Skip to main content

Our Ancestors of the Soil

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

It is always a satisfaction to feel that one has made progress, and one wants to share the sense of it with other people. So I will begin by saying that I have made progress since the time, just twenty years ago, when, returning from Mexico, I wrote for Harper’s Magazine an article which I called “The Greatest American Artists.” The work of Copley, Stuart, and Vanderlyn was well known to me, as was that of Eakins and Ryder, Prendergast and Sloan. But it was not of them that I was writing. If my title suggested such names to practically all readers, it was because of what I already considered a too narrow use of the word “American,” one denoting exclusively the people and things of the United States.

But America is a far bigger place than the United States. It is also far older; and the artists I wrote of were of that larger America, which includes the whole of the Western Hemisphere, whether we call it North America or South America, Canada or Mexico.

It was not because the arts we come upon in this larger America are the oldest that I called them the greatest (I still believe in the art of our time and the time previous); it was because the Mayas, the Totonacs, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs really did produce the most important art yet seen on this continent that I looked back to their thousands of years, instead of confining myself to the century and a half of our republic.

Again returning from Mexico, it is just in the matter of the immense duration of the older American art that I see the progress I spoke of at the beginning—and it is progress for all of us. Twenty years ago I thought of the ancient Mexican work as of the past: now I see that its chief interest lies in its relationship to the present. The old art never died. Submerged any number of times under a wave of conquest, it always reappeared—and with a new vitality. Probably the most complete eclipse it ever suffered was the one due to the European conquest, for in that case it was a completely alien people that overran the country, whereas the earlier invasions were by related races. And the newcomers of four hundred years ago not only did a ferociously thorough job in destroying every object, book, or religious practice on which they could lay their violent hands. They brought art, literature, and a religion to replace those they had consigned to oblivion.

The trouble with their consignment, as I now see, was that it did not get to its destination. Oblivion is the state of being forgotten, and that is the last word one could apply to the arts and beliefs of pre-Conquest Mexico. All the gunpowder, all the statecraft and the priestcraft of the Spaniards succeeded only in spots (some innovations of the conquerors were beneficent, let us admit, for within twenty years of their coming, books were being printed, and in fifteen years more a university was founded). But nothing could get quite to the roots of the Americanism of the people. When they were unable to resist by force, as they did for a surprisingly long time, they resisted by guile. Their subtlest ruse is well known, that of concealing one of their idols within every altar of the churches they were compelled to build, so as still to do homage to their old gods, even while praying to the new one. But what is less known is the way that the old gods emerged from the altars and influenced the new faith.

Visitors to Mexico at the present time are astonished to find devout Catholics eating meat on Friday (except during Lent), but even this change from accepted practice, which is followed by everybody who can buy meat, is only a surface indication of what has gone on in the minds of the people. A specialist in matters of religious evolution would be needed to give a full account of the ancient survivals in Mexico’s contemporary religion. The country itself would be shocked and indignant if anyone suggested that the mass-conversion of the early days, accomplished by force and terror as everyone knows, and the centuries of fervent, often fanatical Christianity since then, had not exorcised the “devils,” the old gods of the people. But every tourist who has heard the music of the lutes made from armadillo hide and seen the dances of the countless thousands who make their pilgrimages to the fiestas can testify that the ritual is immeasurably more a thing of the Indians than of the Europeans who overcame them. Doubtless the explanation is the one given by Omar Khayyam, that the conquerors had little choice as to their willingness to take the cash and let the credit go.

“Credit” is here used to denote things credited or believed. The relationship of those things with what people do is evident, so that the whole pattern of life in America is influenced, even today, and deeply influenced, by the nature-worship of the old religions. Here, as in other places, indeed far more than in many other places, the beliefs and conduct of the people sprang from the soil. That is why the survival of ancient ideas and traits that I have been observing on my recent sojourn in Mexico has more application to the United States than may seem evident at first.

