Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Limestone cowboys

I can't pay homage to "The Scout" (see previous post) and ignore his adversarial brothers-in-sculpture. If the bronze Indian on horseback is this town's most recognized art piece, these bas-relief cowboys on horseback might be among the least. At treetop height on the limestone exterior of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, riding north from the museum's southwest corner, they're easy to miss. 

Sculptor Charles Keck created them in 1933 as one of 23 historical panels representing, in the words of The Kansas City Star, "an allegory of Civilization's conquest of this section of the West." (I'm guessing "The Scout," if he could protest, would put it differently.) Keck, who also gave us the Andrew Jackson on horseback outside the County Courthouse downtown, described this panel as "An incident from the great early cattle drives." 

But, like "The Scout," Keck's cowboys incited controversy among fastidious Westerners. The details were all wrong, they said – bedroll too neat, bridle too British, stirrups misaligned, posture too relaxed. "Like mail-order catalog cowboys," said the governor of Oregon when he saw photos of the then-new Nelson museum. Keck's response: He had researched cowboys at a rodeo in his native New York City. Which, of course, confirmed the Western suspicions. "Rodeo cowboys," wrote one Nevada editor, "play the cowboy role to the public's taste. Life on the range is not a rodeo any more than it is a picnic." 

Probably not, I was thinking the other day as I squinted at Keck's limestone rodeo cowboys high overhead. And just above them, one of those quotations that ring the museum's walls: Art still has truth. Take refuge there. It was early autumn, the breeze was cool, the sun warm, the sky a deep blue. One of those painfully gorgeous days, actually, that give life the feel of a picnic.

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