Frederic Remington: The John Ford of Art

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It is too easy for me to be taken in by the artworks of Frederic Remington. His works are usually recognizable for their backdrop: The American West. Before this expansion to the West became known as something of a holocaust for its mistreatment of the native Indians, it was seen as the definitive American version of adventure, masculinity and for setting the standards of rollicking fun. Remington adored these swashbuckling tales of adventure. It is just too evident in his work that he looked for the glory in battle and the West. However blind Remington may have been to reality, he was one of the key founders of the romanticization of the West. Indeed, the American film director John Ford would later copy much of the movement and iconography of Remington’s works. Remington paved the pathway for the American genre, known as the Western.

“Art is boring.” That is a statement I imagine is on some people’s lips when they try to decipher Post-Modern works, this and … the unimaginable horror of the unspeakable! However, Remington never ceases to be arresting. One can see how his works adapt well to the screen, for they encapsulate a fine sense of drama. Cavalry troopers on horseback being chased by Indians, while firing their revolvers, arrows being discharged, and the fierceness of the noble savage, a character that descends from James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” make these works a timeless treat in excitement. Remington’s illustrations and artworks would have been a sharp broadside to the stuffiness of The Gilded Age. There is no romance or even a sense of social boundary, there is only the barren lands in front of you and ahead, Indians that may be willing to bury a hatchet into your skull. That is the type of frenzy and trepidation that is imbedded in these artworks. Pervading through all of this is a notion of the good guys beating the bad guys. The cavalry vs. the Indians. The cavalry will win through masculinity and bravery. Here Remington displays the ultimate package that had been used before, but never with the association of such images that a scrap between the cavalry and Indians would soon hold for posterity. It defined an idealistic image of America and its history, an image that would make people associate America with. As with Custer’s Last Stand and Buffalo Bill’s shows exhibited, Frederic Remington’s paintings followed the same romanticized mentality of the nobility of the civilized man against the savagery and primitiveness of the Indians.

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Seeing horsemen riding hell for leather is surely a throwback to the Baroque period. I’m reminded of Rubens showing people or animals in the middle of some momentous event. It’s as if there is a total release of turbo power on canvas. Yet, Remington contrasts this lightning movement with a sparse palette. There is a lack of intensity in the use of color. However, there is a palpable sense of asperity that is imbued. Remington does not spread a wealth of color around to show the difficulty in depicting the West as a lush landscape, so it is therefore not feasible to daub bright colors to bewitch the viewer. Thus, for example, one senses the dust that is enrapturing and clinging to the riders in his canvases. Remington firmly entrenched the harshness of the Western.

It is important to note the influence Remington had on film. One artist that particularly embodies his tour-de-force of composition and thrilling movement is John Ford. Ford is widely known as one of the great American film directors, one who influenced Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Martin Scorsese. Orson Welles famously said that he preferred the “old masters,” meaning, “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” Although I digress, there is a certain pleasure in noting this influence, for all of these aforesaid directors influenced many after them, so it is interesting to see that all of this handing down of film DNA has a bit of Remington injected. Yet, the influence that Remington had on Ford was mostly down to composition and movement. Remington often had diagonal compositions and Ford emulated this many times. This composition lends well to film, for it creates a catapulting effect to the riders in this instance.

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However, it should be no surprise when Ford copies the movement of Remington’s subjects. What Remington had made iconic in his genre, Ford would go on to make iconic in his. A rush of men on galloping horses never fails in heightening the adrenaline in the viewer. In terms of film, it was action at its most logical. There was no need for rampant enhancements or the like, it was just pure movement. There is only the sun drenched plane and the sound of hooves and yells, guns banging, the thud of a fallen foe, the dust flicking into the lens of the camera and the clashing of two different peoples. And all of this may seem complex on screen, but Ford could not make it any simpler. His editing of these blockbuster sequences does not take away from the gravitas of the images he is trying to convey. Where on the other hand, compare his use of editing to some other motion pictures that come out today, and one can only wish for movies that may lessen the rapidity of the images without taking away from the actual movement. And yes, I do digress again into the realms of film. But what I find most important from Remington and Ford is that, both have a keen vision for images that will array the essence of their subjects, which is simplistic vim. The stage will do the rest.

In a film John Ford made he proclaimed this pithy quote towards the end: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” One could say that this is a completely deceitful thing that the press will do to sell papers, but I like to think that the human race sometimes deserves better. The truth may not always be the solution, sometimes we have to put an idealized spin on an event. Maybe the madness of the truth will hurt more than the legend. Sometimes we need to cling to something that we think is real, but is only an illusion. This is the basis of the Western, it is the essence, Westerns 101 on what makes people like these artworks (film included). Remington formulized the myth and sold it not just to John Ford or the American public, but the world’s view of America. Sadly, I don’t know if many people still know the facade that is the justification of the civilized man – the Western myth. Maybe Science Fiction has replaced the Western with its intrepid search for what the future holds. Or maybe myth making has fallen out of fashion. Maybe Americans just don’t want to be associated with a certain politically incorrect vain, unless it is meant to humor the viewer. I don’t know. I can’t generalize the American audiences, but what I do know is that the U.S. once had a genre that revitalized the Arts. Westerns made America look romantic. Surely, legends aren’t all that bad?

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