Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Carlos Cortez: Crusader for the Oppressed

One of Chicago’s most beloved printmakers, muralist and political activist Carlos Cortez (1923–2005) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of a Mexican Indian Wobbly union organizer father and a German socialist pacifist mother. Starting in 1947, for sixty years, , Cortez was involved with the Industrial Workers of the World,writing articles and drawing cartoons for the union’s newspaper. He identified himself as an anarcho-syndicalist, and was an accomplished artist and a highly influential political artist. After Cortez married in 1965, he and his wife moved to Chicago where he became an integral part of the local Mexican and Chicano mural movement until his death.
Cortez is perhaps best known for his wood and linoleum-cut prints. When linoleum became too expensive, he worked with woodblocks. “There’s a work of art waiting to be liberated inside every chunk of wood. I’m paying homage to the tree that was chopped down by making this piece of wood communicate something.” --- C.Cortez
Inspired by the works of José Guadalupe Posada and Käthe Kollwitz, Carlos combined technical and stylistic influences from German Expressionism and themes from ancient Aztec and modern Chicano sources to make numerous prints about striking workers, miners, farm workers and portraits about labor organizers. More often, his art was about advocating for a position, rather than opposing some situation.  His social sympathies are akin to the  works of French artists Pissaro, Signac, and Millet, but he was often heard to credit Posada as his greatest influence. He also had affinities with the work of Siquieros and Leopoldo Mendez.

I once attended a panel discussion that included Cortez and some notable local artists and art historians. An exhibition of Cortez' prints surrounded the panel discussion. At one point in the discussion, an arrogant art historian (obviously trying to make an inflammatory statement to rile up the crowd) made a derogatory statement about Cortez' life's work for social reform. The audience gasped, and then people started to decry the historian for his lack of respect for Cortez and his work. The trick was in. The historian had deliberately played the 'insult card', but I sat back and watched Mr. Cortez during the audience's ensuing tirade. He was calm, collected, unfazed. He realized what the historian was up to, and wasn't about to lower himself or his work to respond. When it came time for him to speak he quietly, calmly, and with compassion, put the historian and his cheap grand-standing tactic in it's place. The audience cheered. Cortez knew his self-worth and his work would outlast some historian's cheap flashpoint of debate. You see, he knew - as most artists do - that his work will live on, and speak a truth that will be long felt after his passing. No one can take that away or demean its sincerity.
Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art, which holds the largest, most complete collection of Carlos Cortez' work, has exhibited a complete installation of the artist’s living room studio. His work is otherwise found in several museum collections worldwide, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art

As an artist for the masses, this final statement about keeping his art available for the public is in keeping with his generous nature, and making sure the message of his work stays in the public’s eye.I hope this will inspire other artists to share their work more with their unknown audience, since our messages must remain in the public's eye to be powerful and meaningful. 
“… when you do a graphic, the amount of prints you can make from it is infinite. I made a provision in my estate, for whoever will take care of my blocks, that if any of my graphic works are selling for high prices, immediate copies should be made to keep the price down.”
–Carlos Cortez

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Printmaking's Call to Patriotism

Throughout history governments have prevailed upon public sympathy to create any number of  campaigns enlisting recruits to fight for a "Cause". In honor of the United States' Memorial Day on Monday, May 28th, (the day we officially recognize the blood and sacrifice of our courageous men and women for our military's efforts ), I spent some time looking for 'patriotic' prints. While I could have gone further back in time to show a range of lithographs and etchings commemorating historical battles, or portraits of victorious generals, I was more captivated by the range of propaganda prints/posters that were used to engage the public's participation in war. 

The concept of political posters is maybe old-fashioned, and reminds us of our parents' and grand-parents' era. It's from a time we still consider  innocent; where a man's word was to be trusted, and a handshake and a slap on the back while saying "Thank You for your Service" was sincerely expressed and made people weep. Wouldn't we all like to be able to erase a little of this generation's ignorance of anything other than Youtube videos and Ipods, and wouldn't we like to be able to trust a politician's word, and believe in a common good? It may come back in some nostalgic way. (Some believe it started to in 2008.....) 

