Sunday, November 27, 2016

Kit Carson (1809-1868)

On a recent visit to Taos, New Mexico, known to most as a ski resort and the model of what people think of as an Indian Pueblo, it was also the home of many famous artists and Kit Carson, who played an important role in the Westward expansion of the United States. The hero of my youth has been reviled in recent years as a symbol of the Anglo mistreatment and removal of Native Americans from their lands. The park in Taos where he is buried bears his name despite a recent attempt to rename it, and his home is now a modest museum.

Carson’s life was a classic story of  the American  frontier. When he was one year old his parents moved from Kentucky to the new frontier, Boone’s Lick, Missouri.  He was the ninth of fourteen  children and both his parents died before he was 10 years old.  There was no time to get a formal education.  By the age of 14 he was recorded as being apprentice to a harness and saddle maker.  Within a year becoming restless he hooked up with a wagon train heading down the Old Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe.  He later went up to Taos, which was his residence for the rest of his life, though he spent precious little time there.  Over the years he was a fur trapper (known at the time as a mountain man), a wilderness guide, an Indian Agent and American Army officer.

When Carson was 19 he was hired to go on a fur trapping expedition to California.  Later, he was appointed as the hunter for the garrison at Bent’s Fort, Colorado.  There was obviously no food delivery to the frontier and the troops had to be fed. 

His travels had him interacting with the Indians and learning several of their languages.  During his lifetime he had three wives, one was Arapaho, another Cheyenne and the third was Hispanic.  The first died shortly after a daughter was born to them who he loved dearly,  taking the best care of her he could.  In 1842 he took her back to Missouri where she could be educated in a convent.  During his return he happened to meet John C. Fremont, the military man and explorer, on a Missouri River Boat.  They got along immediately and Freemont hired Carson as a guide for his first expedition to map and describe the trails to the Pacific Coast.  Freemont’s accounts of the expedition brought Carson to National attention.

Kit Carson had a long and troubled relationship with his legend.  He was most surprised when he first saw a book about himself describing him as a hater of Indians who killed them whenever he could.  The first “dime store novel” came out already in 1840 and he detested them all but there was nothing he could do.  More recently he has been described as a racist, a ridiculous idea considering his marriages alone.

Did Carson fight with the Indians?  No doubt, but he was also recognized by many of them as someone who was totally straight and did not go back on his word.  “Nothing is ever as good as it seems or as bad as it seems.”  This is true for people too.

Carson was in charge of the forced deportation of the Navajo people from their lands known in the oral history of the Navajo as “The Long Walk”. The notion of rounding up and relocating the Navajos, who along with the Apaches, were considered a threat to settlers, was the misguided vision of General James Henry Carleton, head of the Union Army in the territories of New Mexico and Arizona. The Navajo were meant to be converted from nomadic sheepherders to farmers but the chosen resettlement land along the Pecos River was completely incompatible to agriculture.  Carson had objected to the plan but Carleton insisted he carry out the round up and forced march as his patriotic duty.  Many Navajo died for a number of reasons including attacks by enemy tribes, being moved during the winter and nothing would grow on their new land but later many agreed that far more would have died if Carson had not been the one leading the march.

My father always said “I believe everything I read unless I know something about the subject.” So it is with Kit Carson. For the best biography of his life and a full view of the frontier in his time get Hampton Sides’ book, “Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West.”

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Forewarned is Forearmed

I was in the process of writing about an American historical figure when the enormity of my country’s recent decision finally hit me full force.  The reason is simple: my parents had to leave Germany right after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.  There was no war, no proven violence, yet, suddenly the country that was suffering from their loss in the first world war had democratically elected the party of a crazed despot in the making.

Then I was sent an article about a California teacher who was suspended for comparing Trump to Hitler in his 9th grade class.   He was a history teacher and holocaust scholar.

I have been speaking about this to friends for some time.  I was taught by my father that, “It can happen here, it can happen anywhere”.  Now we have seen a beginning that we may not believe or wish to believe and pray cannot happen but…   forewarned is forearmed!

No question Germany lost World War I and was under the punitive yolk of the Versailles Treaty.  Article 231 of the Treaty forced Germany to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente Alliance.  In 1921 the total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion Marks roughly US $31.4 billion.  Not only couldn’t Germany afford it they found it a national humiliation.

Then came the hyperinflation whereby there were 90 German marks to the dollar at the beginning of 1921 and by the end of 1923 there were 4.2 trillion German marks to the dollar,  a staggering figure.   It finally normalized with a new finance minister in November of that year. There were some high times in Germany for a short while and then there was the Depression by the end of the decade!

The reaction from the people in Germany was not dissimilar to the disenfranchisement that people felt in the U.S. after 2008/2009 Great Recession.  In the people’s opinion obviously their government had forsaken them and left them in a continuous state of suffering, no jobs or financial stability.   Along came a strong man who was charismatic and promised to make Germany great again.

