Archive for November, 2014

T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 More Aztec research

Outside the exhibition at the Australian Museum

Outside the exhibition at the Australian Museum

How does one approach “cultural fusions” if the other culture had beliefs and practices that we would regard as repugnant in the present day? In many ways the Aztec culture was very hard. They were warriors, conquerors, who exploited other peoples, demanding huge quantities of tributes. They carried out ritual human sacrifice – of war captives, their own people, of adults and children. Apparently minor civil infractions could lead to enslavement of commoners and execution of nobles. Harshness was a part of everyday life – for example children who were lazy or disobedient could be punished by pricking with thorns, or being held in the smoke of burning chillies. One approach could be to wonder how future cultures may view my own – the situation of Australia’s indigenous people, the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, lack of choice for the terminally ill, attitudes to the environment … and who knows what which I take for granted as normal and necessary. It could also be that some challenging aspects of Aztec culture were “played up” by the Spanish and the indigenous tribes who supported them in the conquest, as a partial justification. I’ve found it more helpful to learn a little about underlying reasons for actions.

Xipe Totec A3 black and white conte crayon on kraft paper

Xipe Totec
A3 black and white conte crayon on kraft paper

Xipe Totec, the “flayed one” was the god of spring and renewal. Each year victims were defeated in ritual battle, sacrificed, then their skins removed and worn draped over the bodies and head of priests or young men. After 20 days the priests would emerge from the rotting skin – reborn. From death came life, just as seeds come from the husk of corn and can germinate. The god was appeased, and there was hope for a good harvest. The innocent tears of children sacrificed to Tlaloc, god of rain and lightening, helped to ensure plentiful rain. Smoke rising from the burning heart of a victim could replenish the strength of the gods to fight the darkness and ensure the sun rose.

Sculpture of skulls Aztec, 1250 - 1521 Basalt

Sculpture of skulls
Aztec, 1250 – 1521

Bones were the seed of new life, part of the cycle of existence. Some Aztec people would offer themselves for sacrifice, rising to dwell within the heavens, a birth into a new life like a snake shedding its skin. A warrior who died in battle would rise with the sun god each day, and eventually be reborn as a hummingbird or butterfly.

Primeros Memoriales folio 250r (detail)

Primeros Memoriales
folio 250r (detail)

I drafted the above a few days ago, probably with the main intention of acknowledging, “dealing”, with something unpleasant so I could move on to other things. Was I being gentle to myself, not taking risks, not pushing? Was I picking and choosing the “nice” bits of another culture?

Codex Azcatitlan

Codex Azcatitlan

Some individuals would sacrifice their own blood, their own lives. Other victims were unwilling, their lives taken from them because of someone else’s beliefs, someone else’s needs.

p10_complete_01My final work for A Creative Approach was Aged Care (more at 16-Feb-2013). My topic was our torture of the elderly, and particularly “Nancy” – forced to live, trapped in a nursing home in a web of other people’s beliefs and needs. She’s still there, almost five years now, the last six months eating mush while our dental service gets around to providing new dentures. I try to visit most weeks – undoubtedly the worst hour of the week. Nancy’s treatment is no more gentle, no more merciful, no more about her the individual, no less about other people’s beliefs and customs, no less a sacrifice than what the Aztecs demanded.

T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 More Aztec research
Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas
Part 1: Cultural fusions
Project 1: Interpreting cultural sources
Stage 1: Researching source material – Aztec culture
More Aztec research

T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 Research – Aztec textiles

There may be a few fragments of actual Aztec textiles, but very few. Climate, soil and customs (for example burning of cloth in funerary rituals) have contributed to that. However there is a wealth of information available. I’ve already written about the Emperors’ cloak (17-Nov-2014). This post is a more general view.

Codex Mendoza Folio 58r (detail)

Codex Mendoza Folio 58r (detail)

The Codex Mendoza includes pages showing the education of Aztec boys and girls. Girls were given spinning tools as infants during the naming ceremony. They were instructed in spinning from the age of 3, and spinning independently by age 6.

Codex Mendoza folio 60r (detail)

Codex Mendoza folio 60r (detail)

By age 14 girls would be weaving on backstrap looms. The same source suggests boys would be taught a range of skills, but for girls the focus was preparation and spinning of fibres. Some notes from Hand spinning and cotton in the Aztec Empire, as revealed by the Codex Mendoza, by Susan Strawn:
Codex Fejérváry-Mayer page 38 (detail) Xochiquetzal, fertility goddess reputed to have introduced spinning and weaving

Codex Fejérváry-Mayer
page 38 (detail)
Xochiquetzal, fertility goddess reputed to have introduced spinning and weaving

  • Commoner women would use light spindles for cotton to be paid as tribute, and heavier spindles for family clothing in maguey, palm or yucca fibres.
  • Noble women would work in cotton, possibly augmented with feathers and rabbit fur.
  • Filled spindles were associated with fertility.
  • Large volumes of fibre, spun yarn and woven cloth were required in regular tributes from conquered regions.
  • The focus on teaching all girls to process, spin and weave may have been required to meet Aztec demands.
  • Matrícula de tributos (details from various folio)

    Matrícula de tributos (details from various folio)

    The Matrícula de tributos (Registration taxes) illustrates a huge range of designs in the textiles given in tribute. Some notes from Textiles recorded: fashion reconstructed through Aztec Codices by Jenifer Siegler in which she focused on diagonally divided and jaguar related designs:

  • Importance of textiles shown by tributes required and sumptuary laws (formal rules on who could wear what)
  • Particular capes were given to warriors after specified numbers of captured prisoners – Nacazminqui textiles.
  • A wide variety of combinations of colours and designs
  • Codex azcatitlan Coronation of Tenochca Acamapichtli, receiving the crown, cloak and staff - attributes of power

    Codex azcatitlan
    Coronation of Tenochca Acamapichtli, receiving the crown, cloak and staff – attributes of power

  • The blue and white tie-dyed design important in many, but the graphic design of the diagonal seems to take precedence
  • “The variations in the woven and dyed designs might indicate more subtle differences in the status associated with these textiles” – possibly rank (note parallel with heraldry)
  • Extra skill and labour required to create diagonal design – again suggesting higher status
  • Jaguar skin motif created with feathers (on a cotton or maguey backing), woven, painted or actual pelt (an uncivilized connotation)
  • Labour intensive, leading to a question around value in lower status fibres
  • Jaguar motif used in male and female clothing
  • My side notes on Siegler’s paper include ideas for creating feather effects (actual feathers could cause quarantine issues in postage), trying ikat technique (patterned pre-dyeing of warp and/or weft) to create the blue diamond pattern; heraldry; what achievements do we celebrate; and questions about how we determine value – materials, production time, use, fashion…

    Los Códices matritenses Primeros Memoriales  image DG037143

    Los Códices matritenses Primeros Memoriales
    image DG037143 (detail)

    Indigo was the dye suggested for the Emperors’ cloak, but cochineal was another important dye for the Aztecs. This has an Australian connection. The first white settlers are believed to have attempted to establish a cochineal industry, introducing prickly pear. Other species were introduced in the 1840s. It became a huge pest, over-running millions of hectares of farming land, with the introduction of the cactoblastis moth in the 1930s achieving a huge reduction in what remains a significant pest.

    In its own environment the cactus was useful, providing a home for the cochineal insect and apparently, in this illustration, a support for a backstrap loom.

    Codex Azcatitlan (detail)

    Codex Azcatitlan

    Some notes taken from LaVerne Dutton’s 1992 Masters Thesis Cochineal: A Bright Red Animal Dye:

  • Tribes from the Oazaca highlands paid “a tribute consisting of cochineal, indigo, and finely woven textiles”.
  • Widely traded by Aztec merchants who travelled long distances. Exchanged items included “obsidian spear-points, cochineal, red ochre, rabbit-skin cloaks, and bells … bartered for quetzal plumes, jaguar and other skins, and amber”.
  • As well as trade uses included as a dye, paint, cosmetic, medicine, and a stain for teeth.
  • Lampblack was used for blacks
  • I have found a source for both cochineal and indigo, and am hoping to experiment with both – something of a step for me, as I have preferred to use the more controlled, repeatable colours of synthetic dyes in the past. I’m also attracted by the mention of bells – perhaps something sound-producing could be included in a work.

