Saturday, April 30, 2016

Historical Australian Embroidery
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

A detailed history of the art of embroidery has already been given on this blogspot - Silk, Silk Road and the Art of Embroidery. Today’s post is concerned with early Australian embroidery.

Throughout history, embroidery has been one of the most intricately worked and colorful forms of decorative needlework. Unfortunately only in a few instances do very early records exist giving details of stiches and patterns in general used throughout the centuries.

An account in the Book of Exodus does tell us even in those early times Aaron’s robe was lavishly embellished with “pomegranates of blue and of purple and of scarlet around the hem thereof; and bells of gold between them round about”.

Aaron’s robe.

Remains of delicate embroideries have been found during excavations into ancient Egyptian burial sites; and a number of early Oriental pieces are also preserved – see earlier post.

Egyptian embroidery, found in a tomb at Thebes.
Courtesy of Gutenburg Project.

The world famous Bayeux Tapestry provides not only temporary reportage of the Battle of Hastings, but also an authentic picture of 11th Century European embroidery.

The full Bayeux tapestry.

Similarly the decorative needlework of Mary Queen of Scots is both intrinsically magnificent and also a pointer to later developments in stitchery.

Dolphin embroidery, Mary Queen of Scots.

Yet perhaps the most informative of all historic embroideries are the early samplers, providing as they do accurate and detailed records of techniques that date from the 1500s.

Linen sampler embroidered with silk in double running stitch, by unknown maker (Egypt, 14th-16th Century).

The sampler itself is basically a repertory of various stitches and designs, usually embroidered onto loose-weave linen. The term is derived from the Old French word essamplaire meaning pattern or model. Originally the sampler served as a stitchery notebook, listing selections of techniques first learned and then practiced in repeated horizontal rows. Only later did the sampler become something of an art form with scope for more original work.

An extensive assortment of stiches is displayed in Jane Bostocke’s sampler of 1598 – one of the earliest to survive.

Fascinating stitches like roco, Hungarian, Flórentine and Algerian Eye worked in silver and silver-gilt featured fairly early in sampler history, when the linen used was characteristically long and narrow in shape – often between six and twelve inches wide and up to five times as long. The sampler only became squarer and more pictorial around the mid-18th Century.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries in Europe and America, it became common place for young girls to make at least one such sampler whilst at school. Embroidery was an all-important part of the female school curriculum at the time; and so the sampler was soon to become - not just a souvenir of childhood, possibly of a small girl’s first exercise in stitchery – but also a pattern memorandum.

Hannah Taylor from Newport, Rhode Island, made this sampler in 1774, depicting her home and family in an intricate combination of cross-stich, satin stitch and crewel work.

Early Australian Embroidery
Embroidery is an enormously rich area of the arts. The changes in artistic styles and fashionable interiors are reflected constantly in embroidery and as an art form, in its symbols and techniques it embodies the history of women throughout the ages.

Australian embroidery dates only from the first half of the 19th Century. There is in Australia, however, a breadth and depth of embroidery, which reveals the history of embroidery itself. The art is practiced by all groups in the Australian society – from country folk, to the most urbanized city folk, from all strata of class in society (working class to middle class to the rich).

Embroidery has always had a great appeal to all groups of women, as it requires few tools. Historically the skills have been taught in Australia within the family or primary school, and articles to make and embroider have been available in Australia in kit form since the 1850s.

Design and stencil class, Fort Street Girls School, Sydney (Australia) 1910.

The earliest forms of Australian embroidery still remaining are samplers, pincushions and pictorial compositions, usually incorporated in designs for household articles such as cushion covers and pillow covers.

“Advance Australia” layette pincushion, made in 1833 on the arrival of a new baby. One of the oldest Australian items of domestic creativity to survive in mint condition.

It was the custom in the early 19th Century in Australia (as recalled by Mary Gilmore in her essay – Old Days Old Ways) to lay a hand-embroidered pincushion on the front doorstep of a friend who had given birth.

