Bless Me Ultima’, and Wild Beauty

 Stark Museum of Art exhibit focuses on Taos artist community

“The beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth.”
— Rudolfo Anaya, “Bless Me, Ultima”

Ernest Leonard Blumenschein (1874-1960), MOUNTAINS NEAR TAOS, 1955, oil on hardboard,
12.125 x 27 inches, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, 31.30.11

It all started with a broken wheel. In September of 1898, two young artists, Ernest Blumenchein and Bert Phillips, were on the way to Mexico in search of new “hunting grounds” for their artistic endeavors. A few years earlier, in Paris, they heard about an enchanted place called Taos in New Mexico from fellow American artist, Joseph Henry Sharp. However, had it not been for an accident on a rocky road, they might never have made it to Taos. Phillips stayed with the carriage while Blumenschein headed to town to get help. On his way, Blumenschein was so overwhelmed with the sight of Taos valley that the friends decided to stay in this beautiful town nestled at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Emil James Bisttram (1895-1976), THE END OF THE DAY, c. 1945,above, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, 31.223.2

After three months, Blumenschein returned to New York while Phillips chose to settle in Taos permanently. Blumenschein spent the next decade in Paris, mastering his painting technique and working as an illustrator for American magazines. Upon his return to America, he spent his time sketching and painting all summer in Taos and exhibiting his work in New York in winter. In the meantime, New Mexico had attracted other artists. In 1915, Phillips and Blumen-schein, together with Joseph Henry Sharp, E. Irving Couse, Oscar E. Berninghaus and W. Herbert Dunton, founded the Taos Society of Artists.

These artists were on the cusp of the first wave of migrations that brought to New Mexico people of artistic pursuits from all over the country and abroad. In the 1920s-early 1930s, Taos was hometoEnglish writers D. H. Lawrence and Dorothy Brett, Scottish artist John Young-Hunter, Russian artists Nicolai Fechin and Leon Gaspard. Along with permanent residents, art communities of Taos and the nearby city of Santa Fe counted among their members seasonal visitors from New York and Chicago. The latter included such famous artists as Robert Henri and John Sloan.

Already in the 1920s, the authority of the Taos Society of Artists was challenged by a new generation of artists — Emil Bisttram, Jozef Bakos, William Howard Shuster, Georgia O’Keeffe. While artists like Sharp and Phillips adhered to the tradition of academic art, the newcomers conveyed their vision of New Mexico according to the principles of cubism, fauvism and expressionism.

A wave of new arrivals swept the region in the 1940s. During World War II and especially after in its wake, the region became an important crossroads in contemporary American art. Artists from San Francisco and New York found in Taos a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of big cities. A group known as the Taos Moderns — Andrew Dasburg, Thomas Benrimo, Louis Ribak, Beatrice Mandelman and Agnes Martin — laid claim to the beauty and mystery of the land and people of New Mexico. Their artistic language was shaped by European and American modernism and post-war abstract painting. Just like 30 years earlier, major artists of the time came to visit, among them Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Clyfford Still and Morris Graves.

What was so special about New Mexico that it captivated the minds of artists, generation after generation, notwithstanding the differences in their training, style and sensibilities?

Artists expressed their feelings differently, but in essence the reasons that attracted them to New Mexico were the same: the picturesque landscape, the unusual light, and the people who continued to live their traditional lifestyle, seemingly oblivious to the changing world beyond the realm of this timeless “Shangri La.” People coming from the fast-paced, industrialized and commercialized world in other parts of the country were anxious to identify the peaceful Taos valley with “the lost horizon.”

Oscar Edmund Berninghaus (1874-1952), TAOS PUEBLO, WORLD WAR II, c.1943, tempera on canvas mounted on hardboard, 30.25 x 36.25 inches, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, 31.24.23

However, this was the outsider viewpoint. American Indian and Chicano writers of the second half of the 20th century demonstrated that the local population saw themselves quite differently. The Indians — Pueblos, Comanches and Apaches — as well as the descendants of Spanish conquistadors were neither frozen in time, nor insulated from the outside world, as the newcomer artists imagined. Their traditions, customs and beliefs continued to evolve and they incorporated innovations of Western civilization into their lifestyle without giving up their heritage.

