Saturday, June 27, 2009


I should really call this "What I'm Thumbing Through Now," since I haven't had much time to read in the past few weeks. Here's (above) an interesting, if somewhat disappointing, book I got from the library: "Plains Indian Drawings 1865-1935." Gee, I love what I've heard about Indian culture, but I have to say that I didn't know the Plains Indians were such bad artists.

The drawings I'm putting up here are pretty much the cream of the crop. The average drawing in the book looked like modern kids drawings, except that modern kids are more likely to draw things as well as people. The cover drawing is great, and so is the famous drawing above, or it should be famous, because so many modern American artists and illustrators were influenced by it.

You see the influence in fashion illustration (above) all the time. To judge from the Indian drawings in the book, American Indians were fascinated by what they wore and painted on themselves. They didn't spend much time on getting a likeness in the face, or on getting the muscles or the perspective was all about the clothes. Apparently Plains Indians were more obsessed than we are about looking good.

Saul Steinberg's work (above) was clearly influenced by indian art.

A quick digression: I just stumbled on a picture (above) of Steinberg, and I thought you might want to see what he looked like.

Of course the Plains Indians were nomads, and I suppose nomads haven't much use for permanent pictures. Even so, these drawings might be an insight into the kind of thing the artists valued. They certainly were clothes-conscious, and they evidently considered battle a good excuse to show off their finery.

Like many primitive people they seemed to think nature was an unfit subject for art. Trees and mountains seldom appear and when they do they get the short shrift. There are no still lifes of a bowl of apples, no glorious sunrises and star-filled nights, no animals except horses. Teepees were drawn with an emphasis on the designs painted on them.

For an artist like me the Indian life depicted in these pictures seems pretty boring. Like the Homeric Greeks their real art form seemed to be the cultivation of character and one's own personal legend, together with horseback riding, hunting, dressing nice and war. The drawings are oddly humorless and indicative of a lack of interest in the world around them. You only realize how sophisticated the outlook of modern man is when you have something like these for comparison.

I'll note that these pictures may have been made by mostly non-artists. It's possible that all people who don't draw frequently draw similar subjects, i.e., other people and their interesting clothes. Maybe I'm reading too much into these drawings.

I'm also reading a book called, "The Pictorial History of Radio." Early on broadcasters devoted air time to music, and this (above) is how they did it. They played records in front of a horn.

Here's (above) one of the first mass market radio sets. It was called the "Aereola."

People used radio as a babysitting device, just like they do now. Aaargh!


Benjamin said...

I'm not super inclined to agree with the whole primitive moniker, but I'm even less inclined to argue about it! I graduated college this past May and the second I was handed my diploma I suddenly never wanted to have an intellectual argument ever again. All full up, I guess. I will say though that these illustrations are almost certainly done by non-artists, as you suggest they might, based on what little I know of Plains Indian culture. I'll bet if I handed my dad some paper and colored pencils right now and told him to draw about his life I'd get some pretty drab, un-accomplished drawings. It's a shame the book turned out to be so disappointing, that cover is fantastic! I spent the first five years of my life on an Apache reservation, so my ears tend to perk up a little when I encounter stuff about Native American culture even if it's an essentially unrelated group like the Plains Indians.

thomas said...

I'm just wondering if the Plains Indian's drawings were a type of export art. Not that they were creating a market, but that they were producing something in anticipation of what they thought the Whites could understand.
If you were a Plains Indian in 1865, living out on the Plains everyday, of what use would a painted sunset be? To a 19th c. Plains Indian, a painted sunset would be the equivalent of pornography.
And besides, they don't hang so well on tee-pee walls.

Anonymous said...

I bet AM talk radio was a better babysitting device in the black and white photography era than it is now, I tell you what...

Jake said...

I can't say anything about the first people of the plains. But, I can say for sure that the art from the native people of the Pacific Northwest was great and continues to be great.

The totem poles, carvings, masks and designs I've had the chance to look at are pretty cool. :)

Anonymous said...

Stop the presses! Billy Mays just died this morning! These celebrity mega deaths tend to come in threes, except for this week.

Anonymous said...

Billy Mayes is dead.

Jenny Lerew said...

I'd think as you mention that it's all about being a nomadic culture: without paper or what we think of as writing materials(they had no written language, right?)wouldn't practice drawing, and what you don't practice you're not going to excel at in the same way as a static one with a whole setup of that kind of communication/decoration. Their art was really incredibly sophisticated in terms of the skill/eye-the craftwork, beading, color, ornament, jewelry, braiding, weaving etc etc.

All that considered--those horses look good to me. Horses are so hard to draw-unless you know them well, or study them closely. ; )

I had the same reaction to the crudeness of indian drawings when I first saw some, in the Time-Life series of books on the old west. IIRC the drawings were done under orders of white interviewers asking for details of battles, and they did look exactly like the drawings 11 year olds make of the same thing: blood running out of holes in red lines, flat bodies, etc. I thought they were pretty neat, so gory and all.

As far as the decoration/ornament, those decorations has a lot of purpose and meaning for the various native american cultures, didn't they? So getting them looking right in a drawing would matter a lot more than little feature details.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Benjamin, Jenny: I don't fault nomads for having a more limited range of art technique than geographically stable people, but their intellectual horizons are often extremely limited and I wouldn't want to trade places with them.

Anon: Billy Mays is dead!!?? I'm really sorry to hear that!

Anonymous said...

Have you and John K discussed your disagreements over Saul Steinberg?

Joseff said...

the Billy Mays death shocked me even more than the MJ, the guy had an uncanny ability to convince people on buying crap, he was a character and surely be missed.

ok now on the books, the one with the indian art, like you said, terrible art, and it looks like they painted them with crayons. A very interesting yet rare book find.

Joseff said...

hey Uncle Eddy! long time we see some art of yours, any new stuff lately?

- a fan.

Steven Finch, Attorney At Law said...

Aereola?! Well that's an unfortunate name.

thomas said...

The Plains drawings are called "ledger drawings" and were made in prison and re-education camps, not places were any culture achieves much.

Moreover.I think the drawings are painfully ironic. There's a visual dissonence between the imagery, and the lines of the ledger pape that correspond the the cultural dissonence of the context that the drawings were produced in.

....hey look, the intellectual horizons of these geezers looks pretty damn good!


Anonymous said...

The reasoning Jenny did was very interesting and intelligent.
The Native American culture has a different vision to the occidental standards and this is it despite in this drawings seems like no interest in their environment.Because is through their crafts when they show the great value nature has for them. What a pity that this time Eddie was so simplistic in his answer.

Lester Hunt said...

Maybe the problem with those drawings comes from the fact that plains indian painting an drawing wasn't meant for pieces of paper but for decorating other objects, ones with practical or ceremonial value. What is impressive is the complete, decorated object, as for instance this Lakota tipi, photographed at Ft. Yates in 1890:

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Steven: You're the only one who figured that out!

Anon: I have a romantic image of the Plains Indians just like you probably do, but that doesn't mean we have to be uncritical of them. They were people just like us, and they sometimes made bad choices.