Picturing America

A timely retrospective on defining images of USA is found lacking.

Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Linen Hall Library, in co-operation with the US Consulate in Belfast, is hosting the exhibition Picturing America, depicting people and events that made and define the United States.

Unfortunately, while the images on display are interesting, they are let down by the presentation. The pieces are laminated rather than framed, and the lack of proper signage will mean that the casual visitor will only find the first dozen prints.

The scale represented in the images ranges from the great, as in the impressive sunset-glowing landscape of Albert Bierstadt's painting 'Looking Down Yosemite Valley', to the small, homely interactions of 'The County Election', painted by George Caleb Bingham.

American icons are well represented too, with depictions of George Washington, Ben Franklin and Paul Revere of the famous Midnight Ride.

America as a nation has a relatively short history. It’s a nation where people can't look at a building and say 'we built this a thousand years ago'. Something that might explain the present nation’s penchant for all things instant and pop.

A culture had to be quickly invented for and by the settlers, who had forsaken their own nationalities for the New World. The art and culture of Western Europe formed a template.

'Washington Crossing the Delaware' reminds us of David's famous paintings of Napoleon, whilst 'The County Election' has definitely been inspired by Brueghel's depictions of everyday life. In 'Bierstadt's Yosemite', there's an echo of Kasper David Friedrich's 'Alps'.

Much was also thrown out of the fabled American melting pot, and Hispanic culture in particular got sidelined. A drawing from the 1930s shows a beautifully coloured 18th century Texan church in Moorish style, while a modern photo shows the same building, its architecture in a state of neglect and its colours completely worn away.

It's hard to believe a church conforming to WASP aesthetic standards would have been so neglected.

And yet, it is in architecture that American art and culture really came into their own in the 20th century. While its buildings could not be the oldest, their designers, hot on the heels of mass production and consumer culture, had to resort to other adjectives.

The Chrysler building, in its Art Deco splendour, was the tallest building ever, though its height was within a year topped by the monumental Empire State building.

And while the early United States set to creating its own culture, the native Americans, driven to reservations, saw their culture co-opted by those who sent them there.

At the (relatively) more positive extreme, there's N.C. Wyeth's 1919 cover illustration for 'The Last of the Mohicans'. The character is a 'noble savage', who played second fiddle in his own story. Only very recently has Native American culture become a heritage for everybody, be it a borrowed, or rather appropriated, one.

It's strange that the work of George Catlin, who specialised in respectful Native American portraiture, recording what he feared was a vanishing race, is represented not by his naturalistic works but by a cartoon-like image.

'The Portrait Of Mah-to-toh-pa Mandan' shows Catlin painting while surrounded by Native Americans, who peer at him with childish, frightened faces. Without biographical context, it resembles colonialist imagery, in which indigenous people are only significant when white people interact with them - worlds away from Catlin's own attitude.

Still, they are better represented than the black people on whose blood the American economy was founded. They are not depicted in a single drawing, sketch, let alone a painting from before 1940.

Interestingly though, the visitor making their way around Picturing America will encounter displays from the Hidden Connections: Ulster and Slavery 1807 - 2007 exhibition.

For those who make the effort, Picturing America leaves the viewer with much to think about, both in what it shows and in what it leaves out.

Picturing America will be on display at the Linen Hall Library until September 30.