The Print Shop has dealt with prints of American Indians for almost three decades, and indeed this has been a topic on which I have done quite a bit of research and have published a number of articles. So I was really surprised and delighted when just last week I had my eyes opened to a different way of looking at these prints.
What precipitated my new “insight” into these prints was a visit to the Denver Museum of Art to see their terrific new exhibit on American Indian Art. The collection of such art at the Denver Museum is one of the best in the world and they have recently remodeled their galleries and mounted a new exhibit on this collection. The art presented is breathtaking and the exhibit very well designed and a pleasure to view.
What is particularly of interest is the approach taken for this new exhibit, where the focus is on the individual artists and their creations, rather than on the art as examples of the culture of the tribe (which is how I have always looked at such art). Nancy Blomberg, the curator, explains that “Every artwork in our collection was created by an individual, with his or her own opinions, influences, and inspirations. This exciting new presentation will highlight the artist’s hand, and give visitors the opportunity to watch artists at work and evaluate their own perceptions of American Indian art.”
It certainly prompted me to look at the art in a new way and I started thinking about all the wonderful Indian art that appears in the prints we have. I have always focused on the art of the prints themselves; how well they are drawn, the process used, whether they show details of Indian cultures not available elsewhere, and the like. What I had not done was look “into” the prints to look at the art depicted inside the art of the prints.
When I got back to the shop after visiting the museum, I pulled out all our prints by McKenney & Hall and started to appreciate the artistic expression of the Indian artists who made the headdresses and beadwork on the implements shown; I looked at the Bodmer prints to view the elaborate art work on the Indian clothing, and I looked at the beautiful designs on the pots and baskets shown in other prints.
Now not all the Indian art shown in this Indian art is completely accurate, but these artists were working from first hand observation and their concern was to present an accurate picture of the Indian culture. While the fine skill and sensibilities of the Indian artists cannot be fully seen in these prints, it is another layer of meaning and richness to these prints; one that I now can appreciate and enjoy.
One of the things I love about my business is that I am always learning and seeing the material I deal with in a new light. Whenever I read a new reference book or visit a new exhibit I get an perspective on these old prints and maps and that immeasurably enhances my appreciation of them. Anyone in the Denver area should make it a point to visit this American Indian Art exhibit, for it will open your eyes.