In the republic directly to the south of us, there was a relatively dense population in pre-Columbian days, and so it was natural that the invaders made only a superficial impression on it. In our part of America, the vast spaces, with sparse and less civilized inhabitants, made replacement easier by the colonists who, moreover, intermarried but little with the natives, and certainly not in the general way that applied in Latin America. But that fact makes only the more impressive the emergence of the “American type” which is unmistakable among us. Accounting for it by political conditions or their corollaries in matters of education or of religious and general freedom is clearly inadequate. If our people look, feel, and act so differently from the way their kinsmen do in England and Ireland, Germany, Italy, and the other countries from which we trace descent, it is because the land itself, and not merely man-made institutions, must be seen as bringing about the change.

Out-of-door life here, something to which the most citified people are devoted, has elements in its camping, fishing, and sport that are a thousand times nearer the life of the Indian than they are to anything in Europe. The sun, the climate, the mountains, rivers, and lakes, the food, the whole tempo and character of existence have contributed to breed a physical type that belongs to America. One acute French observer, during the first World War, said that when he saw the arriving American troops he was sure they were, if not Indians, at least of largely Indian blood. In all but the rarest cases, he was wrong on this point, but had he said “Indian inheritance,” he would have been right.

Another brilliant Frenchman, the godfather of my son, made a parallel comment on receiving a photograph of the boy, then riot two years old: “How strange! Had he been in France during this time, he would be a little French boy. Already he is a little American!” The statement was made with the scientific detachment, the objective scrutiny (even as to his namesake) that always characterized this clear-eyed observer.

If America can thus reveal its imprint on a mere child, its character must be strong indeed. And that is fortunate at the present juncture in the world’s affairs. The two echoes of France in the last war seem very far away. At the time when the men who spoke those words were still alive, we felt an optimism about the future of their country that it is difficult to continue today. Not that we fail to look forward to a renewal of French genius, but each month of the present debilitation of the land means years of additional waiting until France can again attain intellectual as well as physical strength. And on whom must we depend, meanwhile, for the cultural leadership which France so generously offered in the past? No other country of Europe had the artistic or spiritual resources for such a position, before the war, and with all the heroism of England and Russia— and Spain, no country has, in these latter years, indicated a capacity which could make us consider it even remotely as the successor of France.

So it is on our own resources that we are thrown, and we want to know them better than we have done before. To have reached such maturity that our character is perceptible in the look either of a regiment or of a young child is important in this question of resources, for well-defined character is clearly a basic requirement. Then, since we have seen that this character is of the whole continent, Canada merging with the United States despite the dominion’s political ties with England, the United States relating with Mexico (through our Southwest especially, but to an increasing extent throughout the two countries as they feel themselves always more American), there is that solidarity of a common past. It has much to do with the older race of this hemisphere; we are coming to understand more about the influence of that race, and nowhere better than in art.

A recent book gives the most impressive record of our continental ancestry that I have yet seen. It is called “Medieval American Art,” and—significantly enough—its author is one of those adoptive countrymen of ours who often give more of conscious study to the nationality they enter upon than do people who stumble into it by the accident of birth. Pal Kelemen, the writer in question, had made researches among the older arts of Europe before turning his attention to those of America, so that he is no tyro in following out the relationships of a country and its expression in art.

We may therefore see it as important that in his monumental and scholarly work he treats of America as a whole, from the northern part of the United States clear down to Chile. I can only conjecture at his reason for omitting the country to the north of our own, for the Indians from Vancouver to Alaska certainly produced work of very remarkable character. But I take it that the comparatively recent origin of their art places them outside of the period which the author has selected, one, by the way, which is overlapped at the other end by work far earlier than the Middle Ages.

The reference to that period is perhaps inappropriate, since it directs one to Europe, and applies no better to America than it would to Asia or Africa. Yet something could be said in its defence, for as the Middle Ages of Europe lead to the Renaissance and to the modern time, so the period Mr. Kelemen treats so admirably leads to the modern time in America.

