It is staggering to imagine what treasures were lost during the centuries of Spanish colonization of the Americas, during which they thoroughly reworked the cultural makeup of an entire continent, destroying most evidence of what came before. We know from the few remaining documents that there were once libraries of poetry, science and philosophical writings. It is not much of a stretch to consider the previously eroded Maya to be at an equal development with Ancient Greece, while in the time of Cortez the Aztecs were beginning a sweeping consolidation that could resemble the rise of the Roman Empire. It was said that the galleons were filled with gold ingots, anything shiny being melted down, the complexity of workmanship clumsily described by a few sailors. We will never know, which is of course much the same with the treasures of past cultures throughout – Vikings and Romans raided Celt gold, melted it down to make their own artifacts, and like the remnants of gold-work in Latin America, we are left to imagine the full scope through survivor pieces, generally found in graves and sacred places that miraculously escaped centuries of potential looters.
What I’ve found looking at the gold-work thus far, is that two regions that appear to have been the most exceptional, one in Costa Rica, the other in Columbia. Gold is actually a wonderful material to work with for a tribal setting – unlike other metals, it can be hammered endlessly into a fine foil without it growing brittle and cracking. It was used a sacred artisan supply and not as a currency. With the Columbian work, we even have the privilege of differentiating tribal styles, and comparing them to existing tribes that have surviving comparable work. As you might expect, the scope of distinction and style is broad and wonderful. The Calima and Tolima work stands out as advanced as a direct result of a thriving trade system that rewarded their style. Some have guessed that part of this dynamis results in coming from the ‘hot lands’, where the fruit is sweet and strong, the water plentiful, and the shamanic substances are particularly effective. The gold work comes from along a river where the boulders are covered in carved glyphs for miles. I will write more on this area of gold shortly. For now, have a look at their marvelous renderings of rainforest life, and consider that this is but a small taste of what once was.
Everyone knows what a brooch pin is. But what is it? For the jeweler, it’s the closest one can come to making a free-standing sculptural piece. It can be shallow relief or three dimensions, and is often the fate of any object that is created without a clear idea of its use beforehand. All it requires is a pin of some kind to affix it to the front of a wearer’s garment.
Truth be told, the brooch has come pretty far, from its purely ornamental role today the namesake describes a typically hefty style of pin used to fasten one’s cloak or robe. A few thousand years ago, these were more common than a pair of shoes. Not to be mistaken with a fibula, which is the exact same thing, but describes a slightly different mechanism that was favored by the Romans. The brooch was popular among the other tribes, the Celts and such, and curiously we have opposing names for cloak pins between old enemies – empire and tribe. We don’t use either word today for ‘fastener’, but the brooch pin does survive in a symbolic sense. Jewelers will also be familiar with the word broach, which is a sharpened needle-like tool used to bore out the inside of rings and tubing. It comes from the Old (Celt) French word for pin.
Here are a few images of the original brooch pins; to the sympathetic eye they provide rarified glimpses at a long and continent wide vocabulary of ornament that was largely chopped up (hacksilver is an archaeological term) and melted down by empires, invaders and inheritors. From the looks of it, the brooches are distinct, personal items, perhaps once known for different tribal touches, or clan marks that are long gone. At the same time, for design enthusiasts there is something peculiarly uniform, a cultural aesthetic, that distinguishes the Celtic remnants – something like a philosophy that keeps the common thread of ornament informed, from Anatolia to Ireland. Fans of history are familiar with the mystery of this culture, who gave us many of the place-names of Europe, stories of King Arthur and Merlin, and legends of the bards travelling from tribe to tribe spreading the news in song, and the incredible survival of some of the language within the reaches of the British Isles. The old culture that used no writing left almost no record except their obsessive aesthetic of spirals and knots, an intent to abstraction that makes them all the more compelling.
It is well understood that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the rise of industrialization in Japan and the explosion of an international philosophy of ‘New Art’. By looking at the mechanisms of this influence, I hope to demonstrate the New Art was much more like a prophetic vision than an ephemeral moment to enrich antique collectors.
In the accounts of Art Nouveau and its related movements (Arts & Crafts, Craftsman, il Liberte, Jugendstil, Secession, Arte Joven, Art Nova and Stile Liberty) one is apt to run across claims that it is a spontaneous development that marked a transition period between classical academicism and modernism. But this stand-alone islander perspective hardly accounts for its genesis or its end. The genesis came with the arrival of photography and access of the West’s artists to the finer crafts of Asia, especially Japan. Previously, Chinese porcelain had long been traded, but the style was vernacular and limited to like items. The arrival of documentation relating to supremely technical metalworking methods, sophisticated print and painting techniques, and essentially an entirely different cultural take on both universal design principles and representation of the natural world set off an inevitable alchemical reaction.
