Sunday, February 21, 2021

Art Eyewitness Book Review: The V&A Book of Color in Design


The V&A Book of Color in Design

Thames & Hudson/304 pages/$39.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Mark Twain was correct. "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."

What Twain did not mention is that our blushes only register with other human beings. The ruddy red color which spreads across our faces in moments of embarrassment or mortification cannot be detected by dogs, cats, rabbits and most other animals. The range of color which can be perceived by our four-legged friends is far more limited. Dogs and cats can see some shades of blue and green, but not red. 

Even the bulls of Spain, charging towards the matador's cape, are oblivious to its red hue. These fearsome beasts are goaded into action by the motion of the muleta, not by its vivid color.

Color is a very human matter, fascinating, compelling and confusing. A brilliant new study, The V&A Book of Color in Design, goes a long way to help us grasp the way that people understand and make use of color. 

The science behind humanity's appreciation of color has engaged some of the greatest minds in history. The conflicting theories of Sir Isaac Newton and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe set the tone of the Age of Enlightenment dialogue on color. 

Engraving by René-Henri Digeon of Michel Chevreul's 
Cercle Chromatique (1864)

The modern version of the color wheel, showing how colors relate to each other, is based on the research of Michel Chevreaul during the nineteenth century. Without Chevreul's Cercle Chromatique (1864), the innovations of the Post-Impressionist painters might never have occurred. 

The V&A Book of Color in Design is a collaborative endeavor of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Here Design Studio of London and Thames & Hudson Publishers. 

Edited by Tim Travis, a curator of the V&A's Word & Image Department, the book can be used as a reference source for artists and designers. Organized in chapters devoted to specific colors, 375 works of art and craft from the V&A collection show how color has been used - and sometimes abused - from antiquity to the present day.

Page spread from The V&A Book of Color in Design

Yet, the importance of The V&A Book of Color in Design transcends its role as a historical survey. This is an insight-rich book which will engage thoughtful readers in focusing their eyes on the world around them.

Human beings have been putting color to use for a long time. The introductory chapter discusses the discovery by archaeologist Lawrence Barham of a layer of sediment used by prehistoric humans to create colors, most likely for cave painting and body decoration. Minerals, many excavated at other sites, were painstakingly ground-down with stone tools to extract a wide range of pigments: brown, red, yellow, purple, blue and pink. 

The site of this color "processing" center was the Twin Rivers Cave in Zambia. The complex activity dates to between 200,000 to 400,000 years ago. 

Even if we accept the most recent of these long-ago dates, the implications are astonishing. Colors were already being "man-made" before the first definitive evidence of Homo sapiens, in the shape of skull fragments found in Ethiopia, dating to 195,000 years ago. Scientists conjecture that human language was not prevalent until 150,000 years ago. Thus, color served as a form of self-expression even before our ancestors could verbally articulate their thoughts and feelings.

The fact that many of the minerals had to be transported a considerable distance to be processed into pigments at the Twin Rivers Cave deserves further consideration. Here we see the sequence of the material/spiritual culture of color. Extracted from the earth, processed by human hands, colors were then projected into "higher" value systems. 

The transformation of raw minerals into gleaming treasures fit for the gods - or godlike humans - is best observed in the chapter dealing with the color Blue. "The difficulty and expense of extracting or creating blue materials," the caption text notes, "elevated the color's status among those keen to demonstrated their wealth and taste."

Rare, costly lapis lazuli, unearthed in mines in remote Afghanistan since the dawn of civilization, was used to create works of art of special significance for the religious and royal authorities of many ancient realms. Merchant "princes" later asserted their claim to elite status with prized possessions embellished with lapis lazuli. A particularly notable example is this chess/backgammon set from sixteenth century Venice which incorporated three shades of the rare blue mineral on the rosewood and gold games board.

Venetian Games Board, ca. 1570

The great lengths required in antiquity to procure lapis lazuli explains the efforts of the ancient Egyptians to find a substitute. Turquoise, a semi-precious gemstone, was available closer to home, but not without effort, for the mines were located in the inhospitable Sinai peninsula. In what is almost certainly the first "R&D" initiative in history, the Egyptians developed faience, a glaze for ceramics composed of ground quartz, plant ash, lime water and copper oxide. This was applied to all manner of objects, secular and sacred, giving them a touch of the color of the heavens above. 

The example of Egyptian faience in the The V&A Book of Color in Design is a monumental representation of the scepter of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, ca. 1401 BC.


