Indians, Corn, and the American West: Maynard Dixon’s New Deal Mural for the U.S. Department of the Interior
Professor Erika Doss explores the complexities surrounding government-funded art projects during the 1930s, and how American artist Maynard Dixon negotiated with New Deal tastemakers in his depiction of modern American Indians and the American West.
Erika Doss: Hi, everyone. Thank you for coming. I'd like to thank Diana and Aaron for having me here this afternoon. It's always a pleasure to talk about these murals. They've intrigued me for quite a while. I want to talk in particular about this, this is one of two panels, and I would love to go upstairs with you afterwards and look at these because they're a little bit bigger than what we see here in the slide.
I'd like to talk today about Maynard Dixon, especially known for his portraits and his landscapes of the American Southwest such as this one, "Earth Knower". Dixon was born in 1875 and he died in 1946, and those dates are particularly important for some of my comments today. He worked especially in and on the American West, especially the American Southwest.
There's a very highly-regarded American painter in the 1930s. Someone asked, we went on a tour of the murals today and they said, "Well, who's the most famous of the muralists here?" and Diana mentioned a few artists, but I really think Maynard Dixon is probably the most and certainly up there in terms of the famous artists that are in this building.
This building was completed in 1935, and in 1937 he was invited by the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture, a New Deal arts program, to paint a mural for the Department of the Interior building. This is the first panel. The mural theme was themes taken from the activities of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, one of the agencies housed in the building.
Now when I first saw this mural a few years ago, I was really intrigued by the flat, static style and this idea of American Indian history past and present. It didn't seem to conform to celebratory New Deal ideas about the 1930s, but it wasn't exactly this raging cry of social protest, either. So my questions were, why did Dixon choose to paint this very minimal, very frozen type of mural? What story was he trying to tell? And what story did the Interior Department want him to tell?
And prompted especially by my personal interest in American cultural history of the 1930s, especially in terms of public art, what I want to talk about today are the sort of Byzantine rules and regulations that Maynard Dixon had to traverse as he put this project together. I approach it, then, as a case study in the complications of cultural nationalism during the 1930s.
The mural is located on the fourth floor of the building, two panels. The panels are titled "Indian and Soldier" and "Indian and Teacher". I'll put them together like this. They're painted in very soft, low-key colors and they're edged in what Dixon called 'Indianesque order', basically zigzags.
The 19th century scene, the one on the top, features four men silhouetted against a broad expanse of western prairie and blue sky. One Indian holds a war club, the other, the one in the middle and the tallest, holds a peace pipe. Facing the Indians, the whites consist of a scout holding a buffalo rifle and a blond soldier, who seems to be a dead ringer for George Armstrong Custer, leaning on his cavalry sword.
The Indian holding the peace pipe, which extends to the throat of the soldier, points to the left, to the west, to the same direction that the charging buffalo are heading in the background, a gesture which Dixon later said meant, 'This is our land. You shall drive us no further.'
In the 20th century scene, he depicted a BIA agent, Bureau of Indian Affairs agent, teaching an Indian family about modern agriculture. Again, four figures are represented: the agent, who is kneeling on the ground, a young boy who is leaning on a hoe, a woman, the boy's mother presumably, standing between them and cradling what looks like an armful of corn, but as Diana pointed out, it's actually one gigantic piece of corn looking very much like a baby.
The fourth figure, who's straight-backed, is perfectly aligned with the stalk of corn behind him, stands apart from this group, and like his son looks down at the farm agent. He is wrapped in a patterned blanket, he's wearing beaded moccasins, and he's really the tallest and the most compelling figure in the panel.
A barn replaces the tepee. Likewise, a wooden fence and a row of corn replaced the rushing buffalo that we see in the first scene.
It was completed in 1939. It was dedicated that year and it's officially titled "Themes of the Bureau of Indian Affairs". It was really described by the Interior Department in literature at the time as a progressive linear narrative representing "the passing of the old regime of the Indian and the beginning of a new era."
New Deal art projects of the 1930s, primarily funded between about 1933 and, I have 1943, but there were some projects that extended into 1945, included murals, photography, the Farm Security Administration projects, the Index of American Design.
It had been the subject of a lot of studies. For some historians, New Deal art celebrates American unity. It's very transparent. It's an art for the millions. It reaffirmed a lot of national ideas about cooperation, productivity, demarcated gender roles, the family, the importance of family, but they especially aimed, too, at restoring public confidence in capitalism and democracy, both of which are sorely strained by the 1930s' Great Depression.
