Medieval and Renaissance Artefacts in the Wyvern Collection

[© 2021 Thames & Hudson]

The Wyvern Collection of Medieval arts and crafts is one of the best-quality collections in the world. It is one of the largest in private hands. This book is the fourth volume in the catalogue raisonné of the collection. Including the 210 entries in this volume, the total number of entries in the series is 744 so far. Further volumes are under preparation.  

Fittingly, the first item described is a chrismatory, a receptable for chrism (blessed oil used in liturgy). The small casket was made by Anglo-Saxon craftsmen around 800 and is extremely rare. It has been altered several times, mostly in ancient times. It probably came through the dissolution of the French ecclesiastical institutions during the French Revolution. Like all of the artefacts in the collection, they show signs of wear and repair. Gemstones have frequently been pried off.    

The enamels – largely from Limoges, a centre of enamel production during the Medieval and Renaissance periods – present us with an in-depth selection of the high-end pieces produced for churches and private commissioners. The precious materials used demonstrate the importance of this type of work to the Limoges painters. The grisaille panels of the 1530-45 are striking. A Flagellation of Christ (c. 1550-60) is near grisaille, with only the flesh tones lightly tinted and the bloody wounds of Christ stark crimson. Small enamelled panels have come from objects that were broken up, with the silver or gold being melted down. The depth of the collection allows us to see how these parts would have been combined.   

Reliquaries feature in this catalogue. Reliquaries are elaborate containers designed to hold small fragments associated with the lives of holy figures (Christ, the Holy Family, saints), including precious metals, gems and exotic materials – such as tropical shells, coral and other curiosities. Inset enamelled panels are common in the reliquaries in the Wyvern Collection. Plaques with religious scenes were made to adorn book covers. Another outstanding treasure is a plaque showing the incredulity of St. Thomas encountering the risen Christ, made in enamel and silver in Abruzzo, c. 1430-40. Flowers are in silver and vines are of twisted silver wire.  

[© 2021 Thames & Hudson]

These paxes, pyxes, chrismatories, reliquaries, monstrances, chalices, censers, incense boats, crosses and other liturgical objects form a veritable survey of the most traditional of Christian spiritual metalwork. There are non-Christian artefacts, such as brooches, rings, cups, horns, tiles, dishes and plates. An oddity is a letter from Edward III granting fishing rights to the Earl of Cornwall, no doubt preserved because of the elaborate giant royal wax seal. There are some handsome helmets with gilding. The artisans who worked to decorate armour were those who would have worked on the type of liturgical objects in the Wyvern Collection.   

Perhaps the most remarkable pieces are the stained glass from the South Netherlands, c. 1490-1530, painted contemporaneously with Bosch. These are small roundels are of religious scenes, painted with exquisite care and skill. Another fine piece is a salt well (c. 1560-70) from the workshop of Pierre Raymond is in grisaille enamel with gilding and is decorated with various animals on its sides; there is a pelican in the shallow rounded well. Most of the objects came from central and northern Europe.

The publication is thorough, with detailed descriptions, bibliographies and provenance for each artefact, with moderate or large colour illustration, some with multiple views. Scholars have been consulted to identify origins and materials and the commentaries describe the notable features and functions of artefacts. Bibliographies and auction backgrounds for each entry allow researchers to trace ownership and follow the scholarship. The book is sumptuously produced, with high-quality printing, generous size and a cloth hardcover binding. This volume will appeal to collectors, auction houses, historians and specialist libraries.

Paul Williamson, The Wyvern Collection: Medieval and Renaissance Enamels and Other Works of Art, Thames & Hudson, 2021, cloth hb, 480pp, 400 col. illus., £65, ISBN 978 0 500 02456 0

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity

[Image: Gentile da Fabriano, Nativity scene
in the predella of The Adoration of
the Magi Altarpiece
(c. 1423), originally
in the Strozzi family chapel in Santa
Trinità, Florence, tempera on panel,
25 x 62 cm, Uffizi, Florence]

Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity studies narratives of the Nativity of Christ, following the development of the symbolism of pictorial art of (principally) the Renaissance. This is the follow-up book to the author Sarah Drummond’s previous book Divine Conception. A complex iconography accreted over centuries, differing between regions, that were essentially local oral traditions. The sculpture, paintings, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts and craft of the pre-16th century is evidence of these tales, often hard to untangle without specific accessible written records. The author has consulted widely to trace the iconography of the Nativity in art of Europe, principally northern Italy, Germany and the Low Countries. It starts in the Roman period and ends in 1566 with Bruegel.

The book is divided into chapters on Joseph, Mary, the Magi, ox and ass, cave, manger, midwives, shepherds, Birgitta’s vision and Joseph’s dream. While most of these are familiar, some are less so. (For example, who knows that in some traditions there were twelve Magi?) Birgitta’s vision was experienced by St Birgitta (Bridget) on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1373. She would go on to found an order and her description of the birth of Christ and his placement on the ground “presented a revolutionary way to reflect on the scene. With astonishing speed artists all over Christian Europe were soon depicting this new iconography.”

Drummond notes how descriptions of the Nativity in the Gospels is sparse, especially about the journey to Bethlehem, and how folklore filled in the gap with details that appeared in art work. The ox and ass are entirely apocryphal, not appearing in the Gospels at all, though they are first depicted in the Nativity in the Late Roman era. Perhaps the ox was a lingering reference to the Mithraic cult of bull sacrifice. When St Francis of Assisi celebrated Christmas in 1223 with an ass and ox in a church, it became a sensation, inspiring deeper devotion among the congregants. The fame was spread by St Bonaventure’s account and only underlined the centrality of these humble beasts of burden to the Nativity.

Likewise, the image of a shepherd goes back to kriophoros – the Greek figure of the shepherd carrying a ram on his shoulders. Drummond tells us that the cult of Mary began in 431, when the Council of Ephesus declared Mary theotokos, God-bearing. Joseph has always been a difficult figure for theologians, keen to portray him as incapable of fathering Christ, attentive yet unobtrusive. “In icons of the Orthodox tradition Joseph is always depicted apart, sitting in a pose that indicates thoughtfulness, mistrust, incertitude, doubt. His body is bent over as he muses on his sorrows and difficulties; he carries the weight of insecurity and anxiety.”

The cave is sometimes an alternative setting for the Nativity, in preference to the stable, often incorporating Roman ruins. This is something that is supported by the local topography, which has many caves, hollows and grottoes. These were used as stores and stables, so such an association is feasible. The cave was associated with thresholds to other realms and the abodes of prophets and sibyls. Drummond thinks that the later domination of the built stable in Nativities was the result of a drive to make the scene relatable for Northern Europeans. The forms of mangers vary greatly, generally related to familiar forms of the regions where the image makers lived.

[Image: Giotto, fresco of the
Nativity in the Arena Chapel,
Padua
(c. 1305)]

The story of the midwives who came at Joseph’s behest to assist Mary came from the Apocrypha, namely the Protoevangelium Jacobi (c. 150). These women of Bethlehem witnessed miracles and were the first people to experience divine enlightenment. We can imagine that such an example offered an example of servitude of women that was uniquely feminine and allowed worshippers before these images to consider the birth of Christ in terms familiar from their daily life.   

The author knows her topic well and gives us illuminating quotes from ancient sources. The footnotes and bibliography will assist some researchers, but this is not a scholarly book. The selection of art is satisfyingly broad and frequently unexpected. Some illustrations are complex whole compositions but reproduced too small. In these cases, details would have been more suitable.

This would make a good Christmas gift for those engaged by the iconography of art. This review will be reposted before Christmas 2022 to remind people of the book.

Sarah Drummond, Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity, Unicorn Press, London, November 2021, hardback cloth spine, 132pp, fully col. Illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 913 491 86 4

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800 is a current touring exhibition (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 30 September 2021-9 January 2022; Detroit Institute of Arts, 6 February-29 May 2022). The exhibition brings together some of the biggest names in art by Italian women. Gentileschi, Anguissola, Carriera are well known to students of art history and Fontana is familiar to anyone who has read a feminist art history; lesser-known figures give a wider view of the field. This review is from the catalogue.

Interest in women artists has grown apace in recent years. Of particular focus has been Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), a Baroque Caravaggisti from Rome. The high standard of her best paintings and her life story have been taken up as proof of twin claims made broadly by feminists – that women are as equally talented as men, therefore their general absence from art history (until recently) is a deliberate act of erasure by men, and that women have suffered shaming and abuse at the hands of men which has made pursuit of profession and private fulfilment difficult unique to women. Despite the fact that women’s routes to the position of accredited artist were often less straightforward than those of male counterparts, historical research supports the fact that women did work in the art field in greater numbers than initially thought. The narrative of systemic oppression seems less tenable. Talent and determination has a way of finding an outlet and recognition, if only posthumously. All of the artists in this exhibition achieved some degree of professional success in their lifetimes.

Artemisia Gentileschi was daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), who acted as her master during her apprenticeship as a painter. Her style follows his, which was patterned on Caravaggio’s. In 1611 she was raped by the Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). After the rape, Tassi offered to marry Artemisia, which was a promise he subsequently broke. It was the breaking of this marriage contract that was brought to trial by Orazio, as well as a plan by Tassi to steal a painting by Orazio. Although Tassi was found guilty of breaking the contract and having committed other crimes (and of having planned to commit others), he was not punished. Artemisia’s subsequent paintings of women martyrs, and of Judith murdering Holofernes, are interpreted as a pointed response to the attack and failure of the court to implement just punishment. Almost all of her paintings feature women protagonists. This may be a personal fixation of hers or (as some historians have suggested) the artist trading on her notability as a high-profile woman artist by painting women. Gentileschi subsequently married and moved to Florence, where she achieved success as a court painter. Later periods in Venice, Rome, Naples and London led to steady commissions and respectful receptions by local academies and courts.  

[Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5), oil on canvas, 184 x 141.6 cm, Detroit Institute of Art]

The catalogue reproduces three Gentileschi self-portraits of 1615-7 and a prototype of c. 1613-4. The exhibition includes perhaps her great painting, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5). In it, the standing Judith holds a blooded cutlass. She holds out a hand to shade her left eye; that presents us with the audacious crescent of her profile shining in the darkness. The composition is a series of arcs tumbling down the composition. It is a fine picture, perhaps the best of her oeuvre. It has the usual weaknesses of Caravaggisti painting – poor articulation of space, breaks in logic (the shadow of Judith’s raised arm should throw her sleeve and shoulder into darkness, etc.), selective use of optical accuracy (gestures towards realistic shadows, no understanding of reflected light and colour) and the problems of proportion that stem from composite designs that combine discrete parts, which derives from (though is not in all instances caused by) use of the camera obscura. Historians tend to be overimpressed by the appearance of naturalism in Caravaggisti paintings, not crediting the degree to which artists deliberately fudge issues when they need to achieve a certain effect. Caravaggisti were primarily concerned to create an impression of truthfulness rather than record truth. It is a form of dishonesty and is their greatest fault.

Gentileschi’s non-Judith Biblical paintings and self-portraits are distinctly less persuasive, degrees weaker than the paintings of Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663). Cagnacci (despite his flaws) is a better, more exciting painter than Gentileschi. Lot and His Daughters (1636-8) has the three figures like cut-outs adjoining one another, figures casting no shadows on others; this undermines the artist’s intention to bond the three in an interlocked group. David and Bathsheba (c. 1636-7)is much poorer, with the architectural background (perhaps by an assistant) being both insistent and unpersuasive. The rearmost attendant is awkward; the others are little better. The placement of figures and spatial arrangement is risible, making a mockery of the attempted eye contact between Bathsheba and the rightmost attendant. Such paintings – the pedestrian and the poor – show Gentileschi to be a second-rate painter capable of a few flashes of brilliance.  

So, what of the quality of the rest of the art? Does it stand up to scrutiny?

Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) is a very inconsistent artist, as this selection proves. She is best known for self-portraits, which vary in treatment from the sensitive to the cursory. The lowest in quality seem to be casual efforts, trading on the novelty of being self-portraits of a woman artist.  (A painfully malproportioned self-portrait (now in Vienna) is illustrated.) The miniature self-portrait with giant medallion (oil on parchment, 3¼” x 2½”) is a handsome piece of work, well modelled, contemplative, technically well thought through. Self-Portrait at the Easel (1554-5) is one of the number of variants, showing the artist depicting a Virgin and Child. The portraits of children are good, one deriving from Giovanni Battista Moroni’s style. The Holy Family (1592) is rather unpleasant, with its pneumatic anatomies and slick handling. For more on this artist, read another review by me here.  

Diana Scultori (c. 1547-1612) was a Mantuan engraver working in the Roman style established by Marcantonio Raimondi. The composition after Giulio Romano is very effective; the translation of a Cornelius Cort drawing of The Spinario is somewhat less so. It is difficult to separate the weaknesses of this second engraving into errors of the original drawing and those of transcription.

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is one of the female painters of the Bolognese School. She is represented by religious paintings, portraits and portrait drawings executed in black and red chalks. A small tondo portrait of a prelate (c. 1580) is arresting – sympathetic, engaged, carefully executed – but the other pictures are unremarkable. Fede Galizia (c. 1574-c. 1630) seems (on the evidence of her Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1596) and an attractive still-life of fruit (c. 1607)) to be of high calibre, but it is impossible to judge on the strength of only two paintings. It is hard to assess printmakers Isabella Catanea Parasole (active 1585-1625) and Anna Maria Vaiani (1604-c. 1655), painter Anna Bacherini Piattoli (1720-1788) and miniaturist Veronica Stern Telli (1717-1801) on these meagre showings. Painters Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676) and Ginevre Cantofoli (1618-1672) and pastellist Marianna Carlevarijs (1703-after 1750) seem to be very slight talents.

