Heart & hands
The Autobiography of Gustave Baumann
May 1, 1891, Gustave Baumann (1881-1971), at the age of ten, departed Hamburg with his family via the Columbia on a trans-Atlantic voyage bound for New York. On arrival, the sight that greeted them from the deck was Coney Island’s Elephantine Colossus, a 31-room hotel in the shape of a massive pachyderm, a Trojan horse pregnant with all the possibilities that lay before them. The family was, in Baumann’s own words, “roused by the economic urge to try their luck somewhere in a new land not yet overcrowded.” The Baumanns hailed from the North German city of Madgeburg. Gustave’s mother, Paulina, and her children were en route to Chicago where his father, Gustav, had already established a home for them. Baumann remained in the United States for most of his life. He would not arrive in New Mexico until he was in his late thirties. It was here in Santa Fe that, nearing the age of seventy, he set down his autobiography in writing.
The Autobiography of Gustave Baumann, a colorful, conversational collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, was published in September by Pomegranate. The task of editing the tome was taken on by Martin Krause, curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), working from a piecemeal collection of writings that were in the possession of Baumann’s daughter, Ann. “I met Ann in 1981 for the first time, because that was the first Baumann exhibition that I organized as part of his centennial,” Krause told Pasatiempo. “She came to the exhibit from California simply because she would support anything related to her father. From that time on we were friends. At some point she provided me and other Baumann scholars with a typescript of the autobiography.” Ann was reluctant to give the green light for Krause to publish the autobiography until after the release of a planned catalogue raisonné of his prints. “I agreed to that, but after she died I called up the author of the catalogue raisonné, who I’ve known for years and years, too, and I said, ‘Do you mind if I go ahead and publish it?’ and she said, ‘No. I don’t mind at all.’ ” The autobiography accompanies Gustave Baumann, German Craftsman - American Artist, a show that spans the artist’s career, on exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art through mid-February.
The largest collection of works by Baumann, one of Santa Fe’s most iconic artists, is in the New Mexico Museum of Art, but that collection is now rivaled by a gift given by Ann Baumann to the IMA in 2008 that increased its collection to 250 works. Like Santa Fe, Brown County, Indiana, can lay a claim to the artist who lived there for six years before coming to New Mexico in 1918. His exacting printing process, working with several inked woodblocks to create a single polychrome print, began as early as 1905. Woodblocks are the medium for which he’s most well known, right down to his iconic chop mark: a hand inscribed inside a heart. He spent most of 1917 in Wyoming, New York, where he founded the Swanli Press and produced a number of prints: idyllic views of upstate New York with rolling hills, and a muted palette. There, he met poet Lydia Coonley Ward, and he wrote of her in glowing terms that could equally apply to Baumann himself:
I often wonder where the artist would be but for the prodding encouragement of a few optimistic souls who not only believe in him but in all humanity as well. Apparently unaware of any human frailty they may meet in their path, they never stumble but complete their destined cycle with unshaken optimism and, as we say, leave the world a better place to live in.
“He didn’t have any elevated opinion of himself,” Krause said. “I think that was because of his background. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, having to go to work at the age of sixteen, having only completed the eighth grade, and with no training in art, entering the field of commercial art and becoming quite successful at it. He always said that the one thing that he was thankful to commercial art for was to be mindful of his customers, the people who were buying his art. He worked for them, essentially, which is certainly not an ego-driven personality at all.”
Baumann often wrote in a jovial spirit, making for an engaging and, at times, humorous read. But he glosses over names and events and, were it not for Krause’s annotations, this might have left the reader wanting more. Editing an autobiography entails keeping the subject in check. Separating the wheat from the chaff falls to the editor, a particularly difficult task when the subject is long dead. “Baumann didn’t use a lot of facts, as you’ve probably noticed while reading it,” Krause said. “It’s fairly anecdotal. I decided, for the people who wanted that information, that I would provide it because he rambles on and mentions people in passing and doesn’t say who they were. The footnotes provide that embroidery to his account.”
The book was written more or less chronologically, starting with Baumann’s youth. Krause broke down the narrative into chapters divided, as is the accompanying exhibit, by place or region rather than by years. It’s also a profusely illustrated work, full of family photographs that became available after Ann died in 2011 as well as Baumann’s artwork. It’s in the latter that we really see him. In William D. Nesbit’s article, “The Work of Gustave Baumann,” which appeared in The Graphic
Arts in April 1914, the author states that “To know him is to know his work, and to know his work is to know him.” Baumann was an artist profoundly affected by place and he sought to capture the essence of regions
he lived in and visited, along with the aesthetic appeal of their natural beauty. You notice that prints he made in Brown County or on the East Coast differ in terms of color from his images of the Southwest.
In May of 1918 Baumann, headed west and hopped on board the Denver & Río Grande train bound for Taos. Describing his enthusiasm while riding the train en route to Northern New Mexico, he wrote: “Tickets please, who wants to go?” “A rolling stone,” said I. “Where to?” “‘Taos,” said I. “Hop on, Rolling Stone, and remember me to Mabel when you get there.”
When he arrived in Taos, the city was still an unincorporated village. It was also the setting for the Taos colony of artists. Socialite and arts patron Mabel Dodge Sterne (soon to be Mabel Dodge Luhan) had already founded a Taos-based art and literary colony, but it was one that Baumann was not comfortable in. “If you like the Taos country,” he wrote, “it is fatal to stay too long because you’ll never feel at home again anywhere else.” Taos artists were focused on painting. Baumann was first and foremost a printmaker, although he was a far more well-rounded artist than that moniker belies. He found Taos a difficult place to live and was attracted to Santa Fe’s diversity. A traveling show of his prints had just opened at what was then called the “New Museum” (the New Mexico Museum of Art) and he was eager to see the new exhibition space which had opened the previous year. The show was offered as part of of the museum’s open-door policy. He ended up renting a small adobe home in the city the following year. In time, he established a mobile marionette stage that’s still housed in the New Mexico Museum of Art, which also has a number of his whimsical marionettes, including ones he made of himself, his wife, Jane, and their daughter Ann. In all, Baumann, a craftsman as much as an artist, hand-carved around 70 marionettes and composed plays that he staged in his living room, inviting his friends. He also crafted his own frames for his artwork as well as making furniture. Despite feeling that painting was an overrated art form, he experimented with canvas and brush, too, creating uncharacteristic abstractions as well as representational watercolors that are, somehow, unmistakably Baumann’s. “His paintings were certainly less known among the Baumann collectors,” Krause said. “Because he had evolved independently — he had no mentor, he had no teacher — there was a unique quality to his work that had more in common, perhaps, with the painters he associated with in Brown County and Taos than with the works of other woodblock print makers. Even so, there’s really nothing comparable between a Baumann woodcut and a Victor Higgins painting. Baumann has his own little niche that he developed and nurtured, which makes him a very singular artist.”
“The Autobiography of Gustave Baumann,” edited by Martin Krause, was published by Pomegranate in September.
Baumann with a marionette depiction of himself
Ann Baumann with one of her father’s marionettes