Stage, Setting, Mood: Theatricality in the Visual Arts
Santa Fe’s Pictograph Press, founded by artist Dorothy Stewart and in operation from 1848 to 1953, was among the first private presses in the region to be operated by a woman. Along with books on petroglyphs and Native dances, Stewart published two popular works by William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, each one profusely illustrated with block prints. Editions of these rare books can be seen at the exhibition First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, during its run at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Stewart’s books are from the museum’s own library collection, but they are not the only objects at the museum connected to Shakespeare or to the stage.
Having the First Folio in Santa Fe is an opportunity for the museum to bring rare and seldom-seen works from the collection out of storage and onto the gallery walls. In conjunction with the folio exhibit, the museum presents Stage, Setting, Mood: Theatricality in the Visual Arts, a selection of two- and threedimensional works that convey a sense of drama and theatricality. “It was intended to accompany the folio, but it’s also intended to be its own exhibition, in case we didn’t get the folio,” said Carmen Vendelin, the museum’s curator of art. “It’s not about Shakespeare. It’s about the ways that artists convey theatricality in visual terms.”
The exhibit looks at depictions of actors and performances, drama in art, and staged photography. The last, for instance, is represented in the works of photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952), who dressed Native subjects in traditional garb before photographing them. Spidis — Wisham, a portrait of a Chinook man from Curtis’ The North American
Indian series, complements photographs by Trude Fleischmann (1895-1990), such as her portrait of actor Toni Birkmeyer, who is seen in full stage makeup.
William Jacob Hays’ (1830-1875) A Herd of Buffaloes on the Bed of the River Missouri is included as an homage to Shakespeare. The massive herd of buffaloes in this oil painting from 1862 stretches from the foreground to the horizon. One buffalo stops on the migration to contemplate the skull of one of its own kind, as Hamlet does with the skull of the court jester Yorick. “We borrowed this painting of the bison herd from the Gilcrease Museum,” Vendelin said. “One of the scholars I contacted to come speak, Heather James, writes about this particular painting. Her specialty is actually Shakespearean art of the American West.” James, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Southern California, presents her lecture, “The Graveyard and the Frontier:
Hamlet Among the Buffaloes,” during a symposium called “Shakespeare in New Mexico and the West,” at 1 p.m. on Feb. 20 at the museum.
Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yorick has been a popular subject in art. The scene provides artists with a ready-made memento mori — a reference to mortality and, in Christian iconography, the fleeting pleasures of earthly pursuits — into their work. Local artist Eli Levin’s etching, Large Skull, continues this tradition. But the memento mori is often included to be didactic. Although Levin’s etching of Mexican
Having the First Folio in Santa Fe is an opportunity for the museum to bring rare and seldom-seen works from the collection out of storage and onto the gallery walls.
modernist Diego Rivera — which shows a corpulent Rivera being attended to by a skeleton — is a humorous depiction, it also contrasts a gluttonous figure with a bony one. The skeleton may also reference the Mexican memorial holiday Día de los Muertos, reflecting the same ideas as the memento mori. Sculptural works by William Morris (1834-1896), contemporary artist Virgil Ortiz, and Fritz Scholder (1937-2005) are on exhibit as well, including a series of small bronze skulls by Scholder, one of which is affixed to the top of a cane.
The West was romanticized in 19th- and early20th- century art, and in a way, that romanticization continues in the work of Billy Schenck, whose depictions of Western scenes, while not idyllic like a 19th-century landscape, bring in a cinematic quality. Schenck works from film stills, rendering iconic and often irreverent images in a Pop-art style. The museum is showing Rough Riders, a new painting made specifically for the exhibition. “I told Billy Schenck I wanted to include one of his paintings in this show,” Vendelin said. “He said, ‘Can I paint you a new painting? Because I think my new work is more theatrical than what you have in your collection.’ ”
The museum is also featuring a series of Shakespeare prints produced by John Boydell (1720-1804), whose print business was based on works by well-known painters of his day. Two prints that were made after Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) and two after Benjamin West (1738-1820) show scenes from King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth. “Boydell had a Shakespeare gallery in London that he had filled with these paintings he had commissioned for members of the Royal Academy,” Vendelin said. “He ended up going bankrupt and the paintings were sold for a pittance at auction. Most of them are no longer extant. We know most of them only from the prints.” The Boydell prints are on loan from the Messenger Art Collection.
