High drama

Stage, Set­ting, Mood: The­atri­cal­ity in the Vis­ual Arts

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Michael Abatemarco

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

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