James M. Keller looks back on a Shakespeare-infused month
Many Santa Feans spent the month of February brushing up their Shakespeare, spurred on by the visit of a copy of the First Folio to the New Mexico Museum of Art. The First Folio, as culture-minded folks in these parts should be well aware by now, was the original compilation of Shakespeare’s complete plays (or at least nearly all of them) into a single volume. The edition was published in 1623, seven years after the author died, and 233 copies are known to exist today. To mark the 400th anniversary of his death, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., which owns 82 of those surviving volumes, masterminded a tour to place one on display in every state of the nation in the course of the year, with New Mexico coming up early in the rotation.
Inspiring Americans to revisit the writings of the most revered wordsmith of the English language is a fine and worthy enterprise, and we should be grateful that Santa Fe snagged the honor within our state. At the center of the project was the New Mexico Museum of Art, where the Folio was on display from Feb. 5 through Feb. 28 before moving on to its next stop, but it probably could not have gotten the green light on its own. In selecting the tour venues, the Folger considered both curatorial nuts and bolts — like environmental and safety concerns — and the city-wide context that would surround the show. Santa Fe rose to the occasion, promising and delivering an impressive battery of Bard-related exhibitions, performances, readings, lectures, and other public activities.
Things worked out pretty well on t he whole, although it was hard not to overlook bits and pieces that fell short of ideal. The most obvious was the exhibition Stage, Setting, Mood: Theatricality in the Visual
Arts, which included as its centerpiece the Folger’s touring show titled First Folio! The Book That Gave
Us Shakespeare. Together these occupied one room in the Museum of Art; from a visitor’s perspective, they seemed a single show. The book was housed in its own plexiglass case in the middle of the space and was surrounded by a handful of large panels, provided by the Folger, which provided background on the First Folio and stressed the relevance of Shakespeare to current popular culture. On the walls of the room were hung the Museum of Art’s contribution: 40 paintings, prints, and photographs that had some connection to the concept of “theatricality.”
The joint exhibition could have been more impactful. Arriving was a letdown. One reached it via a different exhibition that opened the same day — a colorful, vibrant, and alluring show about the history of the guitar. As things were arranged, the
Folio/Theatricality show seemed terribly sedate in comparison. Its single ancient volume, in an unglamorous box, exuded little magnetism. One imagined a set-up in which the museum had constructed an alley leading visitors directly to the main show, without the distraction of the guitars — a discrete walkway in which pannels could have built anticipation, perhaps assisted by an audio component broadcasting great actors of pa st and present declaiming famous morsels from Shakespeare’s plays, the whole depositing attendees at an impressive altar on which was displayed the holy object of veneration. As it was, the experience suffered froom a touch of “meh.”
The surrounding Theatricality show seems a stretch. Thhe opening wall text proclaims that “New Mexico has beeen described as ‘dramatic, almost theatrical’ ” — one wonders by whom — and then observes, flatly, that “flat planes of adobe structures can impart a diorama or stage-like quality to the arrangement of flat two-dimensional surfaces in three-dimensional space.” Fair enough, and a few nearby oils bear this out, such as Frank G. Applegate’s circa 1925 Pueblo Indian Dance, in which performers in a central area are viewed by onlookers at the fringes, and James Stovall Morris’ dramatically illuminated WPA-era Velorio, which depicts a wake as a sort of stage set. Elsewhere one encounters pictures of actors and stage presentations, but as the show progresses, the connection to the presumed topic grows increasingly vague. The most imposing painting is Julius Rolshoven’s large oil The Indian Council (circa 1916), an elegant arrangement of five robed figures, a druum, and some pots. But figures and objects in paintings are almost always “arranged” by the artist in some specific balance, and I never grasped why this piece was more relevant to the argument than another might have been. The looseness continued. Of an Edward S. Curtis photograph of an Indian ( Spidis, 1910), we read, “Curtis’ romantic photographs of indigenous peoople were carefully staged.” Well, yes. Ditto Arnold Newman’s photograph Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe
at Ghost Ranch. Didn’t Georgia always pose when a camera was in the vicinity?
Completely on topic, in contrast, were four large color etchings published in London in the years aroound 1800 by John Boydell, gorgeous, bright-hued images of moments from Hamlet, Macbeth, and
The Laughing Jester by an unknown artist, 15th century, Netherlands