Ernest L. Blumenschein,The Chief Goes Through, 1956
Oil on canvas, 40w 30h, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas
Late in life Ernest Blumenschein (1874-1960) stood on an overpass to watch the new Super Chief glide through Albuquerque on its way to Los Angeles. In the low evening sun he could see factories and power lines spread toward the horizon. Some of the old coaches in the yard, now used for storage, could have been ones that brought him west to New Mexico decades ago. By 1956, the frontier he knew was gone and his vision played-out. He realized other visions would prevail now as surely as this sleek modern streamliner cut through the yard.
Before it vanished
Blumenschein was 82 when he completed The Chief Goes Through, his last major painting. It was almost sixty years since he first arrived in Taos. New Mexico then was remote and exotic, the inhabitants an odd mix of native American, Hispanic and Anglo-Americans with merging and conflicting cultures. Early artists like Blumenschein who explored the West were captivated by the region's character, colors, light and Native peoples-- people as if from another age.
Taos artists arrived for the summer, and settled into crude adobe houses without electricity or running water. They worked with a sense of romance and urgency, recording what they found before it vanished. The 1890 Census made clear the frontier was passing. The vast North American continent had been settled from coast to coast, and even remote places like Taos could not withstand progress.
Blumenschein and fellow artist Bert Phillips were soon joined by four other painters: Joseph Henry Sharp, Eanger Irving Couse, Oscar Berninghaus and William Herbert Dutton. In 1915, the six founded the Taos Society of Artists. They had much in common. Each realized early that art would be his vocation, and each sought the best training possible. They studied at highly acclaimed art schools in the U.S. and Europe where the students were hardworking and competitive.
The six men initially supported themselves as commercial illustrators or portrait painters in the East and Midwest. For them, Taos was a summer interlude to paint fresh subjects and create a new body of work. Their careers in commercial illustration made it possible.
Illustration was at this time an emerging field made possible by new gravure printing technology. Editors and advertisers were eager to exploit it, employing artists to create dramatic illustrations that could now be reproduced in color. The best illustrations were ones that revealed their subject, supported a storyline, and evoked its emotional intensity. Illustrators interpreted the material to identify key moments, and made illustrations to excite the reader. Critical to their success as illustrators was an ability to connect with the audience and facilitate insights into the work.
Taos painters saw themselves as progressive modern artists, unlike the salon painters of hackneyed subjects or self-absorbed mannerists. They were quick to experiment with new ideas and techniques, but could not imagine developing paintings so abstract their meanings would be lost on viewers.
The Taos group portrayed Native American Indians as dignified and resourceful people, and an integral part of the land. This was a romantic take on their lives, but not necessarily heroic. Most Native subjects were depicted in simple daily activities and rituals. The painters knew they were chasing a past that could soon vanish, and took care to record ethnographic detail. Atmosphere in their paintings was timeless and calm, often set late in the day with a low sun and sense of coming closure. There were few references to modern times.
Heroic visions of conquest in the Wild West captured the imaginations of art patrons in the East. Dealers sought action paintings like Frederic Remington's--savages chasing cowboys, but the Taos painters did not oblige them. They saw the consequences of a twenty-five-year war on the Plains Indians. It was nothing to celebrate.
In fact, it seemed the more the Taos group engaged their Native subjects the more empathetic their paintings became. In New Mexico at this time disparate cultures no longer functioned in isolation. They had merged and become interdependent. Many of the painters' Native models also helped them maintain their households. They worked together and, while there may have been tensions, trust developed.
One of Blumenschein's favorite paintings from this period was The Peacemaker (1913). It was a monumental canvas with four figures shown on the edge of a mesa. It was an amazing composition of color and light, bravura brushwork and drapery. Critics praised the work for its "decorative" qualities, meaning a mastery of the artist's craft.
The dominant Peacemaker figure projects a sense of calm, his body linking two stubborn chiefs in war bonnets across a chasm. A child with bow (an uncertain future!) looks out to the viewer for support. Symbols may be easy to recognize, but not necessarily Blumenschein's motives. Was it still possible in the twentieth century to reconcile competing factions in the American West?
Taos painters influenced and critiqued one another's work, borrowing ideas and technical innovations. They exhibited together on a national circuit, and competed for salon prizes. Each artist kept abreast of new developments and their colleagues in Chicago and New York through art organizations and annual exhibitions. Most of the exhibitions were invitational with the artists and works selected by peer review. Artists were honored to be acknowledged by their contemporaries in associations like the National Academy of Design.