    Noblewoman sculpture Matlatzinca Dacite-andesite, pigment In exhibition at Australian Museum

    Noblewoman sculpture
    Dacite-andesite, pigment
    In exhibition at Australian Museum

    With cloth so important and so valuable, fine weaving was a way for a commoner woman to gain respect and perhaps become a noble. A rich or noble Aztec man could take many wives (a wife only one husband), and the wealth generated by wives’ weaving was an important part of the domestic economy.

    From Women and weaving in Aztec palaces and colonial Mexico by Susan Toby Evans:

  • Secondary wives – perhaps “concubines” in other cultures – would receive respect as creators of valuable goods.
  • Some households had women as head, and Aztec women could take responsible positions.
  • “Adult Mexica women were considered to be autonomous beings and not the dependents of men”; “norms for commoner men and women were complementarity and equivalent legal rights”
  • Little archaeological evidence of textile skills is available, with the exception of spindle whorls. Found at all Aztec sites, the numbers are disproportionately high in palaces – presumably due to high concentration of adult women.
  • Codex azcatitlan

    Codex azcatitlan

  • Fine textiles had value in trade and as gift exchange – diplomatic, celebration, reward – and displayed in household as evidence of status and wealth.
  • The Spanish-imposed move to monogamous marriage had significant economic consequences.
  • The introduction by the colonisers of higher-productivity equipment (spinning wheels, treadle looms) and factory methods also impacted textile production. Operated by men, women were isolated in the home.
  • Sheep were introduced.
  • The market changed – new elites favoured European (style) textiles over traditional.
  • References

    Codex Azcatítlan (1501 – 1600) [online] Available from (Accessed 19-Nov-2014)

    Codex Fejérváry-Mayer [online] Available from (Accessed 24-Nov-2014)

    Codex Mendoza (1541 – 1542 ?) [online] Available from

    Dutton, L. (1992) Cochineal: A Bright Red Animal Dye Masters Thesis, Baylor University, Waco, Texas [online] Available from (Accessed 6-Nov-2014)

    Evans, S.T. (2008) “Women and weaving in Aztec palaces and colonial Mexico” In Walthall, A (ed.) Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History University of California Press. [online] Available from (Accessed 6-Nov-2014)

    Los Códices matritenses (1558 – 1585) [online] Available from (Accessed 16-Nov-2014)

    Matrícula de tributos (1522 – 1530) [online] Available from (Accessed 22-Nov-2014)

    Siegler, J. (2008) “Textiles Recorded: Fashion Reconstructed Through Aztec Codices” Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii [online] Available from (Accessed 6-Nov-2014)

    Strawn, S. (2002) “Hand spinning and cotton in the Aztec Empire, as revealed by the Codex Mendoza” Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts [online] Available from (Accessed 13-Nov-2014)

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 Research – Aztec textiles
    Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas
    Part 1: Cultural fusions
    Project 1: Interpreting cultural sources
    Stage 1: Researching source material
    Research – Aztec textiles

    T1:E1:P1 Workshop: Alex Falkiner Drawing with thread

    A workshop with Alex Falkiner at the NSW Art Gallery last weekend was a great afternoon – a few hours of pleasant learning, stitching, and catching up with fellow OCA students Kath and Eva. (Alex’s website is; Kath’s post about the workshop is

    alex_falkiner_04The topic was mark-making with stitch. The basic stitches were familiar – seed, running, back, buttonhole … – but the attitude was fresh. Some jottings:

  • try to keep the freedom you have as a beginner
  • ask “what would happen if …”, not “is that right…”
  • Open up, make spaces, room for exploration. Alex will put two familiar ideas/techniques/… next to each other, then find the space between, where you can find something new
  • Let go of what you “know”. Let go generally.
  • Mine - front

    Mine – front

  • Don’t stitch everywhere. Pick out key elements. Enjoy space.
  • Sprinkle with seeds – good for transition areas.
  • Single thread scribble – connecting.
  • Mine - back

    Mine – back

    Deep in my Aztec research, the work we were doing looked a good fit for the mix of pictographs and text in the codices. Alex showed us some of her work in progress, which also included shapes cut from patterned fabrics and vliesofixed on plus lots of text. Definitely something to sample when I get to that stage of this project. Work by Tilleke Schwarz is another good reference (eg

    alex_falkiner_01Some fabric baskets Alex used to hold all the threads also suggest some Aztec-like design elements. If you look closely there is orange zigzag machine stitch. I’m not quite sure at the moment why I associate zig-zags with Aztec – I can’t find strong sources for it – but I definitely have the association.

