February 10, 2009

Defending Cyrus Dallin

In Massasoit the Noble Savage, I wrote about a statue of the Massachusetts Indian in Utah. I criticized this statue, which was sculpted by Cyrus E. Dallin, because 1) it's stereotypical and 2) it doesn't belong on display in Utah.

This posting received a response from Christine Sweet-Hart (BA Art History), who is "currently working on a catalogue raissone of Dallin's works in conjunction with the Cyrus E. Dallin Art Museum and the Springville Museum of Art." Here are her comments and my responses:Portraying Dallin as a sculptor who liked to create "good" Native Americans and "patriots" does a tremendous disservice to his entire body of work.Uh-oh, an expert. Am I in trouble here? <g>

I only know what I read, ma'am. The Salt Lake Tribune article said that Dallin "gained international recognition for his monumental, award-winning statues of American Indians and patriots."

Wikipedia says:Dallin's works include: the Paul Revere statue in Boston; bust of Eli Whitney in Augusta, Georgia; busts of the Mormon Church's Founding Fathers, Utah's pioneers, and the angel Moroni atop the Salt Lake City Temple; casts of the well-known Appeal to the Great Spirit outside the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and in Muncie, Indiana and Tulsa, Oklahoma; and war memorials and statues of statesmen, generals, and mythic figures.If we assume "patriots" includes pioneers, statesmen, and generals, the phrase doesn't seem inaccurate. Maybe the Tribune should've said Indians, patriots, and angels.

Dallin the Indian activist?Dallin fought hard for Native American rights and was appointed by the Algonquin Nation to represent their interests in the Legislature.Curiously, none of Dallin's pro-Indian efforts made it into his Wikipedia entry. Or into any entry in the Google search I did.

Which "Algonquin Nation" do you mean? I believe there are nine Algonquin nations in Quebec and one in Ontario, but none in Massachusetts. And I'm not sure any of them go by the name "Algonquin Nation." So tell us more about this little-known fact.His depictions of Native Americans were an attempt to capture a vanishing race's way of life and to tell the story of the Native Americans and their unjust handling by the white settlers, having seen it first hand growing up in the Utah Territory.A lot of well-intentioned artists and anthropologists tried to preserve portraits and records of the "noble savages" before they "vanished." For instance, Edward S. Curtis and James Earle Fraser. That doesn't mean their depictions of Indians weren't stereotypical.The reason that Dallin did not sculpt a Ute and instead sculpted a Wampanoag was this: he presented his original plaster figure of Massasoit--the bronze casting of which was erected at Plymouth, Massachusetts to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock--to his home state as a gift. It was not a commissioned work by the state of Utah.Okay. But somehow the plaster figure in Utah's possession was made into a bronze casting that now resides at the state capital. The same or a similar statue also resides on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo. Can you explain that?

Dallin the sensitive sculptor?Had it been, I am sure, sensitive as he was to the plight of the Native Americans at the turn of the century, he would have sculpted a member of a Ute tribe not a member of an East Coast one.If Dallin was that sensitive, he should've put conditions on his so-called gift. For instance, "You can put the plaster figure in an exhibit of my art. You can store it, trade it, or sell it. But whatever you do, don't make bronze castings of Massasoit for display in Utah. That would be utterly inappropriate, as I'm sure you'll agree."

If I gave my collection of stereotypical Native comic books to a museum, I'd make sure the people understood the nature of the gift. For instance, "Use these for research purposes into how not to portray Indians. Don't use them as examples of how to portray Indians."

Did Dallin say anything like that? If not, he's partly responsible for the controversy a century later.Further, it is very short-sighted to see him as only a sculptor of Native Americans. He was classically trained as an artist in Paris and taught his craft for 40 years at the Massachusetts Normal Art School in Boston alongside other memorable artists including Raymond Porter while still sculpting, exhibiting, and winning critical acclaim for his works. He was friends with John Singer Sargent who sketched the veranda of his house during a visit.On behalf of the Salt Lake Tribune, thanks for the additional information.

