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Lawrence Alma-Tadema? The Drawing Room, Holland Park 1887

Lawrence Alma-Tadema? The Drawing Room, Holland Park 1887, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum (Bournemouth)

The Alma-Tadema painting from my last post is just one of many late 19th century works that feature an item of inlaid furniture. In that case, an inlaid Syrian chest figures prominently in a British home elaborately decorated in the style of the ‘the East’. Such furniture was also found in 19th century European paintings from a movement called Orientalism, which idealized views and scenes of the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. Wildly popular at the time of their creation, these paintings fell out of favor, much like the Pre-Raphaelites, only to be re-appreciated at the end of the 20th century. Along the way they have stirred up much controversy about the patronizing nature of Orientalist views, but I am going to leave the politics aside and just share the decorative aspect of the paintings.

John Frederick Lewis’ Intercepted Correspondence from 1869 was a painting I looked at and perhaps should have included in my post on Iznik ceramics and the language of flowers. In it, a young woman is caught before her master with a bouquet from her lover. Much can be said about this work, but it is the elaborate mashrabiya, the dowel latticework covering the window openings and the small inlaid table on the bottom right side that catches my eye today. Over and over again, the key props in the work of the Orientalists are these types of screens, Iznik tiles, elaborate carpets and textiles, pipes, musical instruments and of course, inlaid furniture. In all of the paintings below, each one has the ubiquitous inlaid side table somewhere – be sure to spot them.

John Frederick Lewis - Intercepted Correspondence 1869

John Frederick Lewis, Intercepted Correspondence 1869

The 19th century painters aren’t the only ones to have a fascination with the east, for example 18th century Swiss-French painter Jean-Étienne Liotard visited Istanbul and painted numerous scenes like the one below, a formal precursor to these later works.

monsieur-levett-and-mademoiselle-helene-glavany-in-turkish-costumes-jean-etienne-liotard

Jean Etienne Liotard, Monsieur Levett and Mademoiselle Helene Glavany in Turkish Costumes 1738-41, The Louvre

But the advent of easier travel and discovery created an insatiable desire for the exotic and painters were happy to comply. Lewis spent ten years living in Cairo, which gives his work a very authentic feel.

'Interior of a School, Cairo', by John Frederick Lewis, watercolour. Museum no.68-1890, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

John Frederick Lewis, Interior of a School, Cairo 1890

Arthur Melville, a Scottish painter, also traveled in Persia, Egypt and Turkey from 1880–82.

Arthur Melville, An Arab Interior, 1881, courtesy National Galleries of Scotland.

Arthur Melville, An Arab Interior 1881, National Galleries of Scotland.

Austro-French painter Rudolf Ernst traveled to the Middle East in 1885. I am particularly intrigued by the bench in this painting as it is so reminiscent of the ones I recently purchased here. To see Ernst reusing his inlaid props over and over again, click here.

Rudolf Ernst Reading the Koran

Rudolf Ernst, Reading the Koran

In 1858 English painter Frederick Goodall spent eight months in Egypt, and he returned in 1870. He continued with Orientalist themes throughout his very successful career.

Copt Mother and Child', by Frederick Goodall, 1875, watercolour. Museum no. 517-1882, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Frederick Goodall, Copt Mother and Child 1875, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the most common scenes painted was the interior of the harem and Lewis wasn’t the only one to paint it. These are clearly a fantasy view of the harem as the male painters would never have actually been able to enter the female spaces.

Frederick_Goodall_-_A_New_Light_in_the_Harem 1884

Frederick Goodall A New Light in the Harem 1884

French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme visited Egypt for the first time in 1856. He too became fascinated with orientalist themes.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pool in a Harem c. 1876

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pool in a Harem c. 1876

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Orientalists and I only included paintings with inlaid furniture in them for the sake of brevity and cohesion. I’m sure I’ll be returning to the subject sometime in the not so distant future.

If these richly adorned spaces have caught your eye, you must take a look at Bill Willis’s work in the 1960s and 70s for Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge amongst others in Marrakech. There is a great piece in the The Wall Street Journal really worth perusing and exploring for anyone interested in design related to the Middle East and North Africa. The late Alberto Pinto has some amazing rooms (including this lavender one I am always going on about) in his portfolio and his hard to find book Orientalism. More recent fantasies include Veronica Webb’s Key West home in Architectural Digest and Howard Slatkin’s extraordinary Orientalist library in New York City.

