Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Picturing the Americas. At the AGO to September 20th, 2015.

     The AGO co-operated with the Pinacoteca do Estado de Sao Paulo and the Terra Foundation for American Art to present a survey of how Europeans saw the Americas. It’s obvious that from the beginning America was seen as an empty wilderness with a handful of salvages (forest dwellers) hunting and foraging, oblivious to the potential wealth of this untouched continent. Most of the early canvases show a vast wilderness, painted in the sublime style fostered by Romanticism, of varying skill and aesthetic appeal. Most of include a group of small figures to make the scale plausible. I noticed a number of them showed the European in the group waving his hand or pointing at whatever had caught his attention. It seemed the European was the guide and explicator of the landscape, not the native who showed him the trails through the bush.
     These paintings foster the myth that justified the European conquest. That there was a full range of cultures, with the majority of Americans living as farmers and townspeople has been more or less forgotten. There were several empires, and a number of federations built around trade and common cultural themes. Most Americans were killed by the diseases that the invaders brought to them. It wasn’t European weapons that defeated the Americans, it was European microbes. The Pilgrims of North America moved onto ready-made farms, left behind by the people who died of smallpox. That’s why American now means a citizen of the USA.
     Once the Europeans had established themselves, their art became a celebration of the new culture, which has adopted and adapted native motifs and stories. The exhibition ends with early to mid-20th century paintings, in which Canadians, Americans, Brazilians, and so on paint the visions of the land as it is, including railways and cities. But images of the wilderness still dominate. Even paintings of farming in the Mid-west emphasise the otherness of the landscape. Although created by humans, the vast fields seem more alien than the sublime wilderness painted a century earlier.
     Two texts that should be read in conjunction with this show: The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, and What is America by Ronald Wright. Both retell the history of the Americas as one of the destruction of thriving local peoples and nations by the commercial and imperial ambitions of the European powers. Knowing that history, I saw most of the art as misrepresentations. It shows us how Europeans saw their new world. The native version became the stuff of archeology, a pre-historical narrative. Now that Native artists have begun to reclaim their history we see that early picturings of the Americas were an exercise in amnesia.
     A show worth seeing. As art **½ , as cultural commentary ****.

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