Collector Spotlight: Salt Lake City
Influence After Life
The Winifred Hudnuts, and Arts of Africa at the UMFA
The public loves a character; and in the world of art the personalities behind the creations serve to make an artist famous as much as the paintings or sculptures. The people who collect art can be just as colorful as those who make it.
A pair of Utah's more colorful collectors is a mother-daughter pair -- Winifred Kimball Hudnut and Natacha Rambova -- that spent little of their adult lives in the state but who helped found the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Rambova's collection of Egyptian artifacts forms the basis for the UMFA's current exhibit, Africa: Arts of a Continent
Winifred Hudnut (nee Kimball) was the granddaughter of Heber C. Kimball, an early Mormon apostle, counselor to Brigham Young and energetic polygamist.
Like her grandfather, Winifred had a penchant for marrying, though she chose to do so consecutively rather than simultaneously. She got started at twenty-one when she married Edmund Butts, a first lieutenant from New York stationed at Fort Douglas. At the time she was known as the "handsomest girl in Salt Lake" and he was a dashing bachelor. They divorced two years later and Winnie soon married Michael Shaughnessy, an Irish Catholic who perpetuated an unfortunate stereotype by turning out to be an alcoholic and a gambler. Before they divorced she bore him a daughter, Winifred Shaughnessy, in 1897. Mother and daughter next headed to San Fransisco, where Winnie the elder married a third time, to Edgar De Wolfe, a prominent interior designer. This marriage gave the family financial stability and a place in society, but tensions now grew between mother and the ever more rebellious daughter.
Winnie junior was shipped off to a British boarding school where she became interested in art and ballet. At 17, still at odds with her parents, she changed her name to Natacha Rambova, became a dancer in New York and had a tumultuos affair with choreographer Theodore Kosloff. Meanwhile her mother divorced again and married her final husband, Richard Hudnut, a millionaire perfume manufacturer. Rambova eventually became a designer, producer and actress in Hollywood, where she championed the introduction of the Art Deco style. She also became a fashion icon, her profile increased when she married Rudolph Valentino. The two married in Mexico while Valentino was still going through a divorce, causing the actor to face charges of violating the Mann White Slave act (that he played his famous role as "The Sheik" that year may just have been coincidence). They were married a second time in the States to make things legit, but the marriage didn't last. Valentino's friends claimed Rambova was controlling and ruining his career. The divorce in 1925 was bitter and when Valentino died in 1926 he left her one dollar in his will.
Rambova had more than enough money from Hudnut, her adoptive stepfather, however, who died in 1928. Rambova married a second time, to a Spaniard, but divorced during the Spanish Civil War.
Throughout her life Rambova was a spiritualist, believed in reincarnation and psychic powers and claimed to be in contact with Valentino after his death. Her interest in ancient religions led her to become an accomplished Egyptologist, and in her later years she helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions. She also amassed an impressive collection of Egyptian artifacts.
In 1947 the elder Winifred Hudnut, who had remained in New York after her husband's death, announced that she would be donating her substantial art collection of 500,000 objects, consisting of furniture, wall hangings, paintings, silks and tapestries, to the state of Utah as soon as a suitable facility to house them could be built. This collection would become the nucleus of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Rambova followed her mother's example two years later, donating some of her own Egyptian artifacts to the Museum. Upon her death in 1966, the remainder of the Egyptian art objects in her personal collection were added.
The most noteworthy of the works in Africa: Arts of a Continent
, one of the Museum's newest acquisitions, is one that was not in Rambova's collection but which continues her work in Egyptology. When the late XXVI Dynasty (664-525 BCE) sarcophagus arrived at the Museum last September, its former occupant's identity was unknown. To solve this mystery, the UMFA consulted John H. Taylor, Assistant Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, who was able to translate two strands of hieroglyphs on the front of the sarcophagus. The occupant was an Egyptian man, Taylor determined, named Padiusir, which means “He who Osiris has given.” The sarcophagus is richly decorated with symbolic religious scenes and elaborate incantations, all meant to protect Padiusir’s Ka, or spiritual double, in the afterlife.
Themes of burial and the underworld resonate throughout the exhibit's first gallery, which includes amulets that were placed in linen wrappings during mummification, cosmetic jars created as necessary tomb furnishings, and statues of important deities to accompany the Ka. These works are augmented by objects from diverse African tribes organized around three pertinent themes: "Beauty All Around," "The Many Faces of Masks," and "Mystery and Magic: Seeking Knowledge from the Gods and Ancestors."