Category: American Art

Karl Bodmer: Faces from the Interior

“Great Plains Indian.” Karl Bodmer. Watercolor on paper, circa 1833. Collection of “Art in Embassies” US Department of State. Judging by the diamond pattern on his Buffalo robe, I believe this man is Hidatsa.

As an artist, I see Karl Bodmer’s artworks as key to understanding America. I discovered his works in the late 1960s and have studied them every since. He was an artist-adventurer in the mid-1800s who travelled the wilds of North America to document the lives of indigenous people with sketches, water colors, and elaborate oil paintings.

I always found Bodmer’s portrayals of Native Americans to be dynamic and sympathetic. His depictions were not only gorgeous, but incredibly accurate. They were in fact so detail-oriented that historians and anthropologists have turned to them for a faithful look at the past. Remarkably, he is still not widely recognized in the US, but Karl Bodmer: Faces from the Interior, a nationwide traveling exhibit, might help change that. As I write this the exhibit is at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Texas, where it closes on Jan. 22, 2023.

Bodmer was not the only artist to travel into uncharted territory to paint tribal people. John Mix Stanley, Alfred Jacob Miller, and George Catlin did the same. Catlin’s impressionistic paintings captured the essence of his indigenous sitters, and he remains one of my favorite American artists of his day.

The Bodmer exhibit displays beautiful, highly detailed watercolors and sketches the artist made of Native Americans while traveling up the Missouri River between 1832 and 1834. The works portraying free and autonomous indigenous tribes have great historic and artistic significance. The artist was only 23-years-old at the time, and he gifted the world with a clear and unsentimental view of a bygone era.

“Funeral scaffold of a Sioux chief.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1840. Collection Library of Congress.

The tale began with Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867), who was the ruler of the small state of Neuwied, Prussia (now Germany). Maximilian was an explorer, ethnologist, zoologist, and naturalist, and in 1815 he organized an expedition to southeast Brazil that made tremendous contributions to the understanding of the indigenous people of that region.

When 50-years old, Maximilian organized a similar expedition to the US in 1832. His objective was to study and document Native American tribes living in the wilderness, as well as study the flora and fauna of the country. The excursion launched from the city of St. Louis at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Everything west of the Mississippi was “Indian Country” where few whites, aside from fur trappers, had sojourned. Maximilian intended to meet tribal people by traveling to the Rocky Mountains with frontiersmen and trappers of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company during one of their fur-trading caravans.

“Mehkskéhme-Sukáhs (“Iron Shirt”) Karl Bodmer. Watercolor on paper. 1833. Bodmer created this painting of the Piegan Blackfeet chief at Fort McKenzie. He wears a bear claw in his hair along with a small white ermine with blue beads for eyes. Photo: Malcolm Varon/Source Joslyn Museum.

In St. Louis prior to his mission, Maximilian was counseled by the following men. William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Major Benjamin O’Fallon, who was President Monroe’s Indian Agent for the Upper Missouri, Joshua Pilcher, a leader of the Missouri Fur Company that travelled deep into the Rocky Mountains, and John F. A. Sanford, government agent for tribes along the Missouri. They all cautioned against traveling with frontiersmen, arguing that mountain men avoided contact with Indians and encounters were usually hostile. The Blackfoot in the region were particularly warlike, they controlled trade in beaver pelts by forcing all other tribes out of the Rockies and killing whites who encroached on their lands. Plus, moving large scientific collections through perilous territory would be a daunting, if not impossible enterprise.

“Meach-o shin-gaw” (Little White Bear). Kaw Warrior, George Catlin. Oil on canvas, 1831. The Kaw, also known as the Kansas or Konza, lived in Oklahoma and Kansas.

Maximilian abandoned his plans to visit the Rockies. Instead Clark, O’Fallon, and the other advisors convinced Maximilian to travel up the Missouri River on the “Yellowstone,” a steamboat built by the American Fur Company to help facilitate the fur trade. The plan was to travel up the Missouri to the Fort McKenzie trading post, and then return to St. Louis. Along the way the steamboat would unload supplies at the company’s various trading posts were Plains Indians engaged in the friendly trade of furs for European goods. O’Fallon provided Maximilian with a copy of the 1803-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition map, a topographical depiction that proved indispensable.

The scientifically minded Maximilian desired meticulous documentation of Native Americans and their environs, so he hired the 23-year-old artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893). Bodmer was born in Switzerland and was proficient in the European traditions of classical art. Known as a printmaker skilled in etching, engraving, and lithography, he was also appreciated as a watercolorist and oil painter who created splendid landscapes. Also on the trek was a skilled hunter, taxidermist, and servant to Maximilian named David Dreidoppel; he had accompanied the Prince during his Brazil trip. In essence the expedition was three men; Maximilian the scientist, Bodmer the ingenious young artist, and Dreidoppel the efficient huntsman and master of taxidermy.

On April 10, 1833, the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition began its hazardous trip up the Missouri River on the Yellowstone steamboat. It was the first “side wheeler” steamboat to operate on the Missouri; powered by two steam engines, its steel mechanical paddle wheels measured 18 feet in circumference. One was fixed to each side of the ship. The 144 ton ship was 120-feet in length, with three boilers, twin smoke stacks, and a crew of 24 men. Some 100 people were on board and they were mostly employers of the American Fur Company.

“The steamer Yellowstone on the 19th April 1833.” Karl Bodmer. Watercolor, 1833. The artist chronicled the steamboat stuck on a sand bar on the Missouri river, early in the expedition.

In a 1833 watercolor, Bodmer depicted the Yellowstone steamboat trapped on a Missouri River sandbar early in the expedition, its crew struggling to free the ship. Knowing his discerning eye, it was likely a very accurate depiction of the boat. Previously, on March 26, 1832, artist George Catlin travelled up the Missouri on the very same Yellowstone steamboat to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. This is when he began painting his canvases depicting the indigenous people of the Great Plains. Before his epic journey Catlin painted “St. Louis from the River Below” depicting the Yellowstone steamboat sailing up the Mississippi. It was one of the very first paintings of a city on the Mississippi.

“A Stop; Evening Bivouac.” Karl Bodmer. Watercolor, 1833. On his way upriver with his travel companions, the party stopped to camp in North Dakota on the shore of the Missouri River.

On April 22 the Yellowstone steamboat first stopped at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, ten days later it reached Bellevue Trade Post in Nebraska; also known as Fontenelle’s Post. By the end of May the steamship arrived at Fort Pierre in South Dakota—the American Fur Company’s main trading post among the Sioux. At this point the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition transferred to the Yellowstone’s sister ship the “Assiniboine,” which continued upriver while the Yellowstone returned to St. Louis. The Assiniboine steamed out of Sioux territory and into the land of the Mandan; on June 18 it landed at Fort Clark (also known as Fort Osage) for a day before steaming on to Fort Union, where it moored on June 24. Since their departure from St. Louis, the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition had been traveling upriver into Indian territory for seventy-five days.

“Pachtüwa-Chtä.” Karl Bodmer. Watercolor on paper. 1834. Bodmer created this painting of an Arikara warrior who carries a “gunstock” war club with a painted metal blade. His chest is painted with a knife slash and gunshot wounds. Photo: Malcolm Varon/Source Joslyn Museum.

