This frieze by the New York-based Robert Graves Co. is an excellent example of the use of Native American motifs in American design at the turn of the century. Though this was an age that saw an unprecedented suppression of native culture, Native American art itself saw an unprecedented wave of appreciation and praise, particularly from designers who held it up as an exemplar of design as cultural art form. In fact, it was in the early years of the 20th century that Native American objects were first consistently called and treated as artworks, as opposed to simply ethnographic objects. In several exhibitions of this time, Native American artworks were exhibited beside Euro-American fine and decorative artworks. Similarly, various Native American artists, such as Louisa Keyser, Nampeyo, and Maria Martinez, also achieved fame at this time.
The appeal of Native American design to contemporary designers was very multi-faceted. Native American ornament was frequently copied or referenced by designers who sought to create a new modern style and looked to other cultures for inspiration. Nationalist sentiment also led to the frequent use of Native American motifs and imagery in American decorative art contributions to world’s fairs. Nationalism also influenced the new appreciation of Native American design as an indigenous folk art.
Designers and artists from all movements were inspired by Native American craft. Aesthetic movement and Art nouveau designers were attracted to Native American ornament for its high level of abstraction. Modern artists appreciated the fact that Native American motifs were frequently non-representational but nevertheless carried rich symbolic meaning. They also saw in the Native American artist a “primitive” individual whose innately rich and primal sense of creativity had not been attenuated by capitalism and industrialization. Similarly, Arts and Crafts designers admired Native American art as embodying an ideal craft tradition where style was tied to medium and method of production and the quality of the artwork was completely dependent on the skill of the craftsman. The use of a simulated texture in this frieze, evoking the roughness of basketwork, also reflects this association of Native American art with the craft tradition. There was a substantial period in the early-twentieth century where Native crafts of all sort, from basket-weaving to beadwork, were taught at American art schools. In the end, this frieze reflects a difficult time when Native peoples were never so forced to adopt Western ways and yet Native art was never so appreciated or appropriated.
Nicholas Lopes is a student in the History of Design & Curatorial Studies graduate program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.
A major source for this post was The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American art, 1890-1915 by Elizabeth Hutchinson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).