Tuesday, 5 June 2012
Arthur Wesley Dow: declaration of independence
It would probably be a mistake to try and be too exact about Arthur Wesley Dow. Apparently, he never set out to be an artist in the first place and there are also people in the United States who take the line that his work as an educationalist is more important. This will be just a brief look at some of his prints; the man himself, in the end, was no specialist.
He was, though, a man for libraries and museums and took private art classes whilst he was doing other things. He was then encouraged to study in France and left the US in 1884 only to find himself discouraged by the prevailing academic approach to art. I do wonder what he was doing in France because he was there, on and off, for five years, but by his own account he didn't discover the work of Hokusai untill he had returned to Massachusetts in 1885. But then some artists make up a story for themselves about themselves and I have to say I find it hard to believe that he could spend so long in France at the height of the interest in Japanese woodblocks without knowing who finding out who Hokusai was. But let's go on with the tale as it has been told. First off, he went back to his town of Ipswich but soon moved to Boston where he had more opportunity to sell his work. While there, he made his well-known trip to the Boston Public Library where he discovered the work of Hokusai in a book.
He has presented this as a moment of truth. Perhaps it was, but perhaps it wasn't. This led him on to Ernest Fenellosa who was curator of Japanese Art at Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This institution was in the process of building up an important collection, partly based on works that Fenellosa had bought back from Japan himself, having spent years there teaching. The upshot was Fenellosa took on Dow as an assistant and the pair of them set about categorising Japanese visual art. Now here comes my own declaration of independence.
A good deal has been made of his friendship with Fenellosa but so far as his printmaking goes I think the curator of prints at the museum had a bigger effect on Dow. The man we are talking about is Sylvester Koehler and for me he is one of the best examples of print curators at their best. He had been born in Leipzig but had moved to the States as a boy and was eventually offered the job at Boston as a leading figure in the etching revival (and I have to say this isn't independent research). He probably met Dow in Boston but Koehler was only appointed in 1885, the same year Dow took a post at The Pratt Institute in New York.. The following year Fenellosa was dismissed for marrying so soon after his divorce.
That year Koehler was made honorary curator of graphic art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and in 1891 organised an exhibtions of Japanese prints that included print-making equipment and blocks. More to the point, the following year a very helpful report was published by the Smithsonian that basically told you how to make them. And it took all that time for Dow to get round to it. And then he couldn't stop.(And as you will be wondering, the man in the photograph wearing the tam is Dow. I can't remember who the other person is but he is not Fenellosa (and not Koelher either).
Dow was also a keen photographer and is also credited with making some very early linocuts. Now, I like the print below very much, but again I find it hard to credit that Dow could have been making linocuts as early as 1911, the date of this print (called 'Snowy Peak, Los Angeles'). On this one, though, I may be wrong. Dow was at pains to create an American style and he went about this in two ways: by example, and by teaching. For instance, he was tempted from the Pratt in 1904 to be director of the new department of fine arts at the Teacher's College, Columbia University. It's paradoxical, but he was not the only artist to attempt an independant style using art from a very different culture as a model. At the same time artists in Glasgow and Galloway were trying for their own national style partly using the graphic art of Japan as a model, too. It was of course by and large free of associations for them. In a similar way, Claude Flight in the 1920s praised linocut for having no history. It's disingenuous, when you look at the reality - I mean how much they all knew - but who am I to judge? Fortunately, these eloquent little prints here speak for themsleves.