This spring, one of the most famous novels in Chicano literature, “Bless Me, Ultima” by acclaimed author Rudolfo Anaya, has been chosen for the Southeast Texas Big Read program. A project of NEA, Big Read has the purpose of engaging the whole community in reading and discussing one book from the list of American classics. The Stark Museum of Art, as a nonrecipient member of the SETX Big Read, brings to the community the exhibition “Wild Beauty: the New Mexico Setting” which will showcase a wide selection of works from the Museum’s extensive collection of New Mexico artists.

There are many points of intersection between the paintings created by Taos and Santa Fe artists and Anaya’s novel. Both immerse us in the world of verdant pastures and valleys where people live in harmony with nature, the world of colorful fiestas and candlelight processions. Portraits of elderly women, such as Nicolai Fechin’s “La Abuela” and Ernest Martin Hennings’s “Old Spanish Woman,” remind of wise healer Ultima, one of the main characters in the novel. Images of ranches and farms in the paintings of Oscar Edmund Berninghaus bring to mind the family of another major character of the novel, young boy Antonio, who comes from the lineage of vaqueros on his father’s side and from generations of farmers on his mother’s side.

At the same time, the New Mexico of Anaya is not immune to the harsh reality of the outside world. Set at the time of World War II, the novel tells the story of the people who live near the small town of Santa Rosa. They worry about their sons who are in the military, experience a deadly confrontation with a homicidal war veteran suffering from a posttraumatic stress disorder, work hard to provide for their families and strive to make the right choice when faced with a moral dilemma.

While the majority of the artists preferred to portray an idyllic look of New Mexico, some of them addressed the issue of modernity as well. For example, two Oscar Edmund Berninghaus paintings, “Taos Pueblo, World War II” and “Taos Tapestry,” parallel descriptions of war-time Santa Rosa.

One section of the exhibition deals with faith and spirituality. The Catholic church had a strong presence in New Mexico for centuries, however, various beliefs of local Indian nations left their mark on the ways Catholicism is practiced by both Indians and Hispanics. Celebration of such holidays as Christmas and San Geronimo Day was a popular subject among Taos artists. They also portrayed with fascination traditional Indian rituals, such as chanting to the beat of ceremonial drums.

Faith and spirituality play a crucial role in Anaya’s novel as well. Ten-year old Antonio is going on a spiritual quest trying to reconcile the Catholic faith with the worship of nature which he learns from Ultima. This old woman is a curandera — a healer and a medium for the world of spirits, like Indian medicine men and women. “For Ultima, even the plants had a spirit, and before I dug she made me speak to the plant and tell it why we pulled it from its home in the earth,” Antonio says about their herb-collecting trips. Ultima is a guardian of the ancient wisdom which is based in viewing humans as an inseparable part of nature. The secret of carrying on a spiritual relationship with the land, animals and plants is the message which Ultima passes to Antonio.

The theme of the mystic power and intense spirituality of nature is echoed in such paintings as Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Gerald’s Tree II,” Emil Bisttram’s “The End of the Day,” and Ernest Martin Hennings’s “Reflections.” Although different in content and style, these works allude to the same ancient concept of the world as the one that Ultima epitomizes. It is noteworthy that the wild beauty of New Mexico made the painters of such diverse artistic interests and pursuits open up to the spiritual message of nature.

“Wild Beauty: the New Mexico Setting” is on view at the Stark Museum of Art from March 16 through June 8. The Museum will host renowned writer Denise Chávez who will present a free lecture “Ultima: A Healer for Our Times” on April 25, at 6:30 p.m. at Lutcher Theater.

For more information about this lecture and other Museum events in relation to Southeast Texas Big Read, visit

To see the full list of Southeast Texas Big Read events, visit

Issue Magazine: March 2013

Story by: Elena Ivanova