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contemporary art

A Recent Addition to “The World Stage: Brazil”

Kehinde Wiley, "Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Oil on canvas.

Kehinde Wiley, “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017. Oil on canvas. Photo taken by the author

Last month I visited the Portland Art Museum and saw a painting by Kehinde Wiley that I hadn’t seen before. This painting is currently on display as a loan from the collection of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer, major philanthropists in the area (Harold passed away in 2011). I already was familiar with Wiley’s series called The World Stage that feature people from countries around the world, but I wasn’t familiar with this one that comes from the Brazil installment of The World Stage. And as I’ve studied this work, I realized that this painting was made fairly recently, in 2017, almost ten years after the initial series was begun and exhibited. The painting isn’t listed as part of Wiley’s Brazil series, and I wonder why Wiley decided to create this painting so much later. Did he have all of the source material and photos of the model from before, but simply ran out of time to start this painting until almost a decade later?

Wiley began this project through a residency in Rio de Janeiro in March 2008 and exhibited the installation in 2009. At the time, a short book was published with two essays and images of the exhibition painting, and similar books were produced for other installments of The World Stage. The exhibition aimed to draw attention to issues of Afro-Brazilian identity and the complex and problematic social issues created due to the history of slavery and colonialism in Brazil. As a result, Wiley’s Afro-Brazilian figures are positioned in compositions that are reminiscent of famous paintings and monuments in Brazilian culture. Here are a few examples:

  • Wiley’s painting “Omen Negro (Black Man)” refers to a watercolor by the German artist Zacharias Wagener (who was in Brazil when the Dutch were there). Ironically, Wagener’s watercolor is actually a copy of another painting titled “African Man” by Albert Eckhout, so there are multiply layers of copying and appropriation that are taking place. Furthermore, the title of this work seems have layers of appropriation and inadvertent spelling corruption: Wiley’s phrase “Omen Negro” is a corruption of Wagener’s title “Omem Negro,” which itself is a corruption of the accurate Portuguese phrase “homem negro” (“black man”).
  • Wiley’s painting “Marechal Floriano Peixoto” copies the composition of a monument in Cindelândia’s public square in Rio de Janiero. The monument honors the second president of the Republic, Floriano Peixoto, but these two particular figures represent the indigenous people of Brazil. The inclusion of these active, strong figures and their composition alludes to the colonial presence in Brazil and the subjugation of the native presence by the Portuguese. Other allegorical figures in the monument recognize the African, Portuguese, and Catholic aspects of Brazilian history.
  • Wiley’s “Alegoria a Lei do Ventre Livre” is inspired by a gesso sculpture by A. D. Bressae of the same title. Kimberly Cleveland explains that this allegorical figure is an reference to the 1871 law which declared that the children who were born to slave parents would be free. She writes, “The irony of this law is suggested in the less-than-enthusiastic expression of Wiley’s model,” but absent from the original, nineteenth-century sculpture” of a smiling boy.1
  • Wiley has multiple paintings (see one, two and three) dedicated to Alberto Santos Dumont, an innovator in aviation. The compositions for these paintings come from a monument honoring Dumont, located outside of the Dumont airport in Rio.

The influence of Brazilian monuments on the composition brings me back to the new Kehinde Wiley addition to this series: this 2017 painting is inspired by a monument of Cuauhtemoc that is located in the Parque do Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro.

Left: Kehinde Wiley, "Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Right: Monument to the Indio Cuauhtemoc in Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Left: Kehinde Wiley, “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017 (photo taken by the author). Right: Monument to the Indio Cuauhtemoc in Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy Wikipedia

The monument itself is a bizarre connection to Brazil, because is quite oblique. The statue is in Brazil because it was a gift from Mexico in 1922, to recognize the 100th anniversary of the Brazilians’ independence from Portugal in 1822. The statue depicts Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor, who ruled between 1520-1521 and then was executed by the Spanish. Perhaps there is a loose parallel between the end of an indigenous empire and the end of a colonial period, but it is a little bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, the sculpture is seen as a symbol of friendship between Mexico and Brazil.

By assuming the same composition as the Cuauhtemoc sculpture in Brazil, which is itself a copy of an original 1887 sculpture by Miguel Noreña in Mexico City, Wiley’s painting continues to add layers of appropriation and meaning. One theme is of connections and friendships between countries, since Wiley, as an American painter, took temporary residence in Brazil and painted Brazilian subjects. By depicting an Afro-Brazilian model, Wiley also touches on colonial history and those who were conquered and subjugated by Europeans, Africans and Aztecs alike.