    T1:E1:P1 Workshop: Alex Falkiner Drawing with thread
    Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas
    Part 1 Cultural fusions
    Workshop: Alex Falkiner Drawing with thread

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 The Emperors’ Cloak

    Codex Mendoza folio 108r

    Codex Mendoza folio 108r

    Codex Borbonicus folio 3 (detail)

    Codex Borbonicus folio 3 (detail)

    Much of the information available about Aztec culture is contained in pictorial codices – manuscripts containing pictographs and symbols. Although this was the system of writing used by the Aztecs, most of the codices existing today date from after the Spanish invasion, and include annotations or glosses in Spanish. Earlier documents were deliberately destroyed as part of suppressing the indigeneous culture, and in particular imposing Christianity on the local population. Many of the codices are available on line – in particular at and and they are fascinating to peruse.
    Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

    Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

    There are dangers however. As generally happens, the history is written by the victorious, for their own purposes, and could be selective, deliberately misleading, or simply misunderstanding the indigenous people. They are also subject to multiple modern interpretations.

    Take for example the wonderful cloak seen in the image above left, from the Codex Mendoza. Patricia Rieff Anawalt wrote The emperors’ cloak: Aztec pomp, Toltec circumstances in 1990, investigating this image and others of possibly similar garments. A brief summary, illustrated by other codex pictographs (others I’ve found, not those used by Anawalt):

    Codex Magliabechiano folio 087 (detail)

    Codex Magliabechiano folio 087 (detail)

  • Aztec weavers could produce fine, highly coloured fabrics, lavishly decorated with feathers, precious metals and gems. The emperors’ cloak seems subdued and simple in comparison
  • Textile tributes were required of peoples conquered by the Aztec, and were used as gifts by the emperor. Analysis suggested the compact geographic distribution of tribute textile sources of the blue diaper pattern seen in the cloak aligned with the pre-Aztec kingdoms of Alcolhua and Tepanac, and before them the Toltec
  • Codex Borbonicus folio28 (detail)

    Codex Borbonicus folio28 (detail)

  • The Toltec were venerated by the Aztec, who required that their leaders demonstrate descent from that line. Wearing a design associated with the Toltec asserted the legitimacy of Aztec authority.
  • Based on the etymology of the design’s Nahuatl name, Anawalt determined that indigo dye was used, with knotting or tying resist techniques. A series of experiments by master dyers suggested a combination of beeswax resist with the knotting.
  • Additional symbolism in the design included the green blue of the indigo, a colour associated with the Toltec; the step fret layout, linking to sky/earth dualism; and a suggestion of snake or crocodile skin, and thus “Serpent Skirt” the goddess Coatlicue, in the diamond-dot pattern.
  • Codex Mendoza folio 110v (detail)

    Codex Mendoza folio 110v (detail)

    Anawalt’s experiments and conclusions appear plausible – but not to Carmen Aguilera, who published an alternative view in 1997. Aguilera also notes the fine textiles available to the Aztecs, including fine mantles and fabrics woven with multicoloured threads, and decorations using rabbit hair and feathers, and suggests the dyed cotton proposed by Anawalt would not fit with the status of an emperor. Aguilera interprets the Nahuatl name as turquoise tile mantle, and cites the 16th century description by Aernando Alvarado Tezozomoc of “the royal mantle as a netlike garment worked with stones”.

  • Mantles and hip cloths were worn tied around the body.
  • Codex Vaticanus 3738 folio 59r (detail)

    Codex Vaticanus 3738 folio 59r (detail)

  • Some documents imply designs would be produced as part of the weaving, not dyed later. (On that, I wonder about the possibilities ikat style work would offer – dyeing warp and weft with indigo prior to weaving)
  • Aguilera agrees the Aztec sought association with the Toltec. However she suggests the high status of turquoise and its use in mosaics make it more likely for use in the mantle that the different blue of indigo
  • Aguilera cites numerous texts and images to support her suggestions.
  • Sisal, hemp and agave rather than cotton are raised as possibilities, but Aguilera suggests maguey as the main fibre. Although often a fibre used in commoners’ clothing, it is also associated with warriors.
  • Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

    Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

  • The dotted grid seen could be interpreted as tiles or beads of turquoise pierced in the centre to allow for threading on the knotted net.
  • Some inconsistencies in the first image could be explained as a misunderstanding by scribe or artist.
  • Based on patterning of Emperor's cloak A3  Watercolours and collaged paper on white cartridge paper 110 gsm

    Based on patterning of Emperor’s cloak
    Watercolours and collaged paper on white cartridge paper 110 gsm

    There is a later paper by Anawalt in rebuttal, which I haven’t been able to access – but I don’t believe which interpretation is more correct matters for my purposes. I’m looking for inspiration, not to make a direct copy.

