T hink of “The Western” and your mind conjures up familiar scenes: a covered wagon making its way through a majestic landscape; menacing outlaws; Native Americans in traditional costume; herds of cattle; showdowns at high noon.
Well, think again. “The Western is not a simple story,” says Thomas Brent Smith, director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum (DAM). “It is as complex and multilayered as any genre” and has long served as “a mirror through which America looks at itself.” Such is the point of the exhibition The Western: An Epic in Art and Film, opening 27 May at DAM and co-organised by Smith and Mary Dailey Desmarais, curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where the show travels next.
Perhaps the most famous Native American leader in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull was recruited as an attraction in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show some two decades later. His first performance was photographic, posing with the impresario in a Canadian studio, with straw at their feet and a painted background as stand-ins for the untamed West.
While the curators look at their subject with a fresh eye, they include touchstones of the genre, such as Albert Bierstadt’s 1867 Emigrants Crossing the Plains and film stills from John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), along with paintings by Frederic Remington, Thomas Eakins and NC Wyeth, many from the DAM collection. Sculpture, photographs, postcards and works by contemporary artists are also among the 160 objects included.
Monumental depictions of the West as a sublime landscape offered a visual salve following the horrors of the Civil War, while also encouraging American expansion. “The travellers are moving toward the sunlight,” says curator Thomas Brent Smith. “There’s something drawing them to the West” – perhaps the promise of a unified nation.
The West has proven endlessly adaptive to mediums, ideas and contexts, and it retains a secure place in the American consciousness. The show begins after the Civil War, the moment the West emerged as a concept. “The West was going to heal the country and be the place for possibility,” Smith explains. As a destination both mythic and real, it signified optimism for an exhausted nation, which Bierstadt’s idyllic composition powerfully conveys.
Remington had already made his reputation with dynamic illustrations for periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly when he turned to large, colourful paintings in 1889, first exhibiting this work at New York’s Academy of Design. Part of a group of aristocratic clubmen who sought to popularise a certain image of the American Frontier as it was drawing to a close, Remington devoted his talent to, as he said, “doing ‘the Old America.’”
Such paintings were visual inspiration for Hollywood films – a crucial aspect of the exhibition and “so synonymous with the West,” says Smith. Through the years, Western movies have consistently addressed America’s hot topics. The post-war anxiety of the atomic age, for example, is reflected in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), in which every action is measured against the ticking clock.
This early silent film by the father of the Western pits the West against the rest, as a rancher’s daughter elopes with a stockbroker despite her engagement to one of her father’s ranch hands. Disappointed by her new beau and the city, the woman writes her fiancé. Here he is, coming to her rescue with his crew, in a shot that strongly echoes Frederic Remington’s A Dash for the Timber.
But the Western has also long reached beyond the US, beginning with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show’s tours of Europe. And if Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone rebranded the Western in the 1970s, generations of non-Americans have continued to appropriate and redefine it. As the bare-chested young man practising his roping skills in Salla Tykkä’s video Lasso makes clear, the Western continues in many forms.
Set to Ennio Morricone’s famous score for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West, Tykkä’s video – and its would-be cowboy trying to negotiate his passage from adolescence to adulthood – is just one of countless contemporary testaments to the genre’s wide, enduring appeal.
LEAD IMAGE: CHARLES SCHREYVOGEL, BREAKING THROUGH THE LINE, UNDATED. © GILCREASE MUSEUM, TULSA, OKLAHOMA. After extensive travels through the West beginning in 1893, Schreyvogel painted increasingly violent, action-packed scenes of the Indian Wars, helping set the visual parameters of the Western movie.
The Western: An Epic in Art and Film is on view at the Denver Art Museum from 27 May–10 September and at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from 9 October–21 January 2018.
Christine Schwartz Hartley is a contributing editor of Sotheby’s magazine.