When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show traveled to Paris in 1889, the New York Times reported that the exhibition would be “managed to suit French ideas.” But where had those “French ideas” of the American West come from? And how had they, in turn, shaped the notions of “cowboys and Indians” that captivated the French imagination during the Gilded Age? In Transnational Frontiers, Emily C. Burns maps the complex fin-de-siècle cultural exchanges that revealed, defined, and altered images of the American West.
This lavishly illustrated visual history shows how American artists, writers, and tourists traveling to France exported the dominant frontier narrative that presupposed manifest destiny—and how Native American performers with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and other traveling groups challenged that view. Many French artists and illustrators plied this imagery as well. At the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, sculptures of American cowboys conjured a dynamic and adventurous West, while portraits of American Indians on vases evoked an indigenous people frozen in primitivity. At the same time, representations of Lakota performers, as well as the performers themselves, deftly negotiated the politics of American Indian assimilation and sought alternative spaces abroad.
For French artists and enthusiasts, the West served as a fulcrum for the construction of an American cultural identity, offering a chance to debate ideas of primitivism and masculinity that bolstered their own colonialist discourses. By examining this process, Burns reveals the interconnections between American western art and Franco-American artistic exchange between 1865 and 1915.
“By situating her work at the crossroads of many disciplines, Burns transcends geographic, disciplinary, and methodological lines, demonstrating the richness and ingenuity of interdisciplinary scholarship, as well as its potential to inspire future novel directions in scholarship.”— Chronicles of Oklahoma
“This is an art historical work engaged with visual and material culture. It is also about the transnational and multinational circulations of the American West that were at the center of a series of critical conversations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries concerning politics, art, and modernity. Moreover, this is a work about Indian people as cultural producers and consumers, as performers and artists, and how they were central to the ways the American West was represented during this period. To this end Burns should be lauded for her thoughtful engagement with American Indian history and Federal Indian Policy as well as theories from settler colonial studies.”—College Art Association Reviews
In this well-researched and beautifully produced volume, Burns relocates the West to France in the years between the American Civil War and World War I and names it anew – not as a place or process but as a transnational discursive formation best seen through an active circuit of visual and material culture production…Western historians and Native studies scholars may both wonder if there is anything new to be said about the frontier, or about the Wild West show or its American Indian performers; after all, several works have seemed to offer definitive final words. The answer provided in Transnational Frontiers is an unequivocal “yes,” and Emily C. Burns demonstrates that the frontier’s critical elements are indeed to be found in visual and material culture.” – Philip J. Deloria for The Art Bulletin