Through illustration, it is hard to appreciate the religious dioramas of Caterina de Julianis (c. 1670-c. 1742). Dioramas (framed constructions of painted wax figures of saints in setting deep-relief settings are pieces) often get overlooked in art histories. Somewhere between fine art, devotional handicraft, ex voto and sculptural curiosity, such dioramas are hard to categorise. The common temperamental aversion of polychromy in sculpture, prejudice against the use of wax (redolent of anatomical teaching aides) and the fact that these diorama were often produced by nuns (often anonymously) rather than professionally accredited artists, all mean that dioramas of devotional character fall between academic disciplines and do not receive their due attention. The extreme delicacy of such pieces has caused a high attrition rate, leading to gaps in the historical records which has obscured the extent of the production. de Julianis’s piece in the catalogue has a coloured wax figurine of Penitent Magdalene, in woodland grotto with a deer drinking at a stream, with a painted landscape behind. The materials are listed as “beeswax, pigments, paper, glass, vellum, silk, feathers, wire, burlap, and varnish”. Such dioramas inspired recent art by contemporary sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere.

The attractive and scrupulous tempera paintings on parchment of flora and fauna by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) are a delight. She trained as a miniaturist and made portraits and religious paintings. They are sharp, accurate and display great versatility – they hark back to Dürer and anticipate the field of naturalist illustration. Despite the wealth of detail, they never become either fussy or stiff, enlivened by the use of hatched shading and blending of colours and line with stippling. The subjects have sculptural presence. They are the outstanding find of this exhibition.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was another Bolognese artist, adulated in her lifetime. She was a prolific painter, producing portraits, mythological paintings, Biblical scenes and etchings. We know of her production and development because she signed and dated many paintings. Aside from the original and intense Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664), there is nothing here that seems to separate Sirani from contemporaries. To prove her fortitude to her husband Brutus, Portia stabbed herself in the thigh. It is a rare subject in art. Portia’s expression is reserved and a touch dreamy. In a way, it anticipates the modern-day self-cutting craze, where bloodletting is a test of strength and self-control. Responses to Sirani and Fontana will likely depend on whether the viewer finds the art of the Bolognese School of this period agreeable  

Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) is well known enough. As a portraitist in pastels, she was famed during her lifetime and (for afficionados of the period) she is still a star. Her miniature portraits in watercolour on ivory show the delicacy of her touch and flair for Rococo airiness and sensuality. Her technical grounding and brio in execution make her pastels and paintings attractive and stylistically consistent – internally and as a group. As with much Rococo art, there is the ever-present temptation for the artist to flatter both subject and viewer. A late invented head in pastel is looser and more expressive than her commissioned portraits.   

The exhibition also includes portraits of women artists by men. The best is a dramatic, sculptural and handsome 1627 painting by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), of his wife Virginia de Vezzo (1600-1638). This is a thoughtful addition but perhaps a counter-productive one. With the possible exception of Gentileschi’s Judith, Vouet’s portrait is the best painting in an exhibition dedicated to presenting the abilities of women artists.

[Image: Simon Vouet, Virginia da Vezzo, the Artist’s Wife, as the Magdalene (c. 1626), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 1649 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art]

Catalogue essays explore women artists as miniaturists and the professional standing of women artists in this period in Italy. Catalogue entries devote space to discussing issues related to exhibited items. The essays and catalogue entries are written by specialists Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, Sheila Barker, Babette Bohn, Claude-Douglas Dickerson III, Jamie Gabbarelli, Hilliard Goldfarb, Lara Lea Roney and Joaneath Spicer. The entries are sympathetic towards the situation of women artists but lack the stridency or partisan quality found in other books. This makes the catalogue a pleasure to read and endows the statements with greater credibility. The evidence of new scholarship is woven into informative entries on exhibits.

The more sweeping claims of first-generation feminist art historians are being picked apart by close study of records. “Beginning in the fourteenth century, women’s rate of matriculation in the artisanal guilds across Europe began to drop, yet women continues to work in similar numbers. Whereas this decline was formerly attributed to efforts to cast women out of guilds through exclusionary tactics, historians now widely agree that late medieval and early modern women may have deliberately avoided joining guilds, probably to save money and time, and to skirt requirements that could cut into their profit margins, productivity, employment opportunities, and market shares.”

The extensive exhibition list and bibliography will be a useful reference for students and academics seeking sources. The illustrations are generally very good. Overall, the catalogue and exhibition is a balanced overview of women artists in Italy in the pre-modern era. Some of the art is wonderful and the texts provide a survey of the achievements of Italian women artists.

Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, et al, By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Detroit Institute of Arts (distr. Yale), 2021, cloth hb, 208pp, 141 col. illus., $40/£30, ISBN 978 0 300 25636 9

Purchase the book here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art


Botticelli, Artist and Designer

Ana Debenedetti, formerly Curator of Paintings at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has written a book on Botticelli, paying particular attention to him as head of a workshop and producer of designs for embroideries, tapestries, wood inlays and other non-painted art. It is the latest in the attractive series of artist monographs from Reaktion.

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (1445-1510), called Botticelli, was born in Florence into what we would describe today as a middle-class family. One brother (Antonio) was a goldsmith, another was a marriage broker. Botticelli was possibly apprenticed to Maso Finiguerra (1426-1464) as a teenager. Finiguerra was a goldsmith but part of a goldsmith’s activities included designing in stucco before gilding. It was a task that straddled metalwork, bas relief and painting and was one of multiple of decorative disciplines that could be employed on production of furniture, frames, altarpieces and liturgical objects. Botticelli painted a portrait of man (Antonio?) holding an actual gilded medallion attesting to his trade. Either of the brothers would have been capable of producing that element.

Botticelli seems to have received instruction on goldsmithing, stucco-work and drawing from Finiguerra. In 1459 or 1460 Botticelli became assistant to Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), already an established master of a higher calibre and status to Finiguerra. Debenedetti suggests that this may be because of the Botticelli family’s social or business connections with Fra Filippo. His reputation was high and his studio was busy, so it may not have taken much persuasion for the master to take on the talented young Botticelli. (Filippino Lippi (son of Filippo), upon the death of his father completed his apprenticeship under Botticelli.)

