The American West Goes East

By Peter H. Hassrick



Four cities in Yugoslavia saw the exhibition through the summer months. Sanja Lazarevic, Head of the Department of Non-European Culture at the Ethnographic Museum of Zagreb where the show was seen in May and June, termed it a "truly dynamic period" in her institution's history, "So many visitors, so many results in every sense." The poster which advertised Americki Zapad on billboards and kiosks throughout the city of Zagreb won recognition as the best for the year in the Republic of Croatia.

In Skopje, in the heart of Macedonia, the Fine Arts Gallery hosted the exhibition in the Daut Pasha's Bath, a fifteenth-century Turkish architectural gem. Tourists to the city, guidebook in hand, were surprised when the huge wooden doors of the bath opened before them to reveal not a splendid array of golden icons and intricate carpetry, but the dramatic bronze Stampede by Frederic Remington. The reaction was always favorable. Similar favor was reflected on the show throughout the Yugoslav tour. Around a thousand people a day poured into the Belgrade Cultural Center through the month of July when, according to the locals, "nobody would dream of going to a museum, they are all at the coast." The Cultural Information Center in the famous and beautiful mountain city of Sarajevo provided the last Yugoslav site before moving the show on to Czechoslovakia. Here the words of Ot Hampton, writing for the Dallas Times Herald in April of 1973, became prophetic. Announcing the forthcoming tour behind the Iron Curtain, he had written "America's cowboys and Indians will ride halfway around the world. . . to fight for peace." In Sarajevo, American Ambassador Malcolm Toone, after inviting Yugoslavs to join in the celebration of the West and the splendor of American art, entreated their continued favorable responses toward détente, threatened by the daily unfurling of the Watergate tragedy and the Nixon resignation.

Autumn brought The American West north to the medieval, jeweled city of Prague. There in the renovated halls of the riding academy for the Waldstein Palace, the Czech people reveled in the American frontier saga for the first time. Certainly they, like the Poles, Rumanians and Yugoslavs, were familiar with the subject. As school children they had no doubt fashioned an elaborate and romantic image of the West through books of Mark Twain and his German confrère, Karl May. Magazines, movies, and now the omnipresent television have sustained the myth and the fascination for things western. So the show was not new, yet it was all new -- new in its beauty, new in its reality and new in its relevance. Again, attendance was record-breaking.

The last two stops for the show, which by now was taking on something of the combined flavor of Cody's Wild West extravaganza and George Catlin's European tour, were Kraków, Poland, and Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. In Kraków the newly opened American Consulate served as host and in Bratislava the Bratislava Castle, one of the galleries of the Slovakian National Museum, provided guardian walls. On February 4, Mitchell Wilder, the Amon Carter Museum director who had been acting as a courier with the show since its opening in Prague, crossed the Czech border toward Vienna. The paintings were safely back in Fort Worth two days later, almost a year and a month after the original opening in Warsaw. The American West had truly bridged new frontiers of its own.

For the most part The American West exhibition received critical acclaim. Typical was the review in a July issue of Borba, Belgrade's leading newspaper. "At the end of the season, Belgrade has gotten one not-everyday exhibit. Composed as it is of elements of complex visual expression and real museological courage in selection of varied materials, the exhibition is a unique foreign manifestation. Strictly speaking, it is neither purely historical, nor ethnographic, nor artistic . . . but comprised of many elements. . . with the purpose of evoking a dramatic era in which the characters and destiny of the United States was cast and molded."

On the eve of the Prague closing, however, the official Czech newspaper, Rude Pravo, ran its first review of that same exhibition. The headline read "Fresh Paint -- a Rosy Color," and it enticed the reader with a rejuvenating opening strand. "The American graphic arts have presented themselves to Prague at a show bearing a most attractive name: 'Art of the American West.' The show has naturally drawn a heavy audience, awakening as it does the boyhood romantic dreams." But then the reviewer, Jan Kliment, proceeded to reveal his true feelings toward the art of America's West as presented to the Czech people. He began by discussing a painting by Arthur F. Tait entitled Pursuit, which was loaned by the Milwaukee Art Center and pictured the allegorical duel between Anglo trapper and Plains Indian. The scene was drawn from the lengthy log of western myth rather than from historic fact and had been included in the exhibition as exemplary of the theatrical potential of frontier exploits. After describing this "dauntless pursuit" the reviewer drew his conclusion about the show in general, that it was:

simply and deliberately manipulated so as to impress the visitors with sights, make them look, enchant them with the colors and odors of faraway lands, and dispel even the fleeting doubt as to whether these daring white conquerors were not actually engaged in doing something rather bad, having as they had to protect with gun in hand their hard-earned property and their new explosive gunpowder civilization from the original settlers following their own civilized, but different ways. It's as though this American show in Prague was striking the same note as a considerable portion of the hypertrophied production of American Westerns, or films about conquerors of the so-called Wild West, that by continuous repetition has succeeded in diverting the multitudes from so much as asking what was really the business of some or other people in America at that time. And this brings us very close, as close as can be, to commonplace racism, which by the way is inseparable from entirely commonplace imperialism and colonialism.

