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Description: Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West
When we first conceived of this book and the exhibit that would accompany it, we imagined a title that would reflect backward upon itself as if through a mirror—DISCOVERED LANDS, INVENTED PASTS: INVENTED LANDS, DISCOVERED PASTS. Although we decided in the end that there was no way we could fit so many words on the...
PublisherYale University Art Gallery
PublisherYale University Press
Related print edition pages: pp.vii-x
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When we first conceived of this book and the exhibit that would accompany it, we imagined a title that would reflect backward upon itself as if through a mirror—Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Invented Lands, Discovered Pasts. Although we decided in the end that there was no way we could fit so many words on the spine of a single volume, we hope that these essays retain some of the ambiguity of that original doubled title.
Our goal has been to examine the five-hundred year visual record—most of it created by artists of European descent—that has accompanied the Euroamerican exploration and settlement of North America. Three themes have concerned us above all others. The first is discovery, that now problematic word which nonetheless remains among the most fundamental and recurring features of western American art. Americans should by now understand, of course, that this continent had long been possessed and known by Indian peoples who had made it their home for millennia before Columbus ever made his journey. In this sense, America hardly needed to be “discovered” in 1492. But unless we understand that Europeans in the centuries after Columbus encountered the “New World” as if they genuinely were discovering it, we miss one of the defining historical experiences of their era, which can still rightly be called—in European terms—the Age of Discovery. Many of the paintings and images we explore in this book were efforts by Euroamerican artists to record what they understood to be first impressions of landscapes, peoples, and experiences that were of value for the sheer newness of the world they represented.
In that very perception of newness, however, lies a second recurring theme in this body of art: erasure. The art of discovery all too often engaged in a willful removal of landscapes, peoples, and pasts that did not conform to the ideological vision of the artistic eye. Just so did American Indians sometimes disappear from sublime wilderness paintings to make the land seem “pristine” and “unpeopled”; just so did they sometimes become assimilated to the imperial fiction of a “vanishing race” that for all its nobility must always flee westward before the higher civilization that would succeed it. Not just Indians underwent such erasures and distortions; so did women, blacks, Asians, Latinos, homosexuals, people young and old who for whatever reason did not conform to dominant notions of humanity and community. If the art of discovery expresses an innocent wonder at the amazing revelations America had to offer people who had never seen it, then the art of erasure expresses an uncomfortable awareness that those revelations were often purchased at another people’s expense.
Finally, there is the most complicated theme of all: invention, the ongoing process in which the many peoples of North America—natives and newcomers, Indians and Europeans and Africans and Asians, men and women, all the rest—worked with and against each other to define the word American in all its rich cultural complexity and ambiguity. Our special concern in this volume has been the lands and peoples of North America as they reconstructed each other. Violence and conquest were one part of that reconstruction, but so too were humbler acts of cooperation, accommodation, and home-making. Many of the images we examine here are records of people struggling to redefine their culture, their landscape, their artistic vision, and even their sense of themselves in a self-conscious act of transformation that was an almost inevitable consequence of “discovery.” Indians participated in this mutual process of reinvention no less than Europeans did. As the title of James Merrell’s prize-winning book suggests, the Indians’ New World was as unfamiliar to them as it was to Europeans. All who would eventually call themselves Americans would participate—whether willingly or no—in the drama of discovering and then reinventing a common landscape and nation.
All three of these themes—discovery, erasure, and invention—almost always exist simultaneously, and can point backward and forward at the same time. In their forward-looking version, they express a familiar American optimism about landscapes and peoples transforming themselves according to the dictates of republican progress. In their backward-looking version, they express an equally familiar nostalgia for a frontier world whose discoveries have now been completed, a lost landscape of national regret and personal loss. The shift from optimistic progress to nostalgic regret is probably most familiar in the art of the 1890s and later, but it has actually been present in American art for much of the past five hundred years, so much so that the tension between forward- and backward-looking visions can become a tool for analyzing the entire visual record. American art has almost always contained a not-so-hidden meditation on the relation between the national landscape and the national past, both of which are simultaneously discovered and invented in the act of being recorded. Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: in the ironies and ambiguities of these themes lie the multiple meanings of our national history.
