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Notre Dame

Ernest Fiene, Notre Dame, 1929, lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Baum in memory of Edith Gregor Halpert, 1971.320

On April 15, 2019, the world watched as the Cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire, destroying much of one of the most important buildings in the world. Parisians came out in support of their beloved cathedral, while others began to reflect on the importance of the cathedral in their lives. At SAAM, we started looking at the works in our collection that depicted Notre Dame, and asked Senior Curator Eleanor Harvey, to give us some background on why the cathedral has been beloved by American artists for years.

The Aesthetics of Taxonomy: Hokusai’s Manga (1814-1878)

Starting in 1814, when he was already 55, Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika published over 4000 small drawings on extremely varied subjects. The 15 volumes, each one including sixty leaflets, are called “Hokusai’s Manga” The term “manga” doesn’t refer to the kind of narrative format we all know today, but to the original meaning of the term, which is “curious drawings” or “whimsical drawings.”

Fausto Melotti, Weightless Constructions (1960’s – 1980’s)

“A score of weightless ideograms like water insects that seem to whirl on a brass structure screened by gauze thread”. Italo Calvino, Gli Effimeri. (Italian original at the end of the post).

An artist that worked with a wide variety of media (ceramic, plaster, metal wire, drawings, and words), Fausto Melotti was an influential figure in the Italian artistic panorama of the XXth Century, who explored the boundary between abstraction and figurative art.

After studying physics, mathematics and electrical engineering, Melotti enrolled at the Brera Academy of Arts in Milan, under the professorship of Lucio Fontana. Despite such a change, he never lost interest in the sciences and in 1935 he described the relationship of abstract art to architecture, music, math and science writing: “Greek architecture, Piero della Francesca’s painting, Bach’s music, rationalist architecture — these are all ‘exact’ arts.”

While teaching modern plastic arts at the Scuola Artigianale in Cantù, in 1935, Melotti wrote: “We believe that we arrive at art through art, the fruit of personal insight: thus, all our efforts consist in teaching the small heroic act of thinking with our own brains”. (Quadrante, II, nos. 14-15, Milan, June-July 1934).

F.Melotti, Aurora o Tramonto? 1976.

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