Work of the Week – February 3, 2014
by Adrian Etheridge
In art education and art history education, typically a lecturer introduces a piece by giving a biographical sketch of the artist’s life. This is customary practice for a reason: Information about an artist’s influences and experiences can greatly enhance the viewer’s understanding of a work of art. For instance, drawing from my previous posts, knowledge that Henry Hammond Ahl studied in Munich and France explains his affinity for Barbizon and Impressionistic techniques, as he focuses on tonal quality and open composition. And familiarity with Sigmund Abeles’ childhood, that he grew up drawing statues, enlightens his audience to the figural subject matter present in almost all of his work.
So, how does viewing an “anonymous” piece with no explicating information about the creator change our view of the work? There are millions of works of art without designated creators, yet many of them go unnoticed because they are not associated with an artist to promote and enhance the credibility of the work. But, some pieces make their way into the warm acceptance of museum galleries and house halls. Mother and Child, a wooden sculpture showing two figures is one such piece residing in the Asheville Art Museum’s Permanent Collection.
Seeing an anonymous piece raises many questions – the first of which is usually, “I wonder who made this?” Viewers may never get that answer, but there are many more interesting questions. For instance, we have the year – around 1900 – yet we do not know the location. While it would be fairly easy to determine the type of wood used, and subsequently the general location of the harvested materials, this can only lead us to a guess of where the sculpture was created. After all, the artist could easily have imported wood.
Moving on; “What tools did the artist use?” is slightly easier to answer. Presumably, the artist used some sort of knife, and given the hand and face details as well as the deep cuts of the mother’s limbs, it was a small and easily-maneuverable one. And as smooth as the piece looks with only a few very specifically-placed rough lines for the hair, the artist may have used some sort of sand paper to give it a figural feel.
“Why did the artist create this particular work?” is one query that viewers may never have answered, regardless of the degree of anonymity or fame of the artist. Here, we can only guess that the artist wanted to depict a mother holding her child on her lap, presumably caring for the child. The mother has a peaceful look on her face, with even and inexpressive features that show that she at least is not outwardly unhappy or stressed. The child has comparably the same placid look, demonstrating that whatever care the mother is taking of the child pleases the baby. While the wooden figures may seem abstract at first glance, with further study the lack of descriptive lines may actually allude to the comfortable love between a mother and child, and the soothing bond between the two literal and metaphorical characters.
Of all of these, why the artist remains anonymous is probably the most interesting and puzzling question to me. Maybe the artist simply did not feel the need to be named. Or, perhaps, this is a lost work of someone (famous or not) that an art enthusiast found and loved. The latter certainly is a more romantic notion of the mystery surrounding the anonymity of the work. Whatever the reason for the artist remaining unnamed, it is a beautiful look at the bond between mother and child.
Artwork above: Anonymous, Mother and Child, 1900 ca, Wood,19.50 x 15.5 x 17.5 inches. Gift of Byron R. Cheadle, Washington DC. Permanent Collection. 2001.11.06.32.