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Art Through Time: A Global View

Domestic Life

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Alexandra Griffith Winton: The home is one of the most intimate and most personal spaces that people look at for information about themselves and one another.

Soyoung Lee: Behind our front doors are objects that define us, that give us meaning.

Faith Ringgold: Every culture creates things that are useful in their lives. Whether they are in a cold climate, in a hot climate, or the place that they live in, and they do the best they can to live there. And out of that comes different forms of art.

Great art comes out of the way they live and what they make to live in that way.

Segment Title: Art as a Way of Life

Tom Seligman: The Tuareg are a nomadic pastoral people whose central homeland is the middle of the Sahara. The inaden, the “smiths,” their job is to make things for the Tuareg to use.

So what do they make? Well, pastoral people have animals, so they make leather things. Bags, tents, camel trappings, saddles for camels.

They move a lot in a harsh environment. So the stuff has to be durable. It has to function absolutely well. Has to be lightweight, easily manipulated, transported. You could make a very simple, functional bag out of leather.

But Tuareg don’t do that. They make very elaborate, decorative bags, objects that you wear or have, and not just functionally better, but aesthetically better. I think there’s something in all of us that we want to put ourselves clearly there. And how do you do that? You’re going to embellish, you’re going to enhance, you’re going to make beautiful your world.

And you’re expressing your Tuareg-ness, your Tuareg world, you’re the human world in contrast to this stark, natural world that’s around you.

Faith Ringgold: Much of the art forms and activities that we know about do come out of domesticity. Sometimes out of a need for something, like quilts, a need to keep the family warm, because quilts were originally to cover the bed.

When slaves came here from Africa, they became the quilt makers at the plantation. The master would not allow the slaves to be down there, painting a picture or even sculpting a mask or doing anything creative that was not useful and useful to them. Quilting was allowed because it’s useful. It’s a very interesting way that people came together to do something other than hard work, do something creative. And then the tradition continued and I’m fascinated by it.

I started making quilts in 1980 out of pieces of canvas that I painted. And then my mother sewed the pieces of canvas together. And from then I’ve been doing quilts.

Story quilts are traditionally images that tell a story and the quilt maker comes and tells you the story from the images that they have there. But I’m writing the actual story down, word for word, on the quilt.

The domestic life of a family in the 1930s, in Harlem, in New York, would center in the summertime, would center around Tar Beach. It was hot and the family wants to be together, but it’s miserable in the house. So you go up on the roof. That’s Tar Beach. That experience was so much a part of my life as a child growing up in Harlem that the story seemed to have been written before I wrote it.

The beginning is, “I will always remember when the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge.” And I created this little girl named Cassie, who thinks that she can fly. Because she needs to help her family do this and that. Like if Daddy doesn’t have a job, Daddy, loses his job, they can make up for that somehow.

Tar Beach was special. Everybody was on the roof. Your mother and father sitting up there playing cards and you laying on the mattress. So imprinted in my mind was that experience. It was a family experience. And there was nothing ever bad about it, it was always good.

When you look at it, a lot of the great themes in art have come from domestic life. In fact, I think that the whole art of quilt-making had to come from a domestic scene.

Most of us artists, we think of ourselves isolated creating this masterpiece all by ourselves. With quilts—it doesn’t even make sense to try to do that by yourself. Because the quilting takes a long time.

Look at the Gee’s Bend people. They are coming together, they sing together, and they enjoy each other’s company, and they work on each other’s work. This is a family production.

John Beardsley: Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is a small community inside a bend in the Alabama River southwest of Selma, Alabama. It’s a majority black community; it’s been there for a couple centuries. It’s populated mostly by the descendants of slaves of a family named Pettway who owned the whole area as part of a large plantation in the nineteenth century. Their descendants stayed on as sharecroppers, surviving in very impoverished circumstances, and developed a remarkable tradition of quilt-making, and often reused salvaged material, old field dresses and work clothes, to make quilts.

Faith Ringgold: They took that poverty of materials and made it into something really great and wonderful.

John Beardsley: In African American quilt-making traditions, the goal is to break the pattern. So that each quilt is different. So it is an expression of the imagination of the maker.

Although quilt making is typically considered a craft, this level of artistry and this level of invention makes it much more akin to high art. So one of the reasons that Gee’s Bend quilts, I think, have been such a phenomenon in contemporary American culture, is that they look like the most sophisticated abstract painting.

Segment Title: Living with Art

Soyoung Lee: In the traditional Western methodology of teaching or talking about art history, there is this divide between fine arts and decorative arts. In Asian art, you cannot just look at paintings, the traditionally considered fine art, to understand the culture. In fact these everyday items, or items that were part of domestic ware, or items that were used, functional in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, tell us much more about the culture.

Jeff Spur: It’s hard to exaggerate the role of textiles, broadly defined, in the lives of the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Central Asia, since essentially everything about their society was defined by some sort of textile. These peoples lived in these steppe environments that were pretty bleak, and they seemed to have compensated by this extraordinary delight in visual power within their domestic environment. So it was, in a sense, a decorative oasis.

The portable house, the yurt, would, for any given tribal group, have a form characteristic of it and distinct from other groups. And much like everything else in the culture would, therefore, be a point of recognition for other people who might encounter this group.

You have to imagine the yurt—pile carpets, felts or flat weaves, bedding, decorative textiles, the many bags that were used to contain anything needing containing in their cultures.

All of these products were a source of pride in a representation to the world, of the virtue of not only this one domestic environment, but signs to other people that they might encounter.

It would appear that in many societies, and these nomadic ones are no exception, that pride in self-presentation was a very powerful value.

Arthur Wheelock: In the late sixteenth century, the Dutch revolted against Spanish control. It’s a small little country, the Netherlands, and they were against enormous odds because Spain was one of the most powerful countries in the world. But with their efforts over the years, the Dutch established their independence in 1648, and there came a sense, at that time, of enormous pride.

You see it in their still lives, these things that they brought back from the far reaches of the world. You see this it in the depictions of their homes.

One of the exciting things about Dutch art is that the Dutch lived with their art. Mostly art created in the seventeenth century was for a domestic audience. There are all these inventories of painting collections in homes in a tailor’s house or the baker’s home. They weren’t just paintings for wealthy clients. It was a basically a Protestant world and there was not a lot of showy excess, but they wanted to decorate their homes, show that pride in that world that they had established.

Bettina Bergmann: In decorating a home, one is thinking about the audience. Who is going to see this? You are always thinking of a viewer, you are thinking of somebody coming in.

If I were a Roman of some standing, I would reserve my morning for visitors for so-called clientes, clients. I would open my front door, and anybody who walked by could come in and wait in my atrium for an appointment with me.

However, in the evening, late afternoon, evening, if I wanted to have a dinner party, I would have invited my guests and those guests would be invited into the triclinium, or dining room. The more elaborate triclinia that we have are decorated with mythological subjects, and we think that that was because they provided a stimulus to dinner conversation.

We can imagine them reclining there together and drinking and discussing the mythological scenes on the walls and maybe spinning out different narrations for them. So I think they were very much a part of this convivial entertainment. To the modern eye, one of the most striking aspects of Roman interiors are those that present an entirely different space than what they are, and they also made it so rich, with so many different dimensions and illusions, that one could spend a long time and go in a serial fashion and always see something different, or have a new insight, and that’s really brilliant.

Soyoung Lee: Most of the time Asian paintings were not hung on the walls the way that Western paintings or European paintings were. They would be stored away and brought out for the particular occasions.

In Korean history, and let’s just talk about the Chosôn history, which was the last 500 years up to 1910, a good part of painting that was produced was produced for the court. But, of course, they were produced for private enjoyment as well, particularly for the elites for them to bring out to look by themselves or with their group of friends.

