George Nakashima: From Internment to New Hope

George Nakashima (Photo: L. Barry Heatherington)

George Nakashima (Photo: L. Barry Heatherington)

George Nakashima credited a dark chapter in our nation’s history for his success as one of the twentieth century’s greatest furniture designers.  Born in Spokane, Washington, the child of Japanese immigrants and descendants of samurai, Nakashima first studied forestry but later earned degrees in architecture from the University of Washington and MIT.  After receiving his Masters, he sold his car, bought a round-the-world steamship ticket and traveled around the globe seeking inspiration.  First came a year in France, then a visit to North Africa and two years in an Indian ashram. He landed finally in Japan, where he immersed himself in Japanese culture.

In Tokyo, he met the American architect Antonin Raymond, Frank Lloyd Wright’s chief assistant on his Imperial Hotel. Nakashima was hired by Raymond and gained his first experience designing furniture on a dormitory project.  He also met Marion Okajima, like him an American of Japanese heritage, and they soon married.

With the threat of war looming, the young couple returned to the United States in 1940 and started a small furniture workshop in Seattle.  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Nakashima, his wife, and baby daughter were rounded up and forced into an internment camp, like 100,000 other Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast.  The family was sent to the Minodoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. Years later, many internees would remember these lost years with justifiable sadness and bitterness. Despite being loyal Americans, they were taken from their homes and imprisoned without trials or due-process. But George Nakashima remembered these years differently.

In this isolated desert camp, Nakashima met a traditional Japanese craftsman in his forties, Gentaro Hikogawa, a meeting that would change his life.  The man became his master and trained the young architect in traditional Japanese wood-working tools and techniques. For Nakashima, the Idaho camp’s unhurried pace, isolation, and peaceful existence were essential to his mastering the craft of furniture making.

Hikogawa stressed the importance of patience and reaching for perfection.  Nakashima, who had once studied forestry, recognized a natural combination between ancient wood-working techniques and respect for the spirit of the tree.  For him, furniture making was a partnership and his role was to provide the tree with ‘new life.’

In 1943, Antonin Raymond convinced government officials to release Nakashima and his family, acting as their sponsor and arranging for him to work at Raymond’s studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. His plan was to create a studio that combined the practices of the International School of architecture with traditional Japanese techniques.

After the end of World War II, Nakashima established his own furniture studio in New Hope and became world-famous as one of the fathers of the American Crafts Movement. Each piece of furniture was finished by hand and custom designed to reflect each commission and the unique quality of the wood. Today, his work is in private collections, like the Rockefeller family’s, and many museums, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Philadelphia Museum, and Morikami Museum. In 1983, he was declared a “sacred treasure” by the Emperor of Japan.

His philosophy of furniture making is best expressed in his own words:

A visit to Matisse’s ‘crowning achievement’

For the conclusion of his 2010 BBC documentary, Modern Masters: Matisse, the British critic Alastair Sooke visited Matisse’s Vence Chapel in the south of France for the first time. In this segment, Sooke is overwhelmed by emotion, while he contemplates how the old, frail artist managed to have a final burst of creative energy at the very end of his life.

Designing the Chapel began in the late 1940s. Matisse, already in his late seventies, was recovering from surgery for intestinal cancer and had nearly died.  His nurse was a former model, Monique Bourgeois, now a novice Dominican nun, Sister Jacques Marie.

The project confused his friends like Picasso, who knew Matisse was an atheist. Yet Matisse called the Chapel his ‘crowning achievement.’

Matisse in bed working on Vence Chapel c. 1950

Matisse drawing a head for the decoration of Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence (The Matisse Chapel) in his studio/room in the Hotel Regina, in Nice-Cimiez, 1950. Photo by Walter Carone/Paris Match.

To celebrate the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, The Cut-Outs, which opened this month, the Café presents Sooke’s moving tour of the the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France.  Or as most of the world knows it — Matisse’s Chapel.

See and hear Matisse — drawing with charcoal and scissors

henri_mattise_drawing_3The following two short videos provide brief glimpses of Henri Matisse at work in his studio.  In the first from 1946, he draws a portrait of his grandson, Gerard, with charcoal. In the second, he was filmed near the end of his life “drawing with scissors,” which is how he described his method of working with hand-colored papers.

Besides the rare opportunity to see Matisse at work, we can also hear his voice in the first video.  He is explaining how he thinks about drawing. His comments translated into English are:

“Me, I believe that painting and drawing are the same thing. Drawing is a painting done in a simpler, limited way. On a white surface, a sheet of paper, with a pen and some ink, one creates a certain contrast with volumes; one can change the quality of the paper given supple surfaces, light surfaces, hard surfaces without always adding shadow or light. For me, drawing is a painting with limited means.”

 

Lydia Delectorskaya, Hôtel Régina, Nice, c. 1953 Courtesy Henri Matisse Archives

Lydia Delectorskaya, Hôtel Régina, Nice, c. 1953
Courtesy Henri Matisse Archives

Jacqueline Duhême, one of Matisse’s studio assistants in the late 1940s, describes how he made his cut-outs here.

See Monet Painting Waterlilies

MonetpaintingsnapIn our continuing series of peeks into artist studios — a unique item.  A rare 2 1/2 minute film that shows Monet painting his waterlily pond in Giverny in 1914.  And his little dog, too.

 

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, c. 1915 Neue Pinakothek, Munich Germany

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, c. 1915
Neue Pinakothek, Munich Germany

[Thanks to Vincent Pidone for the tip.]

Oscar Wilde on Whistler and vice-a-versa

 

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Speaking of his friend, the painter James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Oscar Wilde once said,

“Mr. Whistler always spelt art, and I believe still spells it, with a capital ‘I,'”

a legendary put-down applicable to far too many artists, writers, and other creative types.

Wilde, the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, was one of the great wits of his age. His target was one of the first American modern artists, best known today for a portrait called by most “Whistler’s Mother,” seen less often in art books and more in sentimental greeting cards and even a postage stamp.  This, rather than the above quote, would have horrified Whistler, who intended the painting to be a dispassionate revolutionary statement of art for art’s sake.  He had titled it Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.

J.A.M. Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, Louvre, Paris.

J.A.M. Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871. Louvre, Paris.

Continue reading

Duncan’s Dog meets Picasso

Dachshund-Picasso-SketchIn April 1957, the photographer David Douglas Duncan visited his friend Picasso at La Californie, the artist’s villa in the South of France.  He brought along his dachshund, Lump, and a mutual love affair began.

Picasso and his wife, Jacqueline, were having lunch when Lump first saw Picasso.  The confident young dog immediately walked up to him and put his paws on the man Duncan always referred to as “Maestro.”  Picasso looked down and said, “Buenos dias, amigo!” Lump jumped into Picasso’s arms and gave him a kiss.  Jacqueline was shocked. While Picasso’s own dogs were often in his studios, Jacqueline had never seen Picasso allow them to sit in his lap. But Lump was no ordinary dog.  He immediately made himself at home and thereafter became a regular visitor. Continue reading

A visit to Frida Kahlo’s studio

Gallery

This gallery contains 14 photos.

Frida Kahlo‘s home and studio, La Casa Azul in suburban Mexico City has been renovated in time to celebrate her 107th birthday. On the second floor, one can visit her studio just as she left it when she died in … Continue reading

For those who like to peek into artist’s studios

I’ve discovered a wonderful blog, atelierlog.  Since 2005, the Dutch artist, Harke Kazemier, has been collecting and posting looks into artist studios, from Rembrandt to Lucian Freud. While some of the text is in Dutch, the main content is the pictures and videos. If you are like me, you’ll find the more than a thousand entries fascinating. atelierlog is a rich resource that I highly recommend.

