Stanford Alumna Describes Curating the Exhibit ‘Reframing the Western’

Mary Dailey Desmarais '03, a curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, spoke about the exhibition “Once Upon a Time … The Western” in an appearance at the McMurtry Building on June 5.

By Surabhi Balachander

Of any art form, “the western has had the most lasting impact on American culture,” said Mary-Dailey Desmarais ’03, a curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Desmarais, who declared the western film genre as the “single most lasting representative [of American culture] … to people abroad,” chose along with her colleagues to make it the centerpiece of the  exhibition “Once Upon a Time … The Western,” which showed in Montreal and at the Denver Art Museum in 2017-18.

The Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Department of Art and Art History welcomed Desmarais back to Stanford to deliver a lecture on June 5. Desmarais, who completed her PhD in Art History at Yale University, is now Curator of International Modern Art at the Montreal Museum. The lecture, which was organized for students in the interdisciplinary undergraduate survey course The American West, focused on her experiences planning and designing the exhibition, which juxtaposed western films with landscape paintings and other prominent art forms, and which aimed to raise the “broader question of how a culture creates its own myths,” she said.

The exhibit opened Montreal in October 2017. Image: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Desmarais placed Once Upon a Time … The Western within a tradition of previous exhibits interrogating myths and representations of the American West. Desmarais had a personal link to one of these exhibitions: Alexander Nemerov, the chair of Art and Art History at Stanford, had been her professor at Yale and was an organizer of the landmark 1991 show at the National Museum of American Art, The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920. It is perhaps the best-known museum exhibition to date on the art of the American West. Nemerov, who also teaches in the American West course, gave introductory remarks before the lecture.

Desmarais’ lecture was organized for students in the Center’s undergraduate survey course “The American West”.

Though she drew this parallel, Desmarais said that Once Upon a Time … inhabited a different era from The West as America, and noted western references in present-day American culture: President Trump speaking at John Wayne’s birthplace, President Obama in a cowboy hat, and the Frederick Remington sculpture that has occupied a prominent position in the Oval Office during both of their administrations. In shaping the exhibition, said Desmarais, “we wanted to do something that was really going to be relevant to our current historical moment.” Most significantly, the conceptualization of Once Upon a Time … coincided with a renaissance in the western film genre (exemplified by films like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (2007), Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2016)), which led to the choice of this form as the “backbone” of the exhibition.

 In the exhibition, Desmarais and her co-curator chose to present film stills and clips in conversation with paintings, which she regarded as an inspiration for western film aesthetics. The curators also chose to limit the scope of the exhibition to works produced after 1860, which Desmarais suggested as a moment where the American West came to represent the “western,” a form of popular entertainment. She observed that prior to the advent of film, landscape paintings were exhibited in comparably theatrical settings: revealed, for example, from behind curtains. It was also in the 1860s that photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose work was foundational to the development of film, began working – under the patronage of Leland Stanford, Desmarais added.

Desmarais walked the audience through the layout of Once Upon a Time … the Western, describing notable pieces on display and offering insights into her curatorial process. Adhering to the film theme, the exhibition began with sections called “The Set,” “The Cast,” “Real Western Characters,” and “The Drama.” “The Set” featured landscapes, and as the first room, also served to set the scene of the exhibition for visitors. “The Cast” focused on common stereotypes in the western, such as those of the cowboy and Indian, the trapper, the sheriff, and the pioneer, while “Real Western Characters” sought to deconstruct those stereotypes by featuring real historical figures who popularized the western, such as Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, and Sitting Bull. “The Drama” included portrayals of action and conflict in westerns through paintings depicting dramatic incidents, montages of train robberies, and so on. She noted her choice to include in this section “ledger drawings” – so-called because they were generally sketched on old ledger or account books – by Plains Indians who had been held in captivity. These, created by those indigenous to the West, provided a counterpoint to the many paintings by white men, not all of whom had deep ties to the region. Beyond these, Desmarais and her colleague included sections about filmmakers John Ford and Sergio Leone, whom they regarded as iconic creators in the genre. They also featured sections on postwar and contemporary westerns. Desmarais highlighted the increasing diversity of the western genre – it has begun to see greater representation of women, queer people, and racial minorities. Various political groups have also employed western-inspired imagery to advance their agendas. Some examples include films that criticized gun violence and painter Fritz Scholder, whose work Indian Power combined western and Black Power imagery to portray American Indian resistance.

Desmarais spoke repeatedly about her desire to foreground indigenous voices in the exhibition. Doing so is especially important, she argued, in light of the negative images of indigenous peoples common in western iconography. An example of this is their deliberate erasure from western landscape paintings: empty of human occupation, these paintings “would have you believe,” she said, “the land was ripe for conquering.” She showed Edward Curtis’s photograph The Vanishing Race, which she described as portraying Native people “disintegrating into the Western landscape.” Desmarais also noted the exoticizing representations of Native women, such as in Charles Marion Russell’s painting Waiting and Mad (1899), a sexualized portrait modeled from a photograph of Russell’s white wife clad in Native clothing.

To counter these stereotypes, Desmarais and her colleague devoted a room of the exhibition to contemporary indigenous artists who worked in direct response to the western genre. Examples of the works on display are Adrian Stimson’s Beyond Redemption (2010), an installation featuring a stuffed buffalo and ten buffalo skins draped over crosses, which serves as a sort of elegy to the species that once sustained a way of life for indigenous peoples; and Wendy Red Star’s Four Seasons (Fall) (2006), a photograph in which the artist poses in a setting reminiscent of Russell’s Waiting and Mad, but which incorporates elements of satire – an inflatable deer, an obviously two-dimensional background. Desmarais argued that featuring indigenous artists was particularly important in 2017, which marked the 150th anniversary of Canadian federation and the 375th anniversary of the city of Montreal. These two milestones in Canadian history drew attention to the violence that has been committed against indigenous peoples in the name of national expansion.

When addressing the students, Desmarais described the ways in which the exhibition has shaped her career. As Desmarais was finishing her doctorate, she happened to meet the then-Curator of Contemporary Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. After a lunch conversation about westerns, Desmarais was surprised to be asked for her CV. “The moral of the story is, have lunch,” she advised students. When the curator who hired her accepted a position elsewhere, Desmarais became lead co-curator of the exhibition, which led to her full-time employment at the museum. In addition to curating, Desmarais was co-author of the exhibition catalogue, Once Upon a Time … The Western: A New Frontier in Art and Film. The Bill Lane Center and the Department of Art and Art History were glad to host this successful Stanford alumna.


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