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Once Upon a Time… The Western—at the Fine Arts Museum

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Once Upon a Time… The Western – Conquering the West, the frontier, expanding the territory… Despite certain colonial stench that such concepts may produce these days, the historical fact is that such events took place. For the United States, and for Canada too although with less noise, the expansion of their territories toward the west was a formidable task where men and women who engaged in the venture created a new sort of society and contributed to shape their respective countries too.

Justus D. Barnes in the film The Great Train Robbery by Edwin S. Porter, 1903

This vast enterprise could be seen as the great epical event of the United States and of Canada too. As an epic event, it has also been exalted in its own art form—the Western. This film genre already appeared in one of the first movies made in the U.S. (The Great Train Robbery, 1903) and it would continue to flourish until its time of major glory between the 1940s and 1950s. There would even be some European filmmakers venturing into the genre, especially in Italy where the “spaghetti western” was created in the 1960s.

Charles Schreyvogel (1861-1912), Breaking Through the Line, n.d., oil on canvas. Tulsa, Oklahoma, Gilcrease Museum, gift of the Thomas Gilcrease Foundation. Photo © Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Of course in the conquest of this land, there were winners and losers, the territory wasn’t empty. The white settlers that moved to occupy the area had to displace the occupants of that land or at least reduce them to a condition of subservience. Nothing of that was easy, the Indians (the natives) opposed resistance and therefore in this epic account of history many times they were depicted as the “bad guys.” That’s why the new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, “Il était une fois… Le Western”/ “Once Upon a Time… The Western” which opens this Saturday, Oct. 14, “exposes the beauty of the Western as well as its more somber aspects.” Issues such as the culture of violence, stereotypes about the role of women, and the prejudiced view of the natives are all examined too.

Charles Schreyvogel (1861-1912), Breaking Through the Line, n.d., oil on canvas. Tulsa, Oklahoma, Gilcrease Museum, gift of the Thomas Gilcrease Foundation. Photo © Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

At the opening of the exhibition, Nathalie Bondil, Director and Curator General of the MMFA explained that she always wanted to present a multidisciplinary exhibition about the Western. “Since the Buffalo Bill circus shows until the socio-political scenario of today, the legend of the hero of the west has marked the American identity. The invention of the Western is that of a cultural history at a time when the history of the conquest of the west is indeed finished” said Ms. Bondil. She then reiterated her intention to present a show with many facets. “To show how the production of images is fed by history, the visual arts, and films to crystallize a mythology of the American West and how artists can also recuperate those sources to denounce male chauvinist values, racist stereotypes, territorial annexation, and a culture of violence, all of them still endemic in our civilization.”

“Once Upon the Time…The Western” will be open at the MMFA from October 14, 2017, to February 4, 2018. For detailed information about opening hours, prices, and other activities related to this exhibition visit www.mbam.qc.ca

Feature image: Scene from The Gun Fighter (1917)

By: Sergio Martinez – mtltimes.ca
To see the article in the Montreal Times 23.10 October 14, 2017 edition please click on the above image

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