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Putting the Art in Artifact: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art

Posted On June 16, 2017 | 11:35 am | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

It is now difficult to imagine a time when magnificent artworks made by the ancient indigenous Americans were not on display in art museums. Yet, for many years collectors and scholars focused solely on the historic, anthropological, or ethnographical nature of objects made by non-traditional cultures. When on display at all, Pre-Columbian objects were to be found in natural history museums as part of collections of archaeological finds. Robert Woods Bliss wanted this to change. He recognized the creativity and artistic skill that went into the making of Pre-Columbian objects. To him, Pre-Columbian artifacts were undeniably art.

Along with Nelson Rockefeller, Robert Bliss is considered one the first serious collectors of Pre-Columbian objects as art rather than artifacts. Recounting his first encounter with Pre-Columbian objects, Bliss noted: “To me, many of the pieces I saw had artistic significance and also revealed remarkable craftsmanship.” Beginning in 1912, Bliss began to acquire Pre-Columbian artworks of significance, building up a museum-quality collection that would eventually number some 750 pieces. Bliss later recalled his passion for the art of the Pre-Columbian cultures: “I have collected, as opportunity offered, objects which gave me pleasure—a sculpture boldly conceived; a gold object delicately wrought; a fabric of good design, well woven; ceramics with interesting iconography; metal work of quality—a rhythm here, a form there.”

Indigenous Art of the Americas exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Indigenous Art of the Americas exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In order to promote his Pre-Columbian artworks to a broader audience, throughout the first half of the 1940s Bliss generously lent works from his collection to museums that were interested to exhibit his pieces as art. He lent to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, and the Portland Museum of Art on the West Coast, as well as to exhibitions in Paris and Stockholm. However, in April 1947, Bliss made an even bolder attempt to show to the world that Pre-Columbian art could be elevated to museum-quality status. He lent the majority of his collection to the recently-opened National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for an exhibition titled “Indigenous Art of the Americas.” In making the long-term loan (the art was exhibited until 1952), Bliss wrote to the gallery’s director: “The exhibition of my collection will result in awakening not only an interest in the objects of the Pre-Columbian finds which have lain for many years on the shelves of museums of natural history, but also that the public will be awakened to the art values which so many of those objects embody.”

Basalt palma, Classic Veracruz (PC.B.044) Basalt palma, Classic Veracruz (PC.B.044) Brancusi, Bird in Space, 1924 Brancusi, Bird in Space, 1924


Robert Bliss frequently equated the esthetics of Pre-Columbian art to those of the modern art movement. He remarked, for example, that his Veracruz palma “could easily have been done by Brancusi!” And perhaps to underscore the “modernity” of his Pre-Columbian art, in the late 1950s he commissioned for his collection both a coffee-table art book and a new modern exhibition gallery at Dumbarton Oaks. In 1957, Phaidon Press published Robert Woods Bliss Collection, Pre-Columbian Art, a deluxe, oversized art book that was complete with a slipcase and a gold-embossed cover. In this book, each artwork was photographed, many in full color, against a monochromatic fabric background and thus rendered purposely devoid of any cultural context. In 1959, the Blisses commissioned the architect Philip Johnson to design a postmodern exhibition gallery for the collection where the objects were to be presented to the public in sleek Plexiglas cases to be viewed and appreciated in the context of the modernity of the glass pavilion. Both the book and the pavilion allowed each object to be presented as exceptional art, exactly as Robert Bliss wished them to be seen.