The Fusion of Beauty and Function: 17th and 18th Century French Ceramics

October 8, 2012

Although it can be vigorously debated at what point an object transcends a mere utilitarian purpose to achieve recognition as a work of art, decorative arts—aesthetically appealing pieces capable of bringing significant pleasure to daily activities—can successfully satisfy both criteria. Myriad vessels and wares serve practical needs, yet a dinner service displaying a coat of arms also proudly conveys a family’s heritage, a chinoiserie cup and saucer can transport the imagination of the imbiber to foreign ports teeming with exotic goods, and a mustard pot decorated with a cadre of frolicking monkeys can delight diners. The ideal fusion of the useful and the beautiful that is found in French faïence, soft- and hard-paste porcelain, is the essence of what inspired MaryLou Boone to assemble her outstanding collection of more than 130 pieces, now on view in the exhibition Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection, which opened this weekend. The selection of pieces in the collection attests to MaryLou’s discriminating, sophisticated eye, but what she values most about them is the simple fact that people used and enjoyed these ceramics on a daily basis.

Caster, Plate Mustard Pot and Ewer; 1700–1730, Rouen, France, earthenware with tin glaze and enamel (grand feu faïence)

This exhibition and accompanying catalogue not only bring together years of MaryLou Boone’s discerning acquisitions but also recognize a substantial gift to the two institutions that Mrs. Boone and her late husband, Dr. George Boone, have generously supported and passionately championed: LACMA and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The Boones established a longstanding relationship at LACMA, where Dr. Boone served as a life trustee and the couple endowed the popular Boone Children’s Gallery. Similarly, the Boones have been benefactors of the Huntington for decades and are the namesakes of its special exhibitions gallery. There, MaryLou served as a trustee (now a trustee emeritus) and assiduously promoted the museum’s collection of French art as one of the institution’s true strengths. In 2010, MaryLou gave approximately twenty-five pieces from her collection to each museum, significantly enhancing their holdings and bringing new life to their permanent collection galleries. The gifts feature outstanding works ranging from the 1640s through the 1860s, made by the foremost manufacturers of French faïence and soft-paste porcelain, which were successive attempts to mimic hard-paste porcelain imported into Europe from Asia.

Cup and Saucer, and Sugar Box, c. 1746–1748, Vincennes Porcelain Manufactory, France, 1740–1756, soft-paste porcelain with glaze and enamel

Earthenware with an opaque tin glaze was introduced to France in the mid-sixteenth century from Italy, where it had been made for several centuries. Called maiolica there, it became known as faïence in France, as the Italian city Faenza was a center for maiolica production. The French had already embraced the imported Italian wares, so when Italian émigré ceramists bearing the secrets of tin-glazed earthenware production journeyed up the Rhône valley and settled in France, native manufactories flourished. Mrs. Boone’s collection of faïence contains both grand feu (high fire) faïence and petit feu (low fire) faïence. Named for the high temperatures at which it is fired, grand feu faïence allowed ceramists a viable means for creating detailed decoration, but the high firing temperatures limited the color palette to blue, green, yellow, purple and iron red, since other hues could not withstand the heat. Introduced in France in the mid eighteenth century, petit feu faïence featured a much broader color palette by employing a second firing at a lower temperature. This technique preserved the vividness of the more instable hues and enabled both translucent and opaque colors to be produced, which included a much wider range of pinks, greens, blues and violets

Oval Dish, c. 1770, Joseph-Gaspard Robert Manufactory, Marseilles, France, c. 1750–1800, earthenware with tin glaze and enamel (petit feu faïence)

Endeavoring to uncover a successful technique for producing hard-paste porcelain, French ceramic manufactories experimented with different ways to achieve the translucency and strength of Asian wares. As they had not yet discovered kaolin clay, the vital ingredient for hard-paste porcelain, they used ingredients such as ground glass and fine clay which necessitated a lower firing temperature. This type of porcelain is less resilient than hard-paste, and is known as soft-paste porcelain, or pâte tendre. The Boone Collection includes significant works from the most important French soft-paste porcelain manufactories, including Saint-Cloud, Chantilly, Mennecy, Sceaux, and Vincennes, which later became Sèvres, producers of the first French hard-paste porcelain, examples of which are also represented in the collection. These burgeoning technological breakthroughs allowed for the production of a diverse array of forms, decorations, and color palettes, all of which were put to use in daily context.

