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Carmen Thyssen Collection and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
The Espai Carmen Thyssen exhibition, curated by Miguel Ángel Blanco, takes us to the American Far West, a place larger than life where legend prevails over reality.
Our aim is to become contemporary explorers of a history we know only partially. This exhibition goes from the traces left behind by the first Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century to the popular image promoted for the most part by Westerns.
To present the full story, this exhibition uses maps from the time, paintings, sculptures, engravings, watercolours and anthropological objects that reveal the idealisation of a land that becomes the perfect setting on which to project our dreams, paintings showing a New World that few had explored and which western art was representing for the very first time. Works that reveal, with a mixture of anthropology and fantasy, the life of the natives who lived in those lands.
The pieces come from the Carmen Thyssen Collection, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, National Museum of Anthropology, Naval Museum, National Museum of Natural Sciences, Filmoteca Española (Spanish Cinemathèque) and the Museum of Cinema-Tomàs Mallol Collection, as well as from private collectors.
The Carmen Thyssen Collection and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum contain Spain's only works of art that illustrate this episode in American history.
Legend prevailed over reality in the West. Spanish expeditions set off from Florida and New Mexico searching for imagined riches while the British colonies expanded relentlessly, following a clear destiny towards a new Eden. It took centuries to chart this huge unknown territory and the early maps show the routes taken by expeditions, the location of tribes, the forts, missions and first towns. The Mississippi was a long frontier, mental as well as physical, and the axis for colonisation; at its upper reaches, Saint Anthony Falls became a symbol for the loss of untouched nature.
II. New peoples and landscapes
Representations of North America's impressive nature were heavily influenced by Romanticism. In this room you can see the development, starting back in the eastern states, of a sublime form of landscape painting produced by artists from the Hudson River School, a movement which gradually spread westwards, seeing a new Eden in those spectacular virgin lands and largely following the formula established by Albert Bierstadt.
The artists raised awareness, among citizens and governors, of the need to protect the most valuable natural areas such as Yosemite and Yellowstone by means of an innovative system of Nature Parks.
III. The Indians of the Great Plains
Artists were fascinated by the life of the indigenous tribes on the Great Plains. Following in the footsteps of George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, the artists who travelled to the West in the second half of the 19th century gradually built up a hugely successful genre of painting that showed the customs of a people who were observed, at times, with genuine admiration but at other times tarnished with prejudice, although almost always shown closely connected to the land.
Trappers, cowboys and soldiers were also glorified by popular artists such as Charles M. Russell and William T. Ranney; nevertheless, as the Native American tribes were decimated and confined to reserves, artists felt the need to show their dying culture and some of them helped to collect the anthropological treasures that can still be seen today.
IV. Karl Bodmer and the memory of the Mandan (I)
In 1832, the young but already well-known landscape artist Karl Bodmer accompanied the German Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied on an early anthropological expedition along the Missouri River. Together with Humboldt, Prince Maximilian had been a disciple of Johan Friederich Blumenbach, from whom he learned to travel scientifically, applying methodology, order and thoroughness in collecting materials and information.
In Boston, General William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, provided them with a passport so they could continue their journey aboard the Yellowstone steamer. They met different Native American groups during their expedition such as the Sioux, Assiniboine, Plains Cree, Gros Ventre and Blackfoot tribes. Back in Europe, Bodmer's drawings, detailing the tribes' racial features, clothing, tools and rituals, became a fabulous series of 81 hand-illuminated prints to illustrate Maximilian Prince of Wied's Travels in the Interior of North America, the anthropologist's book of his observations.
V. Karl Bodmer and the memory of the Mandan (II)
Bodmer and Maximilian spent the winter of 1833-34 close to Fort Clark, where they lived together with the Hidatsa and particularly the Mandan Indians, a traditionally peaceful tribe. The Mandan used to visit their hut and they were also invited to their camp, where they witnessed various rituals.
Bodmer's drawings were extremely detailed, some portraits requiring the sitter to pose for a whole day. This ethnographic and artistic fieldwork on the Mandan tribe became even more important when, in 1837, a smallpox epidemic resulted in the tribe becoming extinct.
VI. Remington, the Old American West
When he was nineteen, Frederic Remington (1861 – 1909) embarked on his first trip to the West. There he saw everything he'd imagined in his childhood: the vast prairies, the now depleted buffalo herds and the last confrontations between the U.S. Cavalry and Native American Indians.
Thanks to Remington's illustrations and paintings the adventures of the West became fashionable, almost always starring a cowboy and a Cavalry soldier, turning what had been a "noble savage" into the staunch enemy of patriotism.
In the best of these series, his nocturnal paintings, he was interested in experimenting with technological advances such as flashlight; these works show a less narrative, darker and quieter view of the West.
His artistic interests also led him to explore sculpture, where we can see his passion for horses, animals which he loved so much that he gave instructions to inscribe the following on his epitaph: He knew the horse.
VII. Cowboys and Indians
The life of Native American tribes and adventures in the West soon became a part of popular culture, especially from 1826 when James Fenimore Cooper published his bestseller The Last of the Mohicans. Literature, film and television, comics and toys have always been fascinated by the subject, so much so that the American West has become a part of us all.
VIII. The Library of the Forest
Miguel Ángel Blanco pays homage to the lands and peoples of the West with a selection of book boxes that form part of his Library of the Forest, a sculptural project that recreates experiences and visions, expressed in drawings, images and compositions made with materials from nature.
This collection encapsulates his journeys and experiences in the national parks of the American West, through which Blanco shares with us an ideal of life that Native Americans searched for, from the Lakota to the Navajo; namely "walk in beauty", harmonising earth and sky, body and spirit.