Writing about the future is easy, in certain ways, for if you place it only fifty years ahead, no one is going to bother, at that time, to check up on your prophesying. To write of the past is harder, but there you have the support of great numbers of earlier historians, and it is notable if you add but a small amount to the knowledge they have attained. Writing about the present is the really hard thing, and to come down from Mr. Kelemen’s tale of the past of our continent to its meeting of the problems of today requires a special form of insight.

The first to give evidence of it are the artists; later on there is time enough for people with a gift for analysis and explanation to tell us in what way the ancient qualities are manifested in the modern period. Often (though not always, by any means) the creative and the analytical faculties are found in the same individual. If so, if the man’s work bears out his words, we have the best reason to give weight to them. That is why I attach importance to conversations I have had on the present subject with Diego Rivera, and am glad to acknowledge the stimulation he has given me toward conclusions I have reached.

Not only his talk but his paintings have contributed to what I think. Thirty years ago, when I first knew his work, I saw it as part of the modern movement which centered in Paris, where he was living. His first mural work, on returning to Mexico, was still under the spell of the European masters he had studied, though it was the older ones who were chiefly before his mind at that time. Then, as the overwhelming interest of life in his native country provided new themes for his art, the early frescoes, which have so often been reproduced in our country, already showed a turning to the ancients of his soil for guidance in depicting their inheritors of today. As the years have passed, the combination of the two elements has strengthened, and what was uncertain and unclear at first in his acceptance from the “American classics,” as he so penetratingly calls them, has clarified and deepened.

The thing that Rivera has accomplished by what Elie Faure termed his “monstrous intelligence,” Jose Clemente Orozco has, in his own way, duplicated by pure instinct. Unlike his brilliant contemporary, Orozco got the whole of his early training in Mexico, and such ideas of the arts foreign to his first surroundings as have come to him later have sunk into his own art without our being able to distinguish a trace of their entering. It is a purely American painting, therefore, that he offers us, with the qualities and defects of its origins.

How completely this is true was brought home to me, years ago, when I made a certain criticism of his work. “You are comparing it with European painting,” replied a Mexican friend. “That will get you nowhere with Orozco. His composition, his drawing, his color, are in the tradition of America: they have the starkness, the violence of the old sculpture; they have the directness and expression of the line and color in the Codices.” I can acknowledge that the artist’s defender pointed the way to a true understanding of the work without withdrawing my idea that it needed defence. But the point is that blame or praise must not obscure the fact that Orozco carries us back to very ancient principles of American art. And as he is the last man to accuse of imitating, his work being an absolute and direct result of his contact with the life around him, the conviction is inescapable that we are here in the presence of a survival of ancestral instincts.

Can that be said of artists north of the border? To any affirmative answer, there is one obstacle: that the blood of Anglo-Saxon America comes from Europe and, unlike that of our Latin neighbors, was mingled to only a negligible extent with that of the older race of our territory. To use the phrase “survival of ancestral instincts,” which applies perfectly in Orozco’s case, is to see our instincts as conditioned by the survival of something we encountered on this soil and which has been forming us, ancestrally, as it did our predecessors, the red men. Frankly, I do not think there is enough evidence as yet to support such a contention, much as I should like to see our case in the hopeful light such a state of things would throw on it.

Having said what I think would be a desirable condition, but also having admitted that I can offer no proofs of its existence, I hope I have removed myself definitively, in the reader’s mind, from any common ground with people who argue to win rather than to find the truth. If I have succeeded in establishing my claim to impartiality, certain considerations I would now offer can be given at least a hearing.

For one thing, there is a marked and beautiful survival on our soil of its ancestral genius. I refer to the work of a fairly large number of our Southwestern people: the sand-painters among the Navaho, and the basket-makers of certain places have never lost their admirable arts and are today producing things as fine as any of their kind that we know about. More remarkable are the revivals of arts once extinct, or apparently so. This is to be seen in the pottery that centers around Nampayo, the woman who, after studying fragments of old earthen vessels, renewed their form and decoration through a production which rivals that of the past. And in the more complicated art of pure painting, thousands of people can testify that a goodly number of young Pueblo Indians are creating a new tradition of American art. They use some elements from the past, but the great point is that they still express the spirit which in the past gave such splendid results. In some cases (that of Fred Kabotie being the most remarkable I know) they reach a quality and importance that goes far beyond the confines of a minor school and enters the realm of significant art.

