Exhibit of the week
The Western: An Epic in Art and Film
Denver Art Museum, through Sept. 10
The Western may forever be with us, said Susan Delson in The Wall Street Journal. “Once a tale in which good reliably triumphed over evil,” the story of white settlers conquering America’s frontier continually adapts to the changing needs of its audiences. At the very entrance to the Denver Art Museum’s major exhibition on the theme, visitors encounter a magnificent 19th-century painting juxtaposed with a reel of action-packed movie clips—all showing how closely the film directors copied the headlong rush of gunmen on horseback that at least some had probably seen in Frederic Remington’s 1889 A Dash for the Timber. At times, and particularly once a Sam Peckinpah clip fills the screen, “it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad—if there are any.”
Adopting the language of movies, the show begins by drawing attention to “the set,” said Christine Schwartz Hartley in Sotheby’sMagazine. Albert Bierstadt’s Emigrants Crossing the Plains, from 1867, presents a grand panorama of a wagon train heading toward sunlight along the Oregon Trail. The image “powerfully conveys” how much hope was being invested in the West by a nation exhausted by civil war. “But the Western has also long reached beyond the U.S.,” which becomes clear when the exhibition turns to the prototypical cowboys and Indians who inhabited that set and who found a ready audience in Europe with Buffalo Bill’s touring Wild West shows. The Western, in fact, starts to look like “the major artistic export from America,” said Sonya Ellingboe in the Centennial, Colo., Citizen. It couldn’t fail to become a genre that would be reinterpreted over and over, whether in the spaghetti Westerns of Italian director Sergio Leone or the tongue-in-cheek contemporary art of Toronto’s Kent Monkman.
Leone’s movies look here like they deserve their place in a museum, yet the exhibition is less kind to other artists, said Ray Mark Rinaldi in The Denver Post. In nearly every early painting, “the scenery is too perfect” and the European characters are too heroic. Beautiful as some of the images are, viewers have to wonder: Was any early art about the American West ever art—or was it all propaganda created to sell certain political ideas? The show “accepts that baloney is at the heart of the Western genre,” and that takes admirable courage. You don’t have to agree to conclude that “The Western” is a landmark show, and that it solidifies the museum’s claim to being America’s preeminent Western art institution.