Gustave Baumann is best known for color woodcuts depicting Southwestern landscapes—gorgeous compositions of chamisa, piñon, mountains, and sky. He came to New Mexico from the Midwest in 1918 and fell in with other legends of the era like John Sloan, Mary Austin, and Will Shuster—with whom he collaborated on creating the first Zozobra. Credited with helping create the modern era of American Southwestern art, he and his friends often depicted scenes of Pueblo life and Hispanic Catholic iconography.
In Santa Fe, where he lived until his death in 1971, Baumann is also beloved as a marionette maker. Among more than 1,800 woodcuts, paintings, and other artworks by Baumann, more than seventy hand-carved wooden puppets live in collections storage at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Characters include a cowpoke, a princess, an eagle dancer, a koshari, a dragon, and a gaggle of magical sprite-like beings called duendes. He even rendered himself and his wife, Jane, in puppet form. The puppet shows were most active between 1932 and 1941, especially at the holidays, and ended for good in 1959. In the 1990s, the museum recreated several of the fragile marionettes and revived the Baumanns’ Christmas tradition to celebrate “Papa Gus.”
Though Thomas Leech appreciates the marionettes as much as anyone, Baumann’s reputation as a kindly puppeteer who created untroubled Southwestern landscapes doesn’t sit well with the former longtime director of the Press at the Palace of the Governors, which houses a recreation of the studio Baumann kept at the Museum of Art. “It’s too bucolic. He was so much deeper than that. I would like people to go beyond that in their estimation of him. So much of what’s been written is just the same old thing.”
Fresh possibilities lie in a new Baumann archive that contains hundreds of pages of his writings, currently being processed at the New Mexico History Museum, and a massive retrospective at the New Mexico Museum of Art planned for 2026.
“We want to look beyond his craft and practice to dive more into his content, examining the cultural intersections at play in his work, how he engaged with and represented local communities and cultures, and look at his work through the lens of ecology,” says Christian Waguespack, head of curatorial affairs and curator of twentieth-century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Although scholarship in this area has just begun, Leech and Waguespack are among a growing cohort of curators, educators, and writers developing a more complete picture of a profoundly driven artist and a complicated yet imperfect man.
Scale and Awe
Baumann emigrated from Germany to Chicago as a child and became a commercial artist when he was still a teenager, studying at night at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In his late teens, he pursued an applied arts education in Munich, then honed his woodcuts for a time in Indiana before heading west, lured by Fred Harvey’s promise of experiencing a foreign country on domestic soil. In Santa Fe, he promptly secured a studio at the new Museum of Fine Arts and landed a cash gig sketching for the museum’s founder, Edgar Lee Hewitt, who took him on archeological excursions.
“It was a freewheeling era of artists and writers who, searching for new subjects to fuel their modernist expressions, descended on northern New Mexico like moths to flame,” Carmella Padilla writes in an essay for the limited-edition Gustave Baumann’s Book of Saints, produced by Leech at the Palace of the Governors Historic Press in 2021. “Though ubiquitous in their day, the artists’ audacity in tackling subject matter outside of their cultural experience can be controversial now…Tourist propaganda aside, the Indigenous and Hispano peoples the art colonists explored and interpreted in their work led vibrant cultural lives steeped in old traditions that didn’t need discovering.”
When researching Baumann for a 2023 Wonders on Wheels traveling museum exhibition, Program Manager Jennifer Hasty questioned his Indigenous representation in prints like Day of the Deer Dance, a 1919 color woodcut of Frijoles Canyon at what’s now Bandelier National Monument. A tall tree bisects a vivid orange cliff face. Small figures in the lower right corner go almost unnoticed.
“It seems the purpose is to provide scale, but on the other hand, as an anthropologist, I see these human beings made to be these tiny figures, like the landscape is much more important and belittles them in some way,” Hasty says.
Tony Chavarria, curator of ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the Laboratory of Anthropology, has consulted on cultural sensitivity issues in Baumann’s works. “I wouldn’t have read it that way,” he says. In keeping with the landscape painting trends of the time, “He’s depicting scale and awe.”
