JR (Jennifer R.) Henneman discusses “Near East to Far West”

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Night in the Desert, 1884, oil on canvas, 22 × 39

This is the first in an occasional series of columns in which curators talk about upcoming group shows or thematic exhibitions.

ABOUT FIVE YEARS AGO, I started asking the questions that would lead to this project. I grew up on a farm and ranch in Montana, and after I arrived at the Denver Art Museum, it struck me that much of the western American art for which I was responsible seemed exotic and foreign in a way that reminded me more of the British and French Orientalism I studied during my Ph.D. than of what I knew or had seen of the West. So I started digging, asking the question, What, if anything, does Orientalism have to do with the art of the American West?

It turns out, at least during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, quite a lot, especially when it came to French Orientalism, or representations by French artists of the Arab and Muslim world. At the time, both France and the US had undertaken colonial missions, France in Algeria and the US in the West. These shared colonial contexts spurred ever greater interest in the “exotic” cultures and landscapes of those regions.

In addition, aspiring American artists flocked to Paris to study with the great masters, many of whom were French Orientalists, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. The visual language produced by French Orientalists provided a template for American artists who, after returning home, united their international training with American subjects to express what were, to many of their viewers and patrons, unfamiliar landscapes and cultures. However, artists need not have studied abroad to have been influenced by Orientalist imagery. Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, like many, were entranced by the Arab world and influenced by their peers, print media, popular culture, photography, and world’s fairs. Consciously and subconsciously, the tropes and techniques of French Orientalism seeped into the visual language of the American West.

Ernest Blumenschein, White Blanket and Blue Spruce, 1922, oil on linen mounted on paperboard, 34 1⁄8 × 28 1⁄8

“Near East to Far West: Fictions of French and American Colonialism” teases out these affinities with artist-to-artist comparisons. The earliest juxtaposes paintings by Eugène Delacroix with those by Alfred Jacob Miller, who studied works in Paris by Delacroix in 1832. That same year, Delacroix was on his first and only trip to Morocco and Algeria; he would produce artworks inspired by that visit for the rest of his career. A few years later, in 1837, Miller traveled to what is now Wyoming; he then spent decades in his Baltimore studio depicting what is now called the American West. Both artists harnessed Romantic sources and techniques, which emphasized expressions of sensuality, beauty, and nobility. The lessons Miller learned from Delacroix and his contemporaries shaped his interpretations of the American West and would cascade through generations of western artists.

Similar examples of artist-to-artist transmission on display in “Near East to Far West” include the work of George de Forest Brush with his teacher Gérôme, and the eventual members of the Taos Society of Artists, including Ernest Blumenschein, Bert Phillips, and Joseph H. Sharp, whose work is displayed with that of their teacher Benjamin-Constant. These comparisons reveal the degree to which American artists were inspired by their teachers but also the ways in which they developed their own modes of expression.

Other sections in the exhibition focus on themes including the desert, an Orientalized space tied in the European and American imagination to the Bible and popular literature, like The Arabian Nights; the ambivalent symbolism of big cats and bison; and the role of world’s fairs in disseminating Orientalized ideas about global Indigenous cultures.

Frequently, individual artists’ oeuvres display a range of representations, from the stereotyped to the sympathetic. Racialized stereotypes such as the “noble savage” and the odalisque (a woman in a female-only domestic space, or harem, who is often overtly sexualized in European art) circulated throughout French Orientalism and western American art. Acknowledging the ongoing harm of such representations, we knew that we needed to make space for diverse perspectives—essentially, to make room for the voices too often repressed or ignored in the artworks. A National Endowment for the Humanities development grant funded external scholars Emily C. Burns, Robert Warrior (Osage), Jennifer W. Olmsted, and Jacob Rama Berman, in addition to Denver Art Museum curators of Indigenous art John P. Lukavic and Dakota Hoska (Oglála Lakhóta). These consultants gave us feedback on the development of the entire project—including the exhibition, publication, and programs—and helped surface some of its pressing questions, such as the legacies of stereotyped representations in the present and the possibilities and pitfalls of exhibiting historical colonial artworks. The NEH development grant also funded a series of focus groups composed of diverse members representing our Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and Muslim and Arab communities, who considered the artworks and the main themes of the exhibition. Many of their insights are represented as Community Voices labels. These comment on a range of topics, including the fuzzy line between fact and fiction, concerns about European and Euro-American representations of women and people of color, and stereotypes. Additionally, we hired Indigenous, Arab, and Muslim readers, who reviewed and edited our exhibition text. And we commissioned three contemporary artists to respond to the project.

