Lost narratives of "The West"
I recently saw The Western: An Epic in Art and Film at the Denver Art Museum before it closed. I went in with mixed emotions; critically it had good press but first-hand accounts hadn't been as promising. I will start off by saying that the exhibit was probably the most visually stunning I have seen in a long time. The exhibit highlights the influence western art has on film (and sometimes vice versa). Curators Thomas Brent Smith, director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum, and Mary Dailey Desmarais, Ph.D., curator of International Modern Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, collaborated on the exhibit (The Western is now open in Montreal). Dim lighting throughout, dramatic spotlights, curtains, and vibrant colored walls set a cinematic scene. The curators and design team incorporated film in small wall panels, floating screens, a mini theater, and an expansive three screen setup for the dramatic showdown in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). All of this combined with the collection of magnificent western art was stunning. But I left feeling uneasy...
The exhibit was arranged chronologically, beginning in the 1800s and working up to present day. Epic landscapes by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington started off the exhibit. The wall text did a good job of describing the West as a space for people to escape the baggage still present from the Civil War back east. It went on to illustrate "types" in western art - the trapper, cowboy, Indian, cavalry trooper, and pioneer. The exhibit transitioned to white settlers battling Native Americans in the quest to fulfill their manifest destiny. A section was then dedicated to the influence of director John Ford.
A portion of the exhibit I was pleasantly surprised by was the transition into the "modern" west. Two abstract paintings were on display to highlight post-World War II ideology and feelings. From the 1960s onward the curators played with the idea of the modern and changing western. Movies like Easy Rider were used as examples. Finally, we end in present day - where we see a tipi by Kent Monkman and a video montage of modern films played (Denver company milkhaus deserves a mention for their incredible work putting together all the video for this exhibition).
Despite all of these great things I was still uneasy and a little disappointed. The more I thought about it the more I realized - there were only three paintings that contained women, no mention of African Americans, Asian immigrants, and unfortunately, Native Americans were not given as much screen time as their Euro American counterparts. Where was an accurate depiction of what the West was actually like? Why were we still getting this stereotypical perspective of a western?
You might say, "but Stephanie, this isn't an all-encompassing view of the West. It's about western MOVIES and the artwork that inspired them." To which I would reply, "Yes, that's true. However, why can't we see more narratives from the West? Why can't we see beyond the tough white guy perspective and learn more about the people who made up the rest of what was an extremely diverse landscape?" The exhibit did have that great video montage at the end that showed diversity in modern westerns - scenes from Thelma and Louise, Brokeback Mountain, Django Unchained, No Country for Old Men, and The Hateful Eight (just to name a few). But the exhibit didn't do anything to address the fact that there were gay cowboys in the west long before Brokeback Mountain - none of the diversity is "modern." So that brings us back to my uneasy feeling. Frustrated with the overload of western stereotypes I decided to do something about it. Below you will find information about groups of people who actually made up the West, but who were misrepresented or completely left out of the exhibition.
Women & Native Americans in the West - present but misrepresented
I'm staring with these two groups because they were actually represented in the exhibit. I only saw three paintings of women in the entire exhibit. The first painting was The Madonna of the Prairie by W.H.D. Koerner, an image of women as the peaceful influence on the West. The other image is the more sinister propaganda of Irving Couse, The Captive, showing what could happen if the West wasn't tamed. So first off - not a good percentage when compared to the overwhelming presence of men, and second - not an accurate depiction of the bad ass women who actually lived in the West.
There were, of course, cowgirls who competed in rodeos and horse competitions. But there were also other women who don't get as much spotlight - female landowners. These were women who moved west to escape the confines of marriage and determine the course of their own lives. You have examples like the Chrisman sisters (pictured below) who bought their own land and farmed it themselves. They aren't the exception; 12% of homesteaders were single women. The Homestead Act offered land to anyone over the age of 21 who filed as head of household, no gender was specified. This allowed women (granted these were white women, not Asian or Native American) the freedom to own and work their own land. If you bought the Western exhibition catalog (like this nerdy art historian did...) you'll find Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues's essay, Becoming Frontier Woma(e)n. Liandrat-Guigues breaks down the stereotypes of women in Western movies - mother, saloon girl, Indian maiden, pioneer woman, soldier's wife, ranch owner, educated woman (teacher, lawyer, journalist) - and argues that the West demanded women embody several characteristics at once rather than staying pigeon-holed in one.
