Sunday, December 22, 2013

Go West!

In November, my Dad, husband, and I visited the High Museum here in Atlanta to see the Art of the Louvre's Tuileries Garden exhibit, specifically with the aim of spending time with Dad's favorite artist, Camille Pissarro.

As usual, the High did a lovely job with the exhibit (Go see it!). What really surprised and impressed us, however, was the quality and size of the simultaneously running exhibit: Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center for the West. Some of my favorites from that exhibition are what I'd like to share with you today in hopes that it will encourage you to go experience the exhibit for yourself.

Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center for the West
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

Me & the husband, standing in for Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley

The Go West! exhibit will be featured at the High from November 3, 2013 until April 13, 2014. All works are on loan from the Buffalo Bill Center for the West in Wyoming, an institution that includes 5 renowned museums and a research library. The exhibition, an evolution of the American West, comprises over 250 artworks and artifacts that date between 1830 and 1930. Rare artifacts include ceremonial Native American garb, painted hides, antique Winchester rifles, and mounted buffalo heads. Artworks span from paintings to bronze statues, giving you a wide variety of pieces to enjoy and learn from. 

Talk about an entrance. When you first walk in, you're greeted by a bronze Native American Warrior on horseback by Alexander Phimister Proctor (1860-1950), an American sculptor known predominantly for his realistic portrayal of animals. As you turn the corner, you come face to face with 24 noble Native American leaders - A stunning introduction both in arrangement and variety. The paintings depict noble, proud representatives of the Native American nation, most dressed in a combination of native and European garb. These portraits were commissioned by Thomas McKenney, Superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, between 1821 and 1828 as the leaders traveled to Washington DC to negotiate for tribal sovereignty. The portraits were always intended to be hung as a collective -- An impactful sight.

I "met" a new artist in this exhibit that I was not previously familiar with but came to enjoy a great deal. This being Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874), an American painter that focused his oeuvre on the American Northwest. He studied in Paris and traveled a great deal before settling into New Orleans where, in the late 1830s he began to focus on art of the aboriginal American life. 

Indian Elopement (1852, oil on canvas; pictured left) was a painting by Miller that struck me. A young Native American couple flees across a river on horseback. It is apparent from the tense expressions on their faces, glancing desperately behind them (and of course the figures on the river banks pursuing them) that their love affair was not met with tribal approval. Treatment of the landscape and sky is highly atmospheric -- A hazy blue-gray fogs over the sun, leaving it a nondescript puff of tangerine in the sky. Their white pony swims feverishly, trying to get them to safety. The emotions conveyed through paint and composition are astounding.

John Mix Stanley's 1857 oil painting Last of Their Race (right) is another that has the potential to make a significant emotional impact if you study it long enough. In this work, a group of men, women, and children from different generations and different tribes stand on the edge of the ocean, symbolizing how the Native American nation was pushed to the edge of the continent. This piece was intended by Stanley to speak to the decline of the Native American civilizations, with no where else to go as the rising ocean tide acts as the final barrier. Some appear defeated, but the central figure still stands proud and unyielding against inevitability. 

If you are interested in American Western landscapes of any sort, then there are two names you should know: Thomas Moran (1837-1926) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). These two artists paint landscapes in such a way that within the confines of their canvases, the viewer still believes the scene goes on forever: epic, massive, and incredible. Bierstadt specialized in paintings of the Rocky Mountains while Moran "claimed" the Yellowstone Valley.

Untitled (Estes Park, Colorado, Bierstadt Lake), ca. 1877, by Albert Bierstadt almost takes your breath away, as if you can taste the chilled air rolling off of the snowy mountains. In 1876, Earl of Dunraven commissioned Bierstadt to paint scenes of the site for his future hotel, to be located in Estes Park across 8,000 acres (Wow!). This was one of the smaller works created to accompany a massive exhibition piece, rendering the beauty of the landscape. Bierstadt had been painting western landscapes since 1859 as part of a government survey program for an overland route to California.
No offense to Albert Bierstadt, but I have a love affair with Thomas Moran. Of the pieces in this particular exhibition, Pueblo at Sunset (Laguna), 1901(right), was probably my favorite. I am a sucker for colors and the kaleidoscopic sunset is otherworldly, whirling over the shadowed pueblo on the mountainside like it has a spirit of its own. The leftward setting sun glows like a message from God; the far right's downward brushstrokes look like a violet downpour of rain out of fluffy peach clouds. I revisited this painting probably 2 or 3 isn't large, but in my opinion, it is masterful. (His watercolors of the Yellowstone Lower Geyser Basin were also a super treat!)

And finally, Frederic Remington (below). I will admit, I saw this sculpture and had a super nerdy Art Historian freak out (Dad can attest to this). We had studied this sculpture (and some of the aforementioned artists) in my American Art class two years ago, which brings back fond memories from grad school. It helps when you have possibly the coolest of all professors ever (props to Dr. Sarah Burns) and amazing colleagues. To understand your nation's history from the perspective of its greatest artists really is an incredible opportunity, as well as a blessing.

Anyway, if you do not know this sculpture, this is The Bronco Buster (1895). So popular in its time, nearly 80 copies were made sold, primarily through Tiffany & Co. This "uniquely American subject," a cowboy breaking in his wild horse, was what the exhibition called "a metaphor for the ultimate conquest of the Wild West." This was also Remington's first experiment in bronze, otherwise being a painter. Some of his paintings are also on display in this exhibition, including Prospecting for Cattle Range, 1889. The Bronco Buster, however, was the piece that won him the recognition that turned him into one of the more elite American artists of his day. His unconventional cantilevered balance (notice, there are no supports for the horse -- It stands on its own, balancing on just its two back feet) completely overthrew traditional American understandings on rendering sculptures. In most sculptures up until this piece, a conveniently placed tree trunk or the horse's tail touching the group would act as a support.

Thesis of this post: The Go West! exhibit at the High Museum of art is a true, unexpected, inspiring treat. It has something for everyone and is a great way to learn about our country's history while engaging the exciting, adventurous "wild west" imagination. 

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