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ESSAYS AND ARTICLES

Anna Mary Robertson ("Grandma") Moses

GRANDMA MOSES

When Otto Kallir founded the Galerie St. Etienne in New York in 1939, he brought from his native Austria an eclectic mix of artistic interests. As the proprietor of the foremost contemporary art gallery in Vienna, he naturally had a strong proclivity toward the principal Austrian modernists, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin and Egon Schiele. But like other aficionados of modernism in the period between the two world wars, he also had a keen appreciation of folk or naive art--the art of the self-taught painter, whose example provided many modernists with an alternative to the academic straight-jacket. Kallir's primary goal was to introduce Austrian modernism--then virtually unknown--to the United States, but he also remained opened to new stimuli in his recently adopted land. So it was that when, in the spring of 1940, an amateur collector named Louis Caldor approached him with a sundry assortment of small pictures by an elderly upstate New York farmwoman, Kallir was willing to give the artist (rejected by other dealers on account of her age) a chance.

 

Thus the painter who would later become world famous as "Grandma Moses" had her first one-woman exhibition, under the unassuming title "What a Farmwife Painted," at the Galerie St. Etienne in October 1940. Anna Mary Robertson Moses (affectionately known as "Grandma" in her local community) was not, as is sometimes claimed, an overnight sensation. She entered the New York art scene as one amongst a number of "new" folk artists, whose work had been made suddenly fashionable by several landmark exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s. However, a public appearance at Gimbels department store a month after the St. Etienne show made it clear that Moses was capable of reaching an audience far broader than the limited circle of art connoissieurs. Though she immediately returned to her home in Eagle Bridge, New York, and subsequently gave few interviews, the story of the painting grandmother gradually penetrated the American media. Perhaps more important, traveling exhibitions, and then greeting cards and books, made her artwork available on a scale seldom, if ever, before equaled. By 1950 she was a national celebrity, and at the time of her death in 1961 at the age of 101, Grandma Moses was famous worldwide.

 

The extremity of Moses' fame had numerous ramifications. If, on the one hand, it seemed to remove her from the ranks of the stereotypical struggling folk artist, it also changed forever the way folk artists work. After Grandma Moses, an inescapable self-consciousness entered the realm of folk art, heretofore defined by lack of contact with formal artistic conventions. It was perhaps inevitable that Moses' fame and its side-effects would come to obscure her art. Some failed to distinguish the real Grandma Moses from the horde of imitators that, even today, seem to dominate the field. And if Moses' success contributed to the commercialization of folk art, people could not help but wonder if she herself was not tainted by that same commercialism.

 

Today, almost thirty years since the artist's death and forty-nine years after her first solo exhibition, one fact is undeniable: Grandma Moses is here to stay. The present exhibition, including many of her most famous paintings, offers an ideal opportunity to reassess the Moses phenomenon on its own merits. A special effort has been made to gather the artist's largest pictures, which reveal a surprising command of depth and scale. Produced during a brief period in the mid-to-late 1940s, these works are quite rare, for as Moses aged she was no longer physically able to handle such big canvases. The exhibition also makes it evident that, unlike many folk artists, Moses had a complex artistic development, with a distinct beginning, middle and end. An introductory section recreates a portion of her first one-woman show, introducing themes that evolve throughout the remainder of her life. Like any painter's, Moses' command of the medium and her expressive goals change over the course of her twenty-year career, which is, after all, equivalent in duration to that of many younger artists.

 

Every artist must confront the massive challenge of formulating a style capable of expressing his or her unique aesthetic vision. For a while, in the early heyday of modernism, it was common to imagine that folk artists, unhindered by the preconceptions of academic training, are somehow better equipped to get in touch with their inner creative selves. If this is, at least initially, true, it is also true that self-taught artists are uniquely handicapped by their isolation from conventional artistic circles. Not only must they figure out, unaided, how to master the tools of their craft, but they are also completely unprepared to meet the requirements of a professional career, if and when they are lucky enough to attain one. On all these counts, Grandma Moses was more than equal to the challenge. Ever true to her humble beginnings, the feisty octogenerian proved more readily capable of resisting the temptations of commercial success than many of her younger colleagues. And as for mastery of craft, the unique "Grandma Moses style," though often imitated, has never been matched. Of all the folk artists who ever lived, Moses is the one who most completely personifies--indeed, for many defines--the genre.

 

50th Anniversary Committee

 

Dr. Hubert Adolph, DIRECTOR, ÖSTERREICHISCHE GALERIE

 

Leon A. Arkus, DIRECTOR EMERITUS, CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF ART

 

Dr. Robert Bishop, DIRECTOR, MUSEUM OF AMERICAN FOLK ART

 

Dr. Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz

 

The Honorable Leopold Bill von Bredow, CONSUL GENERAL OF THE

 

FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF GERMANY

 

Prof. Alessandra Comini, SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY

 

Dr. Günter Düriegl, DIRECTOR, HISTORISCHES MUSEUM DER STADT WIEN

 

Lillian Gish

 

Paul Gottlieb, PRESIDENT, HARRY N. ABRAMS, INC.

 

His Excellency Friedrich Hoess, AMBASSADOR OF AUSTRIA TO THE U.S.A.

 

Prof. Arne Kollwitz

 

Mr. and Mrs. Leonard A. Lauder

 

Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder

 

Gertrud Mellon

 

Thomas M. Messer, DIRECTOR EMERITUS, SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM

 

Dr. Konrad Oberhuber, DIRECTOR, GRAPHISCHE SAMMLUNG ALBERTINA

 

Mrs. John Alexander Pope

 

Prof. Carl E. Schorske, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY

 

Dr. Richard A. Simms

 

The Honorable Wolfgang Steininger, CONSUL GENERAL OF AUSTRIA

 

Dr. Alice Strobl, VICE DIRECTOR EMERITUS, GRAPHISCHE SAMMLUNG ALBERTINA

 

Dr. Wolfgang Waldner, DIRECTOR, AUSTRIAN INSTITUTE