Massasoit the godlike warrior?It was Sargent's human model posing for Apollo that Dallin used for his heroic figure, Massasoit.Yes, and as I said, using a half-naked Greek god as the model for an Indian chief is stereotypical. It tends to characterize Indians as legendary figures from a mythical realm, not as real people. Do you have a response to that?

I wouldn't recommend a godlike figure even if the subject were a stereotypical Plains warrior, which the statue strongly resembles. But the subject was a dignified Wampanoag sachem, not a studly young buck. We don't have any pictures of Massasoit, but I doubt the typical sachem looked like this.Interpreting the intention of this artist is important--we need to look with the eyes of an early twentieth century sculptor not with the eyes of a twenty-first century spectator.First of all, 21st-century people are the ones who have decided that Dallin's statue is appropriate for the Utah state capital today. So we certainly can criticize their actions. Don't pretend we're criticizing only Dallin.

Second, the concept of the noble savage goes way back:In the eighteenth-century cult of "Primitivism" the noble savage, uncorrupted by the influences of civilization, was considered more worthy, more authentically noble than the contemporary product of civilized training. Although the phrase noble savage first appeared in Dryden's The Conquest of Granada (1672), the idealized picture of "nature's gentleman" was an aspect of eighteenth-century sentimentalism, among other forces at work.Although this concept flourished in the 19th century, it was well on its way out by 1911, when Dallin began his Massasoit statue(s). Contemporary writers like Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt had replaced the noble savage with the ignoble savage: a degenerate thug, criminal, and lowlife who deserved to die.

If Dallin still believed the myth of the noble savage, it wasn't as if alternative theories weren't available. We can credit him with portraying a positive stereotype instead of a negative one. But if he had studied the literature of the time, he could've depicted real Indians instead of stereotypical ones.

Interpreting Dallin's conscious intent may be important to you. But I've helpfully interpreted Dallin's unconscious intent for you. This intent was to depict Indians as mythical figures of the past, not as contemporaneous human beings.

For more on the subject, see Best Indian Monuments to Topple.

P.S. The Springville Museum of Art is in Utah, not in Massachusetts or an episode of The Simpsons.

Below:  The identical (?) Massasoit statue at BYU.

1 comment:

pauldobbs said...

1. Remarks like “Uh-oh, an expert. Am I in trouble here?” are bullying and have no legitimate place in journalism or scholarship. Are you trying to discern the truth or are you just trying to win?

2. Unless making a portrait of a model, artists rarely try to “replicate” the model. They usually employ models as reference points, as approximate stand-ins for what they imagine in their mind’s eye. Ask any figurative sculptor. And get real. Consider economic realities. Figurative art would never take place if artists had to wait for the perfectly appropriate, "racially correct" model. Plus it’s a well established fact is that Dallin had previously done extensive work from Native American models. He had earned his chops.

2. You attempt to challenge Sweet-Hart’s assertion that the Algonquin’s appointed Dallin to represent him in the Massachusetts Legislature by saying, “Curiously, non of Dallin’s pro-Indian efforts made it into his Wikipedia entry. Or into any entry in the Google search I did.” Any reference librarian in America would kindly counsel you that Wikipedia and a Google search are interesting places to start research, to maybe get a lead onto something, but they should never should be considered trustworthy resources in themselves. And certainly not regarding political matters. They only reflect the “colonization” (to take a cue from Russell Means) of the collective American, or I should say "Euro-American" mind. Relying on Wikipedia and Google searches for details of historical truth is like expecting nutrition from Wonder bread and Hersey’s bars. There are two carefully researched biographies of Dallin by Rell Francis and Wendel Johnson. I recommend looking for them in a library.

3. I don’t agree that Dallin’s Massasoit is stereotypical, but even if it were, you miss the key point. Getting it erected in Plymouth was a subversive act. By donating it Dallin essentially tricked the town of Plymouth into erecting a monument to the ally and savior they ruthlessly betrayed, to the man whose son’s head they exhibited on a stick for 20 years.

Paul Dobbs,
Library Director
Massachusetts College of Art and Design
(Formerly Massachusetts Normal Art School)