Fort Union was a principal post for the American Fur Company. Like all the other forts it was not a military installation, but a privately owned, heavily fortified trading post run by the company.

The Yellowstone and Assiniboine steamboats stocked those posts with items like steel knives, hoes and axes, blankets, handkerchiefs, mirrors, combs, toothbrushes, soap, buttons, glass beads, bells, tin kettles, buckets and cups, yards of fabric and ribbon, thread, cotton shirts, awls, mens boots and women’s shoes, socks, tin spoons, pins, needles, razors, scissors, vermillion and indigo pigment dye, gunpowder, gun flints, and lead (to cast bullets), and much more, even tobacco.

White trappers came in to barter for supplies, but natives flocked to the forts to trade furs; buffalo robes and beaver, mink, marten, otter, fox, winter weasel pelts, and other furs were traded for European trade goods. Those items had a huge impact on native culture.

Being equipped with thread, needles, glass beads, and trade cloth was transformative enough, but trade posts also offered the North West Gun and other firearms to Plains tribes. The North West was a .62 caliber (20 gage), smoothbore black-powder flintlock that was light, sturdy, and easy to maintain. It could be loaded with a single large lead ball or with dozens of lead pellets. The North West Gun expanded a tribe’s wealth by increasing the amount of game that could be harvested, but it also changed the dynamics of inter-tribal warfare and the way Plains warriors battled whites.

“Magic Pile Erected by Assiniboin Indians.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1843. Image: Creative Commons.

After six days at Fort Union the expedition made a five-week, 650 mile voyage to Fort McKenzie in Montana on a “keelboat” named Flora.

While keelboat sailing ships had been replaced by larger and faster steamships on rivers, the keels continued to sail on tributary rivers or shallow waters where steamships dare not go, like the upper Missouri.

A keelboat was long and narrow, averaging around sixty feet long and eight feet wide; outfitted with sails, masts, and rigging, it could have a crew as large as 25 men and carry over 20 tons of supplies. The advantage of the keelboat was its ability to navigate shallow or otherwise tricky waters; a crew on shore could tie a rope to the boat’s mast, then pull the ship upstream. If river conditions grew dire in high water the crew could “bushwhack” the boat upriver by literally grabbing shoreline bushes and trees, and pulling the ship forward.

“Fort McKenzie, August 28, 1833.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, 1842.

The Maximilian-Bodmer expedition reached Fort McKenzie on Aug 9, and they would stay until Sept 14, 1833. Bodmer kept busy painting watercolor portraits of Blackfoot, Blood, Piegan, and Assiniboine warriors and chiefs who came to trade; he also painted the wilderness surrounding the fort, as well as the compound itself.

“Fort McKenzie, August 28, 1833.” (Detail) Karl Bodmer. 1842.

On August 28 Bodmer and party witnessed a ferocious battle outside the fort when hundreds of Assiniboin and Cree viciously assailed a Blackfoot encampment. All weapons came into play during the ruthless sortie; bows and arrows, lances, scalping knives, war clubs, and guns. Blackfoot warriors rallied and drove back the attackers, but not before dozens were wounded or killed.

Bodmer watched the bloody melee from the safety of the fort’s parapets. He would base one of his most memorable prints on the conflict. Titled Fort McKenzie, August 28, 1833, the artist created the watercolor in a European studio once he returned home from the expedition. He composed the scene from memory, basing the painting on field sketches and character studies he made at Fort McKenzie. Rather than depicting the bloody fracas as he observed it from behind the trading post’s stockade walls, Bodmer brilliantly placed the viewer right in the middle of the bloodshed. After the skirmish, tensions remained high at Fort McKenzie. Believing there would be more fighting, the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition decided it was time to leave the trading post.

“Pehriska-Ruhpa, Minatarre Warrior in the Costume of the Dog Dance.” Karl Bodmer (detail). Hand-colored aquatint engraving, 1844. The Mandan called the Hidatsa, Minatarre. The Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa-Minatarre became the “Three Affiliated Tribes” in 1868. Image: Creative Commons.

On Sept. 14, 1833 the expedition sailed another keelboat back down the Missouri past Fort Union, to spend the winter at Fort Clark (aka Fort Osage). That is where the expedition spent time with three associated tribal groups unlike any other living on the great plains, the semi-nomadic Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa. Bodmer created sketches and watercolors of their daily lives and rituals, homes, and environs, not to mention some very fine portraits.

“Mató-Tópe (Four Bears), Chief of the Mandan.” Karl Bodmer (detail). Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1844. This chief earned his name for charging enemies as if he were “four bears.” Image: Creative Commons

The Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa stood apart from other plains tribes because they practiced agriculture. They farmed large fields of corn, beans (black, red, spotted, white), along with pumpkins and different squash varietals, sunflowers and tobacco. Plains tribes like the Sioux would trade fur and buffalo meat for fresh and dried vegetables from Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa farmers.

“Mató-Tópe, adorned with the insignia of his warlike deeds.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1844.

As revealed to European anthropologists in 1917 by a Hidatsa woman named Buffalo Bird Woman, the Hidatsa harvested and consumed a black-gray fungus that sometimes grew on ears of corn, they called it Mapë’di.

It was removed from the ear of corn and cooked with corns, beans, and squash, or dried for winter use. I assume the Mandan and Arikara—closely linked to the Hidatsa, also enjoyed the fungus in meals.

That same fungus was harvested and eaten by the ancient Aztecs, who called it Huitlacoche (whee-tla-KO-cheh). Still eaten in Mexico today and considered a delicacy. I have tried tamales and quesadillas containing Huitlacoche. Despite its unsightly appearance, it has a rich earthy mushroom-like flavor.

The Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa lived in fixed villages of sturdy earth lodges. The semi-subterranean homes were circular, built with heavy cotton wood posts set into the earth, and covered with a woven shell of willow branches and dried grass; thick sod and clay covered the shell. Measuring up to 60 feet across, a lodge could house up to 20 family members. Villages were usually built on cliffs above rivers and surrounded by a high wall of felled trees to protect against hostile tribes.

Lodges were arranged in circular fashion around an open village center, where dances and sacred rituals were held. During the winter the tribes lived in their earth lodges, well stocked with dried meat and vegetables. In the spring until the end of summer, they left the villages to live in teepees while hunting buffalo and other game. Thanks to Hollywood films and an inadequate education in US history, most Americans have no idea some plains Indians were surprisingly sophisticated farmers that lived in villages of rugged earthen homes.

“Mandan Village.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1844.

During its travels the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition encountered the Sauk, Fox, Shawnee, Otoe, Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, Dacota, Lakota, Yanktonai, Arikara, Mandan, Hidatsa (Minatarre), Kutenai, Plains Cree, Assiniboine, Piegan, Crow, Gros Ventre, Shoshone, Blood and Blackfoot tribes. Many had not seen whites before, only a few had exposure to trappers and fur traders. The indigenous were still living freely on the plains, and Bodmer would be the last to depict them as a wild free people.

“Mandan pipe.” Karl Bodmer. Watercolor on paper. 1834. Bodmer created this painting of a pipe its owner called upon for protection against enemy arrows. The holder was a spiritual leader who believed his pipe personified the great spirit’s human form, with the bowl being a head and the pipe stem serving as legs. Photo: Malcolm Varon/Source Joslyn Museum.

