Saturday, August 11, 2012

Notes on Nostalgia: Visiting the American Museum of Natural History

This past week I took my goddaughter and her older brother and sister to the American Museum of Natural History.  Our first stop at the museum was the Hall of North American Mammals which first opened in 1942.  I fondly remember seeing these dioramas as a child which is when I last visited the museum. 

Yet, I additionally have always found these dioramas populated with stuffed animals with their detailed trompe-l’oeil backgrounds to be a bit eerie and spooky .  This feeling is in part structured by the presentation of the exhibits.  The exhibition hall is darkened and the dioramas are for the most part brightly lit and they emerge from the darkness like a dream revealing their occupants who stand motionless and silent. 

Unlike seeing animals in zoo, the animals in the museum exhibits do not move or utter a sound.  Wouldn’t it  be wonderful to view all these mammals without the perpetual noise of the museum crowds to really experience their eternal silence?  Despite the visitor noise, standing there in the dark looking at the illuminated animals, I have a sense of nostalgia, loss and death. 

Nostalgia for a long ago ended childhood when I first saw these frozen animals.  Nostalgia for  how I used to make dioramas in school.  (Do kids make dioramas anymore?)  A feeling of loss (or displacement?) for that queer little boy who survived until adulthood.  And for all the people whom I lost along the way.  The Hall of North American Mammals is a sort of tomb.

me74Me in 1974

teddyrooseveltI also feel the dioramas are decidedly a 19th century practice even though the Hall of North American Mammals was opened in 1942.  The exhibit speaks to the 19th century masculine need to collect, to classify, to divide, to control, to hunt, to exhibit.  As I stand in the exhibition hall, I feel as if Teddy Roosevelt is standing behind me with his big gun as he gets ready to go hunting to find specimens for the museum. 

Here are some of my favorites:

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Game on the Table: Silverplate Pheasants Circa 1900

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Here is a pair of silverplate table pheasants, unmarked, probably circa 1900, English or Continental, that sometimes adorn my table when I entertain.  Lately, I have been wondering about the origins of my metallic feathered friends.  Maybe they refer to the Medieval table in the Great Hall with its abundant feast of game birds presented in elaborate displays. And perhaps they simply suggest the hunting of game itself, and  thereby they would appropriately occupy the table of an English country house where shooting game was a traditional pastime. 

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A cursory look on the internet for silver pheasants in both sterling and plate (and also in .800 grade silver) showed that most of these birds were late Victorian to 1930’s in date and were usually of British or German manufacture with some Italian birds thrown in the mix.  This late appearance of such shiny birds suggests that while they refer to hunting and the past, to the English country house, they are also maybe part of the end of this world that began with the Great War.  Silver table pheasants are then perhaps a metal symbol of past glories and traditions both for those who actually came from that dying world, but also for an aspiring middle class that could buy a cheaper plate bird and have their table look as splendid as the lord of the manor.  Pheasants as fantasy for all.

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When I look at my silver table pheasants I am pleasantly reminded of Dutch and Flemish still-life painting of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

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Jan Weenix The White Peacock, 1692, oil on canvas, 75.2”x65.4”, The Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

These lavish, lush and tactile displays of dead game in paint sometimes with accompanying fruit and flowers are full of rich, sumptuous texture and color.  They are gruesome, yet deliciously appetizing.  Dead animals become something gorgeous to look at (rather than to be avoided) in carefully arranged compositions which could inspire a magnificent tablescape for a dinner party.  Yet, dead animals on your table while beautiful in pigment is unappealing in actuality.

And indeed while these paintings were meant as displays of wealth and of the skill of the artist to be visually admired, they were simultaneously vanitas- reminding the spectator that the material world is fleeting and everything and everyone dies in it.  Animals are killed, flowers wilt, fruit rots and man turns to dust.

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Attributed to Jan Fyt, Still-life with Fruit, Dead Game and a Parrot, late 1640’s, oil on canvas, 33.3”x44.6”, The National Gallery London.

One might suggest an animal stuffed by taxidermy as a substitute for your tablescape to get that Dutch/Flemish look.  However, this solution may not be ideal either.  Strangely a October 2011 post on Kovel’s Komments, an online antique newsletter, warns, “A popular magazine is featuring taxidermed birds in the center of a table near dishes that would hold food.  It makes a nice photo, but it’s a bad idea.  Stuffed animals attract many types of insects, especially head lice (we learned the hard way), and feathers and furs are difficult to clean.”  Oh dear! 

I guess stuffed dead birds are out too for an arresting tablescape.  Luckily, I have my silver table pheasants to step into the breach and provide a beautiful table for my guests and remind them of hunting and shooting, of English country houses, of times long gone and hopefully since this would endlessly please me, they would see in my metal birds a hint of  Dutch and Flemish still-life painting.  Here are some further examples of this genre to whet your appetite:

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Jan Fyt, Partridge and Small Game Birds, 1650’s, oil on canvas, 18.25”x14.25”, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Jan Fyt, Dead Birds in a Landscape, 1640’s, oil on canvas, 16.4”x22.4”, The National Gallery, London.

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Jan Weenix, Gamepiece with Dead Heron, 1695, oil on canvas, 52.75”x43.75”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Jan Weenix, Deerhound with Dead Game, 1708, oil on canvas, 68.3”x61.8”, The National Gallery, London.

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Jan Weenix, Landscape with Huntsman and Dead Game, 1697, oil on canvas, 135.4”x127.2”, National Gallery of Scotland.

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Jan Weenix, Still-life with Jack Rabbit, 1697, oil on canvas, 45”x37.8”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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Jan Weenix, Still-life with Birds and Rabbit, 1714, oil on canvas, 67.7”x63”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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Frans Snijders, Still-life with Game, Flowers and Fruit, 1600-1657, oil on canvas,  47.4”x69.4”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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Frans Snijders, Still-life with Game, Flowers and Fruit, 1600-1657, oil on wood, 22.4”x34.6”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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Wybrand Hendriks, Fruit, Flowers and Dead Birds, c.1780, oil on canvas, 26.7”x21.5”, The National Gallery, London.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

When One Other Collects (An)other

In my collection of 19th century English transferware pottery which ranges in date from the 1840’s to the 1890’s there are many which depict Chinese or Japanese people.  Often Chinese and Japanese motifs were confused and conflated in the decorative arts of the West, so one cannot definitively say who these objects are actually representing.  Yet, whoever is being represented, what does it mean when I, an Other, (albeit fairly privileged as a white Western male) collects representations of Asian people from a moment in history where white hegemony over the world reigned supreme. 

It is a troubling question that goes beyond my love for the aesthetics of these objects and their aura of history, of use, of the people who bought them originally and handled them in their daily lives.  What was their relationship to these objects in a time of English empire and imperialism?  How did they understand these objects and the depiction of the Other in relation to their own subjecthood?  How do I understand my desire for these objects in relation to my own queer subjecthood?  Am I collecting as Europe and especially Great Britain collected peoples and territories around the world?  It is an important question to keep in mind for me as these objects adorn my domestic space.

P1010964Hong Kong by Brown Westhead-Moore & Co. circa 1868 with early Aesthetic background.

P1010965Detail of above plate

P1010969(1)Another example of Hong Kong by Brown Westhead-Moore & Co.  with a circular cartouche and different subject indicating that the pattern must be multi-motif.

P1010970(1)A detail of the above plate.

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Sado by Brownfield & Sons circa 1879-1881 depicting in a cartouche a group of angry Asian children.  How does the West fetishize the children of the other?

P1010997(1)Detail of the above pitcher

P1020057(1)Plate in the Sado pattern by Brownfield & Sons, circa 1879-1881 depicting Asian children playing a board game.

P1020058(1)Detail of above plate

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Small oval plate in the Jeddo pattern by Brown Westhead-Moore & Co., circa 1872-1884.  This pattern is interesting as it does not seem to be a romanticized depiction of the East, but more anthropological.  In the rim cartouches there is a man carrying water buckets and an old man walking away with a cane with a dog.  The other cartouches depict animals and landscape views.

P1020066(1)Detail man carrying water

P1020067(1)Detail old man with cane walking a dog

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Soup plate in the Jeddo pattern by Brown Westhead-Moore, circa 1872-1884.  In one of the rim cartouches a man is standing in the water fishing.  In another a figure is carrying an intricate basket on his/her back.  Again the feel here is more anthropological than a romantic version of Asia.  The other cartouches depict mainly birds with one cartouche of a landscape with architecture.

jeddodetDetail of fisherman

jeddodet3Detail of figure carrying basket

jeddodet2Detail of birds

P1020061(1)Nankin possibly by Thomas Dimmock, circa 1828-1859.  Compared to the Jeddo pattern above, this pattern is a romantic vision of the East.

P1020062Detail of above plate

P1020063(1)Napier soup plate by J. Ridgeway, circa 1846-1850.  Another example of the romanticized and exoticized East.

P1020064(1)Detail of above soup plate

P1020059(1)Pekin by T. G. & F. Booth, circa 1883-1891.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Art for Art’s Sake: 3 Aesthetic English Transferware Patterns on Ceramics

In England, The Aesthetic Movement was an artistic movement that was a reaction and critique of the Industrial Revolution.  It was art for art’s sake in which objects were made purely for their inherent beauty.  The dominant medium of this movement in England was ceramics although the Aesthetic style influenced all modes of cultural production.

P1010915Dinner plate in the Nipon  pattern by Doulton, 10.25”

A major component of the Aesthetic style was the influence of  the arts of Japan.  In 1854 diplomatic relations were established between Japan and the United States and in 1858 trade relations began between the 2 countries which allowed a large number of Japanese goods to enter the United States. The craze for things Japanese by the American public, however, did not really occur until the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia with its spectacular Japanese exhibition.

