From Shaker art to 'wicked pleasures'

Summer in the Berkshires - which bills itself as "America's Premier Cultural Resort" - is known for music, principally as host to the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood.

Theater beckons, too, in the form of the Williamstown Theater Festival (see our story, page 17), the innovative Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, and others. And the stages of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket display the best of the world's dance (see page 19).

But I recently passed up those temptations to travel to western Massachusetts for a long weekend to view the region's art exhibitions, and to find out more about Shaker art, America's fascination with "the Orient," and the adventurer-artist who illustrated "Moby Dick." It was a rewarding trip.

Seen and Received: The Shakers' Private Art, which opened last month in conjunction with a new $2.5 million visitors center at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, reveals two less-talked-about aspects of that communal religious movement: the colorful nature of its artwork and the centrality of its deeply-held religious beliefs.

The exhibition's 25 Shaker drawings were the work of women at Hancock and the nearby Shaker community at Mt. Lebanon, N.Y. They had prayed for enlightenment and were given "spiritual visions," which they painted on paper. It's "a very powerful thing to exhibit all of them at once," Sharon Koomler, the curator of the Hancock Village collection, told me. They're "a facet of women's work [in the Shaker community] that has not been looked at in a meaningful way."

Ms. Koomler also pulled in three-dimensional objects from the museum's collection (like a 12-foot trestle table) for context.

On the front of Hannah Cohoon's stunning "Tree of Life" (1854), she wrote: "I saw [the Tree of Life] plainly, it looked very singular and curious to me. I have since learned that this tree grows in the Spir[i]t Land."

"Seen and Received" will stay on display through April 2, 2001.

Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent follows the remarkable painter who spent his life in harsh, remote locales.

Kent (1882-1971) was a "genius" who put a "soul-surge into every one of his brushstrokes," said Thomas Hoving, director emeritus of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art at the opening ceremony I attended. First on Monhegan Island in Maine; and later in Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego; and finally in his beloved Greenland, Kent sought "the spirit-stirring glamour of the terrible," Mr. Hoving said.

His luminescent scenes, filled with color and light, seem to pop off the canvas. The exhibition, which draws from 32 collections, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, continues at The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., through Oct. 29.

Kent's pen-and-ink illustrations of "Moby Dick" (1930 edition) can be seen just a few miles away at Arrowhead, the Pittsfield, Mass., home of Herman Melville from 1850 to 1863 and the site where he wrote the famous novel. Today it's a museum devoted to his life. From his study window one can see the double-humped Mount Greylock, which may have inspired Melville's description of his awesome whale.

Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930, is "something we've never done before," says Michael Lanforte, the director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Mass. The exhibition uses pop-culture items like ads and silent movies alongside fine art to explore a cultural issue - in this case, the late 19th- and early 20th-century American fascination with "the Orient," which today we'd call the Near East.

Holly Edwards, an expert on Islam who served as guest curator, told me that from 1870 to1930 the US was becoming a "world power and more sophisticated, and mass culture developed." It was a time when Americans were "deciding how we as Americans look at 'them' " [the rest of the world].

Two basic views of the Orient emerged, one pious and one wicked: It was the land of the Bible and also the land of fantasy and the Arabian Nights. The 1893 Chicago World Exposition brought the hootchy-kootchy dance, a symbol of Eastern sensualism, to its midway and to middle America: "If you hadn't seen it, you hadn't been to the fair!" Ms. Edwards says. Orientalism opened up the erotic to Americans - but safely at a distance, "over there."

Some American artists never went to the region but painted fancifully, based on reading and conjecture. Louis Comfort Tiffany visited and returned to create beautiful furnishings with Oriental styles. Oriental themes showed up in objects from cigarette packages to the Shriner's fez to films like "The Sheik."

These works contain stereotypes still with us today. Oriental themes are "seamlessly integrated" into American culture, Edwards says. After all, New York is "Baghdad on the Hudson."

The exhibition continues through Sept. 4 and then travels to the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Oct. 3-Dec.10, and the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, N.C., Feb. 3-April 22, 2001.

Several alert readers pointed out an error in our June 30 article on director-choreographer Susan Stroman. It was indeed Agnes de Mille, not Martha Graham, who created the choreography for the musical "Oklahoma." We regret our fact-checking slip-up.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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