Saltcellar, Hors d’Oeuvres Dish, Pepper Box and Trembleuse Cup and Saucer; c. 1700–1750, Saint-Cloud Manufactory, France, c. 1693–1766, soft-paste porcelain with underglaze blue and glaze

Dining wares, drinking vessels, and serving pieces accommodated expanding menus created from a variety of new foods, prepared in novel ways. Faïence and porcelain were also the media called upon by pharmacists and caregivers in which to prepare and administer mixtures that comforted in times of sickness, and by fashionable men and women in which to store the many powders and toiletries necessary for a stylish appearance. The air was perfumed by fragrant floral blends emanating from ceramic potpourris, the ritual of taking snuff featured fanciful boxes dramatically drawn from one’s pocket, and the routine tasks of penning letters or drafting documents were made pleasurable through cleverly conceived writing sets. After the 1768 discovery of kaolin, the French were able to produce hard-paste porcelain, and faïence and soft-paste porcelain gradually declined. Even so, faïence and soft-paste porcelain ultimately became distinctive and sought-after ceramics in their own right. Inextricably intertwined with everyday human duties and diversions, these objects continue to bring pleasure to daily life.

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

This Weekend at LACMA: Walter De Maria, French Ceramics, and Self-Portraits On View, International Children’s Film Fest, Angel City Jazz Fest, and More

October 5, 2012

In addition to recently opened exhibitions on Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, and Expressionist Cinema, there are even more new offerings at LACMA. Earlier this week in the Resnick Pavilion we opened Walter De Maria: The 2000 Sculpture—a single large-scale sculpture made up of a precisely organized grid of polygonal forms. This is only the second solo museum exhibition of De Maria’s work to be shown in the U.S.—a rare treat.

Walter De Maria, The 2000 Sculpture, 1992, collection of Walter A. Bechtler-Siftung, Switzerland, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Opening Saturday is Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection, a collection of  130 examples of faïance, soft-paste porcelain, and hard-paste porcelain from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The exhibition is beautifully installed amidst our European art collections, alongside paintings by Boucher, Chardin, and more.

Covered Sugar Bowl, 1780, Lunéville, France; and Sugar Spoon, 1775, Lunéville Petit Feu Faïence Manufactory, Lunéville, France; gifts of MaryLou Boone, photos © Susan Einstein

Over in the modern galleries you’ll find a recently installed group of photographic self-portraits from the museum’s Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection, Imagining the Modern Self. The presentation features self-portraits by photographers between the 1920s and 1940s, including Berenice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Anton Stankowski, and more. And heads up to all photography fans: The Sun and Other Stars: Katy Grannan and Charlie White closes next weekend, so time is running out to catch it.

Anton Stankowski, Simultaneous Enlargement, 1937, the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection, © Stankowski Foundation

As always we have plenty else happening outside of the galleries too. Tonight, trombonist Phil Ranelin leads his sextet at a special edition of Jazz at LACMA, coinciding with the greater Angel City Jazz Festival. Also tonight, and running all day Saturday and Sunday too, is the Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival, presenting more than 100 family-friendly films from around the world. Tonight we’ll be screening The Mighty Ducks—celebrating its twentieth anniversary, if you can believe it! (The screening is free but tickets are required.)

For the rest of the weekend we will be screening shorts and feature-length films in the Bing Theater and the Brown Auditorium (just downstairs from the Bing). For those families looking to take a break from the theater and get outside, there will also be special art-making activities nearby on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. (Parents looking for our usual Andell Family Sundays—head over to the Bing Theater to find your way to these activities, as they won’t be in their usual spot this weekend.) Check the full schedule for all films, recommended ages, and screening times, as well as details on art-making activities. All of the Saturday and Sunday screenings are free.

Scott Tennent

Sneaking onto the Dream Team

October 3, 2012

In the summer of 2009 I started a graduate internship working at LACMA with Senior Curator of Modern Art Stephanie Barron, and I was tasked with gathering extensive research as well as building a database of Ken Price’s sculptures. I must admit that, although I had heard of Price and was familiar with his sumptuous, organic works from the 2000s, I had never seriously investigated his long and prolific career. Over the next three years, I became completely engrossed, transforming myself into a veritable encyclopedia of his sculptures and their whereabouts. As I more fully delved into the remarkable progression of his conceptual argument, his genius and unrelenting determination in the face of many of the art world’s prejudices—making small scale sculptures in ceramics and choosing to remain in Los Angeles and Taos, New Mexico, which were outside the mainstream art scene in New York—showed me the ultimate example of a truly revolutionary artist.

Ken Price, Cheeks, 1998, collection of Romy Colonius, © Ken Price, photo © Fredrik Nilsen

Early on, Stephanie asked architect Frank O. Gehry to be the exhibition’s designer and he unhesitatingly agreed. As a born and bred Angeleno, it is basically in my DNA to worship Gehry’s innovative architecture. Working with Stephanie (whose influential exhibitions have truly changed the nature of scholarship in the fields of Californian and German art), Frank, and Ken was basically like sneaking onto the Dream Team. When you add Lorraine Wild as the catalogue’s designer and Fredrik Nilsen as the photographer who shot every sculpture, I knew that this project was something truly special. In other words, I became entirely obsessed.

When Stephanie informed me in May 2011 that I would get to travel with the team to Taos to meet Ken, I was nervous. I felt like I already knew him through his sculptures and interviews, but I wondered if he would live up to how I had imagined him for the last two years. I can say without hesitation that Ken and his loving family exceeded any expectation I could have possibly had. There really is no way to describe his intelligence, clarity of vision, wonderful sense of humor, and his uncompromising fortitude to keep working despite his illness. I had to remind myself during this and later visits that I was in presence of one of the great figures of modern sculpture, which is evident when you look at the great artists who have passionately championed his career and came to the exhibition’s opening on September 12.

Back row, left to right: Michael Govan, Tony Berlant, Vija Celmins, Stephanie Barron, Doug Wheeler, Happy Price, Ron Cooper, Larry Bell, Ed Moses, Ron Nagle; Front row, left to right: Frank O. Gehry, Billy Al Bengston, David Hockney, Allen Jones. Photo by Stefanie Keenan

I’ll never forget that last afternoon I spent with Ken in September 2011. Fredrik and I had been working all day in his studio photographing works for the catalogue. At around 6:30 pm, Ken’s wife, Happy, came running into the studio asking us to drop what we were doing and come outside immediately. We walked out to the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen. Ken was sitting in a rocking chair on their porch taking it all in while Happy handed us the tequila cups he had made in the 1970s filled with Mezcal. As Fredrik frantically ran around with his camera to capture the sunset, the rest of us sat quietly sipping and watching the sky streak in a riot of colors, resembling the remarkable color combinations often seen in his sculpture.

The sunset from the Price’s front porch, September 2011, photo © Fredrik Nilsen

Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective hopes to show visitors his astonishing lifetime of work as well as to give a sense of the artist, whose whimsical, sly personality is so palpable in his sculptures. One of the ways we have been trying to achieve this is by bringing his love of jazz into our public programming. Ken learned how to play the trumpet from Chet Baker in the 1950s and, throughout his life, collected hundreds of records and created wonderful mix tapes, aptly titled strangely perfect names like “Ice Cream” and “Cocktail Furniture Revised.” We’ve put these tapes on the exhibition’s website, which you can download through iTunes.

The Price studio with a small section of his collection of jazz records, September 2011, works © Ken Price, photo © Fredrik Nilsen

Additionally, this Thursday, October 4, we have organized a concert by Brian Swartz and John Beasley, two great musicians who worked with Baker and Ken’s other favorite, Miles Davis. The exhibition (open late, from 5–9 pm) and the concert (7– 9 pm) are free and open to the public. Please come celebrate with us tomorrow!

