Friday, January 31, 2020

75 Years Ago

This week we observed a solemn event, the 75th anniversary of the Russian Army's liberation of Auschwitz, in present day Poland. As in my previous post, there is nothing of relevance I can add to this, other than my commitment to the only two words that matter in the context of the indelible symbol of the greatest atrocity anyone can remember.

Never again.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

A Difficult Legacy

The story of the Indigenous People of North America is tragic and complicated.  I wouldn't be doing it any justice by trying to sort out 500 years of deception, degradation, and genocide in one blog post, so I won't.

I bring this up after having been asked to photograph a handful of the several public monuments in Chicago with a Native American theme. Some of the monuments represent the Native American as a threat, others as useful contributors to Manifest Destiny. Some objectify their subjects as mythological icons, symbols of a noble, but lost culture. And a few represent Native Americans as actual people.

What these monuments all have in common, is they represent the vision of benefactors and artists of  European descent, not Native American.

They say that history is written by the victors, and there is probably no better example than the story of the Native American people. Until very recently, that story has been told almost exclusively by the white man. A tiny part of that is told on one of Chicago's most beloved landmarks, the bridge that takes Michigan Avenue over the Chicago River.

On each of the four towers from where bridge tenders controlled the raising and lowering of the massive double deck bascule bridge, are huge relief sculptures that commemorate important events in the history of this city. The first scene in chronological order (not pictured here)  is depicted on the northeast tower. The work of sculptor James Earle Fraser shows the French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, accompanied by a group of Native Americans who were guiding the two through the Chicago Portage, the shortest distance between the Chicago and Des Plaines River. This important patch of land into which would be dug canals that would ultimately connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, is the reason the city of Chicago exists. Marquette and Joliet are so important to this region that second only to Abraham Lincoln, they are represented on more monuments in this town than anyone else. And they are always represented along with the Native Americans who guided them through their journeys. But that is a topic for another post.

"Defense", Henry Hering, 1928

Across the river and on the opposite side of the street is a relief called "Defense" by the noted sculptor Henry Herring, dedicated to one of the most horrific events in Chicago history, the Battle of Fort Dearborn, otherwise known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre. During the opening days of the War of 1812, after being ordered to evacuate the fort on the south bank of the river where the bridge currently stands, a small group of US soldiers and civilians headed south along the shore of  Lake Michigan en route to the nearest US garrison in Fort Wayne, Indiana. About two miles into their journey, the group encountered about 500 Potawatomi warriors, who were at the time allied with the British. The rest they say is history, the vastly outnumbered group retreating from the fort which included women and children, were all but wiped out. Culpability for the blood shed by innocent people depends upon who is telling the story. Interestingly, the description of this particular work in The Chicago Public Art Guide, an online publication of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events of the City of Chicago attempts to avoid controversy:
Fearing a British attack, the Fort's inhabitants are shown being led to safety by a Native American scout.
But if you look at the image above, this is clearly a wildly inaccurate description of the work.

Obviously this is a touchy subject illustrating the complexity of the relationship between Native Americans and the descendants of European immigrants who supplanted them. Another monument which portrays the event in far more graphic detail was removed from public view and indefinitely mothballed. I won't go into details because back in 2017, I wrote about the tragic event and the earlier monument by the sculptor Carl Rohl-Smith in detail. You can find it in the middle of this post, also on Chicago monuments.  

The other two bridge  towers depict the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, and Chicago's first white settler, John Kinzie. Emphasizing who was telling the story when the bridge was built, is the fact that the north landing of bridge sits exactly on the site where the first, (non-native) settler in Chicago set up his homestead, yet makes no mention of him nor his significance. That settler was Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a black man from Haiti. The city has recently made amends, re-naming the bridge after DuSable, and placing a bust of the Haitian fur trader in Pioneer Court, named in honer of both him and Kinzie.   

"A Signal of Peace": Cyrus Edwin Dallin, 1889
One can imagine that Cyrus Edwin Dallin's "A Signal of Peace", was at least in part an attempt to dissuade feelings of ambivalence many white people still had about Indigenous Americans at the time it was created. Dallin, living the dream of an American artist en la belle époque de Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, is said to have used Native Americans traveling with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Europe as models for his archetypal portrait of a Sioux warrior appearing before one can assume representatives of the US Army. I think it's fair to say that the reaction to this work today would be different from when it was presented for display at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, at least in the fact that today we might consider the word "submission" as more appropriate than the word "peace" in the title. Still the situation of Native Americans was not lost at the time, at least not to Judge Lambert Tree, the man who acquired and donated the work to the City of Chicago. Upon presenting the sculpture to the Lincon Park Commissioiners, Tree indicated that he wanted a momument to "these simple un-tutored children of nature" because "it is evident there is no future for them except as they may exist as a memory in the sculptor's bronze and the painter's canvas."

In stark contrast is Ivan Mestrovic's dynamic duo of "The Bowman" and "The Spearman" that flank the two sides of Congress Avenue as it enters Grant Park.  

"The Spearman", left, and "The Bowman", right, Ivan Mestrovic, 1928

By the time these iconic monuments were created in the twenties, American society was already several decades removed from the bygone days where conflicts between white settlers and hostile Native Americans were part and parcel of settler life on the prairie. Decades earlier, depictions such as these would have sent shivers up the spines of white Americans who would have viewed these two as wild savages, (perhaps in our contemporary jargon, terrorists). rather than the noble, freedom-fighters defending their people and way of life that Mestrovic intended. Then as today, it all depends upon one's perspective. 

Playing upon the mythology of the American West that he certainly was made aware of through American Cowboy and Indian novels and movies exported to his homeland, these works by the Croatian artist famous for his monumental sculptures, portray their subjects as heroic warriors to be admired for their selfless, uncompromising valor, values we place upon them much in the way we give our sports teams names inspired by Native American culture.

The earliest of the works presented here, in fact one of the earliest public monuments in Chicago, is this portrayal of a Native American family and their dog originally titled "An Indian Family" but later re-named "The Alarm." The work was commissioned by one of Chicago's early elite, Martin Ryerson who in his youth allegedly made close bonds with members of the Ottawa Nation to whom this work is dedicated. On its base are inscribed in Ryerson's words:
To the Ottawa Nation of Indians, my early friends.

"The Alarm", John J. Boyle, 1884
The work's creator, Philadelphia born and Ecole des Beaux Arts educated, John J. Boyle, made a career of creating naturalistic portrayals of Native American people without Dullin's sentiment or Mestrovic's bombast. Also notable in Boyle's work is his depiction of Native American women which is indeed quite rare in monuments such as these.

The work many consider to be Boyle's masterpiece, is a sculpture in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. That work portrays a standing Native American woman, baby at her breast, and another at her ankle. In her right hand she holds a hatchet, truly not a person to be messed around with. The treatment of its subject could almost fit within contemporary sensibilities were it not for its unfortunate title, "Stone Age in America."                                          

The respect these artists gave their subjects and the sincerity of the benefactors notwithstanding, from our 21st century viewpoint there is indeed something problematic with these works of art. Today it would be almost  inconceivable for a white artist to receive a major commission to create a monument devoted to Native Americans or other prominent minorities. Furthermore, it is nothing less than cringe-worthy to think of works of art devoted to preserve the memory of a race of people who are vanishing at the hands of the very people commissioning and making the art. 

Therefore it's not inconceivable that one day, a future generation may debate whether these works of art are appropriate for public display, just as we are debating the appropriateness of other public monuments today. Personally I would not support the removal of these works as they have become themselves parts of our city's history themselves, as well as powerful works of art to varying degrees.

That said,  I would welcome the debate as it will if handled properly, help serve to put these works of art from another era into their proper context, and help us all appreciate them for what they are, and for what they aren't.