Mabel Dodge Luhan: A Visionary whose Vision was out of Focus

By James.B

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS - November 22, 2016) -- The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History's newest exhibit -- Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns And The West -- recently opened to wonderful reviews. And I'd agree with most of them: the art is stunning, the scope of Luhan's life is impressive; a veritable who's who of artistic and cultural influencers paid Luhan a visit at her home in Taos, New Mexico, with many represented in this fine exhibition [1].

For those not too familiar with Luhan, a quick word is needed. Mabel Dodge Luhan (1869-1962) was a socialite, writer, and supporter of the arts-best known for her memoirs and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, now a National Historic Landmark. Mabel was the daughter of a wealthy banker, Charles Ganson. Raised in a well-to-do Buffalo, New York home, Luhan attended Saint Margaret's Episcopal School for girls, moving to New York City where she married Karl Evans. Sadly, Karl died in a hunting accident. In 1904, she met architect, Edwin Dodge. They were married, moving to Florence, Italy setting up a salon in a villa home.

While in Europe she befriended notable artists and writers, including Gertrude Stein. Stein wrote an article about Mabel, bringing awareness to Mabel's support and patronage of the arts. In 1912, The Dodge's moved back to New York, setting up a salon, a place to discuss ideas and art. After continual strains, Mabel and Edwin were divorced. Mabel left to Paris with another man, John Reed. In Pairs, she rubbed shoulder with several modern artists -- Picasso and Maurice Sterne among them. Mabel married Sterne in 1916. 1916 was also the year Mabel began a series of articles for the Hearst newspapers, columns in which she addressed a host of artistic and social causes.

MabelDodgeLuhaninTaosNewMexicoBut 1919 was the year that would alter Mabel's life. It is in this year that Mabel, Sterne, and friend, Elsie Parsons, moved to Taos, New Mexico with the goal of starting an artist's colony, a utopia in the high desert. While in Taos, Mabel met Native American Pueblo leader Tony Luhan. The colony began inviting artists, writers, dancers, and musicians from around the world: D.H Lawrence, Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, among others were given the grand treatment in her beautiful adobe home. By 1923, Mabel had divorced Sterne and married Tony Luhan. Together, Tony and Mabel expanded the 12-acre property, making it an artistic hotspot in the southwest. The Luhan's lived and worked in the home until Mabel's death in 1962 and Tony's in 1963 [2].

After their deaths, the Luhan family was unable to sustain the estate, so actor, Denis Hopper, purchased the property while filming the movie, Easy Rider. Ansel Adam's family now owns the property, using it as a retreat center and inn. I've had the privilege of lodging at the Mabel Dodge Lujan House, staying in the room named after the California poet, Robinson Jeffers. The house truly is a treasure; I enjoyed every minute of the visit. While staying at the home, I was able to read about Mabel Dodge Luhan, soaking up the history the area affords. I was impressed with much in Luhan's life-her love of culture and the arts, but her vision -- often shared by many throughout history-caused me to consider what exactly is a utopian image, a colony dedicated to certain ideals? There's too much to unpack here, but the book Utopian Vistas: The Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the American Counterculture I purchased at the house helped shed some light on this topic [3].

But let me summarize my thoughts briefly: to begin, I fully appreciate the cultural influence of Mabel Dodge Luhan; she deserves the accolades for her support of the arts and for her writing. But there was a reoccurring theme in her life (apart from her many failed marriages) that had an unstable foundation: she was looking for an idealistic existence, trying to implement a vision of life that was-for all intents and purposes -- naïve, and even unattainable. Her vision was out of focus. Now don't get me wrong; I see great value in making a difference in this world. I applaud Mabel Dodge Luhan for trying. Furthermore, as a Christian, I believe followers of Christ are called to be salt, light, and an ambassador of God's love, to leave an impact and impression of God's truth, beauty, and goodness on the earth. So it wasn't in her trying that I see a problem; it was in her worldview-a portrait of culture without Christ.

UtopianVistasWhat Luhan was trying to do was set up a settlement apart for a Judeo-Christian worldview; one led by non-Christian ideals and principles. Of course it ultimately failed. But even Christians who've tried to set up their own brand of a utopian society have failed. The question is, then: why does a utopian vision of life fall short? The answer is simple, and not very popular to say: sin. People are natural sinners, selfish, and self-serving. And when a society places a bunch of sinners together, problems are bound to arise. If you don't believe me, just look at history-people are capable of horrific things, both Christian and non-Christian. Sin is not a respecter of person. As a reminder of this fact, G.K Chesterton said: "Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." Yes, "proved," that is, demonstrated, shown, collaborated.

It'd be hard to argue against the point (other than denying or re-defining sin). And because of sin, society is in need of law and order, a mode of governance that keeps a bunch of offenders operating (see Romans 13). The fact that Mabel Dodge Luhan attempted build a "utopian vista," as writer Lois Palken Rudnick states in the above mentioned book, showed an endeavor to build a house on a faulty foundation, one devoid of the reality of the human predicament and problem; and ultimately one absent of the answer: Christ.

Biblically, there will be no utopian world until Christ comes to perfect our societal imperfection. Even in her lifetime, many people were at odds with Mabel Dodge Luhan, including the people she was inviting into her home, showing that having the right attitude with the wrong vision doesn't work; sin is still present [4]. From a Biblical perspective, only Christ can create the ideal culture. And one day he'll do it. True, there are differing opinions on how He will accomplish this. For manyChristians this will occur during a time called the Millennium -- where Christ will reign for one thousand years, demonstrating how a perfect civilization works [5]. For other Christians, there will be a gradual progress towards Christ's final control of the world [6]. Though both views can't be correct, there is one thing they hold in common: in both cases, Christ is the cornerstone, not a utopian vision or a particular movement or colony. Christ is the key.

With this in mind -- there are lots of things to thank Mabel Dodge Luhan for-as the above accolades display, but her greatest gift-at least to Christians-may be the reminder that there is no real utopian culture without Christ. And a culture without Christ is imparting a vision of society that will continually be corrupt; it will forever be out of focus.

The exhibit Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns And The West runs through January 22, 2017.


2) Much of this information was presented in a fine documentary entitled, Awakening in Taos. I was able to view the movie in a packed house with the director in attendance at the Albuquerque Museum of Art. For more information, click here: 


5) This understanding of the end times is called Pre-millennialism.

6) This understanding is called Post-millennialism.

Photo captions: 1) Mabel and Tony Luhan. 2) Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico. 3) Utopian Vistas by Lois Palken Rudnick. 4) Mabel Dodge Luhan House. 5) Brian Nixon.

BrianNixonAbout the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He's a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here:

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