‘Bronco Buster’ traverses history

What turns an artist from a high-brow aestheticst into a pop culture connoisseur? How does a painting, sculpture or image become a household name? WCMA’s new exhibition, Remington’s Bronco Buster: From Art Icon to Pop Icon explores how the iconic work fundamentally altered the public’s perceptions and cemented the place of the cowboy and the American West in the popular vernacular. The WCMA exhibition centers on Frederic Remington’s The Bronco Buster and the work of other artists and photographers that inspired his aesthetic, and was put together by Curator of Collections Vivian Patterson along with Jared Quinton ’10, Elizabeth Danhakl ’11 and Amanda Reid ’12.

Remington’s Bronco Buster: From Art Icon to Pop Icon is an informative and thought-provoking exhibit that pairs an undeniably classic work of art with contextualizing materials that help even art novices understand its historical significance and implications. The exhibition will be on display until July 25 and a public event to discuss the sculpture will be held March 3 at 4 p.m. at WCMA featuring the curators and Karen Merrill, dean of the College and professor of history.

The exhibition begins by looking at examples of the visual framework for the public’s conception of the American West prior to Remington, including work by George Catlin, one of the “explorer artists” who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their journeys. Catlin’s artwork disseminated some of the first images of a cowboy capturing and taming a wild horse to the public; the exhibition displays a lithograph of a red-haired Native American confronting a terrified bronco. Also included are photographs by L.A. Huffman that provide an unromanticized look at the Montana cattle industry. The photographs also inspired Remington’s illustrations for Theodore Roosevelt’s book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888). Remington himself was also an author and several copies of his book Pony Tracks (1895) are on display in the exhibition.

Aside from exploring the foundations of Remington’s aesthetic, the exhibition shares insight into the unique relationship between Remington and the College. In 1994, WCMA received what it believed to be a bronze facsimile of The Bronco Buster from alumnus James Rathbone Falck ’35. It wasn’t until several years later, when graduate student intern Sue Canterbury ’96 led an investigation with the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, that the bronze was discovered to be a true Remington via use of X-radiography. The exhibition displays both the authenticated bronze as well as a facsimile. At a casual first glance, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the two.

The Remington legacy extends well beyond the scope of the College, as the final portion of the exhibition testifies to. WCMA displays a collection of items that illustrate how the bronco buster image that Remington helped to popularize echoes throughout pop culture. Photographs of Buffalo Bill from the Wild West Show, postcards depicting the stereotypical cowboy tableau, fruit crate labels and political cartoons with broncos labeled “Free Enterprise,” “Dem. Party” and “Inflation” bucking off politicians, all show how the bronco buster imagery transcended art. It became a symbol that was a part of even utilitarian daily life, the ideals of Western expansion, man versus beast and the resilience and nobility of the American cowboy that it represented.

The concluding images of the exhibit are of a new kind of American scene: President Barack Obama at work in the Oval Office with the White House’s bronze The Bronco Buster in the background of the photos. As we see Obama juxtaposed with this classic image of American bravery and spirit, the legacy of Remington’s work clearly seems to remain in the forefront of our concept of what it means to be American even today.

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