Recently The Blanton’s deputy director for art and programs, Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, and UT anthropology professor and director of UT’s Humanities Institute, Dr. Pauline Strong, discussed their approaches, as a curator and anthropologist, respectively, to two works of art in our current exhibition, Go West! Representations of the American Frontier.
Join us this Thursday, March 8 at 12:30pm in the Go West! exhibition for a gallery talk by Dr. Pauline Strong.
Annette Carlozzi: The CR Smith Collection of Art of the American West is one of the treasures of the Blanton Museum of Art. For this blog posting, we will examine two phenomenally iconic characters in paintings by William Robinson Leigh and William Gilbert Gaul, both featured in the Go West! exhibition. We’ll compare what we see as a curator and anthropologist, respectively, and explore where those conversations overlap and where they differ.
As a curator I share what I see, informed by my knowledge of the history of art, and my specific experience as an art historian specializing in American art. I chose that field because I am fascinated, endlessly fascinated, with aspects of the American character, and with the ways in which artists’ works can reveal those to us. I’m especially interested in cultural values and how works of art may reflect them. So I try to point out details to museum visitors as well as the larger ideas that inform the artists, and I encourage visitors to find a relationship between the work of art and their own lives and experiences. To me that’s the spark of the conversation that we want to see begin here at the museum. I try to do less telling and a little more speculating so I can get people to ask questions, to wonder a little bit more. Now I’m an art historian, and a curator, but I don’t think that’s all that different from how Pauline approaches a work of art, either with students or when she comes to the museum on her own. How would you describe your own approach, Pauline?
Pauline Strong: I ask very similar questions of a work of art, and of students who I’m looking at art with. I’m very concerned with issues such as, “Why do we love these works of art? Why do we return to them? What do they mean to us today?” And in discussing these particular works with students one thing I would ask is, “What time periods are represented here?”
With these two paintings there are at least three: they were both created in the early 20th century when the US was moving towards an industrialized society and there was a lot of concern about what was being lost in the process of industrialization. The Leigh painting represents a nostalgic look back at the frontier period, at the rugged cowboy. It is a very masculine image. We would look at the way it’s gendered. There’s a wildness, a ruggedness to this image. The cowboy is controlling nature. And then we would look at the Gaul painting of the Native American, which is a much more passive image. We have a Native person standing high in, again, a rugged snowy landscape, mournfully looking towards the west, the west standing for the setting of the sun, the ending of a way of life. And so there’s a nostalgic sense of mournfulness of what has been lost in the process of conquest, colonization, and industrialization. Then finally there is the present—2012—and what we bring to these paintings.
Also, what is added when we think about CR Smith as CEO of an airline company and as secretary of commerce? What kind of continuities are there between the frontier depicted here and the exploration of air space? What about commerce, international commerce? We’d look at those issues. We’d look at this Native American and we’d say, “Today we can realize that this is a representation of a Native American from outside.” It’s not by a Native American. It’s representing views about Native Americans as silent, as stoic, as noble, as part of the past. And we can question — knowing that Native Americans have continued into the present –– We can say, “Well, how might Native Americans represent this reality? How might it be different from this particular painting?” And we could look at contemporary Native art, compare it to this work.
AC:The Roping by William Leigh, was made when he was 40 years old. He’d been an illustrator based in New York City for many years. On his trips west, Leigh was taken with the dynamism of how the country was expanding, and the newer narratives that were available to us as Americans at that time. Both paintings have a central figure in common. The figures are extremely detailed. Each artist took pains to describe, exactly in this case, how the chaps looked, what the accoutrements of the horse looked like, the details of costume. They’re very specifically drawn because the artists want to convey a time and a place to us. Same with the Native American woman. She is Sioux. Gaul spent time with the Sioux tribes. Each of these artists spent time in the west, authentically interested in the lifestyle of Native Americans, each of them in their own way affected by what they saw as the passage of a way of life. They were trying to record details of that life, and yet behind each character, each figure, is a more abstracted landscape. Here in the Leigh painting it’s an unexpected landscape. Leigh was not a big fan of European Impressionism, the new artistic movement of his day. He was a little dismissive of it, and yet you find in an image like this that he’s using a kind of Impressionistic brushstroke and the colors—bright, pastel, light-filled colors—that we associate with Impressionism. He does it to convey energy, a kind of movement behind this really dynamic figure. And here Gaul does the same, yet it’s a ghostly landscape, a winter landscape, also poetically signaling the end of the season rather than the beginning. So a sad picture, on the one hand, a really dynamic picture, on the other. I was really taken with your comment about the genders of each work—a stereotypical male figure and stereotypical female character.
PS: Well, and to present Native Americans as stereotypically female is to present a particular kind of narrative about the active conquering the passive. It embodies certain points of view that Native Americans would not necessarily agree with.
AC: It’s a rare picture too because usually that kind of figure, the figure looking mournfully out over the land, is male. I think many of us have seen photographs of the lone Native American man looking out over the landscape. Yet in this case the work is illustrative of Sioux funerary traditions: women who have lost their husbands in battle would go to the highest place around and stand and be silent in the height of that place and feel all the emotions and release them into the space. So this is Gaul’s interpretation of that moment, Leigh’s interpretation of a very different kind of moment, with an anthropologist’s and a curator’s ways of seeing intersecting in the center.
Annette Carlozzi and Pauline Strong with two paintings from Go West!
Courtesy Eric Hegwer
William Robinson Leigh
The Roping, 1914
Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 1/4 in.
Gift of C.R. Smith
William Gilbert Gaul
The Land of the Free, c. 1900
Oil on canvas, 37 1/4 x 31 1/2 in.
Gift of C.R. Smith