Under Fra Filippo, Botticelli learned panel and fresco painting in tempera. He was one of the last painters to be trained in tempera on panel and not to adapt to the incoming medium of oil painting on panel and canvas. By the time of his death, Botticelli’s style had fallen from fashion and his materials seemed hopelessly archaic. Botticelli used lighting to make his figures clear rather than to imitate light and shade in naturalistic fashion. In his early paintings some of his figures cast no shadows. There is no hint of reflected colour in Botticelli’s art. Note how the figures of Leonardo and Raphael are integrated into their surroundings, quite unlike Botticelli’s paintings. In other respects, Botticelli was advanced painter, observing nature and including details to heighten the richness of his scenes. “This wealth of detail echoes the rich apparatus of Fortitude [(1470)], and reveals Botticelli’s obsession with naturalistic features that would soon become a distinctive trait of his art. it is his capacity to depict the natural world as a veritable spectacle of marvels that made Botticelli one of the most successful translators of the Florentine devotional and mythological scenes alike.”

Botticelli’s painting bottega (shop, workshop) was one of the largest in Florence in the 1470s and 1480s. Apparently, his prices were not notably higher than those of other masters. It was in the family home. He lived in his brother’s family over the period 1482-94; after his brother’s death he lived there alone. Filippino Lippi, now fully trained, acted as Botticelli’s junior collaborator. Filippino may have inherited his father’s model books (or pattern books), which contained exemplary drawings used as designs for compositions, figures and details in paintings. There is a lot of crossover in terms of treatment and imagery in the many paintings of Virgin and Child made by Fra Filippo, Filippino and Botticelli. The facial type of the Virgin (the sweet countenance, pale skin and rounded forehead) rarely changes, though we see development of treatment of space and iconography. Likewise, in the portraits we see versatility and a degree of innovation. There is not space enough for the author to do more than discuss The Divine Comedy illustrations in brief.

Debenedetti assesses the reception and commissioning of art by the Botticelli’s workshop, doing some close reading of particularly notable works. Attention is paid to Botticelli’s contribution to a commission for symbolic paintings for the Merchants’ Guild court, executed in 1470. The original commission had gone to Piero del Pollaiolo for seven paintings, perhaps as the painted backs of chairs for the judges. For some reason, a senior politician intervened and had one of the paintings was made by Botticelli. It was the artist’s first public commission. It may be that the guild was irritated by Piero’s slow work. He was also young and inexperienced. Debenedetti says that technical analysis shows that Piero’s older brother Antonio may have stepped in to complete at least one painting to save the remainder of the commission.  

The author disagrees with the truth – or at least the totalising explanation – of a move to archaising influence of Girolamo Savonarola (during his influence on Florence, 1489-1498) upon Botticelli’s style. “Although this observation is undeniable, it cannot go unnoticed that Botticelli changed his style several times before this dark period.” It was Savonarola’s messianic preaching and message of devotion through civic renewal that made him popular and feared. The destruction of worldly luxuries that Savonarola called for resulted in the Bonfire of the Vanities. Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi both allegedly gave paintings to be burned.

The author analyses Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. She considers that the revival of theatre by the court of Lorenzo Medici may have influenced Primavera (c. 1480) and The Birth of Venus (1478-82). His last recorded commission was made in 1505. By the time of his death, five years later, he was neglected and his possessions and copy books were considered of little monetary value. Debenedetti believes that his copy books did posthumously reach other artists before being broken up and the sheets almost all lost.

Illustrations of the relevant pictures are handy. The images of contemporaneous applied art using the painter’s designs are not often found and they prompt us to reconsider the master as collaborator and designer. The full endnotes, chronology, bibliography and index are a welcome addition for a relatively short book. Debenedetti’s Botticelli: Artist and Designer is a well-researched book that takes advantage of new scholarship.

Ana Debenedetti, Botticelli: Artist and Designer, 2021, Reaktion, hardback, 232pp, 73 col./1 mono illus., £15.95, ISBN 978 1 78914 438 3

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


“Getting Creative with History”

“From the first charcoal drawings on cave walls, to Rachel Whiteread’s Turner Prize-winning cast of a house interior, Creation attempts to chart the nature of artistic creativity worldwide. It is a comparative anthropological study of what creativity means within a differing but constant construct: society. The book offers a chronological survey of fine art, applied art and architecture, in that order of emphasis. We visit the highlights of major civilisations, respectively the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Olmec, Mayans, Aztecs, Greek, Romans, Indians and others. Then we return to Europe for the majority of the remainder of the book.

“Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation — tracing the course of European culture from ancient Greece to the 20th century — was considered an encyclopaedic achievement. This is by some measure even more ambitious. Curator and cultural historian John-Paul Stonard takes us to ancient China, the lost civilisations of Central America and modern and prehistoric Africa, whilst also featuring art of Western societies from the medieval to modern era. Surely, Stonard is setting himself up for failure….”

John-Paul Stonard, Creation: Art Since The Beginning, Bloomsbury, 2021, hardback, 464pp, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 4088 7968 9

Read the full review here: https://thecritic.co.uk/getting-creative-with-history/

Sacred Chola bronzes

[Image: Uma, “Capital style; ca. 900, bronze, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956.]

The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 is the “first book to situate the sacred and sensuous bronze statues from India’s Chola dynasty in social context”. This book is an attempt to synthesise art historical and connoisseurial appreciation of temple bronzes of the Chola dynasty (855-1279) but also to consider the social, economic and religious significance of the bronzes. The Chola dynasty flourished in South and South-Eastern India and northern Sri Lanka; its influence expanded over of the territory of Bengal and Malaysia. Its art is considered by some to be the Indian renaissance. Author Vidya Dehejia, professor of Indian and South Asian art at Columbia University, claims that this book a first full attempt to cover the breadth of the reception and production of the famed temple bronzes.

Dehejia faced certain hurdles in preparing this handsome book. Firstly, not all of the bronzes are either documented or even listed. Secondly, getting reliable data on the bronzes is difficult, not least because – as sacred objects – access to them is limited and photography of some is forbidden. Thus, even making an overall assessment of the estimated 3,700 statues over hundreds of holy sites is a task so large that it will require further even more work. One question the author raises is where did roughly 153 tons of copper used to cast the statues come from, considering there are no copper deposits in the Cholas region? She thinks that evidence of copper mines in Sri Lanka probably indicates trade or conquest prompted Chola expansion to Sri Lanka. Additionally, the pearl fisheries of Sri Lanka were greatly valued by Chola kings.  

These devotional works were fitted with fixings for carrying poles and – in temples – are routinely clothed, daubed with substances and have offerings applied. Years’ worth of accretion of incense, ointments and soot have patinated the statues that are kept in situ in temples. Some statues have been removed to museums (in India and worldwide, especially Great Britain and the USA). The author explains the subjects of the statues, which are of gods and goddesses (mainly Shiva, Uma, Skanda, Vishnu, Kali, Ganesha) and saints. Included are plentiful photographs of statues dressed in their holy-day finery, showing how worshippers have seen these statues for over a thousand years. In the Valuvur temple in Nagapattinam, the brahmins put a diamond-studded foot cover on the raised foot of dancing Shiva.   