“Early on, Hitler had a central insight: ”All epoch-making revolutionary events have been produced not by the written but by the spoken word.” He concentrated on an inflammatory speaking style flashing with dramatic gestures and catch phrases: ”Germany, awake!”
Time Magazine, February 24, 1920.

There were warnings in the New York Times as well on November 20, 1922 but with this coda.  ”But several reliable, well-informed source confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of follower and keep them aroused…”

From, This Day in History, January 30, 1933:  “The year 1932 had seen Hitler’s meteoric rise to prominence in Germany, spurred largely by the German people’s frustration with dismal economic conditions and the still-festering wounds inflicted by defeat in the Great War and the harsh peace terms of the Versailles treaty. A charismatic speaker, Hitler channeled popular discontent with the post-war Weimar government into support for his fledgling Nazi party (formerly the German Worker’s Party). In an election held in July 1932, the Nazis won 230 governmental seats”

No, I do not think that Donald Trump is Hitler but he has released a culture of hate against, Muslims, Blacks and Jews, which truly scares me on a personal level.  We have heard more moderate language to a degree but can he put the genie back in the bottle?

My good friend a lawyer and expert on Constitutional law believes our Constitution and division of powers will protect us and I want, badly, to believe he is correct.   We will, however, have all the elements of a perfect storm in place with all powers of government, President, House, Senate and most probably The Supreme  Court in the same camp.  I hope they show more strength and fortitude to vote their own minds and not follow the herd as they have for the past 8 years.  Without that I am afraid this country is going to continue on its trip down from the super power it thought it was.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Pierre Gouthière: Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court

When I started in the art business the Louis XV style was in vogue.  Simply put this meant sinuous lines.  This was a style that came as a refinement of the exaggeration of the bulbous baroque.  As always happens the pendulum swings and soon people no longer want froufrou but more severe lines as in the Louis XVI style.  It is interesting that this trajectory was seen in the 17th and 18th century and came again for collectors in the second half of the 20th century.

Pierre Gouthière is about as big a name as one can muster for the Louis XVI style.  He was a master chaser and gilder making his own models, which were then cast by others.  He then performed his true magic spinning a common adornment into gold.  He worked for the Royal family of France, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette as well as many in the aristocracy.  The artist was so highly thought of that a street in Paris is named after him.

Charlotte Vignon is the first curator dedicated to the decorative arts at the Frick Collection.  She was born in France and after gaining a law degree at the University of Toulouse she studied at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris.  There she received her doctorate and came to the States to start out as a Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum from where she was lured to the Frick.

Aside from the Frick’s great paintings it has a phenomenal collection of French 18th century  decorative arts of the highest quality.  Its tradition of doing exhibitions around pieces in the collection not only makes for a good exhibition but they learn more about the works of art they own.  The best way to learn is to compare and contrast and if you can bring pieces together there is no better way to advance your knowledge.

Charlotte Vignon fell in love with the large console table at the Frick that one passes every time one goes to the museum. Since she could be sure that the bronzes on it were by Gouthière it was the perfect hook for an exhibition.

When she decided 5 years ago that this was going to be her show she immediately got in touch with the retired curator at Versailles, Christian Baulez.  Over his career he had studied and written a great deal on French gilt bronze in the 18th century.  As Charlotte said there were many very good bronze makers and gilders and she wanted to nail down attributions to show only pieces that were virtually 100% sure to be by Gouthière. To achieve her goal she asked Christian Baulez to go to the archives in Paris and trace the pieces made for the aristocracy and see what could be found where it is certain that the master worked on them.  She included these in the catalog that she and Baulez did for the exhibition. Formerly there were 300 works attributed to the artist and this has now been reduced to 49 where there can be little doubt.

Of course, there are pieces that could not be brought to the Frick for the show.  Charlotte told me of a wonderful chimneypiece with bronzes surely by the artist and made for Mme DuBarry that she found in a home of a major collector in New York but did not think she could ask the owner to chop it out of his living room!  What she did not know is that I had sold the piece to the gentleman.

As art dealers we often threw the term “Gouthière quality” around, like the auction houses said “rare and important”!  My father used to refer to the sharpness of Gouthière’s mounts but he did not mean so sharp that you would cut yourself which would indicate a machine made mount.

One small exquisite object in the exhibition was new to me.  In fact it is just a knob made for the French-windows of Mme. Du Barry at the Chateau Louveciennes.   This was lent by the Musée du Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

The Frick is currently working on an expansion program but Charlotte had to deal with what she had in terms of space, which is two medium size rooms below ground and one small room above.  It is a disadvantage in some ways but is also an advantage.  A curator’s job is to edit, to narrow down to the essence of what one is trying to show and the small spaces help in that respect.  The room on the ground floor is being used to show the method of making the gilt bronze mounts and a video explaining Gouthière’s technique.  To whet your appetite the latter can be found on the Frick’s website.

