Painter and Poet of the Far West
By Grant Wallace
During the three generations since the California Argonauts who struck it rich had become its most lavish patrons of the fine arts, San Francisco is reputed to have foster-mothered more than twelve hundred artists, most of the first generation being of European birth and training. Her first gilded nabobs, with callouses still on their palms, went in for social climbing and gaudy culture.
They crowned Nob Hill with gimcrack palaces and, having been told that art galleries were the thing, “blew themselves” without stint on marble statuary and very large paintings-- panoramic and grandiose. Art was what they yearned for and they proceeded, as one of them put it, “to exhaust its possibilities”; vastly to the profit of the group of earthly academic painters of brilliant yardage who painted Yosemite or the California hinterland or Roman mythology in a big way. Non-conformists, progressives, impressionists or romanticists-- few of the next generation of painters would qualify as radicals in their day.
Of those San Franciscans, who form the link in time and in art between the orthodox old-timers and the young third generation of followers of sundry “modernist” movements, there is at least one painter who, like all progressive, self-taught creative workers, has too much of the unique and solitary in his character to be easily classified. That one is Maynard Dixon, painter of the primitive Far West.
Perhaps we can safely say that his work owes something to all three epochs and their ideals. Stemming from his conception of the art of past centuries, he has branched tentatively into the “modern” of today, while coming to artistic maturity chiefly in the study middle region. Of the influences and ideals that have brought this about, much more must be said before one can arrive at an understanding of the man or a just evaluation of his work. One of the very few notable painters of his generation-- if not the only-- to be born in California, and who received no formal art training-- self-taught almost wholly in the outdoor school of hard knocks, Dixon at the age of sixty-one has achieved, unaided, a mastery, successively, of the three forms of art-- illustration, easel painting and mural decoration. That he is a man of resolute and definite purpose who through recurring periods of privation and discouragement refuses to be deflected, is indicated by his remark recently to this writer:
“Outside of my work in painting and drawing, in forty-five years I have never earned or tried to earn a dollar.”
If the average well-informed American were asked to select from a representative list of artists, living or dead, the one most outstanding and truthful interpreter of the unique features and nomad life and spirit of the far Western wastelands, it is safe to predict that the name of Maynard Dixon would be among the first to leap to the mind. And if, with his twenty years output of a score of notable mural decorations and over five hundred easel paintings, we are permitted to include the best of the thousands of his previous twenty-odd years production of book, magazine, and newspaper illustrations and posters, doubtless on the basis of thorough knowledge of his subjects plus quantity and artistic quality, few competent critics would hesitate to assign first place to this San Franciscan.
Essentially an outdoor artist, Mr. Dixon, with the pioneer spirit of his Virginian ancestry, is never content to stay long in town and be a studio artist, spinning from within and always repeating himself. He is forever heeding the urge to make friends with whatever vista may be hidden beyond the pounds of his horizon, on the unending truth quest. Twenty-two times in about as many years he has forked his bronco or piled bedroll and paint box and warbag into a buckboard and gone coyoting into the wilds-- not the kindly wilderness of forested mountain and green meadow, but the harsh, uncompromising deserts of splintered mesas, sun, silence, and adobe.
At first-hand he has studied the folkways of the people of a score of Indian tribes, fraternized with “Frontiersmen with the bark on,” and has made intensive studies of life in the raw, on cattle ranch and sheep range, at desert mines, in lumber camps, in National parks and at weird Indian ceremonials.
Such has been Dixon’s university and almost his only school art school. In a way, it measures the bigness of his studio. These long sojourns in the wilds have done more than fill the notebooks of an artist-- for he is no painter of mere externals-- they have revealed to him the spirit of the desert country and the soul of its denizens.
Light is thrown upon the artist’s background and upon the peculiarly native American forces which contributed to the broad gauge development of Dixon by a detailed chronology and by references to facts which he gave this writer in the course of an acquaintance covering some thirty years. To quote him briefly here:
“I was born and raised an American. My people came from England to Virginia before the Revolution; fought in that conflict and did their part in forming the new Republic; went west to the Mississippi in 1820 and prospered with the country; lost everything in the Civil War and in 1868 came to California to make a new start. My boyhood home was a raw California boom town where men drank, gambled in land values and shot one another over irrigation rights.