The expedition bartered trade goods to acquire hundreds of native artifacts. Items collected included leather shirts, moccasins, headdresses, leggings, dresses, buffalo robes, snow shoes, decorated feathers, drums, flutes, eagle bone whistles, war-clubs, knives, bows, arrows, quivers, war shields of buffalo hide, catlinite pipes, medicine items and personal decorations, ceramics, furs, bags, pouches and so much more. Most items were highly decorated with paint, carvings, feathers, hair, beadwork, and extravagant porcupine quill embroidery. Bodmer made accurate catalog drawings of the items entering the collection. A few of these collected items are on display in the traveling exhibition.

When the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition returned to Germany, Prince Maximilian published a two-volume book on the North American trek. The first edition would be published in 1839 under the title Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832-1834. French and English volumes followed. The book included Maximilian’s narrative of the trip, with his remarks on Native Americans and their culture, as well as descriptions of the untouched natural world they inhabited. Of the over 400 paintings and drawings Bodmer brought back, the Prince picked 81 for inclusion in the book; 48 would appear as full page engraved illustrations, the remaining 33 would be vignettes. Two versions of the book were offered, one with illustrations in color, the other with artworks in black and white.

“Interior of a hut of a Mandan Chief.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1839.

Maximilian gave Bodmer the task of supervising production of the engravings. The artist decided on combining engraving with aquatint, a technique that produces images that look remarkably like watercolors. Bodmer worked with teams of artists in Paris, Zurich, and London to produce a suite of 81 aquatint engraving prints that were translations of his detailed original watercolors. However, Bodmer and his assistants took the aquatints further. They produced the color prints by using the “à la poupée” technique. Multiple ink colors were applied to a single printing plate using a small rag ball or “poupee” (doll) for each color. After a print was pulled, Bodmer instructed artists in adding extra hand-coloring with applications of watercolor pigments. The completed prints were a towering artistic achievement. Presently in the United States there are only twenty original editions of Travels in the Interior of North America.

Travels in the Interior of North America became an authoritative record of Great Plains life. Bodmer’s paintings of native people and his exquisite landscapes showing animals, untouched rivers, plains, and forests, provided a look at a vanishing world. The costly book was sold by subscription, but it was not a big seller. Bodmer had spent ten years of his life on the North American expedition project, but by 1847 he transferred rights to those sketches, watercolors, and aquatint engravings to Maximilian’s estate. Eventually the estate would store Bodmer’s artworks at the family’s Neuwied Castle in Germany’s northern Rhineland-Palatinate, and left forgotten for more than 100 years.

After painting American Indians on the frontier, Bodmer moved to France where he became a member of the Barbizon School of landscape painters that included the likes of Corot, Gustave Courbet, and Jean-François Millet. Bodmer exhibited his landscape paintings at three different shows at the Paris Salon from 1851 to 1863. He continued painting until his death, which came on Oct. 30, 1893 at the age of eighty-four.

“Idols of the Mandan Indians.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1836. Image: Creative Commons.

As fate would have it, Karl Bodmer’s artworks were rediscovered in storage at the Neuwied Castle after World War II. In 1959 the Maximilian estate sold the Bodmer collection to the M. Knoedler & Company art dealership in New York, along with Maximilian’s journals, notes, and travel diaries. The Northern Natural Gas Company of Omaha purchased the collection and wisely donated it to the Joslyn Art Museum in 1986. Bodmer’s works remain the core of that museum’s collection.

To accompany their traveling exhibit, the Joslyn Art Museum published a book titled “Faces from the Interior: The North American Portraits of Karl Bodmer.” It is the first book to focus on Bodmer’s talent as a portraitist, and it presents over 50 watercolor portraits of people from the various tribes he visited, plus paintings of tribal ceremonies and landscapes.

Photo of Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, taken 1877. Photographer unknown. Source, Library of Congress.

The Joslyn Art Museum entered an agreement with the UK’s Alecto Historical Editions to reprint Bodmer’s engravings using the artist’s original steel and copper plates. “Restrike” prints—later impressions made from plates already used to produced a print edition, are somewhat controversial.

A restrike is not an original print authorized by the artist, who in most cases is deceased. Original first edition prints have crisp, precise detail, while a restrike is of lower quality displaying softer lines from a worn etching plate. However, the skilled artisans of Alecto Historical Editions used the same exacting methods as the original artists. While lines may not be as sharp and the colors not exact, what Bodmer fan would not want one of these prints?

The Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska has the largest collection of Bodmer’s North American works to be found anywhere in the world; they organized the exhibit in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The first leg of the traveling show took place at the Met (April 5, 2021-July 25, 2021). The exhibit then opened at the Joslyn Art Museum (Oct 2, 2021-May 1, 2022). The last leg of the exhibit is the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (Oct. 29, 2022-Jan. 22, 2023).

A Cowboy at Rest with the Rough Riders

Banner at the back entrance of The Palace Saloon. Photo: Mark Vallen.

In December 2022 my wife Jeannine and I fled Lost Angeles, California to vacation in the wilds of Arizona. The following impressions and photos will describe our adventures in the Wild West of the Union’s 48th state. We first visited Prescott, the historic city in Yavapai County. The population of Prescott is around 45,800 souls, which is just about the number of people who live on my block in the city of LA.

We arrived at the Yavapai Courthouse Plaza, to walk around the district and take in the sights. The plaza is actually a four acre park filled with 170 trees and a beautiful historic bandstand built in 1910 (Arizona became a state in 1912). A good number of monumental bronze memorial statues are found in the plaza, two of which I’ve written about in this essay.

The Palace, oldest saloon in Arizona. Photo: Mark Vallen.

Courthouse Plaza is smack-dab in the center of historic downtown Prescott. Adjacent to the plaza is “Whiskey Row” or Montezuma Street. In the mid-1800s it was a block of over 40 saloons that were constructed of wood. Cowboys, miners, gamblers, outlaws, and not so pure-hearted ladies of pleasure could be found there, along with an occasional wide-eyed traveler.

You could buy beer for a nickel with gold-dust accepted as payment. It all burned down on July 14, 1900, but almost immediately the people rebuilt the area in brick and masonry stone.

One notorious saloon on Whiskey Row was The Palace. Patrons of the saloon included Doc Holliday, Wyatt and Virgil Earp, and Big Nose Kate.

Rebuilt in 1900 after the fire, the building stands today as the oldest frontier saloon in Arizona. Tarnation! The wife and I had lunch there! As a sidebar, a scene from the 1971 film Billy Jack was filmed in the Courthouse Plaza, and director Sam Peckinpah filmed scenes inside The Palace for Junior Bonner—his movie about a modern rodeo cowboy with Steve McQueen in the starring role.

After lunch at The Palace we ventured into the Courthouse Plaza to view the bronze sculptures. One such statue was Cowboy at Rest by American sculptor, Solon Hannibal Borglum (1868-1922).

“Cowboy at Rest.” Solon Hannibal Borglum. Bronze statue. The statue is decked out in Christmas wreaths for the season. Photo: Mark Vallen.