From its inception, this project was a welcome collaboration between the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. The enthusiasm expressed in Tulsa by the late Fred A. Myers, Director of the Gilcrease Institute, and by Joseph and Terry Williams and Senator David and Molly Boren, inspired the idea of uniting our strengths in western American history and art as part of the celebration of the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. The Gilcrease Institute possesses extensive holdings of western American art of extraordinary quality, and Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library likewise houses a remarkable collection of western Americana. Our proposal of an exhibition and publication that would make these collections accessible was heartily endorsed by Benno C. Schmidt, President of Yale University; Mary Gardner Neill, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery; and Ralph W. Franklin, Director of the Beinecke Library.
An interdisciplinary committee gathered to reconsider the nature and meaning of western American art, using as primary resources the rich and diverse collections at the Gilcrease Museum and Yale University. Howard R. Lamar, William Cronon, Martha A. Sandweiss, and Jules David Prown joined Helen Cooper, Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery, and George A. Miles, Curator of the Yale Collection of Western Americana, in developing for both the exhibition and the book an interpretive framework that brings together perspectives from history, art history, and American studies. Nancy K. Anderson, Brian W. Dippie, and Susan Prendergast Schoelwer were invited to expand the project with essays focusing on the historiography of western American art and representations of Native Americans and women. Whereas the exhibition featured paintings and watercolors from the Gilcrease and Yale collections exclusively, as essayists we drew on a wide range of images for our respective discussions.
Both this book and the exhibition draw on the efforts of many colleagues, and we acknowledge with thanks their contributions. Helen A. Cooper directed and Susan Prendergast Schoelwer coordinated the organization of both projects. At Yale University Press production of the book was overseen by Charles Grench, Executive Editor; Judy Metro, Senior Editor; Laura Jones Dooley, Assistant Managing Editor; and Ken Botnick, Designer. Special assistance in assembling photographic materials was provided by William Cuffe and Michael Agee, Yale University Art Gallery; Rick Hart, Beinecke Library; Marilyn Hunt and Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art; Sandra Hilderbrand and Shane Culpepper, Gilcrease Museum; William H. Truettner, National Museum of American Art; and Arlene Shy, William Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
For the exhibition, at Yale: Robin Jaffee Frank and Paula Freedman, Assistant Curators of American Paintings and Sculpture; American Arts graduate fellows Beth Handler, David Philips, and Alison Tilghman; Beverly Rogers, American Arts Administrative Assistant; Richard S. Field, Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, and his staff, Lisa Hodermarsky and Lyle Williams; Janet Saleh Dickson, Curator of Education; Susan Frankenbach and Diane Hart in the Registrar’s Office; Kristin F. Hoermann and Mark Aronson of the Paintings Conservation Department; and Marie Weltzien, Public Relations. Theresa Fairbanks, Chief Conservator of the Yale Center for British Art, treated works of art on paper from the Western Americana Collection, in consultation with Ghisle Noack, Conservator at the Beinecke Library. The exhibition installation was designed by John Zelenik of Silver Springs, Maryland; Greer Allen of New Haven designed the exhibition poster and brochure.
Regrettably, Fred Myers died before the project he helped initiate could be completed. His colleagues at the Gilcrease Institute continued his commitment, playing a central role in the achievement of Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts. We would like to express heartfelt gratitude to them, especially Gary Moore, Acting Director; Curators Joan Carpenter Troccoli, Anne R. Morand, and Sarah Erwin; Kristi Moore, Registrar; Paula Eliot, Public Relations; and Angela Swift, Managing Director, the Thomas Gilcrease Museum Association.
We are also honored to share the exhibition with the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming. Peter Hassrick, Director, was determined that this show, which brings together two of the great collections of western American art, be seen in Cody, thus assuring an even broader and more diverse audience. We would like to thank Peter Hassrick and the staff at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, particularly Sarah Boehme, the John S. Bugas Curator, Whitney Gallery of Western Art; Joanne Kudla and Elizabeth Holmes, Registration Department; and Dick Wentz, Public Relations.
Finally, we would like to acknowledge our indebtedness to Yale University Press, which shouldered all responsibility for the publication, and to all who funded the exhibition. Support was provided by the David Schwartz Foundation of New York, the Williams Companies Foundation of Tulsa, and an anonymous donor. Their interest, commitment, and generosity made it possible for us to realize this collaborative project and for three fine American museums, including one university museum, to share their intellectual and artistic resources.