Just in time for Carnival, the New Orleans Museum of Art is showcasing work by one of the city's earliest and most celebrated float designers.
The name Bror Anders Wikstrom might not be familiar today. But during his lifetime, he was highly regarded as a founder of the New Orleans Artists Association, which contributed to the creation in 1910 of NOMA — then known as the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art after its principal benefactor. He was also a popular landscape and marine painter and sculptor.
In fact, Wikstrom was so respected in New Orleans a century ago that his name was inscribed on the pediment frieze of the museum when the building was constructed, alongside artists like Audubon and Whistler, whose names are still familiar to us. (To see it for yourself, make your way to the side courtyard of the museum adjacent to the gift shop on the first floor.)
Wikstrom’s greatest fame, however, came as a designer of Carnival floats and costumes — and NOMA’s “Bror Anders Wikstrom: Bringing Fantasy to Carnival” reveals the creative range and still-vibrant splendor of Wikstrom’s designs.
Born in Sweden in 1854, Wikstrom initially pursued a maritime career before deciding to become an artist. After moving to the United States and spending time in Florida, he moved to New Orleans in 1883 where he eventually became the chief designer for 20 floats and dozens of costumes for the Rex parade and later for Proteus. It’s those designs — shown as sketches, final design plates, newspaper supplements and photographs — that form the nucleus of the NOMA show.
NOMA decorative arts curator Mel Buchanan’s small but jewel-like installation begins with two of Wikstrom’s Mexican landscapes, completed during his years of travel before he arrived in New Orleans. Even from these few examples, it’s evident how a taste for the lush and exotic made its way into his later work.
A case in the center of the gallery displays the only known complete bound design suite for a Rex parade: 1910’s “Freaks of Fable,” all bold colors and fabulous detail.
The real centerpiece of the show, however, are the 20 designs Wikstrom did for the 1904 “Alphabet”-themed Proteus parade, from the magnificent “ABC” title car to “XYZ” at the end with highlights including “D” (for “Dragon”), “L” (for “Lucifer”) and “S” (for “Snow”) along the way. The suite is supplemented on an adjacent wall by a few float and costume designs for the 1898 Proteus parade — all of which are still as fresh and wondrous now as they were then.
As enchanting as Wikstrom’s illustrations and design sketches are, don’t miss the photos in the show, including one thought to be the first nighttime Mardi Gras parade caught in film with a Wikstrom-designed float in the foreground. Dark and blurry as it is, it still provides a tantalizing glimpse of how Wikstrom’s fantastic designs were realized in three dimensions.
Other supplementary materials, like a small woodblock print of the 1885 Rex parade that Wikstrom created for Harper’s Weekly, are fascinating in showing the continuity of Carnival tradition from the late 19th century to the current day: Save for a few architectural and sartorial details, the scene of crowds enjoying the floats as they proceed down Canal Street could have been done last year.
And don’t leave the museum without having a look at the only piece of furniture attributed to Wikstrom, which is on display in the second-floor hallway near the elevators: a cabinet decorated with a variety of fanciful sea creatures that links Wikstrom’s maritime past with his New Orleans-based Carnival designs.
In all, the show is a captivating look at work by an artist who still deserves to be celebrated, and a reminder of what makes Carnival in New Orleans so special — just in case you needed another reminder.
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“Bror Anders Wikstrom: Bringing Fantasy to Carnival”
WHEN: Through April 1
WHERE: New Orleans Museum of Art
INFO: (504) 658-4100; noma.org