    So far the cloak has appeared a couple of times in my sketchbook work. However even more than fairly literal design interpretations, I’m interested in trying to find more personal or emotional connections. For example there are the ideas of clothing as expressing identity and status, and seeking connections in the past to understand and make sense of oneself and one’s place in the world in the present.

    Tissue paper, folded and dipped into blue ink, then mounted on cartridge paper and stamped. A3

    Tissue paper, folded and dipped into blue ink, then mounted on cartridge paper and stamped. A3


    Aguilera, C. (1997) “Of royal mantles and blue turquoise: the meaning of the Mexica emperor’s mantle” In Latin American Antiquity 8(1) pp. 3-19. [online] Available from (Accessed 7-Nov-2014)

    Anawalt, PR (1990) “The Emperors’ cloak: Aztec pomp, Toltec circumstances” In American Antiquity 55 (2) pp. 291-307. [online] Available from (Accessed 7-Nov-2014)

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 The Emperors’ Cloak
    Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas
    Part 1: Cultural fusions
    Project 1: Interpreting cultural sources
    Stage 1: Researching source material – Aztec culture
    The Emperors’ Cloak

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 Choosing a subject – Aztec culture

    The course notes begin with a brief introduction to textiles through history. Concepts include:

    • High value based in the skill, labour and materials involved in production
    • Moved between cultures in trade and exchange
    • Technology and skilled workmen also travelled
    • Uses include ritual, art, personal identity
    • Meaning in symbols and colours
    • Significant in economies, vulnerable to political events
    • Mass production and globalisation – loss of symbolic meaning; rapid turnover

    In summary textiles “reveal insight into the time, place, culture and socio-economic conditions underlying their production” (OCA course notes).

    For this project we are asked to research a design from a particular culture, to use as inspiration in our own work. Keen to work from original sources, I am taking advantage of a current exhibition at the Australian Museum and have chosen the Aztecs (see for the museum site).

    Sculpture of skulls Aztec, 1250 - 1521 Basalt

    Sculpture of skulls
    Aztec, 1250 – 1521

    Before visiting the exhibition I knew little about the Aztec – basically a central american people, warlike, given to ritual human sacrifice, short-lived empire ended by invading Spanish.

    Some new (to me) information, largely based on signage at the museum, that I might be able to develop:

  • Respected and identified with earlier local cultures.
  • Saw themselves as descendants of the mighty Tolec.
  • Warriors wore animal regalia, believing the animal’s strength and spirit would assist them.
  • Stamps and body prints were popular, especially in ceremonies.
  • Skulls could symbolise life, fertility, health and abundance as well as the land of the dead. Bones make the seed to make new people.
  • Detail of replica eagle warrior costume

    Detail of replica eagle warrior costume

  • There were no original textiles, but this replica included some interesting techniques.
  • Fine cloth was highly valued. Being a mastercraftsperson earnt respect.
  • Cloth was a major part of the tributes required from conquered tribes.
  • Commoners were not permitted to wear cotton. They wore cloth from spun and woven fibres of the maguey plant.
  • Warriors wore protection of quilted cotton.
  • Trade items included cochineal, rabbit fur, turquoise, shells and feathers.
  • A spindle and maguey fibre would be given to a baby girl a few days old.
  • Crop gardens were created in the lake by enclosing an area with stakes and filling with dredged soils and waste material including human waste.
  • Some toys had wheels, but they were not used as a tool, and there were no horses or oxen. Everything had to be done manually.
  • Fragment of a brazier Origins unknown, about 1300 Fired clay

    Fragment of a brazier
    Origins unknown, about 1300
    Fired clay

  • I was fascinated with this fragment, suggesting the passage of time with a young woman’s face, surrounded by an old woman’s, and then a death mask.
  • Another work explored duality, combining living and decomposing sides in a single head sculpture.
  • More photographs of the exhibition can be seen on a new Resource page – click here.