“For us, history began (almost), with Bunker Hills and the Declaration. All our guarantees were set forth in the Bill of Rights, and that meant what it said. Under it, people could live and move; could look one another in the eye and freely discuss matters of the public interest, in open difference of opinion. This was assured to all men. It was American.
“Friendships were genuine, based on character-- not money. A man’s word could be in fact as good as his bond-- and the average was high. The subservient ‘white collar’ class was not evident; the ‘yes man’ of the big corporations had not yet become a national figure; and that bootlicking phrase, ‘the customer is always right,’ had not yet been invented….”
Always a student, his progressive, though carefully wrought, changes of method and objectives mark at least three translation periods in the development of his work. And he is still studying. It is likely that what he will offer next will be in line with his conviction that a new and more harmonious whole will be achieved when architect and mural painter unite in designing great buildings with true interplay of imagination.
For a clear-cut snapshot of Dixon, it would be difficult to improve upon this by the Western writer, Wilbur Hall, (Sunset, January 1921):
“Dixon is a man well worth knowing, well worth describing, because he is part of the vital West of today and tomorrow, part interpreter, historian and perpetuator of its best truth on canvas…. If there is anything of a western type, not only of mind, bearing, physique, habit, nature, temperament and viewpoint but of heart and soul, it expresses Maynard Dixon and is expressed in him.
“He is frank, blunt, outspoken. He is untrampled by tradition, yet a respecter of sound laws; he is free from guile, intolerant of narrowness, bigotry and hypocrisy. He was born in California and has been over almost every state of the West, not in a Pullman but on the trail. And he knows it and its people, and loves it, rather defiantly and somewhat jealousy. Moreover he is typical of its best kind of men, because he knows the faults of his country and blurts them out in meeting, when there is a chance that blurting will do some good. But sneering at the West, or misrepresenting it, either as to its character or its limitations, sets him afire.”
Among American art critics and art lovers there is a singular unanimity in according Dixon a high and almost unique place, as a master painter of the west. This evaluation is indicated in a few sentences from a review of his work in the International Studio (March 1924), by Ruth Pielkovo:
“Dixon has something to give that is entirely his own. In choice of subject matter, in his austere reactions to his surroundings, his work is stamped by complete spiritual integrity…. His painting is full of a strange and somber poetry…. The technique is bold almost to starkness. Yet there is always organization, a marching rhythm of design;... A master draughtsman, he is also a daring colorist…. He is particularly successful in mural decoration. Here his searching, interpretive bent, the bigness of his subject matter, rhythmical balance of composition and decorative values have full play…. In his work is the spirit of America, of both land and race, rendered with truth and which will be, as is all great art, the heritage of the whole world.”
Not only is Dixon American in heritage and in his championship of American themes for American artists, but in his demand for orderly growth and evolution, all along the line; the hopeful state of being not so much dissatisfied as forever unsatisfied. This is reflected in the three or four rather distinct periods of transition in his work-- tending away from the recording of appearances and from lyrical and dramatic treatment to his subjects, toward revealing and interpreting the spirit of the people and the country. Concerning this, he remarked some years ago:
“My work, outside the limits of illustration, is not the regulation ‘Wild West’ type of painting. It aims rather to interpret the vastness, the loneliness, and the sense of freedom this country inspires. I want to make my paintings show the people as a part of that. To me the wind of the wastelands has color; the opalescent ranges of the desert seem to me like music; and sometimes the giant clouds of storm, piled far above the mountains, take form as of lost and forgotten gods, serene and terrible.”
Nor is his deep understanding of the Western scene and its heroic and little known folk revealed only in his canvases. In his too infrequent verse he displays equal insight, a characteristic portrayed in all his diversified talents.
THE DIXON OF TODAY (circa 1935)
Since about 1910,artists of the Occident have divided themselves into three camps. The middle group of moderates suggest that these are not so much “three schools of thought, as one school of thought” -- their own; in between a vociferous school of modernist emotion, on the left, and the conservative academy of habit to the right; yet open-minded enough to learn from both sides.
As we trace Dixon’s career of some forty years of active self-education and work, we shall find him most of the time in the category of the isolated and emotionally stable creative artists who form the link of continuity between the two extreme schools; broad gauge enough to learn from both, but too strongly individualized and well equipped to be swept away by either.
More than once in print and in his lectures Dixon has pointed out the instability of these chameleons of “modernism.” “This kind of ‘self-expression,’ “he says, “is just an alibi for idiocy.” And having suggested this for the benefit the critics and “little reviewers” -- he betakes himself again to the fresh air of the open desert to paint as one who respects his own integrity.
Upon the publication of Thomas Craven’s notable “Modern Art,” Mr. Dixon, finding in this critic a sane defender of his own faith, penned the following lines—lines, which reveal the American fiber of the man and the broad basic principles underlying his conception of art;
“A howl is going up,” he says, “about Thomas Craven’s critical re-evaluation of Modern Art and some of its demigods and the hard names he calls American painters for being brainless imitators of recent French art ‘isms.’
“Craven singles out but few Americans for commendation, but I like his book because it restages all my pet prejudices and objections; things that I have been saying over some twenty years, thereby getting all but ill favor with my fellow painters. It is always easier to go with the crowd.
“Well enough. But experience with my tribe has taught me that they are a simple folk, given to emotional enthusiasms, usually borrowed, and but vaguely reasoned; uncritical and easily sold to clever argumenta devised to rationalize the tricks aberrations or incompetencies which form the bulk of what we call Modern Art.
“It is plain to an observer that art today is full of hokum; that uncritical acceptance of its dogmas produces no live results; that imitations are spurious. What Craven says to us is that if we American artists want to be the real thing (and I hope most of us do) we must stand up on our own immediate world; that we must trust our own responses to our surroundings and clarify our own thought and vision. In short, that we should get less borrowed theory and more native common sense into our work.
“This has been misconstrued to mean an argument for a narrow nationalism in art. It is an argument for a first-hand, authentic and ingenious art and applies to any time or place. If we want ‘American Art’ as such, we can have it largely by being genuine. Nothing simpler-- but for imitators and fashion followers, nothing more difficult.
“Mental independence, it seems to me, is of first importance to an artist. To be real he must be honest and keep his own integrity. He should beware of schools, cults, dogmas, isms; learning from all, but giving obedience to none.
“All we mean then by American art is that our work bear some evident relation to the world we know, and contain a common denominator of human understanding.”
Yet, while Dixon sees no virtue in being too tolerant of pretenders, he can also scarify reactionaries who have ceased either to learn or to forget, who are unable to countenance newly evolving methods and ideals; as witness his severing of his twenty-five year connection with the Bohemian Club, in 1930, as a protest against the action of the club officials in barring from its 1927 exhibition the works of radical painters.
“Their action,” said Dixon, “is unjust and dictatorial. It does not make for furthering the aims for which its’ (the clubs) organizers founded it-- which included encouragement of artistic progress. freedom of speech, it seems to me, ought to imply also freedom of artistic expression. And freedom of the mind is essential to the arts.”
Having inherited from his pioneer forebears a deep appreciation of America and its right to a high place among nations, Dixon is equally skeptical of the pretensions to leadership in American Art of foreigners and of painters who imported their vision and their aims from Europe. He says “Their ideas have little or nothing to do with the life of this country or the psychology of our people. They just don’t fit.”
Discussing these imitators, Dixon made characteristic comment:
“When Rivera was here, he told us that all we needed was to look at our own country, our own American life, and interpret it in our own way. He reminded our artists that the United States contains all the necessary elements for the development of our art. Well, a few of us had been saying the same thing for twenty-five years. And how did our young painters respond to this? By imitating Rivera!
“Speaking for myself, while I have never studied in European schools, I have from the first tried to learn what I might from studying all kinds of art, ancient and modern. And they have plenty to teach any painter; but no true artist may slavishly follow any of them-- he must see with his own eyes and his is the mind that must interpret it, in his own individual way. He must use his schooling as a tool. He must not let it use and enslave him.”
On the other hand, many artist friends broke with him for not completely falling in line with new fashions; to all of which he retorted:
“I want to see man hooked up to something bigger than he is. Even my cowboy and Indian paintings are always part of a big scene, and the scene has a spirit behind the obvious landscape. Our vision is too fine a thing for us to translate our perception of the world-- when we really do perceive it-- into mere fashions. To be in the parade is not the painter’s business. An imitation is nothing. A lot of ‘art’ is just plain cheating. We need less arty-art and more common sense. We need honesty in art as much as in business and politics. This is what I mean by integrity in art.”