During the Chosôn Dynasty the head of the household and his own practices of the arts and his friends’ enjoyment of the artworks would take place in his study, known as the sarangbang, which is basically the center of the household and so it was very important that he decorated it in the most appropriate way, usually not ostentatious, with the most sort of understated wooden furniture, with the kind of ceramic or metal scholar’s utensils, such as brush holders and water droppers.

This particular brush holder is porcelain that is undecorated, that is undecorated with any kind of color.

The elite men—the yangban—those who had influence over Korean society, adopted and lived by Neo-Confucian principle. The appeal of the undecorated pure white porcelain had very much to do with, in fact, with Confucian aesthetics that emphasized understated elegance, understated beauty, purity, and frugality.

They reflect a purity of form, an essence of the objects and they’re uniquely Korean manifestations of these themes, but they’re also themes that are universal that you find in other cultures—in the Arts and Crafts Movement, for example.

Segment Title: “Good” Design

Sarah Coffin: The Arts and Crafts Movement started in England in the 1830s and ’40s, and moved on through William Morris to the late nineteenth century, both in England and in the United States, as well as having influence all over the place.

This particular group that centered around William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite painters felt that truth was important in their mission.

The idea of the going back to the honesty of handmade objects and hand-done, not only objects, but fabrics, textiles, even block printing, old techniques of printing.

Reaction is against the Industrial Age and the proliferation of cheaply made and not necessarily well-designed objects. It was a very much a reaction against what was perceived as false.

They had a very grand notion that good design impacts everybody’s life. And that uninspired, bad design, rather, denigrates the idea of the quality of life.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was very much about creating a better quality of life through good design for a broader spectrum of society.

Of course, the cost of hand-producing things was high. And that was the fundamental flaw in this mission. But the idea was then firmly entrenched, I think, for the modernist movement of the simplicity and the idea of functionality.

Alexandra Griffith Winton: The Bauhaus began in Germany in 1924, to create these objects that are beautiful and, yet, functional, and crucially, mass-producible—these were the underlying goals of the Bauhaus.

The Bauhaus was, in a sense, a kind of a good design movement. It was an attempt to redesign the way people were living. It was an attempt to strip away what they believed was unnecessary.

One of the most famous objects that came out of that era is Marcel Breuer’s “Wassily” chair. It was inspired by this extruded steel framework of his bicycle. He was riding his bicycle one day and he thought this is a marvelous material.

It’s strong, it’s flexible, it’s lightweight—we should make furniture using this material. So, completely abandoning the traditional wood, he was able to create this chair, which is essentially as dematerialized as a chair can be with while still being a chair, while still having some structure and some presence.

The lifespan of the Bauhaus was actually quite short. It was started in the mid-1920s and by 1933 it was shut down.

Despite this, because its ideas were so potent, it is still the touchstone of modernist design and something that designers and architects are continually returning to.

The whole Good Design movement that we see in the United States starting in the late ’40s and the 1950s–the way these objects looked is usually quite different from Bauhaus objects. But there is this tremendous interest in expanding the influence of modern design in the domestic area.

Segment Title: How People Live

Alexandra Griffith Winton: The idea of the home is very important in America from the early nineteenth century onward. The idea of owning one’s own home is a consistent thread throughout the American narrative, you know, really until today. And during the Great Depression there was an effort to support and encourage home ownership.

Jeff Rosenheim: When people think about the Great Depression, they think of Walker Evans’ photographs, whether they know his name or not.

Hale County, Alabama. The tenant farmers, the Southern sharecroppers. This is the community that Evans first photographed in his effort to photograph the cruel conditions under which Americans lived during the Depression.

Allie May Burroughs and her husband Floyd Burroughs and their children were sharecroppers. And what that means is that at the end of the season, the growing season, they owed half of their cotton production, their crop, and half of their corn crop and anything else they grow to the landlord. They did not own their land, they did not own their house, and at the end of every year they owed more to the landlord than they had when they began the season. It’s a terrible cycle of poverty. And Allie May and Floyd were actually willing to allow Evans to stay with them to record their daily lives.