    Throughout the exhibition were images taken from some of the codices produced by the Spanish soon after the conquest of the Aztec. They used the pictograms and glyphs of the Aztec, adding notations in Spanish. A lot of this material is available on the internet. I’ve only just started looking through it.

    From pictograms in Codex Ixtlilxochitl A3 Conte crayon on white cartridge paper, 110gsm

    From pictograms in Codex Ixtlilxochitl
    Conte crayon on white cartridge paper, 110gsm

    I’m trying to get into a very regular habit with sketchbook work. That’s being added to the Resources page too, starting here.

    From these initial steps I am feeling very positive about my choice of the Aztec culture as my focus. The lack of original textiles is disappointing, especially after the wonderful samples included in the Gold and the Incas exhibition at the National Gallery earlier this year – see for example here. I also have books with illustrations of early Peruvian textiles. The assignment requirements allow for looking at a number of cultures, but I think I should be able to find more than enough inspiration “limiting” myself to the Aztecs. I already see possibilities for both saleable products and more conceptual work, but will try to keep a very open mind as I continue research.

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 Choosing a subject – Aztec culture
    Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas
    Part 1: Cultural fusions
    Project 1: Interpreting cultural sources
    Stage 1: Researching source material
    Choosing a subject – Aztec culture

    T1-EI:P1 Exhibition: Sculpture by the sea 2014

    The last post was all words. This will be almost all images.

    This year I managed only a brief visit to Sculpture by the sea, an early morning. Mostly texture and line caught my eye. I didn’t get a catalogue (shop not open yet) so don’t have artist statements. After a lot of deep looking and thinking about things lately, I decided to relax and enjoy the place and the moment.

    A 3D still-life

    Philip Spelman redtrumpet redtable

    Philip Spelman
    redtrumpet redtable

    My husband and I are there somewhere.

    Neon house of mirrors

    house of mirrors

    James McCallum open blue print

    James McCallum
    open blue print

    Lou Lambert currawong

    Lou Lambert

    Chris Bailey bondi points

    Chris Bailey
    bondi points

    Christabel Wigley trophy series

    Christabel Wigley
    trophy series

    Sang Bong Lee mountain

    Sang Bong Lee

    A modern nude?

    Michael Purdy resignation

    Michael Purdy

    I’m guessing from the skittle shape it’s the moment before …

    Stephen Marr that tranquil moment

    Stephen Marr
    that tranquil moment

    T1-E1:P1 Exhibition: Sculpture by the sea 2014
    Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas
    Part 1 Cultural fusions
    Exhibition: Sculpture by the sea 2014

    T1-E1:P1 Reading: John Berger Ways of Seeing

    I wish I’d found time to read this book during Understanding Western Art, particularly when researching the female nude (see 6-June-2014). Perhaps it’s just as well, given he works to debunk and demystify a portion of what I was trying to learn.

    Berger’s book shows its age. First published in 1972 and based on a four part BBC television series the same year, some of the ideas being so earnestly pushed at us now seem commonplace, obvious (like Shakespeare, just stringing together everyday sayings???). I’ve now watched the first three episodes on youtube, and the styling is very dated.

    That might seem petty, but I think it’s very much to the point. Berger looks at oil paintings from around 1500 to 1880 (he stops around Manet), and exposes the assumptions and attitudes behind them. In 2014 in Australia I look at the English book and film from 1972, and the assumptions and attitudes of the surrounding cultures are different. I can’t “innocently” read his book without my own life experiences crowding in.

    I think it’s pretty standard now to have a cynical attitude to the images in advertising, to the aspirational life so close if only we buy product x, y or z. The money side of the art world is all too clear – as it happens a work by Manet sold for US$65 million this week ( I struggled a bit with cynicism about the art machine in my post about Discobolus, with a comparison thrown in to Young British Artists (see 23-May-2014). It could be that my own cynicism is so embedded that I can’t even see it – my tutor warned me about showing too much about Minimalism in my final review. I not only didn’t intend it, I can’t even find the words that would trigger his remark. Returning to images in advertising, I suspect that very few people have an entirely effective shell of cynicism. The advertising keeps growing so I guess it keeps working (or they’ll try something “new” until it does work). So it doesn’t hurt to have a reminder.

