“Once upon a time… The Western. A New Frontier in Art and Film”

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Show Entertains and Enlightens

by Donato Totaro Volume 22, Issue 1 / January 2018 15 minutes (3562 words)

For fans of the most American of genres, the Western, I urge you to get on over to the Museum of Fine Arts exhibit on the Western, “Il Était une fois….le western: une mythologie entre art et cinema” before it ends on February 4, 2018. The exhibit is a joint effort between the Denver Art Museum and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is a sprawling overview of the social, political, cultural and aesthetic impact of the western on the psyche and imagination of a Nation. If you go to the exhibit expecting a complete revisionist account of the knottier issues tangled up with the western, issues of race, genocide, Manifest Destiny, Nationhood, you might be disappointed. Which is not to say that the curators are oblivious to the more sensitive issues that make up the genre; in fact issues of colonial conquest and the terrible treatment of Native Americans is cited and acknowledged throughout the exhibit. The exhibit goes out of its way not to hurt the victims of Western expansion by being sensitive to language and representation. For example, in one text description accompanying a painting where an historical quote uses the term “Indian” it is followed by a parenthetical clause that alerts the reader that “Indian” is: “the word used to call Indigenous people in the day”. Which made me realize that perhaps we have become so sensitized to issues of representation that a very young patron of the exhibit may have never encountered that word, as hard as that might be to fathom from an older person’s perspective. The exhibit does not shy from depicting the horrors of governmental policies tied to westward expansion: the elimination of whole sustainable Indigenous tribes, demonization of Indigenous peoples and the shift of complex and suspicious Nation building into mythmaking. However, we should keep in mind that as the exhibit is being showcased in a museum of fine arts, the emphasis is placed on the impressive and varied body of art produced by American artists in film, television, painting, sculpture, literature and video.

But while the injustices done to the Native American peoples is represented, the exhibition downplays, following American Western cinema, the substantial lands lost by Mexico to the United States after the Mexican-American Wars (1846-48) during this same era of the western, culminating in the Mexico Cession of 1848, where Mexico lost much of its land along the now Mexico-US border. Some of this omission is salvaged, indirectly at least, by the represented and decidedly more political Spaghetti Western, which in comparison to the American Western, has been more forthright in depicting the Mexican Revolution and the Mexican-American Wars. And contemporary Mexican artist Daniel Guzmán acknowledges this somewhat by alluding to the Spaghetti Western masterpiece The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with his artpiece,  “El Bueno, el Malo y el Feo” (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Mexico, 2005).  Guzman pokes fun at the stereotypical depiction of Mexicans as brutes or drunks in American Westerns, but turns the tables by depicting the “savage Indians” as the “good” and the white sailor as the “bad”.

The Last of His Race (The Vanishing American), by Frederic Remington, 1908

The curators must have considered the possibility of a room showcasing Native American Western art, but decided against it, instead including Native American self-representations within the whole of the exhibit. So that the works of Wendy Red Star, Brian Jungens, Kent Monkman, Alan Michelson, Fritz Scholder, Adrian Stimson (aka Little Brown Boy Heavy Shield), Gail Tremblay and several unidentified Native American painters are interspersed according to theme or medium. In the catalogue the re-appropriation and artistic turn-a-round of Western imagery by Native American artists is covered from a personal perspective by Plains Cree and Blackfoot curator, artist, and author Gerald Raymond McMaster in the chapter “From Lone Ranger to Cigar-Store Prince” (p. 232-243). McMaster reveals how liberating it was to encounter Indigenous artists like Fritz Scholder challenging the “cowboy/Indian binary” (p. 240) at a time when the power of the Western was such that even he, as an indigenous person, would root for the “good guy” cowboy!

