In my 30s, John Russell was my demigod. Chief art reviewer for The New York Times, he dazzled with his erudition, but also balanced it with a gentlemanly approach to criticism. “I do not see my role as primarily punitive,” he wrote. “It has never seemed to me much of an ambition to go through life snarling and spewing,” So, it was shocking in 1989 to read his vituperative review of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Frederic Remington retrospective.
Leveling his most abrasive criticism at two works from Remington’s brief engagement in the Spanish-American conflict in Cuba, he wrote, “There is something hopelessly labored and inert, secondhand and second rate, about scenes of heroic energy on which much of (Remington’s) reputation is based … ‘Scream of Shrapnel’ may well be the most inadequate rendering of warfare ever set before a gullible public, so limp, stilted and unconvincing is the image. There is an inexcusable obscenity about the insult to men in danger that is implied in paintings such as these.”
Ouch. I would be dishonest not to admit that Russell’s review forever changed my perspective of Remington, who was, among other things, a prevaricator, a squanderer of his considerable privilege, an anti-Semite, a racist and a misogynist. Nevertheless, I entered the Portland Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Mythmakers: The Art of Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington” (through Nov. 29) determined to look more closely and give the man a fair shake.
Of the PMA’s orientation and effort I am happy to report — what a difference 30 years make. A startling plaque in the first gallery tells us: “Frederic Remington wrote in disparaging terms about indigenous communities, African Americans, Jews, and Southern and Eastern Europeans. He was among a large group of white politicians, writers, and businessmen who perceived an erosion in their power … They denigrated other communities to bolster their own sense of self. In this present moment, as we tackle ingrained histories of racism, we can look to these individuals and their beliefs to better understand how this nation’s most enduring mythologies and structures took root … (T)hese examinations of the past can help in the work of re-interpreting and dismantling harmful stereotypes and systems of power.” Bravo.
The museum also invited community experts and members to contribute to plaques for specific works. Of “Sunset on the Plains,” for example, Donna Chrisjohn, co-chair of the Denver American Indian Commission (the exhibition was a partnership with the Amon Carter and Denver Art Museums), writes that Remington “depicted Native Americans as either fighting or walking to our death. That stereotype leaves us frozen in time and contributes to our invisibility today.” This sort of contextualization has never been more important than in our currently divisive times.
And yet …
It’s instructive to note that most plaques addressing Homer’s works generally laud him, while Remington’s often attack, or try to explain, his intentions. Both men, of course, engaged in mythmaking — about masculinity, the idealization of rural life, Native Americans, etc. A painting like “Undertow,” in which two buff lifeguards save a pair of damsels in distress, romanticizes white male virility as monumentally as Michelangelo’s “David.” But Homer also tackled serious issues, including deforestation (“A Huntsman and Dogs”), racism (paintings of African Americans and Black Caribbean people not on view), death (“Fox Hunt”), and the emotional trauma of combat (“Trooper Meditating beside a Grave”). In the plaque for the latter work, co-founder of Veterans for Peace Doug Rawlings points our attention to the dark void beneath the soldier’s unbuttoned shirt, suggesting a heart blackened or hollowed out by the Civil War.
Homer also satirizes artists, including himself, who line up to record essentially the same view (“The Artist in the Country”). And it’s impossible to ignore his profound reverence for nature in a great painting like “Weatherbeaten,” with its roiling power and sense of majesty. There is emotion, complexity and nuance to Homer’s images.
Remington displays no such intricacy or humility. Nature to him is largely a backdrop for human drama (acknowledged in the excellent catalogue essay “Along the Same Lines”). The rare exception in this show — a wall of genuinely beautiful nature scenes painted in his upstate retreat at Ingleneuk — comes as a revelation. Paintings like “Chippewa Bay” and “Untitled (Impressionistic Winter Scene)” capture the infinite variability, light and spiritual presence of nature. But when men enter the frame — and it’s always men, never women — the landscape fades backward. Mesas become blurry washes of yellow, trees seem a decorative afterthought. And the dramas look corny. In “Fight for the Waterhole,” the character in the foreground wears a hammy slit-eyed expression straight out of a 1910s silent film. “Aiding a Comrade (Past All Surgery)” has a flatness that is almost cartoonish, its composition is hokey, and it’s hard to decipher any fear or compassion in the subjects’ faces.
Both men were largely self-taught, and both began as illustrators for magazines like Harper’s and Collier’s. Both also knew how to construct a scene for maximum theatrical effect. In Homer’s case, the foreshortened perspectives, steep angles and brooding clouds are handled with a sophisticated Baroque intensity. Remington’s compositions, conversely, often feel contrived and void of mystery. Even allowing for the dexterity of his impressive rendering of horses in “Dash for the Timber,” one of the most famous images on display, the composition feels self-consciously tight and stiff, too perfectly centered, and with a narrative agenda that leaves nothing to the imagination. It never transcends the aims of illustration, so that what might have been a canvas reverberating with thundering, raucous action instead feels one-dimensional.
The exhibition certainly achieves its virtuous curatorial goal of presenting a corrective look at two legendary figures. But is also sidesteps some harder questions. Why do we keep hallowing Remington? And what do we legitimize when we do so? His personal ignobility aside, the evidence of his talent is thin and cannot be ennobled by his pairing with Homer. And while it’s generally unfair to judge 19th-century painters by modern moral standards, the effects of their mythologizing were not equally impactful. Homer wasn’t just mythologizing; he was feeling and examining and questioning on a number of levels. When in France, he didn’t linger in the Paris salons, but sought out the countryside and coast to paint the earthy integrity of working-class people, particularly women. In his travels through Virginia, Homer compassionately portrayed enslaved people who had been freed.
Remington did not have this depth of awareness. His mythologizing was carelessly unconscious and left a devastating legacy of imagery that cemented stereotypes in the American psyche. It is a legacy with which we are clearly – and tragically – still wrestling. Its persistence is evident in everything from radical militia movements to the more insalubrious attitudes of the so-called “Leader of the Free World.” What is most enduring about Remington are not his innovation or his mastery, but his myths … myths that continue to be perpetrated as long as institutions insist on venerating him by presenting him in the same light as real artists like Homer.
Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland.