A painting of men on horseback

The Western Explores the Construct of the West in Film & Fine Art

The Western has always been about more than cowboys and American Indians, outlaws, bandits, and barroom brawls. At its core, it is the quintessential American epic—a story of nation-building and the triumphs, failures, fantasies, and hypocrisies that process entails. Bringing together still and moving images, objects of popular culture, and iconic works of art, this project considers the Western and its attendant myths in the context of painting, photography, literature, and film from the mid-1800s to the present.

Although the earliest roots of the Western can be traced back to the colonial era, it was not until the mid-1800s that the West became a major source of popular entertainment. The Western: An Epic in Art and Film takes as its starting point the development of large-scale landscape painting of the West, the mass production of dime novels and illustrated magazines, and later, the touring of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which transformed the West into the Western: the engine of a homegrown mythology. Tracing the subsequent development of the genre from the silent film era through John Ford’s classic Westerns, the complexity of the postwar years, and beyond, this exhibition highlights the dialogue between film and fine art, fact and fiction.

In the 1960s, the Western was radically transformed through the work of the Italian director, Sergio Leone. Drawing on the tropes that emerged during the preceding decades, Leone created both a homage to and a deconstruction of the Hollywood Western. From that point forward, the genre became a subject of inquiry, and sometimes irony, for contemporary artists and filmmakers.

Although the Western no longer holds pride of place in the popular imagination, to this day it continues to shape our culture. Contemporary directors such as Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained, 2012; The Hateful Eight, 2015), Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, 2005), and Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, 2007; True Grit, 2010) are finding ways to challenge long-entrenched notions of race, gender, and sexuality.

At the same time, Native American artists including Wendy Red Star, Gregg Deal, and Gerald McMaster are crafting powerful responses to the stereotyped roles in which indigenous people were too often cast.

The themes treated in this exhibition are, moreover, directly related to current debates about gun violence, traditional gender roles, and race relations across North America. Building on recent scholarship in film studies, literature, visual culture, and art history, The Western: An Epic in Art and Film comes at a moment of renewed critical interest in the genre.

Learn Behind-the-Scenes Details on June 30

Join me for a curator's talk about The Western: An Epic in Art and Film on Friday, June 30 from 5:30 to 7 pm. Seating is limited, advance ticket purchase is recommended.

Image credit: Frederic Remington, A Dash for the Timber, 1889. Oil on canvas. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection.

Thomas Brent Smith is director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum and co-curator of The Western: An Epic in Art and Film with Mary Dailey Desmarais, PhD, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art's curator of International Modern Art at the MMFA.