Strings Attached at the Columbus Art Museum

Back in spring 2013, I spoke at the Business History Conference in Columbus, OH.  Of course, I investigated the local museums and was thrilled to find out about an exhibition of Czech puppets at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Puppet theatre was a way for Czechs to express their culture and traditions while under the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century.  Puppeteers could travel from town to town, sharing folk tales and traditions.  In the 20th century, puppetry evolved into animation, inspiring filmmakers like Tim Burton.

The Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague created an exhibition incorporating different types of 19th and 20th century puppets:  Strings Attached – The Living Tradition of Czech Puppets.  Columbus was the only US stop, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see the exhibition.  

Classic Puppets

Classic Puppets

The puppets were used to enact classic tales from Shakespeare, the Bible, or universal folk tales like Pinocchio.

Grotesque Puppets

Grotesque Puppets

Surreal or grotesque puppets explored the fantastic aspects of Czech culture, also seen in Kafka’s writings and other art forms.

Devil Puppet

Devil Puppet

A number of devil puppets were also on display.  Remember these are devils with the small “d”, not the Biblical Devil with a capital “D”.  The pictures can’t show the detailed craftsmanship and vibrant colors in the original puppets.  The faces were incredibly evocative.  In the hands of a master puppeteer, the movements must be equally compelling.    

As to the Museum itself, I am a fan of local art museums.  The Columbus Museum of Art was surprisingly small, given Columbus’ size.  The collection is a mini-version of a large city art museum:  some Europeans, some Americans, a few Old Masters, and some photography.  The special exhibitions are the real value of the Museum, ranging from artist retrospectives to provocative themes like “In _____ We Trust, Art & Money.”  

If you are in Columbus and have one or two hours for culture, check the exhibition schedule.  The museum is located in the heart of downtown but can be tricky to find.  My cab driver had some difficulties, which is why I always travel with a map and directions.  You will have to walk a couple of blocks back to a main street to grab a cab back to your hotel. 

NCPH Poster Preview

My poster Grave Markers as Protest Symbols:  Using Cemeteries to Interpret the Intra-Ethnic Conflicts of Chicago’s Bohemian Immigrants has been selected for the April 2012 NCPH poster sessionThe full conference schedule will be posted in early December.  Here is a sneak preview of the poster — using different trees.  Don’t want to give away too much.

Limestone tree grave makers allowed people to memorialize their ideals and philosophies on their graves.  These grave markers also preserve the intra-ethnic conflict between Catholic and Freethinker Bohemians. After the Catholic Church denied burials in Catholic cemeteries to Catholic Bohemians whose families had Freethinkers, the outraged Freethinkers founded their own cemetery.  The Freethinkers allowed people to personalize their grave markers with secular and/or religious symbols. The Catholic grave markers emphasized a person’s religious devotion and utilized crosses.  The limestone trees in Bohemian National Cemetery and St. Adalbert Catholic Cemetery remind present day visitors of this old conflict.

Let’s interpret the following example from Bohemian National Cemetery, the Prinz Family Tree:

BNC Limestone Tree

Common to all limestone trees is the broken branch at the top – symbolizing a life cut short.  The trees also have a space in the center where the bark is ripped off the tree to expose a spot for engraving the names of the interred.  The Prinz family tree contains five key symbols:  acorns, ivy, clasped hands, wheat sheaf, and mushrooms.  All but the mushrooms have secular and religious meanings.  The mushroom is significant to Bohemians as a symbol of ethnic pride.  If you are Bohemian, you understand the irrational love of the mushroom.  For the non-Bohemians in the crowd, we all have our quirks.

Clasped hands represent marriage if the sleeves are masculine and feminine or heavenly welcome if both sleeves are masculine.  These sleeves appear to be masculine and feminine.  Acorns can mean prosperity or spiritual growth from truth.  Ivy can represent The Holy Trinity or immortality.  A wheat sheaf illustrates a long life or the Resurrection.  Masons also use the wheat sheaf on their graves.  Since this tree lacks other Masonic symbols, we can probably reject the Masonic interpretation.

People buried in Bohemian National can be Catholic, Protestant, Freethinking, or agnostic/atheist.  We cannot assume a wholly secular or totally religious interpretation of the tree.  The sleeves are clearly secular.  The use of multiple symbols of fruitfulness/prosperity and of long life lean towards a more secular interpretation of the tree.  The family was proud of its success and lived long, productive lives.  The ceramic photograph and the tree (rather than a traditional headstone) suggest that the Prinz family had means.

A cautionary note:  acid rain has eroded the limestone, so other symbols may have evaporated or become indistinguishable.  Our next tree from St. Adalbert is undoubtedly religious.

Three Cross Tree

There may be 6 crosses on the tree.  The acid rain melted some elements on the Vachulka tree.  Jesus lost his head on the crucifix, too.  The inset crucifix scene, profusion of ivy, multiple Latin crosses, oak wreath, and rose on the right hand side all lend themselves to a 100% religious interpretation.  Christians believe that oak is one of the woods used to make Christ’s cross, and the rose either symbolized martyrdom or purity.  Given the crucifix scene, martyrdom is the more probable interpretation.  The Vachulka family stressed their piety and faith in their limestone tree.  Their own personal traits or values are subservient to their Catholic faith.

In each of these trees, the Prinz and Vachulka families memorialized their most important beliefs.  Ivy is the common element, used by both families to represent their individual interpretations of immortality.  The other design elements perpetuate the reasons why the families chose their respective cemeteries, perpetuating their beliefs into eternity.  Bohemian National Cemetery and St. Adalbert preserve these gravemarker weapons from an intra-ethnic conflict now forgotten.

*I used Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone to interpret the design elements.