Tulane exhibit showcases New Orleans' Mardi Gras artwork
Little is known about the personal life of Carlotta Bonnecaze, who designed some of the most elaborate costumes and spectacular floats during Carnival’s Golden Age, dating from 1870 to 1930. Daughter of Alexis Bonnecaze, a member of theKrewe of Proteus, she was the first woman and the first Creole parade designer. She created Proteus’ Mardi Gras designs from 1885-97.
Bonnecaze’s highly detailed pencil drawings and vibrant watercolors outlining luxurious silk Mandarin costumes for the 1885 pageant, “Myths and Worships of the Chinese,” are just some of the original works of art featured in Tulane University’s Louisiana Research Collection, accessible to the public through May 30 through a special exhibit, “The Art of Proteus.”
“Tulane has the finest collection of Mardi Gras art in the city and by far the greatest number of lithographs,” said Carnival historian and float designer, Henri Schindler. Not only does the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane have the broadest assortment of Mardi Gras ball invitations, dance cards and other ephemera in the world, but the library is sharing its wealth with students and scholars through a new, searchable online digital library where images can be digitally enlarged and examined at larc.tulane.edu. The archived materials feature gold emboss, die-cuts and foldouts stuffed into envelopes hand-addressed with calligraphy.
Bonnecaze worked exclusively for Proteus for 12 consecutive years, developing fantastic themes from “mythology, epic literature, history, nature and whimsy,” Schindler said.
Bonnecaze’s concepts are as fantastic as modern-day science fiction novels. In his Carnival history, “Mardi Gras Treasures,” Schindler described her 1886 parade designs, “Visions of Other Worlds”: “rooted solely in her formidable imagination — golden salamanders holding high Carnival on the surface of ‘The Sun’; a bevy of scorched black-skinned, blonde-haired female denizens of ‘Mercury,’ seated beneath leafy umbrellas; deranged green and yellow cometmen zipping through space on a chunky ‘Comet’; and six-armed inhabitants of ‘Saturn,’ cavorting amid enormous golden cacti.”
For “Visions of Another World,” Bonnecaze designed costumes for snake charmers carrying parasols and anthropomorphic salamanders.
“It wasn’t just about parading,” Schindler said. “There was definitely an educational aspect.”
Current graphic designers use the drawings for creative inspiration and English professors examine the themes to help understand how trends travel through society, said Leon Cahill Miller, head of the collection. New Orleans’ 19th century residents would have been familiar with Greek, Persian, Norse and Chinese myths and idealized them, he said.
“People had a respectful view of the glories and imagination of mythology. There was a sense of awe,” Miller said.
Preparing for parades was a year-round process. Once the costume illustrations were finalized and approved, they were sent to France for manufacturing. Among the exhibit’s displays is an ink-penned order, noting an individual’s body measurements to make a parade costume.
Bonnecaze is one of several artists whose work is featured in “The Art of Proteus.” Charles Briton designed the krewe’s inaugural pageant in 1882, “Ancient Egyptian Theology,” featuring gods, architecture and mythological scenes. His tableau shows Egyptians with armbands and bared chests holding up a globe decorated with garlands and hieroglyphs.
From 1887 to 1909, the Swedish artist, Bror Anders Wikstrom, designed Proteus’ float and costumes. He based his 1905 designs on the Persian epic poem “The Rubyiat” whereas inspiration came from Persian and Indian myths in “The Arabian Nights” to create “Queen of Serpents” in 1907. Wikstrom personified wizards in golden robes and sheiks wearing turbans adorned with peacock feathers.
Tulane took the initiative of placing the collection online to make Carnival history available to students and scholars around the world; to reveal the true artistry and beauty behind New Orleans’ Mardi Gras; and to digitally preserve these international treasures. The online collection includes designs from Comus (1882-1975), Proteus (1882-1939),Momus (1902-1913), and Rex (1912-1914). Carnival’s most notable designers, including Charles Briton, Jennie Wilde, Carlotta Bonnecaze, and Bror Anders Wikstrom, are highlights.
Online only since last March, the digital collection has already been viewed 20,000 times by people in 47 countries around the world.
“When you have the honor of handling cultural treasures, you’re ethically obligated to making them available to the public,” Miller said.
Visit the Carnival collection online at http://larc.tulane.edu/exhibits/carnival.
Mary Rickard is a contributor to The Times-Picayune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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