It does come back, a little, when seeing these prints, these vestiges of our past when we could choke up while singing the National Anthem, drink powdered milk (which sucked), car-pool, raise our own food and can it, recycle books for the troops to have something to read, and conserve our electricity by turning off the lights and going to bed at a 'reasonable' hour.  What a time it must have been to live in, and what a shame this current generation can't appreciate the sacrifices EVERYONE, not just the soldiers, had to and were
 willing to make for the 'Cause'. 

One can only hope some spark of that nostalgic patriotism kicks in on Memorial Day, when the family prepares for its first of the summertime cookouts. It's a place where everybody's taste in clothing goes out the door for the day and revolves around some red, white and blue garment, emblazoned with the US flag, and old veterans bring out their military caps and polish their dust-covered medals. And kids wave their little kid-sized American flags and suck on those red, white and blue rocket cooler pops, and everyone heads into town to set up their chairs along Main Street America (just like we saw in 'True Lives') to wait patiently for the Memorial Day parade where the floats and beauty queens cruise by. And maybe a tug of patriotism will catch our breath as everyone follows the high school marching band, like children skipping to the tune of a pied piper, to the local cemetery; where a sea of US flag-strewn wreaths have been reverently laid to rest upon all the soldiers' graves. And maybe it will kick in only when a military drill team, in their crisp, clean sparkling-buttoned uniforms and glass-like polished shoes, gives it's ear-splitting 21 gun salute to their fallen brethren. Or maybe the solemnity of it all will hit us after one of the town's ministers calls for a moment's silence to ponder the tomb of Unknown Soldier, whoever he/she was, and make us wonder how that person's family will Ever be able to get closure. Maybe it won't become real for some of us until we look at the old family albums of relatives who served in the military; whose surviving mothers and fathers wipe tears from their eyes as they speak softly how their son or daughter used to run in the cornfields with their dog, or was the captain of the high school football team. But truly, it has to kick in when the families of the military;  the grandparents, parents, spouses, siblings, children and friends sit close to the phone or the computer all day hoping THE five minute call or skype message with their loved one can be stretched out just a little longer.....

Memorial Day brings out the stories of the fallen, and those currently serving around the globe. Its never been easy for anyone who has a family member or friend in the service. Some piece of us is missing when they aren't around, and the home-comings are all to short, but we understand it's been a part of our heritage, and it is part of our culture.  The best we can do is pray for their safety and look forward to the day they come back to us, and back to their own lives.

Thanks to all the men and women of the military. You are remembered and will not be forgotten.......

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Better than Daumier: Mexico's Jose Guadalupe Posada

José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913) was born in Aguascalientes, on February 2, 1852, and he died on January 20, 1913. Uncontested as his country's most influential printmaker, with a staggering body of work numbering between sixteen hundred to twenty thousand prints, his imagery included natural disasters, satirical commentary, politics, heroes and revolution, the common people, songs, assassins, tragedy and death, and miracles. Posada lived during one of the most turbulent times in Mexico.    He captured the essence of this period in his prints to the extent that they became icons to the Mexican people and thus to the Mexican Revolution.

Posada was one of nine male children born into a poor family. He was educated by his older brother Cirilo, who taught him how to read and draw. At the age of eighteen, Posada attended art school. He studied lithography and engraving in Trinidad Pedroso’s taller as a teenager and he also started to do political cartoons for a local newspaper, El Jicote. Unfortunately, soon after Posada worked for the paper, one of his cartoons offended a powerful politician, Jesus Gomez Portugal, and the paper closed. Posada then moved to Leon, Guanajuato, married and set up a commercial illustration business.The printing business was very successful in advertising, illustrating books and printed posters of all subjects, including religious icons like the Virgen de Guadalupe. It was a popular and thriving business until it was wiped out by a flood in 1888. 
Prior to that, Posada taught printing at a local preparatory school, and he moved to Mexico City where he went to work for  La Patria Illustrada, whose family was related to the famed Octavio Paz. Posada eventually left La Patria to work for a publishing firm run by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. Arroyo had established a press specializing in inexpensive literature for the masses: historical, comedies, thrillers, songs, and histories of saints. These were sold in the city's plazas and markets. Arroyo and his son also founded several newspapers, including El Centavo Perdido, La Gaceta Callejera and El Boletín. During that period, Posada created a huge number of book covers and Illustrations.
Posada was a popular cartoonist, artist and a leader of Mexican Expressionism. His work influenced many Latin American artists because of his satirical content. He is often spoken of, always in high esteem, as the ‘Mexican Daumier’, for his scathing commentary, but his work is stronger in the sense that he combined the Mexican cultural fascination with the dead (via skeletons) and produced acerbic, humorous illustrations that now are best known as folk art. On the whole that propels him from the one trick pony of an obvious visual cartoon to something more sublimely dual-edged.

