From September 21 to December 31, 2011, the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture (BGC) presents American Christmas Cards, 1900–1960 in our Focus Gallery. The exhibition has been organized by Kenneth L. Ames, member of the BGC faculty, working in collaboration with graduate students. This is the first exhibition to study the images on American Christmas cards of the twentieth century, and it serves as an introduction to a large artifactual and aesthetic field that until now has been largely unexplored.
The exhibition and accompanying book argue the central premise that examining the images on Christmas cards used in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the end of the 1950s enriches our understanding of not only the American Christmas but also significant aspects of American culture. These cards constitute a category of American material culture that is rich in documentary potential yet has been nearly invisible in the scholarly literature.
Christmas cards express more than simple sentiment, for since their earliest days the cards have included prominent images precisely because they suggest richer and deeper meanings than can be efficiently conveyed by words. In recent years the genre has been in decline, as fewer people send cards, but the chief function—making contact with others—remains as critical as ever, although superseded by new methods of connection. It is now evident that the Christmas card was a culturally specific artifact, a very distinctive, even idiosyncratic way to express a fundamental and enduring human gesture within the commercial, materialistic, and rapidly changing society that was the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.
The exhibition presents twenty of the most prominent classes of Christmas card imagery and introduces the viewer to a few other categories of cards determined by form or purpose. These classes include everything from candles and poinsettias to coaching and travel, the three kings, and visiting for the holidays.
American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960, edited by Kenneth L. Ames, has been conceived as a kind of field guide to American Christmas cards. After an introductory essay, each chapter is devoted to a single class of card and includes images, a time line, and commentary. The images provide an overview of the genre, and the time lines identify concurrent events and phenomena that relate to the subject, while short essays explore possible lines of interpretation. The book's brief conclusion summarizes patterns visible in the cards taken as a whole and invites reflection on Christmas cards as an art form of communication and communion.
American Christmas Cards, 1900 - 1960 is an introductory exploration of a subject that until now has been largely unexamined, even within the art world. Therefore, this volume and its 375 images will be of interest to students of graphics and American material culture and to all who are fascinated by the power of images and the appeal of Christmas. There is much within these covers to surprise and delight.
American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960 is made possible in part with generous support from the Mr. And Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts and the New York Council for the Humanities.
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