John Ford's famous dictum in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" — is often cited as if it were the last word on the mythologizing of the West, and the director's tacit approval of it. But is that really what Ford had in mind? Watch this saddest and most elegiac of Westerns, and it's clear the director mourns the discarded fact — in this case, the identity of the gunman celebrated in the title — more than he honors the legend. If anything, the movie commemorates the truth buried by time: that many of those who tamed the West (like John Wayne's forgotten loner in Liberty Valance) were too rough-edged and human, too inconvenient as heroes, to fit the confines of myth.
But the statement has a truth beyond its ironic use in the movie. There's the West as actual geography, and there's the West as a landscape of the mind. Even when you're looking at the real thing, the myth goggles are hard to slip off — you can't see Monument Valley without hearing the hoofbeats and picturing the iconography of Ford's cavalry movies. The effect was only amplified in the grandiose spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. With no real West as counterpoint, and an imagination stoked by movies and paintings from the other side of the world, the Italian director unmoored the Western from whatever grounding it had in history, location and fact. He didn't make a conscious choice to print the legend. The legend was what he knew.
The movies may seem an odd starting point for a discussion of an art exhibit. But the trajectory from Ford to Leone — from a recognizable realm into a world of abstraction and fantasy — could just as well be a walk through Cheekwood's Visions of the American West, an engaging assemblage of some 200 paintings, sculptures, pieces of clothing and other artifacts on loan from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. The exhibit begins in ragged land and open terrain; it ends in wedding dresses and carriages, fully domesticated. In between, the West morphs from a place into a concept: the American capacity for conquest and self-invention, projected onto the blank canvas beyond the Mississippi. The farther the Old West recedes in the exhibit, the more fixed the Wild West imagery becomes.
In this, the exhibit parallels the life of its benefactor, who started life as William F. Cody, bison hunter, marksman and Army scout, and ended it as "Buffalo Bill," expert packager, promoter and peddler of a West already slipping away. Though his "Wild West" made him arguably the most famous man in the world at the turn of the 20th century, he disdained the word "show" for the spectacle he toured for decades from the U.S. to Europe (with at least one stop in Nashville). It was a facsimile of the West he'd known, featuring attractions such as Annie Oakley, who found audiences eager to see the sharp-shooting skills she'd honed by keeping her family from starving, and American Indians reenacting raids on settlers, only with safely predetermined outcomes. Yet it would be simplistic just to dismiss this as fakery. It was something altogether more haunting, not unlike the robotic rituals of the contemporary Western: a pageant in which the participants now played what they once had lived.
Apart from the romance of wide open skies and land, lots of land, Western mythology is nowhere to be seen in the room that opens the exhibit. The paintings are landscapes, and the majestic vista of Albert Bierstadt's 1861 "Island Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming," irradiated with that buttery Hudson River School light, is an untouched paradise of beckoning water and land receding into the distance. In terms of settlement, it's a blank slate. Yet the composition — framed at right by a craggy cliff face, then horizontally across the bottom by a rim of surrounding rocks and trees — suggests nothing so much as a right-thumb-and-forefinger viewfinder. That tabula isn't going to stay rasa for long. Indeed, an urge to imprint oneself on the landscape is visible in the art almost from the beginning — literally, in the case of the faint I-was-here fingerprint Thomas Moran presses onto his "Zoroaster Peak (Grand Canyon, Arizona)."
In the next room, the American Indians seem to sense that trouble is coming. The runaway lovers fording a river in Alfred Jacob Miller's "Indian Elopement" (1852) are actually looking back at disapproving family members giving chase, their own horse's surging white head creating an illusion of furious speed. But in a mordant sight gag, the painting's placement makes it look as if they're fleeing in terror from the destiny slowly manifesting in the other room — taking flight from what is to come. By the time of his Indian Gallery series (1855-1870), George Catlin was rendering the native Westerners in a frame within a frame, in essence putting the quotation marks of an aperture around their relationship to the land.
