The American West Goes East

By Peter H. Hassrick



"It is with considerable personal satisfaction and pleasure that I welcome you all to this exhibition of the works of 19th century American artists who devoted their creative lives to portrayal of the frontier era in the American Far West -- what is often called our 'Wild West'." With these words the American Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Albert W. Sherer, Jr., opened The American West exhibition in the grand hall of the Waldstein Palace of the National Gallery in Prague. Gathered for the occasion were Sherer's fellow ambassadors from many parts of the communist and noncommunist world, in company with a host of Czech ministers, poets, artists and cultural and political dignitaries. This was the ninth time the show had opened and the fourth American Ambassador to perform the honors. "We have an opportunity, here in Prague," he continued,

to sample the flavor of those turbulent times, when much that is central to the national character of my country was formed. In the constant uprooting and rebuilding of personal lives which attended the movement of thousands of persons across the long miles of the American West, the class distinctions of older, more settled cultures from which the pioneers had come were soon found largely irrelevant to the new lifestyle of our 'Wild West.' Indeed, it was the boisterous, unrestrained and thoroughly egalitarian spirit of this period which so dramatically struck the European and American newcomers and observers, that they christened the region by that name. It was an untamed land, peopled by strong survivors of an arduous struggle. The vigor and productivity of the western lifestyle swept back across the Mississippi River to the East like a fresh wind to breathe new life into the political and social processes of the United States, oldest of the great constitutional democracies. I take pride, as an American, in the ultimate results of this second American revolutionary epoch.

These are not remarks one would expect to hear at an opening of an exhibition of art, but the prevailing circumstances made the words both natural and relevant. For here was no ordinary assemblage of American painting, no ordinary audience nor any ordinary opportunity for the American Ambassador to speak of such unifying forces. The Czechs were to share with us, for the first time in their history and ours, the extraordinary saga of frontier America as related through the works of artists, both European and American, who knew and recorded the unfolding of the Western drama firsthand. The promise of accord and mutual self-understanding were pervasive in the Ambassador's words as well as the pictures and objects which surrounded him in the gallery.

Organized by the staff of the Amon Carter Museum, The American West circulated to eleven museums in four countries over a period of thirteen months. The Eastern European countries (Poland, Rumania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) were selected to host the show. Amerykánski Zachód opened first on January 8, 1973, at the Polish National Museum in Warsaw. The next day the exhibit was heralded on the front page of the official Communist Party newspaper, the first such notice the National Gallery had ever received.

Through the spring the show traveled in Rumania, first stopping in Bucharest, the country's capital. Official sponsorship brought the exhibition under the wing of the Rumanian Cultural Ministry whose sanction helped encourage enthusiastic popular response. Sala Dallas, the gallery of the Popular University of Bucharest, hosted the show for eighteen days in March. In that brief span over 70,000 visitors roamed the halls of the gallery. The Palace of Culture in Iasi and the Banatul Museum in Timisoara also had encouraging turnouts. Thirty-minute lines were typical and visitors hoarded the catalogue as if it were the family Bible. Over 22,000 copies were distributed in Bucharest alone.


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