LACMA's "American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915" is two shows in one. The higher-profile show is a greatest hits collection of American painting that refuses to be limited by its nominal theme. By today's conventional thinking, paintings with a clear narrative are "illustrations," valued less than art open to multiple interpretations. That's one reason why Winslow Homer is prized more than Eastman Johnson; Thomas Eakins more than William Paxton. The good news: Through May 23, Los Angeles audiences can peruse textbook masterpieces of Copley, Homer, Eakins, and Cassatt, whether they tell much of a story or not. "American Stories" embraces everything from Colonial portraits to California landscapes. Only still lifes and Madonnas are off-limits.
That's not to say that there aren't plenty of proper narrative paintings. They comprise the show's more unruly side. Most of the flat-out story pictures are by forgotten artists, and many are ridiculous to the point of sublimity.
Consider Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait's The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix (above). If you like that sort of thing, get thee to Bentonville. The Tait, along with several other works, is on loan from Alice Walton's unopened Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. It looks like Crystal Bridges is poised to become America's Baddest American Wing.
Tait's rip-snorter is a world removed from Homer's The Gulf Stream (below, one of the many iconic works in the show). "American Stories" wants to claim that all these paintings draw from a common well. It comes as a shock to realize that they've got a point.
Both the Tait and the Homer present man imperiled by the forces of nature. Less obviously, both presume a viewer who delights in discovering a succession of narrative clues. "The bear's sitting on his gun!"… "The boat has no mast!" Both paintings step back a bit from the gloomy abyss, offering the possibility of salvation. The hunter's buddy is aiming at the bear, and a ship is on the horizon. Rescue looks more probable in the Tait, but it's not the first thing you notice.
Homer originally exhibited The Gulf Stream without the rescue ship. After hearing criticism that it was too dark, he added the ship, reverting to the money-making formula of earlier paintings such as Tait's. These parallels do not make the Tait a better painting or diminish the Homer. They do hint at the web of connections between art high and low.
The best of the show's "bad" paintings must be Charles Deas' fantastic The Death Struggle (above). On loan from Vermont's Shelburne Museum, it's an exuberantly baroque piece evoking Rubens' Fall of Phaeton. Nothing else in the show is like it. The "story" must be that that the white guy was hunting beavers — the Indians hunted him/and or his precious beavers — the chase ending in all plunging over the precipice. White hunter clutches beaver that bites Indian that grabs hunter — a vicious cycle worthy of Sartre, or at least M.C. Escher. As Sartre said, hell is other people. And animals.
Deas is known to L.A. museum goers for his magnificent A Solitary Indian, Seated on the Edge of a Bold Precipice, probably the only worthwhile painting at the Autry Museum (not in the show). Gene didn't buy it — it was a purchase of the museum trustees. Evidently, Deas liked the theme of native Americans dangling over cliffs. The Autry painting depicts its subject heroically. In contrast, the native Americans in The Death Struggle are demonic, barely human. But they're not the garden-variety racist caricatures, either. There's a trace of Ben Kingsley in the figure at upper right. It's an amazing, troubling picture.
Charles Deas (1818-1867) was born in Philadelphia and knew the work of Thomas Sully and George Catlin. In 1840, he visited the settlements of the Sioux and Pawnee. A 1849 fire in Saint Louis is said to have destroyed most of his life's work. He went insane in 1859 (now there's an "American story" that the public has always eaten up) and died in a New York hospital in 1867. Deas' first retrospective opens at the Denver Art Museum this August.