A history lesson from everyday life: watercolors on display in 'Drawing on America's Past,' now showing at the National Gallery of Art, reveal America's unique art heritage, one rich with beauty and loaded with impressive craftsmanship - Nation: exhibitions
Insight on the News, Dec 24, 2002 by Stephen Goode
It was good work, and they were pleased to get it given the hard times. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, nearly 1,000 out-of-work American artists found employment making images in watercolor of the nation's cultural heritage. They copied quilts, weather vanes, signs that hung in front of inns, children's toys, pottery, carousel animals and much else--almost anything that had been made between the country's settlement and 1900, and which seemed a piece of vintage Americana worth saving for posterity as an image before the item got lost or fell apart.
Their project came under the name "The Index of American Design" and was part of the Federal Art Project (FAP), itself a unit of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, one of many new federal agencies brought into being by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to deal with the economic crisis the nation faced and to put Americans to work.
The project's purpose was simple and admirably straightforward: "To record material of historical significance which has not heretofore been studied and which, for one reason or another, stands in danger of being lost," according to the Index of American Design Manual, the agency's handbook. The 1,000 artists who worked on the watercolor illustrations that now make up the Index made these splendid images at various times between 1935 and early 1942, when the project came to an end with the United States' entry into World War II.
But what a legacy of pure Americana they left us! Altogether, the Index artists created more than 18,200 watercolors of objects from 34 states. Since 1943, these paintings have been in the care of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where they're available for artists, scholars and others to examine daily. There also have been national tours of selected watercolors from the collection and, from time to time, exhibitions of the work at the National Gallery itself.
Now visitors to the National Gallery can view a new exhibition of nearly 90 of these splendid watercolors along with 35 of the objects they portray, located through the painstaking detective work of exhibition curator Virginia Tuttle Clayton. In a talk to art journalists at the exhibitions press opening, Clayton, the National Gallery's associate curator of old-master prints, lamented not finding each of the objects for which she searched.
A child's doll dated from 1755-65 that was painted by Index artist Molly Bodenstein in 1938, for example, seems to have disappeared. Dressed in a red calico outfit with a lace scarf, the doll had been part of a collection of "authentic American dolls" owned by Annie Ruth Cole of Petersburg, Va.
But Clayton did locate many fine items, not the least of which is an 1835 weather vane that originally sat atop a slaughterhouse in Fairhaven, Mass. The handsomely rendered device, now at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, is a painted wood sculpture of a farmer taking a pig to the butcher. Both man and animal walk astride the dull side and handle of the blade that soon will be used to turn the pig into bacon and chops--proof, if proof were needed, that grim wit has a long American pedigree.
Why create an index of American design? Its purpose partly was to give destitute artists a means of keeping body and soul together during difficult times. But Clayton sees a deeper and far more significant aim than merely creating busywork for craftsman. She calls this deeper aim "cultural nationalism."
In the 1930s many American artists and critics looked upon the United States as devoid of an artistic heritage upon which its contemporary artists could build, Clayton maintains. They believed that American painters, sculptors and designers had to turn to Europe or elsewhere to gather ideas and learn serious artistic style.
The main purpose of the Index was to prove this negativism wrong and show there was nothing lacking in the country's artistic past, Clayton avers. The Index, with its more than 18,000 images from the American past, was intended "to define the national spirit in works of art" and to put the "national tradition of design" on display.
Even more richly, according to Clayton, the Index "was to confirm our status as a nation with an art of its own" and acquaint American artists and the American people with that tradition in the hopes that new generations of artists would build on that heritage.
It was a magnificent hope, but one that ultimately didn't bear all the fruit that was hoped it might. World War II intervened, turning America's attention elsewhere. After the war, the art movement that seized America's--and soon the world's--imagination was abstract expressionism, which made no use at all of the traditions embedded in the art of the Index of American Design.
Still, Clayton believes that we must regard the Index as enormously influential despite these setbacks. It helped define what we regard as significant Americana, for one thing. "When we think about what American art is," Clayton notes, "the Index is there in the back of our minds, even if we aren't aware of it, telling us what to look for and to prize. This influence continues to play in Country Living magazine or PBS' tremendously popular Antiques Roadshow [program]," she says.
And she's right. The watercolors from the Index of American Design on display at the National Gallery reveal a heritage rich with beauty and loaded with impressive craftsmanship. A Pennsylvania German artist's 19th-century carving of a rooster, painted in the 1930s by Marian Page, is a great example--lovely to look at and full of wit. Another is the 1714 valance, linen plain-weave or embroidered wool and silk (the watercolor of the valance is by Index artist Suzanne Chapman)--a beautiful design that's breathtaking in its simplicity.
But what's equally amazing, and pleasing, is that the watercolors themselves often are first-rate works. Not only do these fine paintings convey the heritage that they're supposed to preserve and pass on, they add to that heritage, enriching American arts and crafts in their own right.
A stunning instance of this excellence is Isadore Goldberg II's and John Tarantino's 1941 rendering of a 19th-century stoneware jar. Somehow the two men were able in their watercolor copy to convey the glaze on the jar with such convincing fidelity that it's nearly impossible to distinguish the image in the painting from the ceramic original.
One of the best watercolors in the show is Elizabeth Moutal's classy and stylish 1937 rendering of four mortars and pestles from the 18th and 19th centuries, entitled simply Mortars and Pestles. The four mortars--one red, one brown, one golden and one green; each of a different shape and design--float in their white background with an elegance that's immediately pleasing, even uplifting, as beautifully crafted things often are.
Clayton correctly identifies the chief characteristics and virtues of the American art in this show as "simplicity" and "vitality." The words "direct" and "witty" also apply. Look, for instance, at the life-size sculptures Dapper Dan and Captain Jinks, both of which stood at one time in front of shops to entice passers-by to take a look at what the businesses had for sale. They're both full of fun and vigor, most particularly the magnificently carved Captain Jinks, who takes his name from a Civil War-era song, "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines."
There's also great wit in Shop-Sign Spectacles, a sign that hung in front of an eyeglass shop that's a pair of spectacles with a pair of blue eyes looking through the lenses. The sign has an uncanny, weird and comical look that would have pleased the surrealists.
Almost any watercolor in this show could serve as an example of the virtue of simplicity, and the natural elegance that often accompanies this virtue. But outstanding are the William Bliss Sled (it has the date 1840 prominently painted on its surface) that was rendered in watercolor by Ingrid Selmer-Larson, and the 19th-century Saw and Scabbard, a plain and unadorned carpenter's tool and its equally plain and unadorned container, done with loving precision by Index artist Albert Rudin.
The show has lovely patriotic images, too--the impressive Paddle-Wheel Cover From the Steamship Island Home, for example, that features a large eagle painted gold with its wings spread, a talon clutching a red, white and blue banner. Religious imagery includes a Garden of Eden in which Adam, even though his nakedness already is covered, is reaching up to take the apple from the serpent's mouth, the bite of which will give him the knowledge of good and evil and lead to his expulsion from Paradise and God's presence.
After work on the Index watercolors stopped in 1942, it wasn't clear at first where this treasury would find a home. The collection was government-owned, so a permanent residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where it found a temporary resting spot, was out of the question.
In Washington, the Library of Congress and the National Gallery vied for the collection. The poet Archibald MacLeish, then librarian of Congress, lobbied for the Index. But Holger Cahill, director of the FAP, wanted the National Gallery to get the watercolors, and it was he who carried the day. Cahill smartly enlisted the support of FDR friend, confidant and longtime adviser Harry Hopkins. Once Hopkins was on the gallery's side, the Library of Congress stood not a chance.
Sadly, one of the reasons the Index may not have had the influence it might otherwise have enjoyed is that the kind of cultural nationalism it celebrated grew suspect in the 1930s and 1940s. Nazism flaunted the national and folk culture of Germany and, for many, reveling in a nation's past--any nation's past--smacked of that evil ideology and had, at all costs, to be avoided.
But one can love America's past without being racist or nativist or a Nazi, and that's precisely what the Index of American Design, and this exhibition, proves so well. "Drawing On America's Past" is a rich experience. It's also unadulterated fun. What a pleasure it is to learn about our national cultural heritage and at the same time be able to take such delight in it!
STEPHEN GOODE IS A SENIOR WRITER FOR Insight.
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