November 05, 2007

Plains Indians = frontier fantasy

Art:  Review:  Vanishing Frontier

Cincinnati Art Museum explores American Indian imagery"And now ... the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history," declared historian Frederick Jackson Turner in a speech at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His statement shocked the American public. For decades, the American identity had been wrapped up in exploration and westward expansion. What would it mean to be American now that the frontier had been conquered?

Artists had already been addressing that question, and much artwork exhibited at the Columbian Exposition--the world's fair of industry and the arts--provided the answer. The American Indian--specifically, the noble, resolute Plains Indian living in harmony with nature--became the emblem of all that late-19th-century Americans suddenly realized they had lost.
The hypocrisy of American beliefs:Like so much American history, the romantic notion of the noble Indian at the end of the 19th century smacked of hypocrisy.

Prior to this period, whites feared the American Indians, brought disease and destruction to their way of life, drove them off their lands to reservations, forced Christianity on them and sent their children away to boarding schools. Once the mêlée was over, American consumers appeased their guilt by purchasing idyllic pictures of the culture they had decimated.
How the artists misrepresented Indians:Plains Indians provided the most familiar image to the public, and even if the artist's source depicted a Southwestern Indian, the artist imbued him with Plains attributes. For instance, a Hopi Indian appears on the vase called "Rabbit Hunter" wearing a feather in his hair and beads that were only worn by Plains Indians.

Farny took similar license in his paintings. Despite his meticulous attention to detail, evident when compared with the artifacts on view, he often confused cultures and time periods. Feathered war bonnets were a recognizable prop, yet American Indians only wore them during important ceremonies. If you based your knowledge on Farny's paintings, Rookwood ceramics or other popular imagery of the late 19th century, you'd think they wore them nearly every day.
Comment:  Americans are still appeasing their guilt by naming military craft after Indians, making historical films and TV shows, and "honoring" Indian mascots.

1 comment:

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
As far as a 'frontier' goes, the United States always has assured that it has one and it isn't...
The most recent ones include Viet Nam, Grenada, and Somalia, and then there is Gulf War I and Gulf War II, with leanings toward frontiers in Iran, North Korea (again), Pakistan, and that Republican perennial favorite (shh!), Nicaragua (again). W likely would lump in the South Orkney Islands, if only he could remember where the hell they are!
All Best
Russ Bates