Artists Exhibitions United Kingdom

Painter of a vanishing and vanished world

“George Catlin: American Indian Portraits”, National Portrait Gallery, London, until 23 June

La-Doo-Ke-A, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior, Pawnee by George Catlin, 1832 © Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

In the summer of 1830, the American painter George Catlin (1796-1872) embarked upon the first of five journeys deep into the Indian territories that stretched west of the Mississippi River. Having abandoned a burgeoning law career and failed to establish himself as a society portraitist, this Pennsylvanian was busily reinventing himself as an artist-ethnographer possessed of an urgent mission to document the “looks and modes” of the Native American peoples before they were overtaken by the geographic encroachments of the United States. The result was a large body of oil paintings documenting the terrain and rituals of their ways of life, and an even more substantial collection of portraits detailing the continent’s wondrous variety of facial characteristics and tribal apparel— Mandan, Pawnee, Omaha; beads, plumage and face-paint were never arrayed in such dazzling variations as here.

“George Catlin: American Indian Portraits” presents a small but representative sample of this prolific output which now resides principally in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. By way of a centrepiece, its organisers have recreated a miniature version of the vast “Indian Gallery” that Catlin toured around Europe in the 1840s, including an initial spell up the road in a cavernous showroom on Piccadilly. Only around 5% of the original 500 exhibits have made it back to London, although many of the returning pictures have been arranged to approximate the dense, grid-like scheme of the Catlin’s travelling show. Stirring and poignant, the “Indian Gallery” was designed to capture the imagination of a wide, ticket-buying audience, and it still packs an impressive punch. A multitude of faces, one after another, attests to the astonishing diversity of “First Nation” culture and the enormity of its destruction.

As well as re-acquainting the British audience with this exotic, yet once-famous, body of works, Stephanie Pratt, a Dakotan and associate professor of the University of Plymouth, Joan Carpenter Troccoli, founding director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art, Denver, co-curators of the how, and Peter Funnell, the gallery's 19th-century portraits curator, have succeeded in advancing its claim to more than purely ethnographic attention. By placing the charismatic figure of Catlin squarely at centre stage, a story of artistic and commercial opportunism emerges as surely as his vision of a noble, doomed world.

The manifest struggle to transcend an extremely limited technique is itself a point of considerable fascination (Catlin was a virtual stranger to chiaroscuro, glaze-work, and convincing figure drawing). Indeed it appears to have been thanks to a mixture of chance and sheer, bloody-minded persistence that moments of pictorial grace did occasionally shine through in his profuse outpouring. Catlin’s approach is most successful when, paradoxically, a composition remains incomplete. In the masterpiece of the show, La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bill, a Grand Pawnee Warrior, 1832, a virtually unworked background allows the explosion of the sitter’s hairstyle to pop off the canvas, along with the starkly outlined buffalo heads that stain various parts of his body. In Hee-oh'ks-te-kin, Rabbit Skin Leggings, a Brave, 1832, the inscrutable, hieratic mask of a painted face dissolves into vague, fly-away wisps of hair and fringing, as if the whole confection might at any moment be carried off on a breeze.

The subject of this exhibition raises a host of cultural and political questions that easily exceed the capacity of a three-room gallery. Perhaps wisely therefore, the organisers have opted to broach the complex politics involved in the Western representation of indigenous cultures in a substantial catalogue and in an associated programme of events.

In the particular context of the National Portrait Gallery, it seems, however, a little perverse not to address this oeuvre’s peculiar contribution to the history of the painted likeness as part of the main presentation. I wanted to know, for example, what Catlin's subjects might have made of this entirely foreign yet peculiarly intimate act of representation. In Europe, could a phenomenon so comprehensively removed from the early 19th-century business of commission and polite self-presentation have been unquestioningly understood as portraiture? Or was something more generically ambiguous in play? And what can portraiture’s dominant role in this episode of proto-anthropology tell us about its documentary authority at the dawn of the photographic age? With different outcomes and at vastly contrasting stakes, Catlin's art bears witness not to one, but to two visual cultures on the brink of transformation.

John Chu is studying for a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, writing his dissertation of 18th-century genre painting.

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