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ART HISTORIAN TAKES NEW LOOK AT OLD WEST
STANFORD - Their paintings of the Old West, with such evocative titles as "Old Stagecoach of the Plains" and "Fight for the Water Hole," symbolize for many Americans a bygone era.
Frederic Remington and Charles Russell are probably the most famous of America's Western artists.
Yet their works are more complex than simple illustrations of the West, says Alexander Nemerov, Stanford University art historian and author of a forthcoming book on Remington. The artists reflect issues of class, race and social Darwinism in their time, he said.
Nemerov became interested in Western artists when, as a doctoral student in art history at Yale University, he did research for a 1991 Smithsonian exhibition called "The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier" at the National Museum of American Art.
The exhibit was controversial - Daniel Boorstin, librarian of Congress emeritus, called it "perverse, historically inaccurate and destructive," and two Republican senators accused the Smithsonian of advancing a leftist political agenda.
The critics objected to the wall labels at the exhibit, with their suggestions that the paintings can be seen as more than a straightforward portrait of Western expansion. But to Nemerov, the contradictions and layers of meaning make the works of Remington and Russell more interesting.
Remington, whom Nemerov calls "the quintessential cowboy painter," was an urbane Easterner who lived in New Rochelle, N.Y. When Remington wanted to paint a buffalo, "he went to the Bronx Zoo," Nemerov said. "If he wanted his Indian model to pose, he called him on the phone and told him to come over."
In Remington's art, Nemerov believes, cowboys and Indians became a powerful metaphor for class and race issues in the industrialized, urban United States at the turn of the century.
"In other words," Nemerov said, "if you had a group of heroic white soldiers desperately trying to close the gates of a fort against an advancing racial enemy - Indians encroaching on top of the stockade - could you not relate that to contemporary images of Uncle Sam cowering before a so-called tide of immigrants?"
Remington, who traced his American roots back to 1637, viewed immigrants from central and southern Europe as, in his words, "anarchistic foreign trash" and "social scum."
"And those were two of his milder epithets," Nemerov said.
But despite his racial views, which were not unusual in their time, Remington certainly did not intend to create allegories or commentaries on immigration in his paintings, Nemerov said.
Nevertheless, "the drama of racial warfare you see over and over in these paintings relates not so much to what actually happened in the West as to a vision of the West formed in a specific political climate, namely, an urban industrial climate, wherein so-called original Americans, or English Americans, felt traumatized by this massive influx of people they would have seen as racial outsiders."
Russell, unlike Remington, spent most of his life in the West. Born in St. Louis, he moved to Montana in 1880 at the age of 16. He was a cowboy for about 12 years before becoming a full-time artist.
Although he had lived with Indians for a time, Russell's paintings continually present images of the inevitable extinction of Native Americans, Nemerov said.
Typical Russell paintings depict Indians standing on a bluff and looking out into the distance, where they see the first train, or the first steamboat, or the tracks of a covered wagon. "It hardly matters what they see, as long as it's an emblem of encroaching civilization," Nemerov said.
Russell's paintings partake of the social Darwinism of their time, Nemerov said, "in which the 'weaker' or 'more primitive' are posited as disappearing in the face of greater or better competition."
On the hills around Great Falls, Mont., Russell's home, lived Indians for whom the Montana reservation system had no room. Unlike some of his neighbors, who wanted to forcibly deport the homeless Indians across the border, Russell worked for a "more humane" means of removal, namely the establishment of another reservation, Nemerov said.
Nonetheless, he argues that Russell's paintings, which show Indians awestruck or confused in the face of technology, helped create the sentiment that the Indians were "primitive" and should therefore be removed in one way or another.
So, although Russell was hardly the bigot that Remington was, Nemerov said, his art "contributed to what it is hard not to regard as a defamation of Indian cultures."
Both Remington and Russell were nostalgic artists, Nemerov said. "Their paintings come to us from people who were profoundly, self- consciously estranged from what they thought of as a better time."
And it was not only Indians who were being pushed aside in the settlement of the West. For Remington and Russell, other Western traditions too were passing.
One of Russell's most famous paintings, "The Hold Up," depicting an actual stagecoach robbery, illustrates this change, Nemerov said.
The passengers, who are lined up, include the schoolmarm, the gambler, the miner with his pickax, the old biddy - all caricatures or stereotypes, Nemerov said. Also among the passengers are a Chinese man, rendered in caricatured fashion, and a man dressed in suit and hat, whom legends associated with the painting identify as Isaac Katz, a Jewish businessman en route from New York to Montana to open a clothing store.
In the painting, Nemerov said, the bandit represents the older way of life in the West, and the passengers represent the coming of the new.
"I think those passengers - particularly the women, the Chinese man and the Jewish businessman - all represented bad things for Russell: the coming of civilization and the replacement of an older way of life with the new," Nemerov said.
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