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Art That’s Meant to Crack

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Arts, Culture & Media

Imagine a six-foot beer mug-toting sculpture that cracks walnuts.  Or an elegant ivory screw with one thousand pieces of gold inlay.  Or a carefully carved 440-year old wooden nutcracker that whistles.  They’re all real objects and on display one floor up from the bustling main street of Leavenworth — Washington’s Bavarian Village.  There in the Nutcracker Museum, Arlene Wagner watches over a remarkable 5,000+ piece collection that she and her husband began in the early 1970s, and turned into a museum in 1995.

If you’re like me, you grew up with a simple metal lever nutcracker in the holiday nut bowl and a toy soldier dangling from a branch on the Christmas tree.  But a visit to the museum will quickly confirm that there’s much more variety to nutcrackers than unadorned levers and wooden soldiers.  The variety of materials, designs, personalities, and wildly expressive faces is astounding.  Many of the fine woodcarvings and metal tools are art unto themselves.  At first glance you might never suspect some of these delicate pieces are tools intended to break things.

I met Arlene at the museum earlier this year and she spent nearly an hour showing me some of her fondest treasures — many are several centuries old.  She told me background stories about some of them.  The collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world and Arlene is an international authority on the subject. She’s able to discuss their art and mechanical natures as well as the cultural history behind their creation.  It was quite a treat to walk the aisles with her as she pointed into one glass display case after another.  I was fortunate to spend more time talking nutcrackers with Arlene than Conan O’Brien did when he booked her as the very first guest on his current late night show on TBS, Nov 8, 2010.

There were any number of lists that Arlene’s collection could inspire, but we tried to simply pick a representative sample — a visual list —  for today’s WA-List.  It wasn’t an easy task!  And it forced us to leave out many other interesting nutcrackers deserving attention: soldiers, birds, monkeys, frogs, monsters, kings, pliers, comic figures, Star Wars characters, etc.  You have to visit the museum yourself to see them all.  Many appear in her lavishly illustrated book, The Art & Character of Nutcrackers by Arlene Wagner, (Portland: Collector’s Press Inc., 2005).

By the way, that’s Arlene in the photo above standing next to Karl, a grinning six-foot tall wooden nutcracker carved for the Wagners in Oberammergau, Germany in 1980.  As I prepared to take the photo, Arlene referred to Karl as her husband’s drinking buddy.  It was a fun visit.

The Nutcracker Museum in Leavenworth.

  • Location: 735 Front Street, P. O. Box 129 Leavenworth, WA 98826.
  • Hours: May through October: 2:00-5:00 each afternoon;  November through April: Weekends only, 2:00-5:00.
  • Phone: 509-548-4573
  • Website: nutcrackermuseum.com

A SAMPLING OF ARTFUL TOOLS FROM THE NUTCRACKER MUSEUM

WOODEN LEVER – (left) Monk Cradling
Lamb, boxwood, 17th or 18th Century France; (right) Gentleman of the Court, boxwood, 17th Century France
WOODEN SCREW – Screw with Inlaid Wood, Early 19th Century France
WOODEN PERCUSSION – Housewife with Broom, conifer, Early 20th Century Germany
METAL LEVER – (left) Lovely French Nude, silver plate and brass, 1900 France; (right, shortest) Female figure, silver plate and brass, 1930 England; (right, two others) Female figures, aluminum, 20th Century United States
METAL SCREW – Delightful Girl in Hoop Skirt, brass, middle 20th Century England
METAL PERCUSSION – Ball Percussion Nutcrackers, silver plate, 1994 Sweden and Germany
METAL MECHANICAL – Large Pecan Clamp Nutcracker, iron, 1912 United States
BETEL CUTTER – A Royal Cutter featuring an Eagle Design, silver with iron blade, 1820 India
NOBLE – Meissen Nutcracker, porcelain and brass, 1900 Germany.  (The Meissen nutcracker belongs to Claudia Davis, the museum’s vice president.)
IVORY SCREW – Elegant Screw with Gold Pique, ivory with about 1,000 pieces of gold inlay, 19th Century France
CLASSIC – Napoleon, various woods and paper mache, 1820 Germany (Thuringia)
WOODEN WHISTLE – Man with Bird on Hat, boxwood, 1560-1580 France.

PHOTO of Arlene Wagner with Karl in the museum © Steve Campion

IMAGES of art works are the property of the Nutcracker Museum and are used here by permission.

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One Response to “Art That’s Meant to Crack”

  1. Joan Says:

    I never thought about nutcrackers as more than utility objects other than those created and made in Germany. How interesting. I wish I had known about this museum the various times we visited Leavenworth.