It was 1939 or 1940, by his own recollection, when collector Maxim Karolik showed a group of Museum of Fine Arts curators the paintings he’d gathered around Lenox. “This is the part I call a little sad,” he said, speaking to Brian O’Doherty for WGBH TV’s “Invitation to Art” in 1962.
The curators wanted names to validate the pictures, Karolik said, while he and his wife had the opposite intent. “Our motto was not ‘Tell me who the painter is and I’ll tell you whether the painting is good,’” he said, his gravelly voice thick with an accent that made him sound like a Hollywood Dracula. “Our motto is ‘Tell me if the painting is good, and I don’t care who the painter is!’”
And with that, Karolik let the air out of at least a few centuries of art historical orthodoxy. Never mind the 20th century and its established canon of Western European masters. Since at least the early Renaissance, artistic lineage — studio of Rembrandt, school of Titian — mattered as much as merit, links in a chain forged for the ages.
But chains are awfully linear things, aren’t they? The real world is less about straight lines than deviations, though you’d hardly know it by looking at art history. Providing for deviations in recent years has been the MFA’s “Collecting Stories” series of pocket-size exhibitions, where the museum brings into view its own history of willful blindness. Small in stature, the shows have been mighty in intent. The first, in 2018/19, was a self-critical analysis of the museum’s spotty (and often cynical) engagement with Native American culture over decades. The second, a closet-cleaning of the museum’s collection of 20th-century American Modernism with an array of neglected bits dusted off and jammed into one room, disrupted the era’s one-note story with a cacophony of difference.
Round three brings us back to Karolik, on the theme of “folk art,” a non-starter from the get-go. The term is heavy with derision, immediately diminishing the work as something other than art itself. “Folk art” is a comparative nicety alongside its rougher relations: “Outsider art” or, as the French call it, “Art Brut.” (Because the French have a special gift for condescension.) They differ slightly — folk art is supposedly amateurish and homespun, while the others are seen less as products of an aesthetic than of an obsession. But they all amount to the same thing: art viewed not as art but as other and less.
Make no mistake: Karolik, who died in 1963, liked to name names, too. A tenor in the Petrograd Grand Opera — he was born in a region of Eastern Europe that was then part of Russia — Karolik fled the Bolshevik revolution in the 1920s for America, where in 1927 he met and married Martha Codman, an heir to the wealthy Bostonian Codman family 30 years his senior.
Refined, impassioned, and gregarious — I would love to have known the guy — he and Martha had gifted to the MFA paintings by big-name 19th-century American artists like Albert Bierstadt, George Inness, and Washington Allston. Those gifts no doubt earned him the attentions of the museum’s senior staff, who would have been motivated to keep so generous a donor happy. And so Karolik’s array of nameless American artists entered the collection, too, whatever the staffers’ misgivings.
Were they humoring him? It sure seems like it. The museum made half-hearted gestures to accommodate Karolik’s convictions over the years. Some of his gifts made their way into galleries devoted to early New England life as Americana, not American art. (Bits and pieces of Karolik’s collection from the early 19th century’s so-called “barren period” of American art include a weather vane, a wooden swan, and a wrought-iron chicken that served as a foot scraper.) But most of the works on paper in “Collecting Stories: The Invention of Folk Art” have never been shown, or at least not for decades.
And so the clean lines of art history were preserved, despite the clamor in the vaults. But we can look at “Collecting Stories” as much-delayed vindication; the vast majority of the show comes from Karolik’s trove.
It’s no singular epiphany to land on folk art as a realm ripe for reconsideration. A tent-pole exhibition for folk art in particular had to be “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 2018, which determinedly enmeshed neglected histories with the main. It crystallized the notion that the exclusions of official culture make for rich terrain, perhaps richer now than the scorched earth of the official culture itself.
I’d like to think that’s in part due to big questions about who got to decide what counts as official. But it’s also due to the vast unexplored territory those marginalized cultures contain. That’s really where the experience of seeing art remains strange and new; add to that the mildly illicit aspect of looking at works by unknowns, lost to the ages, in a room around the corner from John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark” and you’re really on new ground.
But the best part of “Collecting Stories: Folk Art” is how it settles into the mind as most art exhibitions do. Some things are straight-up mesmerizing — the sparkly chalk and/or pastel drawings on sandpaper knocked me out. (M.T. Harvey’s “House by the River” is a particular mind-blower.) Other works are decent enough, and still others take-or-leave meh. Importantly, the works are in an actual art exhibition, in a museum, displayed with other artists who neither expected nor aspired to so much as a sniff in so exalted a realm.
Many works are anonymous, though if the point of the exercise is to enter overlooked names into the canon, let’s do it: There’s Edward Lange, who painted farms and homesteads with as much care as he would a cathedral. There’s Jasper Francis Cropsey, well-known in his time, whose view of a fecund Lake Ontario shore with its verdant trees drooping heavy in the summer damp inspired a glittering marble-dust imitation by an artist unknown that hangs alongside. And then there’s Harriot Sewall — my goodness, Harriot Sewall — whose flat-plane perspective in “The Orphans,” with its severe, matronly figure looming over a pair of diminutive children under an expressively weeping willow, is my very favorite thing here.
Names matter, partly because, for at least a few centuries, museums and art dealers have told us they do. How to impart value without a brand — or, just as importantly, take it away? On the wall at the MFA, some of the wall text feels like a mea culpa. Folk art and its many pseudonyms — vernacular, amateur, primitive, hobbyist — were “invented … by modern artists, dealers, curators and art historians.” The term also “reveal(s) more about the values, needs and desires of the community doing the defining than they do about the individual artworks themselves.”
That’s a polite way of saying that a streamlined story of American art was an essential component of a global branding effort that, by the mid-20th century, would assert the country’s dominance. To achieve that, it would need a box in which to stuff things that interrupted the narrative, and folk art was just one.
And while it’s true that things start to get really confusing when you depart from the straight and narrow, don’t they also get more interesting? Let’s take a cue from Karolik himself: “The bigger the collection grew,” he told his interviewer, flashing a devilish grin, “the more impish my delight became in challenging the self-complacent connoisseurs.” Complacency, they say, is death. Like it or not, folk art — or whatever you want to call it — is life, real and raw and messy and maddeningly broad.
COLLECTING STORIES: THE INVENTION OF FOLK ART
Through Jan. 9, 2022, Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this review misspelled the name of artist Harriot Sewall.