Cowboy at Rest depicts a pensive cowboy at the end of his workday, stretched out in a prone position on a rocky hillside. With a slight smile on his lips he seems to be surveying the vast plains before him, his steed stands over him. The bronze is full of detail; the cowboy’s boots and spurs, an oversized bandana pulled backwards across his neck, a repeating rifle holstered in the saddle. My favorite detail though involves “woolly chaps.”

“Cowboy at Rest.” Solon Hannibal Borglum. Bronze. Note the “woolly chaps.” Photo: Mark Vallen.

“Cowboy at Rest.” Solon Hannibal Borglum. Bronze. “A slight smile on his lips.” Photo: Mark Vallen

In the old days cowboys wore leather chaps to protect their legs from brush, thorns, and branding irons; some wore “woolly chaps” for the same reason. The woollies, made from thick-haired angora goatskins with the fleece left on—kept a cowboy warm in cold, wet conditions. Working cowboys today still wear chaps, and showy woollies are part of present-day rodeo.

While it looks like the horse in Cowboy at Rest is wearing “woolly chaps,” I think Solon’s cowboy hung his woollies to dry on the “stirrup fenders,” the wide leather straps that connect a saddle to the stirrups. I call this my favorite detail because Solon created in bronze the appearance of shaggy fleece, which is no mean feat.

Cowboy at Rest was originally created by Solon in 1903 as one of four small bronze statues depicting life in the West. In 1904 the artist produced a life-sized version in plaster that was exhibited at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition that same year, and in 1905 displayed at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon. Cowboy at Rest was finally cast in bronze and placed in the Yavapai Courthouse Plaza in 1990.

Solon created another famous bronze found on the grounds of the Courthouse Plaza—the Bucky O’Neill Monument, also known as the Rough Rider Monument. Art aficionados have called it the preeminent equestrian statue in America. Sure as shooting, Solon thought it to be his best work.

“Bucky O’Neill Monument.” Solon Hannibal Borglum. Bronze. 1907. Photo: Jeannine Thorpe.

William Owen “Bucky” O’Neill (1860-1898) was born in Missouri and in his youth came riding into Arizona on a burro. He settled in the territory and became a favored son. He was a miner, gambler, newspaper editor, lawyer, sheriff, a Georgist (look that one up) and the mayor of Prescott. Additionally, he gained eternal fame as a captain in Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Solon’s bronze statue is not a portrait of Bucky, but a commemoration of the Rough Riders.

Bucky was the mayor of Prescott when the Spanish American War of 1898 erupted. To fight the Spanish Empire in Cuba, Theodore Roosevelt helped to organize the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry (the Rough Riders). Bucky organized the Arizonan volunteers who joined up, and he became Captain in a Rough Rider regiment. Highly respected by his men, Captain Bucky O’Neill was killed fighting the Spanish on July 1, 1898 in the battle at San Juan Hill.

“Bucky O’Neill Monument” (detail). Solon Hannibal Borglum. Bronze. 1907. Photo: Mark Vallen.

The Yavapai county government gave the commission for the Bucky memorial to Solon in 1906. On July 3, 1907 the Bucky O’Neill Monument was unveiled in the Yavapai Courthouse Plaza and dedicated with great fanfare. Rough Rider and Civil War Veterans paraded with a marching band, along with soldiers from Fort Whipple, which in 1898 had been a mobilization area for the Rough Riders. Some 7,000 Arizonans joined with prominent citizens and the fire departments of Prescott, Tucson, and Phoenix for the massive celebration. Today the bronze still stands in the same honored place in front of the Yavapai Courthouse.

Born in Utah, Solon Hannibal Borglum grew up in Nebraska and Omaha, and spent his early years as a cowboy-rancher. Due to his talent at drawing horses, his older brother Gutzon encourage him to pursue art as a profession. The young Solon went to Omaha to study with a former student of the great realist painter Thomas Eakins, but his formal art studies were scant when he moved to Los Angeles in 1893 to paint portraits and teach art privately. I should mention that Solon’s brother Gutzon ended up creating the most American of sculptures… Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

Finding no success in LA, Solon traveled to Ohio in 1895 and entered the Cincinnati Art Academy where he took up sculpture. The school gave him a scholarship that sent him to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian; the French student’s called Solon the “sculptor of the prairie.”

While at the Académie he met one of its teachers, famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who gave Solon further guidance. Back from Paris, Solon gathered awards and commissions for his works depicting Cowboys, Native Americans, and life in the Old West. He established a studio in New York City, where he founded the School of American Sculpture in 1920; he lectured and taught there until his untimely death at the age of fifty-three in 1922.

Public statues like Cowboy at Rest and the Bucky O’Neill Monument, are impressive, and not just for the skills possessed by the artist. They’re a testament that Americans appreciate art that speaks to them directly in a visual language they understand—elite opinion be damned. They also preserve the nation’s history, which might be the biggest bug-a-boo to the memory-erasing mobocracy that have vandalized public statues coast to coast.

Solon Hannibal Borglum, America’s first cowboy sculptor, left the people of his country something that can’t be uprooted or broken. And for that I thank Arizona.

Sanford Biggers Is Not An Oracle

On May 11, 2021 the Smithsonian Magazine ran an article with the headline, This Monumental ‘Oracle’ Statue in NYC Subverts Traditional Sculpture. Artist Sanford  Biggers was being touted by the magazine as the first artist to be invited by the Rockefeller Center to take over their campus with a multimedia survey exhibition. He was also being applauded for exhibiting his 25-foot tall Oracle bronze statue at the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center. The statue is considered the centerpiece of the Biggers take over.

“Oracle.” Sanford Biggers. Bronze. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

“Oracle.” Sanford Biggers. Bronze. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

Whatever profundity the Oracle bronze supposedly possesses is outweighed by its absurdity; it is hard to take seriously.

The enormous African head teetering on top of a Lilliputian Greco-Roman figure holding a golden torch, does not provoke deep thought, but laughter. It reminds one of the jackalope, that faux American critter created by a 1930s taxidermist who grafted antlers onto the head of a jackrabbit carcass.

Oracle is part of Biggers’ Chimera project, it is the largest statue in that series. His Chimera sculptures, some of which are exhibited at the Rockefeller Center, combine African masks with classical European depictions of the body.

In the case of Oracle, humongous size is not matched by a beauty of equal magnitude.

Aside from its droll unsightliness, there is a three-ring circus side-show angle to Oracle. Biggers outfitted the statue with an interactive component allowing the public to ask the sculpture questions, once they activate a QR code. According to the artist, Oracle answers with the voices of “various celebrities” (well of course—there must be celebrities), and the responses will be “mysterious, poetic vagaries which will hopefully be, if not helpful, at least mystifying.” Perhaps Oracle could soothsay how far away in the future it will be before Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa speaks with a QR code initiated celebrity voice.

On a wide, double stepped, white platform, the Oracle sits on its royal black throne. Emblazoned on the seat of power one finds a repeated circular image of what appears to be a lotus blossom. A closer look reveals each petal of the lotus is the cross-section of a slave ship filled with its human cargo. It is an accursed flower, and it is Biggers’ vision of America.

The exhibition includes sculptures, mixed media “paintings” made on antique quilts, video, audio, a “mural” (if you choose to call a Photoshop file printed by an inkjet printer a mural), and flags, because, what would an art exhibition be without flags?

