The present learns from the past

Elizabeth Berdann

Elizabeth Berdann will be the first to tell you that she is a little odd. As a child she was entranced by Ripley's Believe It or Not, particularly the girl who could "fit her entire fist in her mouth!" And by her late teens, she was watching autopsies and dissecting limbs at the morgue in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she was born and raised. She knew she wanted to be an artist, though, and studied drawing at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, followed by a semester at the Parsons School of Design in New York, where she soon realized that her imagination was taking her in a different direction from the commercial design that is Parsons' strength. She taught herself how to paint, and by the late 1980s had begun to move toward miniatures, an interest that solidified after she saw the exhibition of the Manney Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991. But hers are not traditional miniatures. "My work expands the genre of portraiture by investigating the subject's relationship to his/her appearance," she writes, "and by incorporating directly or refusing to acknowledge the notion of the portrait as a reflection of a patron's (or subject's) vanity....I am interested in a rich array of nonphysical/metaphysical ideas: the dichotomy of the inner/outer experience, the definition of beauty, the problems of intimacy, and the marvel of the visible world." Which means you often have to look very closely at her works to understand what you are seeing.

Because she had to leave at dawn on Saturday, Berdann arrived for the Shelburne weekend a day earlier than the rest of the group and was treated to an even more personal tour. Given her predilection for the weird ("I loved the creepy automatons," she says, "and there was a baby doll [in the large collection of dolls begun by Electra Webb as a child] with two faces, one side happy and the other screaming, that I really liked"), curator Kory Rogers thought she would be particularly interested in the Circus Building, and he was right.

First conceived in the 1950s, the horseshoe-shaped Circus Building was originally designed to house a complete carousel and the five-hundred-foot-long miniature circus parade carved almost singlehandedly by Roy Arnold of Hardwick, Vermont, between 1925 and 1955. Completed in 1965, the building now also houses, among innumerable related objects, carved carousel animals and other elements made by the famous Gustav Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia and a miniature three-ring circus complete with audience (more than thirty-five hundred pieces altogether) fashioned by Edgar Kirk (1891-1956) of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, between 1916 and about 1956. In addition, the collection includes more than five hundred circus posters dating from 1870 to 1940, many donated by Arnold or by Harry T. Peters (1881-1948), the renowned authority on and collector of American lithographs, who was also Electra Webb's cousin. It was these that excited Berdann. "Watching Elizabeth rummage through the circus poster collection was like watching a child visit the circus for the first time," Rogers said. "Initially she had a hard time focusing, but she very quickly gravitated to the sideshow material," including a Barnum and Bailey poster advertising the "Conjurer's Mammoth Black Mystifying Temple." It promised "a living breathing, speaking head without a body" and a "Beautiful Blended Necromantic Transformation," among other marvels and mysteries.

Since returning to New York, Berdann has begun her own sort of sideshow, an installation that will emphasize that "we can all identify with feelings of freak­ishness or not fitting in." Some of the first pieces are illustrated above.

As of Labor Day the fruits of the Shelburne Museum—ANTIQUES collaboration will be on view at the museum, until the end of the 2009 season.

Next: Shelburne Museum bibliography

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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