Sunday, January 31, 2010

Artist or fabricator (part 1)

On my site I wrote: A degree of artisanship is clearly inseparable from the creative process. A mosaic is the end result of a myriad of choices and manipulations none of which should be left to chance or to a third party. Some mosaic manufacturers choose to commission a design (also called a cartoon) and to outsource its execution to Mexico, China or Peru. I do not consider those works of art.

Sensing that this statement was too radical, I added:

This is not to be confused with a mosaic that interprets a painting, in which the choices made by the mosaicist can be of more interest than the source. The same can be said of the close association of a painter-cartoonist with a mosaic artist who become equal partners in authoring and signing their mosaics as did Hans Unger and Eberhard Schulze

I have not been able to find out much about them and what I did find is not verified, but here it is anyway. Unger and Schulze created mosaics roughly from 1960 to 1974. Unger died in 1975. I do not know if Schulze kept creating mosaics, but soon after Unger's death, a spinal injury forced him to quit mosaics. He then launched a very successful second career as an aquarist, becoming England’s leading discus fish specialist.

We have all seen endless mosaics depicting fish. Few designs are easier. This one goes beyond the representation of a fish to create an atmosphere in a way that shouts "Mosaics!". I find it spectacular. The sectioning, the colors, the andamento, and the irregular cuts of the material are just magnificent. (Click on any of the images to see an enlargement).

The man on the right is another example of the artists' talent. The design is highly stylized and simplified (I do not know the title of this piece, but I see it as Moses). Nor have I seen the cartoon, but it is clear that Unger's design was created with an eye to its translation into a mosaic and that Schulze's interpretation draws on his artistic mastery of mosaic techniques.

Here are two more examples of this remarkable collaboration.

Another artistic trait of Unger and Schulze's creations is their backgrounds. They are not, as is unfortunately often the case, just fillers added once the motif is completed. As much skill and thought goes into them as in the motif. It is often hard to decide which is main motif and which is background. And certainly, without the "background" the work would not have the same impact.

Conversely, to set off their main motif without cluttering the mosaic, the artists opted for paint on highly textured wood.

No longer a hidden component, the visible substrate becomes part of the final work, and its painted grain functions like another tessera.

The same goes for the rustic frame. Rather than being an add-on or an afterthought, it is an integral component of the mosaic.

For another giant mosaic with Schulze's own commentary look here.

There will be a second part to this post, featuring the work of mosaic artist Lynn Moor


  1. Hi Ora:

    Thank you for launching such a thought-provoking blog. I have admired your mosaic works since I first saw your pieces in the Art of Mosaic 2007 exhibit at the Somerville Museum. I saw your post on MAO, and clicked on the link to read your blog.

    Your posts about shifting the public perception of mosaic as craft to mosaic as a fine art medium are very compelling, insightful and well-reasoned.

    But the reason for my comment today was to thank you for introducing me to the art of Unger and Schultz. Their work is fantastic. I, too, love the dynamic backgrounds. It is inspiration for me to achieve a more resonant mosaic through improved backgrounds. I really like their compositions and color palette as well.

    I have found that it has been relatively easy to view images, read, and learn about ancient mosaics. At the other end of the spectrum, there are many sources to learn about contemporary mosaics. What I don't see too often is a information about or discussions of mosaics created in the recent past -- 10 to 150 years ago. So thank you again for posting about this 1960's duo.

  2. You're doing a fine thing here, Ora. These "rugged" pieces by Schulze and Schulze are very appealing, reflecting a time, but not limited to it. I question in your first paragraph when you say "some mosaic manufacturers choose"... I think it's often painters or designers in other media who go that route, and sometimes the results are extraordinary. Sometimes the technical aspects of complex glass, metal or or multi-media artworks require levels of expertise that "original" artist doesn't have (and may not seek to master). I don't think that means results are not art. And think of relationship between designers and fabricators of the byzantine mosaics we admire.

  3. Thank you for your remark, George. It is perfectly well taken as a critique of the paragraph I copied for my site. When writing for, I was thinking of current works in which the two parts are clearly separated: and artist does a cartoon which is then outsourced to countries in which labor is cheap and mosaicst are expected to "paint by number" for a pittance. We have all seen such works on the web if not in person (usually, large murals).

    At the time I wrote those lines for my site, I was also remembering my visit to San Marco in Venice. Our guide deplored the fact that due to Raphael's popularity, numerous cartoons in his style were commissioned from fashionable painters, and mosaicists came to be seen as just fabricators, required to follow the master's cartoon to the letter. This is what I called earlier paint by number. On the facade of San Marco, you can see over the front gate large mosaics, some of which were pre-Raphael (on the left) and some post-Raphael. The difference is striking. If my pictures are good enough, I may post them with the second part of this post, in a couple of weeks.

    A more recent example: in 2008 (or '07), I saw at Art Basel in Miami a Pollock mosaic. The mosaic ifself was not particularly interesting: no shading, no depth, not special cuts... The Pollock was, well, a Pollock, and it went for $50,000. The mosaicst's name was neither on the label by the work nor on the gallery flyer. I asked and was told that it was some old woman who does mosaics. The gallery attendant could not find her name in her files. How much do you think this woman had been paid?

    But you are right, and some collaborations were and can still be very successful. This is precisely why I took back the harsh judgment I had expressed on and went about proving myself wrong by posting the wonderful Unger/Schulze collaboration. You are right again to point out that many such collaborations gave us mosaics we have cherished for centuries (for the most, pre-Raphael). Unfortunately, others have contributed to the semi demise of mosaics as a fine art until the turn of the 20th century -- a situation we are both trying to remedy.

  4. Thanks for bringing these artists and their work to our attention. The fish and the bison are fabulous and inspiring - it's a style of mosaic I had not really seen before.