Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tonto Revisited: Images of Native Americans in Syracuse

Syracuse, NY., Syracuse University. The Saltine Warrior by Luise Kaish (1951).

Syracuse, NY., Washington Park. The Kirkpatrick Monument, Gail Sherman Corbett (1908)

Tonto Revisited: Images of Native Americans in Syracuse
(all photos by Samuel D. Gruber)

This month there are several local exhibitions related to art by and representations of Native Americans. New art of Haudenosaunee artists is on view at the Everson Museum in the exhibition Haudenosaunee: Elements. Popular and especially commercial and advertising images American Indians fill the walls of ArtRage Gallery in an exhibition of the collection of artist Tom Huff, entitled Tonto Revisited. Tom, a Seneca/Cayuga artist living on the Onondaga Nation, has been collecting “Indian Kitsch” for over 25 years.

Images of Indians are hardly new in Syracuse, a city situated in the center of the Onondaga Nation at the heart of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. These exhibitions should make people even more attentive. Here are just of few notable examples. I think it significant that the two greater works of art, that are also the most heroic representation of Indians, are by two notable women sculptors with ties to Syracuse -- Gail Sherman Corbett (1872-1951) and Luise Kaish (b. 1925). Corbett was born and raised in Syracuse. She studied sculpture with Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the Art Students League in New York later studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1898-99), before creating several impressive bronze monuments in her hometown, and then establishing herself in New York.

I've already written about her magnificent Kirkpatrick Monument recently restored in Washington Park. Her representation of the Onondaga goes beyond the (then) popular notion of the 'noble savage," to include them as full community partners - a partnership then denied to both Indians and all American women.

Corbett's contemporary and fellow Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Art Students League student James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) - who created some of the most lasting images of the Western Indian - is also well represented in Syracuse. At the SU Art Galleries in the Shaffer Art gallery you can see several of Fraser's works included a bronze model of his famous End of the Trail, sculpted for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition. This work has been much discussed over the decades. It depicts a weary - perhaps defeated Indian on his horse. The work, .while idealized, is full of pathos. It is a reflection on a passing age, and a passing way of life, but it is not to be taken as a statement of white victory. The SU collection also has a large plaster model of Fraser's design for the Indian head (or buffalo) nickle, minted from 1913 to 1938, with its profile of an Indian on the obverse. The SU library and art collections together have the world’s largest collection of Fraser materials, including dozens of pieces of sculpture)

In 1951 Syracuse University grad student Luise Kaish presented another view of the Indian in her powerful sculpture of the University's then-mascot, the Saltine Warrior. Kaish, a student of Ivan Mestrovic, won the commission from the Class of 1951, and she sculpted a taut and muscular Indian archer shooting skyward - a figure as much in the tradition of Greek myth than the salt beds surrounding sacred Lake Onondaga. As appropriate for a school mascot - White or Indian - the warrior is bent with bow, but unbowed. Kaish almost certainly knew of Mestrovic's own two powerful mounted Indians - the Bowman and The Spearman - sculpted in Croatia but installed in Chicago in 1928.

Kaish went on to a distinguished career (I've written about her grand bronze Aron-ha Kodesh designed 50 years ago for Temple Brith Kodesh in Rochester (where she just spoke two weeks ago). Luise was the first woman to win the coveted Rome Prize Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, among many other awards. She later led Columbia university's fine Arts Program. .

Syracuse, NY. Former Onondaga Savings Bank, dtl. South Salina Street entrance (1897).

I include two other Syracuse representations of Indians - clearly in submissive roles. A stern chief with headdress adorns the former Onondaga County Savings Bank (now M & T Bank) downtown. This is certainly an "honest Injun" encouraging trust in the bank - though the banking industry has hardly served Indian interests in the American western expansion.

Syracuse, NY. Columbus Circle. Columbus Monument.
V. Renzo Baldi, Sculptor, Dwight James Baum, architect (1934)

Similar Indian heads - uncomfortably disembodied - seem to support the figure of Columbus on the Columbus monument at Columbus Circle. These heads hangs like war trophies on the obelisk monument - the way navies have hung the prows of defeated ships on their victory stele.