    Berger’s comments about the impact of reproductions on the impact of original oil paintings and their aura did not work at all for me. Yes, provenence is treated seriously and there is a lot of allure and mystery about the personal touch of the master. I think to an extent attitudes have moved in the past 40 years. An earlier post about Rembrandt at the National Gallery of Victoria is relevant (see 13-Sept-2013). A painting hung on the gallery walls for fifty years, a star attraction as a self-portrait, before the attribution was revised in 1984 to “Unknown”, and subsequently revised again to “studio of”. The theoretical monetary value changed, but the painting is still hanging upstairs, not in a basement. Reproductions, and especially all the material on the internet, have changed the role of museums and galleries (see The shift in the role of museums following the mass-reproduction of images of artworks by Gil Dekel). For all that for me the huge flaw in the argument is that the reproduction is never the same. It doesn’t provide the same experience – not because of some elusive aura but because no reproduction I’ve ever seen has come close the real object. Scale is missing, the reflection of light, shadows, depth of colour, detail, the ability to move around, fowards and backwards. I want to see the original because no reproduction actually physically reproduces it.

    The depiction of women was one area where for me most of Berger’s comments still resonated. I don’t think women still see themselves as passive, surveying themselves continually, constantly aware of how they are seen. Well, I don’t accept the passive aspect, and as for awareness of presentation and how one is perceived, I would say it is just as much an issue for men. Our appearance is one way in which we express ourselves, show ourselves to others. As for the female nude in art history, yes, many of them were painted for the gaze and ownership of men. Assumptions and attitudes have changed. I am lucky because I too am now able to see beautiful paintings, and if I was asked and wanted to I could pose for a painting and it would be my choice, not some other’s demand.

    Overall an interesting and stimulating read. It sounds like a joke, but the worst thing about the book was the reproductions – super low quality black and white.

    Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books

    T1-E1:P1 Reading: John Berger Ways of Seeing
    Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas
    Part 1 Cultural fusions
    Reading: John Berger Ways of Seeing

    T1-EI: Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas

    With Understanding Art 1 – Western Art “sent” off for assessment (actually just the blog link), I took a couple of weeks to rest up, tidy up, and check I’m still committed to the OCA Textiles course. The answer was a definite “Yes!”, and I have now enrolled in the next unit Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas.

    I have no expectations or hopes in terms of learning specific techniques or information. I feel one of the joys of a structured course of learning is that I’m pretty much guaranteed to be given the opportunity to build on previous learning and to gain valuable knowledge and skills. My expectations and hopes are all around how I use this opportunity.

    • I want to make the course my own – interpret briefs and make selections that reflect me and my interests.
    • I want to take risks and challenge myself.
    • I want to surprise myself.

    A new page is set up, complete with the goals and time plan – see Time to make contact with my tutor and get started.

    Reading: Abstraction and its Processes

    Wendy Kelly Oblique 2

    Wendy Kelly
    Oblique 2
    Full view and detail
    Mixed technique on canvas
    Note: photographs taken at an angle to reduce reflections. Canvases are rectangular

    I recently mentioned Wendy Kelly’s work, seen in the exhibition Grid Line Pattern: a serial approach (see 4-Oct-2014). I have now read Kelly’s book Abstraction and its Processes: An historical and practical investigation into abstract visual language.

    I believe the book is basically Kelly’s PhD thesis, combined with a body of artwork that came from her studio research.

    Wendy Kelly Undercurrent

    Wendy Kelly

    kelly_04That body of work included a number of the exhibited pieces I saw, and it has been fascinating to read Kelly’s comments and the way in which she positions the works in her research and interests. For example of Undercurrent (shown above and detail right) she wrote it “was a development on the theme of the pattern of text, in this case without the use of collage. A large work deeply red over green work, the horizontal rhythms are cut into columns, much as text is printed in columns. The vertical rhythms are more even, the aim being to unify the composition and create movement across the surface. It also provides a contrast to the first layer, and thus engages with the effect of the changes of light. The palette is limited, and the surface altered by the removal of the top layer of threads to expose a subtle change in tone” (Kelly, 2011, p. 165).

    I have been so excited reading and thinking about this book, I find it difficult to know what to write here. For a start there’s the overall academic approach. Kelly begins with a detailed presentation on relevant art history to put her work in context. She brings it up to contemporary work by (many!) artists, and shows how her process, materials and motivation relate. I think that approach is one of the things OCA is trying to develop in us, and it’s something I’m really interested in – not just the work, but the intent/concept behind it, the connection to one’s other work, and connections to the wider world of art making.