Kehinde Wiley, detail of "Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Oil on canvas

Kehinde Wiley, detail of “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017. Oil on canvas. Photo taken by the author

Kehinde Wiley, detail of "Indio Cuauhtemoc-The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Oil on canvas

Kehinde Wiley, detail of “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017. Oil on canvas. Photo taken by the author

The casual clothing of Wiley’s subject allude to commodifications by referencing popular (American) fashion and culture. In addition, the bright colors and thriving flowers also connect to Western commodification, suggesting how “the exotic” is a Western construct that has been fetishized and desired. The inspiration for at least one backgrounds in the series came from textiles found at the Sahara market in Rio, and perhaps this design may have been found in a similar place.2 I noticed that Wiley used this same floral background in a study for a painting called “Sidney da Rodra, Jr.” (2008), but it doesn’t appear in the final version, and a detailed image of this same floral background appears as an unlabeled plate at the beginning of the World Series: Brazil book.So Wiley was thinking about this background during this project and studying it, even though this painting wasn’t made (or perhaps finished?) until 2017.

The layered appearance of human figures and decorative patterns in Wiley’s paintings are an appropriate visual reminder of the layers of meaning and appropriation. Typically, Wiley’s paintings have a few elements from the background which extend out of their pattern to partially cover the clothing of the subject. This can be seen best on the t-shirt and the shorts of the “Indio Cuauhtemoc” figure by Wiley, which are partially covered with flowers. Such layers remind us that, despite the real life issues that Wiley addresses, he has presented them to us in a fictive environment to remind us that all the world is a stage and his “streetcast” models are actors.

1 Kimberly Cleveland, “Kehinde Wiley’s Brazil: The Past Against the Future” in Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage: Brazil by Kehinde Wiley (Roberts & Tilton, 2009), 26.

2 Kehinde Wiley, Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage: Brazil (Roberts & Tilton, 2009), 12.

3 Ibid., 4, 45.

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Wiley and Morris at the St Louis Art Museum

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The radio silence on my blog has been deafening for me, but luckily I’ve been able to do some writing over the past few months. The William Morris Society in the United States contacted me a few months ago, after reading my 2016 post on Kehinde Wiley and William Morris. I expanded this initial post into a new one for their “News from Anywhere” webpage with updated information about a current Kehinde Wiley show at the Saint Louis Art Museum. And check out the gorgeous catalog cover for the exhibition!

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Flora Forager’s Fresh Flowers: Fantastic and Iconic Images

Flora Forager, “Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night,'” 2016. Billy buttons, blueberry, chrysanthemum, hydrangea, lavender, sunflower. Used with permission from Bridget Beth Collins (Flora Forager).

Last week I had the opportunity to interview Bridget Beth Collins, a Seattle-based artist who creates gorgeous collages out of flowers, leaves, and other botanical items like pinecones, mushrooms, fruit and seeds. Collins works under the pseudonym of “Flora Forager” since her collages often consist of botanical elements found in her garden or the green areas surrounding her Seattle-based home. Just last month, her book The Art of Flora Forager was released, and it is such a delight to see and read! I really am thrilled about this book. Similarly, it was a real pleasure for me to meet Bridget in person, since I automatically feel a true affinity with people who love flowers, juvenile fantasy fiction, and (as I discovered in the course of our conversation) old murder mystery television series.

Ever since I became familiar with Flora Forager’s work on Instagram earlier this year, I’ve been charmed with her creative subject matter, the novelty of her compositions, and also her unusual choice of medium. Flora Forager’s whimsical collages depict things like animals, insects, woodland fantasy scenes, mandalas, star constellations, portraits of iconic women, and even copies of famous masterpieces. In concept, her collages might remind one of colonial feather paintings or even Grace Kelly’s pressed flower collages. However, in the course of my conversation with Bridget, it became apparent that her work is very different from Grace Kelly’s flowers, even if sometimes their compositions are loosely similar (compare Grace Kelly’s geometric patterns with one of Flora Forager’s mandalas).

Mother and Child

Flora Forager, “Klimt’s ‘Mother and Child,'”, 2015. Aster, chrysanthemum, dahlia, lacecap hydrangea, lilac, pansy, Peruvian lily, pumpkin vine, sunflower. Used with permission from Bridget Beth Collins (Flora Forager).

In contrast to Grace Kelly, Bridget does not like to work with dried or pressed flowers. As we spoke, it was apparent that the three-dimensional quality of the fresh flowers is important to her. She wants to her flowers to have bulk and form as they are layered and arranged, to the point that she is mindful of the shadows that are created: she consistently photographs her work from the same location on her white dining room table, so that all of the shadows fall to the left.1 She also wants to make sure that the shadows are soft and comely, and she commented that the cloudy skies of Seattle create perfect lighting for the effect she wants to capture.2

This interest in softly modeled three-dimensional collages is really revealing to me, because I think it helps to explain why Flora Forager’s representational collages are so delightful and impactful: the three-dimensional forms and fresh flowers create a sense of plausibility and give a lively presence to something that might not actually exist in reality. For example, a three-dimensional rendering makes a fantasy scene (such as this one or this one) seem more palpable, and therefore endearing, to an escapist viewer. Such fantastic escapes and whimsical storybook tales are just within reach! And not only are they rendered possible because the collages are three-dimensional, but they are created with found objects that are easily identifiable and readily found to the viewer. In a sense, her art suggests that fantasy is embedded within the everyday world around us.

Screen shot Hokusai

Flora Forager, “Hokusai’s ‘Under the Wave Off Kanagawa,” 2015. Bluebell, California lilac, cherry blossom, narcissus, pixie’s parasol mushroom, purple sage, rhododendron, tansy. Used with permission from Bridget Beth Collins (Flora Forager).

In a related way, I think that the three-dimensional fresh flowers also affect the way that the viewer reacts to Flora Forager’s copies of famous masterpieces or portraits of iconic women (like Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe). On one hand, the three-dimensional forms and botanical media give an iconic image or iconic person a new sense of presence and life: we can look at familiar objects or faces in a new way. But I think that the fresh flowers also help to reinforce the iconic, timeless status of these familiar objects too. When flowers and leaves are captured as fresh and pristine in a photograph, these natural elements become immortalized in the same way that iconic images have been cemented in their well-known celebrity status. As a result, we have timeless flowers that won’t fade, similar to iconic images that don’t dissipate from cultural memory.

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Flora Forager, “Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa,” 2016. Chrysanthemum, dahlia, lamb’s ear, lavender, pinecone, red maple leaf. Used with permission from Bridget Beth Collins (Flora Forager).

I’m reminded of a quote contrasting long-lasting, iconic works of art to flowers:

“Works of art often last forever, or nearly so. But exhibitions themselves, especially gallery exhibitions, are like flowers; they bloom and then they die, then exist only as memories, or pressed in magazines and books.” – Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine

What Flora Forager does so well is belie the inevitable death of nature: her camera captures flowers and leaves while they are fresh and vibrant, and uses that vibrancy to her advantage to reinforce that an iconic work of art can “last forever” or that a famous celebrity is, indeed, immortal.

Flora Forager, Botticelli

Flora Forager, “Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus,'” 2016. Carnation, chrysanthemum, daisy, goldenrod, Lenten rose, marsh rosemary, sunflower, tulip, woolly lavender. Used with permission from Bridget Beth Collins (Flora Forager).

For anyone who is interested, please follow Flora Forager on Instagram and see her print shop. In addition to The Art of Flora Forager book, Bridget Beth Collins has also created Flora Forager: A Seasonal Journal Collected from Nature. She anticipates the publication of another journal titled Metamorphosis in 2018.

1 Bridget Beth Collins, interview with author. Seattle, October 5, 2017.

2 Ibid.

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Fragonard’s “The Swing” and “Portrait of a Lady”

Fragonard, "The Swing," 1766. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Fragonard, “The Swing,” 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Tonight I am feeling very sheepish. About three or four months ago, a student mentioned to me that Fragonard’s The Swing served as a point of inspiration for “Portrait of a Lady.” I found a copy of Henry James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady a few days later. Now, after reading 660+ pages and finishing the book, I was left rather confused as to what my student meant, so I went online to read some commentary. Only then did I realize that my student was referring to William Carlos Williams’ poem “Portrait of a Lady” and not the Henry James novel! I don’t regret reading lengthy book at all, but I feel less confused and won’t try to dwell on which suitors are courting Isabel Archer (or perhaps Pansy?) in this Fragonard painting anymore!