And Evans made photographs of all the members of the family both inside and outside the cabin. And these cabins had very little in them. But what was in them was so beautifully described by the camera. The facades of the walls, the rough hewn timbers, the shapes of the bedding, the iron beds and the curlicues that are some of the only decorative elements that Evans found in these homes. There’s nothing fancy there. The fanciest thing is just opening the door to let the light in.

Each of these pictures are nearly pure, descriptive, investigations of how people live. The camera’s ability to define those spaces is about trying to understand what makes us Americans. What makes our spaces—domestic or otherwise—an American space.

Alexandra Griffith Winton: There are people who say, “Well, I could never live in a space like that. I could never live in a modern house. I could never live in a brownstone.” Their ideas about themselves are so wrapped up in these ideas of how to live that it really kind of defines them.

One’s home says something about you as a person—your values and your goals.

Jeff Rosenheim: Our house, our home and all it encompasses says everything about who we are, where we’ve been and what we want to be.

From furniture and tapestries to bowls and baskets, art has figured prominently in domestic life for thousands of years. Within the space of the home—be it a palace or a hut—aesthetically and culturally significant objects have fulfilled purposes both mundane (e.g., storage and service) and transcendent (e.g., the facilitation of prayer). Moreover, the activities and events taking place within these domestic spaces have been the inspiration for countless artists. Their depictions of everyday life are best understood as complex documents melding real-world observations with ideal social expectations.

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Expert Biographies

John Beardsley, Ph.D., is the director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Beardsley has authored numerous books, including Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists and Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape. He has also curated exhibitions for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum, among other institutions. In addition to his role at Dumbarton Oaks, Beardsley is an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, where he teaches courses on landscape architectural history, theory, and writing. His many honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Beardsley received his B.A. in Fine Arts from Harvard University and his M.A. and Ph.D in Fine Arts from the University of Virginia.

Bettina Bergmann, Ph.D., is Helene Phillips Herzig ‘49 Professor of Art at Mount Holyoke College. A specialist in Greek and Roman art, Bergmann’s research focuses on Roman houses, interiors, gardens, and landscapes. In addition to authoring articles and essays, she co-edited, with Christine Kondoleon, The Ancient Art of Spectacle. She has taught courses on art and cultural politics, myth, spectacle, the cities of Vesuvius, and the Hellenistic world, among other topics. To facilitate an understanding of the past, Bergmann is involved in creating three-dimensional models of ancient buildings. She earned her B.A. at UC Berkeley, her M.A. at the Archaeological Institute, Bochum, Germany, and her Ph.D. and M.Phil. at Columbia University.

Marla C. Berns, Ph.D, is the director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA and is adjunct professor of art history. Berns was formerly director of the University Art Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Goldstein, a museum of design at the University of Minnesota. Her research and writing have concentrated on women’s arts in Northeastern Nigeria—which include ceramics, decorated gourds and programs of body scarification—and on the historical and ritual importance of figurative ceramic vessels. Exhibitions she has curated feature topics on twentieth-century art and design, including solo projects on the artists Magdalene Odundo and Renee Stout. She is currently organizing a major exhibition on the arts of the Benue River Valley, Central Nigeria. Berns received her Ph.D. in art history from UCLA.

Sarah D. Coffin is curator of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century decorative arts and head of product design and decorative arts at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Recently Coffin curated the “Rococo: The Continuing Curve 1730–2008” exhibition and co-authored the accompanying book of the same name. Coffin has also authored many other catalogues, articles, and books, including “Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table 1500–2005.” Coffin holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.A. from Columbia University.

Alexandra Griffith Winton is a freelance writer and design historian based in New York City. Her research focuses on the history and theory of the domestic interior, with a special emphasis on the twentieth century. She has written comprehensive articles for publications such as DwellI.D., and the Journal of Design History, and has contributed thematic essays to the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, an online overview of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. Winton has received grants from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in Fine Arts and the Craft Research Fund and was recently selected as a CuratorLab fellow at Konstfack in Stockholm. She teaches courses on the history and theory of interior design, architecture, and light at Parsons, The New School in New York. Currently, Winton is writing a monograph on textile designer Dorothy Liebes, to be published by Princeton Architectural Press.

