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In the Remington Moment by Stephen Tatum (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 417-419 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0025

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It takes an unusually patient reader over two hundred pages to discover the key to Stephen Tatum’s extended phenomenological meditation on death, violence, and redemption in the late work of Frederic Remington. This is not traditional art history; the self-conscious passages of awkwardly convoluted pictorial description immediately betray the hand of an interested outsider to that field. Nor does the text, despite its nervous scholarly erudition, seem intended principally as a contribution to turn-of-the-century cultural history more broadly defined. Self-serving evocations of both period and non-period theoretical texts by Gregory Bateson, Gaston Bachelard, Bruno Bettelheim, Jonathan Crary, Eric Erikson, Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Fredric Jameson, Julia Kristeva, T. Jackson Lears, Susan Stewart, Max Weber, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and numerous others seem less concerned with establishing an intellectual context in terms of which the artist’s final paintings made or make sense—“the Remington Moment”—than with buttressing the credibility of the “transnational literary perspective” Tatum deploys in the service of autobiographical reflection (14). His empathetic appreciation of Remington’s final coming to terms with mortality by aesthetic means informs the text throughout but surfaces most clearly (and thus gives definition to the project) only in the book’s “Coda,” an undisguised personal memoir (205–22). Here Tatum quite winningly describes his own experience of seemingly unredeemed death and violence during a post-college “Australian winter and spring” spent living and working at various cattle stations in the outback that has never left him. The present text, we learn, emerged some forty years later out of this continuing, perhaps now culminating “conversation with death”—less historical analysis per se than “a groping … for a fuller knowledge of how the world’s exceeding beauty is nevertheless bound up, as Rilke believed, with a terror that can just barely be borne” (221).

Taken on its own terms, the book offers often insightful, occasionally revelatory personal responses to four of Remington’s last major canvases in as many chapters organized under pre-Socratic, emphatically Bachelardian rubrics: water, sky, fire, and earth. This careful structure, with each chapter divided into five sections introduced by literary, historical, and philosophical epigraphs, serves as an index to the seriousness of the book’s intent but fails to deepen its analysis discernibly. Fortunately, these poetic flourishes and patchwork borrowings from previous accounts of the artist’s work and career yield, here and there, often unexpectedly, to passages of greater originality.

Tatum claims, for instance, that the “mobility of vision,” on which a work like Remington’s Coming to the Call of 1905 relies, elevates its representation of a moose hunt from simple narrative, coded to appeal to wealthy male patrons, to a realm of aesthetic transcendence where Eros and Thanatos combine in what the artist himself termed a “conflagration of ecstasy” (47). Doing so opens the painting’s thematic resonance appreciably, its twilight “mood of reverie” characterized suggestively as “a medium for the unconscious, whose symbolic shadow figure has emerged … in the defamiliarized, dark form of a wild animal” (58). When he notes that Remington’s With the Eye of the Mind of 1908, an otherwise infantilizing caricature of Indian credulity (or incredulity), concerns the “elemental opacity” of the world, citing Bill Brown, who sees in such gestures a “modernist epistemological shift away from objects [here clouds in the sky] as a source of secure meaning that is nonetheless a shift toward objects as a source of phenomenological fascination,” we better recognize the anxious reading of clouds as a trope of indeterminacy itself (85, 115). Such representations of the world as unstable or ephemeral seem to Tatum less invested in nostalgia, in lamenting a loss of certainty or the irretrievability of the past, than recuperative gestures promoting an alternative “affective attachment” to the world (117). Remington, he argues, unlike certain of his lesser contemporaries, saw in nostalgia not a fixed commodity but “an imaginative struggle against … forgetting and forgetfulness,” a project in which artist, viewer, historian, and musing philosopher are implicated equally (152). Images like The Hunters’ Supper of ca. 1909, he notes, again redeem an utterly prosaic subject matter, making such absences and ill-definition uncannily perceptible—a turn from historical subjects...



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