As Dehejia explains, the original sculpture that be modelled in a mixture of wax, resin and oil. This is then coated with plaster, surrounded by sand and molten bronze poured in, which replaces the original model entirely. This makes the Chola bronze solid, not hollow as the lost-wax method generates. “All Chola bronzes are the product of this direct lost-wax process in which the mold must be broken to release the image. There is no mold left for reuse, so each Chola bronze is a singular piece that may not be replicated in any mechanical fashion.” Statues are sometimes worn smooth by the touch of priests. Periodically, worn details would be cut back in by sculptors. Some statues and laws on copper plates have been unearthed in recent years, offering further knowledge of the period. In 1310 an invading army of Muslims was pillaging temples for valuable materials, so priests in the region buried their statues and the threat of defilement and destruction lasted until 1378. The hiding places of the bronzes and valuables was secret information. It seems that not all of the bronzes were recovered at the time.

Dehejia notes that the earliest of Chola bronzes (c. 855/860) display remarkable accomplishment. “No evidence exists of hesitant beginnings. Where did this Master come from? Where is his other work? Might it emerge from an underground burial site? Since the entire art of processional bronzes was in its infancy, we must assume that the artist who created this couple [Shiva and Uma] in the mid-ninth century trained as a sculptor in a wood- or stone-carving workshop. The markedly flattened form of the images that is strikingly evident in side view is noteworthy; it is almost as if the figures were extracted from a bas relief in stone or wood.”

[Image: Shiva as Wondrous Dancer, ca. 970, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC,
Purchase-Charles Lang Freer Endowment and funds provided by Margaret and George Haldeman.]

The domination of Shiva worship outstrips worship of other deities. “[…] of the 311 temples in the extended Kaveri delta (the present-day districts Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, and Nagapattinam), 295 honor god Shiva, while only 16 are dedicated to god Vishnu.” It seems that the sinuous lithe forms of dancing Shiva (Shiva as Lord of the Dance, often with four arms) in bronze statues came from Chola Shiva worship and accelerated the preference for Shiva over other gods.

The tapering torso, smooth chest, wide shoulders and elongated face is typical of Shiva and some of the other male statues. The figure type of the women is famous: the wide hips, sloping shoulders, elongated torso, narrow waist and large bust (sometimes exposed). The men exude strength and grace; the women are fecund and youthful. Faces of gods are generally serene. Sometimes figures are accompanied by smaller companions, children and animals. These sometimes support the main figures structurally, as do other forms, such as halos of fire (aureole) and mandalas. Deferral to elegance over verisimilitude is apparent, with some poses being improbable or impossible.

The stone carvings are considered and amply illustrated. The author sees many parallels between the stone and bronzes. The stone (the type is not described) is weathered when exposed to the elements and thus the bronzes are better examples of the sculpture of the period. Most of the bronzes are kept inside the temples. The weathering and alteration of inscriptions in stone walls – sometimes so extensive that they cover all the ground-level walls, alcoves and pilasters – has made reading dedications and instructions difficult. Also written on the walls are donations made by the devout.  

Dehejia discusses the co-existence of Tamil Hindus and Sinhalese Buddhists on Sri Lanka. The Cholas were Hindus but understood the value of patronage of Buddhist temples as well as supporting the Tamil merchants’ Hindu temples. Apparently, the sculptors also made Buddhas and Dehejia compares holy statues of Hindu and Buddhist subjects and finds many stylistic and technical points of overlap.

An overview of the classes of individuals who founded the temples is assessed by Dehejia, following the known inscriptions in Sanskrit and Tamil. She concludes that women donors frequently donated statues of Uma. Artists in this period are anonymous. There has been an effort to discern separate masters in certain places and eras, in order to permit an artist-centred appreciation of sacred art, as is possible in modern Europe. Dehejia tentatively assigns specific statues to certain single unnamed masters.

The standard of the art is excellent. The grace of the figures and skill of the artists are comparable to art of any era and region. The stylised and hieratical character of the bronzes can make them look to the uninitiated as led by formalist concerns, but Dehejia explains the subtle psychology expressed in certain groups – for example, the shyness of Uma before her wedding and protective but insistent guidance of her protector. The restrained expressions belie the distinct characterisations of individual gods.

“Today, many small Chola-era temples, including Vadakkalathur, Tandantottam, and Tiruvilakudi, have no bronzes at all. In the light of the smuggling that, unfortunately, has accompanied the thriving art market in India and overseas, all bronzes from many temples have been removed to safe-houses, referred as “Icon Centers”. […] When sequestered in Icon Centers, these exquisite bronzes with deep religious significance and aesthetic reputation are not available to priests, to devotees, or to art lovers, thereby deptiving the bronzes of their many consequential levels of meaning.”

Dehejia’s book does much to illuminate the meaning and importance of the holy statues of the Cholas. The illustrations are generally very good, the level of information is appropriate for the educated non-Hindu reader. The appendices, notes and glossary make the book a self-contained reference work on the subject. Highly recommended.

The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 is part of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts National Gallery of Art, Washington Center for Advanced Study in Visual Arts Bollingen Series XXXV: 65.

Vidya Dehejia, The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardback, 336pp, 242 col./3 mono illus., $75/£58, ISBN 9780691202594

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts

In the development of colour printing, one of the two centres was German-speaking central Europe. (For a review of prints from the other centre – Northern Italy, especially Venice – click here.) The chiaroscuro woodcut involved the cutting of multiple plates, usually two or three, in blocks of wood and printing each in colour sequentially on a single sheet of paper, producing an image with areas of different colour, some produced by overprinting of inked fields. The blocks are cut so that the highlight areas were removed, the remaining area being printed as shade (called “tone”); usually a block with a line design was printed over the top, often in black (called “key”, “line” or “outline”). This produced prints that were not full colour replicated the effect of wash drawings or drawings on tinted paper.

Woodcut prints from multiple plates was not the only method of printing in colour. Discounting hand-coloured line prints, colour printing was done with stencils and stamping and printing in colours on tinted paper. Colour printing was used for text in devotional works, book title pages, music scores, calendars, charts, diagrams, maps and all manner of material that was not strictly pictorial.

The book is arranged as a catalogue of British Museum’s holdings of German chiaroscuro and colour woodcuts. Almost all of the prints are relief (rather than intaglio). It covers 150 years of printmaking, ending around 1600, with a coda of a revival of colour printing from the C17th and C18th. The advance of this survey is that it includes book illustrations as well as single-sheet prints. Reproduced here are pages with texts printed in two colours, a prime use of two-colour printing. “Calendars, printer’s devices, music, diagrams, even passages of text with extensive ‘rubrication’ or red text demonstrate that many if not most printers were skilled colour printers, even if their projects did not involve images printed from multiple colours. […] the vast majority of colour prints were produced for books or ephemera, including broadsides and pamphlets that were intended to be used and then discarded.”

