Archive for April, 2014

Callot

April 20, 2014

First, a little history.  In 1625 Spanish mercenaries captured the Dutch protestant stronghold of Breda after a long siege during Holland’s war of independence from Spain.  The Spaniards proceeded to lay the already emaciated town to utter waste.  The savage butchery that ensued scarred victims and victors alike.

The engraver Jacques Callot (1592/3 – 1635) memorialized these events in his “Siege of Breda.”  Callot was known for his depictions of festivals, swagger and pageantry, and for his roaming life style.  He was born in the Alsatian town of Nancy but ran away to Rome at age 12 to study art.  He joined a band of gypsies, and later an aristocrat’s coterie.  After getting busted and sent home he apprenticed to a goldsmith.  Callot worked for the Queen of Spain, Ferdinand I of Tuscany and Cosimo II de Medici in Florence.  He did a stint in the Low Countries to gather materials for his “Breda” etchings, then off to Paris and King Louis XIII.  In 1631 Callot returned to Nancy.

Soon thereafter French forces duplicated the Breda carnage by capturing Callot’s home town.  King Louis requested that Callot engrave this “victory.”  Instead Callot created his masterwork series of 18 prints called “The Miseries and Misfortunes of War.”

The “Miseries” chronicled the arc of a typical soldier’s life.  First, an exciting enrollment into the army.  Then troops randomly slash and pillage their way across the countryside.  Enraged peasants eventually fight back.  Military leaders severely punish the more outrageous brigands.  The soldiers began as noble adventurers but surviving veterans end up as crippled beggars in the street.  In the final scene the King doles out rewards to commanders in preparation for the next war.  There is no redemption here.

The Miseries were almost photographic presentations of events forever etched onto Callot’s psyche.  His depictions of war’s brutality remained unequaled until Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” addressed similar depravities by Napoleonic troops in Goya’s beloved Spain 180 years later.

A remarkable thing about Callot’s Miseries is their size.  The extreme inhumanity people were (are) capable of was displayed for all to see on a minuscule scale.  The largest are about 3 x 6 inches.  Callot seemed intent on throwing war’s bloated, oversized significance back into it’s face…

Meanwhile in the European porcelain and faience world, decorators for the next hundred years were inspired by Callot’s pretty etchings of foppish gallants.

Columbine and Pantaloon  Meissen 1741

Reading:
The Indignant Eye, The Artist as Social Critic in Prints and Drawings from the 15th Century to Picasso.  Ralph Shikes.  Beacon Press/Boston.  1969.

 

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The Day the World Shrank

April 6, 2014

Before the internet, before the global village, before most people even thought of the planet as a whole, there was Mexican majolica.  The Talavera workshops of Puebla, Mexico produced tin glazed pottery which included the world’s first global imagery.

Potters from Seville, Spain began wheel thrown, glazed pottery in Puebla around 1520.  Everything needed for tin glazing could be found nearby.  This new pottery activity was a ‘men only’ club unlike ‘campesino’ pottery made primarily by women.  Local assistants were trained from scratch.  Most of the extremely talented native potters had been killed (as part of the Aztec literati, they were doomed to extinction).

Mexico was a transit hub for colonial riches flowing from the Pacific to metropolitan Spain.  As such, large shipments of Chinese export porcelain passed through Mexico.  Mexicans were crazy for blue and white.  Talavera’s “refined” ware intentionally imitated the Chinese.

The influence of three continents and four cultures could be seen on Puebla majolica.  Islamic aesthetics encouraged filling the whole space with designs.  European “Istorio” designs focused on narrative stories.  Decorative frills defined the Chinese influence.  And local flora and fauna, such as cacti and jaguars, provided ready inspiration to Mexican potters.  All this on one blue and white surface.  And all this a hundred years before Chinese potteries began slavishly reproducing European designs, or European potteries began slavishly copying Chinese designs.

Things progressed so well that Puebla’s potters formed a guild in 1653.  The Potters Guild regulated production, quality control, sales and (curiously) penalties for counterfeiting.  The Guild folded 100 years later but it’s rules influenced production up to the early 19th century.

Mexicans loved their blue and white majolica.  They especially loved drinking chocolate from majolica mugs.  Well-to-do 18th century Mexican women obsessively drank chocolate from these colorful mugs everywhere and at all times.  But there were limits.  A decree had to be passed banning chocolate drinks in church during masses.

Those ladies’ world must have shrunk a little on that sad day.

Chocolatera, Puebla, early 18th CenturyChocolatero, Puebla, early 18th century.

Readings:

Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

The Emily Johnston De Forest Collection of Mexican Maiolica.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Hispanic Society of America/New York.  1911.