Monday, April 30, 2018

Androgynous Overlays Celebrate (or Undermine) the Politics of Saxony

Clockwise from top left: Traditional Saxon garb, traveling outfit, woman's thick cape, Lutheran priest's outfit, gardener's hat and gloves, woman's hood, apron, and fan, and (center) the Holy Roman Emperor

In the mid-seventeenth century, Europe saw a boom in popularity of mica overlays for miniature portraits. The items functioned in similar fashion to paper dolls. A base image, often painted in oil and usually fixed in some sort of metal support, was furnished with a set of outfits painted on transparent surfaces. These were referred to as “talcs” because they were formed out of sheer sheets of the eponymous mineral or its kin, mica. The overlays primarily provided entertainment, but they could also subtly celebrate rulers, offer religious influence, and perpetuate new fashions.

This set of overlays comes packaged in a false coin, in this case a 1628 thaler from Saxony. Throughout the Holy Roman Empire, the thaler was the standard against which various states’ currencies were valued. They held to the same general layout across state lines: both sides bear text about their edges, embracing distinctive state imagery. Here, one side states “SA. ROM. PARCHIM. ET . ELECT. 16. 78” around the heraldic shield of the Electorate of Saxony under the Holy Roman Empire. The heraldry belongs in particular to John George I (or Johann Georg I), the Elector of Saxony from 1611-1656. John George I himself appears on the opposite side of the coin, distinguishable by his cropped hair and goatee, surrounded by “IOHAN. GEORG. D. G. DUX SAX. IUL CLIV. ET MONT.”

Both interiors are painted. On one side are two figures, a woman in a blue dress and broad-brimmed hat and a man in an orange tunic. On the other side is the base figure, a woman in a dress of mid-century style, with a tight bodice, wide hips and sleeves, and an off-the-shoulder collar. The woman may be dressed in one of seven outfits, in both men’s and women’s guises. One overlay places the woman in the styling of the Holy Roman Emperor, with laurel wreath, scepter, and fur cape. It is possible that this overlay specifically represents the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III, who reigned from 1637 to 1657, but the defining facial hair was also characteristic of his successors Ferdinand IV and Leopold I. Another overlay depicts the garb of a Lutheran cleric, complete with a white amice, likely a point of national pride since the Protestant Reformation began within the borders of Saxony at Wittenberg. Other overlays dress the woman in a luxurious fur cape, a hood and apron, and the dress of a gardener, with thick gloves and flowers. The androgynous wardrobe reflects the rising vogue of the same practice in courtly circles. Court masques were beginning to feature women performing male characters (the “travesty role”), and fashionable women’s riding garb featured masculine cuts. The overlays stretch this androgyny to include monarchs and religious leadership, an amusing, but potentially subversive, move. There is plenty to explore in these overlays, and they are perhaps more politically dense than their physical fragility suggests.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Sample of the British Revival of Stained Glass

Church Windows: A Series of Designs, Original or Selected from Ancient Examples
By Sebastian Evans. Birmingham, England, Chance Brothers Co., 1862.

The great period of English stained glass manufacturing occurred approximately from 1100 until 1500, at which point Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and general displeasure with the Catholic Church, along with the rising iconoclasm of Puritans, obliterated the industry. For the next three hundred years, the few “stained glass” windows that were produced consisted simply of plain painted glass. However, around 1811 Britain experienced a revival of the ancient method, leading to an enormous boom of commercial stained glass in the 1830s. Inspired by the surviving medieval windows at locations like the Canterbury Cathedral and York Minster, both private artists and designers for mass production used new technologies and techniques to remaster the art’s precision and romance.

Church Windows is a sample book from the height of this era and was published by one of the leading glass manufacturers of the time, Chance Brothers Company. Chance Brothers was particularly known for its technological advances, which included Fresnel lenses and rotating optics for lighthouses, the development of rolled-plate glass, and the successful production of very long pieces of window glass. The latter of these contributions won the firm a contract to glaze the Crystal Palace during its construction for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This sample book offers a unique perspective on the company’s stylistic endeavors, led by Sebastian Evans. Evans was a man of many talents. From 1855 to 1857, he acted as the secretary of the Indian Reform Association, and was the first man in England to receive news of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. From there, he became the manager for the art department at Chance Brothers. After ten years and many windows, he became editor of the Birmingham Daily Gazette. In 1870 he pursued a legal career, and after being called to the bar in 1873, split his time between his practice and the articles and stories he contributed to The Observer and Macmillan’s and Longman’s magazines.

Evans mingled with the literati of the mid- to late-Victorian period, and became a close friend of Edward Burne-Jones. His window designs evoke the same senses of nostalgia and fantasy as Burne-Jones’s illustrations. The flowers, vines, and crosses that adorn his windows and his affinity for ornate patterns evoke the medieval and classical luxury and mythology of other Victorian artists like William Morris and Dante Rossetti. Each design is colored with a sample palette, and in his introduction to the book Evans welcomes “modifications” of both form and color “to suit particular cases.” The first twenty designs are devoted to small patterns—quarries and borders—which, in the final handful of plates, are contextualized in complete windows reproduced in small scale. In this manner, Church Windows pleasingly and skillfully guides its reader through the creation of a full window, from its smallest details to its overall design.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Children Take on Bauhaus

Das Buch vom Zirkus, by Hans-Friedrich Geist. Halle, 1930.

One of the greatest influences of the Bauhaus artists extended not from their own designs, but through the ambitions of their students. Among these, Hans-Friedrich Geist was particularly ardent, devoting his life to teaching art to children and encouraging their intrinsic creativity. He was especially entranced with the works of Paul Klee and Josef Albers, and sat as a guest student in their masterclasses. A teacher from the age of twenty-one, he taught in Altenburg, Meuselwitz, Halle, and Lübeck. He quickly established himself as one of the most prominent and progressive art educators in the Weimar Republic, eventually becoming the artistic director of the Overbeck Society. His contributions were acknowledged in a 2006 exhibition hosted by Meisterhaus Schlemmer in Dessau, Germany (appropriately in a very Bauhaus building), which displayed works Geist’s students created during his tenures in Meuselwitz and Halle.

Our recent acquisition of a publication of children’s illustrations hails from this era of Geist’s career. Das Buch vom Zirkus features twenty-eight full-page original linocuts created by Geist’s twelve- to fourteen-year-old students at the art academy in Halle. Each illustration presents a scene from the circus, including a lion circling its trainer, clowns playacting for the audience, and trapeze artists swinging from the ceiling.

The circus was a popular theme among the Bauhaus artists. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy particularly espoused the motif as an extension of the theater, as a means of intertwining contrasting relationships, such as the tragicomic or the trivial-monumental, to critique societal needs and “[eliminate] the subjective.” Xanti Sandinsky’s pantomimes exemplified Moholy-Nagy’s perception of the circus, pitting tamers against beasts and setting singing and dancing women against colorful backdrops. While Das Buch vom Zirkus is not nearly so refined in its approach, it is a stunning example of Bauhaus early education and the importance of production and publication to the movement.

Reference: Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo. “Theater, Circus, Variety” in Theater of the Bauhaus. Translated by Arthur S. Wensinger. 1924.