Fine Bonsai: Odori (The Dance)

Sargent Juniper (Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii)
Poetic name: Odori
Size: 27 in. (69 cm) tall
Estimated age: 250 years
Collection: Masahiko Kimura, Saitama City, Japan
Image from Fine Bonsai, published by Abbeville Press

Bonsai, as a living art, can never be completed: it is always changing and adapting as it struggles and thrives. As William N. Valavanis puts it in his introduction to Fine Bonsai, released last fall by Abbeville Press, “It is a living work of art, something that is born and lives, is affected by humans, and ultimately dies.” A bonsai can survive for centuries—it is a work of art created and refined over generations, and many artists may contribute to a single specimen. Because of this, Valavanis attests, “bonsai affords us insight into the very nature of life itself.”

The vitality of bonsai is expressed in exquisite grace in Jonathan Singer’s photography, and Fine Bonsai includes three hundred stunning, full-color images, including a range of wonderfully diverse species and styles. Many of the bonsai Singer photographed for this collection have been alive for hundreds of years, with a few rare subjects estimated to be as many as 800 years old—truly majestic and, in Singer’s words, “almost mythical” examples of the art of bonsai.

Viewing these legendary bonsai through Singer’s singular lens gets us as close as possible—or closer, considering the incredible larger-than-life detail of the images—to the real thing, which is, according to Valavanis, an unforgettable experience:

When one looks at some of the masterpiece trees that have survived for hundreds of years, it is impossible not to be moved by their vigor and life force. Such trees have outlived generations of humans and passed through many hands, seeing different artists come and go, each leaving his or her individual aesthetic influence on the tree.

Just take, for example, the elegance of the aptly named bonsai Odori, meaning the Dance. Sargent Juniper is a popular choice for bonsai cultivation because of its fine foliage and the striking color contrast between the living and the dead wood. Here, the strip of red-brown bark—its living tissue—is the lifeline of the bonsai, allowing it to take in water and nutrients, while the dead, white wood provides an almost sculptural element. Singer’s choice to include three images, from three different angles of this bonsai, allows us to see not only its poise, but also, as the eye moves from one image to the next, the movement of a dance.

“This masterpiece, shown in three views, demonstrates how a heavy-appearing bonsai can become an elegant and refined work of art through the hands of a master such as Masahiko Kimura.”

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Click here for more information on Fine Bonsai, published by Abbeville Press.

The History of Gardens in Painting: Monet’s Garden at Giverny

Claude Monet
Iris Bed in Monet’s Garden, 1900
Oil on canvas, 31 7⁄8 × 36 3⁄16 in. (81x 92 cm)
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Image from The History of Gardens in Painting, published by Abbeville Press

“My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece,” Claude Monet said, and if his paintings from his years in Giverny are any indication, then it is easy to believe him. We’d like to count his paintings, too, as part and parcel to that masterpiece, and Iris Bed in Monet’s Garden is a sublime example. The presentation of the bright beds, full to bursting with spring irises, stretching in straight lines out from the house toward the viewer, reveal his sensitivity to composition in the garden and on the canvas. Monet worked in plein air during his first years at Giverny, in the 1880s and 1890s, and it was in his garden there that he developed the layouts and motifs that he would express in his paintings.

In The History of Gardens in Painting, published by Abbeville Press, Nils Büttner presents Monet and many other Impressionists in the context of their time—and he shows how they radically altered the traditional role of the subject of gardens in art. No longer necessary were the symbolic meanings and allegorical instruction, and instead the mood and the emotion of a composition became essential. But we’ll let our author explain:

Once painting was liberated from form, the mere representation of recognizable objects was no longer the purpose of art; it became instead a medium through which one could experience visual pleasure. The pure artistry developed in Monet’s pictures and those of the Impressionists developed a dynamic of its own, one that caused objectivity to retreat into the background in favor of a total focus on artistic subjectivity.

The visual pleasure is indeed satisfying in Monet’s garden paintings from Giverny, as they satiate the eye with color and light. Through his experimentation with techniques of paint application, background color, and brushstroke, Monet produced an oeuvre that has captured the evanescence of the mood of the garden in bloom.

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Click here for more information on The History of Gardens in Painting, published by Abbeville Press.

A Garden of Paradise

Anonymous, Upper Rhine
Garden of Paradise, c. 1410–20
Oil and tempera on wood, 10 3⁄8 × 13 1⁄8 in. (26.3 × 33.4 cm)
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
Image from The History of Gardens in Painting, published by Abbeville Press

“But why do people paint gardens?” Nils Büttner asks in his introduction to The History of Gardens in Painting, published by Abbeville Press. His answer—which he details throughout the book, illuminated by his generous selection of images—is comprehensive and manifold. Büttner traces the lineage of the subject, and shows how, in paintings, gardens may be used to create visual metaphors, to illustrate religious concepts and moral allegories, or to detail horticultural knowledge. Or, a painting may record a specific garden and its cultural or historical significance, or communicate its owner’s prestige. Of course, a painting may simply represent a garden’s momentary beauty, and in all cases, the garden is a subject for the viewer to enjoy—pleasing to look at and to reflect on.

The anonymous fifteenth century Garden of Paradise above is an unusual example from its time. Within the walled garden that symbolizes Mary’s virginity, the Christian allegory of salvation is portrayed in exquisite—and unusual—detail, which gives the composition its appeal as a work of art. Additionally, the plants and flowers in this enclosed world of the flourishing garden are painted with such accuracy that they can each be identified, along with the birds (twelve kinds!) and insects. Büttner identifies many of the flowers, and he notes: “The plants symbolize timelessness, for all are in full bloom at once: peonies, lilies, lilies of the valley, carnations, columbines, and primroses.”

One small detail, however, caught our attention as not quite as realistic as the foliage: that tiny dragon! However, according to Büttner:

Nothing illustrates the idyllic nature of the picture more vividly than the little dragon, scarcely larger than a dachshund, that serves as an attribute for Saint George. Possibly the most pitiable dragon in Western art, it is lying, quite dead, on its back.

Setting aside for the moment the plausibility of the fauna, we’ll simply remark on our admiration of the skill of the painter—such that we can identify even the patch of periwinkle that this poor little dragon has died upon. Such precision! The choice of periwinkle, too, is accurate, as it was considered a protection against evil, showing us that everything in the painting is in its place.

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Click here for more information on The History of Gardens in Painting, published by Abbeville Press.

The History of Gardens in Painting: Brueghel’s Spring

Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564/65–1637/38)
Spring (between 1622–35)
Oil on wood, 16 15⁄16 × 23 1⁄4 in. (43 × 59 cm)
Muzeul National de Arta, Bucharest, Romania
Image from The History of Gardens in Painting, published by Abbeville Press.

Hard work in the garden is just beginning to pay off this season, and community gardens—much like the one Pieter Brueghel the Younger depicted almost four centuries ago—provide a welcome sanctuary in any urban landscape. Community gardens help to bring neighbors together in a shared sense of commitment to the land, and after the long winter (doesn’t every winter feel long, after all?) it’s always a pleasure to get out of the house for a little exercise to get the blood flowing, and what better way to do so than by helping out in the garden—preparing plots, planting the first seeds, and tending the beds. It’s no wonder the subject in painting has been around so long!

Gardens have been around just about as long as the earliest civilizations, and their changing symbolism and significance in works of art during the last two millennia reveals a fascinating cultural history. Art historian Nils Büttner tracks that history in his magnificent book The History of Gardens in Painting, published by Abbeville Press, which includes 180 gorgeously reproduced paintings, spanning from antiquity through to the twentieth century. As Büttner tells the story:

“Cultivation of crops and the creation of gardens were among the first achievements of human culture, and garden design was already highly developed in the great cultures of antiquity. As works of art, gardens were both fragile and evanescent, thanks to the eternal natural cycle of growth and decay.”

By the time Pieter Brueghel the Younger inherited his workshop from his father, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, garden paintings depicting seasonal labor were quite popular, and paintings on walls or wood panels were a good alternative to more expensive tapestries. Brueghel’s Spring was in high demand: as many as twenty-four versions of the painting still survive today, and the composition with its timeless themes of community, hard work, and renewal, continues to inspire and delight.