You can watch the West of the popular imagination develop like a Polaroid in the works representing its great chronicler, Frederic Remington, as his technique grows looser, more confident and daring. His "Prospecting for Cattle Range" (1889) has all the elements — a dandyish buckaroo in artfully cocked hat and feathered chaps erect on horseback, stagy enough to burst into "Blazing Saddles" at any moment, while his guide slouches in the saddle ahead. But there's a contrivance, a posed-for-posterity stiffness, that's gone by the time he reaches 1901's monochromatic "A Post Office in the Low Country." As cowboys hunker down in the foreground for a dusty confab over some papers, the startling photorealistic clarity makes the figures seem not posed but frozen in mid-motion, from the cock of a hat to a horse's wary tilt. The black-and-white image is urgent, immediate as a newsreel: The underlying impulse seems to be sketch, don't engrave — a shift carried even farther in Remington's late-career Impressionist phase, which shakes off the burden of commemoration.
It took more than one Remington to fix the West into legend; Buffalo Bill wore the other's work at his hip — an E. Remington & Sons Army percussion revolver, part of the room in the exhibit that produces the most conflicted reaction. It's a stockpile of vintage weapons that resembles the inner sanctum of some frontier Tony Montana, topped by a tripod-mounted 1875 Colt .45-10 caliber Gatling gun in the center of the room. It begs you to look down its length and seek a target — an impulse that echoes the artist-to-subject perspective in the other rooms in discomforting ways, raising the possibility it's just another form of hunt and capture.
The firearms range from strictly functional to increasingly ornamental, like the Winchester rifle pimped out for another pivotal Western mythmaker, novelist Zane Grey. What's alarming is how quickly these literal killing machines — which, to be sure, are objects of impeccable artistry and precision crafting — produce a fascination that's both childlike and childish. They become props in an inner game of cowboys and Indians, not occasions for sober reflection on the skins they might have notched. They conjure up the West of late shows and ghost-town attractions and Halloween costumes. If the urge to reinvent oneself is an animating principle of the mythic West — i.e., a chance to play dress-up, like the vacationing tourists in the 1973 sci-fi thriller Westworld — Visions suggests the gun is the essential tool in the cowboy makeover.
By contrast, the American Indian artifacts in a room nearby have almost the opposite effect, wrenching totemic items out of their clip-art overfamiliarity and restoring their beauty and mystery. A headdress in the imagination is a cliché; a 1920s Lakota headdress seen in its awe-inspiring fullness — bristling with eagle quills for every inch of its 8-foot length — is as eerily resplendent as a phoenix. The detail work that went into something as prosaic as a pair of moccasins, decorated with pounded, flattened and dyed porcupine quills, invites us to marvel at the meticulous process that produced it.
As the exhibit winds through Cheekwood's several galleries, it ventures further from real lives and places as the fading Old West vanishes into the Valhalla of popular culture. The feral glow of Joseph Sharp's 1904 seething-warrior study "The War Bonnet" yields to the poster for Annie Get Your Gun; the Plains Indian ceremonial garb gives way to Hoss Cartwright's 10-gallon hat. But the strains converge in the exhibit's strangely poignant terminus, a tribute to Buffalo Bill himself studded with vintage posters, handbills and biographies. Its centerpiece, maudlin and magnificent, is one of Frederic Remington's greatest character portraits: the showman and ringmaster isolated in a full moon of spotlight, at the center of a crowded arena. Behind him, Indians and cavalrymen alike are a shadowy blur, less emblematic of the Wild West than the man taking the bow. It's corny and stirring and shameless.
Yet my attention kept returning to a station nearby — a Studebaker Spider Phaeton carriage once owned by the great man himself. Here, removed from the fog of myth and iconography, is an irreducible three-dimensional object. A man's weight once heaved and jostled its springs. A man's warmth once steamed its polished surfaces. It's a reminder that while the Old West's historic underpinnings have been relegated to the museum — or oblivion — its opportunities for mythic reinvention survive in a kind of Second Life of the imagination. e.e. cummings was wrong: it wasn't Buffalo Bill who was defunct. Late in life, a sign nearby says, Bill Cody felt he had been overwhelmed by his creation. "Today, Buffalo Bill is iconic," the sign reads. "William F. Cody, almost unknown." In that statement you'll find both the legend and the fact, printed side by side.
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