Whose history is this?

Have you questioned, since primary and secondary evidence was introduced to you at secondary school, who owned a history? Wondered why one particular image or idea has been given or absorbed precedence over another, whose truth has been told where a cacophony once existed?

Exhibition image

George Catlin was an American lawyer-turned-painter who held a fascination with Native Americans; between 1830 and 1836 he visited around fifty tribes visually recording clothing, customs and scenes from everyday life. A showman, the artist collected together his sketches and paintings to create the world’s one and only travelling Indian Gallery. It traversed across the United States and then in 1839 came to Europe, where audiences were wowed by the vibrancy and unfamiliar details in the paintings. The art wasn’t enough to keep the public interested for too long, however. By the mid-peak of his career the Gallery was accompanied by Native Americans performing traditional, tribal dances and ceremonies. Catlin had produced a sensationalist travelling circus of sorts.

At the National Portrait Gallery there are, thankfully, no “performers” on display. Scores of proud people gaze down from the walls, adorned with face paint, feathers, beading and weapons. In the exhibition text they are individually named but the detail concentrates on the description of the finery and the costume. One 12 year old girl, Mint, is reduced to a “belle” with peculiar course grey hair and a winsome gaze. A paragraph about individual tribal leaders references their strength and prowess in battle. We feel no closer to these people than to the models in a fashion magazine, the interpretation feels equally as hollow. This is clearly an outsider’s view. Catlin didn’t spend time with one tribe or sit, in the traditional sense, with his subject for a sustained period. He collected imagery; he was hungry for difference, for the minute differences between each tribe, between them and us. His work, quickly produced, isn’t of great quality and reveals the eagerness of the artist to capture more and more.

George Catlin, American Indian Portraits seems a strange story for the National Portrait Gallery to tell, an unusual side of history to have aligned with. This show promises to “suggest the sense of spectacle created by Catlin and demonstrate how he constructed a particular image of American Indians in the minds of his audience”. The only difference is, this is 2013 not 1839 and dissimilar cultures don’t suggest a spectacle. Reconstructing an image as an exact replica without additional interpretation doesn’t demonstrate a time and place, it simply recreates and reinvigorates the original image. How many of us now have firsthand experience in knowing about the Native American way of life, or could honestly say we came to this exhibition to learn more about the individuals instead of to be awed by the aesthetics?

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits, the salon hang at the National Portrait Gallery.

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits, the salon hang at the National Portrait Gallery.

Perhaps the most striking element of this exhibition is the replica of the salon hang. Some of the frames retain their original numbering from the hang in London over 150 years ago. Twenty-four paintings hang in rows of three, the top two rows being too high up the wall to study in detail and the whole display discouraging close reflection. In this way the images become almost caricatures, here is a selection of American Indians displayed for your curiosity and amusement. In the room just along from the salon hang a telling black and white photograph from 1901 shows the Indian Gallery at the Smithsonian. The only difference, there wasn’t room (or desire?) to include the display cases containing the clothing and paraphernalia here.

You might argue that the paintings in the Smithsonian’s collection are the only real surviving body of work which represent a lost way of life, and so that they rightfully belong on display. But It is the nature of the display which is troubling, the question of who is holding the power and who hasn’t been included or consulted. These are works painted by a white man, owned by a rich and powerful cultural organisation in the US who has traded the right to show these works at a national museum in London. For a gallery which concentrates on portraits of people, this is a departure, because these aren’t portraits. At best they are an anthropological study, and at worst they are storybook depictions best placed in a history museum.

George Catlin, Sha-kó-ka, Mint, a Pretty Girl (1832)

George Catlin, Sha-kó-ka, Mint, a Pretty Girl (1832)

On display until 23rd June 2013.

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