To read more about women in the West
Pioneer Women - The Denver Post
Another group misrepresented in the exhibit are Native Americans. The beginning of the exhibition did a good job illustrating artists' fascination with creating stereotypes of Native Americans. I was actually surprised to read the label that went along with James Earle Fraser's sculpture, The End of the Trail, 1918. The label includes a quote from Gregg Deal, an artist from Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Deal writes, "... But it also illustrates what it means - or what colonialism conceives it to mean - to give up Indian ways and succumb to the power and superiority of Western Culture. It denotes defeat and extinction but shields the real story: living, breathing Indigenous people still survive with language, traditions, ceremony, and the mantle of ancestral rights and privileges." This argument against artwork like The End of Trail is excellent, and I am happy it was included. However, the museum did not carry on this attitude when showcasing other artwork by Native American artists. Kent Monkman's Boudoir de Berdashe and Gail Tremblay's It Was Never About Playing Cowboys and Indians, 2012, were given little or no explanation at all. The inclusion of contemporary art offered curators the opportunity to address issues of misrepresentation, Native identity, and cultural preservation. It would have been refreshing to see these issues addressed instead of being glossed over.
The exhibit leaves out the dark side to the West's history - the relocation of Native American tribes so that white settlers could move in and attempts to force Native children to assimilate to Euro-American culture. I have linked articles below that go into greater detail about the struggles Native Americans faced in the past and present. I will end this section by again referring to the great exhibition catalog that went along with this exhibit. Gerald McMasters writes about the representation of Native Americans in film and art. (Where was this in the actual exhibit!?)
To read more about Native tribes in West
America's Other Original Sin - Slate
Struggle and Survival: Native Ways of Life Today - The Pluralism Project
African Americans / Asian immigrants / Hispanics in the West - ghosts of the exhibit
The last section of this article is devoted to a few of the groups not mentioned at all in the exhibit: African Americans, Asian immigrants, and Hispanics in the West.
African Americans saw the West as a place of opportunity after the Civil War. The Homestead Act offered ex-slaves a chance to escape the bankrupt southern economy and rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Similarly to single women, black farmers only had to live and work the land for five years before it legally became theirs (see the Shores, pictured below). All black regiments of "buffalo soldiers" were also formed during this time, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiment being two such groups.
The 1870s saw the rise of two industries that allowed African Americans to flourish: cattle and the railroad. By the late 1870s, an estimated 9,000 of the 35,000 cowboys in the West were African American. Their experience working on farms in the South and, for some, former work as cavalry soldiers made them valuable job candidates to ranchers. The development of the Transcontinental Railroad in the Great Plains brought more opportunities for African Americans in the West. Mining and railroad work was widely available, but professional opportunities like dentist, doctor, merchant, and teacher also gave African Americans positions of authority. The West was not immune to racism or discrimination, but it did give ex-slaves a faster chance at establishing new lives.
To read more about African Americans in the West
African American Pioneers - Encyclopedia of the Great Plains
By the 1850s over 40,000 Chinese immigrants had arrived on the west coast in hopes of escaping the poverty and social unrest of their birthplace. The Gold Rush lured many, but it was work on the railroad in the 1860s that ended up employing many immigrants. Chinese laborers made up over 90% of Central Pacific's workforce. However, Central Pacific and Union Pacific (the two railroad companies) saw these workers as expendable, paying them low wages in exchange for laying tracks in extremely dangerous conditions. The exhibit has a section about the Transcontinental Railroad which includes the standard picture of its completion in 1869 (pictured below). Unfortunately, nothing is mentioned about the nonwhite laborers who were responsible for the completion of the railroad. After 1869 Chinese citizens continued to face discrimination and racism throughout the country. Chinese school children experienced segregation and California law prevented adults from voting, holding state employment, and acting as a witness in court. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, banned entry of new Chinese workers to the United States and prevented current residents from becoming citizens. The Exclusion Act remained active until 1943.
Hispanics also felt the tight grip of Manifest Destiny close in around them. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848 over 70,000 Mexicans living in the Southwest became United States citizens. Many of them lost their land to white settlers, and (similarly to Chinese immigrants) were left with the worst paying jobs with horrible working conditions to make a living. The modern-day cowboy is actually modeled after Mexican American vaqueros (cattle herders) who were known for their expert horsemanship and roping skills. Vaqueros ended up working on cattle ranches throughout the west and influenced the culture of rodeos that are still held today. In an attempt for Mexican Americans to reclaim their land rights, the early 1890s saw the formation of a group called las Gorras Blancas (the White Caps). The group organized both physical attacks (which resulted in raids) and political strategies (the more successful option). Unfortunately, the election of White Caps to local office did not last long before an influx of Euro-American settlers destroyed any chance they had of creating lasting political change.
To read more about Asian Immigrants and Hispanics in the West
Chinese Immigration and the Transcontinental Railroad - United States Citizenship
If you made it this far, (cowboy)hats off to you! As you can tell from everything above, the West was a diverse place. It could be harsh and unforgiving but it was also a chance for freedom and (potential) fortune. If you go to the Montreal Museum's website (here's the link again) you'll notice that they are taking a different approach to the exhibit. They seem to be focusing more on the topics I mentioned above rather than take the approach of the Denver Art Museum. I cannot say this is 100% fact having not seen the exhibit, but if you are going to be in Montreal before February 4, 2018, you should go see their version, Once Upon a Time... The Western, and report back!