“Rockefeller Center Plaza.” Photo by the Wurts Brothers, circa 1934. Paul Manship’s “Prometheus” is in the foreground, while Lee Lawrie’s “Wisdom with Sound and Light” can be glimpsed in the background.

“Rockefeller Center Plaza.” Photo by the Wurts Brothers, circa 1934. Paul Manship’s “Prometheus” is in the foreground, while Lee Lawrie’s “Wisdom with Sound and Light” can be glimpsed in the background.

Rockefeller Center combines two building complexes, the original fourteen office buildings that were built in the 1930s in the Art Deco style, and four towers built in the 1960s and 70s in the International architecture style. American architect Raymond Hood was the chief architect. Biggers compared himself to Hood, saying “When Raymond Hood was designing this complex, he was grabbing from stories from antiquity, mythology, art, to wind up with this beautiful Art Deco monument. I wanted to reference various cultures and histories as well.”

The prodigious Raymond Hood was not “grabbing” bits from the past to “wind up” with an assemblage—that is the methodology of postmoderns like Biggers. Hood studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture, and in 1911 he graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris. His designs were meticulous, purposeful, and pragmatic, bearing Neo-Gothic or Art Deco embellishments. The mythology and art he was supposedly grabbing were the ancient Greek building blocks that Western civilization rests upon; foundations forsaken by postmodernists. Oracle is presumably the dubious stand-in for the “various cultures and histories” that Biggers mentioned.

“Chimaera fighting Bellerophon.” Ceramic cup, circa 575 BC. The black-figure style painting was created by the ancient Athenian artist today known as the “Heidelberg Painter.” Bellerophon was a hero monster slayer who captured and rode the winged horse named Pegasus.

“Chimera fighting Bellerophon.” Ceramic cup, circa 575 BC. The black-figure style painting was created by the ancient Athenian artist today known as the “Heidelberg Painter.” Bellerophon was a hero monster slayer who captured and rode the winged horse named Pegasus.

As with all of Biggers’ works at the Rockefeller Center, the Chimera sculptures are consumed by identity politics—an Afrocentric vision to be precise. So it is odd that he named his sculpture series after the Chimera of ancient Greece, a mythic fire-breathing female creature that was a hybrid of lion, goat, and snake. All of his exhibited works have the intent of dethroning “whiteness” in Western art. They are an attempt to supplant European mythos with blackness. In the language of artspeak, the artist “explores historical depictions of the body and their subsequent myths, narratives, perceptions, and power.” That is a tad more palatable than just saying “he kicks Western civilization in the teeth.”

According to Biggers the Oracle head is based on masks from various African cultures, including those created by the Luba people of the Congo, and the Maasai tribal group inhabiting parts of Kenya and Tanzania. I am left wondering, how does the king-like Oracle come to represent all of Africa? In modern Africa there are fifty-four countries—only one of them, Eswatini (Swaziland), is an absolute monarchy. The two others, Lesotho and Morocco, are constitutional monarchies. It seems Biggers is partial to the supreme power of an African king over the democratic rule of the people. In his view Oracle completes “the rest of the story” told by the classical European statues of Rockefeller Center. He says that Oracle contains “a lot of African elements.” Yet, when studying real world African art, those “African elements” appear to be dreamed up.

Biggers noted the body of Oracle was inspired by the Statue of Zeus that once sat in the Temple of Zeus in ancient Olympia, Greece. Difficult to imagine, since no accurate copies of the statue survive; the temple and its statue were destroyed long ago by earthquakes and fires. In 457 BC the sculptor Phidias created the 40-foot high chryselephantine sculpture of Zeus, King of the Olympian Gods. In this type of sculpture, gold (chrysos) depicted garments and accoutrements, while ivory (elephantinos) represented flesh. It is said Zeus was depicted with his outstretched right hand holding a statue of Nike, goddess of victory. His left hand held a scepter where an eagle perched. The statue became one of the Seven Wonders of the World. That will not be the destiny of Oracle.

Historically the Smithsonian and other art institutions have had few problems discerning persons from gods in artifacts from the ancient world. However the Smithsonian Magazine described Oracle as a “person or deity with an enormous head who sits majestically on a throne.” The statement seems confused because there is no tangible history behind Oracle, no celebrated personages, no gods, no legendary event, just a wan metaphor for black superiority. It is a mash-up where a simulacrum of ancient Greece is pitted against Biggers’ imagined “African elements,” and the winner is Wakanda, the fictional sub-Saharan country made-up by Marvel Comics.

“Seigaiha.” Sanford Biggers. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

“Seigaiha.” Sanford Biggers. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

Let us examine the flag series titled Seigaiha that Biggers said he created for the Rockefeller Center flagpoles. Media accounts report the blue flags display “a unique wave illustration designed by Biggers.” The artist says the flags with their wave patterns in white, are meant to represent the Middle Passage Slave Trade that brought enslaved Africans to the Americas. However, seigaiha is a Japanese word that means “blue ocean waves.” It describes a particular design element in Japanese art that consists of concentric circles symbolizing waves. It is obvious Japan had absolutely nothing to do with the Middle Passage Slave Trade, so why did Biggers bring Japanese culture into his denunciation of slavery?

"Rough Waves" pattern by artist Mariko Garcia ©

“Rough Waves” pattern by artist Mariko Garcia ©

The “unique wave illustration” was not “designed by Biggers.” It was hand drawn by New York based artist Mariko Garcia and based on the Japanese “Nami” design representing powerful, churning ocean waves. Garcia titled her drawing “Rough Waves” and made it available on merchandising sites like Adobe, Shutterstock, and Pixers.

On those platforms you will not find her design listed under “Middle Passage” or “Slave Trade.” Apparently Biggers took Garcia’s Rough Wave textile, had someone sew it up in flag form, then passed it off as his own design and claimed the turbulent waves represented the Middle Passage Slave Trade. How does this pass for significant art? Biggers’ Seigaiha flags have nothing to do with slavery, and everything to do with plagiarism.

Likely the most ridiculous thing about Biggers’ Oracle is that it is being juxtaposed to the celebrated masterworks associated with the Rockefeller Center building, particularly the works of American artists Lee Lawrie and Paul Manship. Those two virtuosos created works of irrefutable skill and artistry, and today their art continues to be enjoyed by the public at large for accomplished craft and timeless beauty. How tragic that postmodernism first obliterated, then blotted out the memory and concept of beauty in art. No one stands before an original Biggers to whisper in awe, “that is so exquisite, how did he do that?” Although some might say “why did he do that?” Poor betrodden Beauty, against her will she has been forced into a longterm hiatus.

“Atlas.” Lee Lawrie/Rene Paul Chambellan. Bronze sculpture. 1937. Photo: Michael Greene

“Atlas.” Lee Lawrie/Rene Paul Chambellan. Bronze sculpture. 1937. Photo: Michael Greene

In 1936 Lee Lawrie and fellow sculptor Rene Paul Chambellan created Atlas, a 45-foot-tall, seven-ton bronze statue for Rockefeller Center that stands outside the building at 630 5th Ave. Essentially Lawrie created sketches and models of the statue to be, and Chambellan translated them into sculptural form.

