Monday, October 28, 2013

Re: Catching Up -- The Dynasty of Women: Pablita Velarde, Helen Hardin and Margarete Bagshaw

Art made by Indians has been around in New Mexico for thousands of years -- as is currently documented at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. Unfortunately, the Indian stuff from the long-ago is somewhat limited to pottery, some weaving and some spear points and arrow heads from ancient times. There is much more -- much, much more -- that might be shown, such a the mural paintings that have shown up in many now abandoned and ruined Pueblo locations, sculpture, rock art and petroglyphs, and so on. Maybe some of it could only be shown in photographs, but still...

The Pueblo murals are a revelation. The only ones that can be seen publicly are at Kuaua -- the so-called Coronado Monument -- in Bernalillo. The square kiva the murals were found in has been restored and the murals have been somewhat freely interpreted and repainted recently. In the museum at the site, fragments of the originals are on display, however, and it's quite possible to imagine what they looked like when they were painted. There were something like seventeen layers of painted plaster on the walls of the kiva, and other square kivas also showed signs of wall painting, but I'm  led to believe nothing was recoverable from the others.

At a site not far away from Kuaua called "Pottery Mound" numerous fragments of fresco painting have been found (158 page pdf), but none of it so far as I know has been made available for public view, though some restorations have been attempted; there are many other Pueblo sites where murals were apparently painted, but for the most part, the interiors of Pueblo structures were thought to be plain mud plaster or whitewashed. It was long thought there was no "art" within apart from portable items like pots and blankets.

It's been suggested that the kiva frescos were done by women (cit. needed) -- which makes for some interesting speculation since the common understanding is that women were not allowed in kivas. The square kivas at Kuaua are considered unique, although I understand there are other square kivas at other Pueblos. There were also better known round kivas at Kuaua. Perhaps the square kivas were actually for women to gather in. But who can say?

The discovery of the murals at Kuaua in the late 1930's was surprising to the archeological and anthropological communities to say the least. To this day, their existence is less well-known than it should be, and they are less well-understood by the archeological and anthropological communities than practically any other aspect of Pueblo community life.

I first encountered Native American murals at the De Young Museum in San Francisco where some looted murals and fragments from Teotihuacan were on display. I was astonished, as I had no idea previously that there were such things. The fragments and murals had been taken from apartment blocks some distance from the main "Avenue of the Dead" along which the Teotihuacan pyramids are found. They were gorgeous, beautifully rendered, and looked almost new. The buildings where they were found had been burned and buried like the rest of the city, but the murals were surprisingly well preserved -- and they were found extensively throughout the ruins. The man who stole them and brought them to San Francisco had apparently many more in his private collection, but since his death, most of them have been returned to Mexico.

The murals and fragments of murals from Teotihuacan that I saw in San Francisco appeared to be decorative rather than votive or religious. They functioned something like wallpaper, at least that's what it seemed like to my untrained eye, but scholars may disagree. They were apparently meant to beautify residential quarters, and why not? Teotihuacan appears to have been a strikingly beautiful city in its heyday, much as Tenochtitlan must have been before it was destroyed by the Spaniards.

The murals found at Kuaua and other Pueblos are not as exquisite as those found at Teotihuacan, and there may not be a direct relationship between them, and yet... I wonder.

Mural painting, especially done in fresco as the Pueblo murals in New Mexico and the Teotihuacan murals in Mexico were done, is not a simple process; fresco requires many steps and a high degree of skill to accomplish well. Most of all, fresco requires speed of execution. The Teotihuacan murals are marvels in every way. The Pueblo murals are somewhat simpler, but they are no less marvelous in their own way.

It's long been understood that there were social and commercial relationships between the Rio Grande Pueblos and trade centers in Mexico, prior to which there had been similar relations between Mexican traders and the Anasazi -- from which the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest are descended. Such trade and social contact goes both ways, both from the Pueblos to Mexico and from Mexico to the Pueblos. While Mexico and the Southwest maintained distinctive styles and never adopted one another's visual and architectural conceptions, there were and are many cultural and artistic similarities. It has been proposed that the Aztecs actually originated in the Anasazi/Pueblo region, and for all intents and purposes were a Pueblo sub-group that migrated to the Valley of Mexico and adopted the traditions of the peoples already there. (cit. needed)

All this is by way of a very long introduction to one of New Mexico's artistic dynasties, that of Pablita Velarde, her daughter Helen Hardin, and her grandaughter Margaret Bagshaw, three generations of Native American women artists whose works are world-renown -- and who now have a museum of their own in Santa Fe, the Pablita Velarde Museum of Indian Women in the Arts.

Pabilta's works have been known for generations, at least since her works were shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, (6 page pdf) in 1932 when she was still in high school where she was learning the 'flat style' Indian painting technique taught by Dorothy Dunn.

The 'flat style' Dunn advocated and taught was derived from painting styles Indians had long been practicing at the Pueblos as well as on the Plains. It was a style practiced in ancient Pueblo mural paintings and rock art as well. Dunn apparently believed it was the only "authentic" Indian painting style. Many, many Indian artists in the '20's and '30's took it up, including one of Ms Ché's relations, Cecil Dick. It is still widely practiced among Indian artists.

Pabilita Velarde was a master of the style, and her daughter, Helen Hardin, painted in a similar style early on. Later, she was influenced by Cubism as well as the abstract art of Wassily Kandinsky and the influence he had on the Transcendental Painters of New Mexico who I mentioned in a previous post. 

Hardin's style changed completely, to something quite unique and influential in its own way, an influence that may have initially been felt primarily among Indian artists who wanted to break away from the traditional 'flat style' and practice a more contemporary artistic expression, but which has expanded to influence a wide rage of Anglo artists as well.

Margarete Bagshaw has built an artistic reputation and style of her own. It is one clearly influenced by that of her mother and grandmother, but also by a wide range of Indian and non-Indian artistic expressions to come up with something uniquely hers.

The fine arts industry in New Mexico is barely more than a century old,  but the practice of art here is much older, thousands of years. What is done, how it is done, and by whom it is done may change, but there is a tradition of women in the arts in New Mexico that seems ultimately changeless (I may do a post on the independent and influential women who became the leaders of the fine arts industry that came into being during the last century, a topic I've touched on in the past but never wrote extensively about...).

As I ponder taking up the brush again, the artistic impulses and influences of my own life come back to me in fits and starts and bits and pieces. I haven't saved a lot of my artistic efforts over the years, though they aren't totally forgotten. I was selling works when I was a teenager, but I became frustrated with the whole idea of "marketing" and transferred whatever artistic talent or skill I had mostly to the stage; I did few works of my own, and what I did, I rarely showed anyone else. When we were packing up to move last year, though, I found a cache of several dozen of my works on paper, and many hundreds of renderings for the stage -- some of which I hadn't done but had received as gifts from other designers. As I go through the process of learning more about the development of the fine arts industry in New Mexico, and learn more about some of the prominent artists and the movements that have been part of it, I see many connections and interrelationships with my own art that I am only now coming to recognize.

The Velarde, Hardin, Bagshaw dynasty of women is part of it, and I see how they in their own way were influential on artists like Harry Fonseca -- who I've written about fairly often as a prime influence in getting me to move to New Mexico myself.

The circle may not be unbroken, but it seems to be knitting together...

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