Foreground: Pincushion made for Isabel Turnbull in 1838.
Rear: Two beaded cushions, mid 19th Century.

In Australia the earliest needlework pictures in worsted wool are copies of oil paintings or prints. A particular example of this is a portrait of Sir Walter Scott in his study at Abbotsford.

William Allen’s print of Sir Walter Scott seated in his study at his home at Abbotsford in Scotland, reading a proclamation made by Mary Queen of Scots. One of his many dogs, thought to be either Maida or Bran, sits by the fire.

The tapestry below was the work of Anne Harborer who married William John Coverdale a surgeon and the last commandant of Port Arthur (Tasmania, Australia). Note: the plaid trousers and other variations in the tapestry shows how the artist adapted the print to her work.

Tapestry copy of a portrait of Sir Walter Scott in his study by Ann Harbroe.

These embroideries are rare, unlike the Berlin wool work, which replaced them.

Parrot. Berlin wool work, gros point, unworked background made by Jessie McNabb in 1880.
Size: 56 x 45.5 cm.

From about 1850 in Australia in the flourishing period after the gold rush, middle class women enjoyed Berlin wool work as the most popular form of embroidery. Berlin wool work is wool embroidery produced on a canvas, which is painted with graphic designs. The origin of the name “Berlin” wool work lies in Germany where counted thread embroidery (which entirely covered the ground) was developed. It began in England around 1839. This work required no design skills on the part of the embroider; all that was necessary was a knowledge of the basic technique of counted thread work, much like “painting by numbers”, and the ability to follow the graphic design, so that complex shaded pictures could be built up with great patience. New chemical dyes had been discovered by William Perkins in 1856, which was often used since the color range of magneta, vivid blues, violets and greens were needed in many of the pictures embroidered. Beads were often used in conjunction with Berlin wool work as were gold and silver threads.

Berlin wool work combined with beading was popular in Australia in the 19th Century for men’s slippers and smoking caps.

The attraction of Berlin wool work was that once an image was graphed it could be reproduced using needlework.

Ann Marion Fletcher, interior needlework painting in silk. Exhibition of Women’s Industries, Sydney (Australia) 1888. She embroidered her husband’s designs. She also embroidered the “ashes” bag in which the cricket ashes were sent to England in 1882. Note: cricket is a ball and bat game and the “ashes” are celebrated matches between Australia and the UK.

“Needle Painting” in silk of an interior by Judith Fletcher in 1907. She became an eminent Sydney photographer in the 1920s.

Incomplete 19th Century tapestry still on its frame at “Narryna”, Hobart (Australia).

Embroidery of the view from her house by Jean Elms, Maroochydore, Queensland (Australia).

Petipoint tapestry of “Mona Lisa” by Joyce Peppered, Glen Iris, Victoria (Australia) 1960s. The artist only had her eye to reproduce shades, folds and patterns in fabrics accurately.

Nevertheless, some of the most stunning historical Australian embroidery still rest within the decorative arts.

Shelf and mantle drapes embroidered on felt. Unknown maker. Tasmania (Australia) ca. 1860-1890.
Tasmanian flower species that are depicted in these vibrants works include: Eucalyptus globules, Comesperma voluble, banksia and clematis.
Courtesy of Van Diemen’s Land Memorial Folk Museum, Hobart (Australia).

[1] J. Isaacs, The Gentle Arts, Ure Smith Press, London (1991).
[2] Eds. A. Jeffs, W. Martensson, and P. North, Creative Crafts Encyclopaedia, Octopus Books, Oxford (1977).