There are 21 works of art in the show and I asked Charlotte to name her favorite not including the Frick’s own console table.  She thought for a moment and blurted out two pairs: the candelabra that she first spotted in an exhibition in New York from the Galerie Kugel in Paris. Subsequently they came to the museum through a generous gift from Trustee Sydney R. Knafel. They were commissioned by the Duc d’Aumont ()1709-!782), one of the most important art collectors of the time.  She also loved the appliques (wall lights) lent by the Louvre that were made for the Duchesse de Mazarin (1759-1826) around 1780, the same connoisseur who commissioned the Frick’s table.

The incredible scholarship that goes into this kind of an exhibition is a great tribute to the curator of the show and former curator at Versailles.  They have brought us a whole new perspective of Gouthière, an artist greatly admired but not here-to-fore well understood.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Coming Home Again

No I am not going back to New York but rather I am referring to a group of 9 ceramic pots, which are currently being shown at the Poeh Cultural Center at the Pojoaque Pueblo in an exhibition entitled “IN T’OWA VI SAE’WE” (The People’s Pottery).  Here is an image of the installation an the resulting case.

I do not need to go into the mistreatment of the Native Americans by the white man (Anglo for the purposes of this Missive) even when the latter thought they were doing the right thing… nothing has changed politically speaking.

This, however, is a benign story regarding the Indians and the clay vessels they made for use as in storage of grain and water.  At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century the Anglo believed the Indians to be a dying race.  This was not just because of the Indian wars but also due to disease and assimilation.  I still remember in the 1950’s as a teenager and even into the 60’s believing that someday the whole world would be united thanks to faster communication, travel and intermarriage.  Ah, the idealism of youth.   

Most of my readers probably know about The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act known as NAGPRA.   Simply put it is legislation whereby the Indians could repatriate the religious artifacts and bones of their peoples, which the Anglos had absconded with.  Not everything was stolen, however, objects were also bought or excavated.  As the Indians continue to seek their identity, culture and history, which was traditionally oral, they wish to see, touch and smell objects from their past.

The Tewa are a group of Indians from pueblos within an hour’s drive both north and south of Santa Fe.  They are joined by the Tewa language and share the Pueblo culture.  There is also a Tewa village on First Mesa at Hopi in Arizona who had migrated north.  The Poeh Cultural Center at Pojoaque represents the culture of all the Tewa peoples.

Bruce Bernstein is a scholar of Indian art and culture and has written several books and many articles on the subject.  His current positions are as Executive Director and Curator of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation (where I am on the board) and more importantly for this Missive is Cultural Preservation Officer for the Pueblo of Pojoaque.

Bruce Bernstein and his wife, Landis Smith at Bandolier National Monument

The idea of returning pots for long-term loan to the Poeh Cultural Center museum started with a 1903 photograph Bruce found of three men posing in front of 12 pots. They included the then Governor of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, Antonio Tapia Montoya and anthropologist, George Pepper who had been sent out by The American Museum of Natural History in New York to collect artifacts.  Bruce went to New York to look for the pots at the Natural History Museum but did not find them so he turned to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which has some 20,000 pieces of pottery from the pueblos of New Mexico in hopes of finding similar pieces.  Experience is everything and from 1997 to 2007 working as Assistant Director for Collections and Research at NMAI he had been responsible for moving the collection from the George Heye Museum in New York to Washington and their storage facility in Maryland.  In effect he had overseen the entire collection.

Such pots are not eligible for repatriation under NAGPRA as they were utilitarian, not sacred but Bruce knew it would be important if these pots could be brought back home, particularly the water jars as water is a vital life force in the southwest.  He achieved their return using the established museum practice of long-term loan. 

He brought the past Governor of Pojoaque George Rivera as well as the current Governor, Joe Talachy and various members of the staff from the Poeh Cultural Center, as well as a number of potters to view 1200 pots at NMAI.   Groups were also convened to look at slides so that they would have the people’s representatives choose the ones that would mean the most to the Tewa communities.  They decided that they would request pieces dating before 1920, when they were for home use before there was a market.  They were made for family and friends and therefore, unsigned, leaving their creators unknown.  Here is a photo of tribal members examining pots at NMAI  as well as a single pot, dating circa 1850, which is  now in the display at the Poe Center. (Image of members of Pojoaque tribe examining the pots and a single pot)

Speaking with Bruce Bernstein he made it quite clear that he sees the vehicle of extended loan. as a means of normalization of the relationship between the Anglo and Native American Museums. He hopes to stimulate this kind of loan to the benefit of all.  There will eventually be a total of 100 pots delivered to the Poeh and the 9 that are here represent the first homecoming. In Bruce’s words “These pots have been in Washington D.C. as a delegation representing Tewa people. But now they’re coming back to refortify Tewa people’s culture.”