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Reproductions in water color made for the American Index of Design, a project of the Works Progress Administration, form an exhibition at the Fogg Museum that is quite novel.
Something has been heard of this undertaking, but now for the first time in New England it can really be seen. Wood sculpture, in figure-heads and signs, textiles, the Shaker crafts of furniture, are presented with a precision of tery and some seventeenth century furniture, are presented with a precision of detail and fullness of color that reveal them in a new light.
The execution and the taste brought to these plates by the easel painters and commercial artists who so successfully adapted themselves to this new work, make an exhibit that has a value all its own.
First to be seen is the wood sculpture or wood carving. The record of this is to be national in scope but it is the New England beginning which is shown us here. It is sturdy, realistic, at times decorative, but it is always purposeful. The figureheads usually illustrate the name of the ship, such as the "Abraham Lincoln," or an owner or ship's officer. In any case he was shown complete, from ruffled shirt to whiskers. Again, a stubby little mariner sighting with his sextant advertises the shop of an instrument maker; a "Bell in Hand" proclaims a famous Boston tavern. Thus they all had clarity. And as they were made to be painted in colors, they had directness and simplicity of modeling. Those were qualities which the New England carver understood and his sculpture was natural and successful. Others were necessarily imaginative, such as the figure-head for "The White Lady."
The records of the textiles, which here include embroideries, are certainly impressive. Perhaps no other art will disclose such possibilities for comparative study when all regions are ultimately brought into the national portfolios. In the textiles, the workmanship of the project artists is amazing. The colors are rich yet they achieve the softness of the wool, the folds and the textures create an almost complete illusion.
The surprise of the exhibition is the revelation of the arts of the Shaker. Since their products are now mainly in the hands of private collectors, the Index of Design has allotted them a whole portfolio, to preserve them for the public and the future. Furniture, costumes and textiles are shown here, in all their austere utility and straightness of lines, combined with perfect proportion.
The Shakers were the first "functionalists" for, surrounded by hybrid designs of French or German ornament, they rediscovered Early American simplicity. All this is plain to be seen, in their cup-boards and in their clothes. Everywhere their superior standard of workmanship is effectively shown.
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