For anyone wishing to start an art collection on a budget, particularly if he intends to acquire the work of the very best artists in the world, multiples are the way to go. A one-of-a-kind piece of art, such as a painting or watercolor or drawing, can be prohibitively expensive, even for someone with deep pockets; but works on paper – limited edition, hand-signed prints or posters or photographs – can be acquired at a fraction of the cost.
This was the course of action followed by the St. Louis-based brokerage firm of A.G. Edwards in the mid-1960s. By 1991, the collection had become so large that the company created the Art Enrichment Program, whose purpose was to lend out selected works to local art institutions. A.G. Edwards was bought out by Wachovia Bank in 2007, and Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia in 2008. With each takeover, the art collection passed into new hands; but the decision to share the works with the general public still holds true.
Until Nov. 24, area residents can see at the Morris Museum in Augusta 50 works from what is now the 4,000-piece Wells Fargo Collection. The current show can be divided roughly into three types of multiples: posters, limited edition prints and photographs.
Among the posters, there is no more impressive specimen than Alphonse Mucha’s color lithograph announcing Sarah Bernhardt’s 1896 American tour. Although he later tried to break free from this single label, the Czech artist will forever be associated with the art nouveau movement. In fact, in France, this particular decorative style generally featuring intertwined organic forms was initially referred to as “Mucha style.”
For this color lithograph, printed by a company with offices in Cincinnati and New York, Mucha cast the legendary actress in the title role of the play in which she had starred in Paris and which she now decided to introduce to an American audience. Attired in a heavily embroidered robe and holding a palm leaf in one hand, Bernhardt embodies the fictional Gismonda, the fickle ruler of Athens in Victorien Sardou’s melodrama of the same name. Pledged to marry the man who saved the life of her young son, who fell into a tiger pit, Gismonda changes her mind after the rescuer Almeiro is revealed to be a commoner. The general populace, however, rallies around their new hero, marching on the palace with palm leaves held aloft; and after a number of twists and turns of the plot, Gismonda comes to realize that Almeiro wants her for herself and not for her throne. Love ultimately triumphs over politics.
Just as definitively did Mucha’s poster, featuring her elongated, nearly life-sized figure, win the heart of the “divine Sarah,” who commissioned him to create other advertisements for her numerous productions. Just as quickly as Mucha’s posters of Bernhardt were put up on the street, some say, they were snatched by collectors.
The second type of multiple represented in the current show is the limited edition print, such as the one that first greets visitors as they enter the exhibition space: a trial proof of Andy Warhol’s “Uncle Sam,” created in 1981. Produced in a screen print edition of 200 as part of his “Myths” series, the work features the classic personification of the United States made famous by J.M. Flagg in his “I Want You” recruitment poster of 1917. There is no finger pointing, however, in this Warhol variation, which focuses instead on Sam’s head and shoulders, particularly his bewhiskered face and his tri-color top hat. The fact that the image is also covered in Warhol’s trademark diamond dust is indicative of the artist’s devotion to the cult of celebrity, real or imagined.
The third and final multiple represented in the exhibition is the photograph. The Wells Fargo Collection boasts many fine examples of classic black and white photography, but I was especially drawn to a 1952 photograph by Dorothea Lange. Taken on the streets of downtown San Francisco, “Mother and Child” features a fashionably dressed young matron – looking more like a fashion model than a housewife – striding confidently down the sidewalk as if it were a fashion runway. Trailing behind her, with head cast down, is her small child in an oversized coat and cap.
This is a far cry from Lange’s now-iconic, Depression-era “Migrant Mother,” who stares off into the distance with furrowed brow in 1936 as her children cling to her on either side. “Mother and Child, San Francisco” embodies a far more prosperous, far more confident period in our history, after the Allies had won the war and America assumed her dominant role as an economic powerhouse and leader of the free world.
“Starters: Selections from the Wells Fargo Collection” will be on display until Nov. 24 at the Morris Museum. Wells Fargo customers get free admission to the museum during the run of the show by presenting a Wells Fargo credit or debit card. For more information, call 706-828-3815 or visit www.themorris.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken.