‘America The Beautiful’ Exhibit Retraces American Indian portrayal

Courtesy of the Wolfsonian-FIU

Carmella Jimenez/Contributing Writer

The Wolfsonian’s “America The Beautiful” exhibit features railroad advertisements in the 1900s to promote visits to national parks that featured American Indians as a key attraction.

“They were advertising and promoting the national parks not necessarily with images of beautiful portraits and mountain peaks and the like, but really with Native Americans,” Wolfsonian Chief Librarian Frank Luca said.

Winold Reiss, the exhibits’ primary artist, grew up in the Black Forest, Germany as the son of a well-known artist who drew portraits of peasants. He was captivated by the idea of “the noble savage,” that humans untouched by modern civilizations are inherently good, portrayed in popular James Fenimore Cooper novels with American Indian characters.

Courtesy of the Wolfsonian-FIU

Courtesy of the Wolfsonian-FIU

Courtesy of the Wolfsonian-FIU

Reiss traveled to America in 1913 when anti-German sentiment ran high at the outbreak of World War I. He solidified relationships with the Blackfoot Indians and gained consent to draw their daily lives in portraits of individuals, originally not with intent to advertise for the railroads.

The owner of the Great Northern Railroad and several hotels within Glacier National Park, however, bought Reiss’s artwork to advertise travel to the parks as a means of stimulating the railroad industry with appeal toward an unfamiliar culture for Americans to experience. These portraits would be mass-produced to advertise national parks as the home to American Indians.

Other railroads soon caught on and advertised artwork of Indians to stimulate business through travel to the national parks, even as calendars and puzzles, into the 1950s. According to Luca, many of these prints portraying general images of Indians done by other artists, however, lacked the individuality and sensitivity of Reiss’s paintings.

Courtesy of the Wolfsonian-FIU

Courtesy of the Wolfsonian-FIU

“They’re depicted as quaint, but as a sort of cultural relic, but not really treated as regular people,” Luca said. “They’re just exotics to be gawked at and take their pictures, because they’re different from us. That was the attitude then.”

Luca questioned the ethics behind the mass production of the portraits. The railways companies, not the people featured, benefited financially from the advertisements and Reiss was only paid for the original portraits.

Reiss did get consent for his portraitures, though most artists normally did not for images of Indians. Luca compared the mass sale of American Indian calendars as similar to the calendars featuring pin-up girls as images meant to excite, not meant to educate.

Courtesy of the Wolfsonian-FIU

Courtesy of the Wolfsonian-FIU

“How do the persons feel about having their picture reproduced tens of thousands of times for the cover of a calendar — I don’t know,” Luca said. “When we think of it today, the pin-up girl calendar has become taboo in a gender sense. Appropriating Indian images and artwork has become culturally taboo. I don’t think you could do this today and get away with it.”

A current connection between Indians today and national parks remains in South Florida after all these years, with a changed view of their culture.

“Today I think it’s a little bit different. If you were to take an airboat ride with the Miccosukees, they’re not going to be dressed up in old garb from a hundred years ago,” Luca said. “They’re modern. They’re not going to pretend they live a different lifestyle than they are today.”

The Wolfsonian will showcase the “America the Beautiful” exhibit until October 8, 2017.

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