Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 3, 2020
Emily C. Burns Transnational Frontiers: The American West in France Charles M. Russell Center Series on Art and Photography of the American West, vol. 29. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. 248 pp.; 121 color ills.; 14 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780806160030 )

As the title suggests, Emily C. Burns’s Transnational Frontiers: The American West in France is an evocative look at the “transnational frontiers” where visual art and cultural performance intersected alongside notions of identity, nation, and belonging for French citizens, American image-makers, and Native American performers between 1865 and 1914. This is a powerful study that focuses on different conceptions, depictions, and deployments of “the American West,” which Burns rightly notes is “a slippery concept” when considered within an international setting. By tracing the circulation of visual and material culture of the American West in France at that time, Burns considers how the production and reception of these representations of American “westness”—through landscapes, cowboys, and Native American performances—conveyed ideas about the region as a fluid rather than fixed category. “Westness” operated within a transnational discourse for a range of individuals, be they French, white American, or indigenous American. This is an important book not only because Burns is adept at bringing together close readings of painting, sculpture, photography, literature, posters, caricature, toys, ceramics, metalwork, film, cartography, collecting, and live performance using the trained eye of an art historian but also because her readings necessarily engage with an interdisciplinary praxis that draws from theoretical work in Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS). The strengths of the project lie in the vast literatures and evidentiary sources that Burns includes to support her argument.

Burns begins provocatively with an image that includes the various “constituencies” impacted by the creation and circulation of American Western imagery. She argues that “through performance and visual representation, the iconography and aesthetics associated with the American West in France constructed national, cultural, and regional identities” (3) for a range of individuals, including travelers and artists from the United States, French observers, and Native Americans. For these different groups the American West offered a range of meanings that hinged on the possibility of cultural renewal: for the French, rejuvenation; for US visitors abroad, energy and cultural distinctiveness; and for members of the Lakota nation, opportunities for international travel, cultural performance, and ultimately survivance. Thus, from the beginning of this study readers will learn about the specific contexts through which these different communities encountered one another and engaged with their own understandings of the American West for their own purposes. As a scholar of NAIS and a cultural historian, I appreciate Burns’s deployment of Gerald Vizenor’s notion of “survivance.” An Anishinaabeg literary critic, Vizenor deliberately conjures the term in ways that are not always precise, and yet it has become a powerful way to articulate what is at stake for Native Americans as cultural producers. Survivance is a way of understanding the different strategies Natives can use to survive and also resist the forces of oppression that accompany settler colonial practices. Survivance is a helpful analytical framework when it comes to interpreting Native engagements with cultural performance, especially those that at the time seemed to embrace and celebrate America and the West. Burns’s use of the term early in her work grounds her analyses of Lakota performance in terms of indigenous modes for storytelling as critical modes of resistance.

Elsewhere in the project Burns points to changes in Federal Indian Policy, such as the General Allotment Act of the late nineteenth century, to provide important context for readers who might be less familiar with American Indian history. More specifically, she provides ample historical background that is most relevant to the Lakota, whom she follows in their travels to Europe. For scholars outside of NAIS these are useful touchstones, given that Native people at that time were always confronted by the limits imposed on them by Federal Indian Policy. For the Lakota, this meant limits on their freedom of movement and expression, and during this period it also meant limited access to the rights guaranteed to others as American citizens. Thus, this work helps to amplify the ways that French and American citizens experienced the creation and circulation of imagery regarding the American West as linked to but also distinct from Lakota understandings of westness and Americanness.

The “transnational frontiers” Burns describes illuminate more than the movements of peoples across geopolitical boundaries; she also uncovers the ways that French artists adopted primitivist viewpoints, which traded on notions of imperialist nostalgia further expressed through an intense interest in American Indians. One striking example is Paul Gauguin’s visit to Paris in 1889, where he went to see “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” on multiple occasions. So enthralled with the show was Gauguin that he wrote to Émile Bernard about his experience. Gauguin’s letter, Burns argues, would “celebrate the spectacle in the context of the other anthropological exhibitions at the Exposition of 1889, including the village at Java” (13). This vignette provides compelling evidence of the ways that French and American colonialism, and the cultural values conveyed through these histories, overlapped with one another. Burns further suggests that Gauguin’s exposure to actual Indians “contributed to his expectations for tribal cultures that he sought in the South Seas. Gauguin’s primitivism open[ed] up larger questions about modes of seeing that affect[ed] the reception of American Indian performers in France. The French public perhaps responded so fervently to images and portrayals of American Indians because they served as another example of allegedly exotic, primitive people who reinforced European supremacy” (13). These conclusions make sense given the scholarship in American history on Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West” as a medium through which different versions of American conquest could be narrated and celebrated. Take, for example, the shift in these shows from dramatic “reenactments” of frontier violence from the American West, which relied on conflicts over land between cowboys and Indians, to performances that showcased new battles representing the expanding frontiers of US imperialism. A poster from 1898 shows “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” battling Cuban insurgents. For the 1892 tour in Europe, Cody’s partner, Nate Salsbury, created the “Congress of Rough Riders” so that French and other viewers could witness mounted military troops from many nations in the arena alongside American cowboys and Indians. These shows celebrated the successful conquest of the American West by pointing to new territories that the United States occupied, such as Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines.

There is an impressive array of imagery throughout this text. Burns offers critical interpretations of paintings, sculpture, photographs, and archival ephemera alongside images of dioramas, news clippings, and other material culture objects. Her arguments provide new insights into the ways these materials may have been viewed at the time. From a NAIS perspective, she also points out how the Lakota wore their own regalia as a strategy of survivance, which she reads alongside other non-Native depictions of Indianness that were damaging to indigenous peoples. For example, Burns offers readers two contrasting examples of her interpretations of the influence and reach of material culture: The first is about the wearing of regalia by Lakota men and women in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as a form of power, resistance, and national identity. The vibrant colors and beadwork, meant to be eye-catching, not only enabled Lakota performers to attract interest in the touring show but also served as a way to call attention to their national identity—as Lakota rather than American. This sort of wearing, Burns argues, was a “statement of survivance” (49). These kinds of moments were critical strategies for Lakota performers, who were “both liberated and constricted” at the time, set within the Jardin d’Acclimatation. In a second example, Burns notes, “A diorama, made around the time of this performance, reinforces this tension. Probably in the renewed interest in American Indian and cowboy performance, the French toy company C. B. G. Mignot produced a series of small-scale metal figurines depicting the characters and features of the Jardin” (49). Burns goes on to describe in detail the four tiers involved in the diorama’s design. Her careful reading considers the possibilities and limits that existed for Natives at the time: “This diorama metaphorically reveals the complex positions that American Indian performers in France negotiated in seeking to occupy a space beyond stereotype” (49).

This is an art historical work engaged with visual and material culture. It is also about the transnational and multinational circulations of the American West that were at the center of a series of critical conversations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries concerning politics, art, and modernity. Moreover, this is a work about Indian people as cultural producers and consumers, as performers and artists, and how they were central to the ways the American West was represented during this period. To this end Burns should be lauded for her thoughtful engagement with American Indian history and Federal Indian Policy as well as theories from settler colonial studies. There were a few omissions in the project from the latter that might have added even more to her analysis, namely work by Patrick Wolfe and Jodi Byrd. That said, Burns’s use of Native studies scholarship is praiseworthy and this work is a major contribution within the field of art history.

Kiara M. Vigil
Assistant Professor of American Studies, Amherst College