vividness to the gray iron.

Helmet in the Shape of a Crouching Rabbit, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; lacquered iron, silver, gold, leather, silk.

A rabbit crouches amid grasses, looking like it's about to spring forward. This is another surprising image for a warrior's helmet. I wonder if the rabbit is a symbol of the warrior's clan or lord.

Helmet (Suji Kabuto), inscribed by Yoshihisa and Nobumasa, Japan, Muromachi period, 16th century; iron, silver, stenciled leather, silk. 

This helmet seems closer to what one would expect in a warring setting, a shape that could even be modern. But then there is the elegant floral silver inlay, making poetry out of iron.

Helmet (Hoshi-Kabuto) in the 16th century style, Japan, Edo period, ca. late 17th - early 18th century; 
lacquered iron, silk. 

Here is another seemingly fanciful decoration: two pine cones with nature's geometry in front of lines of raised rivets, an orderly sculptural expression.

Samurai's Hat (Jingasa), Japan, Edo period, late 18th - early 19th century; 
lacquered paper maché, copper, silver, gold.

This beautiful hat, so clear in line and simple in its decoration, "was worn for traveling or in camp".

Armor (Gusoku), Japan, Edo period, 17th century; lacquered iron, silk, gilt copper. 

In the gallery are several full sets of armor, complete with frightening masks. It's interesting to contrast this set of armor with the European, in which the face is totally hidden. The expression of this Japanese mask reminds me of the fearsome faces made by Maori warriors in their war dance.

from Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha

Many of us are aware of samurai culture from the movies, especially those period dramas of the brilliant Kurosawa. The Japanese armor in display cases in the museum comes to life with the images of his films vividly in mind. Kagemusha is one of the most powerful anti-war films I have seen, a cry from the heart against human foolishness and stupidity. We can hope to take the beauty and leave the war behind.

December 15, 2014

A Walk in the Woods: Balancing

I was feeling rather glum this morning: yet another dark cloudy day in a long string of them, a day forecast for some sun, but a temperature inversion brought gray skies. My tendency is to stay indoors feeling sorry for myself, but I gave myself a talking to, put my camera around my neck, strapped on my snow shoes, and went for a long walk in the woods, a sure cure for melancholy.

The snows of last week are still clinging to boughs and branches, and make a marvelous landscape crisscrossed with lines of gray-browns and white. I felt as though in another world walking through it.

Looking closely, I found magical balancing acts, with dancing shapes of icy snow on top of small branches.

The crystal snow was like a chorus-line trapeze act, fluttering with light....

....or like some mythical creatures glimpsed only briefly.

Snow also clung to available surfaces, like those of small shelf mushrooms.

Dangling from the ends of evergreens, clear icy crystals, natural baubles for the season.

Another ice decoration clung to a small branch, competing in loveliness with the bright dried berries.

The snow even looked beautiful balanced atop a round of pale blue plastic, maple sugar tubing.

Stepping out of the woods to an open view, I saw the branches of a tree highlighted in white; they seemed to move and flow like the arms of a many-limbed goddess. Whether looking near or far, the act of looking itself, of paying attention to the world of nature, balances my life: gazing outward, not focused on the self; away from the art world, away from the computer, I take a deep breath of beauty.

December 11, 2014

"On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings" by William James

I have been reading a biography of the philosopher and psychologist William James, In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, by Robert Richardson. It has brought back to mind some essays of James, a humanist thinker whose ideas on the multiplicity of life, and the primacy of experience, are very attractive to me. I have written about his essays: the brilliant one on "Habit"; on "The Gospel of Relaxation", comparing it to Buddhist thought. And I've written on his great short essay "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings". I am for the first time republishing a blog post, one that I wrote two years ago, just before Christmas, soon after the school shooting at Sandy Hook. It seems to me that we need James's wisdom yet again after the recent police shootings, his admonishment that we can't know what is in another heart. This understanding would go a long way to allaying prejudices; if we all could accept this, would racism still exist? 

