Indians in the Louvre: The Art of Walt Wooten
Through Jan. 2 Walt Wooten's 'Visit to the Louvre XXIV,' part of 'Indians in the Louvre: The Art of Walt Wooten,' on view at the Eiteljorg Museum
While Native Americans were fighting European settlers for their homeland on the so-called American frontier in the mid 1800s, a small cadre of Ojibwa Indians were overseas in Europe visiting the Louvre. One can't help but wonder what those Native Americans thought; hopeful, no doubt, they would return to life as usual back home, before the chaos of white men, that is. While we all know the tragic end to this tale, there are those who still wonder about the early exchanges and clashes between cultures, how it must have felt to peoples who lived for thousands of years on the land, in tandem with it, to lose most everything they knew and cherished?
Artist Walt Wooten ponders such questions in the exhibition Indians in the Louvre: The Art of Walt Wooten, on view at the Eiteljorg Museum. As Wooten writes, "The ways in which Native Americans present themselves visually, culturally and historically has had a tremendous impact on me. Their ways of life, past and present, offer contrasts to capture on canvas. The challenge is to, in some way, recreate it anew. To tell the story - what must their culture be or have been like?"
Wooten, as it turns out, is just the person for the job. The grandson of a full-blooded Choctaw, Wooten knows the tension of both worlds. Wooten studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago, which also holds an impressive share of classical art. In the '60s, Wooten was associated with Chicago figurative painters Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson and Roger Brown, who presented cartoon-style narratives often with violent or sexual content. Wooten, though, did not share their style or subject matter, and instead developed his own, more classically figurative style. Wooten, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., also cites the Southwest and Taos Founders as inspirations.
But instead of being somber, Wooten takes a humorous approach - as do many Native American artists - in his Indians in the Louvre series. The 12 paintings which comprise the Eiteljorg exhibition depict Native Americans in traditional dress standing in front of famous paintings in Paris' Louvre Museum, looking so real and yet so out of this world. Far from stereotypical, the figures look majestic and yet wear bemused expressions. What, indeed, are they thinking?
Wooten took his inspiration from an entry in the famous painter Eugene Delacroix's diary, which recounts an 1845 tour of Paris by 11 Ojibwa Indians. The Indians, led by ethnologist and painter George Catlin, were shown the Moulin Rouge in addition to the Louvre. Wooten's visual joke (based on reality, of course) is carried off brilliantly. Wooten's Indians are shown responding to their encounters with works of art from the 17th through 19th centuries, works which must have been puzzling. Famous biblical and mythological allegories are depicted in all their drama, and Wooten expertly renders them with the just as beautifully depicted, colorfully robed Indians standing by. It's a sort of meeting of myths - except that the Native Americans are real, mythologized instead by the white man's culture. No doubt the French people who were impressed by the visiting Native American dignitaries were struck by the awesomeness of the personages and treated them as media celebrities. This is both amusing and sad, as the story goes on to its terrible conclusion back home.
Indians in the Louvre is a must-see on many levels: Wooten is one of a few painters today who recognizes the power and beauty in classical styles of painting, especially those that pursue new ideas.
Indians in the Louvre: The Art of Walt Wooten is on view through Jan. 2, 2005, in the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art's Gerald and Dorit Paul Gallery. Visit www.eiteljorg.org for information or call 636-9378. The museum is located in White River State Park at 500 W. Washington St.