               Monumental Ritual Sceptre (Uas) of Amenhotep II,                   New Kingdom Egypt, c.1427 BC-c.1401 BC.

For once, the superlative photos in the book do not give a real "feel" for the size of this incredible example of ancient Egyptian regalia. To gain that insight, it is necessary to see how it is displayed in the V&A gallery.

Gallery view of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. 
The Ritual Sceptre (Uas) of Amenhotep II appears at right.

Even after the discovery of chemical dyes in the 1850's, the symbolical value of colors remained a central tenant of artists and philosophers. Vasily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and the other Blue Rider artists expounded the "spiritual" nature of color and art, until the drab, uniform brutality of World War I overwhelmed their bold experiments.

Utilizing color has often presented problems. The color Green in oil paintings can quickly fade, an obvious challenge for landscapes painters, like J.M.W. Turner who disliked using it. 

The French glass artist, Emile Charles Gallé, however, mastered this tricky color. He created his Oak Leaf Vase in direct communion with nature. Gallé's personal motto was "my roots are in the depth of the woods." Gazing at this green-hued masterwork for a short time, we find ourselves there as well. 

Emile Charles Gallé, Oak Leaf Vase, ca. 1895

Red is another color with a problematical past and present. As ceramic artists know, Red is a volatile color. A red-glazed piece of pottery requires close attention to the temperature settings of the kiln and to the reduction of the inflow of oxygen in order to achieve the correct color. Even a slight error can ruin the red coloring of a piece.

Red dyes in clothing were also a challenge. The famous redcoats of the British Army often faded to a russet shade of red after a few weeks in the field. Officers normally had uniforms made by private tailors who used cloth colored with more expensive dyes. Thus, the officers' uniforms retained their vibrant hue longer, making them more conspicuous targets. 

British Hunting Coat, 1810-1820

In the case of the fox hunter (above) from the era of Jane Austin, there were no such dangers. Gentlemen's coats were called "hunting pinks" and the foxes were unarmed!

Colors have taken on a vast range of meanings and connotations. The V&A Book of Color in Design is rich in stimulating commentary on the bewildering differences of opinion and belief regarding the various colors. Red, the color of valor - and blood - is also associated with the seductive, sassy lip gloss of "scarlet" women. 

Page spread from The V&A Book of Color in Design

Happy, cheerful Yellow, available in an abundance of hues, has been singularly unlucky in the negative roles and values ascribed to it.

Language has not always been kind to this colour. To yellow is to age and wither. In English slang, "yellow-bellied" refers to a coward, and "yellow journalism" describes fake news. In French and Italian a yellow person ("jaune","giallo") is deemed a traitor, while in German "gelb laune sein" means to be jealous. Jaundice, yellow fever and bubonic plague are all linked to the colour, and some sources of yellow pigments, such as cadmium, lead and chrome, can be toxic.

All of this negativity relating to Yellow can be banished by looking for a few moments at a print of Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers and reflecting on his remark to his brother Theo"How lovely yellow is!"

In the conflicting court of opinion regarding color, even Black and White are not "black and white" matters. In the Western world, Black is generally the color of mourning, while in East Asia White is worn on such somber occasions. 

During the 1500's and 1600's, Spanish nobles wore black garments almost as a national uniform. However, the great expense of black dyes made such seemingly austere clothing a source of arrogant pride. 

More than a hint of Black's clandestine qualities appears in the portrait miniature, below, painted by Isaac Oliver, ca. 1605. This is a sexually provocative, emotionally charged keepsake to be worn on a chain over a lover's heart!

Isaac Oliver Portrait Miniature of an Unknown Woman, ca. 1605

Who is this Dark Lady with the jaunty hat and the daring decolletage? We don't know. Might this in fact be a portrait of one of the boy actors who portrayed women on the Elizabethan stage? Could she/he be the model for Virginia Woolf's Orlando? It's really up to us to decide!

And that's just the point about color. The multitude of interpretations made available to us by the variegated nature of color is a call for setting free our own imaginations. And that in turn, requires us to open our eyes and minds to the evolving, ever-expanding universe we inhabit.

If The V&A Book of Color in Design has a "moral", it is this: color cannot be defined. It is what we make of it.

By way of confirmation of the awesome possibilities opened to us by color, I experienced a remarkable epiphany while working on this review. I looked up from reading The V&A Book of Color in Design to see a beam of light streaming through a prism which we have hanging in our bedroom window. There on a pillow case, before my eyes, was the color spectrum in all its glory.