Other writers are really blatant in arguing that New Deal art was the official cultural currency of an ideological liberal state and tend to see a lot of New Deal murals as simply propaganda.
I think that New Deal art by and large is not uncomplicated, but it's not a monolithic celebration of American nationalism, either, and I think that's what we need to keep in mind when we look at this mural. It's also the product of American artists, American artists who have modern ideas about personal style and self-expression, and I think that's what becomes evident in Maynard Dixon's mural for the Bureau.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs was first established in the 1830s and was originally organized to protect tribal rights and land rights. It historically functioned, however, to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society.
With the General Allotment or Dawes Act, the federal government was empowered to seize tribal lands and assign small allotments to Indian families or sell or lease the remainder to whites. And that's what the poster that we see on the right is really about.
The gridded plains landscape of small farms and tidy towns depicted here in this painting by self-taught artist William Fuller, described by one art historian as a white model for Indian life, I think amply illustrates the government's goal of native mainstreaming in the 19th century.
Assimilation also included placing Indian children in boarding schools, restricting Indian religions, criminalizing Indian religions to a certain degree, and promoting Anglo-European models of agriculture.
During the 1930s, the Bureau shifted tremendously. They became more aligned with the Reform Agenda of the New Deal, which with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 included a new commitment to Indian land ownership, tribal government and economic self-sufficiency.
All of these pictures are taken from some of the WPA/FSA photographs of the 1930s illustrating Indian productivity, Indian farms and Indian workers.
When John Collier was appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933, he suspended the Dawes Act and began trying to re-establish tribal autonomy.
John Collier was a vociferous advocate of Indian rights, staunchly committed to Native American cultural preservation, and he and Dixon had been friends since the 1920s. As you can see on the right, Dixon designed the cover for his 1924 pamphlet, "The Indian and Religious Freedom", in which see an Indian wrapped in a blanket holding a bundle of ceremonial feathers and standing alone in a Western landscape. We will see this image again and again in Dixon's work.
For example, Dixon made Indian independence the focus of his first set of drawings for the mural upstairs. This is "The Indian Yesterday". We see a proud solitary figure framed by the halo of fully-risen sun, a tall stalk of corn, free roaming buffalo. He's wrapped in a blanket, he's holding a feathered war bonnet and he offers a ceremonial peace pipe to an off-canvas guest.
In contrast to this symbol of independence with the Indian today, an assimilated Indian, shorn of his long hair, bent over a fairly stubby corn plant, bound by a windmill, a long line of boxcars in a setting sun.
Not surprisingly, Department of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes rejected these drawings. Ickes was a fairly cantankerous micromanager who "insisted on personally approving all paintings for the new building" and for its constituent agencies. As another New Deal muralist was informed, Secretary Ickes was "extremely particular about the presentation of the American Indian and does not condone the presentation of the Indian in any but the most friendly scenes."
Dixon's wife at the time, he was married to the muralist Edith Hamlin, said, "I told Maynard it wouldn't be accepted, but he had to get it out of his system."
So this next set of drawings, which we see here, shifted from symbolism to historical narrative. He retains the sort of binary opposition of Indians past and present but now he crowded the composition with a lot of material, additional figures, additional tales.
On the top we see the conflict of Indians and soldiers in the 19th century, on the bottom, the success of Indian agriculture in the 20th, and on the bottom we see Native American women tending healthy corn, a stockade full of cattle, a log cabin and a car.
Now with these sketches, Dixon was told that while Secretary Ickes particularly liked the sense of drama in the cornfield and the squaws, he "objected to the introduction of the car in the panel dealing with the Indian farmer." Apparently, indigenous agricultural prosperity was good, but it wasn't appropriate, apparently, to have a car. This was suspicious.
Historian Phil Deloria has pointed out that Indians drove cars just like everybody else in America once they were introduced into the American landscape, and this is a wonderful photo of Geronimo, but the fact of Indians driving cars conflicted with expected views about how Indians should look and behave.
Secretary Ickes also objected to Maynard Dixon's failure to directly depict the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Secretary made it really clear that his approval of any mural would depend on the design "showing a white man teaching agricultural methods to the Indians."
