A Rose is a Rose," Gertrude Stein’s clear descriptive object formula, simply does not work when defining American folk art. Defined in many ways by primitive, stylized, indigenous, regional, naive, hand-crafted, non-academic, vernacular, rustic, unschooled or (for the 20th century) outsider art, folk art is highly recognizable but not easily definable. Collectors, dealers and scholars have been involved in debate and continual controversy around folk art. Not only have its aesthetic definitions been questioned, but issues of social class, ethnic identity and cultural heritage have been weighed against issues of taste and history. However, what has not been debatable is that extraordinary pieces have been created by quite ordinary people.
In fact, the whole area of American Folk Art was not recognized as a particular artistic direction or definable craft area until February 9, 1924 when a distinctive grouping of works was exhibited at the Whitney Studio Club in New York City. The majority of these pieces were borrowed from the then major contemporary artists Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. It certainly appears that
the first to appreciate the
folk art aesthetic were notable professional artists who were inspired
by the simplicity, lack of pretense, utter freshness, highly observant,
often clever practicality (function) and affection for materials (as the
materials at hand often
Actually, the first show of folk art paintings, "American Primitive Painting," was exhibited at The Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey in 1930. The exhibition later traveled to the University of Rochester and the University of Chicago. This was followed in October of 1931 by "American Folk Sculpture—The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsman." The bulk of the pieces for this were from the pioneering collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Perhaps the most influential early exhibition of folk art was held in 1932 at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Titled "American Folk Art—The Art of
The Common Man in America 1750-1900," again, most of the 175 pieces were from Mrs. Rockefeller’s comprehensive collection. Included were oil paintings, watercolors, paintings on velvet, paintings on glass, wood sculpture, metal sculpture, toys, ship figureheads, cigar store Indians, ornamental eagles, weathervanes, decoys and plaster figures. Although pottery, decorative ironwork, religious carvings, signs and several other categories were omitted, they were certainly part of the genre. Perhaps this happened because these items were considered too functional and not artistic enough.
After these first trailblazing exhibits, the rest of the American museum community quickly followed and soon folk art became a popular art historical focus. Folk art is an expression of the living quality of the story of American origins in the visual arts. Several museums have developed extensive focused collections of American folk art including the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection at Colonial Williamsburg (Virginia), the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, New York, Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum (Dearfield, Michigan), Heritage Plantation of Sandwich,
Massachusetts and Old Sturbridge Village (also Massachusetts). Major encyclopedic museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Washington’s Smithsonian Institution as well as The Brooklyn Museum all house major collections of folk art.
The Museum of American Folk Art in New York City was founded in the early 1960’s to establish a permanent exhibition center for folk art in its many forms and various permutations. Over the past forty years, The Museum of American Folk Art has attempted to introduce an extensive variety of folk art pieces representing artists working in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Due to the popularity and occasional controversy of complimenting this activity and underscoring the beauty and value of folk art, museums have now incorporated American folk art into their various curatorial departments.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is once again leading the way with its magnificent exhibition, "American Folk" with an opening scheduled for April 8, 2001. This exhibit has been a significant interdepartmental collaboration between MFA curatorial departments. They were integrated into a brilliant team that chose this exhibition’s outstanding American folk art examples drawn primarily from the MFA’s own pioneering collection. The exhibition, which has been enriched by
important loans from New England collectors, highlights over 200 works including rare monumental family portraits, narrative quilts, painted furniture, wood decoys and unique toys.
The core of the MFA folk art collection was assembled early in the 1940’s by an enthusiastic and visionary patron, Maxim Karolik (1893-1948). Mr. Karolik was trained as an opera singer in his native St. Petersburg, Russia. Immigrating to the United States in the early 20’s, he became a champion of American art and a great benefactor to the MFA. In 1927, he married Martha Codman, a descendent of several prominent New England families and a distinguished collector of 18th century American art in her own right. Together, the Karoliks assembled, three extensive collections that literally transformed the MFA’s holdings and consequently rewrote the history of American art.
The organization of the "American Folk" exhibition is a creative structure. Developed to showcase everyday life in 19th century America in an entertaining as well as informative way, it is organized by theme. The four themes are "Family
Album," "Birds and Beasts," "Land and Sea," and "God and Country." Each of the MFA curatorial areas involved are represented in each of the thematic sections of the show. Here, clearly the sum of the parts in each case is greater than the whole.
