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Mabel Dodge Luhan in Cowboys and Indians

Friday, August 5, 2016

Wealthy heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan helped transfrom American society with her paintings and collection of era-defining friends.

If you’d been an artsy intellectual tooling around Taos, New Mexico, in the 1920s, chances are you’d have been drawn to the socially and culturally avant-garde entourage surrounding Mabel Dodge Luhan. A wealthy heiress originally from Buffalo, New York, Mabel, along with fourth husband and Taos Pueblo member Tony Luhan, strategically invited the cultural elite to Taos to experience the light and the landscape of northern New Mexico. Her larger idea was to get like-minded thinkers to help her transform American society by positioning the Pueblo Indians as a foundation for a more genuine and holistic American culture.

The artistic and intellectual ferment of the “Paris West” she is credited with having established is explored in the exhibition Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West. The “& Company” of the title refers to the era-defining artists, writers, and social activists Mabel hosted at the Luhans’ 12-acre compound next to Taos Pueblo — luminaries such as modernist painter, poet, and essayist Marsden Hartley (who called her “a real creator of creators”); author Willa Cather; Indian rights activist and future commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs John Collier; Georgia O’Keeffe; Ansel Adams; modernist photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand; and modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.

The colony also famously included British writer D.H. Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, who entered Luhan’s orbit in 1924, bringing with them visiting British artist and socialite Dorothy Eugénie Brett. The daughter of an English viscount, Brett, who in 1926 would relocate to Taos, was classically trained at the Slade School of Art, London. “Wanting a life more honest than her English one, she chose to challenge herself and her art with Taos’ landscape and the Pueblo people,” says novelist and historian Pamela Hall Evans, who is at work on a novel about Brett’s life.

“She painted them as they spoke of themselves: historically and mythically linked to one another and their ancestors, athletic, engaged with nature, and adaptable.  ... The quality of her work and her appreciation of the Pueblo’s residents, as well as her openness to critique by Pueblo elders, made her a trusted friend for all the years she lived in Taos.”

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