Before 1920, Blumenschein painted through the summers in Taos and returned to New York each fall. His commissions and schedule for exhibitions and competitions kept him from living in Taos full time. However, once he left New York he gave up illustration and concentrated on easel painting alone.
Colonizing the West
Traveling west by train to Taos before 1920 Blumenschein would have seen a nearly pristine landscape with vast undisturbed prairies, mountains and deserts. Travelers were delighted with the development of a transcontinental railroad. Few worried about its implications for Native tribes and, not surprisingly, westward migration took off after the final link was made from Omaha to California in 1869.
In East Coast cities, European-Americans remained grounded within ethnic communities that reinforced a cultural inheritance, but those setting out for the West were on their own. The huge Western plains and deserts were formidable and unforgiving lands. Nature was not always benign or forgiving. Settlers encountered harsh conditions beyond their experience and abilities--erratic weather, unfamiliar predators and lawlessness. Many had to reinvent themselves to survive. Some newcomers adopted practices they learned from the Native tribes, while others defied them.
Conflicts over land and natural resources intensified between the settlers and Plains Indians. The U.S. Calvary, actually the victorious Union Army, advanced to claim the West for settlement and crush resistance. The nomadic life sustained by indigenous people for generations was no longer tolerated. In the 1870s the U.S. promoted slaughter of the bison to deprive tribes of their principal food source, and pressure them to join reservations. The railroads also wanted to eliminate roaming bison herds that posed a danger to rail traffic. In the reservations tribal leaders were stripped of authority. The children were forced to attend Indian schools and expected to adopt the settlers' way of life.
Native American Indians and their distinctive cultures were collapsing by 1898 when Blumenschein and Phillips arrived in Taos. It had been only eight years since the last hand-to-hand battle at Wounded Knee, South Dakota where 164 Lakota were killed.
Some tribes allowed members to become curiosities for the tourists. They were part of the attractions advertised by the Santa Fe Railroad and Fred Harvey Company as Indian Detours. Dressed in tribal costumes, they met arriving tourists at stations and hotels, performed dances and sold souvenirs. It would be several decades before a loophole in Federal regulations was recognized, allowing gambling casinos on tribal lands...
The new American West was now secure and open for business. The Santa Fe Super Chief soon screamed across the desert at 90-100 miles-per-hour to make "Indian Country" accessible. A train departed Chicago's Dearborn Street Station at 6:30 PM every evening and arrived in Los Angeles' Union Station 39 hours later. Passengers who detrained in Lamy or Albuquerque were within easy reach of ancient tribal sites--places that looked untouched for a thousand years.
The early twentieth century cosmopolitans found this irresistible, and saw themselves as visitors to a lost civilization. They delighted in the stark desert landscape, primitive architecture, and exotic peoples.
For Native peoples, their fate was sealed. TheChiefmust go through. Like most colonial projects the American West was conquered by facts on the ground. It is the same gambit that persists today in former Palestine: continue the pretense of a "peace process" until everything of value has been transferred to the colonists and indigenous people are forced out. To make obvious injustice tolerable a myth must be created to control popular perception.
The myth provides a narrative to explain and make sense of events. Under its influence, we form opinions that will then filter and influence our perception. We become predisposed to accept interpretations that reinforce our beliefs, and reject ones that do not. Most opinions are not formed through careful inquiry, balancing multiple viewpoints and weighing the evidence, but by accepting a common narrative as true.
Ernest L. Blumenschein
The Peacemaker, 1913
Oil on canvas, 44w 45h
The Anschutz Collection
In his last years Blumenschein lived in Albuquerque during the winter months. His suite at the Alvarado Hotel was not far from the rail yard and scene depicted in The Chief Goes Through. Fromhis hotel studio he continued to develop paintings that were still in his possession, including this one.
As he reworked the painting Blumenschein simplified its forms and eliminated detail.He contrasted the newcomer with remnants of an earlier era-- steam engines and carriages converted to other uses. His stainless steel Super Chief is like a rocket with a red nose cone. Sparks fly from its wheels and exhaust belches out the top. The train projects power; only a single engine is needed to propel it through town. Our view is gathered and directed toward a single track disappearing at the horizon. The path is outward to the open landscape, and perhaps beyond what we can imagine. The Super Chief assumes priority and everything in its way is held back. For better or worse, the artist is reminding us the new penetrates and conquers an existing order.
Blumenschein remained open to stylistic changes his entire life, and adopted modern trends. We see him move away from his earlier narrative painting to more formal concerns of composition and technique. The character of his figures over time becomes less important, and their faces dissolve as stand-ins and compositional devices. Still, in private correspondence with longtime collector H. J. Lutcher-Stark, Blumenschein expressed his concern that it could be fifty years before "painting, architecture, music and literature return to the noble proportions of form understandable." He saw that the self-absorption of Modernist artists had infected all of the arts, and their ability to communicate with the public was being lost.