Artists I’ve spoken to about the subject explain that there is a root distinction in the composition of academic European and traditional Asian art. After the rediscovery of proportion during the Renaissance, the West had until the New Art period essentially pursued rules of symmetry – especially with regards to a horizon line, with the primary divisions of fore, middle and background. The history of western art has very specific reasons for this development, and essentially it revealed the collective psyche of a broad pan-culture. The approach to composition was both taught and essentially instinctual. When it came to decorative items, we find the same absolute principles: symmetry, relief and depth.
The shockwave of cultural confluence stems from a truly novel introduction within Eastern art: the concept of “infinite space”, which essentially allows elements of fore or background to interact with void. This had also developed to an instinctual level in that pan-culture, and is found mirrored in their philosophy and calligraphy. In fact, one reason speculated for this key element of composition is the use of pictographs for writing, developing an ancient practice of ‘floating’ pictures over the top of other pictures, creating a conceptual intuition for layering that was independent of relativistic proportion.
Once Western artists became exposed to the successful break in symmetry a new dialect of visual language spread like wildfire, transforming every aspect of art. Curiously, though so distinct and widely embraced it is easily identified today, this paradigm shift was short lived, and like the swing of a pendulum modernism rose with a hard return to symmetry, replacing decoration with line and simple geometry. It was as though nature was erased completely from vernacular language.
There are many discussions on this, which make for good reading. In a nutshell, the fine craft epidemic was made possible by the last generation of traditional apprenticed craftsmen, who were widely being displaced by the rise of industry. Essentially, young inspired artists and designers found at their disposal droves of highly skilled master craftsmen, who happened to be unemployed. Little did they know they were living in a fantastic, singular moment in time. Beautiful dreams sprang up in the form of cooperate workshops, intentional artisan communities, and free schools staffed by true experts in design and the arts. This was the last generation of its kind in the West, and is the reason why the housing, furniture and countless other items are unsurpassed even today in their quality and appeal. They are haunting, specific to a time, a place, and a lineage of authorship – they are downright talismanic.
One can hardly blame the hopes many had that it seemed possible for revolutionizing and improving the quality of life in every home for the founders of the various New Art movements. Unfortunately the economy of scale would make its presence known just as quickly, particularly at its apogee of unrestrained, nearly viral transformation of life in an opposite direction – the prolific outpouring of weapons of war that came to occupy the awareness and industry of that same, once hopeful world.
Following the global wars manufacturing had completely disconnected from skilled hand-crafting, its mechanisms actually unable to incorporate it even if it wanted to. Modernism took an even more severe turn, moving from streamlined to simple, and was embraced, as Corbusier put, as a way to ‘clean’ cities and lives of the madness and ruin of revolutions. Modernism represented a desire to turn away from the past’s hopes and nightmares, and erase if possible all grandiose discussion of the big picture. It was successful, to a degree, though ask anyone about the terms ‘marketing’ or ‘branding’ and you will hear a crystalline linguistic litany that is truly global, and discover what you already knew – that the predilection for living by a totalistic view has never departed.
The New Art appeared to our most creative thinkers to be the obvious direction for a new, international visual language and they threw themselves towards it with magnificent energy. That their prediction was shut down so abruptly should not be regarded as failure. They were absolutely right about the most critical of concerns:
1. The viewpoint of New Art was genuinely better. It was altruistic and holistic – a model that provided meaningful, enriching work for laborers, a clear and signature identity for artists, and affordable works of art for the everyday home.
2. The connection between tradition and technology was possible, and even likely. The only thing the model requires is an abundance of free time that was once standard in agrarian life, and the related family-community basis of living that integrates work, leisure, social belonging, house living, cultural distinctiveness, and allows for lifetime learning.
This possibility was prevented with considerable effort; it required tremendous, long-term outside manipulation by highly concentrated wealth through institutional education, economy and force.
3. The motivation of holistic artistry is infectious and inspiring. Life is better when the things we do, make and own have something we can relate to and enjoy. Inspiration from holistic sources generates tremendous energy. The evidence is in the record of New Art – for just a few decades time, their artifacts are everywhere, and are still repeated throughout the diaspora of information.
As with point no.2, this energizing behaviour that is the birthright of most anyone with enough free time is for now bottled up in trained specialists such as artists and designers. A broader scale of creativity is also prevented at considerable cost by “tremendous, long-term outside manipulation by highly concentrated wealth through institutional education, economy and force.”
