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Monday, May 7, 2012

Western Sculpture

Matt, Miss Kitty, Doc, and Chester
Most of us guys, and probably a lot of the feminine gender as well, can recall the thrill, anticipation, and excitement we use to know in watching our favorite western TV shows. It even spilled over into our play time. I can remember all the kids in our neighborhood spending entire evenings in the summer playing cowboys and Indians. There might be twenty kids involved, half cowboys of course, and half Indians. We were armed with toy six-shooters and sometimes a few unloaded BB rifles, and maybe even some bows with suction cup arrows. We didn't ride horses of course, it was all done on foot, and our range was sometimes two or three square blocks. Although in our case, our games was spawned by our favorite TV shows, The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman, Cochise, Gunsmoke (right), and Wagon Train, this fascination with the "old west" was nothing new. TV had picked up many of these shows from radio which had garnered them from the movies which in turn had been inspired by dime novels and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. These last two presumably drew their inspiration from the real thing, albeit from a "white man's" point of view of course.

Bronco Buster, 1909, Frederic Remington
The old West also inspired artists. One of the earliest, Frederic Remington, not only painted the legendary West, but supplied some of the illustrations that no doubt made the dime novels so popular. About 1895, he turned his considerable talents to a new medium, bronze sculpture. By now, so familiar was he with Western riders, their garb, and horses in action, that he was able to instinctively model his figures in wax, in vigorous, authentic action. His first, Bronco Buster (left), was so popular it was cast some 200 times. Remington always portrayed his figures on typical Western bred horses, not Arabian thoroughbreds while his riders were rugged, wiry, leather-skinned frontiersmen, not Greek Adonises. Once the "Indian threat" had passed and Native Americans were defeated, or relegated to out-of-the-way reservations, the popularity of these romantic sculpture groups grew ever greater into the early decades of the 20th century.  Remington continued to create them right up until his death in 1909.

Medicine Man, 1899, Cyrus Dallin
On the other side of the nickel were sculptures by several artists inspired by the "noble savage" element of various Native American tribes and legends. Many of these sculptors, such as Cyrus Dallin, Solon Hannibal Borglum, and Herman Atkins MacNeil, unlike Remington, were trained abroad. Their work, such as Dallin's Medicine Man (right), a life-size equestrian bronze from 1899 (Fairmount Park, Philadelphia), were marvels of stoic naturalism and insight into the Native American psyche. Solon Borglum, older brother of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore, created a Sioux sculpture group depicting the Buffalo Dance ritual as one of four similar pieces for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. (Unfortunately, only this one survives.) There is a restless energy in this work on a par with anything Remington might have done. Hermon MacNeil, on the other hand, was inspired by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, causing him to live and work amongst the Zuni and Moquis tribes for nearly ten years, during which time he completed numerous life-size bronze groupings such as Sun Vow (below), from 1898, in which he blends his classic European aesthetic ideals with  a vigorous naturalism and authenticity in depicting an older man instructing a young, nude adolescent in the ceremonial rite of passage from youth to manhood. Together, these artists captured a view of the West not seen in the movies, nor on TV, and not even imagined by neighborhood kids playing cowboys and Indians in the "wild West" of Southeastern Ohio.
The Sun Vow, 1898, Hermon MacNeil

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