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Exhibition on Western movies examines American mythology

Denver Art Museum hosts show through next three months


They’re coming at you before you enter the glass gallery doors! A movie screen shows mounted horsemen rushing to the forefront — either chasing or evading someone else … These are clips from six different films, from historic black-and-white to contemporary, cycling continuously. And all are possibly inspired by a classic American image mounted to the left of the screen: Charles Remington’s large 1889 oil on canvas painting called “A Dash for the Timber,” loaned by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Denver Art Museum focuses on America’s special mythology in a new exhibit running through Sept. 10 called “The Western: An Epic in Art and Film.” This is the first such blend of still and moving images that emphasizes the artistic legacy and evolution contributing to the development of the Western genre. “It’s been a wonderful ride,” said DAM Director Christoph Heinrich, who also made a point of the support by the National Endowment for the Arts, which offers federal indemnity in addition to the usual high insurance coverage for art that is a national treasure.

The exhibit was co-curated by Thomas Brent Smith, director of the Petrie Institute at the Denver Art Museum, and Mary Dailey Desmarais, Ph.D., curator of International Modern Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibit will appear next.

“There are many touch points,” Smith said. Many directors referred to painting as they created films, both for subject matter and blocking the characters in a story. “This is a visual construct of the West … How we understand — or misunderstand — the West comes from movies,” Smith said. This is the first time the DAM has used film to this extent. A visitor has examples of the set, the cast and the artists/directors mingled through the exhibit, with related art and objects interspersed with a number of small spaces featuring film clips.

“From Bierstadt to Tarantino, it’s digestible … maybe memories from a long time ago — or yesterday,” Smith commented.

Directors John Ford, who covered five decades and more than 150 films (starting with “Iron Horse” in 1924) and Sergio Leone, known for his “Spaghetti Westerns,” bookend the history, now picked up by many contemporary directors—some with tongue in cheek.

A section looking at the counterculture features artists Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Kent Monkman, as well as recent film such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Django Unchained.” We find changes from stories of the Old West to issues of our time, with more sympathetic images of Native Americans. Some recent films take the focus from agriculture to oil. Major shifts in culture included the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. “We go to the Western to work it out,” Smith said.

Mary Demarais commented: “Really, at this point the Western itself is an agent of change,” the major artistic export from America — with Abstract Expressionism. That export started with Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Shows, which brought the myth of the American West to Europe, beginning in 1887, and continues today.

Note: This show requires some “backing and forthing” to pick up on interrelated themes, if the visitor can manage it.

And … don’t miss Kent Monkman’s “Boudoir de Berdashe” (2007), with its brocade tipi, crystal chandelier, buffalo skin rug, red brocade Victorian divan, birch bark “Louis Vuitton” luggage and Miss Chief’s high-heeled, beaded moccasins and versions of the silent film, “Shooting Geronimo.” It’s near the end and manages to make fun of a good deal you’ve just absorbed. (It’s from the National Gallery of Canada.)

A catalog had not yet arrived from the publisher when we visited, but should be available in the gift shop soon.

If you go

“The Western: An Epic in Art and Myth” runs through Sept. 10 at the Denver Art Museum and occurs to us as an ideal outing for visiting family members. Denver is a logical place to hold this exhibit as a crossroads of the Old and New West. The DAM is open daily except Mondays and this show requires special ticketing. For information, see denverartmuseum.org or call 720-865-5000.


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