In his Calaveras series, Posada depicts skeletons happily engaging in events and activities of the living. During the years leading up to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, his skeletons, his “catrinas”, were used as a metaphor for the corrupt society he lived in, so he attacked  politicians and anyone else he felt appropriate. On many occasions, however, Posada was thrown into jail for his 'artistic offenses' to Mexican society.   Posada saw the catrinas as representing the repressions of Mexican society and they reflected his own preoccupation with death. Now, his skeletal images have become synonymous with the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
 Unfortunately and surprisingly, Posada and his work were nearly forgotten by the time of his death. The tragedy of Posada’s death was that he was so poor he was buried in what is considered to be the lowest level of burial - a sixth class grave - in the Dolores Cemetery. When no one claimed his remains after seven years, as per the cemetery's policy, his remains were thrown out.
Recognition came to Posada after his death largely due to some other Mexican artists. If it weren’t for Diego Rivera who collected his prints, and Jean Charlot, who helped to re-circulate his work in the 1920s, Posada might have fallen into obscurity. The famed Jose Clemente Orozco was often heard to have credited Posada as a major influence upon his own artwork. Posada’s work can now be seen at the Bellas Artes National Institute, the Biblioteca de Mexico , the National Library of Anthropology and History, the Municipal Archive of the city of León, and they will forever be seen in during festivities celebrating the Day of the Dead.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Printmaking in Slovakia? Why Yes! Presenting Koloman Sokol, Leader of Slovakian Graphic Arts

Koloman Sokol was born December 12, 1902 in Liptovsky Mikulas and he died January 12, 2003 in Tucson, Arizona . Largely considered one of the most prominent of Slovakia’s contemporary artists, Sokol was a founder of modern printmaking and graphic arts in Slovakia.
Sokol attended private schools with Eugen Krón and Gustáv Mallý, and he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, where he studied under Max Svabinsky. He was also a member of the SČUG Hollar, a Czechoslovak graphic artist association. After studying briefly with František Kupka in Paris, the Mexican Ministry of Culture and Education invited him to teach graphic techniques, so he taught at the Escuela de las Artes del Libro and at the University of Mexico City.
In 1946 Sokol returned to Slovakia to teach at the Slovak University of Technology and at the Comenius University until 1948 when the Communists took control of the country. From that point on he lived in the United States and settled in a Philadelphia suburb, up to the last decade of his long life when he moved to Tucson, Arizona. He died there at the age of 100.
Sokol's work was inspired by Expressionist notables Vincent van GoghKäthe Kolwitzand George Grosz. He also felt a strong affinity with the Die Brücke Group. As a technically classic printmaker, Sokol’s prints stayed pretty much within the boundaries of the medium, venturing more toward mixed media with his paintings and drawings. His art expresses ethnic and social issues affecting Man’s suffering and pain, while his dynamic style also calls to mind some of the expressively powerful characters found in his Mexican contemporaries’ (Orozco and Siquieros) work.

Koloman Sokol’s life was full of social and political upheavals, immigration, and a search for creative expression. His artwork speaks about universal truths: the struggle for political, economic and cultural freedoms, all the while informed by social criticism and a visionary symbolical-mythological imagination. His work is seen as unique amongst his peers and a blend of Eastern European Expressionism/Modernism, and yet, for all of his career, Sokol was never enamored of fame. He was an artist of modest means, who remained true to his artistic vision.