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Click here for more information on The History of Gardens in Painting, published by Abbeville Press.

Eve Sonneman: A Spring Diptych

Eve Sonneman (born 1946).
Beatrice Wyatt’s Rock Garden: Rocks and Magnolia, 1988.
Cibachrome diptypch.
Courtesy of Zabriskie Gallery, New York.
Image from A History of Women Photographers, published by Abbeville Press.

Much more than Beatrice Wyatt and her rock garden comes to life in this diptych by Eve Sonneman: in its juxtaposition of two moments and two perspectives, the subject becomes the dynamic moment, and what is preserved suggests what is lost. The magnolia tree in full bloom pairs with the color of the painted stones, enriching the subtle narrative of transience and permanence.

If you’ve ever seen a magnolia tree come into flower (and we hope you’ve had the pleasure) you know it happens suddenly, almost explosively, and that the blooms last for only a few short weeks once a tree begins to blossom—and here, Sonneman’s choice of season for the piece is essential to its emotional and thematic tone. This week at the Abbeville Blog, (in case you haven’t noticed…) we’ve been celebrating—and we’ll be celebrating more!—the season of spring that is now burgeoning around us, and this portrait portrays the woman, the garden, and the moment, in vivid full bloom.

In Abbeville’s A History of Women Photographers, scholar, curator, and author Naomi Rosenblum discusses the role women have played in developing new concepts and ideas for expression in photography as an art form, and she observes: “By mounting side by side two images of the same subject taken at different times or from slightly different vantage points, Eve Sonneman suggests that no single view of reality should be considered more truthful than any other.” Beatrice Wyatt’s Rock Garden: Rocks and Magnolia expresses just that: the experience of the garden and of the image is individual and fleeting, even as it presses our senses with its sparkling pastels, evocative and vital.

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Click here for more information on A History of Women Photographers, published by Abbeville Press.

A History of Women Photographers: Grace Robertson

Grace Robertson (born 1930).
Pub Outing, 1954.
Gelatin silver print.
Image from A History of Women Photographers, published by Abbeville Press.

“I drank with the first women for four nights in the pub,” Grace Robertson recalled in an interview, speaking about the pub outings of Clapham and Bermondsey to the seaside, which she accompanied on assignment in the 1950s to document for the Picture Post. She goes on: “They clearly thought, ‘Mmmmm, we’ll soon have her under the table.’ But they didn’t know me. In those days I spent my time with a lot of male journalists. I couldn’t be drunk under the table.” Now, some of Grace Robertson’s most famous images are those of London ladies enjoying their pub outing by doing a conga line, going on a roller coaster, or, as in the image above, just plain having a good time, frolicking and enjoying the spring air.

In the 1950s, women photojournalists were relatively rare, and they faced difficulties competing with their male colleagues. In her remarkable survey, A History of Women Photographers, published by Abbeville Press, Naomi Rosenblum details those difficulties and she examines women’s experience in the field of photojournalism from World War II through the end of the twentieth century. Grace Robertson worked during a time when commissions were typically given on other women and on minority groups, which Rosenblum points out were “topics considered less important by assigning editors.” That said, the work on these themes, by women such as Robertson, held a wide appeal, and their images still resonate with audiences today.

This is just one story from many that Rosenblum presents, and A History of Women Photographers spans the history of the art form, from the nineteenth all the way through into the twenty-first century. She includes work from hundreds of women photographers—including amateurs, professionals, portraitists, artists, and photojournalists—along with an insightful treatment in the text of the lives and livelihoods of these women, and the role they play in the history of photography. As Rosenblum points out in her introduction, women have been slighted in historical surveys and anthologies of the genre. Many anthologies have displayed a misleadingly small percentage of work by women—often as low as ten to fifteen percent, and sometimes less, in a given collection—and A History of Women Photographers begins to repair the serious gender imbalance. Here is a source, perceptively curated, that reveals women’s rich history behind the lens.

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Click here for more information on A History of Women Photographers, published by Abbeville Press.