When Blumenschein arrived in the Southwest everything looked compelling. He explored its mysterious landscape and people through a period in which the Native cultures and pristine places were being overwhelmed with new arrivals.
From frontier to suburban sprawl
The most startling aspect of Sunbelt cities built after 1950 is their utter lack of sustainability. Pull the plug on imported electricity, water and gasoline, and these sprawlscapes would vanish. The malinvestment and disregard for reality are at times astonishing.
Suppose these places had developed with more forethought. Before the rush to Sunbelt states began and automobile suburbia spread thinly over the desert there were local models for more sustainable development. Many early settlers adapted better to the region's hot and arid climate than latter arrivals.
Artist Carlos Vierra initiated a Spanish-Pueblo Revival with his own (1921) house in Santa Fe. He had studied and photographed many of the surviving pueblos, and became a mentor to architect John Gaw Meem. Meem was the first architect to synthesize a new idiom from Southwest vernacular, classical and romantic forms. He showed newcomers how they might settle in, and build in ways that preserved the region's unique character. His designs were respectful of fragile desert environments while incorporating the practical wisdom of indigenous builders.
Imaginative new adaptations were created as well, like Frank Lloyd Wright's well known Taliesin West, begun 1937, east of Scottsdale. The site, once an isolated outcrop of pure desert landscape, is now enveloped in suburban sprawl. During the early 1950s, Wright traveled to Washington D.C. to demand a halt to proposed steel towers and high voltage lines that would cross in front of Taliesin to expand suburbia. His charm and prestige could not stop them.
11 November 2018
Taliesin West, photo c.1950, Frank Lloyd Wright, Scottsdale, AZ
Cover art for the Desperado album was a photograph of the Eagles in outlaw gear made at Fairbanks Ranch Studio. Back cover was takeoff on a historic (1892) photograph of the Dalton gang capture in Kansas. The rock band and its songwriters are shown tied together on the ground with a self-satisfied posse standing over their kill.
As if in counterpoint to the 1970's suburban malaise, developers Abe Miller and Bob McIntyre built their highly romantic Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village in Sedona, Arizona. The picturesque Spanish colonial revival complex with mission tile roofs, quiet courtyards, shaded portales and narrow lanes appeared to predate the town. Its indigenous character gave Sedona a plausible historical context-- something Blumenschein would have appreciated.
Frontier myths attract and excite people for various reasons. It could be their sense of adventure, a chance to escape burdens and regrets, or to reimagine a lost paradise. Some are driven by risks and the hot pursuit of rewards, but almost everyone who ventures into sparsely inhabited and untamed lands realizes they will be challenged. They must be alert to danger, resourceful, and willing to improvise and, if successful, their lives could be transformed. They will begin to feel at home in this strange place. Its mysteries will unfold and patterns emerge. They are committed now, eager to know more. Soon their lives are inseparable.
Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, 1970s, Sedona, AZ
West coast trains arriving in Chicago, c.1940
Choose your myth: "Winning of the West," or "Noble Savage."
Taos Society of Artists founding members (1915), from left to right: Phillips, Dutton, Sharp, Berninghaus, Couse, and Blumenschein
Amelia Hollenback House, 1932, John Gaw Meem, Santa Fe, NM
Indian Detours brochure, c.1930
Costumed guide at Acoma for Indian Detours, 1926
Follow your dream.
Pop culture is an inevitable window into its time. By the 1970s, we find the self-described “outlaws” of rock music donning film studio cowboy clothes for publicity shots. The bad hombres may have felt penned-in by their contracts with media conglomerates insisting upon a regular flow of new albums delivered by high noon, or else. As the boys roamed LA's freeways and partook of celebrity life their musings turned dark. They began to see themselves as renegades of a new Wild West-- a cool and fearless resistance to American consumer culture gone soft and dull-- and a generation of its youth began to see themselves the same way— desperados.
Desperado was the Eagles second hit album, released in 1973, and sold over two million copies. A genre of pop music emerged along these lines, reflecting a shift in the frontier myth from Garden of Eden to modern dystopia. The rugged individualist, constricted on all sides by tract houses and malls, slogging through traffic, saw rebellion and humor as the only way out. Western heroes always rode into the sunset alone. Self-pity became a subtext of this music—a salve for the wounded ego, lost innocence, and a frontier long gone.
Eagles Desperado album back cover, 1973
Rock band is brought to justice--dark humor for a modern dystopia