Circling Back with Ai Weiwei

February 7, 2012

As I take the elevator up from the parking garage every morning to go to work, I have enjoyed being greeted by twelve large animal heads for the last six months. Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads will be leaving LACMA at the end of this week on February 12, but the sculptures’ connections to the museum’s collections will live on. As a decorative arts and design curator working in a department with objects dating to the fifteenth century, I am always looking for the present in past and vice versa. Believe it or not, Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac project can beam you back to the eighteenth century in a single bound.

Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (installation view), © Ai Weiwei, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

The eighteenth century was one of prolific exchange between China and the European world, which resulted in incredibly creative trans-hemispheric interpretations of design aesthetics. By midcentury there were a considerable number of Jesuits present in the Chinese imperial court, where Eastern and Western concepts of science, art, mathematics, horology, astronomy, and religion mingled. In 1747 the Qianlong emperor decided to build a complex of European palaces on twenty acres in the northwestern section of the Yuan Ming Yuan, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.  Based on the designs of grand European palaces such as Versailles, Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist and Manchurian artists and architects built what would become a series of forty structures, including the European Pavilions, formal gardens, and three fountains. Ai’s Zodiac Heads recall the water clock fountain built in front of the Hall of Calm Seas, which featured twelve animal figures based on the Chinese zodiac that spurted water from their mouths to tell the time.

Daniel Garnier, Two-handled Cup, 1685, gift of Mimi and Leonard Foreman, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

While the Chinese showed interest in European design, Westerners in China were recording their experiences through sketches and drawings that were sent back to Europe and published, thus providing a plethora of Asian inspirations for the decorative arts, designs, architecture, and landscaping. Providing the West with its first source of engravings based on Chinese models, Johannes Nieuhof’s An Embassy from the East India Company of the United Provinces to the Emperor of China, a collection of 150 illustrations from the travels of a Dutch embassy to Beijing in 1656, was first translated into English and published by John Ogilby in Britain in 1669.  Capturing an extensive view of the Chinese empire’s topography, principle cities, inhabitants, architecture, flora and fauna, as well as a map indicating the route taken by the embassy from Java to Beijing, Nieuhof’s engravings presented a defining vision of China for European eyes and became a rich source of visual imagery for myriad media, including this English silver cup, featuring chased scenes of Chinese figures and exotic birds.

Chinoiserie Plate, c. 1770, Lunéville Petit Feu Faience Manufactory, Lunéville, France, gift of MaryLou Boone, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Anne Allen, Chinoiserie Design (after Jean-Batiste Pillement), c. 1798, Graphic Arts Council Fund, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

The European adaption of Asian aesthetics is known as chinoiserie, a term derived from the French word chinois (Chinese) that denotes a type of European art influenced by Asian styles. Often the Western version of Asia was quite imaginative, based more on fantasy than reality. As the mania for imported Asian objects grew in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, Westerners began to copy Asian motifs, forms and even methods of manufacture, especially the production of porcelain. Faience is the French version of tin-glazed earthenware, or ceramics covered with an opaque white glaze. Initially faience was an attempt to mimic true hard-paste porcelain imported into Europe from Asia, but these wares ultimately became distinctive and sought-after ceramics in their own right. This French faience plate is decorated with a scene after the designs of Jean-Baptiste Pillment, whose first Chinese fantasies, entitled A New Book of Chinese Design Calculated to Improve the Present Taste and A New Book of Chinese Ornaments, were published in London in 1754 and 1755.  Subsequent publications by Pillement, as well British adaptations of his work such as Robert Sayer’s The Ladies Amusement, which contained approximately 1,500 drawings, the majority of which were by Pillement, further supplied chinoiserie motifs to craftsmen.

John Swift, Tea Urn, 1768–1769, gift of Julian Sands, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

John Swift, Tea Urn (detail), 1768–1769, gift of Julian Sands, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

In the hands of British silversmiths working in the second half of the eighteenth century, chinoiserie designs began to take over the design scheme of works. John Swift was known for his coffeepots, tea kettles, and hot water urns with scenes of relaxed Pillementesque chinoiserie figures enjoying tea, at leisure in the garden, or playing musical instruments. His examples of British silver illustrate the mid-century trend for chinoiserie scenes to burst forth from the containment of reserves or cartouches and cover the entire body of the vessels. On this tea urn by Swift a Chinese figure rests casually on a latticed fence, strumming a stringed instrument by a pagoda-shaped building.