Soyoung Lee is associate curator in the Asian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lee is the museum’s first curator of Korean art. Most recently, Lee organized the exhibition, “The Art of the Korean Renaissance (1400–1600),” which highlighted forty-five works of Korean painting, ceramics, metalwork, and lacquer from the period. Lee has authored several books, essays, and articles, including The Art of the Korean Renaissance (1400–1600), and the essay, “Korean Buddhist Sculpture (5th–9th century).” Lee received her B.A. and M.A. from Columbia University and is currently working on her Ph.D.

Faith Ringgold is an artist and professor emeritus of art at the University of California, San Diego. Ringgold began her career as a painter and is well-known for her painted story quilts. Her work is featured in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and she has held exhibitions in museums all over the world. Ringgold has written and illustrated fourteen children’s books, including the Caldecott award-winning Tar Beach. Ringgold’s many honors include a Solomon R. Guggenheim Fellowship, an NAACP Image Award, and two National Endowment for the Arts awards. Ringgold holds a B.A. and M.A. from the City College of New York.

Jeff L. Rosenheim is curator in the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A leading authority on Walker Evans, Rosenheim helped to bring Evans’ complete archive to the Museum. He has published several works on the photographer and curated “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard.” Among the many other exhibitions he has organized are “Diane Arbus Revelations,” “Lee Friedlander: A Ramble in Olmsted Parks,” “Looking In: Robert Frank’s Americans,” and “New Orleans after the Flood: Photographs by Robert Polidori.”

Thomas K. Seligman is the director of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Among the many exhibitions Seligman has curated are “Timbuktu to Capetown,” a celebration of African art and culture, and “The Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World.” Seligman was the founding curator of the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. He has done fieldwork among the Tuareg for over thirty years and has authored numerous articles and catalogues on African art. He has delivered lectures and podcasts to a variety of audiences as well.

Jeff Spurr is an Islamic and Middle East specialist at the Documentation Center of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Fine Arts Library, Harvard University. An authority on historical textiles, Spurr is on the advisory committees of several art institutions. He is also an active leader in efforts to restore libraries in Bosnia, and more recently, Iraq. Spurr is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where he pursued studies in art, archaeology, and anthropology.

Lynda S. Waggoner is the vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the director of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater. Waggoner is also author of Fallingwater: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Romance with Nature and is featured in several documentary films, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Saving Fallingwater. She has written numerous articles on the building and on museum issues and lectures frequently. Prior to joining the staff at Fallingwater, Waggoner was curator of the Museum without Walls, formerly an outreach program of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and curator of the Jay C. Leff Collection of non-Western art. Her honors include the American Institute of Architects, Pittsburgh Chapter, Gold Medal award and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s Wright Spirit Award.

Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Ph.D., is curator of Northern Baroque painting at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and a professor of art history at the University of Maryland. Wheelock has lectured widely on Dutch and Flemish art and is the author of numerous books, including Perspective, Optics, and Delft Artists around 1650Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century; and Vermeer and the Art of Painting. Among the many exhibitions he has curated for the National Gallery are “Aelbert Cuyp” (2001), “Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller” (1996), “Johannes Vermeer” (1995), “Anthony van Dyck” (1990), and “Gods, Saints, & Heroes: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt” (1980). Wheelock has been honored with the College Art Association/National Institute for Conservation Award for Distinction in Scholarship and Conservation, the Johannes Vermeer Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Dutch Art, the Bicentennial Medal from Williams College, and the Dutch-American Achievement Award. He has also been named Knight Officer in the Order of the Orange-Nassau by the Dutch government. Wheelock received his Ph.D. from Harvard University.

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Art Through Time: A Global View


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