Lauren Bergman, Assistant Curator, Modern Art

Writ in Lacquer: A Genteel Courtship on a Mexican Sewing Box

October 2, 2012

Among LACMA’s growing collection of Latin American decorative arts is a fine Mexican lacquered sewing box, known as a costurero or almohadilla. The box is a hybrid creation of the colonial era: the lacquer technique predates the arrival of the Spaniards in the fifteenth century, but the form and function is essentially European.

Lacquer, known as laca or maque (from the Japanese maki-e) in Spanish, dates back to the pre-Columbian period when it was predominantly employed to decorate gourd cups. The technique consisted of mixing oils made from both plant and animal sources with dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate) or earth rich in lime. Aje oil was produced by boiling a type of female scale insect, similar to cochineal, to collect the fat that gathered on the surface of the water. It was then mixed with either chia or chicalote oils derived from the seeds of the sage and poppy plants respectively, to thin the lacquer and speed its drying time. In this, Mexican lacquer was distinct from the Japanese one, which was made exclusively from plant sources.

Sewing Box, Mexico, Pátzcuaro, c. 1800, lacquered wood with painted decoration, 13.65 x 42.86 x 13.02 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of Mexican Art Deaccession Fund (M.2008.17)

After the arrival of the Spaniards, lacquer was redeployed to decorate furniture and decorative objects, in part because it was more affordable than imported polychrome-ornamented furnishings, but also because of the fashion for Asian lacquer (and other objects) introduced to the colony through ongoing trade with the East beginning in the sixteenth century. Colored lacquers were made from mineral and plant sources in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, black, and white. Different techniques were employed in the decoration of objects and varied somewhat by region. A common method, referred to as “inlay” work, consisted of incising the ground layer of lacquer and carving away certain areas, which were then filled with colored lacquers to create figures and other decorative elements.  Other artists simply applied colored lacquers to the surface with a brush. LACMA’s sewing box is painted and gilt.

Sewing Box, Mexico, Pátzcuaro, c. 1800, lacquered wood with painted decoration, 13.65 x 42.86 x 13.02 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of Mexican Art Deaccession Fund (M.2008.17)

This sewing box was made in Pátzcuaro (Michoacán), a region that was famous for its lacquered bateas (deep trays) and costureros, among other objects. (Guerrero was another area known for producing some of the finest examples of lacquer objects.)

Many of the works created in colonial Mexico include typically European subjects. The front of this sewing box, for example, depicts a fête galante (a garden party of the idle aristocratic class) with an officer and a lady relaxing in a garden, as another figure offers alms to the poor. The underside of the lid shows scenes of courtship: to the right a woman is pursued by a suitor strumming a guitar, surrounded by gold rococo flourishes; and to the left a criollo (Creole) man, wearing a sumptuous cape and hat, and an elegantly dressed woman are tended to by an indigenous servant.

The reverse of the box features a battle scene of men on horseback, which presumably includes the officer depicted in the front.  The depiction of the officer on the front, back, and left side, as well as the inclusion of the woman in pink (the object of his affections) throughout the box creates a pictorial narrative of their courtship meant to amuse the viewer.

In the eighteenth century, when Mexico experienced an economic boom, the upper sector of colonial society increasingly acquired furniture and decorative objects imported from Europe, which eventually affected the production of local lacquerware and furnishings. By the late colonial period, lacquerwork was mostly used to decorate small and more intimate objects such as LACMA’s sewing box. This type of box was probably employed by wealthy Mexican women and professional seamstresses, and was often tailored to its owner’s specifications. Occasionally, too, they included portrait roundels, often located on the lids of the inner compartments. LACMA’s sewing box includes an image of the woman in pink on the left inner compartment, and on the right, the suitor from the box’s other vignettes. At the bottom of the central compartment is a third roundel, depicting the couple’s child.  These images are probably not actual portraits but stylized figures typical of European courtly imagery.

Lacquer has been in continuous production in Mexico for more than two thousand years. LACMA’s box is a fascinating example that combines local traditions and the taste for Asian goods, especially in the inclusion of the floral motifs and weeping willow on the front, as well as the red background in the interior.  The costurero is on view now in the Latin American collections on the fourth floor of the Arts of the Americas building, and it is well-worth taking a closer look at it and all its details.

Kathryn Santner, Summer Intern, Latin American Art

Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before? Recurring Designs in the Eighteenth Century

October 1, 2012

Although costume and textiles are managed by one curatorial department at LACMA and decorative arts by another, these collections can include objects that relate closely to one another with respect to color palettes, design sources, and decorative motifs. The robe à l’anglaise (English-style gown) and pair of Aubusson tapestries currently on view in Gallery 310 on the third floor of the Hammer Building reveal similarities with French porcelain and furniture in the second half of the eighteenth century.

View of the Aubusson tapestries and a robe à l’anglaise newly installed with the pair of potpourri porcelain vases and armchair

Upon entering the gallery, the vibrant color palette shared among the tapestries, dress, furnishing fabric of the armchair, and pair of porcelain potpourri vases is immediately noticeable. The room glows with radiant hues of crimson, rose, salmon, magenta, and fuchsia, accompanied by a range of greens. The curvilinear vines, tendrils, and foliage seen in the textiles and decorative arts on display were shared motifs popular in the period.

The tapestry panels displayed on the wall were made by weavers in Aubusson, a medieval town in central France known since the fourteenth century for its finely woven tapestries. In 1665, the tapestry workshop was granted the right to mark their works “Manre [Manufacture] Royale d’Aubusson” by King Louis XIV. Woven into the bottom edge of both tapestries on display are the words which identify the workshop, along with the 1762 date of production.

Detail of the bottom of one tapestry

At the time the tapestries were woven, the European aesthetic was beginning to transition from the rococo style—known for unrestrained ornament based on organic motifs derived from nature—to the neoclassical style, spurred by the early eighteenth-century archaeological discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Neoclassical style first gained prominence in Europe in the 1760s, combining motifs, forms, and subjects from classical Greek and Roman vocabulary. Elements of both styles are evident in all of these objects on display.

Top: Detail of the tapestry motif; bottom: Detail of the armchair seat motif

The tapestries are decorated in a bold rococo aesthetic with a pair of scrolls made of garlands of flowers with large pink roses. A similar design is present in the woven textile that covers the seat of the armchair. Although the shared floral motif and color palette in the tapestries and furnishing fabric lean toward the rococo style, the decorations in each are symmetrical and captured within a floral border, two characteristics of the neoclassical style.

The golden threads that are woven to form the two-tone scrolls in the hanging tapestries and on the armchair’s furnishing fabric mimic the carved metallic-gilded wood frame of the armchair, as well as the gilded bronze mounts of the pair of vases. The delicate garland that crowns the oval figural scene on each of the vessels is also repeated in the small bouquets of foliage and feathers that are gracefully embroidered on the robe à l’anglaise. The ruffled edges of the scrolls on the pair of vases recall the silk taffeta ruffles, or robings,that embellish the front of the dress, all characteristics more representative of the rococo style.

Detail of one vase

Displaying a stronger neoclassical style, however, is the frame of the armchair, which was designed by Georges Jacob, cabinetmaker to Napoleon. In France, Napoleon commandeered classicism to ally his self-proclaimed appointment as Emperor with the power and glory of ancient Greek and Roman leaders. As a result, the objects that he commissioned were designed with neoclassical scrolled arms, egg and dart molding, and fluted tapered legs. The pair of vases, made by Pierre-Philippe Thomire, who was named by Napoleon as Engraver to the Emperor, also possesses strong neoclassical elements with the depiction of a mythological scene and gilded mounts with putti.

Armchair with carved wood frame, pair of vases with gilded bronze mounts, and a view of the robe à l’anglaise

The tapestries and costume ensemble displayed in this decorative arts gallery will be replaced recurrently with similar objects from the costume and textiles collection, as textiles are extremely fragile and sensitive to light. This means that the public can enjoy viewing other costume and textile rotations in this and other museum galleries in the future. You can view other costume and textiles currently on display throughout the museum online.

Elizabeth Williams, Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts and Design, and Clarissa Esguerra, Assistant Curator, Costume and Textiles

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