16 February 2011

Colonial schoolgirl samplers at MFA Boston

1. Sampler, detail.
When I was twelve, I was doing my homework in front of "Gilligan's Island", and trying to survive middle school. Twelve-year-old Boston girls in the 18th century made better use of their time, learning necessary stitching skills while composing delightful exercises in color and pattern. Museum-goers are more conditioned to appreciate oil paintings and monumental sculpture, but interest in samplers often perks up at the news that a Boston schoolgirl sampler fetched an auction record price of $465,750 in 2009.
Another wonderful attribute of these items, unlike so much work done by women, is that most are signed and dated. That said, during my somewhat rushed visit to this gallery, I didn't have time to note the artist of every sampler I photographed, so I apologize to our schoolgirls for the lack of authorship. (I will amend this entry if I have a chance to return to the show.)

2. Sampler, Hannah Storer.

The stitched message sternly admonishes: In prosperity friends will be plenty, but in adversity not one in twenty. (White spots on image are glare from overhead lights.)

3. Detail, sampler, Hannah Storer.

The samplers were all made by girls living in Boston, and studying with women who often developed distinctive styles of stitching. The samplers usually feature an alphabet, bands of decorative geometric and floral motifs, often some kind of adage or proverb, perhaps a Biblical scene, and are finished with a border as well as name and date.

4. Detail, sampler, Sarah Erving, 1750, age 13.

I especially like the samplers worked primarily in cross-stitch, with occasional use of satin stitch, such as in these strawberries by Miss Erving.

5. Detail, sampler, Sarah Erving.

A popular figural motif, used in many samplers, depicts Biblical scouts Joshua and Caleb returning from Canaan with their haul, as recorded in Numbers 13: 23. "And they came to the Wadi [stream] Eshcol, and cut down there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them." The symmetry inherent in this literary motif - two men on either side of fruit - lends itself to the technique of counted cross-stitch, as the young artist can repeat the pattern of the first figure for the second.

6. Sampler, Sarah Erving, overall view.

7. Detail, sampler, Sarah Lowell.

Sarah Lowell also illustrated the exploits of Joshua and Caleb in her sampler, with bright red grapes. Her sampler also featured some lovely, spikey foliage.

8. Detail, sampler, Sarah Lowell.

9. Detail, sampler, Sarah Lowell.

10. Detail, sampler.

Adam and Eve, with snake and fig leaves, were another popular theme for the figural part of a sampler (see also the first image in this blog.) Again, the figures tend to be mirror images of each other, with Eve perhaps having more hair.

11. Detail, sampler.

The colors of the samplers have faded over time, and I kept wishing there was some way to see the backs of the samplers, as viewing photographs or scans of the reverse side might give us an idea of the original colors. Images of the reverse sides accessible on some kind of portable screen would have been a good use of technology. Any curators listening out there?

12. Detail, sampler.
Leaves are outlined in buttonhole stitch.

13. Detail, sampler.

14. Crewel embroidery flowers
emerge from a cross-stich basket.

15. Detail, sampler.

The needlework teachers were from Great Britain, and it would be interesting to compare these samplers with contemporaneous items created by girls in England. This last sampler definitely has a unique New England flavor, however, with its bird-watching moose.

14 February 2011

Fresh Ink exhibit at Boston MFA

Detail, Nine Dragons scroll.
Artist Chen Rong, dated 1244.

On February 11, Jay and I visited Fresh Ink, an installation at the MFA on view from November 20, 2010, until February 13, 2011. Ten Chinese and Chinese-American artists created new works, each responding to a masterpiece in the museum's collection. Most of the works utilized traditional materials such as ink, silk and paper; imagery and applications were the variables.

Entrance to the exhibit.

Given that the masterworks eliciting the responses are in the artistic firmament, the newer work is almost guaranteed to suffer in any direct comparison. However, it was still interesting to see how a group blessed with, or saddled with, a very long tradition of entrenched cultural expectations grappled with this tradition. Reactions were varied, ranging from straight forward re-interpretation to gentle parody, from outright homage to personal responses that defied easy categorization. Engaging with one's heritage - always an interesting point of departure.

Nine Dragons scroll, left, 13th century.
Nine Trees, by artist Zeng Xiaojun, 2007-2010.

The Nine Dragons scroll, unfurled in a special case, is one of the most spectacular works owned by the MFA. Nine dragons cavort and gambole in a billowing background which is as animate as the living creatures. Here, ink, made from mere lampblack and water, reaches its apotheosis as a medium. "Drawing" is an inadequate verb with which to describe the action of brush and pigment, as ink is scumbled, spattered, pounced and layered, creating an atmosphere of clouds, fog and water as full of energy as are the dragons.

Zeng Xiaojun gamely chose this work as his launching pad, although he is a painter of landscape, not figures. However, with every kink and twist, the nine trees in his landscape come as close to mobility as possible for rooted objects.

Left, Secluded Valley in the Cold Mountains, Arnold Chang, 2008.
Right, Number 10, Jackson Pollock, 1949.

Arnold Chang, a New York native, chose a work by another American, Jackson Pollock, but this juxtaposition is not as strange as it might initially appear. In traditional Chinese ink painting, each brush stroke records every incremental decision made by the artist. Similarly, Pollock created a paint diary, every drip a scribbled record of his choices in color and sequence, and of his every movement over the canvas.

The link between the two artists is further emphasized as Mr. Chang exhibits Mr. Pollock's painting flat, in another one of those long horizontal cases, rather than hanging it vertically on the wall. The viewer sees it in the same orientation in which the painting was created, and this simple displacement was more affecting than the almost grandiose scale of some of the other works in the show.

Left, Fangyi-Shaped Ritual Vessel, 11th - 10th century, BC.
Right, Civilization Landscape Series, Qin Feng, 2010.

In an awkwardly sectioned off area of the exhibit an ancient bronze vessel, with traces of very early Chinese writing, was surrounded by large folding screens and hanging scrolls by artist Qin Feng. Although I found the bronze vessel fascinating, somehow this dialog between artifact and response just didn't jell for me. It might have been the cramped space, or the singularity of the folded items in a cohort of scrolls.

Li Jin, various works.

Contemporary artist Li Jin selected an early figurative painting, Northern Qi Scholars Collating Classic Texts, from the 7th century, as his point of departure. This work, which was impossible to photograph, shows a group of well-fed, bearded men organizing cumbersome scrolls.

This artist visited Boston briefly during the project, hence the Bosox cap in the image above. Behind the baseball fan it appears that two of the ancient scholars, as well as some court ladies, came along for the ride, a humorous touch.

Museum patron with Honorable Old Man Rock,
Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644.
Background, nine photographs of
Honorable Old Man Rock, Liu Dan, 2010.

Finally, a contemporary work that is a very direct homage to its inspiration. Liu Dan deploys nine photographs in a worshipful arc around their subject. The rock, the personification of self-possession, engaged in a silent dialog with the woman in the red shoes.

Note on photography: white spots in images are glare from overhead lights.