Theater performances were a popular subject for artists in the 19th century. Among the museum’s more obscure holdings is the recently cleaned and conserved Pepys and Nell Gwynne, an oil painting by Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1863). “I don’t know if they’ve ever included it in an exhibition before, because it’s kind of unusual for our collection,” Vendelin said. Gwynne was active in the 17th century, one of the first female actors to appear on the English stage. In Shakespeare’s time, women were not permitted to appear on stage and female roles in his works and others were played by male actors. The painting depicts a moment backstage where Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), a British naval administrator and Parliament member, is introduced to Gwynne by another actress, Mary Knipp. Popular actors were a subject for Japanese woodblock prints, too, particularly before the advent of photography. The museum is showing mid-19th- century prints of Kabuki actors by Utagawa Kunisada (1786 - 1865) and The Conquest of Oshi by Lord Minamoto Yoshiie by Utagawa Yoshimori (1830-1884). “A lot of Japanese prints were of Kabuki subjects,” Vendelin said. “Part of the reason why Japanese printmaking died out was because of the development of photography. People would buy a print of their favorite actor, but once they could get a photograph, it hurt the print industry.” One section deals with place and the use of space. Vendelin chose works whose foreground actions are framed similarly to a museum diorama, where figures are compressed into the foreground and arranged in
a tableaux. One such painting is James Stovall Morris’ (18981973) Lightning. Morris’ canted angles, along with architectural and landscape elements, are rendered askew, heightening the sense of urgency and drama in the painting, which depicts an approaching storm over a small New Mexico vill age. While artist s such as Morris, B.J.O. Nordfeldt (18781955), and William Penhallow Henderson (1877-1943) were capturing cultural phenomena — Native dances, religious processions, and rites of the dead among them — the emphasis was, according to Vendelin, “on stage and audience instead of religious content.” Henderson was an East Coast artist who, after his wife, Alice Corbin, was diagnosed with tuberculosis, settled in New Mexico in 1916 so that she could receive care at a sanitarium. In Holy Week in New Mexico, his depiction of a procession of penitentes, Henderson makes no attempt to engage the viewer emotionally, instead using the subject matter to explore odd angles and the flat rendering of bodies in space, not unlike compositional elements in the Japanese woodblock prints. “It’s someone who’s an outsider — an Anglo artist — seeing this specific example of New Mexico tradition. The severe angles and crowding does give us a certain mood — it does make us react, but I don’t think he really captures the religious spirit of the procession, of the Passion play, that the actual penitentes would have felt.”
Drama is expressed in Stage, Setting, Mood in other striking ways. Esquípula Romero de Romero’s (1889-1975) The Black Shawl, for instance, is among the museum’s more recognizable holdings, having been reproduced on postcards and other materials and sold through the gift shop. The painting was on the cover of New Mexico Magazine twice: once in 1933, the year it was painted, and again the following year. It shows a young religious devotee looking reverently up at a location outside the frame. We know what she is looking at only because of the shadow on the rock wall behind her — the shadow of a cross. The painting is dramatic and bold but takes as its subject a moment of very personal faith.
No New Mexico exhibit that deals with theatricality can ignore Gustave Baumann (1881-1971), whose marionettes were a staple of the Santa Fe social scene. Baumann scripted plays that he and his family performed for friends and neighbors using hand-crafted marionettes that are now in the collection along with the Teatro Duende, Baumann’s marionette stage. The museum is also showing a woodblock print that depicts the marionettes.
Stage, Setting, Mood comprises works that accentuate the notion that New Mexico provides the perfect subject matter for theatrical or dramatic artworks, to say nothing of the fact that art-making is itself performative. The end result of creating art may not lead to a stage bow, but even in a museum setting, you are still the audience.
James Stovall Morris: Lightning, circa 1940, oil on canvasboard panel; above, Dorothy Stewart: A Midsommer Night’s Dream, 1953, block print; all images courtesy New Mexico Museum of Art
Zena Kavin: Back Stage, graphite on tracing paper; above, left, Trude Fleischmann: Portrait of Toni Birkmeyer, 1935, gelatin silver print