The German Wild West

Donald Lee on “Tecumseh, Keokuk, Black Hawk: Portrayals of Native Americans in the Times of Treaties and Removal” at the Albertinum, Dresden (until 2 March 2014)


Ferdinand Pettrich, The Dying Tecumseh,1837-46

The long and sad history of the North American Indians - from the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, through the miseries of their degradation and displacement to recent attempts to make amends for their maltreatment - is well known to Americans, Canadians and, to some extent, the British. It may come as a surprise to some readers then that, uniquely among continental Europeans, Germans have also taken a long and deep interest in the American Indians. For example, the most successful German author, whose works have been translated into 33 languages with about 200m copies sold worldwide, in addition to 100m in German alone), is completely unknown in the UK and US. The Dresdener, Karl May (1842-1912), wrote more than 30 novels of which the largest number and most popular were his tales of Old Shatterhand, a German engineer who befriends a Mescalero Apache, Winnetou, and goes native in the American Wild West. May's collection of Indian artefacts, his books and manuscripts can be seen today in his house-museum, Villa Shatterhand, in the Dresden suburb of Radebeul.

It is thus appropriate the Dresden should be the destination of this exhibition of works from the Vatican Museums, 27 terracotta reliefs, statues, busts and bozzetti of Native Americans by another Dresden-born artist, Ferdinand Pettrich (1798-1872), who, unlike May, actually went to the US where he closely observed the Indians whom he portrayed.

Pettrich studied at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts and under Thorvaldsen in Rome. In 1835 he travelled to Washington, DC, where he encountered many American Indians who were there negotiating the increasingly concessionary land treaties (more than 50 were concluded during Pettrich's stay) that dispossessed them natives and drove them westwards.

In 1843 Pettrich was attacked, perhaps as a result of artistic rivalry or nationalist hatred, the motives are not clear, and he promptly moved to Brazil where he was soon appointed court artist to the Emperor Pedro II. There he created his “Indian Museum” of terracottas. Pettrich's career suffered, however, from court intrigues and, following another assault on his life, he quit Brazil for Rome where he remained, without recognition, fame or fortune, until his death in 1872.

In 1858, shortly after his arrival in Italy, he had given his “Indian Museum” to Pius IX in exchange for an annuity. For 20 years it was kept in the Lateran Palace, being displayed only in 1925 at Pius XI's “Missionary Exhibition”. Afterwards it was tucked away in the Missionary-Ethnological Museum where it has lain ever since.

As a salute to this forgotten son of Saxony, the Albertinum is displaying all but six items of the “Indian Museum”. What is interesting to observe is the deep sympathy Pettrich felt for the humiliations the Indians were undergoing at the hands of the Americans. This he expressed by ennobling his subjects with his Thorwaldsen-inspired Neo-Classical style. It would be wrong to see this as a trope of Saidian “orientalism” - far from being a condescending misrepresentation or Europeanising make-over of the Native Americans, Pettrich's style was the means by which he conveyed to his viewers the Indians' dignity and honour at a time when they were widely held to be mere “savages”. In particular, the bozzetto of The Dying Tecumseh, 1837-46 (a marble version of which was carved for the Capitol in 1856 and is now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum) refers directly - and aptly - to third-century BC Hellenistic marble, The Dying Gaul. Pettrich's reliefs of hunting and battle scenes too are obviously indebted to Hellenistic sarcophagus carvings.

Various native objects – bead and feather work, wooden masks, ceremonial pipes and items of clothing – along with drawings and paintings fill out the picture. Wall texts and maps document the tragic and inexorable conquest of the Native American lands west of the Mississippi. In the last gallery there are a series of contemporary photographs of the Indian leaders and members of their tribes. In a heart-breaking contrast to Pettrich's bust of the proud and dignified Keokuk, chief of the Sauk-Fox tribe, an 1847 daguerrotype shows the elderly Keo-kuk. Dressed to impress in a bear-claw necklace, gold earrings and a feathered headdress, he scowls at the viewer in an attempt at hauteur. His eyes betray deep sadness and defeat.

Pettrich was not a great artist and his works will never be anything other than curiosities, especially of the peculiar German interest in a culture so far removed from their own. Nevertheless, the Albertinum's curator's Iris Edenheiser and Astrid Nielsen must be congratulated for renewing his memory and reminding us that it is ever possible, as Pettrich did, to broaden one's horizons and sympathies.

Published Thu, 17 Oct 2013 11:00:00 GMT

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