In his final design, this is exactly what Maynard Dixon depicted, represented here, the figure of the white farm agent on the bottom right. This design fit the mandate of the Bureau of Indian Affairs perfectly to visualize the activities of the Bureau. Actually, well, most 1930s Bureau agents were spending most of their time dealing with agency paperwork in offices. Dixon showed them in the field teaching their Indian clients.
He also painted here a scene of Indian and white cooperation in keeping with the Secretary's extremely particular demand for pictures of friendly Indians. More importantly, he depicted Indians in terms of family, not tribes, and this segued with mainstream ideas about modern American social structure in general and federal government ideas about assimilation.
Yet Maynard Dixon's mural also retained an implicit critique of Native American assimilation.
The modern panel featuring the Bureau agent, for example, is especially static in comparison with the earlier historical scene. Note how the column of rushing buffalo are replaced by the fence. We don't have that forceful arm gesture of the tall Indian that we see in the top panel.
His idealization of pre-contact or pre-modern Indians was grounded in prevailing stereotypes of Native Americans as noble savages and in assumptions, too, that Indians were a vanishing race because of encroaching modernism and assimilation with the whites.
His nostalgia for an undomesticated American West of independent and racially pure Indians stemmed also from Maynard Dixon's personal anguish about modernism and his own sense of masculinity.
Born a decade after the Civil War, Dixon was the son of a Confederate army officer whose ancestors emigrated from England to Virginia in the 18th century. In the 19th century, Dixon's grandfather owned a prosperous cotton plantation and many slaves in Mississippi.
After the war and after the loss of the family plantation, Dixon's father joined an exodus of disaffected Southerners to California's San Joaquin Valley, where he established a law firm centered on regional land ownership issues and quarrels over water rights. He tried in the San Joaquin Valley to recreate a lost plantation lifestyle on a Fresno ranch that he called Refuge and he denounced the course of modern capitalism, frequently raging about damn businessmen.
This is a nice painting that Dixon did later in his life which is very much similar to the sort of landscape that he grew up in.
Dixon's father never fully accepted the changed circumstances of his life and suffered several nervous breakdowns and was eventually committed to a California state mental hospital. His son's understanding of America, an American character, is somewhat similar. While modern in style, Dixon's paintings typically reveal this nostalgia for this pre-modern American West.
His symbolic attachment to the West came pretty early. He was sick as a child; he was often bedridden with asthma and he would voraciously consume the popular literature of the day, including picture magazines like Harper's and Collier's which often depicted very romantic, very dramatic scenes of a rugged, manly West.
Both of these covers here are illustrated by Frederick Remington.
This was the most popular moment for graphic illustration just before photograph would really take over modern mass media in the 20th century, a moment when very popular American illustrators such as Maxfield Parrish, Charles Dana Gibson and Frederick Remington were household names the way photographers like Annie Liebowitz are today.
During camping trips with his father, Dixon drew pictures like these.
When he was 16, he sent two of his sketchbooks to his favorite illustrator, Frederick Remington. This is an example of his work that Remington did in addition to the covers that we just saw.
He was really encouraged by the popular illustrator's response. Can you imagine sending two sketchbooks of your drawings today to a popular American artist and getting this kind of response: "You draw better than I did at your age. Be always true to yourself to the way and the things you see in nature."
So Dixon decided at age 16, 'I'm going to become an artist and I'm going to especially devote my life to illustrating the Old West.'
He went to art school for three months in 1893, dropped out and became a professional illustrator. This is Dixon on the left wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson. He liked to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, which I guess wasn't that different then. He often signed his work with a stylized Thunderbird logo, which you can see on the bottom right. He really began to play the part of the Western artist.
His interest in the West coincided with those of Frederick Jackson Turner, who sermonized about the significance of the Frontier in American history at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. For both Dixon and Turner, the West represented the last locus of American ideals of independence, individualism, freedom, and even faith.
Ever since he began to see and think, Dixon would say later, "I've had the feeling that the West is spiritually important to America, and as I grow older it becomes a firm conviction. You can't argue with these desert mountains. If you live among them long enough like the Indian does, you won't want to."
Dixon's idealization of the West and his conviction, I suppose, of its spiritual and national importance is seen in two different painting themes. First, these silent, vast and generally vacant frontier landscapes such as this one, "Mesas in Shadow" from 1925, also this one, "Study in Cubist Realism". Second, he created very idealized portraits of statuesque Indians with titles like "The Ancient" and "Earth Knower".
He described his art as "the Real Thing", saying, "My optic has always been to get as close to the Real Thing as possible: people, animals, and country. The melodramatic Wild West is not for me."
Now, in part, Dixon was responding to the burden of authenticity especially placed on American Western painting. From the 19th century forward, Western American painters and their patrons promoted an aesthetic of verisimilitude and technical mastery, insisting that the West's awesome landscapes and exotic people be encoded as timeless fact, sort of preserved in the past.
The style of Western art's documentary pretensions, its eternal image of the past, helped justify national policies of expansion and colonization, as visualized here in Albert Bierstadt's "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" and Henry Farny's "Morning of a New Day".
The realism of Western art, the realistic styles and the particular attention to the historical references, from Remington's "Dash for the Timber" above and Charles Russell's "Buffalo Bill's Dual with Yellowhand" below, help validate the American West as a place of heroic action, masculine adventure and manifest destiny.
Of course, however much Dixon tried to distinguish his real image of the West from the Wild West melodramas of artists like Remington, he still romanticized the West, and he romanticized it as a timeless pre-modern refuge. And this is an ideal painting for talking about that.
He was very much in this regard like his friends the writers Mary Austin and Mabel Dodge Luhan and other writers and intellectuals who have journeyed to the Southwest, Taos, Santa Fe and elsewhere, in the early part of the 20th century, looking on at the Southwest as a spiritual and spatial refuge from the modern, from urban, industrial, and particularly East Coast America.
Like many, Dixon was alienated from modern mass society and technology, and he sought alternative forms of cultural and personal identity in an American West that he thought was more authentic, more real than any other region in the nation. So from 1900 to 1946, he would actually spend months at a time by himself painting in the deserts and high prairies of Nevada, California, New Mexico and Arizona. The American West became his sanctuary, his escape to reality, to paraphrase the title of Mabel Dodge Luhan's 1937 book, "Edge of Taos Desert, Escape to Reality".
Dixon's highly selective views of the West, and at one point Ansel Adams said, "The West was uncrowded, unlittered, unorganized, and above all, vital and free from Maynard Dixon." And it's true. Usually in his paintings we see very few cars, highways, billboards, factories, farms and cities. It's a mythically blank canvas.
This idea of a very selective view of the West also applies to his view of Native Americans. And he's not alone in this. Mary Austin, the writer, used the phrase "the perfect rhythm of life" to talk about Pueblo Indians and their spiritual and physical attachment to Western landscapes.
Likewise, in his 1930 book, "Ancient Life of the American Southwest", the ethnologist Edgard Hewett wrote that "Native Americans viewed nature as the great source of all existence, founded in contemplating its orderly processes the principle for ordering their own lives, and sought in its mysterious forces not something to be captured and made to serve but harmonies that he might share to the profound satisfaction of his soul."
So images that we see here, "The Medicine Robe", and again, "What an Indian Thinks", and both of these are painted in 1915, show that Dixon perceives of Indian cultures and peoples in a more balanced, perhaps, and more organic manner than a lot of folks in the mainstream at the time.
He described "Earth Knower" on these terms: "He's a sage, calm Indian who stands against his own background of mountains from which he draws his health, wealth, religion and pattern of living. While we get panic-stricken over the market, the Indian puffs on his pipe and looks at the sky."
This painting really summarizes some of these ideas, the simplicity and freedom of pre-modern Indian society. It's titled "Neolithic Afternoon". It's a scene of two figures sitting on boulders.
In a 1923 letter to his New York art gallery dealer, because as much as he didn't like the Modern West, he still depended on the East Coast for his sales and for his art world reputation, Dixon describes the savage beauty of the Hopi and said, "They still believe and act as our forefathers did 20,000 years ago. They're here in the midst of this age of steel and electricity, a little remnant of the stone age still alive." Obviously objectifying Indians as pre-historic primitives, Dixon also claimed them as ancestors, "our forefathers," and as sources of self-identity.
Again, his nostalgia for this idyllic Indian past stemmed from his own personal insistence on overturning a long history of racist images of savage Indians, and this is well-represented in paintings that are almost 100 years apart, from John Vanderlyn's "The Death of Jane McCrea" from 1804 on the left to a painting by Charlie Russell on the right, "When Sioux and Blackfeet Meet", from 1903.
Dixon took another approach. His pictures echoed instead romantic stereotypes of a noble but also doomed Indian. This is the kind of stereotype perpetuated by artists like George Catlin who coins the phrase "doomed to perish" in his discussion of the Mandan in the 1830s to photographers like Edward Curtis, whose work we see on the left, and James Fraser, who's famous work "The End of the Trail" we see on the right.