And as for the actual painter of the Alma-Tadema painting at the very top of the post? I was utterly sure I was on to something and that his daughter Anna had painted it, so I dug deep and came up with this great post. It always feels good to be right! I also think I need to get the book she mentions, Artistic Circles: Design and Decoration in the Aesthetic Movement.

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In addition to checking out housing and schooling, I was busy checking out the antiquing here in Doha on my ‘look-see’ (expat speak for a pre-move approval visit) last spring. I trolled the alleys of Souq Waqif, the central marketplace selling everything from delicious Iranian bread to stacks of cushions to tie-dyed baby chicks but not much in the way of antiques (or so it seemed at this first perusal). I turned a corner and under a colonnaded walkway stood this inlaid chest on triangular legs. These Syrian wedding trunks or sunduqs are highly decorated with mother-of-pearl inset between fine tin wires and sometimes additionally ornamented with brass or bone. They are one of the more common shapes found among antique inlaid furniture and you can see, while their ‘official’ use is as part of a bridal trousseau, they can obviously be useful to store just about anything.

Credited to Dutch born, but lifelong English resident painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema, this 1887 watercolor of his Drawing Room at Holland Park is a painting I have long had in my inspiration files. Alma-Tadema was famous for his hyper realistic oil paintings of Ancient Rome, Egypt and other Orientalist subjects – he was called the ‘marbelous’ painter for the perfection of his technique in depicting said stone. His own home in Regent’s Park was decorated in the high Aesthetic taste, an amalgam of styles and objects referencing Ancient Greek, Pompei, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires as well as Asian countries such as Japan. This still life of the drawing room is a quintessential example of the artistic taste of the period, with its exotic objets, portiere and Pre-Raphaelite portrait, and its main highlight – the inlaid Syrian dowry chest. [As an aside, I think this was actually painted by his daughter Anna, as she painted the other watercolor interiors of their home and this is not at all in the style of his oils. Take a look here and here at works credited to her and here for a large catalog of Alma-Tadema's classical paintings. Let me know if you agree with me.]

Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Drawing Room, Holland Park 1887.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Drawing Room at Holland Park 1887, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum (Bournemouth)

What I love about the next image is how it shows on one hand, how much has changed in interior design, while on the other, how little actually has. While the overall look and palette may have simplified, the main players are the same in this bedroom designed by Windsor Smith for Veranda‘s Greystone Estate showhouse. The portrait above the sunduq is now an antiqued mirror – still in a luscious gilded frame. Exotic Asian objects line the top of the chest, in this case Buddhas, and the luxurious bed hangings stand in for the portiere.

Windsor Smith inlaid trunk Veranda

In an even more paired down interior by Gerri Wiley in Traditional Home, the mother of pearl inlay sets a luminescent theme that is echoed in the chandelier, painting and soft silvery grays. I’m sure my Japanese glass fishing float junkies will notice the one bit of accent color.

inlaid trunk via veranda house

Los Angeles based designer Anna Hackathorn uses one to add texture to a grouping in a very California bohemian great room. I think the raised legs of these pieces are what make them so useful and easy to work with.

Anna Hackathorn inlaid dowry chest

Back on my home front, an artist friend here in Doha has created a modern still life with a Syrian dowry chest and her own work hung on a vintage wine bottle drying rack.

Inlaid syrian dowry chest

If you like the Alma-Tadema painting, be sure to watch for my next post featuring the 19th century Orientalist painters. They used inlay pieces as props all the time.

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Energy exists within, between and around everything from the infinitesimal to the astronomical. It seems to have tendencies that manifest itself in similar ways at all scales, a common language.
- Mariana Heilmann

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I had both the visual pleasure and an amazing hands-on experience with Colombian born artist Mariana Heilmann’s Resonance exhibit at Katara Art Center this week. Heilmann is a Doha-based contemporary artist who is delving deeply into matters of energy, time and space through a technique of perpetual motion and the innate tendency that chaos has to bring order to itself. Her long-term interest in science feeds and enriches the visual vocabulary of her work as she explores dispersion, connection, repetition and sequence in a variety of mediums.

