SAN ANTONIO — At what San Antonio Museum of Art exhibit can one find mummified cats, portraits of silent film stars and African ceremonial headdresses? At no exhibit, perhaps, save for “40 Years, 40 Stories,” a showcase for the range of cultures and countries represented in the vast 30,000-piece collection the museum has amassed since 1981.
Now on display until Jan. 2 at SAMA’s Cowden Gallery, “40 Years, 40 Stories” provides just a taste of that range. But with the oldest piece dating back several thousand years and the newest created in the last half-decade, the taste is a flavorful one.
“This is the first time in quite a while that we had an exhibition that pulls together works of art from the entire scope of the museum’s collection,” said Jessica Powers, the show’s curator. “And (that) really shows the global scope of the collection that we have.”
A pair of towering, paper mache Judas figures from Mexico City welcomes visitors to the exhibit, which features a total of 51 objects telling 40 stories from different times and places. Powers said those 51 represent what managed to make the cut from “a couple hundred” recommendations from museum staff who answered her call.
Her requirements: They had to be in storage, they had to be in good enough condition to display and they had to have “an interesting story we could tell about them.” She then went about sorting them into groups of loose themes which visitors will notice; concepts like water, faith and response to authority.
“The more I worked on the show, I saw more and more connections between them,” Powers said, adding she hopes the summer’s strong museum attendance spills into the fall and winter months.
“It’s been a long time and there’s only so much you can do on Zoom when you look at these works; you don’t capture their scale, their techniques. There’s a lot that’s lost.”
Below we’ve highlighted six works you should make sure to see when you visit “40 Years, 40 Stories.”
Portrait of Pola Negri
An over-5-feet-tall oil painting capturing the likeness of Poland-born silent film star Pola Negri is one of the first works which captures the eyes of visitors at “40 Years, 40 Stories.” The work was created by Tadé Styka in 1924 and conveys a mysterious elegance that endures nearly a century later.
“(She) was celebrated as this kind of screen siren femme fatale, and you get a bit of a sense of that in her portraits,” Powers said.
Negri eventually became a San Antonio resident, having moved to the Alamo City with Texas heiress Margaret West in the late-’50s. She later donated the portrait, along with several other paintings, to SAMA in 1987.
Nigerian house post
It may appear like an example of infrastructure as art, but Powers said this ornate wooden post from a Yoruban residence, created sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s, functions more as decoration than structural support.
The post is an interpretation of balance via gender roles, with a lower-position depiction of a woman meant to symbolize societal support while the depiction of a man higher up suggests a defensive position.
“The imagery speaks to the role of the king in balancing these two important roles of men and women, nurturing and also protecting society,” Powers said.
Portrait of Mary, Lady Arundell of Wardour
Aside from providing a peek into the museum’s vast collection, “40 Years, 40 Stories” also puts the work of preserving that collection on display. An oil painting of Lady Mary Arundell, who lived in the time of King Henry VIII – and, at 95 inches by 58 inches, is one of the largest pieces showcased in the entire exhibit – highlights the result of those efforts.
“Our colleagues at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston kindly took on this project for us, and they did a complete cleaning of the painting itself and also of the frame,” Powers said. “It had a lot of layers of varnish that had become discolored, but also areas of overpainting—especially in this big crimson drapery on the upper-left corner and her velvet cloak that she’s wearing.”
The curator said treatment of the roughly 250-year-old painting took about five years, all told. Having been acquired in early 1981, it’s of historical import to SAMA’s collection, seeing as it’s one of the very first works of art to join it.
Bejeweled Indian carriage miniature
Decked out in glittering diamonds, rubies, emeralds and turquoise, this piece was created with Mughal Empire-style ornaments, though Powers said it’s more likely it was made later in the Mughal style for a British colonial official.
“It creates this sort of stereotypical view in miniature of traditional Indian society.”
The display, created sometime in the early 1900s, is a comprehensive set complete with velvet stand and silk-lined box. And it has an interesting backstory, having been donated to the Witte Museum several decades ago following the theft of the McFarlin diamond in 1968.
Fake ancient Roman mosaic
Speaking of art crimes, Powers says a dealer attempted to convince the former owner of a black-and-white mosaic now in SAMA’s collection that it was found in a nearby excavation site in Italy. If that was true, it would’ve heralded from the ancient Roman empire.
In reality, it’s a scaled-down forgery of the real thing created sometime in the 1960s, thousands of years after the bath-house work which inspired it was made. There are several motifs to observe, including a cupid, two hippocampi and figures riding sea monsters.
On the evening of Nov. 30, UT art history professor John Clarke will lead an online lecture on the tell-tale signs of the forgery for those wishing to dive deeper. You can register here.
Celia Eberle’s Moss Grotto
Made from such varied materials as glazed ceramic, steel, nail polish, bone and copper, the newest piece on display at “40 Years, 40 Stories” was made in 2016 but already resonates in new ways just a few years later.
Originally created for a Houston art gallery located at the site of former rice silos, Moss Grotto was made by working artist Celia Eberle as an elegiac tribute of sorts to those silos being reclaimed by nature over time.
“It’s speaking to the ideas of contemplation and nature taking over,” Powers said, “but we have a quotation from her in which she talks about ideas of contemplation and loss, and it seemed really fitting, actually, thinking about everything that’s happened with COVID in the last year.”