Terry Grimley tours The American West exhibition at Compton Verney
The settlement of the American West by Europeans in the latter half of the 20th century not only gave Hollywood one of its greatest subjects but created a created a powerful myth which is still firmly rooted in the psychology of the world's only superpower.
This pioneering exhibition casts a fresh eye on this myth, bringing together original material from a number of museums in the US with the work of contemporary artists.
Jointly curated by Jimmie Durham and Richard William Hill, who are respectively of Cherokee and Cree descent, it replaces the myth of cowboys versus Indians as a sort of late 19th century war on terror with a post-colonial political perspective familiar from our own times.
This is sharply summed up in the telling juxtaposition of a 1908 painting by Charles Schreyvogel, showing a daring cavalry charge rescuing settlers in the nick of time from their savage would-be murderers, with Linda Dawn Hammond's nearby photographs of Canadian troops heavy-handedly quelling a civil disturbance involving Mohawk Indians as recently as
1990. This 78-day protest was prompted by plans to extend a golf course over an ancient burial ground.
Schreyvogel was one of a generation of latter-day history painters working in the early years of the 20th century, perhaps the period when the process of mythologising the recent history of the frontier was at its most intense. Nothing could be more debunking than the photograph of him on the roof of his apartment in Hoboken, new Jersey, circa 1900, working from the model of a kneeling former cavalryman with six-shooter in hand.
At around this time the Wild West generated one of the world's first modern superstars in William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who packaged it in his travelling show, including Indians, and brought it to Europe. There are photographs of Indians in Rome and Venice and, bizarrely, four shots of the show, including Cody himself, parading down New Street in Birmingham in 1903 (these are perhaps made even more incongruous by the fact that the buildings seen in the background are still there today).
The awe-struck schoolboys in the Birmingham photographs were probably avid readers of the twopenny Buffalo Bill comics shown here along with other ephemera including a French poster comparing Cody to Napoleon. The comics blur fact and fiction in the context of a new kind of celebrity on which Hollywood would soon build.
Although much of the material in the show is unfamiliar and not the kind of thing you would usually be able to see in Britain, there is nothing intrinsically unfamiliar about the image of the West, mythologised from the white settler's point of view, reflected in these paintings and film posters.
What was totally new to me, however, were the contemporary drawings by Indian artists like Zotom (1853-1913), Bear's Heart (1851-1882) and in particular the long-lived Cheyenne, Making Medicine (1843-1931). The latter's coloured pencil drawings showing Indian prisoners being drilled or photographed at Fort Marion (1876-77) have a graphic eloquence of their own, and are likely to suggest comparisons with Guantanamo Bay to contemporary viewers.
The work by contemporary artists includes paintings by Kent Monkman which parody the epic frontier landscapes of the 19th century and might at first glance be mistaken for them, except for their over-lurid colour and the subversive goings-on in Monkman's reimagined encounters between Indians and European settlers.
Monkman quotes knowingly from art history and it is striking how strongly certain individual images haunt the American imagination - James E Fraser's popular sculpture The End of the Trail, for example, which is most likely to be recognised in Britain from the cover of the Beach Boys' Surf's Up album.
Fraser's image of a dying brave on horseback symbolises the end of a proud independent nation. The latter-day Indian stereotype of a rootless second-class citizen boozing himself to death on a reservation is reflected in Edward Poitros's photograph The Death of Jimmy Woolf, where the figure of the man prostrate in front of a graffiticovered wall, attended by two kneeling friends, parodies Bejamin West's heroic 18th century painting, The Death of General Wolfe.
Another of the exhibiting artists, the photographer Jeff Thomas, who records the way Indians have been mythologised in monuments or in decorative friezes on banks, comments: "Today's battlefields are found wherever a First Nations person is treated differently because they are Indian; on an intercity street, in shopping in a store, in the classroom, on a poverty stricken reserve, or wherever a police car slows down to give you that second look, the West will always be here."