the ornament bookshelf
Marsha C. Bol. 2018. The Art & Tradition of Beadwork. Gibbs-Smith: 256 pp., hardbound $75.00.
For a global tour of nineteenth-century to contemporary glass beadwork, this coffee-table sized book, replete with excellent photographs, would be a good resource to consult. Written by Marsha C. Bol, former director of Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, it accompanied “Beadwork Adorns the World,” an exhibition she curated at the Museum of International Folk Art. Whereas the exhibit featured more than two hundred sixty fully-beaded pieces from around the world, the book goes further afield, ranging from sumptuous ecclesiastical vestments found in Italy to an entire full-sized Volkswagen bug covered in traditional glass beadwork and yarn designs hand-applied by eight Huichol Indian artists in Jalisco, Mexico.
The beads here are almost exclusively Venetian and Czech glass, though shell, coral, amber, bamboo, and other materials also appear. Inevitably the book reflects how these hanks of European-made glass beads, which traveled so easily and so lightly, followed the trade routes of conquest and colonization. But their brilliant colors and availability and uniform sizes led in some cases to a flourishing of beadwork as an art. The book’s finest examples are late nineteenth-century Native American, largely from the Great Plains; the most graphic, in-your-face powerful ones come from Africa; and the abundant beadwork on just about everything possible testifies to its enormous appeal.
Illustrated by 1920s flapper dresses, our culture treats beadwork as superficial, for special-occasion bling. Other cultures endow beadwork with profound social meanings, to ensure cultural and religious identity: beadwork, always in the correct colors and patterns, on a gourd or a shaman’s headdress can render it more powerful and effective. Bol develops these themes in chapters describing how beadwork signified important life stages, like birth, entering adulthood, marriage and mourning. Beadwork could reinforce authority and status; it aided spiritual communication; and it enhanced ceremonies and festivals, especially for costume. An absorbing chapter explores the long-neglected subject of gender in beadwork; new scholarship has sought to elevate beadwork as part of celebrating women’s artistry. More recently, beadwork has merged into contemporary art, for instance in American artist Liza Lou’s installation of a kitchen covered in millions of beads: even the dishwater is beaded.
The Art & Tradition of Beadwork offers an enormous visual selection and lucid, thoughtful explanations for anyone who wants to delve deeper into the cultural and artistic legacy of beadwork. Very useful are the detailed identifications of each piece, as well as an extensive bibliography for additional research. There is almost no discussion of application techniques, and some beadwork examples seem negligible, where a few scant beads in a fringe look like an afterthought. Including full-page photos of superb Yomut Turkmen bridal jewelry seem questionable, when beadwork is much more evident in other Central Asian jewelry and more to the point. But to love beadwork is to love how it affirms human imagination and ingenuity, and that the book eloquently demonstrates.
Kimberly S. Alexander. 2006. Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era. Johns Hopkins University Press: 248 pp., hardbound $39.95.
In 2010, Kimberly Alexander had a Cinderella moment. As chief curator at Strawberry Bank Museum, she was cataloguing the collection and noticed a lone, battered eighteenth-century floral silk shoe with the label of a London cordwainer in it. “I was immediately curious why this shoe was in a collection in Portsmouth, New Hampshire,” she says. That shoe now graces the cover of Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era. Alexander spent eight years researching the book, which examines eighteenth-century shoes from thirty different collections, plus thousands of original letters, inventories and other manuscripts. Each shoe or pair of shoes is the catalyst for a story of how it was made, sold and worn, told in astonishing depth and detail.
While there are a few, rare surviving men’s shoes in the book, most belonged to Georgian-era women, both familiar and forgotten. “There are some famous women I deal with in the book—Abigail Adams, Dorothy Quincy Hancock, Martha Washington—but there are so many others that no one’s ever heard of,” Alexander says. “When somebody takes the trouble to save a pair of shoes, it gives them a voice that they didn’t have.”
It also gives the shoe’s long-forgotten maker a voice. Around the middle of the eighteenth century, London cordwainers began labeling their shoes, allowing Alexander to map networks of skilled and prolific craftsmen who exported their wares to the colonies. While American women bought English shoes and followed English fashions, they preferred lower heels: two or two and a half inches rather than the three inches or more associated with court fashion. Though there was increased pressure to buy American during the Revolutionary era, many colonists continued to patronize London cordwainers. Women, in particular, were criticized for indulging in these imported fripperies at the expense of local craftsmen. “Shoes and politics were inseparable,” Alexander notes. “Where you bought your shoes became very tightly connected with patriotism or loyalism.”
By combing through archival records and contemporary newspapers and almanacs, Alexander discovered that the shoes typically found in museum collections today—with their shapely heels and costly brocaded silk—often do not reflect the everyday footwear of colonial Americans. Calamancos, made of wool, “were incredibly popular in New England, but you wouldn’t know that because they were very tasty to moths and vermin, and they don’t look as pretty,” she explains. Alternatively, less formal and decorative shoes were worn until they fell apart. “The shoes that are saved are generally pretty, from a special occasion like a wedding,” Alexander says. The book includes a whole chapter on wedding shoes, including a pair customized for a lame bride.
More than clothes, shoes molded to the wearer, reflecting his or her imperfections, income, lifestyle and even gait. Heels might be cut down to accommodate changing styles or aging bodies, decorations updated and fragile materials damaged. “It’s the traces of the past that are left with the shoes that are really exciting,” Alexander says. “It’s not the shoes that are perfect that got left in the closet so they’re pristine.” She was able to examine about three-quarters of the shoes in the book in person, including Martha Washington’s wedding shoes. She remembers “looking down into the shoe and seeing where her toes had gripped the inside of her shoe. Suddenly there was this sense of her presence and a different level of understanding of what someone like Martha Washington would have gone through.” It’s not quite the same as walking in her shoes, but it comes close.
Janice Staggs. 2017. Wiener Werkstätte Jewelry. Hatje Cantz Verlag: 118 pp., hardbound $45.
The Neue Galerie in New York City has as its mission the collection and celebration of Austro-German art and craft. It was always in the cards that an exhibition on Wiener Werkstätte jewelry would be in the offing. This catalogue, which accompanied the original exhibit in 2008, follows the gallery’s intention of cultivating this artistic tradition. Pairing a brief history of the Werkstätte and its founding members and principles with design sketches, photographs and a litany of brooches, the book is a good introduction to the company’s history. It’s also a brief flash of insight into the importance of the Vienna Secession in the birth of contemporary craft, due to the internationalism that inspired artists at home, like Josef Hoffmann, to pursue projects like the Wiener Werkstätte.
The interplay of patronage, supporters and the designers themselves shows a vital entrepreneurial venture, albeit one dependent on the old pre-war moneyed clients to remain afloat. The most valuable aspect of the book is the partnered pieces and sketches. Seeing drawing transformed into object is both instructive and beguiling, with several awe-inspiring examples. A brooch designed by Koloman Moser features an Olympian figure obscured by a fountain of enameled feathers, reminiscent of a peacock’s tail. For a brief slice of history, this catalogue takes the cake.
Patrick R. Benesh-Liu