The Resonance exhibition actually stems from a continuation of her earlier 2005-6 Energy series, which was an epiphany moment for the artist. By releasing her energy through music she found a universal message:

It was a process of sustained repetitive mark making, involving a suspension of thought and a spontaneous release of energy; an attempt to witness and record how continuous, random and chaotic movement tends towards order. The resulting image was like looking through a microscope and a telescope at the same time.

Number 37 21:07:2005

Using one print from the earlier series as the basis for all the work in the exhibition, Heilmann has created a mixed media show, featuring prints, collage, string and some more unusual materials. By manipulating the original image in a variety of ways, she ruminates on the cosmic and the microscopic. The show-stopping piece in the entrance, 4 floor-to-ceiling panels – a blow up of the original work divided and hung randomly – sets the tone for the beautifully arranged exhibition. Of course, I had visions of an amazing loft designed around these monumental prints…

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A smaller monoprint has one quadrant repeated as mirror image fourths and reads as a kaleidoscope or stained glass or perhaps even neural pathways in the brain. It reminded me of a more visceral version of these from the Damien Hirst exhibit earlier this year. And the church-related analogy turns out not to be very far off.

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Other works featured map-like collages which are actually enlargements of small fragments of the original drawing fleshed out by cut up x-rays. The light and dark spaces have been reversed in these lucite sandwiched pieces and the cut up x-rays are fragmented and ghostlike.

Thanks to scanning facilities and large scale digital printers I am able to feed off the image and explore how manipulating scale can reveal layers of similarities with the natural world. (neurons, bone structure, surfaces of a leaf, skin, road systems, city layouts, etc.)

My immediate visual connection to these pieces was seemingly unrelated to Heilmann’s references as I saw the traditional architectural jali screens so common to this region. But my comment sparked a larger conversation about the nature of Islamic ornament – so often geometric – and its relation to god. From there we touch on the perfection of the universe, which brings us right back round to the works being a meditation on the universe and the interconnectivity of everything. Functionally, Heilmann has dreams of these pieces being used in just the manner I suggest, as large-scale panels or dividers, perhaps quite apropos in the entryway of a hospital. I love that you can see our engaged conversation as a reflection in the photo.

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Also included were some elaborate two-dimensional works made from string. The photos cannot begin to do these pieces justice, making them look just like drawings, but take my word for it, they are spectacular.

The thread pieces have come from a very different tempo than the fast and chaotic energy of the drawings.  Nevertheless, they are still an exploration of repetitive movement and the resulting web that emerges from this.

1-Thread piece

Earlier work, from an exhibit at Virginia Commonwealth University last year, was a meditation on similar themes, in this case using end of life materials like milk cartons assembled into mysterious landscapes.  This last-gasp final dispersion of energy from these disposable objects is about as good of an end game as a milk bottle could ever hope for. The link between this piece below and the one above, while reversed in color, is a  similar examination of the microscopic versus the cosmic.

DSC_1374TT_lowres

All of her work has a luminescent beauty, but nowhere more so than in these translucent collages. Again, are we viewing moonscapes or cellular bodies?

DSC_1321T_2 DSC_1298T1_2_5

On Saturday night I participated in her Action Drawing Workshop, which “allows the participants to embark on their own exploration of how energy manifests itself.” We rocked out to techno music while allowing our conscious minds to let go – basically a rave for the artsy set.

The piece I made to the song in the video was my best attempt and I am thinking of grabbing an IKEA Ribba frame and hanging it – not for the long-term, mind you, but as a placeholder until I find something I really want.

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As I am finishing up writing, my mind leaps ahead to my upcoming trip back to Japan (yes!!!!) and it occurs to me that the x-ray collages are also reminiscent of resist dye techniques like tsutsugaki and batik. The indigo variations in this piece look hand-dyed by a master!

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If you are in Doha, the show runs through March 8 at the Katara Art Center. Don’t miss it. And if you see Mariana around, be sure to introduce yourself – she is absolutely lovely! If you are interested in contacting her, feel free to drop me an email at jacquelinewein[at]yahoo.com.

All images copyrighted by Mariana Heilmann. Please do not re-post without writing to me for permission. Thank you.

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