Thomas Pitts, Epergne, 1763–64, long-term loan from the Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; photo: The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It was in the 1760s that a fully three-dimensional realization of chinoiserie flourished in British silver and English epergnes, one of the most complex pieces of silver commissioned from English silversmiths, reached the highest level of fanciful articulation and greatest degree of inventiveness, expressed in a manner that engaged Western participants in a complete sensorial experience of an envisioned Orient. Leading the way was a series of pagoda-topped epergnes by Thomas Pitts; these multi-purpose pieces were meant to facilitate the new French dining style of helping oneself.  At least twelve of these epergnes were made beginning in 1761 with identical rococo scrollwork feet and frames. The addition of the pagoda canopy to epergnes lent a new dramatic dimension to their composition. Should the exotic nature of the piece possibly be overlooked, the Asian-inspired creation is topped with a pineapple, the epitome of imported fruit from foreign ports. I will miss being surrounded by Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads when I come and go from the museum, but as twelve sculptures set sail from the West Coast they leave another layer of meaning on centuries-old works of art that will stay right here at LACMA.

Elizabeth A. Williams, the Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts and Design


Dorothea Tanning, Surrealist Artist, 1910-2012

February 6, 2012

It is with great sadness for us here at LACMA that we learn of Dorothea Tanning’s recent passing. Tanning’s immeasurable contribution to the arts leaves behind a legacy of innovative forms: paintings, prints, drawings, soft sculptures, collages, poems, and much more. Here in the American Art Department, it was truly a pleasure to become so well acquainted with Tanning’s work. Having recently acquired her soft sculpture Xmas (1969) as part of LACMA’s Collectors Committee acquisitions in 2010, our senior curator Ilene Susan Fort marveled at the numerous fabric sculptures Tanning made in her career, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, some adorned with teeth, fur, and lace, stating “[these sculptures] clearly involve both the traditional feminine art of sewing and the blatant sexuality brandished by feminists at the time.”

Dorothea Tanning, Xmas, 1969, purchased with funds provided by the 2010 Collectors Committee, with additional funds generously provided by Jodie Evans with Lekha Singh, The Rosenthal Family Foundation, Peg Yorkin, The Kayne Foundation, Susan Adelman in honor of the artist’s 100th birthday, Irene Christopher, Viveca Paulin-Ferrell, American Art Deaccession Funds, Janice G. Gootkin, The Eileen F. and Mort H. Singer Jr. Family Fund in honor of Ilene Susan Fort and J. Patrice Marandel

Dorothea Tanning, Rainy Day Canapé, 1970, Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of an anonymous donor, 2002, © 2011 Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive/Artist’s Rights Society (ARS) New York/ADAGP, Paris, photo © The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

With more than a dozen works by Tanning in LACMA’s special exhibition In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, the conversations among co-curators Fort and Tere Arcq, as well as research assistant Terri Geis, revealed fascinating details during the process of deciding which of her numerous pieces would best fit the themes of the show. From these discussions, it was interesting to learn that one of Tanning’s avatars (a means of masking identity—a theme popular among surrealists) was a particular dog–in fact, a beloved pet–who appears in several of her works.

Dorothea Tanning, Portrait de famille (Family Portrait), 1954, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre de Création Industrielle

Photo of Dorothea Tanning by Lee Miller, courtesy Lee Miller Archives

While Tanning’s work may have been most associated with the surrealist movement, her prolific work ethic in later years pushed her to experiment beyond surrealism, working with abstract forms on paper and even writing. For the time being, the inquisitive and imaginative spirit of her work resides in our galleries as she will be truly missed.

Devi Noor, Curatorial Administrator, American Art


This Weekend at LACMA: Rodarte Closes, Gary Oldman in Person, Eclipse String Quartet Performance, and More

February 3, 2012

Sunday marks your last chance to see the lovely installation Rodarte: Fra Angelico Collection, which displays a number of the fashion design duo’s gowns, recently gifted to LACMA, within the context of our Renaissance art galleries in the Ahmanson Building.

Rodarte: Fra Angelico Collection (installation view), promised gift of Rodarte (Kate and Laura Mulleavy), Maria Arena Bell, Susan Casden, Eva Chow, DNA Boutique, Allison Sarofim, Karyn Silver, Christine Suppes, Lizzie Tisch, Dasha Zhukova, and an anonymous donor. Photo: Autumn de Wilde

Also on view right now is the newly opened Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings and In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States; about the latter, check out the Los Angeles Times review from earlier this week. In Wonderland is a specially ticketed exhibition, so reserve your tickets ahead of time. This weekend is also one of your last opportunities to see Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads—the outdoor installation closes next weekend. Kids love the giant depictions of a dragon, dog, rat, and other animals, so make a point to see it. (Kids also love Chris Burden’s recently opened artwork, Metropolis II.) Sunday is always a great day for families thanks to our free Andell Family Sundays; the theme for February is “California Cool”—check out California Design, 1935–1960 (including the original Barbie and Ken dolls!), then make art with your kids inspired by the California look.