Anna Atkins: An Early Cyanotype Impression

Anna Atkins (1799-1871).
Papaver rhoeas. Paper watermarked 1845.
Cyanotype from the Atkins-Dixon album presented by Anne Dixon to her nephew in 1861.
Image from A History of Women Photographers, published by Abbeville Press.

It’s April first (happy April!), which might raise some readers’ suspicions about the sincerity of today’s post, but here at Abbeville, we’re so caught up in the joie de vivre of spring, that we can’t possibly get distracted by trying to pull pranks! This week at the Blog, we’re continuing to celebrate our new favorite season, along with the appearance and the spirit of spring in art—and we’re starting with a remarkable image from A History of Women Photographers, published by Abbeville Press. Anna Atkins’ cyanotype Papaver rhoeas is noteworthy not only for the image itself but also because of the history it represents, that of Atkins’ work in documenting botanical specimens.

The procedure for making cyanotype prints was discovered in 1842, by John Herschel, who was a family friend of Atkins; she started making photograms using the technology soon after, and in 1843 she privately published part one of her first book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, which is considered the first published book to include photographic images, and marked the beginning of her ambitious project to record all known species of algae in the British Isles. Atkins’ early work established photography as a superior medium for scientific illustration—it was more accurate and less time consuming than traditional drawings by hand.

It’s evident from Atkins’ Papaver rhoeas (a.k.a. field poppy) that the value of her illustrations extends beyond their scientific purposes, and her sense of composition is subtle and artistic. Curator and scholar Naomi Rosenblum, in A History of Women Photographers, discusses the significance of Atkins’ innovations in both the scientific and the artistic spheres, and she comments: “Besides its scientific dimension, Atkin’s oeuvre demonstrates a fine sense of visual composition. Her work is a testament to the great appeal to women of a pictorial process that called into play both scientific and aesthetic intelligence.” In Papaver rhoeas, the intense blue of the cyanotype adds to the compositional tone of the image, which—with the delicate transparency of the petals contrasted with the starker, solid buds and leaves—brings together the fleeting nature of the moment and the promise of return.

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Click here for more information on A History of Women Photographers, published by Abbeville Press.

Good Friday and Happy Easter: Calla Lilies!

Calla Lily
Araceae, Aroid Family, South Africa
Rhizomatous herb to 6 ft. (2 m), tall, inflorescence to 8 in. (20 cm) across
from Botanica Magnifica, by Jonathan Singer, published by Abbeville Press

It’s a big weekend coming up for Calla lilies: Easter lilies, along with Easter bunnies and Easter eggs and Easter chicks, have become emblematic of the holiday and of the season of spring. Although the Calla lily is not a true lily—it’s part of the Araceae family, native to southern Africa—its characteristic pure white spathe (the petal-like cup of the flower) and yellow spadix (the stem at the center of what is actually an inflorescence of many flowers) give this flower its classic look. Jonathan Singer’s Calla lily, from his gorgeous collection Botanica Magnifica, published by Abbeville Press (and now newly available in a Tiny Folio edition!), is a perfect example of the natural elegance of this spring flower.

Of course, Calla lilies aren’t just for Easter. The thick stem allows for almost-sculptural arrangement by floral artists. In his informative text in Botanica Magnifica, Marc Hachadourian, manager of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections of the New York Botanic Garden, writes on the Calla lily: “The calla lily’s pristine white blooms, symbolic of purity, have long been favorites of both artists and gardeners. Calla lilies were once favored cut flowers for vase arrangements and bridal bouquets and are now enjoying a resurgence in popularity. In their native South Africa they are still collected by the thousands by locals and sold on the streets of Cape Town during their peak season of bloom in spring.”

Singer’s images in Botanica Magnifica capture the essence of each flower he photographs, and many other spring varieties are represented in his breathtaking collection: the Easter orchid, the Resurrection lily, the Tulipa ‘Swan Wings,’ and of course the Iris ‘Jean-Marie’ that enchanted us with its grace last week are a few of the many spectacular subjects that Singer—always with his unmistakable style—shares with us. In the spirit of renewal that these images inspire, may your weekend be full of joy with family, flowers, and with the celebration of spring.

