Every now and then I’m asked to create a silk piece guided by the colours and decorative qualities of a non-textile form. Sometimes a commission is quite personal, a customer may wish to have a special scarf to remind them of a person or a pet or an event. Or sometimes, and this is more difficult, a sentiment.
People often turn to nature and, in particular, flowers for inspiration for silk painting, but I suggest shape, colour and the decorative details from other human made artefacts can also elicit visually creative solutions. In order to get a firm idea of what a person is looking for I suggest they select pictures that fit their mood. Often beautiful glass and ceramics are a rich source of inspiration and can be reinterpreted and reworked to produce the type of scarf that they are looking for.
In his second Reith lecture, called ‘Beating the Bounds’, Grayson Perry takes us on a whistle-stop tour round the parish bounds of contemporary art. This half hour talk delivered in his provocative yet playful style discusses the question – can anything be called art? It is available to listen to at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03dsk4d.
Grayson Perry explains that through the course of the twentieth century the boundaries of art have expanded rapidly from the time of Duchamp (‘Fountain’ 1917, a found, mass produced urinal) to include pretty much anything. A shark in a tank – if I say so. A sleeping Tilda Swinton in a glass box – if I say so. Well, it is art if Damien Hirst and Cornelia Parker say it is. But, Grayson Perry, himself a conceptual artist, suggests that everything is not art and there are boundaries even if they are porous, ill-defined and flexible. In his entertaining lecture he lists a number of markers to consider. For example, who created the work, where is the work situated both in the physical world and the art historical context, why was the work created and what is the audience engagement and response.
As with his first lecture he embellishes his points with significant and contemporary examples which are fascinating and often amusing. He wants to make contemporary art more accessible and less intimidating to the non-specialist audiences. A more personal insight into Grayson Perry’s own approach to the process of creation was glimpsed during the brief Q&A at the end of the lecture. A member of the audience enquired about the nature of creativity quoting Picasso saying, “All children are artists, the problem is keeping them artists”. Grayson replied that there were good child artists and bad child artists and credited children with relaxed, spontaneous and free expression, but nevertheless it is creative expression without self-awareness. He suggested that to make art the maker cannot be an innocent. However, the very state of being self-conscious brings pressure. He mused, “I can tell you from personal experience, that, the more successful you become the more pressure there is of self-consciousness, and how I would love to be that little child with a box of Lego bricks again.” He suggests that to be a contemporary artist the artist needs to be aware of art’s history, that art works have both aesthetic and financial value in the art world and that these works have audiences. Furthermore once set free from the artist, audiences will ultimately engage with and respond to these creations subjectively. Of his own response to art Grayson said he is old fashioned and that what is important for him is he can go and see and touch ‘the real thing’.
Below I have selected three images. Each is an example of a ‘type’ mentioned by Grayson. Just glance at these three images out of context and decide which one you think is art. Then click on each for more information, but still be subjective – draw your own conclusion!
Painted wooden mask – Indigenous peoples c.2000 Art or not?
Winnard 1995 Pastel on paper (Marks by two year old child)
Sorry, not really a fair question as they should all be excellent versions of their type and they are not. But speaking subjectively (and that is very subjectively) I think two of the three examples are very nearly the best of their type!
Head of the Patriarch Semei, c. 1180. From Canterbury Cathedral now in the V&A.
Detail of silk scarf inspired by early medieval stained glass.
A couple of months ago I was asked to design and paint a ‘stained glass’ scarf.
When undertaking a commission the easiest way for me to understand a client’s wish is to ask for a ‘mini’ mood board. This can be a small postcard-sized piece of card covered with torn pieces of magazine pictures, snippets of cloth, small cuts of wool and screwed up cotton thread that give me an idea of the colours required. In the past when one customer wanted a scarf to complement her new winter look she gave me a snippet of cloth from the inside seam of her new coat.
However, more recently, the wealth of beautiful photographs on the Internet, has allowed mood boards to be generated very easily on platforms like Pinterest. The advantage of this approach is the ease with which ideas come together. Unfortunately, the downside is that accurate colour portrayal of ‘real-life’ on screen is notoriously unreliable and even the same image across different screens/devices can vary significantly. So, if an accurate tonal range is critical then an old fashioned, mini mood board is still best.
With the light shining through, early medieval stained glass panels photograph well (if not too high up in a window!) and the frequent use of bright reds and blues imparts a recognisable aesthetic. It is such a strong visual form that it was easy for the Victorians to mimic and then extensively develop in their Gothic Revival church windows, and, is probably what springs to mind when most people think of stained glass.
Silk scarf stained glass design.
Childebert receives St Germanus from a window in Saint Germain des Prés, Paris, c1240-5. Displayed in the V&A.
Stained glass inspired silk scarf as worn.
With my Art History hat on my personal preference is for the work of the late-Victorian Christopher Whall particularly his early 20th-century windows. This example panel depicting St Chad dates from 1901-10. It is now in the V&A Museum, London, and is from a collection of stained glass produced for a commission for a new window in the Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral.
St Chad by Christopher Whall (1849-1924). Slab glass with painted detail. Displayed at the V&A Museum.
St Chad by Christopher Whall – robe detail.
St Chad by Christopher Whall – detail showing nature of slab glass.
In 1784 Sir William Hamilton, the diplomat and polymath brought a Roman antique vase to England where he sold it to the Duchess of Portland. This first century Roman cameo-glass vessel became known as the Portland Vase. Although Roman (thought to date from 5-25 AD) it is not mentioned in the historical record until the beginning of the 17th century. Hamilton bought it from the family Barberini who had owned it for 150 years whilst he was British Ambassador to the Court of Naples.
In 1786, the vase became the property of the Third Duke of Portland who lent the vase to Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood was already a renowned ‘star’ of the times and a very successful businessman having made and developed major innovations in earthenware and stoneware pottery. He had developed a cream-coloured glaze over a cream-coloured body known as Creamware and when in 1765 Queen Charlotte commissioned a service from him the range was renamed ‘Queen’s Ware’. From 1772 he began work on developing what we now know as Jasperware. Jasperware is a durable, unglazed porcelain with bas-relief white cameo decoration. Metallic oxide colouring agents are used to stain the white Jasper and Jasperware is usually light blue, but it can also be pale green, lilac, yellow, black or dark blue. And, it was with this dark blue that Wedgwood chose to make his copy. It took four years of trials and experimentation until a reproduction of the Portland Vase was completed in 1790. The British Museum also has a Wedgwood Jasperware copy of the Portland Vase on display in the rooms showing 18th century ceramics.
Wedgwood’s Jasperware copy of the Portland Vase also on display at the British Museum.
Wedgwood’s Jasperware copy of the Portland Vase side view.
The original Portland Vase and the Wedgwood copy became an 18th century cultural hit taking London ‘society’ by storm and made Jasperware the most sought after ceramics in England and on the Continent. It isn’t entirely fair to make a direct comparison between the glass-cameo and the porcelain vases as being made with different materials there are different restrictions, but the Wedgwood version is a beautiful piece even if it isn’t quite as detailed and delicate as the original.
The Jasperware Portland Vase is a technical triumph and copies allow the beauty of the original to be shared. This is also an example of where the inspiration to copy a work from antiquity furthered the technical knowledge of the 18th century. It was such a success that it also secured the ever resourceful and inventive Josiah Wedgwood a permanent place in the history of ceramics. A famous name that still survives with Wedgwood Jasperware products made and collected in the 21st century.
It has been a very mild autumnal day here in East Anglia with the thermometer on my sheltered terrace reading 22°C (72°F) at lunchtime. This mild spell has saved my sunflowers (they were planted out too late – my fault, I forgot them) and they are only now just in full bloom. But what inspiration? We can all see why a certain amazing Dutchman worked so hard to capture their intense yet fleeting vibrancy.
I lived in Holland for a short while and when friends and relatives came to stay I used to love to take them to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I was so inspired I even had a go at copying his sunflowers and made a summer top from the finished silk.
Recently, I found the old top in a box in the loft and was struck by the change in my own style of working. But, I was also reminded of the admiration I had felt for Van Gogh as when you settle to copy a great work of art, even in a very small insignificant way, you notice more of the choices the master has made in creating the original work. Copying is a valuable tool for teaching.
It is not just the colour that is striking as even the sunflower’s outline is unmistakable.
Recently I’ve been pondering the nature of ‘copyright’. On one side of the debate we have the most aggressive legal (though somewhat amoral) approach as practised by patent trolls suing whomever they can in Marshall, Texas (see article) and on the other side, the seemingly limitless lifting and reusing of images, text and music without reference, citations, credits or fees, like a rash all over the Internet.
In the middle of these two extremes are ordinary people living in our everyday world trying to share interesting experiences, sometimes for gain, but often just for the joy of passing on the delightful, the fascinating and the newsworthy. Copying is a human past-time and indeed, copying was part of the training when an apprentice studied painting with a great master. The tradition of copying whether for learning or commercial reward is demonstrated by these various copies of ‘The Madonna of the Book’ by Botticelli.
Madonna of the Book – School of Botticelli, Museum of Biblical Art, Dallas, Texas. A copy.
A tapestry copy of Botticelli’s ‘Madonna of the Book’
I absolutely appreciate the need for creative/ideas people to make a living from their endeavours if that is their chosen path. And, when you consider all the different types of creative professionals, I think photographers are having the hardest time with the unattributed reproduction of their work on the Internet. It takes skill and time to take professional photographs and often more time and work in post-production. The music industry has finally found a suitable business model in the brave new world of the web by making money from live performance and merchandise, but what about the authors and the visual artists.