“Matinee Cowboy and Indian” by Fritz Scholder, 1978

Queer Cree Canadian artist Kent Monkman re-appropriates Western colonial imagery in with homoerotic imagery in “The Trapper of Men” (2006)

Though the exhibit charts some standard terrain, like the hallowed spaces given to John Ford and Sergio Leone —and hard to argue with that— there will also be some lessons and surprises for the experienced or learned Western fan. It was exhilarating to see the range of art that was created around the Western imagination, much of it more heavily steeped in realism than the films. More well-known artists like Frederic Remington and George Catlin are well represented, especially Catlin’s many respectful portraits of Native figures, but also lesser known figures, like a striking landscape painting “Emigrants Crossing the Plains” by Albert Biersadt (1867), where the oncoming promised land is depicted with glowing sunlight, while the Native Americans are symbolically framed well into the fading background.

The buffalo holds an important space in the exhibit, featured in a stunning painting entitled “A herd of Buffalo on the Bed of the River Missouri” by William Jacob Hays (1862), which depicts the once plentiful number of buffalo on the plains, with the sole ominous skull in the foreground a forewarning of the near extinction of the regal animal (see link below to view an NFB documentary on the saga of the great buffalo).

“A herd of Buffalo on the Bed of the River Missouri”

“Beyond Redemption”, 2010

Another room is dedicated entirely to a life-sized hyper real looking buffalo sculpture, surrounded by buffalo hides. The sculpture transmits the staggering beauty and majesty of the glorious animal that lived in perfect harmony with Native Americans before the arrival of the white man. The work is part of a larger art series by Native American artist Adrian Stimson called “Beyond Redemption” (2010) which takes as its theme the huge environmental and ecological impact of the near extinction of the buffalo. Along with paintings and photographs the exhibit also features some interesting old and contemporary artifacts (clothes, teepees, weapons) and symbolic sculptures and modern video installations. Singing cowboys are represented through film clips and accompanying paintings, like “Cowboy Singing” by Thomas Eakins (1892), and women are represented with such real life figures as Calamity Jane and fictional tough women like Joan Crawford from Johnny Guitar and the positive “non-white” characters played by Mexican born actress Katy Jurado in High Noon, where she plays a strong female character who ventures into male territory as a property-business owner, and the multi-ethnic Senora Devereaux in Broken Lance (1954, Delmer Daves). And I can tell by looking at the reaction of other attendees that I was not alone at being duped into thinking I was standing next to a patron by the highly realistic sculpture by Duane Hanson entitled “Cowboy (Blue Plaid Shirt)”, circa 1984-1995.

“Cowboy (Blue Plaid Shirt)”

Alias Will James

The exhibit gives considerable space to the home of one of its hosts, with a space dedicated to the famous Quebec cowboy Will James, born in Quebec in 1892 as Ernest Dufault and the subject of a film by Jacques Godbout, Alias Will James. Reality meets art in some of William Notman’s stunning portrait photographs, many of which were taken at his Montreal-based portrait studio in the late 1800s. And a small roundish closed off space in one of the final rooms is dedicated to a montage of clips taken from about ten Native American themed Quebec films.

One of the things I find fascinating about the Western genre is that it represents a living history in its ability to offer space for reconciliation and a way to address the sins of the past. Even someone like John Ford consciously modulated his representation of Native Americans in a response to changing awareness and public perception of the conquest of the West. So that in Stagecoach (1939) the Natives are a marauding group of horseback riding savages out to ambush the stagecoach; then in The Searchers (1956), while there is much to find problematic in the treatment of the Native woman as comic relief, Ford acknowledges that the Natives are not savages but a people with a language, culture, and spiritual belief. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards stands with his nemesis Comanche chief Scar as an equal. They may both hate each other but there is respect for their respective obsessions. And then in his final western Cheyenne Autumn (1964) Ford paints a sympathetic portrait of the Cheyenne Indians dispossessed from their land in Wyoming struggling to adjust to Federal regulation and harsh Federal agents.

