October 31, 2011
The town of Belfry, in Carbon County, Montana, lies on the route from Cody to Billings, just 11 miles north of the Wyoming border. It is chiefly known for cattle and sheep ranching, and for growing sugar beets, alfalfa and feed corn. With a population of just 219, it’s not a place that you usually think of for an art pilgrimage.
In fact, Belfry contains an outstanding work of public sculpture, The Bat in Belfry, which stands in front of the public high school, whose sports teams are called the Belfry Bats. The piece carries no label or inscription. But I heard it was fabricated in the school’s shop. And the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System says that the sculptors were Dale Cristman and Doug Brost and that the sheet-metal work was erected in 1980.
Anyone who has bats in his belfry will quickly grasp the concept. In addition to the piece’s rich verbal innuendos, it has remarkable formal qualities: what’s wonderful is how the “battiness” of the animal is reduced to a geometric essence. The piece’s handling of crisp angles reminds me of the famous statue of The Pharaoh Khafre, in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, with his head being protected by the wings of the falcon-god Horus. And there’s also a hint of early Cubism, reminiscent of Picasso’s Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table of 1908 in the Kunstmuseum in Basel.
Belfry’s Bat is American folk art at its best. It’s well worth a pilgrimage, particularly since it’s only a short distance from Bear Creek, where you can attend the pig races at the Bear Creek Saloon and Steakhouse.
Bat sculpture is a fascinating sub-genre of the art form, and one of the greatest masters of bat sculpture was the relentlessly romantic and melodramatic 19th-century French thespian Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Most actresses of her era were distinctly chubby; Sarah was gaunt and haggard (batlike?) and pioneered a look that was the 19th-century’s equivalent of Goth.
For some reason she identified with bats. This was an age when huge hats helped define a woman’s personality, and when Sarah was not declaiming on the boards she paraded on the boulevards of Paris with a stuffed bat on her hat.
She also made sculpture of bats. And she was gifted—no kidding. I’m particularly fond of a wonderful sculpted bronze inkwell that she made; dated 1880, it’s a self portrait with bat wings in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. (The work is in tune with The Bat in Belfry, for there are elements of visual and verbal punning in both.) Bernhardt’s sculpture, Self-Portrait as a Sphinx, seems to caricature her batlike appearance and play on the fact that bats are as black as ink. Why would men be attracted to this vampire look? I won’t attempt to explain this, but Bernhardt knew how to captivate and manipulate men.
So far Bernhardt’s inkwell and Belfry’s Bat are my two favorite bat sculptures, but I’d be interested to learn of other examples. I must confess that I’ve only recently started to focus on this genre.
October 19, 2011
In 1978, Thomas McCormick, an art collector and gallery owner in Chicago, purchased a sarape —a wool, blanket-like textile worn by men in Latin America—from a funky, now-deceased art dealer in Los Angeles, Peggy Nusbaum. McCormick has gone on to assemble one of this nation’s most notable collections of sarapes from the Saltillo area in northern Mexico. He exhibited them in Saltillo Sarapes: A Survey, 1850-1920, at the Thomas M. McCormick Gallery. The book-sized catalogue provides, rather amazingly, the first serious scholarly attempt to describe the full development of this important art form.
As is often the case with serious scholarship, the catalogue makes clear that much of what we thought we knew isn’t true. The McCormick show attempts to set things straight.
A rather simple form of attire, a sarape is curiously difficult to describe. In a way, it’s just a blanket, or a poncho with no hole in the center, although there’s generally a circular or diamond-shaped decorative motif where the head-hole would be. Its simplicity made the garment versatile. It could be worn over one’s head as a rain jacket, thrown over one’s shoulders as a cloak, draped around one’s neck as a shawl or scarf, or spread out as a blanket. When rolled behind a saddle, it provided a striking ornament. By the 1830s, as we know from costume prints by figures such as Carl Nebel, Mexican men wore sarapes in all these different ways. Women didn’t wear them. Eye-catching and decorative, sarapes let men to play the peacock.
We don’t know when sarapes first came into use. So far as the record goes, they just appear around 1835 or 1840, seemingly out of nowhere, by which time seemingly anyone who could afford a sarape was wearing one. Perhaps surprisingly, its popularity may be partly tied to tax laws: Because the sarape wasn’t traditional, it fell outside the sumptuary laws and dress codes that served as the basis for taxation.
