A New World perspective,

Spotlight on Native Americans at Palazzo Pitti

Laura C. Johnson
July 12, 2012

The celebrations of Vespucci Year continue with the opening of the exhibit at Palazzo Pitti, New Frontier: History and Culture of the Native Americans from the Collections of The Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Co-organizer Laura Johnson reflects on the title and gives TF a personal glimpse behind the scenes.



The exhibition New Frontier pays tribute to two men of extraordinary vision separated by 450 years: Amerigo Vespucci, who died in 1512, and Thomas Gilcrease, who died in 1962. At the exhibit's entrance, in the Andito degli Angiolini at Palazzo Pitti, visitors view on the right a portrait of Amerigo Vespucci (from the Uffizi's Vasari Corridor collection), and a portrait of Thomas Gilcrease on the left. They are connected through their belief in something beyond the horizon, in the idea of a new frontier.


I was born the year before President John F. Kennedy's assassination, so it is impossible for me to remember firsthand his New Frontier project or the feeling that there was ‘another world' to discover through space exploration. Years later when I was studying at the University of Oklahoma, Norman and the University of Tulsa, I always felt that I was following the dictum of the American author Horace Greeley, who, in the 1830s, stated, ‘Go West, young man,' as I drove the 675 miles (1,110 km) to Tulsa from my home town of Chicago, where the famed Route 66 starts. It is referred to as ‘The Mother Road' in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and commemorated in a song that idealizes the journey to new states or frontiers. Therefore, when it was decided that the title for the exhibition from the Gilcrease Museum was to be the New Frontier, I found my mind wandering back to my more insular viewpoint until I viewed the theme on a grander scale, from a European's perspective.


The ‘frontier' concept suggests a situation that expands beyond one's native shores to uncharted territories. Before the late-fifteenth century, historians had written about the influences of explorers and the Nuovo Mondo or what could also be called a Nuova Frontiera. The first room of the exhibition in the Andito degli Angiolini features artifacts used by the indigenous peoples and landscape paintings of the unspoiled majesty of uncharted lands of this new frontier. The other five rooms display pottery, baskets, weavings, and bronzes demonstrating the customs, religion and way of life of a few of the many tribes of North America. As the visitor progresses through the exhibit, influences from Europe and the effects of colonization are clearly noted in how they dressed in European garb instead of a traditional manner. In the early 1900s, photographer-anthropologist Edward S. Curtis believed that ‘information is to be gathered ... respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind.' American tycoon J.P. Morgan commissioned Curtis to produce a series on the North American Indians. In order to demonstrate his passion for truthfully presenting the indigenous peoples, Curtis made over 40,000 images, of which a selection is on exhibit.


The New Frontier exhibit continues in the Galleria del Costume on the second floor of Palazzo Pitti and features six rooms with specific themes, such as the horse, buffalo and children. The highlights include several dramatic paintings by Frederic Remington, and the beautiful painting Crucita-Taos Indian Girl in Hopi Wedding Dress and Dried Flowers by Joseph Henry Sharp. Gilcrease and Sharp knew each other. As collector and artist respectively, they shared many common interests and both were concerned with authenticity. Gilcrease even participated in archeological digs to insure the provenance of the pieces for his museum. Sharp used the actual items owned by the figures in his paintings, which were then also added to Gilcrease's collection. The Galleria del Costume's Sala di Ballo features the white boots, colored sash, dress, and ceramic vessel in the still-life painting.


Thomas Gilcrease may be described as a man with a passion to preserve and revere Native American cultures. Just like Vespucci, Gilcrease realized a new frontier, which he simply called ‘a track in life.' At the age of nine, Gilcrease, who was one-eighth Muskogee-Creek Indian on his mother's side, was granted 160 acres (68 hectares) of land just south of Tulsa through the 1899 Dawes Commission allotment process. By his early twenties, he had become a multimillionaire when this seemingly unproductive plot of land gushed forth the black gold of oil and he continued to buy other oil-rich land tracks. Like most youth, Gilcrease was restless and wanted to discover the world beyond his homeland. His travels took him to all parts of the world, always with an interest in learning about different cultures and educating himself by reading voraciously. He mastered French and Spanish and was especially interested in geology.


Because of his frequent visits to the great museums of Europe, and realizing that there were no great museums in the United States that specifically addressed the history of Native Americans, Gilcrease was inspired to establish one. In 1943, he opened his first museum and by 1949 he had built one near his home in Tulsa, where the museum is still today, now with a collection featuring 100,000 rare books, maps and documents as well as more than 250,000 artifacts. The Gilcrease Museum is owned by the City of Tulsa, which has partnered with the University of Tulsa to steward the museum and its collection.


In Gilcrease's memoirs, we note how warmly he embraced Italy. He speaks of walking its cobblestoned streets and admiring the antiquities of Rome, the monuments of Florence, and the canals of Venice. His lifelong motto was ‘every man must leave a track and it might as well be a good one.' We should imagine this exhibit as part of that track.


Perhaps on this, the 50th anniversary of Gilcrease's death, we can say that a full circle has been made. An unforeseen consequence of his vision has been achieved with the New Frontier exhibition of Native American art in Florence during the quincentennial year of Amerigo Vespucci, the man who gave his name to the new frontier known as America.


New Frontier: History and Culture of the Native Americans

From the Collections of The Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa, Oklahoma

Palazzo Pitti - Until December 9, 2012, www.unannoadarte.it

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