The ancient Greeks believed Zeus, King of the Gods, condemned Atlas to hold up the sky with his shoulders for eternity. Lawrie and Chambellan depicted Atlas shouldering the sky by showing him bearing an enormous armillary sphere, the astronomical tool representing the heavens used by the Greeks.

On the celestial sphere you can see the Greco-Roman planet symbols for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Lawrie was one of the greatest sculptors of his day. His creations include architectural sculptures on the 1926 Los Angeles Public Library, and the 1939 bas-relief bronze doors on the John Adams building of the Library of Congress, Washington DC. Those doors included twelve figures depicting gods or heroes from ancient Mexico, China, India, Mesopotamia, Greece, Persia, Germany, and North America, all associated with the advent of writing. The artworks are an example of the “diversity and inclusion” today’s radicals say are lacking in the American cultural landscape.

“Wisdom.” Lee Lawrie. Limestone sculptural relief panel. 1933. Photo: Jaime Ardiles-Arce.

“Wisdom.” Lee Lawrie. Limestone sculptural relief panel. 1933. Photo: Jaime Ardiles-Arce.

Lee Lawrie created a second tour de force for the Rockefeller Center—relief sculpture panels known as Wisdom with Sound and Light that sit over the main entrance doors.

Lawrie carved the panels from limestone and collaborated with artist and polychromist Leon V. Solon, who painted and gilded the sculptures. Solon advocated Architectural Polychromy, the decorative painting of stone buildings to make them more elegant and harmonizing. He made the following statement regarding his work:

“Color is a terrific force when introduced into an architectural combination, and is capable of producing an effect upon the observer equaled only by the fascination which firearms possess for small boys.”

The politically correct will no doubt be horrified. Perhaps they shall cancel the artworks of Lawrie and Solon.

In 1934 American artist Paul Manship created the statue titled Prometheus, seen in the lower Plaza of Rockefeller Center. His pre-Olympian Titan god of fire is an 18-foot-tall, eight-ton bronze sculpture gilded with gold. The ancient Greeks believed Prometheus created humanity from clay. It is said he stole fire from Zeus, and gifted it to humans.

“Prometheus.” Paul Manship. Gilded bronze sculpture. 1934. Photo: Will Powell.

“Prometheus.” Paul Manship. Gilded bronze sculpture. 1934. Photo: Will Powell.

Enraged by that act Zeus condemned Prometheus to eternal torment by having him bound to a rock, where an eagle would come to eat his liver. The liver grew back every night, and each morning the eagle returned to feast.

Manship depicted Prometheus clutching the stolen fire in his right hand as he falls through a gigantic ring representing the heavens. The red granite wall behind the statue is inscribed with the paraphrased words of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus: “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.”

And what fire does Biggers bring? His Just Us mural on exhibit at the Rockefeller Center is a confused muddle in every sense. It is a Photoshop creation printed on an inkjet printer. It has all the gravitas of a pamphlet printed at a commercial print shop; its political message is baffling as well. During the 60s, radical civil rights activists said American justice was accessible only to white men, referring to US jurisprudence as “Just Us.” But who speaks the phrase in the Biggers mural, oppressor or oppressed? Is it a badge of honor or a victim’s fear? Why do the words hang in the heavens like an irreligious joke? Are we expected to be impressed with ambiguity? Just Us is too arcane to be a political statement, and even less noteworthy as a mural. Muralism has fallen from its once commanding position into the abyss of lowbrow kitsch, graffiti, and other postmodern inanities. That is where you find Biggers.

Biggers believes his Oracle bronze statue is a necessary companion to Lawrie’s and Manship’s bronze statues, because he imagines he has provided the missing puzzle piece of the African experience. Without naming a particular building or artwork, Biggers told the media that all throughout Rockefeller Center, “there are smaller symbols of the triangle trade and the slave trade. You see references to tobacco and cotton and sugar.” The press published his allegations without question or objection. You might think an explicit accusation that racist iconography is part of the architecture of Rockefeller Center might be cause for a journalistic investigation. Nope. Journalism is dead.

“Industries of the British Empire.” Bronze panel, Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933. Photo: Wally Gobetz

“Industries of the British Empire.” Bronze panel, Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933. Photo: Wally Gobetz

Biggers was alluding to the Rockefeller Center’s British Empire Building, designed by Raymond Hood to house British governmental and commercial offices.

In the early 1930s artist Carl Paul Jennewein created Industries of the British Empire, a huge relief panel in bronze for placement above the entrance door. The 18-foot high by 11-foot wide, blackened patina bronze panel was decorated with nine gilded allegorical figures representing the vital industries of the British Empire—Salt, Wheat, Wool, Coal, Fish, Cotton, Tobacco, and Sugar.

Eight of the laborers had tumbling gilded letters spelling out their industry placed next to them. European laborers from the British Isles, Canada, and Australia were identified with fish, coal, wool, and wheat.

Biggers might be shocked to find Jennewein identified those in his bronze panel working with sugar, tobacco, and salt, as workers from the subcontinent of India, not African slaves from the Middle Passage Slave Trade.

In 1792 the British Crown found it cheaper to produce sugar in British India than on Caribbean islands. Jennewein’s artwork showed an Indian man working with sugar cane, an Indian woman with tobacco plants, and another carrying a bag of salt. Jennewein’s artworks unintentionally exposed colonialism at work in India—but Biggers payed no attention.

“East India Sugar not made by Slaves.” Blue glass sugar bowl with gilt letters. 1820-1830. Made in Great Britain, merchandise like this was exported to anti-slavery activists in America. Photo Andreas Praefcke

“East India Sugar not made by Slaves.” Blue glass sugar bowl with gilt letters. 1820-1830. Made in Great Britain, merchandise like this was exported to anti-slavery activists in America. Photo Andreas Praefcke

He will not tell you that in 1791 British citizens by the hundreds of thousands were buying sugar from India where slavery was not used, and were spooning their Indian sugar out of abolitionist bowls inscribed with “East India Sugar not made by Slaves.” American abolitionists did likewise.

If Biggers does not understand the importance of salt in India’s Independence movement against British colonialism, he should read a few books on the subject.

Of the nine gilded allegorical figures in Jennewein’s bronze, only one portrayed an African—a woman working with cotton. Is Biggers also unaware that in the late 1800’s African cotton fed the British textile industry, and slaves from the Triangle Trade had nothing to do with it?

In Sudan the British Empire defeated Islamic fundamentalist leader Muhammad Ahmad in 1898, he claimed to be the Mahdi (“Guided One”), the deliverer and restorer of true Islam. His Mahdist army had established an Islamic State in Sudan that stretched from the Red Sea to Central Africa. After vanquishing the Mahdi and his caliphate, Sudan became a source of cotton for the growing British textile industry; it also gave access to the Nile, expanding British markets and suppliers.

Bronze figure gilded in gold representing sugar production in India. From “Industries of the British Empire” by Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933.

Bronze figure gilded in gold representing sugar production in India. From “Industries of the British Empire” by Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933.

Recall that Biggers said relief sculptures in Rockefeller Center depicted “symbols of the triangle trade and the slave trade.” But the history of colonialism and empire is complicated. During the Triangle Trade Great Britain sent trade goods such as cloth, iron goods, guns, and rum to Africa.