Printer Erhard Ratdolt (1442-1528) is generally credited with inventing colour printing from blocks in the 1470s. By 1482, Ratdolt was making multiple-block colour prints in scientific treatises. Whether he actually invented it, Ratdolt’s are the earliest datable examples so far identified. Considering how delicate prints are and how few survive, it is unlikely accomplished earlier dated prints will be discovered. Ratdolt was from Augsburg. He travelled to work as a printer in Venice, where he encountered the most advanced techniques of the day. He brought this knowledge back to Bavaria and made Augsburg (frequently the site of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor) the epicentre of the German printmaking renaissance.

By 1507-8, Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472-1553) and Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) were making chiaroscuro prints. They experimented by printing in precious metals. Cranach’s St George was printed in black line and gold highlight on indigo-dyed paper. His Venus and Cupid (1509) is more Italianate than his most typical paintings.

Burgkmair’s Lovers Surprised by Death (1510) shows skeletal death killing a soldier, while his lower attempts to flee. Death has her robe clamped in his jaws. The setting is Venice and perhaps the death that has found them is the plague, a common scourge of Venice.  

Savage notes that the first white-line woodcut was not made by Urs Graf (c. 1485-1529) in 1521, but was at least current by the publication of Pelbartus of Temesvár’s Pomerium (1502). The title vignette shows a monk reading at a lectern in a garden, with four mythological animals in roundels at each corner of that image. White ink was not a viable medium, hence the use line-cut relief blocks with black ink. Two of Graf’s prints of standard-bearers of the Swiss Confederacy are reproduced here. A stunning print in red tone and black line on an off-white paper of Adams and Eve (after Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550) has glinting line highlights cut into the tone block, which gives the figures and tree of knowledge a flickering reflective quality. It is like looking at a statue group carved in polished red stone. 

After Sebald Beham, The Fall of Man, c.1550–1600, two-block colour woodcut
(red, black), 350 × 253 mm. British Museum, 1845,0809.1734

Hans Baldung “Grien” (1484/5-1545) and Hans Wechtlin (1480/5-after 1526) worked in another HRE court in Strasbourg. Baldung’s Preparation for the Witches’ Sabbath (1510) is a famous early colour print and is reproduced in multiple colours. Wechtlin’s Crucifixion (two versions, c. 1510 and 1511 or later) is as sombre and pictorially deep as a painting. Wechtlin designed elaborate ornamental architectural frames for the tableaux. In Skull in Frame (c. 1510-3), the skull fills its frame, the jaw protruding towards the viewer. The tone block defines the roundness of the skull through shading through areas and hatching.

A selection of prints from the later C16th demonstrate the multifarious uses of colour printing, mainly from books. Although the designs are sometimes workmanlike, the skill of the printers is of a high standard. The intarsia panels are colour woodcuts printed on paper which were pasted on to furniture, wall panels and doors. Few of these survive, either unused or (even rarer) on the surface to which they were applied. Erasmus Loy’s were architectural scenes, with strong perspective, designed to imitate relief carvings, usually the preserve of the well-off. 

Erasmus Loy, View of an Arcade, c.1557–70, two-block colour
woodcut (ochre, red-brown) with stamp of privilege, 280 × 210
(sheet). British Museum, presented by William Mitchell,
1895,0122.129

A beautifully accomplished chiaroscuro print of the Rhinoceros (1515) by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is actually a C 17th Dutch addition of a tone block to the original line block produced by Dürer. Savage suggests that the development of this addition was to compensate for the worn condition of the much-printed block. The woodcut revival of the 1600s to 1800s was mostly in the form of recreations, tone blocks added to old line blocks and variants of works by esteemed masters, such as Beham and Dürer.

The items are organised in chronological order and technical data is provided, though there is little by way of information on papers or ink composition, which is too specialist for such a volume. A bibliography and index are included. There are microscopic photographs, showing the order in which blocks were inked and printed. No matrices (blocks) are illustrated. Alternate states and single-block impressions are reproduced when available.

This is a valuable overview of early printing, striking a balance between covering a multitude of examples and providing technical explanations. It shows thorough knowledge of the latest research into the field and perfectly complements Naoko Takahatake’s The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy (Prestel, 2018), which covers the other half of the story of early colour printing. Recommended for collectors, printmakers and those studying the German Renaissance.   

Elizabeth Savage, Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts at the British Museum, Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021, hardback, 240pp, fully illus., £50, ISBN 978 1 911 300755

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

James Ensor: Chronicle of his Life

Xavier Tricot, Ensor scholar and author of his catalogue raisonné, has written James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, a summary biography of James Ensor (1860-1949). Ensor is a significant artist in the development of Post-Impressionism and the foundation of Expressionism and has gone to be one of the most influential of Belgian artists. This book illustrates paintings and photographs, giving an account of major events and relationships, with lengthy quotations from letters and press articles.

Ensor was born in Ostend in 1860. His mother was Belgian and his father English. He met his future wife while on holiday in her native city. Ensor revered his father, whom he described as exceptionally intelligent, handsome and athletic. He had hoped to start a new life for the family in the USA but his foray across the Atlantic coincided with the Civil War and he had to return. It seems the set-back left him increasingly resentful of narrow materialism and limited intellectual scope of Ostend. More than a little of this attitude seems to have been adopted by his son. The family ran a gift, curio and seashell shop. The many masks in the shop and the apartment above provided Ensor with his most compelling subject, one that make him famous.

Ensor studied fine art in Brussels from 1877 to 1880. His art education in Ostend had been limited and traditional. At the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts he received more traditional training. He did not do well in examinations and tended to be placed in the middle or bottom of the class. One of his fellow students was Fernand Khnopff. Ensor worked alongside Willy Finch (1854-1930). They sometimes painted the same still-life side by side and they used similar styles; they painted each other’s portraits.

Ensor was disillusioned by the expectations of the academy and the opportunities for advanced art in Belgium in 1880. That year he left both the academy and the capital, to return to live with his parents in Ostend. Advanced art was synonymous with Impressionism and Realism. Ensor enthusiastically explored both avenues, relishing the use of paint that made clear its materiality. The Oyster-eater (1882) is a good example of Impressionist-inflected Realism.

His early paintings were marines, townscapes, still-lifes and interiors. They show careful observation and the adoption of a Realist palette, enlivened by attention to facture. Tricot has included seminal works by Ensor, stressing the paintings rather than the drawings or etchings. The book amounts to a biography of Ensor through his own words and art as Chronicle contains quotes from Ensor’s own writings, which were extensive. He wrote some articles and many letters, few of which are available in English translation. The reproductions are largely accurate and all the paintings are reproduced in colour.

Ensor’s paintings earned respect from critics and fellow artist when they were exhibited in numerous group exhibitions over the 1880s. He was building the reputation of being a leading painter, without there being anything unique about his paintings. His association with Les XX (the Belgian group of avant-gardists, operational 1883-1893) and La Libre Esthétique group (the successor group, 1893-1914) helped to spread knowledge of Ensor’s art. Despite this recognition, sales were slow and prices low.

