craft and folk art

Alexander Girard’s Nativity

On November 16, 1962, the exhibition “The Nativity” opened at the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City. The show was organized by Alexander Girard, one of the leading figures in American design during the postwar era along with his colleagues Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson, and presented 170 nativity scenes from different countries (one of the first and most prominent themes represented in Girard’s personal collection of folk art). 

There were nativity scenes made of wood or pottery, creches comprising individual figures and others in a single piece, some scenes brightly colored and other monochromes - in short, dozens of variations on one ancient theme, distinguished by the traditional crafts of of diverse regions as well as the personal preferences of the individual artisans. One was even crafted by Girard’s brother Giancarlo Tunsi Girard, a ceramic artist from Florence. Girard installed a suspended ceiling in the exhibition space of the Nelson Gallery and constructed a covered adobe structure over a cruciform plan. Along the walls of its four arms, recessed niches on both sides provided three-dimensional spaces in which the designer created unique dioramas for the nativity scenes. 

The exhibition had already been shown the previous year at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, Girard’s first project at that venue. However, the showing in Kansas City garnered much greater press coverage and set new visitors record (Georgia O’Keeffe and Lisa Ponti were counted among the guests who attended the opening); Time magazine dedicated a two-page photo spread to the exhibition. One critic remarked : “Girard’s secret is really very simple. He retains the eye of a child.” The exhibition gained further support from the Hallmark greeting card company, which produced material to accompany and promote the show. 

Girard wrote: “Seeing how each people, and each individual artist, depicts the same theme is an education in itself, one which cannot help but lead to greater understanding in the world.”.