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Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection

March 7 - May 30, 2010


Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection, a major traveling exhibition developed by the Fenimore Art Museum, made its debut at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) on March 7, 2010, and runs through May 30, 2010 before traveling to Minneapolis and Indianapolis. The exhibition explores Native North American art from the Eastern Woodlands to the Northwest through 135 masterpieces spanning 2,000 years. The exhibition provides visitors with a broad understanding and appreciation of the aesthetic accomplishments and cultural heritage of this country's first peoples. (right: Headdress Frontlet, about 1840-70, Coast? Tsimshian, north British Columbia. Thaw Collection, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y., T0177. Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor)

The objects in the exhibition are drawn from The Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of Native North American Art, which was carefully assembled over the past two decades by Eugene V. Thaw, one of the art world's most distinguished connoisseurs and collectors of art. This is the first time the collection is being treated as an exhibition, and several key objects will only be seen at the Cleveland venue.

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see an extraordinary range of Native North American works of the highest quality, each piece a paragon of creativity and artistic excellence," said Sue Bergh, associate curator, art of the ancient Americas, at CMA. "In Gene Thaw's own words, 'Indian material culture stands rightfully with ancient art masterpieces of Asia and Europe as their equivalent.' We are delighted to offer visitors this opportunity to examine more deeply this fascinating dimension of American history."

The works in Art of the American Indians are organized by geographic region, moving from the ancient ivories and ingenious modern masks of the Arctic to the astonishingly beautiful and dramatic arts of the Pacific Northwest, which form one of the pillars of the Thaw Collection. The basketry of Native American weavers appears in a section devoted to California and the adjacent Great Basin, home of Louisa Keyser (also known as Dat So La Lee), a renowned Washoe basket weaver and one of the most celebrated Native American artists. Beacon Lights, Keyser's most famous creation, will be a centerpiece of the exhibition.

The abstract art of the culturally complex Southwest will be shown in both its ancient and modern manifestations. From the Plains come outstanding examples of the colorfully beaded, feathered and painted works for which the region is most famous. Showcased as well are the Eastern Woodlands, including the Great Lakes, and their visually quieter and more contemplative arts, which are another of the collection's great strengths.

The majority of the 120-piece collection dates to the 19th century, but archaeological and contemporary works also are included to demonstrate the continued vitality of Native North American cultures. Fifteen CMA objects will also appear in Cleveland.

Exhibition highlights include:

Shaman's Mask, Tlingit people, Northwest Coast -- A magnificently malevolent mask that directly manifests a powerful spirit being who helped a shaman intermediate between the worlds of matter and spirit: an octopus, signaled by sucker disks on the cheeks and the peaked, beak-like mouth.
Crane Mask, Yup'ik people, Arctic -- This mask, one of the finest that survives, is part of a nearly identical female-male pair that danced together. Each crane strains forward and flutters its wings protectively around a figure on its breast, one a sick shaman and the other perhaps a helper coming to the shaman's aid. (Cleveland only).
Painted Drum, Pawnee people, Plains -- Throwing lightning from its beak, a thunderbird dives from black clouds into a threatening yellow sky as a flock of swallows, the storm's harbingers, scatters like wind-blown leaves. Beneath, in a small center of calm, a man offers a pipe upward. (Cleveland only).
Basket, Louisa Keyser (Dat So La Lee), Washoe -- A national treasure made by one of the most legendary basket-makers in North America (Cleveland only).

Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection is organized by the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. This exhibition has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces:

To expand upon Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection, CMA is hosting a special photography exhibition in the museum's east wing drawing upon its complete set (20 bound volumes and 20 accompanying portfolios) of Edward S. Curtis' landmark publication, The North American Indian, containing more than 2,200 photogravures. Two-thirds of the photography galleries will be devoted to the work of Edward S. Curtis featuring 30 of his large scale photogravures. The remainder will house the work of a contemporary Native American photographer, Zig Jackson, with 15 images from his series, Tribal Peoples. The exhibition will be on view from Feb. 7 - May 30, 2010.

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