Cheyenne Autumn

The exhibit gives over two large rooms to the period of more progressive American Westerns, beginning from the 1950s (Devil’s Doorway, Anthony Mann, 1950, Broken Arrow, Delmer Daves, 1950, Apache, Robert Aldrich, 1954) to the 1960s and 1970 Vietnam era westerns (The Wild Bunch, 1969, Sam Peckinpah, Soldier Blue, Ralph Nelson, 1970, Little Big Man Arthur Penn, 1970), including blaxploitation and feminist revisions of the Old West. The coverage of the counter-culture influenced Western climaxes with a corner of a room set aside for the original Harley Davidson (rebuilt after it was damaged) from Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), noting of course the ironic use of the American flag adorned gas tank and director Dennis Hopper’s decidedly western tinged clothes. This ‘borrowing’ of Native American cultural signifiers by the young counter-culture hippies of the 1960s is covered in the catalogue by Michael Parke-Taylor’s article “Tribal Stomp”; while noted Comanche author and an associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian Paul Chaat Smith writes about the return to prominence of both the Western and the Native American in his chapter “The Comeback.”

Easy Rider’s “Captain America” Harley Davidson: Indians Become Cool

As someone who considers himself a bit of a Western junkie I still gleaned quite a bit about the genre through the exhibit. And seeing the broad ranging art was stimulating and brought together Western film into a larger continuum of influence and cultural value. For example, I learned through the details of a painting that the plot of The Searchers is based on a true story. Early on in The Searchers Ethan Edwards’ brother and family is slaughtered in a Comanche raid and his niece Debbie Edwards (played by Natalie Wood as a 15 year-old) is abducted and raised by the Comanche. This same act depicted in the film occurred in 1836 to a ten-year old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker, who married a Comanche chief and lived for 24 years as a Native, raising three children. The Texas Rangers reclaimed her to her white family as a 34 year-old woman, but she tried several times in vain to return to her Native family and died a heartbroken woman in 1871. These details were given as context for a striking artistic representation of the white man’s fear of miscegenation and Native rape of the white woman, in a painting entitled “Captive” by Eanger Irving Couse from 1891. The painting depicts a white woman lying unconscious outside a teepee, her bloodied hands evidence of a struggle she must have endured in her capture. A Native man sits rather solemn a few feet from her. Behind them the teepee’s entry is suggestively left open.

“The Captive” by Eanger Irving Couse (1891)

The painting, coupled with the story of Ann Parker, spoke directly to the themes that underscore John Ford’s masterpiece, The Searchers: Ethan Edward’s near psychotic reaction to the knowledge that his niece has been raped (or had sex with) a Native man. Although Ford borrowed directly from the past, and the Parker events, his film resonated equally with what was happening in American at the time. 1954 also saw the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the Brown vs. the Board of Education hearing deciding that segregation in the school system was unconstitutional. The decision was instrumental in the eventual integration of schools in the South, even though many Southern Congressmen were vehemently opposed to the integration of schools. The Searchers deals with the notion of American identity in the context of White-Native, with the Jeffrey Hunter character Pawley chided by Ethan Edwards for being a “half-breed”; and Pawley himself aghast when he finds out he has been married to a Native woman (which leads to some distasteful comic relief at the expense of the Native woman, who is kicked out of a sleeping bag by Pawley and sent tumbling down a hill). So even though The Searchers is directly about the Native-White identity issue, American viewers must have identified it directly or indirectly with the more current Black-White issues playing out in the courts and public discourse.

The power of the Western to, as I say, raise profound issues of Nationhood and identity, and lay open the possibility of reconciliation, is why The Searchers (and westerns ongoing even today) has had such a profound impact on American film critics and filmmakers. The film has imprinted itself on directors like Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, John Milius, and George Lucas. There is no doubt that Scorsese dealing with his own identity issues as a second-generation Italian-American related to the portrayal of Ethan Edwards and his obsessive hatred of Native Americans and his fear of American identity tainted by contact with non-Whites. In interviews Scorsese has said that when he first saw the film he read Edwards as a negative embodiment of the worse aspects of racism, even while acknowledging that Edwards —as portrayed by John Wayne— was a charismatic anti-hero. The power of The Searchers stretched into the avant-garde as well, most notoriously with Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, whose installation screening at the 1995 Biennale de Lyon entitled “Five Year Drive-By” projected the film slowed down to five years, the same duration Ethan spends to track down his abducted niece Debbie. In the catalogue we learn from Gordon that endless viewings of the film on TV as a child led to his obsession with it.

