So many foreign threads, the Grecian and the British, the Italianate and French, are woven in the fabric of the art we call American that it is useful to consider the ways we have absorbed and are still absorbing cultures not our own. Two small exhibitions currently on view at the National Collection of Fine Arts do exactly that.
One is flashy, often morbid, loud and energetic; the other is, in contrast, genteel and serene. The artists, though Americans, pay homage in their work to two differing traditions, one Hispanic, the other Japanese.
"Raices y Visiones/Roots and Visions" is a show of recent work by some 40 artists, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Latino and Hispano, who share a common language and something esle as well. The other exhibition surveys the strong influence, and the subtle art of the long-forgotten Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922).
The works of art in "Roots and Visions," most of them at least blast with oranges and greens, day-glo yellow feathers and shards of mirrored glass. But this show contains a darkness, too, a shadow that evokes lamuerte and the tomb.
Marc Zuver and Rebecca Kelley Crumlish of the Fondo Del Sol in Washington and errator Peter Bermingham of the National Collection, who organized the show, call attention of four groupings, to Pre-Columbian roots (old ritual ceramics, the pyramids of Mexico, the legend of Quetzalcoatl); to the folk tradition (particularly) that of the santero wood-carvers who have been active in the Southwest for the past 300 years); to recent Barrio art (much of it concerned with politics and protest), and to what they call "inner vision." Other things unite many artists in this show.
They share a sense of sun, a preference for bright colors, and a mix of scorn and reverence for images evoking the grave and the church. The face of Christ, his forehead often pierced by thorns, flayed and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and madonnas appear throughout the show.
The artists though use a wide range of materials and conventions spray paint and photography ceramics and found objects, pop art and abstration. "Good Friday," Juan Gunzales' maticulous and moody color pencil drawing: "A Juanderful Piece." Rudy Martinez' funky, funny portrait made of painted clay, and Dino Aranda's delicate abstraction are among the most impressive works on view.
After seeing the Latino art, there is something doubly moving about the gentle mists, the soft ligth and the hush of the Arthur Wesley Dow show now on view upstairs.
Dow was a teacher, and a teacher of teachers. "Anyone who took an art class in a public school at some point in the first 35 years or so of this century, was likely to have been introduced to the oriental mysteries of "notan" and the art of composing shapes within the confines of a pre-determined rectangle," writes Joshua C. Taylor, the Museum's director. "That art classes were a part of regular school education" and "that it should have been taught in accordance with the principles of Japanese art is particularly remarkable, and was owing chiefly to the tastes and efforts of one man, Arthur Wesley Dow."
Born in Ipswich, Mass., Dow was trained in France, in the academies of Paris and among the landscape painters who gathered in the summer in Brittany, near Pont Aven. He might have stayed a painter of Barbizen-school landscapes had he not on Feb. 24, 1891, had a revelation. On that day he discovered the prints of Hokusai. "One evening with Hokusai," he said, "gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study." Within the week he introduced himself to Ernest Fenollosa, a remarkable Bostonian who, after graduating from Harvard (he ranked first in his class) founded in Japan the Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts. Fenolloso was at that time curator of Japanese art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a post Dow would later fill.
"Imbued," writes Taylor, "with what Dow believed to be the spiritual essence of the fine arts, he took to teaching with missionary zeal, looking upon the role of the teacher of art as a sacred vocation . . . He remained an active painter, but his doctrine was probably more potent than his landscrapes!"
"Line, 'noton' and color, this is the trinity of power," was the doctrine he expressed in "Composition," the enormously influential little book Dow published in 1899.
"This creed," writes Taylor, "held that art was first of all construction, not imitation." Dow taught his many students to compose in two dimensions. He preferred the Japanese term notan (which means balancing light and dark) to the Italian chiaroscuro (which means light-shadow) because he wished his students to think less about volumes than about flat areas of paint.
From Pratt and from Columbia, Dow's students moved throughout the land (Georgia O'Keeffe was one of them, Max Weber was another), and they carried in their teaching that refined sensibility, that preference for the quiet, that reverence for the Orient, whose main monument in Washington is the genteel (and Whistler-laden) museum on the Mall founded by Dow's friend, collector Charles Lang Freer.