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Art and the Symbol
Opinion Piece

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The need to address the importance of art is often over-shadowed in the hum-drum of our daily lives. Digital disruption has made us time poor. We spend so much of our lives digitally communicating and yet so little of our lives actually thinking about important issues. Prompting and responding just evaporates our time. How many people do you see, head down, walking, prompting or responding using two thumbs with lightning speed on an electronic device, oblivious of the path ahead but with the expectation that the human wall in front will open in a similar fashion to when the Lord held back the sea for Moses. These people are so time poor they cannot afford to be seated in order to read or respond to a message!

Texting while walking may get you up to 15 days in prison in the USA.

In today's world, art is thought to be a "given". No one would dispute the need for public art galleries and museums in a civilized world, and yet in today's world the other extreme is also present - ISIS destroyed historic artefacts in Mosul Museum (Iraq) and the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed Bamiyan Buddha statues. It appears that in some quarters art is considered as "optional" - to the loony few!

The taller of the two Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan) in 1976.

Digital disruption has altered art for some and even made it coincidental for others. It is so easy now to take a thousand pictures with a digital camera and select the one unique photograph (and present it as if it was purposely framed). Digital disruption has rendered art in some quarters as being serendipitous.

Back in the 1960s, a hot young artist named Pierre Brass (monkey) came on the scene and art critics immediately fell in love with his brash style. It was in fact serendipitous art.

It is timely to review why art is such a necessary human endeavour. After all, it is not needed for our physical survival and for most of us that are engaged in it, there is little monetary reward. In making it, we can even want to destroy it. Remember that life-size dollhouse that Canadian artist Heather Benning created that we fell in love with? Well, it was recently burnt to the ground — by the artist!

Photograph courtesy of Heather Benning.
“It was always my intention that I would destroy The Dollhouse. I did not want to see it fall down or get vandalized. No one vandalizes a memory unless it was a bad one,” Saskatchewan installation artist Heather Benning recently said of her life-size prairie dollhouse.

Lewis Mumford wrote a series of lectures in the 1950s under the umbrella of "Art and Technics"[1]. He was most concerned that the meaning and value of art itself would be swamped by human being's fascination with machines (and that was long before digital disruption was even coined). He envisaged that art stood for the inner and subjective side of human beings; it encompassed all of its symbolic structures in order to be able to externalize and project inner states, and most importantly, give concrete and public forum to the artist's emotions, feelings, intuition of meanings and values of life. He juxtaposed art with technics. He purposely used the word "Technics" rather than technology or techniques since he wanted to describe that part of of human activity wherein, by an energetic organization of the process of work, human beings controlled and directed forces of nature for their own purpose.

Poster for Metropolis (1927 film).

Today's post will rely heavily on his first lecture of "Art and the Symbol"[1].

Art and the Symbol[1]
Art appeals to so many people precisely because it deals in "ill defined" areas such as human feeling, visual response and the way in which we identify with what we see. Our engagement with art, whether seeing or the making of it, touches our inner senses, which usually cannot be captured in words. What we "feel" is more intuitive than what can arise out of rules, logic reason, factual information, measurement, the right or wrong ways "to do".

The above poster art is Marie-Therese Wisniowski's "Graffiti-esque" interpretation of Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" (1893). The background is a wall that Marie-Therese Wisniowski photographed in Venice.

When children first engage in art making, Piaget’s theory of cognitive development places them in the reflexive stage. Here the emphasis is on doing, reacting and aping as well as saying - "Look at me! Look what I've done!" Mimicking is a very important learning tool at this stage of intellectual development. Hence children in this stage are trying to reconstruct their world by using simple imagery that identifies each object to themselves and so to the viewer at large (e.g. a stick figure wearing a triangle shaped-dress is a "girl", whereas one without is a "boy" etc.)

Children who can depict the human form at the age of four are more likely to be brighter in their teenage years, a study by King's College London has found. Drawings of more than 15,000 children were graded for this study.