In this season of "peace on earth, good will to men", I wanted to share with you some of the ideas from a beautiful essay by the philosopher William James titled "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings", written in 1898, which you can read here. He writes:
...the blindness in human beings of which this discourse will treat is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves. 
To make his points, James quotes various writers at length––Stevenson, Wordsworth, Whitman, Tolstoy––but he begins with a couple of personal anecdotes, one about the disconnect in understanding between us and our dogs, which goes a long way in humorously illustrating mutual miscomprehension:
"Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other!––we to the rapture of bones under hedges...they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge in your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will towards you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?"
 James also tells us of traveling through North Carolina and seeing clearings made by settlers which he thought showed "unmitigated squalor", nature defiled. But it was explained to him that these rude clearings were victories for the people living there. I thought back on the early settlers of Vermont, who cleared land bit by bit, planting between tree stumps, whose land must have looked violently ugly at first. He admitted that he "had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine..."

I reread this essay today with an open heart, trying to accept, in this time of mass shootings and political rancor, that I must be willing to see the significance of other lives. James, by quoting a long excerpt from Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Lantern Bearers", points out that all lives have an inner glow that might be hidden by "a rude mound of mud", but that, according to Stevenson, "...the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out out where joy resides, and give it a voice beyond singing....For to miss the joy is to miss all".

So much of this essay, and one that follows, "What Makes a Life Significant", is an elucidation of deeply democratic principles, a belief that it is not only the lives of the successful and powerful that have meaning; James quotes Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" here to great effect, where "Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!" The great gathering of humanity is as beautiful and enlarging as Wordsworth's mountain dawns. These words of James are like gospel to me:
To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world's presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one's sense of its unfathomable significance and importance. 
This post would be very long if I included every sentence underlined, every paragraph highlighted. If your interest is piqued, read the essay at the link above; it is fairly short and very readable since it was originally delivered as a lecture. But I will end with James' summing up final paragraph:
And now what is the result of all these considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field. 

December 10, 2014

A New Painting: "Zigzag"

Zigzag, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/2 x 9 in.

Each summer when I go out to find motifs for my paintings I think that my vision will become more pared down, more and more minimal. In general it has done so over the past few years, but I still fall in love with quirky, more complex images such as in Zigzag; I find myself unable to be a minimalist purist. Though in a way, I can see this as a humorous variation on a stripe painting. 

Zigzag detail

I had to paint many layers of color––lighter/darker, warmer/cooler––to get the hues and values to show convincing light. It is easy to do with the fast drying egg tempera, and its translucency, which shows the shifting color, adds richness to the surface. People think of egg tempera as laborious, but it's not at all like that; it is quick and full of light.

December 8, 2014

At the Met: From Assyria to Iberia, the Ageless Beauty of Objects

Plaque with lioness attacking a youth, Nimrud, 9th-8th century B.C.; ivory, gold, semiprecious stones, and vitreous material. Image courtesy NY Times

Wandering the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art––from the Near East to the Far East, to Africa, and the Americas, and Europe; from millennia B.C. to the current day––I often marvel at the human desire for beauty. We seem to need it, along with a need to picture, to represent the world around us. The objects that remain, that are exhibited in museums, are of course the most beautiful and are often for the elites of a culture, but aren't we lucky to have them! The other characteristic of human culture that the Met at times emphasizes in special exhibitions is our wandering nature; whether to conquer or to trade or out of curiosity or need, we move about the globe. In the current exhibition, Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age, we see works from the Near Eastern empires to those of the Mediterranean, and see influences flow back and forth.

I have to admit, though, that I am less interested in the complex histories of the works––some of which you can see in an excellent slide show at the NY Times––than their aesthetic qualities. The remarkable plaque above was my favorite piece in the show, small though it is. In it, the lithe bodies of man and animal are locked in an embrace; rather than a struggle we see a kiss and an ecstatic surrender. The elegantly patterned surroundings emphasize the beauty of the moment, rather than its horror.

Chair back panel with striding man, Nimrud, 9th-8th century B.C.; ivory.

