August 21, 2016

Women of the Southwest - Mabel Dodge Luhan

About an hour and a half drive north of Santa Fe, through the Rio Grande Gorge to the edge of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, is the historic town of Taos.  Founded in 1615 after the Spanish conquest of nearby Pueblos, the area saw a lot of conflict between Hispanics and American Indians until New Mexico became a territory of the United States in 1850.

By the late 19th century, before the territory became a state in 1912, Taos began to develop into a destination for artists.  Drawn by dramatic scenery and a fascinating mix of cultures, what began as a handful soon became a full fledged community and the Taos Art Colony was established.  Today, the town of Taos continues to be a lure for artists and is home to many studios, galleries and three museums, one of which was the main reason for my recent visit.

The Harwood Museum of Art was the brainchild of Bert and Elizabeth Harwood who joined their fellow artists in a retreat from the usual art centers to the quiet inspiration of the Southwest.  In 1916 the Harwoods purchased and re-purposed a group of adobe buildings to develop an art complex known as El Pueblito.  For some years it also functioned as the town's only library, stocked with books from the Harwood's private collection.  Eventually, the Foundation was donated to the University of New Mexico under whose aegis the facility has expanded into a small but very fine museum focusing on the art and culture of the region.

Nicolai Fechin
"Mabel Dodge Luhan", c. 1927

The impetus for my visit to The Harwood was not just to see their renowned permanent collection but to view a special exhibition that has received a lot of publicity in the art world press.  "Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company:  American Moderns and The West" focuses on the extraordinary cultural entrepreneur, Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan, and how she, almost single-handedly, cultivated what is now known as Southwestern Modernism.

Mabel Dodge Luhan's (1879-1962) remarkable life began in Buffalo, New York, where she was the only child of a very wealthy banker and his wife.  Widowed at the age of 24, Mabel Ganson Evans left with her only child for Europe where she married her second husband, Boston architect Edwin Dodge, and established a very popular artistic and society salon in their lavishly restored residence, the Villa Curonia in Florence, Italy.  By 1912, Mabel, Edwin and John returned to New York to set up housekeeping, and a new salon, in Greenwich Village.  Actively engaged in the avant garde art scene, Mabel was a vociferous proponent of free speech, social reform and sexual equality.  With the outbreak of World War I, and the dissolution of her marriage, Mabel moved to Croton-on-Hudson where she attracted not only her usual coterie of artists and activists but also the attention of the Russian post-Impressionist painter Maurice Sterne, who soon became husband number three.

Maurice Sterne
"Pueblo Indian Head", 1918, and "Taos Indian", 1918

Shortly after the marriage, Mabel dispatched Maurice to Santa Fe with the hope that he would find new inspiration for his art.  He was captivated by the region and wrote to his wife to come and join him and "save the Indians, their art-culture-reveal it to the world!"  Mabel made the arduous trek to northern New Mexico, then still quite remote, and was bowled over.  Unfortunately for Maurice, while Taos became her Shangri-La, he was replaced as soul-mate when she met and fell in love with Tony Lujan, a Tiwa Indian from the Taos Pueblo whom she married in 1923.
Together, Mabel and Tony built Los Gallos, a seventeen-room house with five guesthouses, on the outskirts of Taos.  It was here that she created her ultimate salon - a destination for artists and writers to come and work in a supportive and inspirational community.  And come they did.  Before long, Los Gallos was visited by artists both American and European who seized the opportunity to spend time in such a fertile environment - intellectually, culturally and visually.  Guests included D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Agnes Pelton...

Agnes Pelton
"The Voice", 1930

Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Maynard Dixon and Andrew Dasburg...

Andrew Dasburg
"Taos Houses", 1926 well as Willa Cather, Martha Graham and Marsden Hartley...

Marsden Hartley
"An Abstract Arrangement of Indian Symbols", 1914-15

Alfred Stieglitz and his entourage were also captivated by the beauty and mysticism of Taos.  Photographer Paul Strand and his wife Rebecca Salsbury (best known for her reverse oil on glass paintings), John Marin, and of course Georgia O'Keeffe all painted the stunning scenery in a uniquely American Modernist style...

Georgia O'Keeffe
"Taos, New Mexico", 1939

As well as the spectacular landscape, Taos also offered a rare perspective on "primitive" cultures with both Hispanic and American Indian folk and religious art part of the every day.  Hispanic santos and retablos as well as tribal rites and artifacts provided visitors to the Luhans' with new sources of Modernist imagery.

 A "Death Cart / Carreta de la Muerte" with works by
John Marin and Victor Higgins in the background

Marsden Hartley's "Blessing the Melon", 1918
flanked by 19th century Santos

Emil Bisttram
"Mexican Wake", 1932

Mabel and Tony continued to host the artists' colony at Taos for over forty years, making Los Gallos a true mecca for the visual and literary arts.  When Mabel died in 1962, she was universally recognized as having put Taos on the map as a cultural oasis and as having practically created the school of Southwest Moderism.  Taos remains a sanctuary for a special breed of artist, both Native American and Anglo, and The Harwood Museum of Art is another great reason for a visit.

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