by Sherl Gillilan
I am not a western art aficionado, maybe because I’ve lived most of my life in the West and lean toward “Been there, seen that” when it comes to western art as a genre. I’ve viewed enough paintings of “Indian Chiefs,” mythic cowboys, sainted pioneers, unblemished landscapes, and bronze statues to last a lifetime. It’s too reminiscent of Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods when the reality of mid-19th-century western life was more like Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. (Think “cute little butter churn made by Pa” versus “We have no milk because the cow died.”) And, of course, that’s only the white side of the story.
This conflicted thinking, however, is exactly why I’d recommend a trip to the University Museum of Fine Arts to see the new exhibit, Go West! on loan from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Once at the museum, you will see works from some of the most iconic Euro-American artists of the American West—Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran, George Catlin, and more—but you’ll also see the works of Native American artists exhibited side-by-side. Even more importantly, you will be invited into an important conversation about how art has been deliberately used to shape perceptions of our region and history.
Go West! covers several epochs during the period 1830 – 1930. Starting after Lewis and Clark’s expedition, the exhibit encompasses the “discovery” of new lands, the conquering of that land and its indigenous people, scientific renderings of the landscape, depictions of pioneers and cowboys moving to the frontier for freedom of space and religion, and domesticating the Wild West to make it palatable to Euro-Americans. In effect, these paintings and sculptures illustrate the age-old principle of, “They who control the art, control the narrative.”
In stark contrast to the Euro-American paintings and sculptures is the exhibit of Native American art. A good deal of floor space is dedicated to various ceremonial and quotidian items created by Native American artists. As indicated by Leslie Anderson, UMFA curator of European, American, and regional art, “This exhibition lays bare the myths about westward expansion perpetuated by Euro-American artists in oil paint, ink, and bronze. It explores how American Indians preserved their way of life through artistic traditions during a period of forced relocation.”
When viewing the exhibition, it is thought provoking to note the differences in subject matter between Euro-American artists and Native American artists. The former focus on “observations” and represent the West and its indigenous and transplanted people and animals as stylized, beatific, unblemished, or violent, depending on the couture of the day. Native American artists, on the other hand, created their art to tell stories about themselves and their land, or to add color and design to ceremonial and everyday objects–i.e., their art is not necessarily an “observation” about other people or an attempt to shape outside perception. Another difference is that the Euro-American art is all ascribed to particular artists, and the creators of the Native American art are nameless—perhaps reflecting radically different views about creation, value, and attribution.
There are many stunning works of Native American art in the exhibit, including a beaded, deerskin dress that is remarkable both for its design and technical execution. There is also a deerskin jacket adorned with beads, otter fur, ribbon, glass beads, and dyed horsehair that is a colorful wonder. Drums, bags, horse dance sticks, and shields also display artwork as symbols of protection, celebration, or “art for art’s sake.”
Two of the most unconventional Euro-American paintings in the exhibit are by artist Astley Cooper: “Viewing the Curios,” and “In the Studio.” The former depicts a Native American in ceremonial dress examining “Indian curios” hung on the wall of a museum, and the latter depicts a Native American in full headdress sitting on a gilded stool, in the artist’s studio, examining a painting of a bison about to be speared by a warrior. The accompanying museum placard notes, “In these paintings, Cooper questioned the relationship between art and reality,” and then queries, “Do you think the artist is critiquing or endorsing the display of American Indian art as objects of curiosity?”
Another unconventional painting is “Buffalo Head,” by Albert Bierstadt. The museum’s supplementary information indicates that Bierstadt sketched American bison directly from nature, and says that in this particular case he apparently “hid behind a bluff with his rifle in hand . . . but was so fascinated with its wild beauty that he let it go unharmed.” Indeed, the bison views the viewer with his left eye “up close and personal” and simultaneously issues a challenge and a reprimand.
There’s also a striking painting by Frederic Remington of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West Show. “Buffalo Bill in the Light” is rendered in black and white and spotlights the majesty and mystique of Cody and his glamorized depiction of life in the West. As noted in Wikipedia, Wild West shows were a “winning combination of history, patriotism, and adventure which managed to create an enduring spirit of the ‘unsettled’ West and capture audience’s hearts through American and Europe.” On display is also “Col. William F. Cody,” a painting by Rosa Bonheur, the only female Euro-American painter represented in the exhibition.
In “The Madonna of the Prairie,” W.H.D. Koerner depicts a young woman driving a wagon whose face is framed beatifically with light and the circular shape of the surrounding canvas. Her expression is uncertain, perhaps wary, but her stylish maroon dress and bright red silk shawl hint of more jubilant days ahead if she can weather her current trials and tribulations. The painting first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and was used as an illustration for the fictional Covered Wagon series describing the adventures of wagon trains headed to Oregon in 1848.
In a side section of the exhibit, tucked into a corner, is the Speak Back Room, which encourages viewers to examine their existence in the West as part of living history. The Word Wall invites responses to, “The West used to be _______; Today the West is _______; and My West is __________.” There’s also a manual typewriter that allows those who know how to use it to type out a response to “What does Go West mean to you?”
As extensive as the Go West exhibit is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The museum has forged several local partnerships to engage diverse perspectives of western landscape and meaning. Through the middle of March, educational offerings will include films, storytelling, lectures, tours, and Native American artists exploring the connections between their indigenous roots and their art practices. For a complete listing of available programs, visit https://umfa.utah.edu/go-west
So, challenge yourself and your perceptions of the West by seeing and hearing other people’s views of our shared literal and cultural space—because isn’t that the point of any meaningful conversation?