Many powerful African empires like the Kingdom of Benin (1440-1897), traded enormous numbers of black captives for those goods. The estimated number of captive slaves traded away by various African empires reaches as high as 20 million.

The Kingdom of Benin sold slaves to British, French, and Portuguese merchants for over 200 years. The slaves were shipped to the West Indies and the Americas. From England’s 13 Colonies, rum, iron ore, timber, furs, rice, indigo dye, and other goods were shipped to Great Britain, beginning the process anew.

Nothing I write here denies the ugly blot of the Middle Passage Slave Trade and the inhuman treatment of African people at the hands of slave traders. The empires of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain mercilessly partitioned and exploited Africa. However, the Transatlantic Slave Trade would have been impossible without the partnership of slave trading African empires, who enslaved fellow Africans for material gain.

If an artist is going to confront the monstrous history of slavery, then fabrication and calumny are not the colors to paint with. It should also be remembered that France abolished slavery in 1794, Great Britain did so in 1833, and on December 6, 1865, slavery was ended in the United States—and the cost was the death of some 365,000 Union soldiers. Modern day slavery continues to exist in the world today, but “progressive” artists have very little to say about it.

What does Mr. Biggers say about the nation of Mauritania, also known as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, where the “peculiar institution” bleeds into the present. Historically Arab Mauritanians enslaved the Haratin black Mauritanians. Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960, yet did not end slavery until 1981; it was the last country on earth to abolish slavery. According to the BBC it did not criminalize slavery until 2015. In 2017 the BBC reported 600,000 Mauritanians were held in human bondage. Despite all of that Mauritania was allowed to join the UN Human Rights Council in 2020!

So, where are the paintings, videos, audio recordings, murals, flags, and statues by Biggers exposing modern day chattel slavery in Mauritania? It is so much easier to bash Western Civilization for the umpteenth time, while giving an encore recitation on the crimes of “whiteness.”

Biggers’ racialist politics are barely camouflaged by postmodern aesthetics and artspeak; he stands with those who want to “decolonize” the art institutions of the Western world. They are convinced American and European Classical art are linked to white supremacy and its “colonial project.” A writer at the leftist art periodical Hyperallergic succinctly made the point: “America’s encyclopedic museums originated from worldviews not that different from those of today’s white supremacists and nationalists.” Another frenzied dilettanti from the same journal proposed the abolition of museums because they deploy violence “against black bodies, brown bodies, gender non-conforming bodies, colonized bodies, queer bodies, immigrant bodies, disabled bodies, poor bodies, as well as violence against the cultures that these bodies create and move through.”

I am horrified that a layer of contemporary leftists are arguing for the abolishment of museums in Europe and America. They insist museums be “reimagined” (I have come to loath that word), because they think those institutions are “at war” with people of color. That canard has a familiar ring, it reminds me of the Khmer Rouge communists who seized Cambodia in 1975. They declared they would “abolish, uproot, and disperse the cultural, literary, and artistic remnants of the imperialists, colonialists, and all of the other oppressor classes. This will be implemented strongly, deeply and continuously.” [¹] The Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot called the reign of terror “Year Zero.” And so they “reimagined” Cambodia by smashing every vestige of bourgeois society, art, culture, religion, and old traditions. Those “corrupted by imperialistic ideas,” and there were some 1.3 million of them—were executed. It was Pol Pot’s “Great Reset.”

Biggers and his art world allies want you to believe there has been a failure to “understand” classical European art as a “white-washed” history where people of color have been ignored. The decolonize art crowd maintains that classical European sculptures of white marble were once painted in bright colors, true—if speaking of the marble and bronze sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome, but that hardly encompasses the total output of Europe’s classical sculptures. Some insist the Renaissance aesthetic was a “mistake”! Roman statues unearthed in the 15th century were stripped of color by time and the elements, so artists of that period mistakenly deduced the statues had always been white. From the racialist view it follows that from then on, creating white marble statues was only “normalizing whiteness.”

Renaissance artists had good reason to sculpt from white Carrara marble, mined in Italy since the days of ancient Rome—it had nothing to do with race. Freshly quarried Carrara marble is generally soft and easy to carve, it possesses minimal veining which makes the surface consistent, it has a fine grain that captures detail, and it can be polished to extraordinary effect. Most important of all, white Carrara marble has a certain translucency, making it perfect for modeling the human form. Michelangelo (1475–1564) used Carrara marble to carved his Pietà and David masterworks. Renaissance artists made an aesthetic leap by introducing a natural, realistic treatment of subjects, infusing them with emotive power. Form, texture, the play of light across marble, was thought essential. The idea of painting such statues was unthinkable.

“John Brown.” Edmonia Lewis. Plaster. 1876

“John Brown.” Edmonia Lewis. Plaster. 1876

Biggers and the coterie around him will likely never mention Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907). She was the first African American sculptor to gain national and international recognition for her sculptures.

She studied sculpture in Boston, where she met abolitionists like John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw—commander of the Union Army’s 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment composed of free black men.

She created portrait busts of John Brown and Colonel Shaw after their deaths. Brown was hanged for treason on Dec. 2, 1859 for his raid on the Harpers Ferry federal armory. The US Civil War began on April, 12, 1861, and Lewis created her plaster sculpture of Brown in 1864. A year later the American Civil War ended on May 9, 1865.

On July 18, 1863 Colonel Shaw and the men of the 54th, attacked Confederate held Fort Wagner in South Carolina. They were cut to ribbons by fire from the 1,700 Confederates in the fortress. Of the six hundred soldiers in the 54th, 250 were killed or wounded.

“Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.” Edmonia Lewis. White Carrara marble. 1864

“Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.” Edmonia Lewis. White Carrara marble. 1864

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was killed on the ramparts while fighting in hand to hand combat. At the bottom of her marble portrait of Colonel Shaw, where the bust meets its pedestal, Edmonia Lewis carved the words, “Martyr For Freedom.”

A surviving member of the 54th, William Harvey Carney, received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry. He carried the American flag into combat and planted it on the parapets. When the Rebels forced the 54th to retreat under fire, he brought the flag back with him despite being shot four times. Carney never let the American flag touch the ground.

Lewis’ portrait bust of Colonel Shaw was purchased by the Shaw family, who gave the artist permission to make plaster replicas of the bust to help advance the Union cause; Lewis created and sold 100 of these for five dollars each.

On a related note, the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), created the bronze Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment that sits at the edge of Boston Common in Massachusetts. At a Black Lives Matter protest on May 31, 2020, the monument was vandalized with giant spray-painted red and black graffiti that read; “RIP George Floyd,” “All Cops Are Bastards,” “BLM,” and “FUCK 12” (twelve being a reference to police). Who shall tell the spirits of the 54th that Black Lives Matter defiled their monument?

Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, defaced with BLM graffiti, May 31, 2020. Source: Twitter

Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, defaced with BLM graffiti, May 31, 2020. Source: Twitter

I am unsure if Sanford Biggers is exhibiting his 2017 artwork titled Overstood at the Rockefeller Center, but it is worth mentioning to fully understand his body of work. Wrapped in his “African cultural perspective” cloak, Biggers uses the Jamaican patois word “overstand” to replace “understand” in the title. The artist described his work with the following:

“Inspired by a photo of a 1968 Black Panther Party protest and emanating from hand carved power objects on the floor, four larger than life elders look down on centuries of systemic disenfranchisement, pathological extrajudicial practices of the US government towards Black Americans, and the culture that allows these to persist. They witness, stand over and “overstand” that change must come.”