Joel Peter Witkin: Las Meninas, 1987

Joel Peter Witkin: Las Meninas, 1987

The Unwanted Gift: Picasso and Matisse

Detail, New Hebrides Mask (Musée Picasso)

Detail, New Hebrides Headdress (Musée Picasso)

In Paris’s Musée Picasso, a four-foot tall idol from the Pacific Islands sits in a glass case.  Wild eyed and dramatic, with arms flung out stiffly, visitors might justifiably assume that it was one of the many native objects that Picasso kept in his studio for inspiration.  But the story behind it is much more complicated. The idol was a gift from Matisse that Picasso didn’t want.

While their styles were quite different, both artists were inspired by the art of aboriginal peoples (‘primitive art’ as it was known then).  For Picasso, it is well known that African art was the catalyst for his Cubist revolution.  What is less well known is that Matisse collected African sculptures even before Picasso. In fact, he was the person who introduced Picasso to one of them at a soirée in Gertrude Stein‘s apartment in Paris in 1906.

According to Max Jacob, a friend of Picasso, who was there that evening,

Matisse took a wooden statuette off a table and showed it to Picasso. Picasso held it in his hands all evening. The next morning when I came to his studio the floor was strewn with sheets of drawing paper. Each sheet had virtually the same drawing on it, a big woman’s face with a single eye, a nose too long that merged into a mouth, a lock of
hair on one shoulder … Cubism was born.

Ultimately, Matisse found the work of the Pacific peoples more to his taste.  In 1930, when he was 60, he even traveled on a ship to Polynesia and lived in Tahiti for a couple of months.matisse-tahiti

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, after decades of sometimes bitter competition, Picasso and Matisse’s wary but respectful relationship had grown into an important friendship. Whenever the old rivals met together in the South of France, they discussed what they were working on and from to time exchanged gifts and paintings.  Since Matisse was twelve years older than Picasso, there was an element of the mentor in their interactions — one Picasso resisted.

Matisse's studio at Le Régina, Nice, 1953. New Hebrides mask on chair at right.  (Photograph: Hélène Adant)

Matisse’s studio at Le Régina, Nice, 1953. New Hebrides mask on chair at right.
(Photograph: Hélène Adant)

When Matisse presented Picasso with the New Hebrides idol from his tour of the South Seas, Picasso could only smile and say thank you.  But Francoise Gilot, Picasso’s companion at the time, noticed how Picasso’s jaws tightened as Matisse explained how he had come to own it and how it was used in rituals.  In her 1990 memoir Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art, she describes how she “could tell right away he didn’t like it.”

Picasso left Matisse’s studio without his gift by explaining that there wasn’t room in the car for it. As they drove away, Pablo released his anger. “Matisse thinks I have no taste. He believes I am a barbarian and that for me any piece of third-rate tribal art will do!”

When Gilot suggested they accept the gift, but put it in a room in their home where no visitor would ever see it, Picasso wouldn’t stand for it.  “Certainly not!…I will not accept this awful object…If I accept the hideous gift from my so-called friend, I will have to put it in a place of honor.  If I don’t our relationship is in jeopardy.”

Picasso spent much of the drive home angry and cursing. Obviously frustrated, he fretted, “I am in a bind; what am I to do?”

Gilot and Picasso decided the only thing to do was to come up with excuses whenever they went to Matisse’s home for why it was not the right time to take the idol with them.  This was not so easy.  Every visit they discovered that Matisse had placed the bright red, white, and blue idol in whatever room they were.  Yet somehow Picasso managed to never accept the gift from Matisse.

Ceremonial Headdress, New Hebrides, South Malekula in Musee Picasso, Paris, Tree ferns and pandanus coated in painted clay

Ceremonial Headdress, New Hebrides in Musée Picasso, Paris
Tree ferns and pandanus coated in painted clay

This is why Gilot was shocked to see it thirty years later proudly displayed in the Musée Picasso when she attended its opening in 1985. She later learned from Matisse’s son Pierre that after his father’s death in 1954, Picasso had asked him for the long postponed gift.  By then Gilot had already left Picasso.