Looking at several Baumann images from the 1920s and ’30s, Chavarria acknowledges that none would be made by a white artist today. Recording of any kind is no longer allowed at Pueblo dances, as it was when Baumann made the evocative Eagle Dance at Tesuque Pueblo and Winter Ceremony – Deer Dance at what he guesses is his Pueblo, Santa Clara. But, he says, while some of these dances can be seen as sensitive, Baumann’s depictions of everyday Pueblo life are more accurate and respectful than artists who invited Indigenous models to their studios and painted invented scenarios.
“Like many visitors to the Southwest in that era, he got inspiration from the Native peoples. You can argue he’s being exploitative, but so were the anthropologists and archeologists.” Although they smack of exoticism today, Baumann’s images don’t convey private information about sacred ceremonies. “They’re his interpretations,” Chavarria says, adding that Baumann’s eagle dancer marionette, which can accurately perform the traditional dance, is also acceptable. The koshari puppet, however, is more sensitive because of the figure’s important and nuanced spiritual role, which is why it’s only displayed with historical context but never included in contemporary marionette performances.
“Baumann can become a lens for us to think about these issues historically, how we think about the ethics of representation now,” says Hasty, who found during further research for the Wonders on Wheels exhibition that Baumann’s sensitivity towards his adopted state’s Indigenous population didn’t always extend to other marginalized groups. A museum staffer discovered five Black marionettes in the collection. Though they’re carved with as much attention to detail as his other characters, they resemble common racist caricatures popular at the time, complete with insulting, exaggerated facial features.
Combing Through History
Baumann carved puppets in the central European tradition, an art form that’s still alive, says Waguespack. “In that cultural context, these wouldn’t be seen as craft or toys the way that they may be here in the United States.” The puppets starred in scripts he wrote, some based on local happenings or folktales. He usually wrote in a New Mexican vernacular, emphasizing the Southwestern speech patterns of “Nambe Nell,” for instance. He also adapted stories by popular writers, including Oscar Wilde’s Birthday of the Infanta—in which a princess’s cruelty towards the story’s “hunchback dwarf” caused eight-year-old Ann Baumann to burst into tears during the show.
The plays could be silly and fun, but like puppet shows throughout history, they weren’t necessarily nice, says Ellen Zieselman, former head of education at New Mexico Museum of Art and author of The Hand-Carved Marionettes of Gustave Baumann: Share Their World (1999). “Performances included plenty of riffing and drinking. Was it always appropriate? I don’t know because I wasn’t there.”
She equates the scripts featuring local characters to the annual Fiesta Melodrama presented by the Santa Fe Players, the original name of the Santa Fe Playhouse that Mary Austin founded in 1919, with which Gus and Jane were both involved. Continuing to this day, the Fiesta Melodrama pokes fun at current events, with jokes rooted in tension among Santa Fe’s “triculture.” One funny bit in a Baumann puppet show features a koshari gently mocking an Anglo tourist who compliments his English.
“Satire is moment-specific. You can’t take these people out of their context,” Zieselman says. “Only they know what it was like to live in this town at this time. Nothing that I’ve ever heard or read has made it seem like that there was anything other than interest and respect for the multiculturalism of the local culture. The Black puppets, however, that’s worth exploring. I didn’t know about those.”
Baumann made two sets of Black characters. “Willie,” “Christina,” and “Baby” were featured in Christmas stories that took place on an imagined Caribbean Island called Giumbo. Their parts are written in African American Vernacular English, but “there isn’t a lot of personification from a racial perspective,” Waguespack says. “Santa shows up and brings them a Christmas tree. The siblings get in a fight about who deserves presents.”
Photos in the new Baumann archive show performances of “Christmas on Giumbo” in 1935 and “Christmas Flies to Giumbo Island” in 1941. The other characters were a preacher and his wife, created for a 1934 production of “How Come Christmas?” adapted from a story by Southern writer Roark Bradford, whose books featured Black characters speaking in AAVE. Some contemporary critics consider his work patronizing and demeaning, although others see it as Bradford’s authentic cultural context. It’s probable Baumann and Bradford knew each other, as Bradford’s first wife died of tuberculosis at Santa Fe’s Sunmount Sanatorium, where many transplanted artists were treated.
In “How Come Christmas,” the preacher tells the story of Christmas. He wears a formal suit with a long coat, and she wears an elegant ice-blue evening gown with a diamond bracelet and choker. Waguespack finds her reminiscent of Josephine Baker, “who would have been the most famous Black woman around this time, with many cartoon images of her banana skirt, the accentuation of her features, that kind of visual material. I also think about her when I see the glamour of this woman’s outfit. These are high-end folks, so I’d be interested to see the script, which I don’t think we have.”