The sarape may have evolved from the Spanish cape or capa, a large overcoat with an open front and often a hood. Alternatively, it may have evolved from the Aztec tilma, a poncho-like garment tied at the shoulder, depicted in painted codices from the 1640s. The notion of a native origin is supported by the fact that the sarape developed not in Mexico City but in outlying regions, such as Saltillo, where native traditions were more powerful. But the garment was worn by wealthy gentlemen, landowners and horsemen, most of whom belonged to an altogether different social caste and took pride in their pure Spanish descent.
Very likely it originated as a riding garment. Its use was closely associated with the huge haciendas which developed in the 18th century and were particularly powerful around Saltillo. Notably, the latifundo of the Sanchez Navarro family, with its roots in the Saltillo, was the largest estate ever owned by one family in the New World, covering some 17.1 million acres—almost 7,000 square miles. The major product of the hacienda was the wool of Marino sheep—the wool from which sarapes were woven.
Making Sense of Sarapes
Basically, three types of sarapes can be identified. The earliest, from before about 1850, employ hand-woven wools and organic dyes—including an extremely costly red dye, cochineal, produced by pulverizing cochineal bugs, a parasite of the nopal cactus. Cochineal was a major Mexican export before the development of aniline dies. The designs of these early sarapes, generally a diamond of some sort, are linear and geometric. Many appear to have an Aztec or native quality.
The repertory of design motifs was expanded during the reign of the Emperor Maximilian, from 1864 to 1867, which ended when he was executed by the Mexican strongman Benito Juarez. Maximilian’s brief reign is associated with the introduction of design motifs from France and other European countries, and these remained popular even after he was overthrown: sarapes of this sort are known as “Maximilians.” Flowers, animals, motifs from classical architecture, portraits and other representational elements start to appear in sarapes around this period, often combined in odd ways with traditional patterns.
After about 1850, machine-woven yarn, some of it imported from Europe, began to appear in sarapes, along with synthetic, aniline dies, made from coal-tar. In transitional examples, machine-woven and hand-made yarn and natural and synthetic dies often appear in the same piece, in unusual combinations.
By the 1920s, when sarapes were produced for the delectation of American tourists, one often finds motifs that are impressively incongruous and bizarre, such as a portrait of Charles Lindbergh in a border of American red, white and blue. The fabrication of hand-woven sarapes seems to have died out in the 1930s. While sarapes are still sold in Mexico, they’re machine-made: the hand-woven sarape appears to be a thing of the past.
One of the World’s Great Textile Traditions
Sarapes are distinct from the world’s other great textile traditions. There are eye-dazzling effects, particularly in the central medallion, and some early examples vibrate like a piece of Op Art. Another recurring element is the hot reds and pinks—shrieking color that often accentuates the dazzle effects of the design motifs themselves.
The show at the McCormick Gallery has made two contributions to understanding this art form. First, it identified a small group of datable sarapes, which now can serve as touchstones for dating other examples. Second, it provided a painstakingly detailed textile analysis by Lydia Brockman, herself a weaver, which identifies the wools, the dies, and the number of threads per square inch—both warp and weft. Her analysis offers a basis for identifying related textiles or even attributing them to a maker.
It’s notable that the show took place without formal institutional support. Indeed, one of the unfortunate gaps in the catalogue is that it provides no technical analysis of some important sarapes in the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, which was reportedly not willing to unframe their pieces to be closely examined.
October 14, 2011
The robber barons loved the portraits of the 17th century Dutch painter Frans Hals, and nowhere did these barons congregate so thickly as in New York. Not surprisingly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has this country’s largest collection of paintings by Hals, donated by rapacious financiers who made rivals quake during the early industrial age, such as Collis P. Huntington, Henry Marquand, Benjamin Altman, H. O. Havemeyer and Jules Bache. Stroll across 5th Avenue and you can see more Frans Hals paintings in the Frick collection, amassed by the ruthless Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.
The Metropolitan recently gathered its impressive holdings of Hals paintings into a sort of mini-blockbuster exhibition. Organized by Walter Liedtke, the museum’s curator of Dutch art, the show contained 13 portraits, two from private collections. There are also a few works formerly attributed to Hals, and by his contemporaries, that set his achievement in context. The show is loosely divided between early exuberant works by Hals, such as the Merrymakers at Shrovetide (circa 1616) and Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart (1623), and the later, more sober portraits, which sometimes have an introspective, even brooding quality reminiscent of Rembrandt.
What’s So Great About Frans Hals?
As a painter, Hals made two great contributions. One was to combine an intense sense of realism with flamboyant brushwork—which gives his work a highly personal quality. When we stand at a distance the image seems “real”: but when we’re close all we see is gestural marks, made by the human hand. At a sort of middle distance there’s a moment when the two modes of seeing precariously coexist, or at which one mode of seeing shifts into the other. The “real” and the “abstract,” the “objective” and the “subjective,” interact with each other in endlessly fascinating ways.