Dixon said, "I do not paint Indians merely because they're picturesque but because through them, I can express the freedom of space and thought which will give the world a sentiment about these people that is inspiring and uplifting."
But if these figures are more inspiring than racist images of Indians in the past, they're also incredibly static and they discount Indian agency. Looking backward to paint indigenous freedom of space and thought, Dixon ignored the restrictions of the federal reservation including geographic boundaries, forced concentration, compulsory labor, bans on Indian language and religion.
Reporter Mike Gould recounted in the 1920s and 1930s, poverty, disease, malnutrition on some Southwestern Indian reservations was worse than in many eastern urban slums. Dixon didn't paint this reality, choosing instead scenes of an untroubled and pristine Western landscape and calling these "the Real Thing."
Further dismissing the importance of tribal community, Dixon painted the Indian as the solitary and self-determined man that he wanted to be. His resonance with "The Indian of Yesterday" was coupled with the urgency of the 'vanishing race' theme whereby American Indians were thought to be doomed to extinction by modernization and assimilation. If a fallacy, statistic showed steady increase in 20th century Indian population. Native Americans were disappearing, notions of this were couched in anxieties about the decline of pure Indian bloodlines.
In fact, modern Indian populations were growing, and some of this is attributable to race-mixing with whites. In an American scene of the early 20th century committed to stereotypes of Indians as racially distinctive red men, it was not tenable, which is clear, I think, in Dixon's visual narratives of Indians who are seemingly uncontaminated by modernity or miscegenation.
More importantly, Dixon's distress about the whitening or the disappearance of the American Indian related in part to his feelings of artistic corruption as a commercial illustrator.
As I mentioned, beginning in 1893, he began a career as a commercial artist. He produced countless drawings for popular magazines like Sunset, Pacific Monthly. He illustrated over 80 books by authors ranging from Jack London and Francis Parkman. He worked with a number of advertisers. These aren't great, but down at the bottom you can see some of the ads that he did for beer and also sort of an interesting nudie cover for a restaurant somewhere in New York.
In 1907, he moved to New York, the center of commercial art, and he was soon elected to the National Academy of Design and the Society of Illustrators. Here are some other book illustrations.
Despite his success, he hated this stuff. He despised commercial art. He complained in a letter to his mentor, Charles Lummis, a popular Western author and newspaper editor, "I'm being paid to lie about the West, the country I love and care about. I'm done with all that. I'm going to go back home where I can do honest work in my own way."
His disaffection, I think, is also characterized by a disastrous marriage. Dixon was married three times, all three times to women artists. At this time he was involved in popular commercial illustration, his wife was treating him poorly and he was treating her poorly as well.
He returns to California in 1912, and there it is that he begins to assert his artistic and marital independence by spending months alone in the American Southwest. Here is where he comes to be painting these works, which date to about 1915. Note that each one of them figures single men in boundless landscapes.
For the remainder of his life, Dixon would only accept a few commercial illustrations, and usually in moments of dire financial need. He would illustrate covers for the Standard Oil Bulletin, but only in the '30s when the Depression really collapsed the art market. He had two kids he had to support.
During the 1920s, he accepted a few contracts for hotel interiors including the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix and the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, so if you ever head out that way, they have gorgeous murals. But note, too, the style that he's developing in these murals: very flat, very decorative. And that's what gets repeated in the mural for the Interior Department.
At the same time, he has these anxieties about creating art for hire and being paid to lie about the West. This resurfaces during the mural competition for the Interior Department, because he's also involved in the midst of his divorce from his second wife, who was Dorothea Lange. Their marriage dissolved in 1935; Dixon was now 60 years old and he struggled with economic and personal issues.
Dorothea Lange had supported Dixon and their two sons throughout the 1920s with her very successful portrait photography studio in San Francisco, and you can see some examples of the kinds of photographs that she did.
I can't remember of the name of the young man on the right, but his bones had just been discovered somewhere in Utah. This was the missing author. I can't remember his name. He's in his early 20s. This was a portrait of him. And this is a very nice portrait from 1920 on the top left of Dixon and Lange, who is 25 years his junior.
Dixon was a troubled man. In addition to inheriting his father's feelings of modernist malaise, he also inherited his frequent bouts of depression.