Jane Baumann, an actress, made most of the marionette costumes. She was active with the Santa Fe Players, where it seems she and many of her and her husband’s friends were similarly captivated by popular culture’s demeaning portrayals of Black people. An undated photograph housed in the New Mexico History Museum Photo Archives shows Jane Baumann, Will Shuster, Witter Bynner, and eight unidentified actors performing a minstrel show in blackface.
“I always feel like it’s a cop-out to say they’re just part of a moment in history,” Waguespack says, “but they are part of that moment, when twentieth-century American history was not particularly kind to Black folks. And these marionettes, which Baumann so often did in a caricature style, fell victim to that. We can spend our whole life combing through history to find these things. Maybe we should.”
No one wants to uncover something unsavory or outright hateful about people we admire. We fall back on saying someone is a “product of their time,” when what we wish is that these ancestors understood that time belongs to everybody, not just white artists depicting people and places that are new to them. Of Baumann and his cohort, Carmella Padilla writes, “Their work provides vital social commentary that illuminates the complexities of making art in a multicultural community. The issues that developed in the cultural consciousness of their time, including the occupation and commercialization of other cultures, still resonate loudly, and passionately, in ours.”
Although archival material is useful, it’s difficult to truly understand why historical figures did what they did. We don’t know what Baumann thought of his Black marionettes when he packed them away in 1959, or when he died in 1971, after witnessing the Civil Rights Movement. It doesn’t seem he carved the children, or the preacher and his wife, in malice. He was multidimensional. But we know he wasn’t always kind, or politic. He could be brutal in his estimation of other artists, as evidenced in the reports he wrote as area coordinator for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.
Jana Gottshalk wrote her doctoral dissertation on the WPA era in New Mexico, and these reports were her first encounter with Papa Gus. “He talks a lot about people not getting things done on time,” says the curator for the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. “He speaks about women artists strangely. One of my favorites is when he says, ‘She carves in the most unladylike way.’”
This backhanded compliment was the only thing he wrote about one Hannan Mecklem of 1016 Cañon Road, and he was unsparing even toward his closest friends. “Will never set the Art World on fire … but he plods along intent on giving his money’s worth,” he wrote about Will Shuster.
“They sent those verbatim to Washington,” Gottshalk says. “I have a letter from Jesse Nusbaum [the director of the Laboratory of Anthropology] sort of apologizing for his tone, so from what I can tell, it wasn’t appreciated. Was it a tone of entertainment or joking? I can’t tell from reading them. He’s deeply critical of the artists’ work and dedication. It makes you wonder if he was critical of the whole project.”
What we do know is that in 1921, Baumann and other Anglo artists helped defeat the Bursum Bill, federal legislation that would have made it easier to defraud the Pueblo people of their land. And in 1929, he was instrumental in helping the Spanish Colonial Arts Society purchase and permanently transfer the historic El Santuario de Chimayó to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
“He was concerned about nuclear weapons, about Indian rights, many movements of the period that we would look back and call liberal or radical,” says Leech. “Today, knowing they put on minstrel shows is cringe-worthy, but it was the mood of the time. You don’t know, if they had been confronted by our values now, what would they have done. Maybe they would have reconsidered.”
As the new Baumann archive is examined, his writings analyzed, and personal motivations scrutinized, curators and historians will continue to wrestle with period-specific context versus broader social responsibility, and how it manifests in or is relevant to art. In 2023, critics and the public often mine art for the socio-political ideology of its maker, even though the approach can overburden art made 100 years ago or more. And 100 years from now, the culture will likely frown at today’s artists’ woeful naivete about our current social issues. Baumann might be perplexed by or even defensive about modern critique of his work—but as a cutting critic himself, he might welcome the attention. We’re still talking about him, after all. His art still sells. Although curators don’t believe Baumann was negatively interpreting anyone in his images, or with his puppets, they’re keenly aware that new information and new ways of thinking will affect perception. Not everyone will be satisfied with that explanation. For others, Baumann made beautiful images, and for them, that is enough.
Jennifer Levin is a freelance arts and culture writer and communications specialist in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is working on a memoir, All the Girls in Their Cages.