SALT LAKE CITY — The vastness of the American landscape is often the subject of lore and intrigue. For thousands of years, Native Americans roamed lands later conquered and divided by European adventurers. Later, a group of exceptional intellectuals known as the Founding Fathers forged the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, forever changing the world’s political trajectory.
From 1830 to 1930, the vast terrain known as the Western frontier was ripe for settlement and exploration. Home to lush mountains and sprawling deserts, the West evoked both fear and excitement from those ambitious enough to make it their home. Among the boldest of the West’s many pioneers were the Mormons, who transformed a seemingly uninhabitable desert valley into a religious utopia.
Now, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts digs deeper into the West’s iconic ethos.
Their new exhibition “Go West!” exposes the “myths about westward expansion perpetuated by Euro-American artists in oil paint, ink and bronze,” according to Leslie Anderson, UMFA’s curator of European, American and regional art.
With more than 80 artworks from European, American and Plains Indian artists, the exhibition is a multifaceted examination of the many voices of the American frontier during this pivotal period. Drawing from an unparalleled collection from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, the UMFA is the fourth venue to host this critically acclaimed exhibition.
"We've wanted to bring these beautiful and important artworks to Salt Lake City for some time, and it's a thrill to finally be doing so," says UMFA's executive director Gretchen Dietrich.
Among the exhibit’s many oil paintings are the breathtaking works of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, two pre-eminent landscape painters whose talent disarmed the European artistic monopoly and forced the world to consider American artists for the first time. Their paintings of lush mountainous valleys set in motion an iconic notion of the West as ripe for human consumption and inhabitance. The sublime beauty of these breathtaking landscapes was also imbued with a bit of danger however, as settlers contemplated both the grandiosity of nature and the Native peoples whom they encountered along the way.
While many artists of this era reveled in the overwhelming beauty of the West, others used their talent to tell uniquely — and often mythic — Western narratives. Frederic Remington’s “Buffalo Bill in the Limelight,” depicts one of the West’s most famous figures gallantly riding atop his horse at the front of a throng of Native American soldiers. Undeniably, Buffalo Bill is the painting’s pre-eminent figure, heroic in a pool of light as he mimics the posture of a Roman equestrian statue from ancient lore.
This romantic idealism drips from many of the works in the show. German born William Henry Dethlef Koerner’s “Madonna of the Prairie,” for example, forges a link between European Christian imagery and the American prairie life. A beautiful and well-dressed young woman dominates the painting’s composition. She sits, with a sense of melancholy and longing, enshrouded by the circular halo of a covered wagon.
While many artists of this era sought to justify and celebrate their right to this sacred land, others remained acutely aware of the impact westward expansion was heaping on its native inhabitants.
John Mix Stanley’s oil painting “Last of Their Race” is a sobering depiction of a Native American family pushed to the edge of civilization. The group, huddled together beneath a gorgeous pink and purple sky, stand on a rocky shore overlooking the mountainous region. Rendered with great detail, Stanley depicts his subjects with a sense of reverence and sorrow, exceptional in a time known for grand propagandist idealizations.
Far from being at odds with the other works, the exhibition’s many Native American artifacts are exceptional. Items including hand-beaded jackets and a bear-claw necklace show the richness of the people for whom the West was their ancestral homeland. The exhibition “explores how American Indians preserved their way of life through artistic traditions during a period of forced relocation,” Anderson said.
By crafting a dynamic conversation between the region’s numerous inhabitants, the show exposes the pivotal yet tragic replacement of one dominant culture to another. This unflinching look at colonial inhabitation is perhaps the exhibition’s shining achievement.
If you go …
What: Utah Museum of Fine Arts' “Go West! Art of the American Frontier From the Buffalo Bill Center of the West”
Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive
When: The show runs through March 18, 2018. Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Monday.