What’s on at the Williams College Museum of Art
The little New England college town of Williamstown, Massachusetts, is not only home to the Clark Institute of Art, one of the Berkshires’ star cultural attractions—right up there with Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Mass MOCA, the Williamstown Theater Festival—but also to the Williams College Museum of Art. While the WCMA’s profile may not be as high as the Clark’s, its shows are second to none, intellectually engaging and elegantly staged. And admission is free.
Even during the summer, when the Ivy League school’s students are away, the museum has a lot going on, talks, performances, and other events as well as exhibitions. On a recent visit, I spent time with three of the shows: Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob’s Pillow, 1906-1940 (through 11/11) RAWR! A WCMA Bestiary (10/31), and Sam Gilliam in Dialogue (9/3).
Among the 350-plus objects in Dance We Must, the most ravishing treasures are the costumes, headdresses, and accessories worn by modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn, the founder of Jacob’s Pillow, and Ruth St. Denis, and the Denishawn Company dancers (1914-29).
The costumes were designed for maximum dramatic effect, and the craftsmanship behind their creation is brilliant.
Made from gorgeous fabrics (velvet, lamé, silk), weighty with seed pearls, costume jewels, sequins, and beadwork, befeathered, and dense with embroidery, they are show-stoppers on mannequins, but you also get to see them in motion, in vintage film footage playing at various spots in the exhibition. (I took the photograph of St. Denis from one of the videos; here’s a snippet on my Instagram account fsfoto.)
You might wonder how it was even possible to move in some of the costumes. In a New York Times article, curator Kevin Murphy said that Shawn talked about “staggering under the weight” of his genuine matador’s traje de luces, or “suit of lights,” but in a film of Shawn performing with it on, Murphy noted, Shawn looked “really nimble.”
St. Denis wore the voluminous kimono (below) for her 1913 dance O-Mika over five other kimonos, another triumph of the creative spirit over the flesh. I was surprised to learn that the kimono, like many of the costumes, had been stored in one of the original trunks of the dance company, dating from the Twenties, since 1981. You can read the fascinating details of the objects’ curatorial unearthing here.
Photographs, paintings, props, and ephemera complement the displays of costumes and make it an altogether immersive experience. The visual splendor of it all is bedazzling, but there’s also a proverbial elephant in the room, and the curators didn’t ignore it.
When St. Denis and Shawn created their dances, they drew heavily from Asian and Native American sources, among others. They admired those sources. They found the dance forms of India, Japan, the Hopi inspiring and embraced them for their authenticity, even championing them as legitimate art at a time when Western critics and institutions designated them inferior. At the same time, St. Denis and Shawn altered and romanticized these dances. One of the show’s merits is that it raises the question, when does artistic interpretation become appropriation?
After risking sensory overload with the ornate objects in Dance We Must, you can refresh yourself by spending time with Sam Gilliam in Dialogue. Gilliam’s painted, draped canvasses are as lush, sensuous, physical, and suggestive of movement in their own way as any dance costume, but it’s the viewer’s eye that does the dancing.
Since it opened in January, this exhibition has been reinstalled twice to set up, as the title notes, conversations on three different subjects between Gilliam’s Situation VI-Pisces 4, a new WMCA acquisition (below), and works by a total of 13 other artists.
“Topographies of Color,” the current and final of the three, prompts the viewer to think not only about color, but also about form, scale, technique, surface, and, naturally, the diverse nature of art, through the back-and-forth between Gilliam’s art and pieces by Lynda Benglis, Helen Frankenthaler, Gene Davis, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski.
And then, there’s RAWR! Drawn from the museum’s extensive collection (a fact that is impressive in itself), the art ranges across time, continents, moods, media.
A medieval unicorn tapestry here, a Max Ernst bird there, some of the artworks are whimsical; others totemic. They play off each other, and all reward scrutiny, be it an ancient Egyptian cat sculpture, a Joseph Cornell collage, an early 20th-century Chinese calligraphic painting of a panda drinking from a bowl, the West African Antelope Marionette Head, or Jean-François de Troy’s oil Declaration of Amour, c. 1724 (detail, above).
RAWR! is more than a winning menagerie of artworks; it has a philosophical underpinning. In fact, it is presented in conjunction with the Williams College course “The Philosophy of Animals,” taught by Professor Joe Cruz.
“At a moment when species are dying off at an alarming pace, RAWR! considers how art has helped to create arbitrary distinctions between the human and the animal,” reads the WMCA’s exhibition description, and bravo to the museum for making the point.
There are certainly images that speak of that man vs. beast division: the trompe l’oeil painting of a very red (read: boiled) lobster tacked to a board, for instance, the delicate Persian watercolor depicting the gruesome finale of a tiger hunt, and Robert Doisneau’s poignant, disturbing photograph L’Innocent, of a pig’s head in a butcher shop.
Yet overwhelmingly to me, the show iterates that we humans and animals are connected. (Granted, I’m someone who frees moths trapped on the wrong side of a window.) Clearly artists have long understood that through representing animals they find a means of expressing their own feelings and ideas. Again and again, the works in this show reveal the power of animals to amuse, charm, mystify, move, and speak to us. And, I hope, RAWR! encourages people to speak up for animals.
Are you a moth rescuer? Do you have a favorite artwork featuring an animal? A favorite place in the Berkshires?
Let’s be “in dialogue.” Share your thoughts, tell me a story, leave a comment, like the post, if you’re so moved.
(Left, terra-cotta Standing Dog, Mexico, 350 BCE–300 CE, from the WMCA collection.)