Sunday, September 5, 2021

Religious Sculpture of a Different Sort

This past weekend we went to the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe to see an exhibition called,“Go West Said a Small Voice: Gustave Baumann and Dreams of New Mexico”. As a child Baumann (1881-1971) immigrated with his family to the United States from Germany. After returning briefly to study applied arts in Munich, he became a successful commercial artist in the U.S, and it was only in 1918 that he settled New Mexico.

I have written about and mentioned the artist several times in my Missives. If you go to the Missives from the Art World website, and put Gustave Baumann in the search box you can scroll through the Missives.

Baumann is best known for his lyrical colored woodblock prints that capture the unique colors of the Southwest. Being the contrarian I am, I focused on a different aspect of the exhibition, the sculptures which included a number of the artist’s marionettes. They are quite different from his prints, and one does not remind us of the other, most unusual for an artist. In the 1930’s Baumann and his wife, Jane started doing puppet shows in their house attracting young and old alike. Even before he started his own puppet theater, he collaborated on Zozobra the annual pagan ritual here wiping away the troubles of the past year by burning a huge puppet of Old Man Gloom.

The word marionette comes from the French, meaning little Mary, referring to the Virgin Mary, and early marionette theater was based on religious themes. Here is an image of Baumann’s Saint Francis (Patron Saint of Italy) puppet circa 1940 that was given, as were all his puppets in the show, to the museum by his widow.

I must apologize for the images I am using because I had to take most of my photos through plexi vitrines blurring some of the images.

Another Baumann puppet, dating around 1940, represents San Isidro, the pious farm laborer. As the patron saint of Madrid he is still celebrated there in a five-day festival. Bauman would have encountered him in New Mexico where he is hugely popular as the patron of farmers and represented in local Hispanic paintings (“retablos”) and carved wood figures (“bultos”).

Baumann’s puppet of the Eagle dancer pays homage to the Native culture of his adopted home in the Southwest. The Eagle Dancer to the Hopi Nation represents strength and power and can carry a person’s dreams up to heaven. Kwahu, the Eagle Katsina is treated as an honored guest among the Hopi, who give. them presents like they do their children. We know that Bauman had actually seen an eagle dance at Tesuque pueblo as he depicted it in a print of 1932 which is in the exhibition.

Marionettes have become part of Santa Fe lore and are not reserved for any one group. An outstanding example in the exhibition is the life size puppet of the Yellow Horse Dancer created In 2013 by a Navajo sculptor, Armond Lara. It was a gift to the Museum by the artist and the Zane Bennett Gallery. It represents strength and power and is ruler of the sky and messenger to the great spirits. Among the Hopi he is sacred and magnificent Katsina, the protector of all. For the Navajo there is no religious significance but at pow wows the Native Americans do have a horse dance. What better way to imitate the dance through art than a marionette.

Moving to sculpture that is not a marionette but certainly follows a religious theme is a group representing the Temptations of Saint Anthony (1991) by Luis Tapia, a New Mexican master of the bultos tradition. It was lent to the show by the Museum of International Folk Art. Though Bauman did depict Hispanic religious carvings in his prints, none were as raucous as this. I am not sure with all the times this subject has been covered by artists there were ever so many temptations. Obviously, St. Anthony has his cross to ward them all off. I might be tempted by those the nude ladies but note that one has a snake tail ready to strike. Other temptations include the bribe from the fellow on the right with cash at the ready. I presume the skeleton is there to do away with St. Anthony if he succumbs. Not only is it fun spotting all the details but I am sure you could also do an Ethics as well as a philosophy course around this object.

This exhibition, “Go West Said a Small Voice”, curated by New Mexico Museum of Art Assistant Curator Jana Gottshalk, provided stunning, unfamiliar examples of the local cultures that drew Baumann to Santa Fe.

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