In 1883 Ensor began painting his mask series in earnest. These paintings were of figures wearing carnival and theatrical masks – and the masks with figures – as well as skeletons, each interacting with each other and with figures who seem unaware of their presence. They were to prove Ensor’s greatest achievement. They destabilised the narrative of Realist art and took on aspects of caricature, satire and dream imagery. They extended gothic art and fantasy art. Ensor was playing with the boundaries between real and unreal, living and inanimate, high and low art, entering the territory that Symbolists were examining in the same period. What made Ensor different was his wit and the use of images and conventions found in satirical prints. The Symbolists were rather averse to humour, satire and social commentary, which can make their art rather self-important, grand and detached.

He started to overpaint his older pictures, adding masks which mock the oblivious subjects. Ensor’s mask paintings were not his sole output during this time. He was as likely to exhibit a still-life, view of Ostend or a religious drawing. Ensor’s religious paintings are almost all centred on Christ, interpreting the life of Christ through a personal fusion of Ensor’s own surroundings and the art he loved. They are highly idiosyncratic pieces and vary in tone from the devotional to satirical and the autobiographical. His spurt of originality lasted from around 1883 to 1900, when Ensor’s verve diminished rapidly. His love of Turner blunted his earthy palette. He reprised old subjects but never recaptured his fire. Ironically, it was after 1900 that artistic taste caught up with Ensor and collector interest increased substantially.  

Ensor participated in the 1901 Venice Biennale. A series of publications and exhibitions raised his profile. He was knighted in 1903. In 1904 he met art dealer François Franck and in 1910 the well-connected gallerist Herbert von Garvens-Garvensburg, both of whom bought and exhibited his art. Ensor ended up painting replicas of his old paintings to meet the demand of collectors but his new compositions were generally unremarkable. In 1925 Ensor was admitted to the Académie Royale. In 1929 a huge retrospective was held in Brussels, including 337 paintings, 325 drawings and 135 etchings. The same year he was awarded a barony.   

Tricot has uncovered new data about Ensor’s life from memoirs and Ensor’s own letters. It seems his father was brutally attacked in 1885 and was hospitalised, apparently mentally unstable, and died in 1887. Tricot reveals links between Ensor and a number of artists well-known and obscure. He quotes letters written to (and from) Ensor’s publishers and collectors. He discusses matters of price and provenance that allow us to understand Ensor’s attitude towards the disposal of his art. In particular, Tricot provides information about how Ensor attempted to place key pictures with certain museums. Although this is not a full biography, the inclusion of the artist’s words gives a vivid sense of his character and views. His sardonic humour, wild wit, self-pity and capriciousness emanate from his comments. Memoirs and letters of others tell us how he was seen. Tricot has corrected the dating of At the Conservatoire from 1902 to 1893, altering his position the publication of his 2009 catalogue raisonné.

Overall, this is a very useful guide to Ensor’s life and art, especially when read in conjunction with larger catalogues. Perhaps the only shortcoming is the absence of graphic work, which may be less familiar to readers but was a key aspect of Ensor’s oeuvre.

Xavier Tricot, James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, 1860-1949, Mercatorfonds/Yale University Press (distr. Yale), 2020, paperback, 224pp, 200 col. and mono illus., £30, ISBN 978 0 300 25397 9

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Publication: Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History

Adams2_draft_cover (1)
 
I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book.
 
 
Alexander Adams, Professor Frank Furedi (foreword), Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History, (Societas) Imprint Academic (UK/US, distr. worldwide), paperback/e-book, 170pp (approx.), £14.95/$29.90, illustrated by the author, mono illus., published worldwide 6 October 2020
 
 
Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History surveys the origins, uses and manifestations of iconoclasm in history, art and public culture. It examines the various causes and uses of image/property defacement as a tool of political, national, religious and artistic process. This is one of the first books to examine the outbreak of iconoclasm in Europe and North America in the summer of 2020 in the context of previous outbreaks, and it examines the implications of iconoclasm as a form of control, censorship and expression.
 
 
The book contains detailed discussion of the history of iconoclasm in the following areas: Egypt, Byzantium, England, France, Switzerland, the Low Countries, Mexico, Wahhabism/ISIS/Taliban, Nazi/post-unification Germany, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, China and USA. The phenomenon of art vandalism and defacement as an artistic strategy are analysed. The book contains a discussion of the 2020 iconoclasm, Confederate monuments and identity politics, including a thorough list of monuments destroyed or removed. It is fully footnoted and written in a clear, accessible style.
 
 
 
 
The book is available for purchase from the publisher’s website (UK and USA), via internet booksellers internationally and usual book retailers.
 
 
 
To view my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art

History of Art in Japan

Muchaku_(detail,_2)

[Image: Unkei, Asanga (1212), carved and painted wood. Source: Wikimedia]

The scope of this volume is extensive. The author intends to outline the main features, persistent ideas and developments in Japanese fine arts, crafts and architecture from pre-history to today. Tsuji outlines the development of Japan’s culture through artefacts from its early eras of Jōmon, Yayoi, Kofun, Nara, Heian and Medieval. The subsequent Edo and Modern periods are much more familiar to non-Japanese readers and these are covered in more detail because of the complexity and large amount of documentation and artefacts from this time.

The cord patterning and stippling in winding linear layouts of the pot decoration in the Jōmon period (9300-500 BCE) can be seen as forerunners of Japanese fine art of our day, such as that by Minoru Onoda. Prefigured Modernism abounds in Japanese art. “[…] another dogū [freestanding ceramic figurines], discovered in 1992 at the Nishinomae site in Yamagata prefecture and designated as a National Treasure in 2012, whose legs suggest that the figure is wearing pants; the sharp drop along the back recalls the forms of sculptor Ossip Zadkine.” Debates continue about the relative levels immigration from Korea in the Yayoi period; what is not in dispute was the importance of their visual culture.

According to tradition, in 522 Buddhism arrived in Japan from China and in 538 it began to be incorporated into the imperial court. In the following centuries, carvings of the Buddha were fusions of indigenous Japanese culture and imported Korean and Chinese statuary. These were made from stone or wood, often gilded or intricately painted with paint and lacquer. Later statues showed sophisticated manipulation of pattern, emphatic volume, simplified forms and drapery, even with the loss of polychromy. Buddhist temples became more sophisticated and the Izumo-taisha (Izumo grand shrine) was constructed on giant pillars that may have been as tall as 100 metres, reached by a long straight staircase. The use of wood and paper in architecture has meant that early structures have been lost and rebuilt. At this time shōgon (sacred ornament) became a major strand in craft production. Tsuji explains the theological basis for the statues, mandalas and narrative paintings that dominate art in the following eras.

In the Middle Heian period (894-1086), isolation from the continent led to development of a more synthesised Japanese style (wayō). By this stage the main pillars of Japanese visual culture are well established. The art and craft are all recognisably Japanese, with architecture being more closely tied to Chinese models. Zōchōten (Virudhaka) (839) (carved wood with lacquer, colour and gold leaf, 182.5 cm high) has the guardian king in an imposing martial stance, the elaborate drapery and clothing emphasising rather than concealing his stature. His fierce visage is turned in profile, powerfully framed by a halo of fire. There is nothing of such accomplishment from the same period in Europe. The author comments on similarities between this group of statues and Indian carving.

Lacquer work and inlay on furniture had an established repertoire of decorative motifs by the early C12th – waves, flowers and other plants, mountains, clouds, animals. Painting was executed on scrolls, silk, fans, plaster walls, paper-panel walls and screens. Many paintings from temples or monasteries were discoloured by soot or destroyed by fire. The survival of painted screens from 1050-1100 allows us to get a glimpse of painting from the Late Heian period. Paintings at this time were religious, narrative or decorative in character; painting qua painting did not exist as a separate approach at this time. Japanese fans of the time were prized in China. The history of calligraphy is intertwined with those of handscrolls and fans. Buddhist scripture provided opportunities for imagination in the depiction of realms of heaven and hell, some of which are used as examples. Vivid scenes of suffering, famine, degradation and torture seem to be a mixture of observation of life at the time and pure imagination. The suffering of human existence is an important teaching of the Buddha, so such scenes are common throughout the region. A notable example is a grisly scene of the C13th of putrefaction and bodily dissolution, Aspects of the Unclean Human Path. In the late C13th a wave of Ch’an monks from China fleeing the Mongol invasion brought Zen teaching to Japan. It subsequently became the predominant school of Buddhism in the Japanese islands. Much of Japanese art continued to be influenced by China. One transplanted idea that the Japanese monks perfected was the idea of the dry garden, where water features were replaced by areas of raked gravel.

SONY DSC

[Image: Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara. Source: Wikimedia: By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4369910%5D

The key architectural masterpiece in Japan is the Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara featuring the classic double-roof, top roof steeply pitched, lower roof shallow, both with lifted corners. It houses two brilliantly expressive statues (1203) carved in wood by Unkei and Kaikei. For an analogue of great art that fuses realism and emotional hyper-expression we in the west could think of Grünewald’s Colmar Altarpiece (1512-6). Unkei’s other works display a forceful, reserved realism, including a masterful portrait of the monk Asanga (1212). Kaikei was more indebted to Song-style religious statuary. Wood carving at this time reached remarkable heights of competence and expressiveness without compromising the need to convey dignity and restraint. In contrast, painted portraits attributed to Fujiwara no Takanobu (d. 1204/5) situate the stylistic but realistic heads on bodies that are rendered geometric by their costumes.

Minamoto_no_Yoritomo

[Image: Fujiwara no Takanobu (attr.), Portrait of Yoritomo (1179), ink on silk scroll, 29 x 236 cm. Source: Wikimedia]

The Nanbokuchō (1333-92) and Muromachi (1392-1573) periods brought advances in landscape painting and genre scenes of everyday life. Detached from historical and religious content, these areas allowed greater freedom for artists and patrons. (This coincides with the emergence of secular subjects in art in Renaissance Europe.) In the late C16th Christian missionaries made a few converts in Japan and some Japanese painters began to mimic Western-style painting. Most of this was later destroyed in anti-Christian riots but what survives seems to have been of more historical curiosity than aesthetic value. Likewise, periodic fires destroyed temples and cities built using wood and paper, depriving us of a clear picture of early phases of Japanese architecture.

The modern period of Japan is the Edo period, lasting from 1615 to 1867. At this time, art became increasingly realistic and secular. The spectacular sliding-door decoration of Kanō Sanraku (1559-1635) and son Kanō Sansetsu (1590-1651), incorporating exquisite depiction of natural elements against a gold-leaf ground shows the sophistication of the period and the effortless application of fine-art technique to architectural use.

In the 1680s the ukiyo-e (floating world style) was established by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). These were genre scenes of everyday life in the pleasure quarters of Edo, featuring musicians, actors, geishas, courtesans and street life. Although best known in the prints of the time, the genre encompasses art in all forms. It is during the Edo period that the classic art of the colour woodblock print was developed (in 1765, by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770)) and became for Westerners the epitome of Japanese visual culture. The economic sophistication of the system combined the skills of designer (eshi/gakō), cutter (horishi), printer (surishi) and publisher (hanmoto) (not neglecting the sellers) to produce an intricate system for the mass-production of great art.

In 1854 Japan was forcibly opened up to international trade and the 1867 appearance of a Japanese pavilion at the Paris international exposition marked the end of Japan’s isolation. This would mark the boom in japonisme in Europe and North America, which came to dominate the decorative arts and influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. For better and worse, the art of the West also came to Japan, to very mixed results. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was the most successful artist to adopt elements of Western style while remaining wedded to the advantages and traditions of Japan, working in prints. The adoption of copperplate engraving and oil paint used in conjunction with half-understood Western use of shading, perspective and so forth led to art that ranged from the beguiling to the deeply deficient. Many potentially competent Japanese artists ended up as makers of failed hybrids that seem ugly, ungainly and crude. Oil paint seems to have been disastrous for Japanese art, robbing it of its crispness, clarity, concision and planar qualities.

In 1867 Japanese society impressed Westerners as uniquely “Western” in its highly stratified social structure and very advanced literature and art, though lacking the widespread literacy and high average income that was beginning to begin standard in the West following the Industrial Revolution. Beyond less advanced societies in Asia, the Japanese were considered honorary Westerners in some respects. Even the tendency for women to paint their faces white was seen as a link to pale-skinned Westerners.

Japanese art of the Meiji and later periods is so wildly heterogeneous and mixed in character that it is hard for the author to describe or evaluate it. Making any general comments about Japanese art at this time is almost impossible and this is the weakest section of the book. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) stands out among the printmakers, making the most of Japanese subject matter and Western style in his colour prints. It is among the artists of nihonga (Japanese style) that we find the best of C20th art in Japan. The story reaches present day with some frames of anime and manga drawings, as well as fine-art paintings.

Tsuji explains the significance of the waves of different Buddhist teaching which directed cultural production, as well as how the art of Japan relates to the social, military, economic and imperial history of the nation. The use of proper terms will allow non-Japanese readers to acquire some familiarity – as they are defined as they are introduced – but the use does not seem excessive to this reviewer. The book has numerous illustrations of key works and typical examples. Even at 631 pages (of which 150 are reference), this book does seem long or overly detailed. Readers will likely close this book satisfied and inspired to search out monographs on certain artists and periods. As a guide History of Art in Japan meets its author’s intentions handsomely.

 

Tsuji Nobuo, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (trans.), History of Art in Japan, Columbia University Press, October 2019, paperback, 664pp, fully illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 23119 341 2 (hardback available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art