The Elements of Western Art

by Peter Hassrick



A New Century's View of Indian Life


Beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century, a group of New Mexico painters trained in Europe's BeauxArts academies sought to record southwestern Indian life as a vital although fundamentally decorative force. Attempting to avoid pictorializations of Indians as either spirited warriors, as in Charles Russell's Medicine Man (figure 111), or as a defeated people left only with the possibility of a grand gesture of resignation, as in Cyrus Edwin Dallin's Appeal to the Great Spirit (figure 103), these artists claimed new ground. They strove to reveal living, breathing realities rather than symbols of abnegation, stoicism, or aggression. E. Irving Couse's Indian Hunter (figure 24) appealed to audiences of the day because of its formal, academic presentation, the obvious reverence with which the artist regarded Indian forms, and the celebration of everyday life. Wishing to evince the quiet, inner essence of western native peoples, Couse generally imbued his canvases with poetic introspection. Yet even here, with the scene washed in autumnal light, a sense of passing is evident.

One of the leaders of the Taos branch of this group, Joseph Henry Sharp, dubbed by his associates as "the anthropologist" because of the matter-of-fact nature of his work, documented scenes from Pueblo and Northern Plains Indian life that celebrate long-held, sustained tribal traditions. His Prayer to the Spirit of the Buffalo (figure 122) is both a spiritual reverie and a record resulting from astute first-hand observation.

Other Taos artists were somewhat more daring in their presentations, willing to skirt both academic formulae and documentation without sacrificing vitality. An example was E. Martin Hennings, who in such works as Riding Through the Sage and Cedar (figure 123) sought much the same poetic interpretation of the Indian as did Couse while adding pictorial grace and fluidity informed by Art Nouveau elegance. Yet the colorful blankets and bold physical, frontal positioning of the figures in many of his paintings show the artist's clear commitment to presenting native people with a strongly individual as well as broadly cultural presence.

For many painters and photographers, the southwestern experience was transformative. Robert Henri had painted and taught realist portraiture in Philadelphia, Paris, and New York for fifteen years before coming to New Mexico in 1916. Partly in response to the quiet patterned life of Pueblo people and the powerful abstract designs of their pottery and blankets, Henri's portraits take on a more faceted, less naturalistic appearance. His Ricardo (figure 119), one of more than half a dozen paintings of this young man from San Ildefonso, shows this stylistic change. Thus for Henri, the West provided an opportunity to explore not only new subjects and their spiritual qualities but modernist tenets as well.

Like Taos, Santa Fe too was a mecca for numerous modernist painters in the 1920s. Ernest 1. Blumenschein, a founder of the Taos Society of Artists, was only mildly modernist in his own works, such as Mojave Desert (figure 26), but encouraged acceptance of a wide variety of interpretations. When the expressionist painters William P. Henderson and Jozef Bakos, whom he had sponsored, were not openly welcomed by his Taos colleagues, Blumenschein abandoned the group to form a more liberal association in nearby Santa Fe, the New Mexico Painters. Bakos enthusiastically explored the changing light and mood of the New Mexico landscape. His Springtime Rainbow (figure 27) is both dramatically picturesque and boldly experimental. His work, along with that of his Santa Fe associate B.J.O. Nordfeldt, was reminiscent of French modernism, especially in the use of structured planar underpinnings to express natural form. Nordfeldt's Thunderdance (figure 118) reveals a powerful sympathy between the painterly imperatives of the French painter Paul Cézanne, the rhythms of Native American ceremony, and the rich colorations of the New Mexico landscape. Like Henri's portraits, it also resonates spiritually.

Combining the geometric essence of nature with the kinetic force of western life was a special talent of another painter of the southwest, Maynard Dixon. In his painting Wild Horses of Nevada (figure 25), mustangs surge forth from canyon shadows into the desert glow. Their energies, harnessed slightly by the formality of Dixon's cubist realist style, invigorate the austerity of the awesome space into which they intrude. Dixon's modernist vision of the West was later complemented by that of other artists including Marsden Hartley and John Marin.


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