There were other beautifully carved small ivory pieces on view. Photographs were not allowed, the Met's website has very few images, so I "stole" a few photographs when I could. I love relief carving. maybe because it's between sculpture and painting; a subtle three dimensionality doesn't overwhelm the elegant composition of flowing line and the sensitive depiction of the forms of plant, animal, and human.

Relief showing a lion hunt, with king pouring a libation over the dead lions, Nineveh, 
ca. 645-640 B.C.; gypsum alabaster.

Reliefs showing the battle of Til Tuba, Nineveh, 660-650 B.C.; limestone.

Bodies upon bodies: the Assyrian kingdom was a violent and bloodthirsty one, whether killing lions in a ritual hunt or killing men in battle. But....the artists of the kingdom made from these events powerful and moving sculpture. There is very careful and detailed observation, especially in the picturing of animals. The men are stiff, their emotions contained, but the lions have both pathos and grandeur. I remember being moved to tears by the panels of the Assyrian lion hunt when I first saw them at the British Museum many years ago.

Cauldron with lion attachments, Caere, 675-650 B.C.; bronze.

Lions appear again, in more stylized form, on a large cauldron. This is from ancient Etruria, near Rome, and was influenced by designs from the Near East. To me it looks like a magical, ceremonial object, almost frightening in its decorations of open-mouthed, fierce-toothed lions. The curved forms of the attachments echo the bulbous form of the container.

Cosmetic container, Etruria, 700-650 B.C.; Tridacna squamosa shell.

Lastly, objects I found utterly charming: cosmetic containers made from large shells. In the several on view, a woman's head was carved into the top of the shell, the part called an umbo. The shell itself, with decorative carvings, became the flowing lines of a dancing cape. There is such pleasure for me in these works and others in this exhibition, seeing imagination and artistry powerfully present centuries after their making.

December 5, 2014

A New Textile: "Translucent Curves"

Translucent Curves, hand dyed wool on linen, 10 x 19 1/2 in.

The titles I use for my works are generally flatly descriptive, but I was tempted with this textile to be a little funny and metaphoric and call it Hill and Dale; then I thought, no, the idea of landscape will be annoying fixed on what is an abstract idea, so I changed it to Green and Pink Curves; but that missed a main component of the piece, which was the value shifts from lighter to darker in each hue, so I finally settled on Translucent Curves.

Translucent Curves studies

This is a page of thumbnail sketches, where I am working out some major decisions about color and about the direction of the hooking. Once I'd decided on the darker red/green on top of the image, there were several ways I could hook the piece: all-over curves, or two directions of curves, as in the bottom two sketches. I ended up going with the middle sketch, so as not to break up the flow of reds. Below is a detail of the meeting of the four colors, two directions of hooking. 

Translucent Curves detail

December 3, 2014

Winter Fog: Mystery/Clarity

Fog makes a mystery of the world, as it sinks into a soft obscurity; fog illuminates the clarity of space as each plane––the near, the middle, the far distance––shows dark, mid-toned, and light.

On a clear day the form of this ancient apple tree––I think of it as a bent old lady––would not show up as strongly as it does with the background grayed by fog.

A stand of dried weeds echoes the shape of pale trees in the middle distance; the fog creates a poetic relationship, and the snow creates the drama of dark on light.

Dried grasses, which just a few days ago were sparkling white with hoarfrost, are now warm colors, a screen before a grayed landscape (ah, the wonders of winter's moods).

Close to us, the clarity of grasses against snow; the distance has two layers, the closer with some color, behind it, gray. 

The distant hills are completely obscured by fog; we see soft outlines of bare trees, then the clearer form of a young maple, still bearing some leaves; closest to us, a repeated form of small tree, with dark, crisp branches.

A drop of moisture, hanging from the branch of an apple tree, contains another branch within it. A day like this makes the world seem as though so much is hidden; it feels sad and distant, yet at the same time, it is life seen anew.

December 2, 2014

At the Met: "Ragamala: Picturing Sound"

Vasant Ragini, India (Rajastan, Amber), early 17th century; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper;
9 13/16 x 7 7/8 in. 