His feelings were personal, but they were also political. In the 1920s, for example, right after World War I, he began to paint these very weird watercolors, which we're looking at here, very small, about 8-by-12 inches. He signed them with the really weird alias "Nvorczk". These were found under his bed in a suitcase once he passed away and his sons sort of distributed them to the market. They're very strange. They're very turbulent. Turbulence, guys. Tormented self-portraits. Lots of naked women. I'm not showing you those.
In 1918, he writes to his friend, Lummis again, "My doubts grow and nothing seems real, socialism a dream, democracy an idea, passion and prejudice rule and nobody dares tell the truth." Lummis responds, "Never mind the war or the government or your dreams of socialism. Get back to work. Go paint." Which is what he does.
So in the 1920s, Maynard Dixon produced some of the strongest paintings of his career. He really begins experimenting with brighter colors, simplified compositions, and he also begins honing a very distinctive personal style.
As much as he had these anti-modern views about the West and about Indians, his canvasses are definitely modern. They do not imitate the 19th century styles of American Western artists like Bierstadt or Remington. He would borrow formalist, symbolist, post-impressionist elements for paintings like this one, "What an Indian Thinks".
He shifted to a more reductive, abstract sensibility, the precisionist style of the '20s, perhaps, in this one, "Study in Cubist Realism". Searching for clarity and for balance, he adopted a very firm, a very controlled style in pictures like this one, "Remembrance of Tusayan" from 1923.
It's interesting that both he and his second wife, Lange, explored the visual subjects of the American Southwest together. Note their similar use of dramatic contrast of light and shade and the careful manipulation of space in their scenes of the landscape. They did much the same in their photo work as well. This is a photo by Lange on the left taken in the 1920s compared with one of Dixon's paintings.
Nevertheless, Dixon's anxieties erupt again in the early '30s. He talks about how he had a gnawing feeling of oppression, "of being caught in the slowly closing jaws of a vise, of complete helplessness."
A lot of this, of course, is distress from the onset of the Great Depression, in which he was really caught by scenes of homeless unemployed white men, as he put in his letters, wandering the streets of California on the landscapes of the Southwest.
So he began to paint his "Forgotten Man" series. We see a few paintings from that series from 1934 and a little bit later, striking longshoremen in San Francisco on the left from 1934, destitute Americans wandering the West on the right.
Both he and his ex-wife at this point picture these scenes in the United States. This is when Lange divorces Dixon and begins to work for the FSA, another New Deal project, and begins to produce not only works like this that are very iconic, photograph of a migrant mother, which she made in 1936.
Dismayed by the collapse of the art market and by the end of his marriage to Dorothea Lange, Dixon once again turned to images of Indians for solace, in this one in particular, "Shapes of Fear" from the early 1930s.
As I mentioned, he was feeling like he was in the grips of some fatalism. Describing his painting, he said, "I had the sense of being surrounded by vague, ominous, threatening forms, a feeling that became an obsession. Out of this need to free myself, to get it out of my system, came the idea of painting 'Shapes of Fear', a group of four Indians, their faces shrouded from view."
Dixon isn't alone in tapping the Indian as a symbol of dispossession in Depression Era America, and he projected his feelings of helplessness onto their bodies. Paintings like "Shapes of Fear" were incredibly popular. He won several prizes for this in various fairs and exhibits in the early '30s.
So it's out of this context that a few years later he comes to develop his proposals for the Interior mural. In 1937, he explained the symbolism of these sketches. "I've tried to keep the theme simple and obvious. My contact with the Indians has so deeply impressed me with their tragedy and their mysticism, but something of this always shows in my paintings of them."
But if this was a popular stereotype of Indians, it was increasingly antithetical to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the New Deal 1930s. Indian Commissioner John Collier declared in his annual report in 1938, in headlines, "The Indians are no longer a dying race."
Under Collier, again, got rid of the Dawes Act, really emphasizes Native American autonomy, and got rid of the idea of a vanishing Indian in favor of the idea of a changing Indian, a modern Native American who, restored to his tribal land, would emerge as a self-sufficient and contributory American citizen.
Armed with the liberal reform of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, Collier aimed to steer American Indians to cultural and economic revival. Part of that included commissioning Native American artists.
So on the top floor of the Interior building are incredible murals painted by six painters from five Southwestern tribes. For example, what we see here. They're painted in this flat, refined style that comes out of Dorothy Dunn's Santa Fe school, which operated in the 1930s, and the paintings really center on native traditions in the pre-modern past.