“Going West” Jackson Pollock (1935)

Many side by side installations of paintings and film stills demonstrate with no doubt the influence Western art had on filmmakers, notably John Ford who modelled his compositions on paintings by Remington, Charles Marion Russell, and Charles Schreyvogel. The exhibit brings this influence to life with stills from She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Stagecoach and The Searchers placed next to their painting models.

“The American Indian (Russell Means)” by Andy Warhol, 1976

A surprising parallel is made in the exhibit between the Western and the avant-garde, with Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol singled out for their sometime rapport with the popular genre. While the link between Warhol and the western is more obvious or direct, with his 1968 gay-themed Lonesome Cowboys (long before Brokeback Mountain) and gun firing Elvis Presley painting (“Triple Elvis”, 1963), the tie to Pollock is nimbler. The wonderful 300+ page catalogue Once Upon a Time The Western, which comes with ample text and bountiful color inserts, expands on the links between Pollock’s brand of abstract expressionism and the Western. Co-editor of the volume Mary-Dailey Desmarais makes a fascinating link between Pollock’s action painting as a move to a psychological form of art that still makes use of the concept of landscape, and the tumultuous and psychologically troubled westerners (Western anti-heroes) found in the films of Anthony Mann (exemplified by Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper), and other noir/post-war troubled western anti-heroes, like the noted Ethan Edwards. “We might…think of Pollock’s action on canvas as akin to the action on screen of the lone cowboy who turns his back on the community, preferring the uncultivated ground of the American West” (p. 138). “More than merely a space for action, however, the frontier in Western film and on Pollock’s canvas was the site of the hero’s confrontation with his inner self” (Once Upon a Time: The Western, p. 138). Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein is also represented with his painting ”Cowboy on Bronco” (1953). One of the more striking contemporary pieces in the show is from Canadian mixed heritage (Swiss, Dane-Zaa) artist Brian Jungens and his sculpture “The Prince” (2006) which features a life-size Native made from (mainly) the reformed leather of baseball gloves. Once over the shock of seeing a human made from baseball gloves, and named after Machiavelli’s famous book, you begin to think about the process and wonder, why baseball gloves? Perhaps the gesture is to satirize the National Pastime and North American sport teams that still cling to harmful names (The Atlanta Braves, The Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, Chicago Black Hawks, etc.). Or perhaps it is a veiled allusion to the “Cowhide” often used to make baseball gloves?

“The Prince” by Adrian Stimson

In the final chapter of the catalogue entitled “The New Golden Age of the Western” writer Andrew Patrick Nelson speculates about the future of the Western genre and offers the sobering verdict that the Western “isn’t coming back” (p. 274). Meaning that it will never return to its glory days, when there were more Westerns being made than any other genre. But whereas in today’s landscape the numbers are Westerns being made in relation to other genres is down, the reputation and scope of the Western is greater than ever. The mythology of the Western is so deeply ingrained in the psyche of the American people that its influence has spread wider than the classic Western. “Identifying traces of the genre in contemporary popular culture is one way of asserting that the Western still matters” (Nelson, 277). Nelson cites the wide spreading work of Joss Whedon, who makes hugely popular films and TV shows that marry comedy, science-fiction, horror, musical, fantasy and action, but underneath it all is the Western as THE grand narrative. I always figured Whedon for a fan of the Western but Nelson’s chapter explains one major reason why. As a student at Wesleyan University in the 1980s, Whedon took classes with Richard Slotkin, one of the pre-eminent American scholars of the Western. Author of such key books as Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier 1600-1860 (1973) and Gunfighter Nation: the myth of the frontier in twentieth-century America (1992), Slotkin acknowledges his impact on Whedon: “I think he picked up on and shared my engagement with the Western as an American master-narrative” (277). And Whedon concurs, “[Slotkin] has decoded and defined the American mythos more completely and clearly than any living soul. His Western film class set roots in all my works. I try to make science fiction, but always end up making a Western” (277).

