Carl Schuster

Carl Schuster was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on November 9th, 1904, to a prominent Jewish family, and he passed away at Woodstock, New York on July 3rd, 1969. In the sixty-five years between, he amassed a vast body of research and established himself as a foremost scholar in the fields of Folklore and Symbolism.

He received his BA (1927) and MA (1930) from Harvard University, and in 1929, he went to Beijing (Peking) as a Harvard-Yenching Institute fellow. There he studied Chinese language and art with Baron von Stael-Holstein, a Baltic refugee and a scholar of Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhism for three years. When Schuster was in Beijing, he already began to collect a few folk textile pieces with blue and white cross-stitches from southwestern China. In 1932, from July to September, Schuster undertook his first collecting trips in the western and southwestern provinces. Then, in 1933, Schuster took his collections to Vienna to continue his study of art. He pursued his doctorate degree in Art History from the University of Vienna in 1934 with Dr. Josef Strzygowski and wrote a dissertation entitled Chinese Peasant Embroideries.

After graduating from the University of Vienna, he briefly served as Assistant Curator of Chinese Art in the Philadelphia Art Museum. However, he favored active research over curatorial work, so he returned to China in 1935 and stayed until 1938. Within three years, while based in Beijing, he made another three trips to the southwestern part of China (August 1935-January 1936, July 1936-September 1936, October 1937-March 1938). Due to the Japanese invasion of China, he returned to the US and served as a cryptanalyst for the Navy during the Second World War. During the following decades, and for the rest of his life, Schuster lived in Woodstock, New York. He dedicated himself to the study of symbolism in art and wrote many articles. He was aided during this period by grants from the Harvard-Yenching Institute, the Bollingen Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation (which gave him several) and the Guggenheim Foundation (from which he received at least two).

Schuster’s methodology of studying symbolism in folk art is derived from a theory that had been proposed by a group of anthropologists at the University of Vienna. They believed that if one could collect a large enough repertory of symbols that had been handed down from ancient times, one could then compare these with similarly ancient symbols in other places and thus uncover evidence of early migration of peoples and other cultural phenomena. During those days in Vienna, the beliefs of Austrian ethnologist Baron Heine-Geldern about Transpacific contacts in early times had a great influence on Schuster. In order to seek hints about cultural contacts in the past, he focused on folk art. He told his life-long friend, art historian Schuyler Cammann,

the palace art [of Beijing] was so sophisticated, so swayed by passing fashions, that it blurred or distorted the real meanings of the symbols as it altered them in effects to create change, or more decorative effects, too often tended to twist old meanings-or limit them- in order to convey their own propaganda.

Therefore, Schuster chose western and southwestern China as a suitably isolated and unspoiled study area and decided that embroidered textiles offered the best source of local folk motifs.

He was fortunate in his choice. He had happened upon one of the world’s great unknown traditions of folk design and managed to recover many examples of it just as it was on the point of disappearing. Although when Schuster started to collect textiles in China, the study of symbolic folk art was becoming unfashionable, Schuster remained loyal to the subject long after almost everyone else had rejected it, and this meant that he was isolated from his anthropological colleagues during the later decades of his life. Since his anthropological training meant that he was already isolated from his other potential allies, the art historians of China, he became an academic lone wolf in later years. As a result, his work and the embroideries themselves were never as well known as they deserved to be. However, for people who are interested in Folklore and Symbolism, Schuster served as an important link in international scholarship, not only through personal contacts during his research trips, but also because, from his home base in Woodstock, N.Y., he conducted a kind of free information bureau for the exchange of questions and ideas. Based on the vast research of Schuster on a cross-cultural survey of tribal art, Edmund Carpenter published the book Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art (Rock Foundation, 1986-1988).

Schuster’s theories had other effects as well. The need for a large repertory led him to collect a great many specimens, a much larger number than is usually included in museum collections from a single place. This makes his collection extremely valuable for many purposes, including some that Schuster himself did not foresee. On the other hand, the idea that the motifs were survivals of an ancient system of symbols led Schuster to pay less attention than we might wish to nuances of symbolic meaning as understood by the people who made and used those particular textiles.

Moreover, Schuster personally surveyed tens of thousands of Chinese artifacts in some 700 museums and private collections around the world. When Schuster died he had 46 articles to his credit, yet the largest share of his research and manuscripts remained works in progress. His archives (80,000 negatives, 250,000 prints, 18,000 pages of correspondence in some 30 languages, hundreds of files on specific motifs, etc.) have since found a permanent place at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland. This museum also purchased around five hundred specimens from Schuster’s collection. In 1960, the Field Museum of Natural History bought the rest of the collection. Along with the objects, this included Schuster’s dissertation and files of notes.

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This biography was compiled based on:

  • Carl Schuster, “Preface” of Chinese Peasant Embroideries Ph.D. dissertation, Field Museum Library Collection.
  • Schuyler Cammann. “In Memorium: Carl Schuster”, Textile Museum Journal, December 1972, Pp.2-3;
  • Edmund Carpenter, “Carl Schuster”
  • (accessed: 28 April 2005).
  • Bennet Bronson, introduction, Muriel Baker, and Margaret Lunt. Blue and White, the Cotton Embroideries of Rural China. New York, NY: Scribner, 1977.
  • Pendray, Shay and Rosendal, Pat. The embroidery studio series 500. Louisville, KY: WKPC-TV, 1996.