Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Tipsy Mermaid


Sometimes you just have to tilt your head sideways to get a new perspective.

        In the folk art collection at the Fenimore Art Museum we have many pieces that are among the earliest published artworks in the field. The reason for this is that they come from the collection of Jean Lipman, who published the seminal books American Primitive Painting and American Folk Art in Wood, Metal and Stone in the 1940s using many pieces in her collection as illustrations. When our benefactor Stephen C. Clark purchased the Lipman Collection for us in 1950, it gave the museum iconic artworks well known to a generation of folk art enthusiasts.

            One of those pieces is our great Mermaid Garden Fountain. It was found in Baltimore and came with the history that it was displayed in a shop window in the early 19th century as a garden ornament for sale. The style of the carving suggests that it was the work of a professional shipcarver.

            The Mermaid appears on page 150 of Lipman’s Wood, Metal and Stone and she had this to say about it. “A metal tube ran up the body to the mouth, allowing the mermaid to spout water which must have risen and fallen in a curve, repeating in reverse the lines of her sweeping tail… This figure is naïve indeed but it is just the type of wood sculpture from which our modern sophisticates have derived inspiration."

            But something is wrong here. When she was photographed for the book, the Mermaid was positioned with a vertical torso. Probably because of this image, this was the way she was exhibited and published in Cooperstown and elsewhere for almost 50 years. About ten years ago I came across a notation buried deep within her research file. It happed to mention that the Mermaid was probably tilted on a 45 degree angle to allow the water to actually spout forward in a graceful arc.

            I was struck by this casual note. Of course! If she was vertical, the water would spout straight up and come back down on the poor Mermaid’s face! Tilted forward, the torso and the tail are incredibly well-balanced, and she resembles the forward-leaning ships’ figureheads of the era.

            So now, after a half century of misrepresentation, she leans again, and illustrates for our visitors the visual dynamism of early folk sculpture. 

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