Volkskunst

San Antonio Museum of Art

Closed January 18, 2009
by Laura Lindenberger Wellen

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      Marriage Certificate, ca. 1857
      Attributed to Henry Young
      Wove paper, iron gall ink, watercolors
      Reading Public Museum, L2008.18.48

      View Gallery

      The idea of a volkskunst (or a people’s art) is deeply relevant to our contemporary world and contemporary political consciousness: everyday objects are important visual memorials to people living within more expansive histories of change, as you and I are right now. Almost all of the works in Volkskunst: German-American Folk Art from Pennsylvania and Texas at the San Antonio Museum of Art are decorative and functional. The exhibition, a collection of early German-American folk art, includes a hodgepodge of objects created by self-trained artists for use in the home: a flintlock rifle covered with elaborate metalwork, marriage contracts and birth certificates embellished with fanciful paintings of flowers and birds and huge wooden storage chests painted with mythical animals and elaborate patterns.

      The artists never expected their works to be in a museum and the placement feels incongruous. The white walls and expansive space of the gallery overwhelm the preciousness, whimsy, and warmth that make these works so engaging. However, the individual works suggest the ways in which art objects made outside the art world and its aesthetic training illuminate the emotional lives and everyday experiences of their makers. For instance, the exhibition included several amusing oil-on-glass paintings of historical figures—Andrew Jackson, Martin Luther, Jesus, and George Washington, all brightly heroicized (and reminiscent of the current visual fascination with our new President).

      The samplers chosen for the show are particularly poignant. Sewn by schoolgirls to learn embroidery, the samplers show an unnerving awareness of mortality. In an 1825 sampler by Elizabeth Martin, she asks the viewer to remember her: “When I am dead and in my grave / and all my bones are rotton / When this you see remember me / Least I should be forgotton.” Another sampler darkly notes that “Death like an overflowing dream sweeps us away / our life’s a dream.” Dark words from pre-teen girls with short life expectancies, learning to sew.

      On the one hand, works like these communicate the very conservative and ascetic lives of 18th and 19th century German frontiers-people in rural areas of Texas and Pennsylvania. Their ability to make functional objects that ornament the home as well as the capacity to take pleasure in the slow carefulness of decorative work implies a self-reliant aesthetic that, for me, will always be associated with small-town utility in the face of economic and educational challenges and distance from urban taste-makers. On the other hand, these works are perfect examples of the most contemporary and liberal perspectives on how to live our lives; decorating the objects of the everyday makes them indispensable treasures to be used and kept through generations. The arts of fixing, salvaging, and decorating keep household objects from being disposable, making everyday resourcefulness part of a timely eco-consciousness.

      Just as we find the objects in Volkskunst to be invaluable traces of a broader historical landscape today, I expect that future generations, too, will find value in the hand-made products of our contemporary historical landscape – including, and especially, works that evidence our idiosyncratic everyday experiences.

      Laura Lindenberger Wellen is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently writing about Southern artistic debates and communities during the 1930s.

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