Instead, the William Carlos Williams poem has very direct references to Rococo art and painters. This is the poem, which was first published in The Dial in 1920:

Your thighs are apple trees

whose blossoms touch the sky.

Which sky? The sky where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper.

Your knees are a southern breeze — or

a gust of snow. Agh! what

sort of a man was Fragonard?

— As if that answered

anything. –Ah, yes. Below

the knees, since the tune drops that way, it is one of those white summer days,

the tall grass of your ankles

flickers upon the shore —

Which shore?

Agh, petals maybe. How

should I know?

Which shore? Which shore?

–the petals from some hidden

apple tree — Which shore?

I said petals from an apple tree.

I’ve been reading commentary, scholarly interpretations, and watching a short lecture segment (though disregard some of the art historical commentary in the video, since it is a bit inaccurate) on this poem, and thinking about how this poem encapsulates the difficulties of poetic words and conventions in terms of expression. The poem seems to show the problems which poets can face, especially since there are two voices which interrupt the flow of the expressive content. There are even other exclamations which disrupt the flow, too: the first “agh!” may have been exclaimed when the speaker realized that he meant to say “Fragonard” instead of “Watteau” when first referencing to the artist of The Swing.1

Given the historical context of his poem and how the disjointed style of the poem is interpreted as a precursor to postmodernism, interesting to me that these two Rococo artists were mentioned. Watteau is the earlier of the two artists, and he really served as a pioneer for the Rococo style. On one hand, Watteau’s art can be interpreted as expressing conflicting emotions and voices (the subject matter of his artistic output is associated with pleasure and sadness, perhaps typified in his comedia dell’art painting Italian Players from 1720), which parallels the disjointed and interrupted conversation of the speakers in the poem.2 Watteau also was a bit of a radical artist for his time, since his “fete galante” paintings of the aristocracy did not fit the conventional requirements for academic history paintings, and this unconventional approach to art mirrors the unconventional form of disjointed expression in Williams’ poem.3

Fragonard, detail of "The Swing," 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Fragonard, detail of “The Swing,” 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Obviously, Williams was considering the themes like love and eroticism when he made a reference to Fragonard’s The Swing, since a woman is accompanied by two suitors and she kicks off her shoe (and reveals what is underneath her dress) at the suitor who is hidden in the bushes. Fragonard is a later Rococo artist who followed in Watteau’s wake, and I think his socially-accepted painting style and traditional career don’t have the same parallels to the radical style of poetry that Williams used. However, from a compositional standpoint, I like how compositional lines meander through the painting (such as the branch which zig-zags in the upper left corner, see above); these visual lines complement the nonlinear, back-and-forth voices presented in the poem.

Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (after Fragonard)', 2001. Tate Modern

Yinka Shonibare, “The Swing (after Fragonard),” 2001. Tate Modern

Really, I think the best work of art today that encompasses Williams’ poem is Yinka Shinobare’s installation “The Swing (after Fragonard)” from the Tate Modern. Since the Fragonard painting has become iconic, Shinobare’s composition is familiar to the viewer but also strange: the tree lacks a trunk and the principal subject lacks a head. This familiar-and-strange reaction is similar to what is conveyed through Williams’ poem, since the poem attempts to reference the traditional language of poetry (like using a metaphor about an apple tree), but the metaphors are intentionally used in an ineffective way. Since Shinobare intentionally omits aspects of Fragonard’s composition, this disjointed appearance mirrors the disjointed flow of Williams’ poem.

Shinobare detail

Yinka Shonibare, detail of “The Swing (after Fragonard),” 2001. Tate Modern

The skin of Shinobare’s model is also dark and she wears a print that references African textiles which have a complex global history regarding colonial production and international consumption. These references to the complexities of globalization and visually acknowledging multiple voices seems to be a fitting parallel with how Williams’ poem is seen in relation to postmodernism – a movement which accepts the multiplicities of meanings and perspectives.

Do you see any other parallels between Williams’ poem and either the Fragonard painting or Shinobare’s installation?

1 See Thomas Dilworth, “On ‘Portrait of a Lady,'” The Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998). Available online: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/williams/lady.htm

2 For more information on how Watteau’s art is associated with conflicting emotions and interpretations, see Linda Walsh, “Subjects, Society, Style: Changing Evaluations of Watteau and His Art” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (Open University Press, 1999), 220-248.

3 Ibid., 235-238.

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Kehinde Wiley and William Morris

My different art experiences are colliding this week in an unusual way. This past weekend I went and saw the exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at the Seattle Art Museum. And then, just today I taught my students about some of the designs that appear in William Morris’s wallpaper. When I got home this afternoon, I began to think about how some of William Morris’s work is referenced in a few of Kehinde Wiley’s paintings that I saw on display.

Kehinde Wiley, "St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness," 2013

Kehinde Wiley, “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness” from “The World Stage: Jamaica series 2013

For example, the background design in Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness is clearly referencing a William Morris print of birds and irises. As someone who loves William Morris’s designs, I would have liked to have seen this references explored a little more clearly. A review of this same exhibition from last year (when it was at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) also suggested that mentioning the origins of the backgrounds in Wiley’s paintings would strengthen the show.

Kehinde Wiley, "Mrs. Siddons from the series 'An Economy of Grace,'" 2012. Oil on canvas

Kehinde Wiley, Mrs. Siddons from the series ‘An Economy of Grace,'” 2012. Oil on canvas

The reference to William Morris was most clearly pointed out to me in the portrait of Mrs. Siddons; the pattern is clearly inspired by the Blackthorn block-printed wallpaper that Morris designed in 1882.

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Kehinde Wiley, “Mrs. Siddons from the series ‘An Economy of Grace,'” 2012. Oil on canvas

It seems like there are several reasons for why Kehinde Wiley chooses to reference William Morris’s designs in some of his paintings. On one hand, Wiley’s compositions and designs are trying to draw awareness to the realm of history and art history, not only with the decorative motifs but the way the figure is represented (the female figure’s position which looks away from the viewer reminds me of depictions of the penitent Magdalene by George de la Tour).

In past centuries, fine art was typically associated with white Europeans and refinement. Wiley wants to challenge the idea that fine art and statements of cultural refinement are limited to a specific race; he does this by referencing European artistic traditions in his portraits of black people. To help emphasize his point, Wiley draws inspiration from Morris’s wallpaper designs, since they are associated with taste and the high-quality production surrounding the Arts & Crafts movement. In the exhibition catalog for this show, Annie Paul explains that Wiley creates “decorative backgrounds [which are] inspired by the English designer William Morris, who wove images from botany and zoology into intricate patterns signifying taste and discrimination.”It seems like Wiley occasionally uses Morris’s designs to reference English history and colonialism, too. For example, the inclusion of a Morris print in St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (shown above) references the past colonial presence of the English in Jamaica.

So, Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of black figures, which contain visual references to European history and European art, call for attention and help to create a new vision of contemporary black identity and presence. Holland Cotter, in reviewing a 2005 exhibition of Wiley’s work, asserted as much by saying that Wiley “is a history painter. . . . By this I mean that he creates history as much as tells it.”2

And what would William Morris think about his imagery being utilized in this way? I think that he would be quite pleased: Morris was a socialist who wanted to bring about a change in the art world and society. William Morris felt like the arts, particularly the decorative arts, “were ‘sick’ as a consequence of the split between intellectual and mechanical work that occurred during the Renaissance.”3 Perhaps in a similar vein, Kehinde Wiley seeks to bind together racial divides and “heal” stereotypical assumptions about what constitutes art and portraiture.

So when Wiley’s paintings are considered in terms of social unity, Morris’s designs are very appropriate. Art historian Caroline Arscott has analyzed Morris’s designs in relation to the social climate of his day, finding that the designs “imagine an overcoming of social contradictions in an allegory performed ‘through the twists and turns of plants.’ In this way his aesthetic stands as a powerful equivalent for the recovered wholeness of men and women, of their relations to their fellows and to nature.”4 In many ways, Wiley is also suggesting similar themes of “wholeness” by binding different cultures together within his paintings. It isn’t surprising, then, that Wiley is inspired by designs of plants which repeatedly interconnect, wind, and bind themselves to each other.

1 Holland Cotter, “Art in Review: Kehinde Wiley,” New York Times, December 9, 2005.

2 Eugenie Tsai, ed., Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2015), 146. 

3 Steve Edwards, “Victorian Britain: From Images of Modernity to the Modernity of Images,” in Art and Visual Culture 1850-2010 by Steve Edwards and Paul Wood, eds. (London: Tate Publishing 2012), p. 81.

4 Ibid., 81.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.