Say “the west,” and immediately images spring to mind of cowboys riding horses across the plains, snow-capped Rocky Mountains, wagon trains, Native American tribes and gunslingers at noon.
We’ve seen these images a thousand times on television and in movies. But way before the invention of moving pictures or even photography, artists were developing these images as they told the story of the American West, and through the lens of the West, of America itself.
Such is the premise of a new exhibition at the Denver Art Museum — which examines the western genre through art, film and popular culture, from the late 18th century to the present day.
This is the first major exhibition to focus on both Western art and film, and it’s obvious the designers took the difficult task of combining moving images with traditional painting as a challenge to up their game and approach the exhibition space in a new way. The result is an innovative design that feels fresh, modern and is a pleasure to walk through, even if it’s sparse on information.
The Western opens with Frederick Remington’s A Dash for the Timber, contrasted against a montage of similar scenes in movies like The Wild Bunch, which pretty much serves as its thesis statement. From there the exhibit takes a leap back in time to post-Civil War America and the promise of new opportunity and healing that the west represented.
It was in antebellum America that the Western genre developed stock characters, both art and literature, that are still familiar today: the trapper, the cowboy, the pioneer woman and Indians as “noble savages.” Indeed, this first section of The Western seems to present Western art as approaching a kind of religious art, building upon familiar iconography and telling the same story over and over to reinforce nationalistic ideas about expansion and settlement.
There are some stand-out pieces here, particularly the luminous Madonna of the Prairie by WHD Koerner, Albert Bierstadt’s Emigrants Crossing the Plains, The Captive by EI Couse, and George Catlin’s stylish and full-of-personality portrait of Mandan chief Máh-to-tóh-pa. But while the art is top-notch, the film aspect in this section feels thin. There are movie clips playing, but on small screens, and half the time there’s no way to know what movie you’re seeing. Larger film stills would have also gone a long way toward reinforcing the connection between Western art and film.
It isn’t until the John Ford Room, about mid-way through The Western, that the exhibit addresses film with any true depth. During his long career, Ford directed more than 140 films and won four Academy Awards for Best Director. From The Searchers to Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ford made the Western what we know it today.
Taking inspiration from Western artists, particularly Remington, Russell and Charles Schreyvogel–best known for his dramatic paintings of the Indian Wars–Ford used landscape as a secondary character to help tell the story of the west. It’s because of Ford that Monument Valley is synonymous with the western, and why so many today associate Arizona and Utah with “the look” of the West.
From there on, The Western becomes very film-centric, moving into the post-War era and what the exhibition calls “the super western.” In the wake of World War II, westerns were about more than the American West. As exhibit co-curator Thomas B. Smith explains in a brief video (which you MUST watch, because it is the only source of substantive information in the entire exhibit), films like High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and Shane used the genre as a platform to address issues of racial and social inequality, and the consequences of war and violence. They took the stock characters of traditional westerns and added psychological complexity, questioning concepts like manliness, heroism, truth, justice, and the American way.
While paintings by Franz Kline and Roy Lichtenstein included in this part of the exhibit have very little to do with westerns, they do share the zeitgeist of the time and a sense of anxiety fueled by the Atomic Age and Cold War. High Noon’s “Doomsday Clock” scenario is one of the more apparent connections drawn here.
Smith’s informative video is followed by the highlight of The Western, the Sergio Leone room. Leone and the other Spaghetti Western directors of the 1960s reframed the western in terms of a tragicomic epic, theatrical and almost Shakespearean in tone. This gave westerns a stylish and modern twist perfect for the ‘60s.
Leone is the only other director besides Ford featured in the exhibition, and it’s done in a visually stunning way, with the Mexican standoff scene from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly projected in a giant circle so that it’s as if the scene’s playing in 3D. It’s an ingenious way to make visitors feel like they’re standing in the middle of the action and experiencing the movie in a whole new way. The other items in this room also number among the coolest and most interesting of the film-related paraphernalia, including Leone’s passport and the surprisingly poetic script of For a Few Dollars More.
Unfortunately, after the high point of the Leone room, the rest of The Western feels incomplete and not as well-thought-out.
In the 1970s, westerns became grittier and more violent than ever. Movies like Easy Rider were reflections of the Vietnam era, rising concerns over the loss of personal freedom, and the counterculture movement. Midnight Cowboy, listed as one of AFI’s 100 greatest films of all time, told the story of a homosexual relationship; and in Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, the “hero” is a white guy who can’t succeed at anything. The villains are the US Calvary and the good guys are the Indians, a complete reversal of traditional genre stereotypes.
However, you wouldn’t know any of that unless you’d seen said movies, because the exhibit never tells you why their posters are included in this section. Nor would you know how the American Indian Movement affected westerns and representations of Indians in film, as this is only vaguely alluded to with a portrait of Russell Means by Andy Warhol and a photo of Sacheen Littlefeather, who declined the Academy Award for Best Actor on Marlon Brando’s behalf in 1973. Brando let Littlefeather use the Academy Awards as a platform to call for better treatment of American Indians in the film and television industry. As a direct result of Brando’s boycott of the awards and Littlefeather’s speech, Hollywood started hiring American Indians to play Indian roles in movies, as opposed to white people in brown face.
After the 70s, we move into the present day with art by Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha, Gail Tremblay, Daniel Guzmán and a few others. While all these pieces comment on the traditional western genre, film is only barely addressed. Ironically, there are pieces in Mi Tierra, another exhibit currently up at the DAM, that tackle the modern concept of the western in art and film much more pointedly and relevantly than any of the art in this section.
The Western: An Epic in Art and Film is similar to a summer blockbuster movie in that it’s full of stunning visuals, puts on a great show, and isn’t going to make you think too hard. There’s very little of substance in this art exhibit, and it’s about as inclusive as a Hollywood movie as well.
At the entrance to The Western, the introduction states that the genre worked to reinforce some stories while hiding others. Yet very little is done to show visitors what stories were marginalized or why they should care. It’s this lack of heavy-hitting, thought-provoking questions that makes The Western feel more like a carnival ride than a major art exhibit. But it is entertaining.
The Western: An Epic in Art and Film will be on view at the Denver Art Museum until September 10. For more information, visit denverartmuseum.org.