As testamony to the impact of Sokol's art to the people of Slovakia, The Pongrac Manor Home, a former feudal manor built in 1450, has been dedicated to Koloman Sokol. In addition to a small permanent collection of Sokol's work, the Center shows 6-8 exhibitions of Slovakian and international artists per year. For more information on the Center, please their address below.

The Koloman Sokol Center 

Námestie osloboditeľov 28 

+421/44/562 00 35 • www.muzeum.sk

Opening hours:
all-year-round: Tu-Sa: 10.00-17.00

Friday, May 11, 2012

Gabor Peterdi's Call to Nature

Although Peterdi was in New York when Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme, he chose to emphasize his love for nature.The majority of his work is abstracted, but his themes revolve around  man, nature and their interrelationships. This particular group of images selected for this article speak to his interest in natural forms, and the coloration reminds one of flowers,birds, bushes and an infusion of light streaming through trees. The image above calls to some horizon where the sun never stops shining,while the last image can be seen as a stalk or stem, or even an abstracted vertebrae of some animal. The areas sourrounding it resemble sediment and excavations of things found when we start to garden; finding the treasured remnants of bones our dogs hope to keep for an afternoon of blissful gnawing. There is a form of abstracted pictographic language going on here; and it's one that if you weren't educated to know it's signs or symbols it wouldn't keep you from enjoying the images that he's placed together. There is synaptic energy going on here, and the viewer's eye moves easily throughout.
While I have certainly known of Peterdi's reputation as a great teacher,  I have not seen or really known much about his work. My understanding of him, being from the Midwest and exposed indirectly to the University of Iowa influence of Mauricio Lasansky, was that his friendly Picasso/Matisse-like rivalry with Lasansky helped to establish two major printmaking programs in this country; both of which have trained scores of printmakers, teachers, curator, historians and gallerists. Their collective influence has been felt far and wide, not just in this the United States, but also having  trained many printmakers worldwide. Peterdi is one of  Printmaking's Elite, and the impact of him as a person, teacher and his work will continue to be felt for a very long time.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Degenerate Prints of Kathe Kollwitz

