Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Art of American Unease

The fact-of-the-day on my desk calendar informs me that on this in 1869, the First US transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory, Utah, and it's reminded me of a favorite piece of artwork from my DVD collection - the Masters of Cinema edition of John Ford's Silent masterpiece The Iron Horse, which re-stages the driving of the "golden spike" that joined the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States, connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. The beautiful Masters of Cinema sleeve modeled on one of the original Fox film posters from 1924, depicts an Indian warrior perched on a cliff top gazing at a locomotive journeying through the valley below.

What I find interesting about this artwork is how the meaning has changed over the years. In the film the sympathies of Ford and his screenwriters lie squarely on the side of the railroad workers who come under frequent attack throughout by marauding tribes of Indians, and the artist of the poster captures well the sense of action and spectacle - within the context of the film the Indian Warrior in the picture could well be a lone scout, part of a war party preparing to ambush the locomotive and claim its spoils (such a raid is seen in one sequence in The Iron Horse). But when I look at the image through the long lens of history, to me it suggests something more disquieting - the arrival of the railroad not just as an instrument of progress, growth and expansion, but rather an unstoppable force of displacement and destruction. Whether the Indian warrior depicted in the sleeve is aware of the unconquerable power of the railroad is uncertain - at one point in The Iron Horse, a train driver cheerfully recalls an Indian trying to lasso a locomotive - but his posture, the cautious vantage point, the weapon he's clutching all suggest unease or fear, perhaps he's seeing this iron horse for the first time. Interestingly, Masters of Cinema opted to use one of the more stylized variations on the more well known Fox poster, and with it's psychedelic arrangement of colors, the boiling molten landscape, seems to accentuate this sense of foreboding.

I wonder had the unnamed artist at the Fox art department seen Herman Schuyler's 1880 oil painting The First Train which depicts a similar scene. In this painting three Native Americans observe a train crossing a prairie. At first glance the painting suggests a tranquil pastoral panorama - but the juxtaposition in the picture of the distant train and a swaddling baby reveals something more profound - the beginning of a new generation, but one that would herald a cataclysmic change for the lives of Native Americans. The laying of the Transcontinental Railroad tore up territories Native American tribes had occupied for generations, land that was deemed sacred was seized by the US Army and more and more European settlers headed west depleting buffalo herds and further displacing the indigenous people. In 1883 William Tecumseh Sherman, General of the Army of the United States, reflecting on the problem of Native American insurrection wrote that the completion of the railroad “has settled forever the Indian question".

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