    Kelly places her work within what she terms the fourth generation of Abstraction. The first was at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe, there was often a spiritual/religious element of a striving towards purity. The second generation was in America roughly 1930 to mid 50s and culminated in the Abstract Expressionist movement, with huge gestures, autonomy, and a modernist/formalist theoretical rhetoric. The third generation refers to the period of Minimalism and Conceptualism, seeking “a purity of means through both methods and concepts” (Kelly, p. 8), leading to a declared “death of painting” and a reset in Post-Modernism. Kelly’s fourth generation is now, impure rather than pure, removed from formalist interpretations, marginalised in current art thinking, and encompassing multiple different approaches.

    In my final written review for Understanding Western Art I struggled with all the different ideas behind abstract art. I thought I’d chosen a reasonably sized topic with “The Stripe”, but it exploded on me – much, much more than I could deal with in the timeframe and word count. Reading Kelly’s book has given me a little context and flow for the different approaches. A fellow Australian, Kelly spends time on some issues specific to Australia’s development which really resonated with me. She included lots of examples of Australian artists, so I’m likely to be able to see a range of work in person. Kelly also spends quite a bit of time on Agnes Martin, who I included in my Review and whose work fascinates me. I’d love to see it in person (sadly a quick search didn’t find any examples in Sydney, and none held by the National Gallery are currently on display).

    Kelly gives a lot of detail about her own work, which “falls into the two streams of the exploration of abstraction and of material process; the first being ‘almost monochrome’ reductive linear thread works and the second being collage works” (Kelly, p. 144). Kelly is drawn to geometric rather than figurative abstraction. There are so many links with textile work.

    Wendy Kelly Feather

    Wendy Kelly

    Kelly writes “A variation of the process of weaving, albeit in a non-literal sense, is a key to my chosen method of working” and “[weaving] is grid based and can produce intricate patterns and designs” (Kelly, p. 128). Kelly uses thread – ordinary sewing thread – in weaverly patterning to make marks and create texture. When I saw the works in person I thought she stitched the threads through the canvas, but I gather she actually cuts short threads and gessos them individually in place on a prepared stretched canvas. Layers of colour are applied and scrubbed back – she uses oil paint which gives her “the ability of stain, glaze, scumble, drag impasto, scrub back and use inert pigments on the surface” (Kelly, p. 129). Kelly may then rip some of the threads off the canvas, leaving traces in colour and texture.

    Feather (detail)

    Feather (detail)

    Some of this reminds me of shibori – stitching and compressing fabric before dyeing to create resists and patterning in colour. Her reductive processes could correspond to discharge and overdyeing. I think felting, including nuno felting, can provide complex colour layering and of course also supports slashing and other “wounding” of the surface.

    However Kelly remains firmly in the realm of the painter. She works on the two dimensional surface of a stretched canvas. She experimented with commercial enamel paint and synthetic paint before moving to oil paint. She references Robert Hunter, Paul Partos, Marcel Duchamp, Eva Hesse and Sandra Selig when discussing the use of thread as a mark making tool by painters and sculptors.

    Kelly has developed a visual language which allows her to share a quiet but positive response to the world – “my work aspires to offering the counterbalancing world of gentle and harmonious feeling to still the drama of turbulent times. It is the aesthetic concept of exploring the more positive, quiet and sincere emotions…” (Kelly, p. 147). She is gentle, non-demanding to her viewer – “My interest is in works that are slow to enter, yet are meant to be revisited, again and again, in different lights, and at different times or lengths of times, at the viewer’s convenience” (Kelly, p.127). So refreshing, on many levels.

    I raced through this book, gobbling it up. It seems so very close to my own interests. It’s no doubt my weaverly orientation, but I think abstract work is particularly appropriate for textile work. So many of Kelly’s considerations could be introduced just as usefully in a textile-based approach. I suspect – hope – that I will be returning to this book, these thoughts, many times.

    More of Wendy Kelly’s work can be seen at

    Kelly, W. (2011) Abstraction and its Processes: An historical and practical investigation into abstract visual language Saarbrücken: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing (print on demand – October 2014)


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