Thursday, February 19, 2009

remembering beauty

after all is said and done, and after i have considered dozens of different ways to conclude this series, i finally realized that it all comes down to focus. it had come to pass, perhaps as a form of hand-holding to the industrial revolution, that beauty was best seen and reproduced as the result of considered focus.

dow unfocused. and then quantified.

leading up to the close of the 19th century, a confluence of forces brought about widespread changes. the beginning of trade with japan was virtually simul- taneous with what is called the 'second industrial revolution,' which introduced mass- production, electricity, and motors. japan quickly availed itself of these developments, while the west availed itself of what japan represented as an antidote to them.

against the face of precise reproduction, dow, and, as we've seen, others around the world, began to unfocus. to stop seeing the trees. to find a harmony in what one saw. dow taught ways to consciously transfer that harmony to paper.

rather than a study of sunlight and shadows, dow taught seeing light and dark, and holding them in balance. rather than teaching rigidity and repetition, he taught flow.

by using japanese prints as regular references, dow man- aged to communicate the principles he was teaching by sight as much as by word; the learning was imbibed rather than concentrated upon. the asymmetry, the elimination of detail, the looking beyond the surface to reveal the essence: it was all there, as instruction but more, as inspiration.

but what of this explains dow's extraordinary success as a teacher, as a teacher of both students and of teachers as well? it was something more than can be gained by quoting his books or reading his letters. in order to begin to understand, we must unfocus ourselves.

we must let ourselves feel the deep spirituality of the man behind the teachings, the spirituality that can see a derelict boat in a river and understand the nature of all he witnesses. what, after all, is 'seeing' but 'not limiting,' or 'not defining'? is not the only way to see to allow what's in front of you to be?

for john ruskin, william morris, arthur wesley dow, and so many others, design reform was never on a physical level alone. like the japanese, and like so many cultures before them, spirit was seen as integral to nature and to humanity. to impose confinement on either, for whatever reason, is to lose them. to remove spirit from art is like removing air from the breath.

it's to suffocate beauty.... until one remembers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009



The sun was gone,
and the moon was coming
Over the blue Connecticut hills;
The west was rosy,
the east was flushed,
And over my head
the swallows rushed
This way and that,
with changeful wills.
I heard them twitter and watched them dart
Now together and now apart
Like dark petals blown from a tree;
The maples stamped against the west
Were black and stately and full of rest,
And the hazy orange moon grew up
And slowly changed to yellow gold
While the hills were darkened, fold on fold
To a deeper blue than a flower could hold.
Down the hill I went, and then
I forgot the ways of men,
For night-scents, heady, and damp and cool
Wakened ecstasy in me
On the brink of a shining pool.

O Beauty, out of many a cup
You have made me drunk and wild
Ever since I was a child,
But when have I been sure as now
That no bitterness can bend
And no sorrow wholly bow
One who loves you to the end?

And though I must give my breath
And my laughter all to death,
And my eyes through which joy came,
And my heart, a wavering flame;
If all must leave me and go back
Along a blind and fearful track
So that you can make anew,
Fusing with intenser fire,
Something nearer your desire;
If my soul must go alone
Through a cold infinity,
Or even if it vanish, too,
Beauty, I have worshipped you.

Let this single hour atone
For the theft of all of me.

Sara Teasdale

© Sara Teasdale 1920
from Flame and Shadow; Macmillian, 1920

Monday, February 16, 2009

dow's COMPOSITION part 2


Great architects and designers were not the only ones to use this simple line- idea; mere doing of the work recommended here will be of little value if the only thought is to get over the ground, or if the mind is intent upon names rather than principles. The doing of it well, with an artistic purpose in mind, is the true way to develop the creative faculties.

These tracings from a variety of compositions, old and new (No. 36), show that this combination was chosen either to express certain qualities and emotions, -- majesty, solemnity, peace, repose, (Puvis de Chavannes) or be- cause such a space division was suited to tone-effects (Whistler's Battersea Bridge), cut a space finely by landscape shapes; or to color schemes (Hiro- shige). These should be copied exactly in pencil, then drawn enlarged. Find other examples in museums, illustrated books, or photographs, and draw in the same way.

puvis de chavannes himself played an interesting side-bar role in dow's life. according to dow's biographer johnson, puvis was seen by both dow and fenollosa as "the fusion of occident and orient. they discovered him for america and had much to do with his obtaining the commission to paint a series of murals in the boston public library.

