Nearing the completion of processing photographs from the Oscar Howe Collection, I came across the above photograph and became curious about how Howe’s interactions with Native American and European artistic traditions impacted his work. The angular planes, geometry, and abstraction that appear in Howe’s art have led many critics to claim European Modernism (specifically Cubism), was Howe’s prime artistic influence. For instance, Bea Medicine and J.J. Brody both described Howe as a “neo” or “post-Cubist.” In agreement, John Anson Warner wrote, “Oscar Howe brought into his painting new forms hitherto unknown in North American Indian art…Howe dramatically changed his art after experiencing such Modernist paradigms as Cubist and Abstract-expressionism. During World War II, he spent three and one-half years in the Army; while in Europe, he was exposed to the Cubist art of Matisse, Picasso, and Braque” (Warner 13).
Throughout his career, Howe encountered similar readings of his work. In 1958, the jurors of the Philbrook Indian Art Annuals rejected Howe’s painting, Umine Wacipe: War and Peace Dance, from their annual competition on the basis that it did not conform to the Studio style, the widely agreed upon style of traditional Native American art that was popular during the early 20th Century. According to Bill Anthes, the Studio style, “emphasized flat, linear patterns, and unmodulated earth colors uncontaminated by Western pictorial techniques such as shading and perspective…Further, authentic Indian painting was to be illustrational and ethnographically correct: artists were only to represent members of their own tribes or regions…The organizers of the Philbrook annual believed that the standards that enforced these essential traits guaranteed the authenticity and value of Native American painting at a time when they feared that Indian cultures were disappearing” (Anthes 142). As Anthes notes, what troubled Howe and other Native American artists of his generation about the Studio style was not only that it was aesthetically restrictive, but also that it was developed to please White patrons and failed to represent the modern lived experiences of Native American tribes and individuals. “Many artists began to see the flat, pastel illustrations of traditional life as an imposed aesthetic that merely catered to non-Native audience’s desire for untroubled images of traditional Indian cultures…The Studio style was seen as a simplistic stereotype that elided tribal differences, repressed individual expression, and was out of touch with contemporary Native lives, which by now encompassed military service, urban wage labor, mainstream education, and increasing activism” (Anthes 143). Howe’s response to the rejection became like a manifesto for Native American artists frustrated by the constraints of the Studio style:
Who ever said that my paintings are not in the traditional Indian style has poor knowledge of Indian art indeed. There is much more to Indian Art than pretty, stylized pictures. There was also power and strength and individualism (emotional and intellectual insight ) in the old Indian paintings. Every bit in my paintings is a true, studied fact of Indian paintings. Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only the White Man knows what is best for him? Now, even in Art, ‘You little child do what we think is best for you, nothing different.” Well, I am not going to stand for it. Indian Art can compete with any Art in the world, but not as a suppressed Art….–Oscar Howe, Letter to Philbrook Indian Art Annuals Jurors as quoted by Jeanne Snodgrass King in “The Preeminence of Oscar Howe,” 17
Rejection on the basis that his art was somehow non-traditional or inauthentic must have been particularly painful for Howe; he considered his work wholly derivative of Native American (specifically Dakota) artistic traditions. For example, the jagged shapes and abstractions that critics often read as Cubist were actually “a continuation of geometrical point-and-line compositional device that he (Howe) referred to as tahokmu, or the ‘spiderweb,’ in which designs are generated by a web-like network of points…Howe explained that traditional designs were ‘diamond shaped with one deer hoof track design at each end, that is left and right horizontally symmetrical. From this design comes all geometric designs…'” (Anthes 166). Furthermore, Howe not only used this design in its original form, but also adjusted and visually manipulated it to convey greater emotional dynamism in his work. Howe also contended that his artistic process was in step with the formal painting ceremony of the Sioux, during which a group of initiates witnessed a painter translate the words of a storyteller into visual symbols. For Howe, who explained that his process was also a response to Dakota language and storytelling, the main difference between his work and the traditional painting ceremony was that his symbols and abstractions were individualistic reactions to contemporary Native life. “Howe argued that Indian artists were accepted and integrated members of Native societies and understood as members of the community who shared the community’s values and whose art represented those values. Even if the artist developed a personal, individualistic, innovative art…it was still perceived as an expression of the artist’s individual culture.” (Anthes 165). It was in this way that Howe saw himself, not necessarily as a creator of a new style of art, but as an artist and innovator who contributed to the continuation and further evolution of traditional Native American art that would have occurred had it not been for stagnating effects of the Studio style.
The Dakota art of painting-its medium technique, process, subject matter, and its qualitative aspects-has given me direction, purpose, substance, and art, an art which is still in its original form, originality unblemished and unquestionably a true reflection of culture, not a bastardly exploitation. Being a Dakota with a background of Dakota culture I felt I should continue the art. To use the ways and means of Dakota art for continuity and still keep the essence of Indian art was paramount in my quest for expression. In order to stabilize and validate this it must work with or from the traditions and conventions. Its components remain Dakota to the core regardless of individualization of art (Howe 76-77).
To learn more about Oscar Howe or to view some of his works, please visit the Oscar Howe Gallery at the University of South Dakota.
–Information gathered from: Anthes, Bill. Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 142-166. Print; Brody, Jerome. Indian Painters & White Patrons.Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971. 172. Print; Howe, Oscar. “Theories and Beliefs–Dakota.” South Dakota Review. 2.2 (1969): 76-77. Print; Medicine, Bea.“Oscar Howe and the Sioux.” Oscar Howe: A Retrospective Exhibition, Catalogue Raisonne. Ed. Dockstader, Fredrick J. Tulsa: Thomas Gilcrease Museum Association, 1982. 15-16. Print; Snodgrass-King, Jeanne. “The Preeminence of Oscar Howe.” Oscar Howe: A Retrospective Exhibition, Catalogue Raisonne. Ed. Dockstader, Fredrick J. Tulsa: Thomas Gilcrease Museum Association, 1982. 17-19. Warner, John Anson. “The Sociological Art of Oscar Howe.” Oscar Howe: A Retrospective Exhibition, Catalogue Raisonne. Ed. Dockstader, Fredrick J. Tulsa: Thomas Gilcrease Museum Association, 1982.13-14
–Photographs: The Oscar Howe Collection, Richardson Collection, USD Archives and Special Collections