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Click here more information on the new Tiny Folio edition of Botanica Magnifica published by Abbeville Press.

Holi: A Festival of Colors

Clive Limpkin writes: “Assailants in Delhi celebrate Holi with a direct hit on our car.”
Image from India Exposed, published by Abbeville Press.

Happy Holi! If we were in the streets just about anywhere in India today, we would be dodging projectile dye (and throwing it at others, of course!) and reveling in the thrill of spring. Holi, also known as the Hindu Festival of Colors, lasts for two days each spring, on the last full moon in winter, and this year today’s the day! Festivities start the night before with bonfires and celebration, and the revelry really gets going the next day, when merrymakers paint themselves with colorful pigments, and they throw bright powders and perfumes on anyone they encounter—manners are abandoned and going out in public means a surefire dousing of dye (talk about literally painting the town red).

In Abbeville’s India Exposed: The Subcontinent A-Z, author and photojournalist Clive Limpkin shares one of his own experiences with Holi. Limpkin has a knack for storytelling, and his essays—short and thoughtful and often funny—cover the gamut from auto-rickshaw repair to laundry on the banks of the Ganges to the serenity of the Taj Mahal. In his description of the Festival of Colors, Limpkin’s anecdote serves as a (playful) warning about some of the unexpected side-effects of the celebration, and he notes: “Traditionally, the colors are organic, but authorities now warn of synthetics creeping in. When we were caught up in the Holi madness on the last day of a recent trip, the colors I acquired resisted painful scrubbing in a Delhi hotel, so I set off for the airport with a scarlet face set off by pink highlights in my hair.”

The mythology behind the holiday comes in many varieties, depending on the region—some communities celebrate it in honor of Vishnu; others view the colors as symbolic of Krishna’s passion and desires; in all cases, the spirit of the holiday is in the joy of the renewal of spring, and it is a celebration of love and life. Besides, as Limpkin points out: “who needs an excuse to splatter friends, family, and complete strangers? It’s national paintball!”

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Click here for more information on India Exposed, published by Abbeville Press.

Lee Krasner: A Dynamic Figure

Lee Krasner (1908-1984)
The City, 1953
Oil and paper collage on Masonite, 48 x 36 in. (121.9 x 91.4 cm)
Private collection; Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Image from Lee Krasner, published by Abbeville Press

Lee Krasner is not just Mrs. Jackson Pollock. In fact, Lee Krasner—the only female figure to play a major role as a first generation Abstract Expressionist, a movement characterized by its macho individuality and its ego—actively resisted the tendency toward isolation and the obsession with the male gaze in the art world around her. Krasner recognized the problem, and in an interview she explained:

As a painter, I never thought of myself as anything but LEE KRASNER. I’m always going to be Mrs. Jackson Pollock—that’s a matter of fact—but I’ve never used the name in connection with my work. I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.

She certainly did paint before and after Pollock. Curator and art historian Robert Hobbs, in his comprehensive monograph Lee Krasner, published by Abbeville Press as part of the Modern Masters series, defines Krasner as a dynamic painter whose career began and flourished because of her skill, her determination, and her insistence on intellectual rigor in her work. Her work is characterized by experimentation, by a willingness to explore. Through her various stages and styles—which included realism, fauvism, cubism, abstract expressionism, her hieroglyphic Little Image series, collage, and even finally postmodernism—perhaps the unifying quality of her work is its ability to transcend subject and technique and to arrive at a composition that is at once natural and revelatory of her self. As Hobbs puts it: “She approached her work as a profoundly important forum for dealing with ideas about the self, nature, and modern life.”

In her statement for a retrospective exhibition in 1965, Lee Krasner wrote, “Painting, for me, when it really ‘happens’ is as miraculous as any natural phenomenon—as say, a lettuce leaf.” She went on to clarify, “By ‘happens,’ I mean the painting in which the inner aspect of man and his outer aspects interlock.” Comparing painting to a miracle of nature may sound fussy or, worse, sentimental, but Krasner’s lettuce leaf is vital: it’s simultaneously delicate and robust—much like many of her paintings.

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Click here for more information on Lee Krasner, published by Abbeville Press.