More than a story of cowboys and Indians

Photo: Dickinson Research Center
“Immigrants crossing the plains”, an oil on canvas painting (1867) by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

Young nation’s short history, the United States of America must be a part of their identity to works of fiction. And the western, this genre of film american by essence, has carried with it its own set of misconceptions. It is this that is attempting to establish the exhibition once There was… the western, presented at the Musée des Beaux-arts de Montréal. Through paintings, artifacts, and many extracts of film, the exhibition revisits the western, from its origins, developing in parallel, in each of the rooms, a critical eye on the ideologies that it conveys, in regard to racism, sexism, and violence.


“I was born where there was no fence,” said the chief, lakota, Sitting Bull, in a quote displayed on one wall of the exhibition. “We wanted to show that the West was not a wilderness when the Europeans arrived. There were people who lived there “, says Mary-Dailey Desmarais, and curator of the exhibition and curator of modern art at MMFA.


Impossible, moreover, to obscure the vastness of the territory when one speaks of western North America, arid desert of Arizona, the white summits of the Rocky mountains. It is all the more striking in the paintings that have represented the american West even before the advent of cinema. The exhibition includes this painting by William Jacob Hays, herd of bison in the bed of the Missouri, painted in 1862, where the beasts are like a sea moving in the hollow of the hills. The bison reminds us, has been almost wiped out by the passage of white settlers through hunting, but also because of a “deliberate attempt” to deprive indigenous people of their source of livelihood. In the middle of the Twentieth century, it was almost more of bison in the American west.

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Then, come the beginnings of the american western, with the entire filmography of John Ford, for example, extensively presented in the exhibition, which runs also to the pictorial work. “When westerns have been filmed, the conquest of the West was already over,” recalls the president and executive director of the MMFA, Nathalie Bondil, mentioning the share of the nostalgic representations of reality. Ford has himself admitted to being inspired by the work of Charles M. Russell to create his films. The films of Ford draw both, in their way, in stories of the era. As well, the very famous film The Searchers was based on the novel by Alan Le May, itself freely inspired by the story of Cynthia Ann Parker.


Cynthia Ann Parker is this young Anglo-American kidnapped in 1836 by a band of indigenous comanches, who had massacred the village of his family. Renamed Naduah, meaning “someone who is found” in comanche, she has lived 24 years with the Comanches, married a chief of the tribe whom she had three children. One of them even became chief comanche in turn. At the age of 34 years, she is found by the Rangers of Texas, but refuses now to adjust to the lifestyle of the Whites, escaping even to find his family comanche.


Returning to the theme of the white woman captive of the native, one of the great obsessions of the white settlers, the exhibition proposes a reflection around the work of The captive, of Eanger Irving Couse, painted in 1891, when a white woman lies, tied up, to the side of a native who seems to watch over it. The audioguide we would point out that interracial marriage was banned in the United States until 1967,…

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It arises in the course of the exhibition a look at the great personalities, the founders of the myth of the West : from Billy the Kid to Geronimo, Sitting Bull to Calamity Jane, passing by John Ford and Buffalo Bill. Alongside the paintings, and excerpts of films showing the eternal battles between cowboys and Indians, found in the exhibition of works by indigenous, these poignant drawings of war scenes tracks at the end of the Nineteenth century on the paper of accounting, by artists cheyenne and anonymous, and where this is not always the cowboys who win…


And there are no indigenous peoples who have seen their transformed image on the big screen westerns. The famous Calamity Jane, real name Martha Jane Cannary, who has gained notoriety by campaigning against the Indians in Arizona, had not, in life, the blonde figure of Doris Day, which was embodied in a musical…


As Calamity Jane that Sitting Bull did, however, participated in the spectacle of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, staged by Buffalo Bill, aka William Cody, to whom the exhibition devotes a room. Buffalo Bill was also a hunter of bison prior to conducting this theatre troupe has caused a sensation in Europe, by presenting a vision of the mythical Wild West.


After the Second world War, we speak of the twilight of the cowboy, which occurs in parallel with the movement of the abstract expressionist, led by, among others, Jackson Pollock, a native of Wyoming. Then, Sergio Leone, to whom the exhibition devotes a room, revisits the western parody. “It was an anarchist “, said Nathalie Bondil, who admits to a weakness for the Italian director.

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In the 1960s, the American Indian Movement undertake a re-reading of westerns of yesteryear, as well as of the reality of the native american. The american Indian, a painting by Andy Warhol this Russel Means in black and white, as to remove the dimension “color” of the representation. Movies like Midnight Cowboy, or later Brokeback Mountain, revisit the stereotype male, heterosexual and of the cowboy. The handsome catalogue of the exhibition shows the link between the western and contemporary art as ” the search for lost innocence “. Mute, the art of the mi’kmaq Gail Tremblay, who used to make baskets of traditional form with the film strip and which closes the exhibition, is suggestive.