Exhibition Catalogue

Nelson argues that we are currently in a Golden Age for the Western not only because of how high its stock has risen, or because we can watch practically any Western we want at the click of a button, but because of how broadly it has seeped into all forms of popular culture, from books, to comics, to animation, to television and to feature film. Western themes about Nation building, National identity, race and assimilation, Civilization and Wilderness, quest narratives, Individualism, and Redemption through Violence continually crop up in contemporary Westerns and neo-Westerns, films set in the present (or future) that play these familiar themes out in a modern environment. Like Dear Wendy (Thomas Vinterberg, 2005), The Dark Valley (Andreas Prochaska, 2014, Austria/Germany), Sukiyaka Western Django (Takashi Miike, 2008), The Rover (David Michod, 2014), No Man’s Land (Ning Hao, China, 2014), No Country For Old Men (Coen Bros, 2007), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008), The New World (T. Malick, 2005), The Three Burials of Melquides Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005), Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005); or that are played out in a pre-modern or Western setting, such as Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik), There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007), and The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015). And the Western genre in a semblance closer to its classical brethren continues to draw both established auteurs, such as James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, 2007, Logan, 2017), Kevin Costner (Open Range, 2003), Gore Verbinski (The Lone Ranger, 2013), Coen Brothers (True Grit, 2010), Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained, 2012, The Hateful Eight, 2015), Tommy Lee Jones (Appalossa, 2008, The Homesman, 2014), Kristian Levring (Salvation, 2014, Denmark), Antoine Fuqua (Magnificent Seven, 2016) and younger directors, such as Logan Miller (Sweetwater, 2011), John Hillcoat (The Proposition, 2005), Gavin O’Connor (Jane Got a Gun 2016), Michael Fassbender (Slow West, 2015), JT Mollner (Outlaws and Angels, 2015, starring Clint’s daughter Francesca Eastwood), Mateo Gil (Blackthorn, 2011, Bolivia/Spain), Thomas Makowski (The Virginian, 2014), and Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, 2010). And as I write this a Western entitled Hostiles directed by Scott Cooper and starring Christian Bale is being talked about as an Academy Award contender.

Call it the Whedon affect, but the Western is now the preferred genre with which to morph with another. As we can see with Westerns that borrow heavily from the horror genre (Brimstone Martin Koolhoven, 2016, The Burrowers, J.T. Petty, 2008, Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler, 2015), comedy (The Good the Bad the Weird, Kim Jee-won, 2008, South Korea, Shanghai Noon, Tom Dey, 2000; Wild, Wild West, Barry Sonnenfeld, 1999); science-fiction (Cowboys and Aliens, Jon Favreau, 2011, Westworld, TV series, 2016-); and super hero/comic book (Jonah Hex, Jimmy Hayward, 2010, Renegade, 2004, Jan Kounen, France, Logan, 2017). Nelson gives an example of just how wide spread the Western has become by citing a children’s animated Western series that aired on Disney Junior channel that he watched with his three-year old son, entitled Sheriff Callie’s Wild West (2014) which is “about a female cat who maintains law and order in the frontier town of Nice and Friendly Corners”. To quote Nelson, with all this happening around him, “If that isn’t a Western golden age, I don’t know what is” (278).

Western for children

Works Cited

Once Upon a Time…..The Western. ed. Editors Thomas Brent Smith, and Mary-Dailey Desmarais, 2017.

Watch the documentary The Great Buffalo Saga on the NFB.

“Once upon a time… The Western. A New Frontier in Art and Film”

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 22, Issue 1 / January 2018 Festival Reports   indigenous art   museum of fine arts   the western