Newton's classic experiment on the division of "white" light into all the colors of the rainbow was taking place, guided by an "invisible hand." Totally unaware of what was taking place, I would never have witnessed this incredible moment of synchronicity, had I not looked up. And by some act of good fortune - or grace - I had a small digital camera close at hand to record this amazing event. 

Here, displayed on the pillow case was color in all of its simple, startling beauty. Glancing down on the pages of the V&A book, I saw examples of creative endeavor, decked out in color effects of every hue and shade.

Color is a manifestation of life itself. It is an invitation to you and me to join in, to live in a world of imagination, provided our minds and hearts are open to the experience.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photo: Ed Voves. All rights reserved       
Book cover and page spreads, courtesy of Thames and Hudson, Publishers. Collection images, courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Introductory Image: 
Vera Willoughby (British, 1870-1939) Wooden figure showing Vaslav Nijinsky in Mikhail Fokine's ballet "Le Spectre de la rose". Pen and ink drawing, with gouache: Height: 236 mm. Lower edge of base width: 172mm. Victroria & Albert Museum. Cyril W. Beaumont Bequest. # S.703-2001

René-Henri Digeon, engraver (French, 1844-?)  Des couleurs et de leurs applications aux arts industriels à l'aide des cercles chromatiques (Colors and Their Application to Industrial Arts Using Chromatic Circles), 1864; Book written by Michel Eugène Chevreul (French, 1786–1889) Aquatint with yellow, blue, red, and black ink on paper. Cooper Hewitt-Smithsonian National Museum of Design  # ND1280 .C523 1864

Venetian Games Board, ca. 1570. Rosewood and gilding with lapis lazuli: Height: 37.7cm. Width: 48.5 cm. Depth: 2.5cm. Victoria and Albert Museum. Bequeathed by the 7th Duke of Wellington. # W.9-1972

Monumental Ritual Sceptre (Uas) of Amenhotep II, New Kingdom Egypt, c.1427 BC-c.1401 BC. Found in 1894 at Naqada by William Flinders-Petrie, in the temple of the God Seth. Faience (blue-green turquoise-glazed composition, with painted decoration): Weight: 143 lbs (65.0 kg), Height: 7 feet, 1 inch (215.9 cm), Width: (25.0 cm) Victoria & Albert Museum,# 437-1895.

Gallery view of the Victoria and Albert Museum, showing the Monumental Ritual Sceptre (Uas) of Amenhotep II. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Emile Charles Gallé (French,1846-1904)  Oakleaf Vase,  ca. 1895. Cased, wheel-cut, acid-etched and fire-polished glass: Height: 25.3 cm, Width: 15.2 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum. Given by Dr John MacGregor. #  C.599-1920

Unknown Artist/Maker. British Hunting Coat, 1810-1820. Woollen superfine cloth and metal buttons: part-lined with woven sateen and cotton, hand-sewn.  Victoria and Albert Museum.  Purchased with Art Fund support and assistance from the Friends of the V&A, and a number of private donors. # T.100-2003

Isaac Oliver (English, 1565-1617) Portrait Miniature of an Unknown Woman, ca. 1605. Watercolour on vellum: Framed height: 7.5 cm. Framed width: 6 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum. Salting Bequest  # P.130-1910

Ed Voves (Photo, 2021) Color spectrum.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Craft: an American History by Glenn Adamson


Craft: an American History 

By Glenn Adamson
Bloomsbury/$30/400 pages 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 1886, the cigar-makers of Ybor City, Florida, hired a professional lecturer or Lector, to read to them while they worked. These skilled workers, hand-rolling cigars, were mostly immigrants from Cuba. The lector system had been in operation in Cuba for decades, providing ideas and inspiration to men of limited learning but of great power of mind and heart.

Generally, the lector read the newspaper in the morning and then, after lunch, chapters from classic novels, often with a social-justice theme. I suspect that modern-day lectors, if they still flourished today, would set aside Victor Hugo's Les Miserables in order to read aloud Craft: an American History by Glenn Adamson.

Craft is the kind of book that dedicated, hard-working and deep-thinking people can appreciate. The protagonists, ranging from Paul Revere, silversmith and "Son of Liberty" to craft entrepreneurs in 21st century America, are kindred souls to the cigarreros of the Tampa Bay area.

Glenn Adamson is clearly of the same spirit. One of the most influential theorists and writers about craft in the United States, Adamson was director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. His earlier books include Fewer, Better Things and The Invention of Craft.

As might be expected, Adamson's sympathy is with the artisan/worker rather than with "upper management." From America's earliest years, workers have had to contend with prejudice based on their ethnicity, race, religion, gender and age. We are still dealing with the legacy of such injustice, making Craft a "tract for our times," as well as an important work of historical research.

Before proceeding with a review of Adamson's book, several important points need to be considered. 

Adamson's focus on craft is very much in keeping with contemporary standards of "diversity and inclusion." Any individually (or small-group) created product, from a blacksmith's hand-forged tool or a piece of studio-made furniture to Native American pottery or one-of-a-kind jewelry, comes within the embrace of craft. 

Given the wide scope of craft, the opportunities for creative self-expression are almost limitless. Unfortunately, cut-throat competition and closed-shop protective measures come with the territory, too.

The craft code which traveled onboard the Mayflower retained more than a few traces of medieval practice. Anyone outside the trade guild or the artist's studio in early modern Europe was viewed as a competitor to be excluded. Skilled artisans, jealous of trade secrets and anxious to keep the patronage of haughty aristocrats, conformed to this ruthless business model at all cost.

Conditions in colonial America later gave some hope for improvement. The demand for labor was so great that most able-bodied White workers, including those who came to the colonies as indentured servants, could reasonably expect to gain a degree of prosperity and freedom far exceeding that available in Europe.

John Neagle, Pat Lyon at the Forge, 1829

Even when these gains were realized, an independent American craftsman could quickly find himself in difficult straits. Adamson relates how, in 1798, a Scottish immigrant locksmith, Patrick Lyon, was falsely accused of being involved in a spectacular bank robbery. Lyon had worked on the iron doors of the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He was implicated in the heist, without any proof, incarcerated and then denied the right to sue for damages.

Lyon fought back in the court of public opinion. He commissioned John Neagle to paint his portrait as a self-reliant and defiant craftsman. He emphatically told Neagle that "I do not wish to be represented as what I am not - a gentleman."

Lyon had an additional comment on the travesty of justice to which he had been subjected. The powerful truth in his remark echoes throughout Adamson's narrative of America's social struggles: 

"... the great when they have power, will often make a wrong use of it, and those who are inferior in rank, have little chance of justice."

Lyon's statement applied with even more resonance to African-American slaves, Native Americans driven from their lands and to women - of all social standing.

In the early chapters of his book, Adamson propels the narrative with biographical accounts of how craft workers from these excluded groups used skill and intelligence to advance their economic status and, in some cases, to secure their freedom.

Unknown Photographer, Elizabeth Keckley, 1861

A prime example of one who achieved both these goals was Elizabeth Keckley. A talented seamstress, Keckley was born in 1818, the daughter of an enslaved African-American woman and a White plantation owner. After long years of bondage, Keckley bought her freedom - with the help of her patrons - in 1855.

Keckley moved to Washington D.C. and set up a dress-making concern. creating fashionable attire. One of her customers was Varina Davis, wife of the soon-to-be president of the Southern Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Keckley made a silk dressing gown for Davis, himself, which she said "was worn by Mr. Davis during the stormy years" of the Civil War.

Elizabeth Keckley, Ball Gown of Mary Todd Lincoln, 1861

After the outbreak of the war, Keckley designed the wardrobe of Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley became a close confidante of President Lincoln's wife, especially during her post-war bereavement. Keckley was still supporting herself with sewing when she died in 1907, aged 89 years. 

Keckley's astonishing life journey revealed what a talented and determined person of color could achieve, when given the opportunity. Likewise, the gifted Hopi potter, Nampeyo (ca. 1856-1942), gained success with her skill in painting time-hallowed Pueblo designs on her pots and for innovating striking motifs of her own creation.

Edward S. Curtis, Nampeyo Decorating Pottery, ca. 1900

Nampeyo's achievement came in marked contrast to Elizabeth Keckley's.  It was Keckley's mastery of haute couture - her skill with needle and thread as good or better than many a White seamstress - that enabled her to succeed. Nampeyo's artistic ability was of the same caliber. But her success was based on Native American traditions, distinctive and time-honored, when compared with the mass market products of Gilded Age America.

