The stately neoclassical architecture of the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) has famed names from American art carved in its stone façade. St. Gaudens, Whistler, La Farge, Audubon, and Copley are all emblazoned on its frieze that overlooks City Park. Among them is a name that is now obscure to most visitors: Wikstrom.
Bror Anders Wikstrom was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in New Orleans in 1883, and had a transformative effect on the visuals of Mardi Gras, as well as the local arts community. He died suddenly in 1909, while working on a parade in New York, just before NOMA (then the Delgado Museum of Art) was founded in 1910. This grand tribute right on the museum reflected his esteem in his adopted city. NOMA is revisiting his work in Bror Anders Wikstrom: Bringing Fantasy to Carnival, which features rare watercolor sketches of his imaginative floats and costumes, from colossal dragons to flowery fairies. The material is drawn from Tulane University’s Louisiana Research Collection, and private holdings of Mardi Gras ephemera.
“He was prolific,” Mel Buchanan, NOMA’s RosaMary curator of decorative arts and design, told Hyperallergic. “He was the head designer for the Krewe of Rex for 25 years, and Proteus for 10 years, each of these years creating an entire theme for the artistic visions of 20 floats, and for anywhere from five to ten costumed riders. They have magical and fantastical details, and they’re also pragmatic design drawings.”
For instance, a winged demon for the Krewe of Rex’s 1910 Freaks of Fable is accompanied with an exacting checklist for his wig, tights, and anklets. Krewes are the organizations that create floats and participate as groups in Mardi Gras events. While on one wall of Bringing Fantasy to Carnival there’s a full procession of 20 watercolor illustrations — from Krewe of Proteus’s Alphabet theme of 1904 with elaborate floats like “D for Dragon” and “E for Elegance” — another section compares Wikstrom’s design plates to photographs from the actual parades. His creations were 19th-century tableaux of dense imagery often based on literary and historical storytelling, such as the medieval world of Ivanhoe, or Freaks of Fable that involved monsters from around the world, including ogres and the Roc bird of prey from Southwest Asian mythology.
“He was leading what the design language looked like then, and that’s still what it looks like today,” Buchanan noted. She explained that he planned the themes right down to the hand fans given to spectators and the medallions worn by the carnival kings and queens, so there was a distinct design identity for each year. In all aspects of his art, Wikstrom was versatile. Before organizing Bringing Fantasy to Carnival, Buchanan initially discovered his work through a mahogany Art Nouveau cabinet, gifted to NOMA in 1914. Although it has fantasy elements like a carved mermaid, it is grounded in the Louisiana landscape, with a marshy scene incorporating an iris flower shaped as a fleur-de-lis, frogs, snails, and calla lilies.
In addition to his carnival work, Wikstrom was an avid maritime artist, depicting the Louisiana swamps and waterways in lush oil paintings. He was also an active organizer in the local art scene, including as a founder of the New Orleans Artists Association in 1885. That group in turn helped influence the construction of NOMA, as there were few places in the city for artists to exhibit in the early 1900s. Two of his maritime watercolors begin Bringing Fantasy to Carnival, both works that aren’t frequently on view because of their light sensitivity.
Yet it’s his carnival art that arguably has the most enduring impact, with his years of float designs inspiring the fantasy focus of the 20th century, whereas the 19th century carnivals had more satirical and political themes. His New York Times obituary stated that he “designed the majority of the floats used in the Mardi Gras carnivals at New Orleans, and much of the reputation of those affairs is due to his artistic work.” As Buchanan affirmed, “I’m so glad he found this role in New Orleans where he could spin all these characters out of his head and make them real on the streets.”
Bror Anders Wikstrom: Bringing Fantasy to Carnival continues through April 1, 2018 at the New Orleans Museum of Art (One Collins C. Diboll Circle, City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana).