It’s the winter holidays! After seeing the lights and department store windows with friends and family, perhaps you’d like to share some art with them.
If so, I have the perfect show -- wonderful art for the most discriminating art-lover and fun for all -- "A Song for the Horse Nation," now starting an almost two-year run at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan.
"A Song for the Horse Nation" is open every day, except Dec. 25, and it’s free. You can take your entire gang and everyone in your family, even the kids. The show visually describes the impact of the horse on Native-Americans, especially the Plains tribes.
Objects that use the horse as a motif, like a dance stick by No Two Horns (Hunkpapa Lakota) from North Dakota (around 1890), and decorative objects made for horses, like a Cree or Red River Métis horse crupper (goes over the rump) with porcupine quill designs and hide fringe from Manitoba, Canada, around 1850, vividly attest to the intertwining of American Indians with what they call "the Horse Nation." Works by contemporary Native-Americans, like Diné (Navaho) John Silver’s headmount for a bridle in silver (from around 1970) bring the story up to the present.
The story of the horse in the Americas, however, begins much earlier, about 40,000,000 years ago. That’s when the horse first appeared in the Americas and then spread to Europe and Asia. The horse, for whatever reasons, became extinct here, and Christopher Columbus reintroduced the horse into North America on his second voyage in 1493 when he brought a herd of 25 animals with him.
When Native-Americans first saw Spanish horses, they were frightened, but it wasn’t long before they craved horses of their own, taking them from the Spanish and from one another.
A "winter count" is a painted hide or cloth with many small images illustrating important events over many years, a history book for a tribe. They were compiled over the years, based upon previous winter counts. One such Winter Count by Long Soldier, a Hunkpapa Lakota from Fort Yates, North Dakota, dating to about 1902 contains many pictures of horses, often in battle, and spans from 1798 to 1902.
In one of the most effective uses of technology to illuminate art rather than distract from it, the museum has a computer touch screen that will tell you about the events that inspired some of the 60 or so individual images on the winter count. One man bleeds from his mouth, for example. One touch explains that in 1815, a Lakota man trying to steal horses from the Crow got his jaw broken.
Another clever use of technology for the younger set are buttons-to-push that link to recordings of members from various tribes speaking the word for "horse" in their own language. I think they’ll like it; I know I had a great time listening to them.
By the late 1700s, guns had spread from the east and horses from the south and east, and Plains Indians had morphed into warriors on horseback, an iconic image that we’ve all seen in the movies. In "A Song for the Horse Nation," you can see a rifle that belonged to Geronimo, photographs of 19th-century Indians in regalia on their mounts, and appreciate a Cheyenne River Lakota shield cover (ca. 1880s) from South Dakota that shows opposing tribes, some mounted and some on foot, but all splendidly attired for war.
The horse made travel easier also. Women and dogs with travois were in charge of moving Plains Indians from camp to camp. The horse eased that burden and allowed time for other things. An Apsáalooke (Crow) cradle from Montana (around 1880) couldn’t have been made before the horse came to the Indians. There wouldn’t have been time, and it would have been a nuisance to carry.
Another reason was the increase of Anglo-American trade items, like the seed beads decorating the cradle. One thing that isn’t emphasized in the exhibition is the huge role played by the fur trade in bringing together Native-Americans, who could hunt more effectively on horseback, and Anglo-Americans at trading posts. Native-Americans were paid for hides in foodstuffs, but also mirrors and beads, which became prominent in their art.
Motifs were traded as well. A stunning saddlecloth, made by East or Woods Cree in Canada (ca. 1885), is unusual in that the floral motifs in all four corners are distinct, yet all show the influence of non-Native culture. The materials -- seed beads, ribbon, wool cloth, cotton cloth and thread -- all come from Anglo sources, and the shape of the saddlecloth was probably adapted from U.S. Calvary blankets.
A model horse covered with beautifully worked accoutrements is a high point of the exhibition. A video of how contemporary parades with real horses with special fittings and riders in fancy dress keep alive the traditions of Native-Americans and the Horse Nation will make you want to see one soon. Enjoy!
* If fashion is your thing, try the Fashion Institute of Design. FIT recently opened "American Beauty: Aesthetics and Innovation in Fashion," Nov. 6, 2009-Apr. 10, 2010. The show focuses on the construction of American-made garments from the 1930s to today. Another exhibition, "Night & Day," which opened Dec. 3, 2009, surveys changing ideas about what women should wear at various times of day over the last 250 years.
* If you’re in midtown, a didactic yet lovely exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center of rare Byzantine icons plots El Greco’s transformation from a Cretan icon painter into a Venetian Mannerist. In "The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete," a Triptych with the Second Coming, the Resurrection. . . by Georgios Klontzas (ca. 1540-1608), crammed with tiny figures, is one painting that’s guaranteed to astonish. Highlights include an icon of St. Catherine of the Sinaites from Heraklion, Crete, and four others from the Hermitage, all never seen in this country before.
* Near Lincoln Center is a branch of the American Folk Art Museum. The midtown main museum charges a fee, but this branch is completely free of charge unless you’d like to drop a dollar or two into the donation box. "New York Trilogy" features the work of two 20th-century New York artists plus a selection of 19th- and early 20th-century pieces related to New York from the Museum’s collection -- everything from a carousel figure to quilts and coverlets.
Vestie Davis (1903-1978) painted and drew numerous small figures at famous New York landmarks, like Coney Island and Central Park. The strong black outlines and the delicacy of his hues when using colored pencils yield soothing drawings that seem timeless. Malcah Zeldis (b. 1931) continues to turn out paintings grounded in her life in New York, both in Brooklyn and Manhattan, in her vivid, totally original color combinations. One of her jaunty nudes greets visitors to the show.
* An elegant Upper East Side town house contains New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and its always provocative exhibitions. Currently on view is "The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC," a exploration of several early settlements in southeastern Europe via objects on loan from museums in Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova. Ancient archeological finds -- earlier than Egypt and Mesopotamia -- of gold, copper, spondylus shell, and extravagant pottery point to sophisticated cultures that mysteriously disappeared by around 3500 BC.
Goddess figures suggest domestic rites dealing with fertility, while vessels in many shapes, both plain and decorated, indicate a complex society. Gold ornaments in particular burials mean social stratification was already advanced.
The exhibition remains on view until Apr. 25, 2010, and then travels to the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, October 2010 to January, 2011.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.