Ornament Bookshelf 37.3
Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers and Alexander Bortolot, editors. 2014. Visions From the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone. University of Washington Press: 240 pp., softbound $28.75.
The companion catalog to “Visions From The Forests” showing at the National Museum of African Art comfortably augments the experience derived from the exhibit. The captions from the exhibition, already informative, are included in the book, and accompanied by essays which expand upon the cultures of Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as the history of collector William Siegmann and his intimate association with the region and its people. For those who are unfamiliar with traditional African art and culture, the catalog is a thorough and eye-opening lens into the subject of tribal art, and how it is embedded in the fabric of society.
The photographs in the book are a substantial element in this glimpse into tribal Africa. A number of stunning ones from the early twentieth century are used to both provide a direct link to the past and show how these masks and other cultural accoutrements were used in daily life, and to provide compelling evidence for various theses presented in the catalog. A particular example of this is found in Nanina Guyer’s essay on Photography and Sande Initiates, where one identical photo is shown on two separate occasions, as postcards entitled A Typical Fitish Dancing Girl from 1907 and A Gold Coast Doctor from 1930. These entirely different subtitles misidentify the original subject, and show how Western interpretation led to confusion of the actual truth. Insightful elements like these permeate the book and make it a valuable trove of knowledge.
Another example is Frederick John Lamp’s delightful examination of the artists behind the Sande masks in the collection. As an almost anatomical exploration of the styles particular to the various workshops that created these masks, it is truly enlightening to identify the makers of this folk art, who so often remain nameless and thus lending the impression that these objects came into existence out of nowhere.
Vividly illustrated, well documented and with plenty of rare content, this book is a keeper for any appreciative of folk art or intrigued by the esoteric.
Patrick R. Benesh-Liu
Suzanne Ramljak. 2014. Unique by Design: Contemporary Jewelry in the Donna Schneier Collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by Yale University Press: 135 pp., softbound $24.95.
Those seeking a bit of background on jewelry collector Donna Schneier will get more than just some personal history in this book by Suzanne Ramljak. Indeed, Ramljak uses the opportunity of the recent donation of contemporary jewelry to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to give an exacting overview of the development of contemporary jewelry, and offers her thesis on its greater significance to humanity.
Schneier’s personality and intent as a collector is laid out by Ramljak in a thorough, analytic fashion. Actually, the author’s entire report reads like an academic essay, focusing on the subjects of contemporary jewelry, the role of the collector and Schneier herself. Arguments are made and supporting opinions or evidence given. In this way, although taxidermical in nature, a quite fascinating exploration is undertaken. Ramljak observes three categories of collectors, the accidental collector, the intentional collector who nevertheless purchases with only vague or personal guidelines, and the strategic collector who seeks to obtain specific examples in pursuit of an overarching goal. It is to this category Ramljak assigns Schneier.
While acknowledging Schneier’s foresight and presenting some personal history, the majority of the book is a presentation of the contemporary jewelry era and a litany of various paradigm shifts. The author takes the jewelers present in the collection and gives their meaning and importance in the greater contemporary jewelry movement. She cites each jeweler in regards to different dimensions of expression, from art jewelers whose backgrounds emerged from painting, architecture or sculpture, such as Thomas Gentille, Eva Eisler and Pavel Opocensky, to artists who harkened to historical jewelry trends, such as memorial or mourning jewelry, in new incarnations.
Whether one agrees with her specific points, Ramljak has sought to sum up the entirety of contemporary jewelry through the prism of Donna Schneier’s collection. That, in addition to the gorgeous gallery that makes up the tail end of the catalog, makes this a worthwhile purchase for any collector.
Ann Marguerite Tartsinis. 2013. An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915-1928. Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture: 144 pp., softbound $40.00.
An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915-1928 by Ann Marguerite Tartsinis highlights a remarkable episode from the history of American textile and fashion design. As war and unrest overseas disrupted the influence of Europe on New York fashion in the 1910s, a group of anthropology curators (Charles W. Mead, Herbert J. Spinden and Clark Wissler) and a research fellow (and Women’s Wear editor, M.D.C. Crawford) at the American Museum of Natural History sought to foster what they considered would be a distinctly American style. They invited artists, primarily women from Greenwich Village, to study objects in the museum’s collection for inspiration, first the indigenous arts of the Americas then expanding to include other materials such as traditional folk arts from around the world. The artists learned about the museum’s ethnographic artifacts through lectures, published articles and hands-on examination, then created their own designs for garments and textiles, some of which were put into production by leading manufacturers.
This petite volume is filled with dramatic black and white photographs of these young designers modeling historical garments, including Ilonka Karasz in a Peruvian poncho on the cover; beautiful images of women wearing the garments created after studying the collections, such as Mary Tannahill in a graceful batik dress inspired by “South Sea Island Art” and fascinating depictions of an exhibition at the museum in 1919 showing the designers’ works side-by-side with the source materials. These images, along with an illustrated checklist, convey the exciting potential of the collaboration.
The effort to bring together curators, designers and manufacturers around the American Museum of Natural History’s anthropology collection was short-lived, peaking in 1919 and ending less than a decade later, but Tartsinis’s focused study convincingly argues for its importance. Her research provides key context for understanding the origins of the textiles, dresses and designs that survive from the project, and contributes to the growing body of information available about the individuals and companies involved. The intriguing story and captivating images make this a rewarding and enjoyable read for both modern design scholars and a general audience interested in American fashion and textile history.
Richard S. Hughes. 2014. Ruby & Sapphire: A collector’s guide. Bangkok, Gem and Jewelry Institute of Thailand: 384 pp., hardcover $99.00, and $60.00 postage.
A beautiful, quirky, large format book with photographs by the author, his wife and newly minted gemologist daughter, it is essentially the lifelong chronicle of Hughes’s love affair with the corundum gems, ruby and sapphire. These beautiful red and blue gems occur largely in East Africa, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and southern India. Some 750 million years ago, before continental drift started moving apart the world’s land masses, these present day countries were close together and part of a band of high metamorphism or orogeny. This set of geological forces made possible the formation of corundum deposits, today yielding the most desirable rubies and gems. A younger orogeny also occurred in the Himalayas and much more recent volcanic or basaltic eruptions worldwide gave rise to widespread iron-rich corundums, yielding not only the traditional colors, but also those in blue, green and yellow hues.
Hughes has traveled to most areas of the world where these gems occur; the most fascinating images are of poor miners extracting these gems, under very difficult conditions that are destructive to their environments and themselves. Throughout about two-thirds of the book, there are close juxtapositions of mining, rough gem and faceted stone photographs, with the latter often in priceless artifacts. Whether intended or not, these contrasts shock. Anyone that deals with gems realizes that those who do the actual mining receive a very small portion of the value of the finished and set gem. This is balanced by the fact that gemstones often occur in very poor countries and mining offers a living and for some, a path out of poverty.
The rest of this book deals with collecting such gems, the gemology of rubies and sapphires, Thailand’s corundums and its gem industries and books on these gems. I think the author achieved his goal of a collector’s guide, but via a mixed and sobering message.
Robert K. Liu