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Indepth Arts News:

"Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design"
2002-11-27 until 2003-03-02
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC, USA

The Index of American Design helped hundreds of artists through the Great Depression and produced a pictorial survey of Americana that may never be surpassed.The National Gallery of Art celebrates the 60th anniversary of its 1943 acquisition of the Index with the exhibition Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design. On view in the West Building, the exhibition includes 80 of the finest watercolor renderings of American folk, popular, and decorative art in the index, along with a selection of nearly 40 of the original objects they represent–reunited for the first time since the 1930s. The objects range from quilts, weather vanes, and hand-carved toys to carousel animals, tavern signs, and cigar-store figures.

The Exhibition

This exhibition reunites–for the first time since the 1930s–80 of the Index renderings with nearly 40 of the original artifacts they represent. In the first introductory room, the magnificent Angel Gabriel Weather Vane, now in a private collection, appears alongside the rendering that made this object a true icon of the Index of American Design. Also on display is a "demonstration drawing" indicating the step-by-step process the artist used to create this rendering. Period photographs show Index artists at work on two of the watercolors displayed in this room. Additional renderings reflect the wide scope of the project, from Southwestern Indian baskets and African American ceramics to both German and Hispanic works from Texas and New England Shaker textiles.

The second room is filled with watercolors of toys, carousel animals, a sled, roller skates, a little girl’s dress, and a comical Quaker whirligig. A real carousel rooster from a private collection strides through the center of this space, accompanied by a toy horse, a partial set of nine pins, a carved poodle, and several other items that will delight children, all paired with their original Index renderings.

The third and largest space displays renderings and objects meant for the domestic realm. Fabulous quilts and crewel embroideries from the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Wadsworth Atheneum are installed beside their renderings and are joined by furniture, Pennsylvania German ceramics, early stoneware, a sampler, and other artifacts borrowed from private collections and the Bucks County Historical Society, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the New-York Historical Society.

Shop, tavern, and inn signs, figureheads, decoys, and a steamship’s paddle wheel cover occupy the next room, both in the form of rendered images and actual objects. A Civil War drum, lent by the Chicago Historical Society, stands beside its painted portrait, and a unique and highly inventive carved gate with agricultural tools, now the property of the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut, is reintroduced to its 1940 Index rendering. A secular Madonna of Liberty, carved and painted by an Italian immigrant and borrowed for the show from the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, compares with its watercolor image.

A concluding space pairs three outstanding late 19th-century cigar-store figures with their 1930s Index renderings. The pompous Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, from a private collection, is stationed beside a baseball player–possibly a portrait of Mike "King" Kelly–and Dapper Dan, both promised gifts to the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

American 20th Century
Demonstration Drawing for Valance, 1936-1937
watercolor over graphite
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Index of American Design,

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