Don’t write off the century-old visionaries of New Art just yet, not that their outstanding contributions ever could be forgotten. They may prove to have served as avant garde after all.
For your enjoyment, and as an aid to reflect on the impact and prophetic properties of visual language, I give you a few of the innumerable sword hilts of the Japanese samurai, called tsuba. Each instrument of death is the record of the love and life of a village metalsmith. Japan is an archipelago whose transformation from feudal life by the sword to nuclear accident in less than a century can help us create a clearer model of modernity. It can help to reconsider the Western spaghetti soup story of industrial transformation that leads to all manner of complicated and unfortunate conclusions. For all the talk, well, just look at these sword hilts and decide if we’re doing our best today. These are functional instruments, but they reveal much more, they reveal human life. True talismans, perhaps mixed in among these cultural arrivals in the West is the wordless incantation that led to the prophetic pronouncements and new iconography of the New Arts fever.
This is a story about humility. And the glory of a long-dead clan of Old English ancestors – so old they still wrote in runes. I have always had a particular leaning towards self-education – entirely due to the pace and way that I ingest information. This hasn’t been the best approach with regards to craft, a hard lesson – there are simply ways to do things right the first time that are so effective at shaving off unnecessary experimentation time… well, you get the picture. Fortunately I had a mentor for the larger areas of metalwork, but for technical aspects of jewelry I could not bring myself to find one in person.
Picture me pouring through catalogs and big comprehensive books, searching for a solution to a problem. Unbelievably, I was beginning to realize that what I was missing must have been so unthinking it was just overlooked in the writing of one book after another. It was unbelievable. Finally I reached for a trade-paperback sized book, a Dover to top all, something I had picked up for a few dollars and had basicly ignored in favor of costlier hard-bound books with photographs. I had glanced through it initially, and mentally registered it as a reprint of antique methods I might one day enjoy for leisure.
In frustration I gave it a crack and behold, the very instructions I was seeking were there… written so lucidly and thoughtfully you could almost hear the teacher’s voice. Herbert Maryon, Metalwork & Enamelling. I learned quite a lesson from the little book on many levels. I realized much of the jewelry equipment I was gradually accumulating were items I merely believed were essential. Maryon didn’t fuss around with too many gadgets – his instruction was essential – rather, it was behavioral – as though one could make anything with fire, metal, and sticks.
This wasn’t far from the truth. Maryon was the lead conservator of the Sutton Hoo treasure, the most sophisticated collection of Celtic metalwork ever discovered. The key pieces amount to a few items from a chieftan’s ship burial, of such workmanship that the techniques would be a real challenge for a craftsman of today – no matter how much of the tool catalog they owned. One gets the picture from Roman legend that the Celts were barbarians, foaming at the mouth. Taking a close look at this treasure makes them appear just as sophisticated as the empire that fell upon them. Like the earliest poems, the sword reveals masterful fold-lines, and is signed by its smith. The gold work is expertly enameled in a champleve manner. In all, precision, control and long tradition are evident here.
This is now the book I recommend to anyone interested in metalsmithing. As a place to start, it begins with common sense… the why precedes the how. Maryon reverse engineered every method with which the ancient smiths were able to accomplish their work. In this way he returns to write a teaching guide that requires the crafter, not the tools, to be sophisticated and sufficiently sharp. It’s a refreshing realization in a time when so much is ready-made that grown adults may experience the childlike frustration of not having fully developed skills for making necessities on our own. Maryon demonstrates that much of what constitutes an equipped and trained professional today is quite extraneous – as though the finest work may be produced outdoors, beside a fire, with a tree-stump, a bowl of tar and a hammer. Indeed, Maryon helped realign my priorities, and place my start-up investment into my hands rather than the tools. And I look forward this spring to following a few of his ‘recipes’ outside in the fresh air.
Thanks to archaeology, we now know for certain they wore mustaches. Barbarians? Hardly.
How about the fineness of that enameled knotwork?
How about that checkerboard enamel inlay effect?
A hero of mine, this jewel sculptor works out of Eugene, OR. She uses the lost wax method and is a wax carver; her mature style is a breathtaking combination of nature and contemporary, experimental composition and rendering. Using the metals as a palette her work stands on the strength of its artistry, distinguishing it from so much manufactured work that relies on metal content and stones to create value. In addition, her animal themes (regarded as totemic) speak of a close involvement between her imagination and the natural world, and so describe the artisan behind the pieces. To top it off, Stone is alive, and deserves recognition, for she is true maker of talismans.
Her website is full of personal care, and includes an excellent photo overview of the lost wax process.