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“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This quote from John Ford’s film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) illustrates the blurred line between fact and fiction in the American story of nation building. The exhibition Once Upon a Time . . . The Western: A New Frontier in Art and Film, cocurated by Mary-Dailey Desmarais of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) and Thomas Brent Smith of the Denver Art Museum (DAM), where it was titled The Western: An Epic in Art and Film, carefully tracked the aesthetic roots of the Western in film back to 1826 and the first non-Hispanic artist-explorers. These creative pioneers produced a blueprint for the characters, sets, and drama that filmmakers like Ford translated to the screen. Western cinema after World War II provided evidence that film mirrors the changing context of the storyteller, with each generation adopting the core visual vocabulary of the West in a nostalgic gesture while answering to contemporary conditions. Once Upon a Time . . . The Western provided new insight on the development of American images and tales that endured nearly two centuries and continue to shape American art and cultural identity today.
It is undeniable that early photography provided the compositional framework for the cinematic Western. For example, the landscape of Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s photographic print Buttes near Green River City, Wyoming (1872) is mimicked in Thomas Moran’s painting The Mirage (1879) and then repeated on the silver screen in Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). Monument Valley’s stone sentinels frame the land like theater curtains, and the horizontality of the mediums echo the uninterrupted space initially captured by O’Sullivan. The intimate relationship between visual arts within the genre is what the DAM successfully explored. After viewing both exhibitions, however, it is clear that the MMFA pursued a different claim. For example, the first MMFA gallery rotated around a brightly lit skeleton of a wooden teepee that housed a Blackfoot dress shirt (1895) and feather headdress (1920) along with a beaded belt and dress by Madam Walking Sun (1920–50). Orbiting around the structure were grand landscape paintings such as Albert Bierstadt’s Emigrants Crossing the Plains (1867) and small albumen prints of the Colorado River and Yosemite Valley from the 1860s and 1870s. The presentation in Montreal introduced the thesis that the land and the indigenous people that inhabited it are the central characters of the genre. These complex icons, which occupy multiple perspectives, were portrayed as singular and interchangeable.
The “cast” of characters in the Western genre were uniquely introduced in the respective Montreal and Denver exhibitions. The MMFA encouraged the visitor to find multiple readings of a single stock character by juxtaposing purely documentary work next to others of obvious fantasy. The DAM presented the Calvary Trooper, American Indian, Trapper, Pioneer Woman, and Cowboy in a linear fashion, identifying the clothes, poses, and contexts for each character in the genre. William H. D. Koerner’s painting Madonna of the Prairie (1921), for example, presents a young woman in front of a white wagon in which the backlit opening in the cover creates a halo around her. The work captures the attitude that westward expansion was preordained by God, an idea that dominated Hollywood Westerns. Despite both exhibitions’ persuasive assertion that images of free land and a chance for a life do-over motivated the mass migration of settlers, a glaring omission was the impact of the American Civil War. A desire to escape the conflict was meaningful in order for such propaganda to successfully find an audience and lure it West.
In the comprehensive exhibition catalog, Christine Bold’s essay “Performance, Print, and Popularization of the Pre-Cinematic American West” argues that Western performers, active in the second half of the nineteenth century, were the original mythmakers. Bill Cody, popularly known as Buffalo Bill, marketed the most sensational elements of the West, blurring reality and art in his large-scale performances. With Argentinian gauchos, Russian Cossacks, and Native American “show Indians,” Bold acknowledges that these pageants played to the crowds’ enjoyment of racial fixity. However, the reconstruction of the West moved Native Americans off their land and onto insufficient government rations. Buffalo Bill’s shows were financially lucrative and provided performers with some relief from starvation. As hundreds signed up for employment, the performative arena was an opportunity to preserve traditions such as dance, song, and costumes. To overlook the agency of the Indian and the authenticity folded into the reenactments, Bold says, was an indigenous inside joke, misidentified as only for public consumption.
Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Geronimo are documented in tintype images, adjacent to their later, dramatic translations to film. But these motion pictures were certainly not documentaries, as Scott Eyman explains in his catalogue essay, “John Ford: The Old Master.” For example, history shows dentist and gambler John “Doc” Holliday died of tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Ford’s cinema, however, tells us Doc died a dignified death defending a friend at the O.K. Corral. The chasm between historical portraits and their cinematic avatars was most extreme with Calamity Jane. The sharpshooter in real life was stocky and plain, photographed by Henry Robinson Locke in 1895 wearing layers of buckskin clothing and a bullet belt. A scene from the film Calamity Jane (1953), directed by David Butler features Doris Day in a white wooden tavern that looks more like modern Las Vegas than a backwoods public house. With shiny blonde hair and toothy white smile, Day dances and sings in a fitted suede romper; the sharp contrast is humorous and an indictment of audience expectations.
A red stagecoach occupied the center of a large gallery at the MMFA and looked as stable for cross-country travel as a Fabergé egg. It elicited a “how did they do it?” sense of wonder, echoed in surrounding paintings and films hung salon style. Among them, the grit of Conrad Buff’s painting Westward (ca. 1933–34) highlighted the impossible climb (or descent) of a wagon on the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The scene is recalled in the movie The Big Trail (1926), directed by Raoul Walsh, with several wagons teeter-tottering down an eroding embankment. While the MMFA cultivated the enticing drama of the genre, the DAM cleverly displayed tablet-sized screens with film clips next to the corresponding paintings like a before-and-after comparison. Denver’s brilliant choice underscored that cinema’s characters, lighting, and framing were plucked directly from specific master paintings.
The DAM’s presentation climaxed at a grand rotunda playing Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) across three concave screens. With staggered timing, the whip-around effect placed the visitor in the center of a three-way duel. It was a dynamic and spectacular display not equaled in scale or timing at the MMFA. Even the most indifferent visitor to the genre could not help but be engaged, reiterating the staying power of the subject.
Movies after World War II reevaluated the American Indian image with more nuanced portrayals, as seen in Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (1950). Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) reframed the lone ranger in a new frontier for America’s counterculture movement. Presenting movies that problematize the Western formula encouraged viewers to confront stereotypes in the field. Both museums exhibited celebrated artists such as Fritz Scholder and Kent Monkman, but it was the inclusion of Wendy Red Star, Mark Tansey, and Adrian Stinson in Montreal that allowed the MMFA to succeed at the complicated task of addressing race.
In Wendy Red Star’s Four Seasons series (2006), the artist-as-subject is shown seated in four photos, framed by a Fome-Cor cutout deer and seasonal faux flowers, with green AstroTurf carpeting the ground. Red Star wears an elk-tooth dress with beaded moccasins, bag, and choker and is situated with a bountiful setting. Despite the vibrant colors and comedic animal occupants, it is a melancholic expression. Whether placed in a photo studio, a city, or Monument Valley, Red Star’s self-portraiture is complex and complete; it is not a fantasy and has not vanished. The work painfully reminds the Western consumer of her common humanity, and the simultaneous worship and dismissal of the American Indian.
What is the legacy of the Western genre today? The exhibition concluded with contemporary films such as Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015), which illuminated the gaps in American cinema. For example, Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Revenant is a trapper married to a Pawnee woman. He survives in a frozen wasteland that mocks the warm tangerine light of Bierstadt’s Emigrants. The MMFA’s selected scene for the exhibition was that of an army’s unflinching brutality against an indigenous tribe. The Hateful Eight makes a woman the villain and center of the story, while the sheriff has such a colorful past that no other characters trust his moral code. The cast also includes two cavalry troopers from opposite sides of the Civil War. If there is still a trace of nostalgia in the contemporary Western, it is now leveraged to combat the myth that American life was ever simple or singular.
Adjunct Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism, Department of Art, Metropolitan State University of Denver