One of the first collections of folk art — if not the first “official” collection — is the focus of an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society. “Making it Modern: The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman” has an international flair but a local provenance.
Perhaps homesick for the “peasant arts” of his native Poland, Elie Nadelman, an avant-garde artist, began acquiring antique items soon after arriving in New York City in 1914. With his 1919 marriage to Viola, a tobacco-heiress, the pair developed an ongoing obsession for antique ephemera of day-to-day life — children’s toys, cigar store displays, bridal boxes, antique tools and the like. They lived with their acquisitions in their East 93rd Street brownstone, according to the show’s co-curator, Roberta Olson, the Historic Society’s curator of drawings.
Their shared passion for “peasant arts” of the Old World and the New soon outgrew their home, and in 1926 the couple moved their collection to Riverdale and established The Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts, the first public folk art collection in the United States, according to co-curator Margaret Hofer, who is also the Historic Society’s museum director. The stock market crash and the Depression led the couple to sell pieces from the collection over the years. The Society purchased its entire collection of 15,000 pieces in 1937.
The 200 items on view were chosen to show the intersection of folk art and the modernism typified by Nadleman’s work, examples of which are also included on loan. The show is a wildly diverse selection of tools, toys, store displays, paintings, plates, ceramics and household items, sharing exuberant colors, individuality, simple forms and whimsy. Items are arranged to emphasize the relationship between the simple and the playful, and Nadelman’s own sculptures of dancing ladies, circus girls and ringmasters (there’s more than a hint of Modigliani in the elongated forms of his figures).
Much of the show’s charm, though, comes from the glimpse of the tools and amusements of daily life across six centuries and 13 different countries, plus some with a distinct New York City flavor. Standouts include a 19th century tobacco shop display figure rendered as a sailor. Alone among the four shop display figures in the show, the sailor most resembles an actual person, from his jaunty cap and beard to his casual stance in bell-bottom pants. The four intricately carved tobacco shop statues are a nod to the art in commerce and to how Viola’s family made its money. (“And Elie was a smoker,” Olsen noted.)
Also striking is a collection of about a dozen mostly American mechanical toys and banks, including one, inspired by Tammany Hall scandals, that activates once a coin in placed in the hand of the seated figure ... who puts it in his pocket.
A selection of pottery and ceramics is remarkable. From a plate praising Andrew Jackson for president to a simple, and very modern, brown glazed plate that says “Apple Pie” — none would look out of place on Etsy.
A touching collection of beautifully hand-drawn and painted paper dolls made by a Canadian mother for her children, showing women in period dress doing chores like hanging laundry is lovely.
It took two years of surveying the collection of 15,000 objects to settle on the 200 items, Olson said. The curators were careful to include a cross-section from the meaningful — colorful bridal boxes and samplers — to the humdrum — clothespins, cheese strainers, even an early example of a roach hotel. All of the items, though, share detail in design, individuality, even verve. One of the Society’s goals was to make a significant contribution to the field of folk art studies, but any visitor curious about day-to-day living of bygone eras will enjoy it too.