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“Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory”

At the National Museum of American Art to Aug. 22

“Shaker: Furnishings for the

Simple Life”

At the Renwick Gallery to July 25

No one hangs the second-rate like the National Museum of American Art. And I mean that in the best way. Perhaps because in the 20th century aesthetics have gone international, nationalism is the new regionalism. The NMAA’s holdings are riddled with endearing minor oddities (Theodore Roszak’s Recording Sound, Paul Feeley’s Jack, for example) that you initially take as pedagogical medicine, because it’s improving to broaden your reckoning of our cultural patrimony. But then you find they’ve wormed their way into your own permanent collection. Maybe they wouldn’t survive a transoceanic flight, but who cares?

For “Picturing Old New England,” the museum has taken its affinity for the also-ran and run with it, letting a literally regional focus sharpen its feel for local peculiarities. There are some big names here—Homer, Sargent, Hopper—but genuflection before the canon isn’t the point. Selecting works from 1865 to 1945 that take New England as their subject, whether created by New Englanders or not, the NMAA’s William Truettner and the University of Virginia’s Roger Stein examine the meaning of the region to the national psyche, finding it to be the source of certain strains of thought and feeling we’ve come to call “American.”

Old New England is a place where vast historical forces are tamed, where national character manifests itself as family pride, where a thirst for adventure is reduced to a taste for tourism. It has a way of taking grand passions and cutting them down to size, remaking appetites that could kill us into enthusiasms we can live with. (Why does fatty Ben and Jerry’s come in puny pint containers?) The domestication of extremism is the region’s forte. Where else could a tax revolt become a tea party?

Nothing captures the dialectic of ruggedness and ease, of trailblazing and cocooning, of New World nature and Old World culture better than Otto Grundmann’s 1878 Interior at the Mountains. A four-window bay looks out from the cozy, wicker-appointed warmth of a New Hampshire tourist resort onto the peaks outside. Unpopulated, the picture draws the viewer into its foreground, which is peppered with prints and a map, reminders of the dominant Euroculture, while projecting his eye to the horizon. It’s the perfect place to indulge a need for civilized solitude, to get away—though not too far away—from it all.

Community is as important as individualism to the image of old New England. Norman Rockwell honors the democratic tradition of the town meeting in a famous 1943 poster emblazoned “SAVE FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” but the glassy, faraway gaze of the standing orator and the stares he draws from fellow townspeople instead suggest a freedom of hypnosis, implying a wartime consensus in which Americans, free to discuss matters but already united in their opposition to the Hun, have little to talk about. Farm Security Administration photographer Marion Post Wolcott had addressed the same idealized forum three years earlier, when national woes were more domestic than foreign in origin. Though her efforts are scarcely less stagy, they leave open room for debate and better embody the to-and-fro of the perpetual tractor pull for the American mind.

Such contests are generally won by yahoos, though they may be dressed up as Brahmins. Whenever someone yearns for the good old days, knock the earth off him and see if you’ve uprooted a bigot. It’s no accident that the most self-conscious and oppressive fabrications of an ideal old New England coincided with a backlash against the non-WASP European immigrants who had made industrialization such a booming success in the region. In the 1890s, New England’s premodern Anglo-Saxon heritage and “family values” were trumpeted in reverent images of Puritans communing in low-ceilinged, paneled 17th-century interiors.

Feeling the heat of organized labor and battered by the Great Depression, industry eventually drained away from the region to parts of the country with more readily exploited workforces. New Englanders saw their future in tourism, which by definition couldn’t just pick up and leave. The images they sold weren’t only of the colonial past but also of a vigorous, albeit “timeless,” present. Ski posters drew passengers to “snow trains,” run by railways that also traded on the charming roughness of quaint fishing villages. Sometime lobsterman and full-time socialist Rockwell Kent never seemed the wuss, but when he first arrived at Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine, he was positively unmanned by the muscular fisherman whose seafaring would become his subject. “God, how I envied them their power to row! To pull their heavy traps!” he effused. “I’d see my own thin wrists, my artist’s hands. As though for the first time I saw my work in true perspective and felt its triviality.”

We contemporary softies succumb to similar romanticism. Had 1997’s The Perfect Storm concerned itself with pleasure boaters off Boca Raton instead of swordfishermen out of Gloucester, it never would have been a best seller, nor would it have earned its chest-thumping subtitle: “A True Story of Men Against the Sea.” And Sebastian Junger’s adventure tale is but one example of the deathless hold old New England has on the modern imagination.

In last year’s Escapism, University of Wisconsin cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan identified the titular impulse as a force that drives all culture. If his estimation of the will to escape is maddeningly circular (we build cities to escape the country and suburbs to escape the city; we vacation in the country to escape our escapes), that doesn’t make it any less true. The escapist role of old New England in the mind of the contemporary visitor is exemplified by Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s circa 1924 oil The Swimmer. Mental constructions of picturesque landscape and majestic seascape merge in the holiday surrealism of a maillot-clad giantess flutter-kicking laps around her own private island.

One of the most sharply drawn portraits of a life in retreat I’ve encountered was in a J. Peterman catalog. A single Michelin-guide-proportioned page described the final adventure of a hard-charging tycoon. He had given up the corporate life early, purchased a small library, converted a decommissioned lighthouse, and settled in to pass the remainder of his Biblical span in the company of the 100 greatest books ever written. Even to someone who spends many of his days propped up in bed reprocessing cultural artifacts, this middlebrow fantasy takes on the shades of nightmare. There’s something horrifying about planning a future that refuses to allow the present to impinge upon it. True to form for a company more successful giving away escapist daydreams than selling merchandise, Peterman failed to impress upon me the identity of the item being offered. I also can’t recall where the lighthouse was situated, East Coast or West, North or South, but I’m incapable of imagining it as anything other than an artifact of old New England.

New Lebanon, N.Y., isn’t technically in New England. It misses western Massachusetts by a couple of miles. But as the site of Mount Lebanon, the first community of American Shakers, a movement of Christian communalists that combined Yankee ingenuity in its agricultural, technical, and commercial forms with sexual puritanism and a strong back-to-basics vibe, it definitely qualifies.

Born in 1785 and extinct by 1947, the community at Mount Lebanon flourished before the Civil War. Afterward, it didn’t fare so well. (Encroaching modernity aside, it’s hard to make celibacy appealing when everyone is fixated on restocking the gene pool.) Perhaps uncharacteristically for a failed utopian religious movement, its chief legacy is its visual style, manifest in its architecture and in articles from seed packets to cloaks, but most durable in its furniture. Early joiners brought with them the furnishings of the world they had left behind, but in the 1820s an official style emerged, characterized by formal simplicity, solid construction, integrity of craftsmanship, and an eschewing of ornamentation. Later Shaker furniture, dating from when the movement was in decline, made concessions to Victorian trends, but the “classical” style went on to influence design movements from Arts and Crafts to functionalism.

Shaker style had a museum resurgence in the 1980s and, with the down-marketing and standardization of “good design,” was quickly absorbed at the retail level. It’s hard to imagine outfitting a modern room at Mastercraft, much less Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel, and not having some element of Shaker style factor into the decision. I fully expected the Mount Lebanon craftspeople behind the furniture and smalls now at the Renwick to suffer at the hands of their epigones.

When calls for integrity aren’t mere propaganda, however, they can produce something lasting. And when a true believer puts his religious identity on the line with each piece he sells, not even mechanized production—the Shakers did make to sell, and they welcomed new technology—need erode standards of quality. The patina of age helps, but the originals hold up despite the flood of contemporary knockoffs, exposing the shoddiness and posturing of inferior goods.

The classical pieces made for the community’s own use offer the greatest insights into the Shakers’ lives and our own. It turns out that the sect’s asceticism wasn’t as thoroughgoing as it first appears, particularly where clothing was involved. According to rigid mandates for appropriate dress, a sister required 130 articles of clothing, more than her worldly counterpart. Those massive dressers with their towering ranks of fruitwood-pulled drawers are, in fact, monuments to concealment.

In our day, the lifestyle-simplification movement has reached into arenas as disparate as closet organization, career counseling, and contemporary Christian music. Paring down, or at least the appearance of it, started out as a solace to the stressed and has morphed into a moral imperative. It’s no wonder that many of our own “furnishings for the simple life”—beds, chests, nightstands, sideboards, even TV-hiding hutches—come Shaker-style.

In speaking to historical phenomena whose representations have been yoked to modern needs, the Renwick and NMAA exhibitions, the latter on an impressively grand scale, engage in welcome acts of cultural excavation. Because when we manufacture simple, stable visions of the past, complexity doesn’t vanish—it just goes underground. CP