This spring and summer, The Blanton’s “Perspectives” series offers a fantastic lineup of artists, scholars, and curators exploring a range of topics. From nineteenth-century quilting to contemporary Cuban art, there is something for everyone. Among the lecturers is Erica Bsumek, UT associate professor of history. On May 10, Bsumek will present “Looking at Easterners” an examination of the interactions between Native Americans and settlers as conveyed in the paintings from “Go West!” (In a recent article in the Austin American-Statesman, Bsumek discusses the reappearance and appropriation of Najavo designs in today’s fashion and its impact on the Najavo people.) http://www.statesman.com/opinion/insight/navajo-is-more-than-a-fashion-trend-1996219.html
And just around the corner on February 2, Lester Faigley, Robert Adger Law and Thos. H. Law Professor of Humanities at UT, presents “Visualizing the West in the Global Imagination: From the Garden of Eden to the Oil Derrick.” Check out this sneak peak from Faigley here:
The major subjects of Western art—the unspoiled wilderness, the wars with Native Americans, romanticized depictions of Native Americans, the cattle drives, the frontier towns, the gold rush, sheriffs, outlaws, soldiers, settlers, ranchers, and cowboys—are familiar to us after over a century of Western movies, sixty years of television shows set in the West, and countless depictions in advertising and other popular media. It is hard for us today to imagine how influential photographs and paintings that represented the American West were in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and how they shaped the imaginations of people worldwide.
Everyone wanted to see the West. As early as the 1830s, crowds in New York, London, and Paris flocked to see George Catlin’s paintings of Native Americans, followed by decades of exhibitions by other artists and photographers. By the 1880s the popularity of Western art in various formats ranging from paintings and sculpture to images in magazines and dime novels created an appetite to experience the West live. William F. Cody recognized this demand, and from 1883 to 1913, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show delivered cavalry battles with Native Americans, stagecoach robberies, shootouts, wild animals, and rodeo events to large audiences in the Eastern United States and in Europe. Even Queen Victoria requested and received a performance at her Golden Jubilee at Windsor Castle in 1887. In 1893, an estimated fifty touring Wild West troupes entertained millions.
More than entertainment, Western art and performance were a powerful means of cultural persuasion. For example, the military scout of the American West became the model for the Scouting Movement. Robert Baden-Powell’s book Scouting for Boys, published in 1908, led quickly to an obsession with scouting in Great Britain and its empire, in Europe, and in North and South America. Baden-Powell’s notion of a Western outfit became the scout uniform with a cowboy hat, neckerchief, and a flannel shirt. Baden-Powell himself wore a Stetson cavalry hat while serving in the Boer War in South Africa, where he became friends with an American soldier of fortune, Frederick Russell Burnham, who had learned the art of tracking in the Apache Wars. Burnham taught Baden-Powell “woodcraft,” which later became the basis of “scoutcraft.”
The military scout embodied the American frontier spirit of independence, strength, self-reliance, and courage that Baden-Powell believed was lacking in the youth of Britain. Baden-Powell played up these associations by giving himself a frontier-sounding nickname, “the wolf who never sleeps,” and claiming that he was a descendent of Captain John Smith, the hero of the Pocahontas tale. At a time when Great Britain and the other European powers were competing to develop colonies, the language and imagery used to describe the American frontier were transferred to the African continent, even though the Boers were hardly indigenous peoples and there were no wolves in Africa. Such was the power of the legends of the West.Image: Scouting for Boys, 1908