It is always a delight to see an exhibit of Indian paintings; their forms and colors are so engaging, and their intimate size invites close looking. Their worlds are magical, with attention paid to flowing, brightly colored garments and elegant limbs, and to the riches of nature. And some paintings are celebrations of music and of love. There's a small show of paintings, titled "Ragamala: Picturing Sound", in one of the Met's almost-secret galleries, up some stairs at the end of the Indian galleries. Any information I have comes from the Met's description of the show and of the individual paintings, all 20 of which you can see at the link. A ragamala is a group of paintings, gathered in a folio, which depict a range of melodies, with different moods. In some paintings, as the one above, the mood is written as poetry in the margin. And to quote the exhibition description, "The unifying subject of a ragamala is love...."

Vasant Ragini detail

This painting is a celebration of spring. I love the flowers in the nobleman's hat, the pot of flowers he holds high; he dances, like Krishna, surrounded by beautiful maidens. He carries a musical instrument, made with two gourds, beautifully decorated, like the one below.

Mahati Vina, India, ca. 1885; gourd, various materials; 56 x 14 in.

This type of stringed instrument is pictured in many of the paintings; it was wonderful to see it, and see the care with with it was decorated. 

Ruknuddin, Kedar Ragini, India (Bikaner, Rajasthan), ca. 1690-95; opaque watercolor and ink on paper; image: 5 7/8 x 4 11/16 in. 

This image is so subtle and delicate, the evening light soft and color subdued. The artist has illustrated texts that describe "an ascetic 'in penance, adorned, gray [with ashes]' listening to a disciple, who is described as 'a young man beauteous in every limb', playing the rudra vina."

Vasant Ragini, India (Madhya Pradesh, Malwa), ca. 1630-40; ink and opaque watercolor on paper; 
7 5/8 x 5 3/4 in. 

Krishna dances in another homage to spring. The line of flowering plants at bottom, and trees at the top of the painting, are fanciful and celebratory.

Setmalar Ragini, India (Madhya Pradesh, Malwa), ca. 1630-40; ink and opaque watercolor on paper; 
13 1/4 x 9 3/4 in. 

The rainy season is evoked here with the bands of clouds at the top of the painting, with stylized lightning looking like brown snakes.

Setmalar Ragini detail

What is most wonderful are the imaginatively patterned trees and the vivid birds, and Krishna's delicate gesture in feeding one of them.

Shri Raga, India (Rajasthan, Bundi), mid 17th century; ink and opaque watercolor on paper;
8 1/4 x 4 3/4 in.

What I love most about Indian painting is the use of color: the juxtapositions of different hues and values is brilliant; orange against red; violet with orange, blue and pink and tan and yellow; a rectangle of green topped by bands of violet and orange; yellow parapets, white ones. There are so many ideas about color that I often refer to my books on Indian painting when I'm working.

Solanki Raga, India (Deccan), ca. 1590; ink and opaque watercolor on paper; 
10 5/ 16 x 8 3/4 in.

This painting has a very different color mood, deep and rich. 

Panchama Ragini, India (Rahasthan, Bikaner), ca. 1640; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 
7 3/4 x 4 7/8 in. 

More gorgeous color adorns this painting; a strong salmon pink creates a structure that is punctuated by the greens of clothing and wall. This painting "expresses entertainment, happiness, and love".

Andhrayaki Ragini, India (Himachal Pradesh, Bilaspur), ca. 1710; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 8 1/2 x 6 1/8 in. 

What a marvel of pattern adorns this painting, pattern to describe a terrible storm, lightning outlined in gold. The storm is meant as "a metaphor for the turmoil of love". 

Bairadi Ragini, India (Rajasthan, Bikaner), ca. 1605-06; ink and opaque watercolor on paper;
8 1/4 x 6 1/8 in. 

A strong, beautiful red shape above an orange floor and yellow bedspread, surrounded by a violet structure: the painting would be wonderful with just those shapes and colors, but there is also a story, which is told in the ragamala text: "That most beautiful one, wearing fine armlets....[is] holding off her beloved with her fly-whisk." A quarrel, her finger pointed!...his hand attempting to touch her. With elegance and beauty and restraint, the tale is told.