A Wanderlust Memory: Backstory at History Colorado

After Kendra and I crashed button making with the happy hour History Buffs last week, I recommitted to seeing Backstory before my sabbatical was up, thinking the show must be about to close given that it opened in March. Turns out, it actually runs until February 2018, so no need to rush!

Backstory, a collaboration between the History Colorado Center and the Denver Art Museum, showcases Western American art in historical context — a match made in heaven as interdisciplinary history is my jam.

The primary marketing image for the exhibit, an oil painting from 1945 called Wide Lands of the Navajo by Maynard Dixon, manages to be both earthy and airy at the same time. Your eye can travel for miles within the relatively small frame, floating across billowing clouds, squinting at the rock formations grazing the horizon. It evokes what I love most about living out West and what drew so many immigrants here in the mid-19th century: that sense of possibility that accompanies expansive space. I learned from the show that American artists flocked to the Southwest during the 1940s, finding a creative haven far from war-torn Europe, one that opened them up to novel landscapes and new color palettes.

Thanks to lucky timing (aka running late), I arrived at the museum at 4:30pm and snagged free entry to the exhibit since it closed at 5pm. A half an hour wasn't quite enough time to relaxedly see the whole show; but, I wouldn't have needed more than 20 additional minutes as the experience is fairly compact. Many of the themes raised were thought provoking, but overall, the placement of these historical nuggets — as small "sub-text" on individual objects' placards — underplayed their importance as the foundation of the show. I tend to be the annoying person who does this anyway at a museum, but READ EVERYTHING! Even the small print. Seriously. That's where the gems are in Backstory.

Regardless of this critique, I was particularly struck by the role grand landscape paintings played in constructing the myth that lured people out West. City boosters reprinted these romantic images in pamphlets, implying a soft, unsullied beauty awaiting those brave enough to make the trek to Colorado. As an example, there's a remarkable oil painting by Albert Bierstadt, Estes Park, Long's Peak, in the show. A local will stand in front of it, and think to herself, "Long's Peak doesn't look like that..." In fact, the artist doubled the size of the mountain to add drama to the scene. Without easy means to verify truth versus fiction, many immigrants arrived with false hope based on alternative facts. For in reality, the Western landscape was far from untouched within a few years of the gold rush. Overland trails were littered with detritus dumped from overloaded wagons; mining towns were dirty and loud, dotted with unscrupulous establishments. Those scenes are conspicuously absent.

The painting that would have had me singing "Pike's Peak or Bust!" is a poetic oil from 1912 by Alan Tupper True. It's called A Wanderlust Memory. Swoon. If you've been on our Women's History Walk, you know that True is well known in Denver for his murals at the State Capital building and in the lobby of the Bell Telephone Systems Palace, among others. The painting's loose brushstrokes and brilliant use of light and dark draw you into the intimate scene and convey a feeling of quiet purpose in the midst of a mountain adventure.