Picasso with New Hebrides idol, Cannes,1956. (Photograph: Lucien Clerque)

Picasso with New Hebrides idol, Cannes,1956.
(Photograph: Lucien Clerque)

After considering this surprising news, she realized that several of Picasso’s later pictures had figures reminiscent of the wild-eyed idol.  Somehow, according to Gilot, “Matisse had foreseen his friend’s further evolution” and managed to mentor Picasso — even after his own death — with an unwanted gift.

Mr. Turner, a new film, and the Varnishing Day Incident

England’s greatest painter, J.M.W. Turner, is the subject of a new film by Mike Leigh. On May 15th, Mr. Turner premiered  at the Cannes film festival and received rave reviews.  Its star Timothy Spall won the best actor award for his portrayal of the artist. [Spall is best known in the U.S. as Peter Pettigrew or Wormtail in the Harry Potter films.]

The film covers the last twenty-five years of Turner’s life.  The trailer includes a famous incident from life of the eccentric and notoriously competitive artist — when he took advantage of the Royal Academy of Art’s ‘Varnishing Day.’  In the 1800s, the Academy was the center of the British artistic world.  No artist could truly succeed without being a member and no exhibition was more important for one’s reputation than the annual Summer Exhibition.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was one of the few child prodigies in the history of art. One year after he began classes at the Academy, he was made a member of the Academy. He was only 15. By the time he was 17 he could support himself with the sale of his pictures.   In comparison, the great landscape painter, John Constable, who was about the same age as Turner, struggled financially his entire life and didn’t earn membership until he was 53.

Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy, Punch magazine 1877.

Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy, Punch magazine 1877.

The Varnishing Day incident concerns both painters.  The day was a tradition at the Royal Academy.  Each year after the Summer Exhibition was hung by the jurors, artists were allowed inside to put the final protective varnish on their paintings before the show opened. This was not just a necessary stage in finishing a work but a bit of a social event.  The tradition continues to this day and the entrance of the artists includes a parade, a religious service, canapes and champagne.  Once inside, the painters chat amongst themselves as they apply their varnish and a few last touches.

Just as important as putting a protective layer on a painting, Varnishing Day allowed the artists to preview the exhibition before it opened to the public and to learn whether their pictures had been hung in a good location and discover whose work was hung nearby.  While it was an honor to be chosen,  if your picture was put very high up or to the side of a doorway, it meant the jurors did not consider it an important picture, which could damage your reputation.

In 1832, both Turner and Constable’s pictures were hung in good positions, but unfortunately next to each other. Constable’s Opening of Waterloo Bridge was the largest painting he had ever painted for an exhibition, nearly seven feet long.  He had worked on it for thirteen years. When Turner arrived on Varnishing Day and saw his painting next to Constable’s, he began pacing, disturbed not only by its commanding size but by how exciting and colorful the Constable painting was.

John Constable, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1832 (Tate Gallery)

John Constable, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1832 (Tate Gallery)

As a fellow member of the Academy, Charles Robert Leslie personally observed:

Constable’s Waterloo seemed as if painted with liquid gold and silver, and Turner came several times into the room while [Constable] was heightening with vermilion and lake the decorations and flags of the city barges.  Turner stood behind him, looking from the Waterloo to his own picture, and at last brought his palette from the great room where he was touching another picture, and putting a round daub of red lead, somewhat bigger than a shilling, on his grey sea, went away without saying a word.  The intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the coolness of his picture, caused even the vermilion and lake of Constable to look weak.

 

William Parrott, Turner on Varnishing Day, 1846 (Museums Sheffield)

William Parrott, Turner on Varnishing Day, 1846 (Museums Sheffield)

Constable was horrified at this breach of Varnishing Day etiquette and said to Leslie after Turner left,  ‘He has been here…and fired a gun.’  He knew the damage had been done. Turner’s painting and its bold red spot at the center would command the attention of anyone walking into the Painting Gallery.  Turner returned to the room later. With a swipe of a rag, he trimmed the red ‘gob’ and declared it a buoy.

This flourish was greeted with applause by his fellow artists.  At least, according to the movie.  Mr. Turner opens October 31st in the U.K. and December 19th in the U.S.