“Overstood.” Sanford Biggers. Sequins, canvas, fabric, tar, glitter, polystyrene, Aquaresin. 2017

“Overstood.” Sanford Biggers. Sequins, canvas, fabric, tar, glitter, polystyrene, Aquaresin. 2017

There are a number of problems with the artwork and its statement. Biggers did not credit Associated Press photographer Ernest K. Bennet for the photo of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and his militant comrades; who were not all Panthers.

It can be argued that not crediting Bennet is plagiarism, as with Biggers’ Seigaiha flags. Some will say fair use laws allow for such artistic practice, but I contend it simply shows Biggers has no talent or aptitude for drawing.

You might think an artist is expected to show a genius for the delineation of form by way of line, shading, and tone, but the art establishment of today insists drawing is passé, unless talking about meaningless scrawls and scratches.

The real headache regarding Overstood is its misrepresentation of the Black Panther Party and the artist’s cultural nationalist political baggage. Which brings me to the “hand carved power objects” Biggers has his “Panthers” springing from.

Plainly speaking the Panthers were not practitioners of religion, African or otherwise; they were adherents of Marxian dialectical materialism, not African spiritualism. Yet Biggers shows them, not only as creations of African spirits who have conjured them up, but as supernatural beings in some ethereal African afterworld. Clearly, Biggers is far-removed from the thoughts of Panther leader Huey P. Newton, and in alignment with the black supremacist cultural nationalism of Maulana Karenga. To understand the quandary lets review some historic facts.

Photo of Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale (right center) with fellow militants in Oakland, California. Photographer Ernest K. Bennett took the photo on Nov. 21, 1968. Sanford Biggers used Bennett’s uncredited photo to create “Overstood.”

Photo of Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale (right center) with fellow militants in Oakland, California. Photographer Ernest K. Bennett took the photo on Nov. 21, 1968. Sanford Biggers used Bennett’s uncredited photo to create “Overstood.”

The Black Panther Party (BPP) embraced revolutionary socialism and defined itself as the “vanguard of the revolution.” It held political education classes where party members were required to read and understand works like: The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, The Last Stage of Imperialism and Class Struggle in Africa by Kwame Nkrumah, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Bourgeoisie by E. Franklin FrazierThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

The Panthers expressed solidarity with socialist Algeria, and the communist regimes of China, Cuba, North Vietnam, and North Korea. The BPP was not a black supremacist organization, it sought working relationships with all races. In 1968 its Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, ran for president on the California Peace and Freedom Party.

“Eldridge Cleaver For President.” Presidential campaign poster for Black Panther Party Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver. He ran for President on the Peace & Freedom Party ticket in 1968. Artist unknown.

“Eldridge Cleaver For President.” Presidential campaign poster for Black Panther Party Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver. He ran for President on the Peace & Freedom Party ticket in 1968. Artist unknown.

The Panthers opposed the cultural nationalists of the US Organization, founded in 1965 by Ron Everett, who took the Swahili name of Maulana (master teacher) Karenga (keeper of the tradition). Karenga wanted no alliances with whites, insisting that a cultural return to Africa would restore black identity and bring deliverance to American blacks.

Followers wore African clothes, spoke Swahili, and gave themselves African names. In 1966 Karenga invented an African harvest festival he called Kwanzaa. His objective was to “give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”

Karenga elaborated, “You must have a cultural revolution before the violent revolution. The cultural revolution gives identity, purpose, and direction.” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris claims to celebrate Kwanzaa.

The leadership of the Black Panther Party, including Bobby Seale, referred to Karenga’s politics as “pork chop nationalism.” In a 1968 interview with The Movement publication of the Students for a Democratic Society, Newton described Karenga’s cultural nationalism as “reactionary” and “the wrong political perspective.” At the UCLA campus on Jan. 17, 1969, members of Karenga’s US shot and killed Black Panthers Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, because they ridiculed Maulana Karenga. Did the elders witness, stand over and “overstand” that act of political assassination?

One last comment on Biggers plagiarizing Bennet’s Nov. 21, 1968 photo. On that date Eldridge Cleaver delivered a speech at San Francisco’s California Hall. It was sponsored by his defense committee. It is somewhat likely Bobby Seale and his comrades were photographed at that event. Cleaver had been charged with attempted murder for an April 1968 shoot out with Oakland police where Panther Bobby Hutton was killed and two officers wounded. Sometime after his address Cleaver jumped bail to avoid imprisonment. He fled to Cuba, then to socialist Algeria, where the National Liberation Front had just won independence from France in 1962.

Some have implied Seale and fellow militants were photographed at the Third World Liberation Front student strike at San Francisco State College (Nov. 1968 to March 1969). Not likely, since Nov. 21st was not significant to the student action, despite two firebrands from the strike, Ben Stewart and George Murray being in the picture. Bennet’s photo is a conundrum. Cleaver’s speech and the student strike both happened in San Francisco, but the photo credit says it was taken in Oakland—across from the San Francisco Bay. There is no certainty regarding the event and location captured in the photo; it seems a detail lost to history. The only certitude is that Biggers concocted a narrative that he attached to a misappropriated historic photograph.

In conclusion, ever since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a porcelain urinal in 1917, artists have been subverting traditional sculpture. So, are the artists of today still yearning for the overthrow of classical sculpture? How is that even possible? What is left of traditional sculpture in the present day? How can the art of Sanford Biggers be considered “subversive” when it is embraced by galleries and museums, praised by art critics, and sanctioned by ruling class institutions?

Postmodern conceptual art, performance art, and installation art, rule the roost in present-day art institutions; that sphere supports Biggers. Traditional realist sculpture, painting and drawing is no longer spoken of in contemporary art magazines. It is shoved aside at art fairs and trendy galleries—one might find it cobwebbed in the basements of a few museums. It is not hyperbole to say realism has gone underground. It is time for a complete reversal of the situation.

As for the Rockefeller family and their namesake, the Rockefeller Center, there has been, shall we say, a rather prickly liaison with the art world over the years. I am certain Biggers does not know that during the Cold War of the early 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly worked with Nelson Rockefeller and other highfalutin members of the art world—including artists, to establish the dominance of American abstract art over the “Socialist Realism” of the Soviet Union. Yes, they even weaponized art. And today? Perhaps Biggers should do some reading on the topic.

So again the question, what is left of traditional art and sculpture? Not much, and regrettably artists like Sanford Biggers hope to fill the void. If toppling monuments to historic American figures and events subverts the mythos of the United States, then what mythology will supersede them? Mr. Biggers and his backers think they have the answer. Still I wonder. Instead of incessantly rubbing our noses in horrid things, why not create beauteous works of art, breathtaking works that uplift and unite people.

Would that be so difficult?


The Sanford Biggers exhibit at the Rockefeller Center, ran from May 5 to June 29, 2021.


1. George Chigas and Dmitri Mosyakov, Literacy and Education under the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University.