To a degree, they then re-inscribed romantic notions about indigenous organisism, spirituality and independence, which shows us how seductive that stereotype is for both whites and Indians.
Under Collier, the New Deal Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to get rid of some of those stereotypes, and the mural that Dixon painted was presumably conceived as the Bureau's mission statement in paint. But Dixon clung to his vision of a pre-modern West and pre-modern Indians.
Agriculture, for example, had been prevalent among pre-contact Cheyenne and Arapaho and was practiced as milpa farming among Southwestern tribes who borrowed this kind of hill farming in which you make a little hill of dirt and you grow beans and other protective plants around the corn to restore Nitrogen under the soil. This is common in the American Southwest.
But Dixon doesn't paint that, because an image of an agricultural Indian would have clashed with his preferred image of an unrestrained and free-roaming Indian.
The figure of the boy in "Indian and Teacher" is similar to that of the downtrodden farmer in his first drawing, "The Indian Today". Both have shorn hair. They stand dejectedly. They hold these short hoes that are symbols of or actually implements of migrant farmers. 'Stoop labor', it was called.
So in Dixon's history of indigenous Americans, the Indian of yesterday had to be energetic and independent like the wild buffalo. Modern Indians were fenced in and forced to farm.
Again, Dixon's in his mid-60s, he's quite ill, recently divorced when he paints this mural. In 1937, he suffered a nervous breakdown.
The mural is really a last stand for Dixon, a final nod to his mythical pre-modern American West. He was aware of what Collier wanted, to paint the modern Indian, and to a degree, he did that. He described the modern panel, saying, "In the present, the Indian deals with the teacher sent to help him make the most of his native resources." It's very blunt.
But consider the role of corn in the mural. Dixon often painted Indians standing near corn plants, emphasizing their attachment to nature. Corn is a personal icon for him. When he and Dorothea Lange had their second son in 1928, he sent out cards to folks announcements of the birth with a big stalk of corn. Illustrated, not an actual stalk of corn.
Representation of corn is common in the 1930s. There's a mural in the building by John Steuart Curry. This is a great painting by Curry on the left of corn, "Kansas Cornfield". Very hopeful, prosperous corn. Contrast that with the wonderful woodblock on the right by Lucienne Bloch, "Land of Plenty", showing a destitute family walking past a fenced area of corn and towering electric power lines, a great sort of paradox of the Depression. In a way, Dixon's use of corn is more aligned with the corn by John Steuart Curry.
But note, too, how Dixon painted a dark cloud over the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent, suggesting the doomed results of any further modern management in Indian country.
Likewise, and we'll see this when we go upstairs, the agent's red lips and soft features make him, I think, an especially feminized figure. His kneeling posture is also one of deference, not dominance, in stark contrast to the Indian standing alone at the left of the panel, abiding symbol of Dixon's own freedom, independence and masculine self-sufficiency. You've got these two men sort of paired off.
Painting native and white men on oppositional terms dressed differently and positioned in separate groups, Indians on the left and the whites on the right in the panel "Indian and Soldier". The Indian on the left, that crouching Bureau agent on the right, an Indian teacher.
Dixon, I think, critiqued these federal policies of assimilation in the making of the modern Indian.
Representing the Indian agent kneeling and showing the tallest man looking down at him, he further refuted the Bureau's managerial supervision of Native American lands and people. I think he's really ridiculing the government agent's educational efforts, which we can see, especially upstairs, as the man offers what Dixon described as "a lump of soil to the disinterested Indian boy" that really looks like a ball of clay. I think it's a great picture, then, of Dixon's own libertarian resentment of authority.
In the 1930s, and I'll finish up, and even today, some argue that all of these New Deal murals were nothing more than New Deal propaganda. I think this mural complicates those kinds of assumptions. True, it is not a propaganda piece, this isn't a New Deal mural, but this is Diego Rivera's fairly politically radical work painted in 1934 for the Detroit Museum of Art.
But then Dixon's mural isn't a liberal glorification of national policy, either, or a celebration of nationalism. I think, rather, it shows how one very troubled artist negotiated the specific requirements of a government public arts commission and simultaneously struggled to retain his own conflicting and very politically conservative views of the subject.
It looks a bit perhaps like a documentary narrative of the activities of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from the 19th century past to the New Deal present, but it really embodied his personal anguish about modernism and management in the American West and also his romance with what he called "the Real Thing".