Art is person-centric. Its creation demands engagement and in doing so, expands the providence of a singular act to a much wider cohort. It educates, instructs, communicates and stimulates feelings, emotions, attitudes and values - in an individualized form that springs from the "well" of one particular person within one particular culture and projects it to a plurality of forms beholden to other persons from many other cultures. Sympathy and empathy are evoked wherever and whenever art is appreciated, whereas derision and scorn may be invoked where and when its engagement is not understood nor appreciated.

Crowds gather around the painting - Mona Lisa.

Art arises out of the need to create beyond requirements for an animal to survive. Unlike animals, modern human beings do not merely respond to visible and audible signals, but rather can abstract and re-present parts of the environment, parts of the human experience, in the detectable and durable forms of symbols. These symbols create meaning for life itself and moreover, capture imagined or real experiences that would have otherwise evaporated from one's consciousness and so be lost to the corporate memory in its entirety.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self-Portrait, 1934/1937. The Nazis called it "Entartete Kunst" or degenerate art.

Not all symbolism is art. Once human beings were liberated from the immediate pressing environment, mere substitution without abstraction would be as boring as the habit to total recall in telling a story - and in fact, more futile.

Realism - Pomegranate by Nikolai Shurygin.

Early in human being's development of consciousness and mindfulness, oral sounds emanated from human mouths in an unstructured babble, similar to the auditory attempts of infants of today to convey crude states of emotions. The function of communication therefore must have preceded the function of abstraction. Speech, as Danish philologist Otto Jespersen has pointed out, was probably a source of communion long before it became useful as an instrument of practical communication. Essentially, like a child's development, speech evolved as expressions of inner states, progressed into crude noises that represented internal and external objects, to phrases that described concepts. Conjunctions and verbs became a more refined stage of speech in later developments. The written word followed the oral trajectory.

Incoherent babble of a child leads to spoken language within a few years.

By the feat of symbolic representation, human beings freed themselves from the pressing stimulus of their immediate environment, and from the straight jacket of the here and now. Hence, experiences lived or imagined could be mapped for others to taste and savour. Art with no objective existence could project new potentialities and so uncover heretofore hidden meanings. With the aid of conveyed symbolism spirituality grew and without these symbols human beings could not escape from concreteness of the here and now.

Crucifixion by Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

Art is not just a substitute from life or an escape from life, but rather it is a manifestation of significant impulses and values that cannot be expressed in any other form. Even in the oldest paleolithic cave painting, the artist reveals more to us than the fact that the details of a horse or bison were observed: the artist is also revealing in the quality of the line used - its selectivity, its sureness, its express rhythm - something of the immersed culture that the artist resided in.

Lascaux Images. Instead of studying those magnificent galloping horses and bisons, researchers are investigating the symbols painted beside them.

Art itself is not divorced from the environment in which the artist resides. When society is healthy, the artist may reinforce its health; but when it is ailing, the artist may likewise reinforce its ailments. This may be the reason why artists are looked upon with suspicion by moralists such as Plato and Tolstoy, who wrote in a time of decay. Though the aesthetic movements of our time - post-impressionism, futurism, cubism, primitivism, surrealism etc. - have taught much about the actual nature of our civilization, they themselves, from this point of view, are so conditioned by the very disintegration they draw upon for nourishment that they are incapable, without themselves undergoing a profound spiritual change, of bringing a new direction and security into our lives.

Old Women at Arles by Gauguin (1888).

A persona (plural personae or personas), in the word's everyday usage, is a social role or a character played by an actor. The word is derived from Latin, where it originally referred to a theatrical mask. Body decoration was the first effort to mask human being's animal propensities and to achieve a different self.

Venetian masks are characterized by their ornate design, featuring bright colors such as gold or silver and the use of complex decorations in the baroque.

Art arises at the very beginning of human being's super animal development. The most elemental form of art is probably body decoration. By this means primitive people probably sought to lift themselves out of their generic animal state, if only by smearing yellow or red ochre over their bodies, they attempted to identify themselves and their group in order to externalize themselves in a new form, to visualize themselves in a fashion that set them apart from an animal condition, even when portraying animal behaviour.

