Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 1998


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring 1998, pp. 166.


Copyright 1998 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Readers of this book will learn a great deal about contemporary art criticism, a modest although unquantifiable (and mostly unverifiable) amount about Frederic Remington, and very little about the American West. The author, an art historian, applies a postmodernist, Freudian analysis to the work of the popular painter, sculptor, and illustrator. He concedes that the multiple meanings he reads into Remington's work probably escaped the consciousness of the artist himself. But not to worry: "The meanings of which the artist is not conscious are often those that are most powerfully revelatory of the work's historical moment."

Readers who can get past this premise will have a fine time. Nemerov has a flair for drawing connections between works of art (Remington's and other artists'), between art and literature (Jack London's, Owen Wister's, and others', in addition to Remington's), and between art and what he takes to be the collective unconscious of turn-of-the-century America. That collective unconscious, according to the author, was obsessed with sex. Thus the waterhole in Remington's Fight for the Water Hole is really a vagina, the club in the hand of Paleolithic Man is a phallus, and the clams that old fellow is cracking open are miniature wombs.

Some of Nemerov's inferences are downright ingenious. Who would have guessed that the African American trooper in The Charge of the Rough Riders at Sanjuan Hill is there as a reminder of the battle of Gettysburg, which began thirty-five years to the day before the signal engagement of the Spanish-American War? (The obvious reason for his presencethat black soldiers played a critical part in the battle-doesn't satisfy Nemerov.) Or that that suggestive waterhole, besides being a vagina, also signifies both imperialism (the water lies at the bottom of a depression resembling the crater of a volcano, of which Hawaii, recently annexed to the United States, has several outstanding examples) and outer space (the crater also looks as though it might have been formed by a meteor).