BEAUTY AND greed are blended in the Textile Museum's new show of Navajo weavings collected by William Randolph Hearst.
The collection, being shown in public for only the second time, is regarded as one of the finest in the world. It includes examples of every major Navajo style and technique from 1800 to 1920.
Hearst's collection, which lay in storerooms for half a century, is particularly strong in the pre-1868 Classic Period pieces, mainly blankets the Navajo wove as garments for themselves when they were a free people. Gradually their work was influenced, and finally dominated, by the demands of collectors, so that by the turn of the century the Navajo were wearing the white man's clothes and weaving rugs with Oriental motifs for tourists who couldn't tell t'other from which.
Hearst collected wholesale, so that his famous castle at San Simeon was decorated with a mishmash of superb antiques and absurdly overpriced "junque" that made knowledgeable guests titter behind their damask napkins. But Hearst's batting average on Navajo textiles was quite high, and his bullying patronage made possible the even larger and finer collection amassed by his principal dealer, the Fred Harvey Company; it now is part of the core collections of two Southwest museums.
Hearst bought his Navajo textiles between 1905 and 1930, storing them at San Simeon. In 1942 he donated them to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
There they languished in the basement until finally put on display in 1988, by which time the resurgence of interest in Amerindian collectibles had driven their values into the stratosphere. A Navajo "chief's blanket" -- misnamed, since the Navajo have no chiefs -- holds the current record auction price for an American Indian textile: $115,000. The Hearst collection includes 39 of the finest chief's blankets in existence.
The Navajo learned the weaver's arts from the Pueblos, and soon were such masters of the loom that they were supplying blankets to their mentors. Other tribes, particularly the Plains Indians, prized Navajo blankets so highly that they were traded over distances of more than a thousand miles, and were reserved for the wealthiest and most powerful men, which is how they became known as chief's blankets.
The Textile Museum display is exquisite, as always, with excellent texts taken from the catalogue prepared by curator Nancy J. Blomberg. The story of Hearst's dealings with Harvey is so interesting it threatens to distract the visitor from the weavings. While Hearst demanded, and got, the "rich man's discount" of 25 percent, that discount often was applied to prices that had been jacked up when word came down the line that Hearst would soon be passing through Albequerque in his private railroad car. Usually, the news baron paid through the nose.
The markups were remarkable. Most of the blankets that Harvey sold Hearst for hundreds of dollars apiece were bought from traders at 65 cents a pound. One can't help wondering what the weavers were paid, which isn't mentioned, and how long it takes to loom a pound of cloth.
In fact the pleasure of seeing these splendid weavings is tinged with melancholy at the Indian exploitation they represent. The greatest and most abrupt of all the changes in Navajo style, we are told almost in passing, came during the (American) Civil War, when troops under Kit Carson rounded up virtually every Navajo man, woman and child. They were driven on foot for hundreds of miles into imprisonment at Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico.
When they were released four years later the Navajo found their villages and farms ruined and their vast flocks of sheep strayed, stolen or butchered. Thereafter their fabrics were woven largely from the white man's yarns to the white man's specifications.
Yet through it all the Navajo weavers continued to produce fabrics that delight the eye and lift the spirit.