It is all a very tricky area. People should get recognition for their work and their ideas, but then for how long? You would think that when the maker/creator dies that would be it – but not so. I am not at all legal so sorry if this is technically adrift, but in the UK the duration of rights for literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works is 70 years from the maker’s death. Of course, there is also the notion of ‘fair use’ – not as straightforward as it sounds, and then ultimately all the copyright laws vary from country to country.
So, here’s a little conundrum, my deceased mother painted this oil painting (The Whisper) of Cardinal Ratzinger talking confidentially to another cardinal. She created it from a photograph in a newspaper and I have now photographed the oil painting – it’s making my head spin!
And, finally, my BIG ‘copyright’ gripe, why aren’t we allowed to photograph ‘owned by the nation’ works of art (out of copyright) if they are in a curated, pay for entry, ‘event’ exhibition in a museum/art gallery? It’s all as clear as mud . . . (is that a quotation from somebody, should I reference it??)
Back in May a fellow blogger, Frances Allitt, wrote on her blog Before the Art a piece about the tradition of ‘Vanitas’ depictions in Western Art History. It was illustrated with fine 16th and 17th century oil paintings similar to this example from the collection at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Towards the end of her post she uploaded her own ‘Vanitas’ photograph and invited her readers, us, to have a go too. So I thought I’d try some staging and shots and create my own Vanitas portrait.
Of course some objects in the photograph are particular for my life, and other items displayed are those often found in a formal Vanitas painting. The dying flowers and the spent candle are symbols of the transience of life. The traditional memento mori image is a skull, but I’ve used an alternative image to signify death and corruption, the rotting peach.
I have also included two photographic portraits one of my late mother and one of my great-grandmother. Both pictures were taken when they were young women. In this photo my great-grandmother was 18 years old and already suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. She died when she 36 years old.
The other week I worked up a design by looking through many Japanese woodblock prints and selecting a number of Ukiyo-e images as inspiration for both pattern and colour. The end of the process was a blue and green scarf also currently my banner above.
I liked the finished look and decided to work the pattern in a new colour combination and started from nature’s beautiful pink and yellow combination in this poppy with the added golden detail of the hover flies collecting nectar.
With the poppy in mind I started looking round building a collection of images with pinks, gold and black, starting with work by fine artists. Next I delved into contemporary visual culture from all over – here tea towels, table decorations and masks.
Ah yes, inspiration this time came from another kind of ‘floating’ world, Venice, and their famous carnival and masked balls. Sumptuous colour combinations and fascinating, ornate detail were now the recipe for the day.
In a previous post I mentioned in passing that at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition you could also see a sequence of tapestries by Grayson Perry.
Of course Grayson Perry is well-known for ceramics (his pots) for which he won the Turner Prize in 2003, but these tapestries are a change of medium rather than content. They exhibit a continuation of his challenging often acidic, social commentary in a visual form. I loved them. I had already seen the television programmes ‘All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry’ that documented his artistic process and I was thrilled to see the finished tapestries. In these works he is visually dissecting the relationship between people’s taste and their class.
The series called ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, is hanging round Room X at the Royal Academy. We see six large tapestries that make a clear reference to Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’- indeed, the protagonist in Perry’s work is called Tim Rakewell. The concept, research, working sketches and the final production of the tapestries form the four part television series.
The size of tapestries (two metres by four metres), their vibrant colour, together with the exquisite detail and totemic elements included for each depiction of the ‘progress’, were both visually stunning and frequently amusing – well they do say the British are obsessed with class. It is quite a few centuries (despite the sincere efforts of William Morris) since tapestry was considered to be ‘the’ medium for conspicuous consumption and that of itself is precisely why this series, in this woven form, is so acute.
Alternatively or additionally the Arts Council Collection has launched an app for iPad and iPhone produced by Aimer Media with commentary from the artist, art historical references and a guide to the making of the works. This is Grayson Perry’s first app and gives users the chance to see the tapestries up close with detailed zoom facility. The digital guide, Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences, is available from Apple’s iTunes Store (£1.99).
And, finally, Grayson Perry is to give this year’s Reith Lectures. The lectures will be broadcast in October and November as part of BBC Radio 4’s celebration of arts and culture in 2013.
A few weeks ago I was in Norwich’s City Centre which despite having two covered modern shopping malls still really radiates out from the old market place. It was a sunny, working lunchtime and the market was busy. I took some pictures, but nothing special.
Then The Reluctant Retiree posted about her visit to Warsaw and uploaded this stunning photograph of a pre-war Warsaw.
The contrast between these two images prompted some questions. Firstly, does our familiarity with our own everyday surroundings numb us to their intrinsic charm and energy? Or, are we always wearing our rose-tinted spectacles when viewing images of the past? Or is it much more to do with the art of the photograph and the difference between an image constructed by the professional photographer and the happy snaps of the amateur?