What, if anything, does Orientalism have to do with the art of the American West? It turns out, quite a lot.

Perfumer and interdisciplinary artist Dana El-Masri created two custom scents for the exhibition’s reflection space. She “aims to strip away the romanticism” at the core of Orientalism and to bring a new perspective that gets “away from fantasy” and “inspires new possibilities and honors forgotten narratives.” These scents, in addition to prompts about the legacies of Orientalism and the meaning of home, help visitors reflect. Poet Jennifer Elise Foerster (Mvskoke) wrote a hauntingly beautiful poem in response to the artworks in the exhibition, and multidisciplinary artist Steven Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna Pueblo) and his team created a video to accompany it using AI technology that selects, appropriates, and modifies source material in a way that echoes the creative process of nineteenth-century artists.

We also sought input internally. A group of gallery hosts participated in focus groups and helped us better understand how to deliver and contextualize challenging information for our audiences. Because of their familiarity with our galleries, they helped us understand how the physical space might aid—or not!—the work we’re trying to do with this show, highlighting where certain areas are prone to bottlenecks and pointing out where text interpretives would be best positioned. Our EDI Committee reinforced the importance of highlighting underrepresented perspectives. Our Indigenous Advisory Council provided regular feedback on exhibition content and concerns related to historical trauma in Indigenous communities. The project team with which I have been honored to work—Meg Selig (curatorial assistant), Eric Berkemeyer (project manager), Valerie Hellstein (managing editor), and Lauren Thompson (interpretive specialist)—has played an important role in these collaborations.

These ongoing dialogues shaped the final product, and I am deeply grateful for the sustained and thoughtful contributions of our many collaborators. In order to respectfully present these historical artworks, it has been crucial to listen to and learn from perspectives that have traditionally been marginalized, particularly in colonial structures. We had to keep at the forefront of our minds: Who has been silenced? For whom might these works enact trauma? How do these histories continue to operate in the here and now? How do “Orientalized” perspectives persist in art and popular culture and continue to inform how we think about US involvement in the modern Arab world and Indigenous sovereignty in the Americas?

Steven Yazzie, US, 2022–23, multimedia video, color, sound, 5 minutes 12 seconds.

The artworks, like the histories to which they are tied, are complicated. They are also, frequently, alluring, beautiful, and imaginatively transportive. Faced with exceptional technique and powerful emotive expression, it is tempting to see and understand them as representatives of some kind of “truth” or “authenticity.” But taking them only at face value oversimplifies what they are and how they can mean. These artworks are carefully crafted objects motivated by market demands and professional ambition, mediated by period attitudes, and composed from diverse sources including memory, imagination, and observation. Seeing them as documents rather than as creative expressions does a disservice to the artistic process by minimizing the role of creativity and imagination, avoiding the realities of colonial histories, and rendering the works one-dimensional, when in fact they (and viewers’ responses to them) can create many meanings over time. This is how we get to the word fictions in the subtitle: The artworks tell us many stories, transport us to many places, and it is problematic to understand them as any kind of monolithic truth. In artworks such as these, to what degree can we disentangle fact from fiction? How can we learn to cultivate a critical eye in the face of beauty?

Our goal has been to balance critical thinking, self-reflection, and passion for art and the creative process. I hope that every visitor, no matter their background, can learn something and be inspired by something in this exhibition. Personally, I am motivated by the way historical artworks can help us face and grapple with complexity—past and present—when presented and interpreted sensitively. It is not easy to hold multiple, and often contradictory, thoughts and feelings in one’s mind and body at the same time, though that is what we hope visitors will attempt to do. Within that productive tension, true learning and appreciation can happen.

—As told to Elizabeth Schambelan

“Near East to Far West: Fictions of French and American Colonialism” will be on view March 5 through May 28 at the Denver Museum of Art.

JR (Jennifer R.) Henneman is director and curator of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum.

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