California Design, 1935–1960: “Living in a Modern Way” (installation view), photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Tonight in the Bing Theater we are thrilled to welcome actor Gary Oldman—just nominated for an Oscar for his work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. First on the bill is the 1990 film State of Grace, also starring Sean Penn, Ed Harris, John Turturro, and John C. Reilly. Then, at 7:30 pm, Oldman will be onstage for a conversation with Elvis Mitchell, followed by a screening of his 2000 vehicle The ContenderState of Grace is a special members-only screening for LACMA, Film Independent, and New York Times Film Club members; the conversation and screening of The Contender is open to the public.

Fans of contemporary composers have a couple of concerts to choose from this weekend. On Saturday, the Eclipse String Quartet performs works by Ruth Crawford Seeger and Meredith Monk, joined by vocalist Perla Batalla. Then, on Sunday, pianist Bruce Brubaker will bring works by Monk, Phillip Glass, and more to the Bing stage.  

Scott Tennent


Women Surrealist Influence on Contemporary Music

February 1, 2012

Last year, I went to a Prince concert at the Great Western Forum. When I saw performer Janelle Monáe open for him that night, the black-hooded figures that surrounded her on stage struck a familiar chord with the work of a particular artist from the exhibition that I’ve been working on, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. Maya Deren’s film Meshes of the Afternoon graces the entryway of the introductory gallery. In the film one can see a dark shrouded figure ambling up a walkway in the Hollywood hills.

Installation view, Maya Deren, Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943, © Tavia Ito, courtesy of RE:VOIR

After watching Monáe’s music video for “Tightrope” (2010), you can definitely see how the shadowy figure from Deren’s work is appropriated to fit the theme of Monáe’s video, which is set in a psychiatric ward.

Janelle Monáe, music video for “Tightrope” (2010) (still)

After this find, I was curious to see if other women surrealist artists had further influenced recent music. Here are some other examples that I discovered:

If you watch Madonna’s music video “Bedtime Story” (1995) closely, you can see elements of style similar to those of surrealist artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, who worked primarily in Mexico (compare Carrington’s bird motifs in her work to those that are featured in Madonna’s video).

Leonora Carrington, Chrysopeia of Mary the Jewess (detail), 1964, private collection; Madonna, music video for “Bedtime Story” (1995) (still); Leonora Carrington, Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, 1975, Charles B. Goddard Center, Ardmore, Oklahoma

Additionally, while Remedios Varo’s  Los Amantes is not included in LACMA’s exhibition, note how the director of Madonna’s video uses a motif similar to Varo’s, mirroring Madonna’s face and body.

Remedios Varo, Los Amantes, 1963, unknown collection; Madonna, music video for “Bedtime Story” (1995) (still)

Last year Thurston Moore, formerly of Sonic Youth, wrote a song dedicated to Mina Loy, an American artist included in the In Wonderland exhibition whose surrealist beginnings eventually developed her literary work that is more commonly associated with the Dadaist movement. You can listen to Moore’s explanation of his eponymous song on Loy here.

Florence + the Machine’s song “What the Water Gave Me,” inspired by Frida Kahlo’s painting, also illustrates women surrealists’ effect on musicians and their work. Featured in the exhibition catalogue, singer Florence Welch states to Digital Spy: “It’s about water in all forms and all bodies. It’s about a lot of things; Virginia Woolf creeps into it, and of course Frida Kahlo, whose painfully beautiful painting gave me the title.”

Last, Le Tigre’s song “Hot Topic” (1999) is an ode to past and current visionaries who’ve been essential to supporting both the feminist movement and the LGBTQ community. Yayoi Kusama, whose documentary photograph of The Anatomic Explosion Happening at Statue of Alice in Wonderland, Central Park, New York (1969), is one artist mentioned in the song. (Bonus points if you can name the other artists called out at the end of the video that have been featured at LACMA!)

I’m sure there are other musical finds inspired by women surrealists that could be posted here, but these few examples show that some of these women surrealist artists have clearly made a visible impact in today’s pop culture.

If music and surrealism are to your liking, be sure to also check out Grammy-winning vocalist Perla Batalla and the Eclipse String Quartet this Saturday as part of LACMA’s Art & Music series.

Devi Noor, Curatorial Administrator, American Art


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,090 other followers

%d bloggers like this: