The New Britain Museum of American Art's new exhibition, Searching the Horizon, offers "the real American West" but ends up begging the question: Was the American West ever truly "real"? More to the point, the American West that is on view here is as "real" as any random assortment of objects amassed by a wealthy financial institution can purport to be.
Culled from the "corporate art program" of Bank of America, the exhibition, not surprisingly, leans heavily on the Manifest Destiny view of American history, the signature painting being "The Lone Packer" by Edgar Payne (1883-1947), which could have been used in a Marlboro ad. A mounted, sun-dappled pioneer leading a caravan of pack mules stares vigilantly into the distance, seemingly thinking, "Where them dag blame Injuns?" Similarly, works by far superior artists of the same genre, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell — the marquee players of the exhibition — echo this theme. As does some of the wall text: "Hope could become, for many, a material reality … whether through the excavation of mineral wealth or through the contemplation of a serene and pleasing mountain view."
Despite such a limiting scope, Searching the Horizon begins with great promise. Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) and George Catlin (1796-1872) are wisely paired, as examples of early attempts by white men to document the native people of the West. Indeed, Bodmer and Catlin are the forerunners of all the other artists on view here. The Swiss-born Bodmer was the patron of Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, who thought of himself as a "naturalist" and had enough money to take an entourage with him to America to look at the "wild men" he'd heard about. While the prince may have viewed Indians as wild creatures, Bodmer treated them as respectful subjects for his art. His interiors are superb, almost photographic in their remarkable detail — all the more remarkable for someone working only from field sketches — and his landscapes are sweeping and sublime, evidence of why Europeans thought of the "New World" as an untainted Eden.
Though Bodmer was more talented than Catlin, the latter had more emotional stake in his work. Bodmer only made one trip to the U.S., in 1832, while Catlin ruined his health and went bankrupt in a decades-long attempt to document Native Americans with the same fervor Audubon brought to birds (a lovely Audubon lithograph of American bison is included in "Searching the Horizon"). Next to Bodmer, Catlin's oil portraits look like unsophisticated folk art. In a way, they were. Entirely self-taught and quixotically entrepreneurial, Catlin was nearly always on the run, making four extended journeys across the west over the years to document as many as 50 tribes. He explored thousands of miles and his life was probably in more danger than Payne's "Lone Packer." In all, Catlin made 474 paintings, 300 of which were portraits of Indians. Among his finest work was a triptych of Native Americans playing lacrosse, the spectacle of which Catlin compared to the ancient Olympic Games; all three are on view here. Though he got many things wrong about Indian culture, modern scholars grant that Catlin was "exceptional" for his time.
Another worthwhile project of similar scope was Thomas McKenney and James Hall's gallery of portraits contained in History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1836-44), examples of which are in the show. One subject McKenney-Hall and Catlin both depicted was Wi Jun Jon, an Assiniboine chief whose story is heartbreaking and telling. Wi Jun Jon traveled to D.C. as a dignitary, met Pres. Andrew Johnson and exchanged a buckskin suit with him for a U.S. cavalry uniform. In his diptych, Catlin depicted Wi Jun Jon as ridiculous in his uniform but stoic and imposing in his buckskin, while Hall adhered to the noble savage pose. And yet Catlin's depiction was true, or metaphorically so. Wi Jun Jon returned to his people, strutted about in his absurd uniform, rhapsodizing about the splendors of the eastern cities he'd toured. He was shunned and later murdered by members of his own tribe.
Photography, in theory at least, seems a more trustworthy (or "real") documentary tool of the West. And indeed, this show includes work by early masters like Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins, who toted heavy, large-format equipment into the wilderness to capture some majestic scenes. Then there was Edward Curtis (1869-1952), a popularizer of Indian culture who came in their wake. Curtis often posed his subjects to convey a sort of staged authenticity, cropping out vestiges of the modern world. He was Catlin with a camera, hoping to preserve what he called "the vanishing race" in amber like fossils — indeed, his prints even have an amber cast. He, too, eventually went bankrupt; he ended up as a cameraman for Cecil B. DeMille. Still, his sheer breadth of work is a priceless trove for historian, ethnographers and anthropologists.
Searching the Horizon is rounded out with a roughly chronological "fast forward" assortment of views, painted and photographed, of the profound changes that gripped the West during the years covered here (1830-1920): stage coaches, wagon trains, railroads, U.S. cavalry, cowboys, canal boats, steamboats. What was "hope made material" for some came at the expense of this "vanishing" race. The curators take great pains, thankfully, to remind us that Native Americans never "vanished," that today they are working overtime to preserve the vestiges of the same culture that once obsessed Catlin and Curtis.
Searching the Horizon: The Real American West, 1830-1920
Through March 4, 2012, New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington Street, New Britain, 860-229-0257, http://www.nbmaa.org