The works in this article speak to a human truth about the depths of one's despair, death and the wretchedness of one's existence to survive without their loved ones. The artist whose brave hand unflinchingly created these pieces is Käthe Schmidt, more famously known as the artist/printmaker Kathe Kollwitz. She lived and worked in one of the most tumultuous periods of the 19th and 20th centuries, and experienced atrocities few would want to survive, but she spoke the truth with her scathingly critical lines and her rapiered compositions.  For her labors, she was eventually dubbed a 'degenerate' by Hitler's art elite, and while that's a matter of skewed opinion, history has since borne her work out as among the most moving tributes to humanity, on a par with the works of Goya, Delacroix and Dix.
Kathe was born on July 8th, 1867, in the East Prussian industrial city of Konigsberg. Her modest upbringing 'sparked' from a household fervently interested in discussions on social/political issues and Karl Marx; plus her maternal grandfather, Julius Rupp, was the leader of the Free Congregation movement. 
Both her father and grandfather were a big influence upon Kathe and her career. Rupp had strong socialist views and had been imprisoned for his religious beliefs, while Kathe's father, Karl Schmidt,  was a moral idealist. He encouraged his three daughters to have sympathy for the plight of the working-class, and he taught by guiding them rather than forcing his will upon them. He wanted his girls to be strong, believe in themselves and develop their individual talents. This was radical thinking in a period where women were encouraged to be mothers and housewives. 
The Schmidt family's involvement with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) enabled Käthe to meet Karl Kollwitz, whom she would eventually marry.  He was similarly passionate about politics and introduced her to the writings of August Bebel, who's socialist ideas wrote about the dissolution of marriage; and freeing women from their second-class status. Käthe was very interested in politics, and frequently read the work of Karl Kautsky, who was the period's best interpreter of Marx' theories.
Kathe's father believed she would become a great artist, and to encourage her, he arranged for Kathe, at the age of 14, to take art lessons with a local engraver, Rudolf Mauer. Two years later, Käthe went to study under the painter Emile Neide, and then she studied at the Berlin School for Women Artists under Karl Stauffer-BernIn 1888 Käthe went to study at the Munich  Women's Art School. She also joined the informal Glücks-Café Composition Club, and the Munich Etching Club.Through her studies, it became apparent that her true interest was in the expressiveness of line and drawing, not with paint and color. She almost exclusively devoted herself for drawing and printmaking from this point forward.
Karl Kollwitz and Kathe were married in 1891 after Karl became a doctor. They moved to a working-class neighborhood of Berlin and both worked on pursuing their respective careers. In May, 1892, Käthe gave birth to her first child, a son, named Hans. Four years later, Käthe gave birth to her second son, Peter. Having children was a burden to her career, but her husband provided live-in support so she could continue her work. "I was more productive because I was more sensual, I lived as a human being must live, passionately interested in everything."
Soon afterward, Kollwitz began to exhibit in Berlin, and received both criticism for her sex, and praise for her talent. Regardless, she soon rose to the artistic surface and generally received accolades for the honesty and truth of her work. She is known for having produced a series of lithographs illustrating the 1844 Weaver's Uprising, based upon the writings of Marx, who had proclaimed it as the birth of a German workers' movement. Kollwitz went on to produce other series of prints and drawings based upon social/political and deeply personal issues: namely losses of sons and children which was something she'd experienced firsthand during the World Wars due to the deaths of her son Peter, and Peter's son. There ones sees her lines are simultaneously as sharp as a razor blade and softly caressing as a warm blanket.

Kollwitz' work has shone as a beacon of light in the darkness  - letting us see the depths of her own despair, but also those of the German people. They suffered loss and shame and world rebuke for their atrocities, but they were human, too. Mothers lost their children,  husbands, fathers and brothers. Children starved to death and everyone suffered collateral damage from battles. There was no relief.  I have seen her etchings and lithographs and rarely do I see someone so adept at drawing that the lines literally pulsate and 'breathe'. Kollwitz is among that caliber of artists, and I, for one, am grateful that her work exists to remind us what life is about, that expression, passion and emotions can jump off a page and leap into your heart, grab it, shake it up and make you weep. Her piece below is one such piece where a mother walks through an abandoned battlefield in the stealth of night, through blood and bodies strewed as far as one can see, shining a lone flashlight in the sea of dead faces, one after another, in a desperate search to find her child. It rips at our soul and we feel her plight. 
Kollwitz' work shows all of that and more through her prints, but while she received praised for her skills, she was eventually marked as a 'Degenerate' artist in WWII Germany, set up as an example of what 'not' to do, what was 'unacceptable' to the sterile genetic and artistic views of Adolph Hitler and his insane sense of Germanic euphemistic harmony. Her images of death and loss and Marxist worker revolts spoke against Hitler's watered-down group of 'sanctioned art' and she was put up to public revile. Thankfully, her work (and those other 'degenerate' artists) survive for us to know and be reminded that with wars' victory and glory comes sacrifice and tragic loss. The saying goes, 'that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger'.... Kollwitz'  own self-portrait series shows her pain and suffering, and a steely reserve to survive. If that's what it means to be a degenerate artist, then so be it. I'd prefer to have her crusading line (and anyone like her), draw the truth any day.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Chicago's Haymarket Riot Debt to Printmaking

What possible debt would an historical event have to printmaking? The title of this article is in reference to a seemingly small series of events, not unlike others that have taken place  throughout history, but this one  blossomed if you will, due to printmaking's social commentary contributions via the commonly used media of newspapers and leaflets, to become an internationally recognized day. The events took place in Chicago, in May of 1886, and we commemorate this day as International Workers' Day. People in other countries have a holiday, a day off from their labors, whereas workers in the United States still go to work, and barely know its significance. The role printmaking played in this scenario was to tell the nation, through lithographs and woodblocks, of the atrocities Chicago had experienced. Those images helped spread the word about a terrible situation, and as art has done for centuries,  it helped to bring about a change for good from which we still benefit.

The story goes that on May 1st, 1886, federal unions declared it would be the nationwide 'start' of an 8 hour workday, yet unhappy workers throughout the United states saw this a  situation of 'too little, too late' and they began to discuss whether to strike against their employers. The day passed without incident, but the press expressed concern that agitated dialogues between laborers and management were getting worse by the day, and they felt strikes were imminent.

The situation had been building for years, so printed media (in numerous languages) began encouraging workers  to engage in confrontations with the authorities over their working situations. Labor activists had been advocating for the workers's rights, and while this seemed a reasonable thing to ask,  extremists were calling for a violent overthrow of capitalists and their governing bodies. The International Working Men's Association (the First International), organizer of the movement, soon had over 300,000 striking laborers rallying for a more reasonable workday. Nearly 1/4 of those 300,000 were men and women in Chicago, and their unity scared the city's employers so much that they capitulated and agreed to a shorter workday. But the situation was far from over....

On May 3rd, a crowd of over 7000 striking workers were gathered outside of the McCormick Harvester Works factory. One of the leaders of the IWPA was speaking to the crowd when the police arrived and opened-fire, killing four workers. Flavio Constantini's 1974 lithograph, called "May 3rd 1886" (below), describes the situation perfectly whereby we see policemen opening fire with handguns upon the defenseless strikers.McCormick's industrial product is clearly displayed above the policemen in a macabre statement about the mower(policemen) reaping the lives of the strikers and they crush them beneath their police wagon.The other strike and Chicago signs are support material for the event before us and we are just as incensed at seeing the description of the atrocity as they must have been when experiencing it firsthand.
The next day, (May 4th), over 3,000 people came to the Haymarket Square to hear speakers in support of the strike. The police soon arrived on the scene, and as they were telling the crowd to disperse and go home, someone threw a bomb into the police ranks. It exploded, killing 8 and wounding over 60 men. From that point, police attacked the crowd and many were killed with over 200 badly injured. The image below shows the moment police have started to attack the crowd and strikers are running for their lives.
As can be imagined, the press was in a frenzy over the situation and decried the slaughter of innocent people. A wave of animosity against anarchists and labor organizers swept the city and the nation, and many people's freedoms of assembly, free speech, and privacy were violated during this period until the trial for the rebellion's accused leaders began in July and August of 1886. All the defendants - except one - were found guilty of being accessories to murder and sentenced to death  by hanging; this despite the fact that several of the accused were not present when the bomb was thrown. The trial proved only that these defendants and other anarchists had previously advocated violence through literature and press.
In September of the next year, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the verdicts of 'guilty of murder' by being accessories before the fact, and the United States Supreme Court refused to intervene or overturn the verdicts. Thomas Nast's image above states the obvious, that the accused were getting the "squeeze" via Justice's clenched hands. Nothing and no one was about to save them from their fate.
 Of the convicted men, one committed suicide, two had commuted life sentences, and the remaining four were hanged in a highly publicized ceremony. Their funeral procession to Waldheim cemetery drew over 200,000 spectators.

Ultimately, those who were hanged became martyrs to generations of labor activists and are symbolic of laborers' rights worldwide.  Printmaking had a hand in bringing this situation to the world's attention, so the Haymarket Riot owes a debt to the printmaking media for its continued investment in social commentary. It's original premise, to communicate through visual imagery, is made clear and one can only hope that printmakers everywhere reading this article will realize we have a legacy to uphold, to swear by, that we must speak the truth through our work. It is our responsibility as artists to show the world what we see and continue to provide visual engagement for viewers to discuss and, hopefully, come to some consensus. 

And, in closing, for those of us who 'toil' through an 8 hour workday, well, we must remember the dates of May 1st, 3rd and 4th as days so important to our world's collective labor history that we must thank those men (and countless others) for their sacrifice.