The "Family Album" section of the show includes the life-sized portrait of "Joseph Moore and his Family" (c. 1839), a Ware, Massachusetts family. Joseph Moore was a dentist and hat maker. History does not say what he was the more successful at, however. The Moore family descendants, from whom the MFA acquired the painting, also included the actual chairs, mirror, and jewelry depicted in it along with his dental tools and other objects. American Painting Curator Carol Troyen remarked, "The Moore Family portrait is highly unusual in its size for the genre and period. Very few paintings for families were ever painted this big (82-3/8" x 93-3/8"). Perhaps, the Moores were making a statement about their affluence."
Susan Catherine Moore Waters painted "The Lincoln Children" (1845) with its richly patterned rug, fringed drapery and plant stand—things that visually demonstrated the family’s middle class comforts. Waters was quite unusual for the time—a woman itinerant portrait painter. Presumably, this was done to supplement the income of her ailing husband. One of the most provocative images in the entire exhibition is the almost surreal "Child in a Rocking Chair" by E.L. George. This portrait foreshadows by decades notions of urban angst, rural isolation, dysfunctional relationships, horror movies and Freudian analysis while the central figure, the little girl, clearly illustrates a societal nightmare.
"Birds and Beasts" is a menagerie in metal and wood that includes barnyard weathervanes, a flock of duck decoys and an elegant boot-scraper in the shape of a chicken. Also included is a carousel greyhound created by one of the most prominent makers of carousel figures, Charles Looff. This highly decorated elegant figure has glass eyes and ears "rippled" by the wind. Also there is a wonderful regal lion carved by Wilhelm Schimmel (1860-1890) and a sweet giraffe drawing done about 1836.
The "Land and Sea" section demonstrates the connection between the environment, both man-made and natural and the people. A unique and beautiful illustrative quilt brings to life the importance and effect that the railroad had in the 19th Century. This is a prime example of the end of rural isolation that the railroad signified. Probably made in Peru, Indiana, the appliqué letters, "E.R.", might refer to the Erie & Western Railroad which passed through Peru. Then, again they may
just be somebody’s initials, either the quilt maker or its recipient. The "Meditation by the Sea" (1860s) by an unidentified painter is a moody, eccentric rendering of rocks, stylized surf and somberly dressed figures that collectively transform a conventional seascape subject into a masterpiece of folk art. Rufus Porter, an itinerant painter, known for his airy landscapes on walls in rural Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts from the mid-1820’s through the 1840’s, decorated the box included in this section with graceful curving branches and running vines similar to those found on Porter’s murals. Interestingly, Porter was also a shoemaker, a fiddler, a sign painter, a school teacher, a silhouette cutter, a miniature portrait painter, an inventor and the founder of "Scientific American" magazine.
The fourth section of the exhibition, "God and Country," illustrates spiritualism and national pride. One of the masterpieces of the exhibition (and many, many pieces are certainly masterpieces) is a truly extraordinary pictorial quilt (created about 1895) by Harriet Powers, an African American woman who was born a slave who could neither read nor write. Through this quilt, she told complicated stories with
humor, wit and dramatic expression. The narrative images include biblical events, natural phenomena and human comedy ranging from Adam and Eve, a meteor shower and a man frozen to his whiskey jug. Textile and Fashion Arts curator Pamela Parmal stated, "It is fascinating that we actually have documented quotes from Harriet Powers as a very old woman describing each square of this quilt. This quilt is a piece of art and social history."
A most elegant patriotic whirligig (see cover), or wind toy, was created by John Green Satterley and is a memento of the Civil War. The toy soldier wears the distinctive blue and red uniform of a New York State Regiment. His wonderful painted face and his swinging arms add qualitatively to this masterpiece in wood. Charming carved sculptures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln by unknown artists and a fierce eagle by Wilhelm Schimmel underscore the patriotic fervor of the 19th century. Decorative arts and sculpture curator Gerald Ward commented, "This exhibition has allowed the MFA to present objects not often seen and to broaden the perspective of American Art on an extremely high quality level."
The elegant and comprehensive catalogue for "American Folk" was primarily written by Gerald W. R. Ward, the Katherine Lane Weems Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Art of Americas, with major contributions by Abaigeal Duda
and the other exhibition curators. The catalogue stresses the authentic tradition of American folk art as a vernacular national expression. It is illustrated in full color and also presents the history of the MFA’s folk art collection.
Before the discovery and embrace of the folk art tradition in the United States, most art historians, commentators and critics felt that American art had only come here on ships. We certainly now know quite differently. From all aspects of society, creativity abounded in the building of our American heritage. American folk art as presented by the MFAs excellent curatorial team underscores this point. Sharing pieces from the MFA’s wonderful collection, "American Folk" offers visitors a timeless gift of intimate connective ness and universal allure while demonstrating true aesthetic grace. Extraordinary works by ordinary people? No, extraordinary works by equally extraordinary people in an extraordinary exhibition.
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