If beauty, as the cliché goes, is in the eye of the beholder so, too, is history. For in the paintings and objects which adorned the gallery was testament to both fact and fancy. The substance of history was told in paint, glazed with myth from time to time, but certainly not distorted beyond recognition. As with many exhibitions presented by the Amon Carter Museum, The American West was created on a dual plane, serving equal portions of both history and art. And, it was on these grounds that the Museum, in the spring of 1973, was approached by the United States Information Agency of the Department of State to assemble a collection of 19th and early 20th century paintings, prints and sculpture as a depiction of the frontier American experience. Less than a century spans the time from Louisiana's purchase by Jefferson in 1803 and the fateful census report of 1890 which formally announced the end of the American frontier. And yet within these years many of the distinctive qualities of American civilization took shape. All factors must be considered, the abundant yet formidable open land, the exotic yet resolute native inhabitants, the resplendent natural beauties rich with mineral wealth to be scourged from within, the promise of a free life and the realities of frenzied survival for existence. Such were the anomalies of the American West, anomalies shared in by Americans and Europeans alike. The American West was forged of no fairy tale, and the exhibition which carried its name minced neither word nor image with myth.

The exhibition, according to the catalogue's introduction, was "presented as a panorama of pioneer American experience in the nineteenth century as well as a cross section of painting and print making of the time." That panorama, of course, must open with a view of the land and its native people, the rocks and cascades, deserts and foliage, wildlife and Indians which had hymned a chord of union for centuries before the white conquest. Thomas Worthington Whittredge's Long's Peak Sunset told of this chorus, not simply in the crescendo of light set against the monochrome facade of the Front Range, but in the colorful though dwarfed procession of Indians which moves slowly toward the distance.

The Swiss-American artist Peter Rindisbacher, one of the first painters to capture the vital image of the Plains Indians, recognized the fundamental, but fragile balance between man and nature. In his gem-like watercolor, Blackfeet Hunting on Horseback, he brought before the American and European audience the drama of the hunt for the first time. The picture in lithographic form was issued as a frontispiece in the first edition of McKenney and Hall's The Indian Tribes of North America. Though little known today, Rindisbacher was a true precursor. In the text of that volume he was described as an "uncommon talent who, lured by his love of the picturesque, wandered far to the West, and spent several years upon our frontier, employing his pencil on subjects connected with Indian modes of life. His was the fate of genius." George Catlin, Karl Bodmer and John Mix Stanley, who today carry the laurels for capturing the image of the Indian before the white influence, were actually following Rindisbacher's well-laid path. Each of those artists, however, was represented by several major works. Four Catlin oils loaned by the National Collection of Fine Arts showed Indian life as he had recorded it on the upper Missouri and the Southwest Plains between 1832 and 1834.

Stanley's Mountain Landscape with Indians pictures Indian life on the Columbia River. At the point where the Columbia River cuts through the Cascade Mountains on its rambling course to the Pacific Ocean, one can look south and observe the conical outline of Oregon's most majestic peak, Mt. Hood. Discovered in 1792 by Lieutenant W. R. Broughton of the Vancouver Expedition, Mt. Hood served as a landmark for all future explorers and travelers in the Northwest. Lewis and Clark passed this scene on a foggy morning in November of 1805. Not quite fifty years later Stanley sketched the 11,000-foot peak at a place where the Hood River cascades into the Columbia. On a spit of land in the foreground can be seen a fishing village of the Chinook Indians. Their long wooden dugout canoes continually plied the waters of the Columbia in quest of their sole source of sustenance, the salmon. The rectangular planked houses suggest that this is a relatively permanent settlement. The more rustic huts of bark slab and mat are probably temporary habitations occupied only when that particular section of the river boasts of good fishing. The racks laden with drying salmon indicate that the season is right. Fishing rights among the Indians were hereditary. Great clan wars were fought over the privilege of dropping nets in the swirling pools below the falls where the fish were temporarily caught in their annual "runs" upstream to the spawning grounds.


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