"puvis came to america and to boston where he was received with cool and unintelligent criticism." dow even wrote a letter to the boston evening transcript, on jan. 2o, 1893, protesting that reaction. i am trying to find that letter....

all well and good... but... i could find no record of puvis coming to america (please feel free to correct me!), and i found this, written on the occasion of weir's death: Mr. Hassam's intimate remini- scences of Weir bring to notice many interesting traits and incidents. One of his anecdotes seems to amount to a claim that Weir was the first man to suggest the commissioning of Puvis de Chavannes to paint the mural decorations for the Boston Public Library. It appears that Weir, being in Durand-Ruel's Paris gallery, one day, met Stanford White there. "McKim's doing a library for Boston," said White. "Who's the man to make a big mural painting?" "Why, Puvis, of course," exclaimed Weir. They went from there to the Place Pigalle, found Puvis de Chavannes, "and we know the rest. He painted for Boston one of the most beautiful decorations in the world.'' 1

and this: Puvis was first approached with a request to paint murals for the staircase of the newly built Boston Public Library in 1891 Despite the generous terms offered ... complete freedom in the choice of subject matter, as much time as he wished and a vast fee of 250,000 francs ($50,000 far in excess of any other commission he received ... it took two years of patient negotiations to overcome Puvis misgivings about painting murals for a building he would never see. A plaster model of the staircase was made for him and samples of the stone used sent so that he could establish a colour harmony. In Puvis own words he chose to represent in emblematic form, the ensemble of intellectual riches, united in this beautiful monument .

The first and most impor- tant of the panels Les Muses Inspiratrices, was exhi- bited at the Salon du Champ-de- Mars in 1895 before being shipped to Boston. Over the next year or so it was followed by eight smaller panels depicting La Poesie des Champs (Virgil), la Poesie dramatique (Aeschylus), la Poesie Unique (Homer), L Histoire, L Astronomie la Philosophie, La Chimie and la Physique. As the last of them crossed the Atlantic, Puvis remarked that he felt like a father whose daughters had entered a convent. 2

did puvis visit boston? who were more important in getting his work there? just think -- in 110 years, when we try to figure out who said what to who, given that we have immediate 24-hour reporting and commentary, we still will be no better in learning who was right.

EXERCISE: To discover the best arrangement, and to get the utmost experience in line and space composition, the landscape should be set into several boundaries of differing proportions, as shown in the examples, keeping the essential lines of the subject, but varying them to fit the boundary. For instance, a tree may be made taller in a high vertical space than in a low horizontal space, (No. 37). After working out this exercise the pupil may draw a landscape from nature and treat it in the same way. Let him rigorously exclude detail, drawing only the outlines of objects.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

dow's COMPOSITION part 1

i will jump right in, giving you a taste of the book that changed art education in america for at least half a century. dow's teaching philosophy involved using examples from other artists, not his own. when i can find it i will show the original on which his example is based.

The designer and picture-painter start in the same way. Each has before him a blank space on which he sketches out the main lines of his composition. This may be called his Line-idea, and on it hinges the excellence of the whole, for no delicacy of tone, or harmony of color can remedy a bad proportion.

A picture, then, may be said to be in its beginning actually a pattern of lines. Could the art student have this fact in view at the outset, it would save him much time and anxiety. Nature will not teach him composition. The sphinx is not more silent than she on this point.

He must learn the secret as Giotto and della Francesca and Kanawoka and Turner learned it, by the study of art itself in the works of the masters, and by continual creative effort.

If students could have a thorough training in the elements of their profession they would not fall into the error of supposing that such a universal idea as Beauty of Line could be compressed into a few cases like the "triangle," "bird's-wing," "line of beauty," or "scroll ornament," nor would they take these notions as a kind of receipt for composing the lines of pictures.

Insistence upon the placing of Composition above Representation must not be considered as any undervaluation of the latter. The art student must learn to represent nature's forms, colors and effects ; must know the properties of pigments and how to handle brushes and materials. He may have to study the sciences of perspective and anatomy.

More or less of this knowledge and skill will be required in his career, but they are only helps to art, not substitutes for it, and I believe that if he begins with Composition, that is, with a study of art itself, he will acquire these naturally, as he feels the need of them. Returning now to the thought that the picture and the abstract design are much alike in structure, let us see how some of the simple spacings may be illustrated by landscape.

No. 34 is a landscape reduced to its main lines, all detail being omitted. Make an enlarged copy of this, or design a similar one. Then, in the attempt to find the best proportion and the best way of setting the subject upon canvas or paper, arrange this in rectangles of varying shape, some nearly square, others tall, others long and narrow horizontally as in No. 35. To bring the whole landscape into all these will not, of course, be possible, but in each the essential lines must be retained.

The art of landscape painting is a special subject, not to be treated at length here, but I believe that the true way to approach it is through these or similar exer- cises. First study the art, then apply it, whether to landscape or any other kind of expression.

Friday, February 13, 2009

travelling through music and light

in some cases i've found, dow did take the photo before making the print (or painting) of the same place. but nine years before! did the places stay that identical? did he use the photos as guides. you know what? we will never know (unless i dig up something from his diaries).

thanks to the smithsonian, some dow stuff is making it onto the internet, but there's so much i just can't find. that's part of the reason i feel compelled to put up some of this stuff myself. like a timeline (you know i like those).

1857 born, ipswich, massachusetts.

1880 studys art with anna k freeland, who was an historical and portrait painter in worcester.

1882 studys art with james m stone, also an historical painter, in boston.

1884 goes to paris to study at the academie julian under boulanger and lefebvre

1885 summers in pont-aven.

1889 returns permanently to ipswich.

1891 meets ernest fenollosa and 'discovers' japanese woodblock prints. teaches art in boston, then opens school in ipswich.

1893 marries minnie pearson; becomes assistant curator of japanese arts at the museum of fine arts in boston.

1895 first exhibition of his own woodblock prints, in the japanese area of the mfa; begins teaching at the new pratt institute in new york city.

1899 publishes composition.

1903 travels around the world. lectures in kyoto.

1904 becomes the director of the art department at the teacher's college of columbia university.

1908 publishes theory and practice of teaching art; publishes by salt marshes in collaboration with his friend everett stanley hubbard, who writes the poetry.

1911 travels to the grand canyon and to california with alvin langdon coburn.

dow's publications are online. (some things aren't. i'm still hunting for the words of a speech or two.) i've had a tough time trying figure out how to present the teachings, but that's what i'd like to try next.

okay, i'll admit it. that last painting is not by dow. it's by robert henri. maybe he was channeling dow. but i love finding these rest, watching the same artist expressing the same things with different 'voices,' a composer listening to his music on all number of different instruments.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

the first hippie

the more i read about arthur wesley dow, the more i find him reported to be as spiritual and ecumenical about everything, his art, his studies, as he is about his religion. a quiet man without whose presence, an art seminar was considered a failure.

"The prints exude a sense of serenity in keeping with Dow's larger philosophical agenda of educating the public to make choices, in life as in art, that deliver harmonious results." 1

after studying in all of the most upstanding and academic parisian schools, and meeting and learning from the nabis, dow returned home to ipswitch, deflated. he hadn't found what he had sought.

the academie dictated copying antiques, sketching models. "Truth in the form of representa- tional accuracy has no relevance in art, Dow came to feel. Only beauty matters, beauty realized through expression, not imitation.

To unlearn the rules drilled into him in France, Dow immersed himself in private study of art both foreign and ancient--Egyptian, African, Oceanic and Aztec. He found his inspiration in 1891 at the Boston Public Library, in a book of Hokusai prints. 'One evening with Hokusai,' Dow wrote to his wife, 'gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study of pictures.'" 1

when i look at his photography, and then his prints, sometimes his paintings, the photos seem clearly to be 'sketches' for his prints, but his great-grand-daughter says that wasn't the case. at one point his photography became his primary focus -- "just a newer way of printmaking," he said. but since he wished neither to be known as a photographer rather than a painter, nor to compete with kasebier and stieglitz.

sometimes he would go out to attempt to recreate some of his prints and painting with his new tool, the camera.

i have to wonder though, still. really?

An impas- sioned advo- cate of synthesizing lessons from East and West in the teaching and practice of art, Dow proved himself adept at doing just that. Less an originator of ideas than a consolidator and popularizer, he channeled diverse tributaries of influence into one concentrated, easily navigable river.

"A tremendous social force, art had the power to usher in progress, but also to inhibit it, Dow felt. The future depended on a deeper appreciation of beauty in everyday life. Art was hailed as an inner, ethical necessity, primary nourishment for the soul. To Dow, alluding here to Emerson, art was "the expression of the highest form of human energy, the creative power which is nearest to the divine." 1

i promise we'll go into dow's book, composition, soon, but first, there he is sitting overlooking the marshes, in a photo taken by his brother dana, with such a sweet, young, flirtatious tree at the fore.

is it the same as the young cherry in the painting, are they the same as the one in the print? i like to believe so, and to see dow as the first hippie, in the very best, most honorable sense of the word.