June 18, 2007

Thoughts on "Legacy and Legend"

I saw this exhibit at the Huntington Library Sunday. It consisted mainly of drawings, paintings, and photographs by the artists who encountered Indians--e.g., White, de Bry, McKenney and Hall, Catlin, Bodmer, Curtis, Moon--and wanted to popularize and preserve their cultures.

There were some fascinating things on display. For instance, the first woodcut of Indians from Columbus's voyages in its original 1495 printing. Portraits and engravings so lifelike they looked photo-realistic. Photographs that belong in the Photograph Hall of Fame if they aren't there already.

Unfortunately, there were few depictions by those who hadn't met Indians and wanted only to exploit them--i.e., in posters, playbills, and dime-novel illustrations. And nothing from the 20th century except the Curtis and Moon photographs--no movie stills, product packaging, or sports memorabilia.

There could've been more effort to put the illustrations into context--to explain how the images changed over time, how Americans used them to further their own agenda. Curator Hight's statement tells you'd more than you'd probably learn from the exhibit itself.

Some additional thoughts:

  • The exhibit notes that Pocahontas means "playful, frolicsome child" in Algonquian. John Smith and other Jamestown residents called her this name in their writings and didn't refer to Matoaka, her real name. This raises the possibility the woman who married John Rolfe wasn't the same one who helped the settlers earlier--that Smith and the others may have encountered several frolicsome children.

  • It's surprising to learn how much the artists "cheated" reality. They copied figures from previous works or modeled them on figures in classical paintings. They imagined or reimagined their works in the studio after taking notes in the field. They added or changed elements to "improve" their works and make them more marketable.

  • This last point applies to the photographers too, of course. Curtis was notorious for his theme of the vanishing Indian: "chiefs in feathered headdresses, aging patriarchs, women struggling to manage, and the war parties of past eras." It wasn't until sometime in the 20th century that someone tried to capture Indians the way they were, without editing or "enhancing."

  • The Plains Indian images (chiefs, warriors, tipis, etc.) didn't come to dominate American perceptions until after the Civil War. Before then, diverse depictions of Indians east of the Mississippi were the norm. These Indians wore turbans, jackets, sashes, and robes, not feathers and buckskins. McKenney and Hall's portrait of the Seneca orator Red Jacket (below) may have been the most well-known Indian picture at the time.

  • It's not clear from the exhibit how Plains Indian images came to dominate, but one can guess. As westward expansion became the driving force in American politics, the Indian had to go. It became expedient to portray Indians as backward, savage, primitive, out-of-date, ill-fated, doomed. Showing Indians living in peaceful homes and villages, wearing Western-style clothes, calm and thoughtful, didn't serve America's purpose. Showing them as half-naked barbarians, wild and untamed, hunting buffalo like wolves, did.

  • One exception to the exhibit's "authentic" art was an infamous painting of Custer's Last Stand. As one website notes, the "painting by Otto Becker and Cassilly Adams depicted the 7th Cavalry's last stand as a floridly romantic event. That became the image of the scene for a large segment of the nation, because the painting was distributed as a lithograph by Anheuser Busch to 150,000 barrooms."

  • The exhibit calls photographs the "bridge to motion pictures." So the line from the earliest engravings to shoot-'em-up Westerns and thence to mascots, cartoons, and other modern-day sources of stereotypes is pretty straight.

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