Monday, October 19, 2015


Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza i
 From 3 November 2015 to7 February2016
Curator: Miguel Ángel Blanco

This autumn the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Madrid) is presenting an exhibition which, for the first time in Spain, sets out to trace the footsteps of the artists who explored the American West in the nineteenth century, taking up the challenge of showing its unknown and exotic scenery and depicting the American Indians’ ways of life that were disappearing before their eyes as a result of an ideological, political, military and colonising effort. These artists very soon helped create an ‘illusion’ of the Wild West, combining Romantic enthusiasm and genuine admiration with the clichés, prejudice and expectations that clouded the white man’s gaze. This image shaped the myth of the savage Indian living on the prairies in communion with nature –a far cry from the vision that was popularised years later by movies, which focused on showing the point of view of the colonisers and the hardship and dangers they had to contend with. 

Through a selection of paintings and photographs by artists such as Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Henry Lewis, Albert Bierstadt, Edward S. Curtis and Carleton E. Watkins, among others, the exhibition explores this fascinating chapter in art history, which is little known in this country. A few of the canvases belong to the permanent collection of the Museum –the only one in Spain that owns works by these painters –and reflect Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s love of stories of the West in literature, films and art. The show begins with an introduction on the Spanish explorers who first came into contact with the tribes back in the sixteenth century and includes a number of ethnographic objects which are distributed throughout the layout, as well as books, comics, film posters and other items that attest to the dissemination of legends of the Wild West in the twentieth century.

Lastly, the exhibition’s curator, the artist Miguel Angel Blanco, who has been interested in American Indian culture for years, presents a selection of book-boxes from his Library of the Forestcrafted from materials collected during his travels across the plains and canyons of the United States. Mapping fantasyThe United States’ colonisation of the Wild West in the nineteenth century was preceded by the Spanish expeditions from Florida and New Mexico between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. These expeditions were initially guided by the wish to find imaginary riches and resulted in a precarious but long-lasting presence in the southwest and, for several decades, throughout the Mississippi basin. Few artistic testimonies of this period remain, but there are maps that allow us to trace the routes, settlements, missions and garrisons, as well as the contact and friction points with the Indian tribes.

 The maps selected for the exhibition are furthermore of great aesthetic interest and some include drawings of figures and tepees.Towards the Wild West: the American SublimeThe trails to the West were blazed by trappers and fur trading companies and later on by scientists and soldiers, who were accompanied on their long journeys by artists from very early on. These artists illustrated their discoveries or, more ambitiously, painted or photographed the landscapes and their original settlers. The railroad facilitated access to a ‘paradisiac’ nature–soon to become a tourist attraction –which, with the great help of artists, came to be protected through the innovative system of national parks. Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are some of the landscapes shown in the exhibition. Depicting this boundless, magnificent nature setting required a conceptual and visual framework that befitted its vastness and lack of human references.

 Painters such as Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill, using a markedly Romantic language, created works that enjoyed great significance in art history; and photographers such asCarleton E. Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson established a model for landscape photography that remains valid to this day and hugely influenced the image Americans had of the West in their time.  

Anonymous.Map of the Mississippi  River, dedicated to the Duke of Jovenazo by Don Armando de Arce, Baron of Lahontan, 1699. Archivo General de Indias, Seville Thomas Hill.View of the Yosemite Valley, 1865. Courtesy of The New York Historical Society, NewYork. Gift of Charles T. Harbeck 

The first artists who set foot in the West in the 1830s were not landscapists but portraitists and –with varying degrees of scientific rigour –ethnographers. George Catlin, with his extraordinary Indian Gallery, and Karl Bodmer, with the precise graphic documentation of anthropologist Maximilian zu Wied-Neiwied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, provide in-depth knowledge of Indian camps, buffalo hunting and the rituals of many tribes, as well as their physical appearance and dress. They gave way to an idealised but melancholic vision of Indian life that is a blend of landscape and figures, fantasy and ethnography.  

By the second half of the century, these themes had become a subgenre of painting with great popular appeal, associated with history or genre painting and found in the output of artists such as Charles M. Russell, Charles Wimar and Frederic Remington, among others.

The figure of the Indian chief fascinated all the painters and photographers who had the chance to observe these leaders. These paintings and photographs show in detail the headdresses, body paint and objects of power they each bear. 

George Catlin. Shón-ka-ki-he-ga, Horse Chief. Grand Pawnee Head Chief, 1832. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr 

For the first time in Spain, visitors can see the famous portraits made by Bodmer and Catlin and the photographs of legendary chiefs taken years later by Adolph Muhr and Edward S. Curtis. 

In these last decades of the nineteenth century the chiefs themselves were even concerned with immortalising their image, such as Sitting Bull, Geronimo and Joseph during their travels around the eastern United States to attend meetings and negotiations, by which time their tribes had been confined to reservations.

Dating from this period is Curtis’s monumental photographic and publishing venture entitled The North American Indian, a controversial yet highly valuable artistic and ethnographic series, much of it no longer extant, from which several images have been selected.