Heritage and authenticity now became the touch stones of American craft.  These attributes, however, were deployed against the industrial juggernaut of the post-Civil War United States. It was a battle which individual artisans could never hope to win, especially after Frederick Winslow Taylor's "time and motion" techniques were introduced to speed-up factory productivity.

The later chapters of Adamson's book shift from focusing on individual artisans to efforts aimed at organizing and encouraging craft-making groups or co-ops. Many of these were from marginalized regions of the U.S., quilt makers from the rural South, especially the Appalachian Mountains, and African-American basket makers from the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina. 

With tides of immigration, urbanization and mobilization for global war reshaping America's identity, the emotional need for creating and cherishing unique crafts was a pressing concern.

Irving Rusinow, Native Woodcarver Patrocina Barela, 1941

During the years just prior to World War II and for a short time after the war, American craft enjoyed powerful patronage from the Federal Art Project, the Museum of Modern Art and dynamic organizers like Aileen Osborn Webb. Brilliant "unknowns" such as the Taos wood sculptor, Patrocina Barela, were discovered. A new role for craft makers, in the design  of industrial products in the early 1950's, was explored.
Many of these initiatives were short-lived or achieved limited returns for all the heroic effort of the participants. The ultimate disappointment of so many visionary plans and hard work makes for some discouraging reading. Alas, that gifted, hardy souls dedicate so much effort to hand-made works of art and utility for so little return is one of the constant features of craft.

Adamson is an able writer, with a sure command of his subject and a passion for it, too. In his final chapter, he comments on some promising craft initiatives, especially in "rust belt" communities which refuse to abandon hope, even after corporate factories have closed or moved to Latin America or Asia.

Craft: an American History is an outstanding book, but it would have been an even more compelling one by allowing  space for discussion of actual craft making. Adamson pauses only occasionally to examine, in some detail, the masterpieces made by his protagonists. An exception is the case of Adelaid Alsop Robineau's Scarab Vase (Apotheosis of the Toiler), created in 1910. 

Adelaide Alsop Robineau, Scarab Vase (Apotheosis of the Toiler), 1910

Robineau, who started painting ceramics, succeeded in mastering the difficult  technique for making porcelain. From there she went on to create "one of the most extraordinary feats of craftsmanship ever realized in America":

Robineau spent more than a thousand hours making the carved porcelain vase, only for it to crack in its initial firing. She persisted, filling the tiny fissures with a paste of ground porcelain and firing it again, this time successfully. She also selectively glazed the piece to highlight its delicate openwork structure.

The drama of Craft: an American History is greatly enriched by this account of Robineau's relentless pursuit of beauty. Her trial and ultimate triumph symbolize the hand-made and hard-won destiny of the American people, a story which Glenn Adamson so movingly tells.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved  

Craft: an American History book cover, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.

Introductory Image: Elizabeth Van Horne Clarkson (American, 1771–1852) Honeycomb Quilt, ca. 1830. Cotton: 107 5/8 x 98 1/4 in. (273.4 x 249.6 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. Moore, 1923. # 23.80.75

John Neagle (American, 1796-1865) Pat Lyon at the Forge, 1829. Oil on canvas: 94 1/2 x 68 1/2 in. (240.0 x 174.0 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  # 1842. Gift of the Lyon Family

Unknown Photographer. Elizabeth Keckley, 1861. Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University Archives, Washington D.C.,_1861.png

Elizabeth Keckley (American, 1818-1907) Ball Gown of Mary Todd Lincoln, 1861. Satin,lace and purple velvet (overall material):  60 in x 48 in; 152.4 cm x 121.92 cm. Smithsonian National Museum of American History. ID # Col .MTLDRS.005003 Accession # 70138.  Bequest of Mrs. Julian James

Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868-1952)  Nunipayo [i.e. Nampeyo] Decorating Pottery, ca. 1900. Photographic print.  Edward S. Curtis Collection - # 702 -  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division - Control Number: 2003652744

Irving Rusinow (American, 1915-1990)  Native woodcarver Patrocina Barela, December 1941. (Full caption reads as follows: Taos County, New Mexico. Native woodcarver Patrocina Barela has exhibited at the New York World's Fair and has been written up in Time Magazine.) Photographic print. National Archives at College Park,   NARA record: 5307166,  Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S)

Adelaide Alsop Robineau (American, 1865-1929) Scarab Vase (Apotheosis of the Toiler), 1910:  Porcelain, 16 ⅝ x 6 inches. Everson Museum of Art.  Museum purchase, 1930.