The American Theme in Britain
The life and times of cultures removed from ones’ immediate identity provides an endless source of fascination. How the ‘other’ lived and what they created as an imprint of their existence inevitably becomes re-interpreted and embellished with time. Consequently, the history of a place is viewed from the position of pre-conceived expectations, arising from the way it has been packaged by the media and institutions, but a number of exhibitions in Britain focusing on the theme of ‘America’, attempt to dig beneath the surface culture to explore some of the hidden truths that prevail. This summer, some of Britain’s most significant museums have joined forces with their American counterparts in staging exhibitions which highlight work never previously seen in Britain.
The first of these is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire comptonverney.org.uk (to 29 August). The American West, explores how the identity of the West is bound up with different myths arising from European expansion across North America. The exhibition challenges notions of identity, freedom and politics to represent a contemporary view of this complex subject, and offers the first opportunity for audiences in Britain to view an extensive selection of work from an era that continues to hold such global fascination. The American West presents historical and contemporary work loaned exclusively from the United States, from institutions including the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma, the Museum of the American West, Los Angeles, and the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre, Cody, Wyoming.
Jimmie Durham, Curator of The American West, is an artist, writer and activist of Cherokee descent. He planned the exhibition as a series of visual stories, including poignant themes such as invasion and genocide; the first official Indian wars; Native American encounter with white settlers and the U.S. army; natural resources and environmental destruction, and Hollywood and the cowboy. Included in the exhibition are historical depictions of these subjects; nineteenth-century Plains Indian Ledger drawings; work by Indian prisoners, and a large selection of works by contemporary Native North American artists. The exhibition also contains a diverse selection of historic ephemera from popular culture, including documentation of Buffalo Bill’s Roadshow, photographs, dime novels, billboards and film posters.
The American theme is continued in Printed States (to 30 October), an exhibition at The American Museum in Britain, Bath, americanmuseum.org.uk which chronicles the emergence of the popular print in America. This exhibition explores America’s westward expansion and its growth in the nineteenth-century from an agricultural society to an industrialised one. The story is told through a wide range of images, including the Flathead Indians, the Shakers, settlements of log cabins, the railways and airlines, George Washington, the New York blaze of 1835, and the circus, in addition to works by J.M. Whistler, one of America’s most influential nineteenth-century painters.
Printed States could not be shown in a more appropriate location, as The American Museum is unique in Britain, dedicated to the American way of life from colonial times to the mid- nineteenth century. Indigenous cultures are often presented in a relatively superficial way in order to be understood, but The American Museum is different in that history is presented through a series of authentically furnished rooms depicting the different styles in which the settlers lived, and focuses on the Shakers, New Mexicans, North American Indians and Pennsylvanian Germans. Each year the museum literally brings American history to life with vibrant demonstrations of Native American dancing, military drills, and enactments of the French and Indian War, and the American Civil War.
Both Compton Verney and The American Museum are situated in extensive grounds, isolated from the urban centre, and offering a visit far removed from the hub of city life. However, the last of these ‘American’ inspired exhibitions, Impressionism Abroad: Boston and French Painting (to 11 September), takes place at the Royal Academy of Arts, London royalacademy.org.uk. It explores the relationship between French and American art during the late nineteenth-century in Boston, and recalls the city’s early interest in the Barbizon School and Impressionism. The exhibition presents works by eminent Americans such as William Morris Hunt, John Singer Sargent and Childe Hassam, shown alongside their French contemporaries including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Jean-François Millet.
Impressionism Abroad offers a unique opportunity to view a superb range of French and American paintings loaned to the Royal Academy from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. During the nineteenth-century many of Boston’s most celebrated artists were influenced by the challenging movements in painting which developed in Europe at that time. Some of these artists travelled to France and became directly influenced by the Impressionist style, becoming amongst the earliest American’s to embrace this innovative way of working. On return to the United States, they adapted their style to create interpretations of local scenes, encouraging acceptance of their work in America. Interestingly, the American painters, unlike their French contemporaries, did become members of the art establishment, which resulted in Boston’s development into one of the most forward-looking centres of art at the time.
Crossing borders in a quest for the extraordinary became the ultimate modern experience in the nineteenth-century. With rapid transfer between countries and the increasing accessibility of a travel infrastructure, the true social base became cosmopolitan, but with this came a consequent rejection of tradition. However, there is now a current obsession with the preservation of heritage and this is where museums play a big part, as their displays are not just historicist, but nationalist in conception, presenting the progress of civilisations through their artistic achievements. The wealth of material in these three exhibitions alone offers an extraordinary opportunity to learn more about the diverse cultures of America. Although perceptions of actual events change with time, the quest to explore and re-evaluate is more potent than ever, offering endless curatorial possibilities in the staging of large-scale thematic exhibitions focusing on the history of past cultures.