Hal’s other contribution is to fill his paintings with evident psychological intensity, the quality known as “psychological insight.” His figures feel as if we could speak to them.
There are many tricks that Hals used to create this effect, including his dashing brushwork, which gives mobility to the muscles of the face, as if the figures were alive. Another fascinating trick was also used by Rembrandt. Hals recognized that the human face has two halves and the expression on one side differs subtly from the expression on the other. Particularly in his late work, Hals exploited this effect in a dramatic way: the two sides of the face are two slightly different people. The lighted side portrays the sitter’s “public self,” and the shadowed side the “private self”—generally somewhat sadder and more thoughtful, perhaps with an eye that wanders a bit and looks out of focus. Without even being conscious of this difference, we respond to it. Because a portrait by Hals reveals not a single but a divided self, the act of looking at a Hals painting is one of penetrating through the surface presentation of the figure to the inner person.
It’s surely no accident that Hals’s life (1580-1666) overlapped with that of Shakespeare (1564-1616), and the way he evoked a sense of character provides interesting parallels to the characters in Shakespeare’s plays who are generally two or more people in one body, engaged in internal dialogue. In that sense, Hals’s portraits document the emergence of the modern self: they display a new awareness that the “self” is not a single, uniform thing, but the product of conflicting forces and disparate impulses, ruled by a consciousness filled with self-doubt.
I suspect that the robber barons’ fondness for Hals has something to do with this psychological penetration. Success in business depends on an accurate assessment of the person across the bargaining table, and this assessment often depends not only on what is presented on the surface but on facial expressions and gestures that reveal deeper, hidden motives. Is this person telling the truth? Will he double-cross me? Can I trust him? One might add that the rich brown palette of a Hals’ portraits fits nicely in the dark cave-like interiors of the gilded age.
Where to See Frans Hals
After the Metropolitan Museum, the largest collection of Hals in this country is that of the National Gallery in Washington, with an impressive cluster of portraits, most of them assembled by the industrialist Andrew Mellon. But perhaps the best way to get into the Hals spirit is to see his work in the actual home of a robber baron.
Two of these settings come to mind. One is the Frick collection in New York, already mentioned, in a mansion designed by Carriere and Hastings for Henry Clay Frick. The other is at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, the home of Charles P. Taft, the brother of Supreme Court Chief Justice and U. S. President William Henry Taft. (It has a remarkable group of works not only by Hals but by two other top figures in the art of portraiture, Rembrandt and John Singer Sargent, including the latter’s wonderfully nervous Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, showing the author in a wicker chair, nursing a cigarette.) Of the Taft Museum’s portraits by Hals, surely the most remarkable are those of a married couple: A Seated Man Holding a Hat and A Seated Woman Holding a Fan. Each is a masterwork, and there’s a delightful interaction between the two.
There are other Frans Hals experiences worth seeking out in the United States.
I always feel a bit wistful when I look at Hal’s Portrait of a Woman at the St. Louis Art Museum, or the Portrait of a Man in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. They’re a couple, but somehow got divorced, and ended up at opposite ends of the state.
Finally, it’s well worth studying the two examples of Hals’s work at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The larger of the two, Tielman Roosterman (1634), is not only one of the artist’s best large-scale portraits but one of the very best preserved. Its condition is near perfect. The other, portraying an unknown woman, has a surface that’s been abraded and rubbed, like a garment that’s gone too many times to the drycleaners. If you study these two paintings you’ll see the distinction between a painting in good condition and one in poor condition, and you can apply this knowledge to every old master painting you encounter.
ARTiculations aims to shed light on art and comment on what’s happening in the world of art, artists, art museums and art history. The idea is to celebrate what’s best and most inspiring while not forgetting the diversity of the many corners of America.
It aspires to illuminate the serious ideas and deep feelings that lie behind great works of art; at the same time, we’re not afraid to see the ridiculous side of things or to poke fun at incompetence or pretentiousness.
In the end, it’s you, the viewer, who makes the work of art. Without you it’s nothing. We’d love to have your feedback.
About the author:
Henry Adams, a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of acclaimed biographies of important American artists. His works include Eakins Revealed:The Secret Life of an American Artist, which the painter Andrew Wyeth described as “without doubt the most extraordinary biography I have ever read on an artist,” Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original, What’s American about American Art, and, most recently, Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock.