Cosmopolitan Folk

Nadelman-tangoChristopher Benfey at The New York Review of Books:

A multivalent exhibition now at the New-York Historical Society, drawn from the sprawling folk art collection of the sculptor Elie Nadelman (1882-1946) and his independently wealthy wife, Viola (1878-1962), is far more interesting than even its organizers seem to realize. The more than two hundred objects on display range from clipper ship figureheads (“It was not just a sailor who carved this but an artist,” Nadelman remarked of a ravishing gilded eagle with detachable wings) to miniature carved animals, amid a trove of carefully selected pottery, exquisitely detailed needle-cases, and an early, ingenious earthenware roach motel—the glazed, funnel-shaped opening of which traps roaches lured inside by molasses. This staggering array of material is complemented by a dozen or so of Nadelman’s wondrous figurative sculptures, fashioned in weathered cherry or mahogany and often given an overlay of seemingly aging paint.

The big news of the exhibition is that Nadelman (along with Viola, already a well-informed specialist, before their 1919 marriage, in antique lace and embroidery) was also among the first generation of serious collectors of American folk art and among the first to use the Germanic derived notion of a national “Volk” to confer prestige on such objects rather than the pejorative adjective “primitive,” favored by early twentieth-century enthusiasts of African masks, “peasant” carvings, and Native American pottery.

more here.