The opening of Japan by the United States allowed other nations such as England to enter Japan and also be influenced by Japanese cultural objects.  In 1872 the term Japonisme- art influenced by Japan- was first used by Jules Claretie in his book L’Art Francais and also by Phillipe Burty in his Japonisme III La Renaissance Literaire et Artistique.  However, the term Anglo-Japanese was being used in England as early as 1851.  It seems therefore that the influence of the arts of Japan in England perhaps occurred earlier than other countries.

japan1862intexhThe Japanese Court at the 1862 International Exhibition

rutherfordalcockFurther support for this conclusion is the 1862 International Exhibition in London where there was an official Japanese section.  The Japanese Court was organized by Sir Rutherford Alcock who had been the British Minister in Edo from 1858-1864.  The Japanese area of the exhibition also included Alcock’s own extensive collection of Japanese objects.

Another factor in the prevailing influence of Japanese art in England earlier than elsewhere is the collection of Japanese art owned by James McNeil Whistler who moved to Great Britain in 1859.  A final factor is the tradition of  “oriental” influence on English design particularly in ceramics which allowed for an easy acceptance of Japanese objects and style.  It of course also lead to a conflation and confusion of Japanese and Chinese motifs.

The following 3 Aesthetic patterns all demonstrate the influence of Japanese art.  They all date from the early 1880’s, a decade that saw the greatest production and proliferation of Anglo-Japanese ceramics.  All pieces pictured are part of my own collection.

I.  Nipon by Doulton circa 1880

Dinner Plate, 10.25”

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Over a ground of flowering branches, most likely from a fruit tree, is a zigzag ribbon with fishtail ends that makes three turns.  The ribbon creates a central cartouche that depicts water hens at the edge of a body of water.  In the left side of the cartouche is a mass of foliage. The other part of the ribbon on either side of the central cartouche depicts a geometric pattern reminiscent of a traditional European Greek key design. 

However, the design on the plate also forms swastikas.  The swastika is commonly found in the East.  It is a Chinese character representing eternity and Buddhism and this character also entered the Japanese language.   In Japanese art the swastika is often used in a repeating pattern.  One common Japanese pattern is the sayagata  which comprises left and right facing swastikas.  This pattern in the Nipon plate is reminiscent of this Japanese design and could further relate to Japanese textiles.

A quick Google search turned up this 19th century underkimono:

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While not an exact match to the pattern on the Nipon plate it certainly is evocative of it. 

The following 19th century Japanese textile is an almost exact match to the pattern seen on the Doulton plate and a good example of a sayagata.

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Soup Bowl 9.5”

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The soup plate features geese eating fruit in the central cartouche.

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Luncheon Plate 8”

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The central cartouche of the luncheon plate features a pheasant beneath the bough of a pine tree.

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II.  Miako by Powell, Bishop and Stonier circa 1880

Miako is one of my favorite patterns and sadly I only have 2 examples of it.  To me it is strikingly modern in its arrangement of elements and negative space.  Like Nipon it demonstrates the influence of Japanese art not only through the asymmetry and placement of the elements in the design, but also with the motifs used.

Side plate 7.25”

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Three elements make up the design of this plate:  a cartouche depicting a stag, a pine tree branch and circular symbol reminiscent of a Japanese mon or heraldic badge.

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Bread and butter plate, 5.5”

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This small plate has the same pine bough and heraldic device as the larger plate.  Here, however, the cartouche is in the shape of a fan with a bamboo handle tied with a ribbon.  In the fan cartouche a bird and budding foliage is pictured.

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III.  Assouma by Doulton circa 1882-1886

Assouma is a whimsical pattern demonstrating its Japanese influence through its motifs and particularly its asymmetry.  In each example a flowering branch reminiscent of peonies occupies the right side and upper half of the plate.  Amidst the flowering the branch is a sprinkling of dots which create a most pleasing effect.  On the bottom left of the plate are vases and pots with an Eastern feel.

Side Plate 7”

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The vessel on this plate has a stylized decoration of clouds.  It overlaps a mon with foliage and has the same fanciful dots seen on the upper part of the plate.

Plate 7. 875”

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The tall vase on the larger plate has a floral and foliage design with the same dots seen on the upper section of the plate.  The vase is filled with flowers and berries.  Behind this vase is a small pot with the same stylized cloud design as seen on the smaller Assouma plate.

Sauce Tureen

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The vases on the sauce tureen lid and under plate are both empty.  The body of the tureen is filled with the flowering branch.  The handles on the side of the tureen and the lid is a wonderfully stylized piece of fabric with tasseled ends.

To see more examples of English Aesthetic pottery or to start collecting these wonderful ceramics, these 2 dealers have extraordinary pieces for sale:

Eudora and 19th Century Decorative Arts

Aesthetic Movement Transferware