Australian aboriginals doing a "Crane" dance.

Art stands for the inner or subjective side of humankind; all of its symbolic structures are efforts to invent a vocabulary and language by which people became able to externalize and project inner states and most particularly, give a concrete and public forum to the artist's emotions, feelings, intuitions of the meanings and values of life. At its most trivial end, Art may regress into more primitive or infantile symbolism, to babble, becoming more neurotic and self-destructive and only producing formless scribbles and scrawls.

[1] L. Mumford, Art and Technics, Columbia University Press (New York) 1952.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Poster Art of the 1890s
Prints on Paper

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The evolution and development of poster art was closely linked to technical advances in printmaking and moreover, in lithography. Although the lithographic process was invented by Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) as far back as 1798, it had little impact on posters until the advent of chromolithography later in the 19th Century. Even then, it wasn't until Jules Chéret (1836-1932) invented his the "three stone lithographic process" in the 1860s, which allowed lithographers to produce a wide spectrum of colors from just three stones, that low-cost color posters at last became a reality.

Pastilles Géraudel.
Artist: Jules Chéret (Paris, 1836 – 1932, Nice).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 231.2 x 80.5 cm.

Known as the "father of the fine art poster", Chéret not only developed a cheaper color lithographic process, with richer more expressive colors, he also enhanced the aesthetic nature of the poster, endowing it with graceful designs (some influenced by Ukiyo-e woodblock prints from Japan, by artists like Hokusai and the younger Hiroshige) and transformed it into an independent work of art. Furthermore, he encouraged other painters to explore the genre. He later published his special book - Maîtres de l'Affiche (Masters of the Poster) - to promote the best designers. He also introduced the feminine form into his designs in order to gain an extra viewer appeal. His female subjects became so popular that Parisians dubbed them Cherettes. In total, Chéret produced more than 1,000 posters, beginning with his 1867 advertisement for Sarah Bernardt's performance as Princess Desiree in the comedy La Biche au Bois. Honored in 1928 with the opening of the Chéret Museum in Nice, Jules Chéret's posters are some of the most highly sought-after items from the late 19th Century to this day.

Posters of the 1890s[2]

Saxoleine (1892).
Artist: Jules Chéret (1836 – 1932).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 122.7 x 87.0 cm.

Le tour du monde en 80 jours (1890).
Artist: Alfred Choubrac (1853 – 1902).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 121.8 x 87.7 cm.

Miss Robinson (1890s).
Artist: Alfred Choubrac (1853 – 1902).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 117.8 x 79.3 cm.

Madama Butterfly (1890s).
Artist: Leopoldo Metlicovitz (1868 – 1944).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 141.6 x 100.4 cm.

Le Princess Jaune (1896).
Artist: Charles-Lucien Leandre (1862 – 1930).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 100.8 x 72.3 cm.

Le Reve (1891).
Artist: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (1859 – 1923).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 89.2 x 63.4 cm.

Lait pur de la Vingeanne Sterilize (1894).
Artist: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (1859 – 1923).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 135.5 x 98.6 cm.

La Revue Blanche (1894).
Artist: Piere Bonnard (1867 – 1947).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 80.0 x 62.0 cm.

Exposition, les Peintres Graveurs (1896).
Artist: Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 64.8 x 47.8 cm.

Photograph of Toulese-Lautrec with his poster – Moulin Rouge.

Slide 12: Moulin Rouge (1891).
Artist: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 170.0 x 121.0 cm.

Sescau Photograph (1894).
Artist: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 60.3 x 80.1 cm.

Reine de joie par Victor Joze (1892).
Artist: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901).
Technique: Color lithograph.
Size: 149.5 x 99.0 cm.
Note: (a) - (c) illustrates the lithographic process.

[2] World Poster Museum – Exhibit 1: World Poster Masterpieces (1989) from the Lords Gallery Collection.