How did pre-Columbian art become a commodity for purchase by everyday people? According to UCLA Fowler Museum chief curator Matthew Robb, part of its rise in popularity during the Cold War can be traced to its promotion through appearances in movies, advertising, and other media. Mr. Robb will elaborate on thesis during his November 7 lecture “The Pre-Columbian as MacGuffin in Mid-Century Los Angeles,” the latest installment in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art ‘s Art Matters lecture series.
In an interview with the news press, Mr. Robb defined “pre-Columbian art” as an overly broad catch-all term used to describe artwork created in the western hemisphere prior to Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. While many North American artists drew from Native American and ancient Mexican art for inspiration during the 1930s and 1940s, the curator said pre-Columbian art reached a new level of public popularity after World War II and particularly reached a high watermark in the ‘50s and ‘60s through promotion via popular culture.
This pop culture came in forms such as advertisements on how to decorate one’s room and as tangentially alluded to in the lecture’s title, Hollywood movies. Mr. Robb referenced the 1958 romantic comedy “Bell, Book and Candle” starring James Stewart and Kim Novak as an example, in which the leading lady’s character works an ethnographic art dealer. The collection that was used as Ms. Novak’s in the movie was supplied by the Carlebach Gallery in New York City, demonstrating what was then a rather common practice where art dealers let their pieces be used in films.
“Art dealers in galleries would use mass media to promote the sale of those kinds of materials,” Mr. Robb said.
Pre-Columbian art also made notable notable appearances in the movies of film director Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. Robb mentioned the setting of Mr. Hitchcock’s 1948 crime thriller “Rope,” in which the villains’ apartment is decorated with such pieces. The master of suspense’s 1959 thriller “North by Northwest,” a still from which is featured on the lecture’s page on the SBMA website, us a pre-Columbian sculpture containing microfilm with government secrets as a “macguffin,” an object used as a device to drive the plot of a story. The curator added that the scene where the film’s villain purchases the sculpture at an auction is not too different from how people at the time acquired such pieces.
“That’s a great example of how people would have been buying these objects,” Mr. Robb said.
Exactly why the use of pre-Columbian art in films became such a style in post-war popular culture is a question Mr. Robb and fellow art curators are still trying to understand, but he believes that Hollywood’s relative proximity to Mexico may have something to those art pieces making their way to Southern California and becoming promoted through popular culture. According to him, one way this happened was when some members the Hollywood 10, film industry professionals who were blacklisted from the business for suspected communist ties, traveled to Mexico after the blacklist, developed side hustles as art dealers, and promptly got in touch with their film industry friends to promote them.
When asked about what he wants the general public will take away from hearing thim expand upon his thesis, Mr. Robb told the News-Press that he hopes that they will leave the lecture considering one question about pre-Columbian art: “What should we do with those kinds of objects in the future?” Mr. Robb’s November 7 lecture will start at 5:30 p.m. in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s Mary Craig Auditorium, located at 1130 State St. Tickets can be purchased online at www.sbma.net.