If I did not mention this group of workers when answering the query as to things north of the border, it was, evidently, because we are here dealing with a small racial minority, the one whose blood is indeed that of the continent before the coming of the white man. But surrounded as these Indians are by the new Americans, using the very paints and paper obtained from white artists, what is the link between the workers of today and those of the past? To an extent, it is instinct, as I will freely concede; but the decisive fact about these artists, Navaho, Pueblo, Hopi, and Pima, is that they have remained on their old soil.

It is this, I believe, that explains why their instinct has triumphed over new conditions, whereas with the Indians who have been moved from place to place, the old feeling for drama, poetry, and decoration has weakened or died. Again it is the earth men have under their feet, the air they breathe, and the mental habits thereby induced, which determine the nature and quality of their acts. And we have at least one unmistakable case of such a result, in the work of a great white sculptor who died in 1942.

John B. Flannagan was born in North Dakota. He studied art in the schools which turn out their thousands of nonentities, the people who follow the convention of the moment, either for profit or because they lack the strength and intelligence to break through to something real. Their stuff is, of course, no better if it depicts the American scene, as is the case with a group of illustrators who produce large “hand-oil-paintings” instead of those smaller things in black-and-white which are reproduced in the weeklies and monthlies.

Flannagan’s Americanism was of a radically different sort. Lately, in Mexico, when I showed reproductions of his work to friends there, not one but was excited about them, not an artist or a critic failed to see that Flannagan’s work fitted in magnificently with the great Aztec sculpture at their museum. The editor of a superb Mexican review who asked me to write about this American of the north, himself selected a prodigious ancient sculpture to reproduce side by side with a similar work of Flannagan’s. Two Mexican painters who had seen the production of our artist during visits to the United States, and who had at once realized its value, wrote articles on it, affirming their admiration and their conviction as to its kinship with the classics of the continent.

Again I ask, as in the case of those Southwestern people, where, if not from the soil, did Flannagan get the art which so unites his production with what America brought forth before? I hope that the showings of Indian art—at San Francisco, in New York, and in other cities—have made educated people aware that if the great monuments of our older races are indeed south of the border, magnificent sculpture of the pre-Columbian time is to be found in every part of the United States. Flannagan did not lack for guides in his own land to lead him to his admirable results; as in the case of Orozco, there was nothing of the imitator in Flannagan.

Can anyone think that he would have done such work if his j family had remained in Ireland? He was attracted to that country by a kind of inherited patriotism, but he soon found it was not the place for him to stay, when he went there.

Even shorter was his visit to France, though he well understood the pre-eminence of the modern French school. There is a slight influence from it on certain works of his, but they are far from being his best ones. The latter are all on themes drawn from the world of animals; none of them suggests Europe, and the very best—the ones those Mexicans greeted with such enthusiasm—have about them something impossible to bracket with any school, even those of the Mayas, the Toltecs, or the great artists who lived in ancient Ohio. As Orozco said to me, over twenty years ago, “We are not Indians, we are not Spaniards, we are not mestizos (half-breeds), we are just Mexicans.”

No wonder they like Walt Whitman, down there. If our bard could roll the Indian names like Paumanok into the big music he made for us, he never dreamed of playing the Indian himself—nor the Englishman. Mention of these two races sums up Whitman’s heritage, and my final question—touching for the moment on a field outside my own, one where English poets have played so sovereign a role—is whether the blood of our writer, his European descent, or his environment (the life and soil of America) chiefly affected his art. See the inheritance factor as the more important if you like: for me there can be no doubt that the key to Walt Whitman’s genius lies, not in his being of the race of Shakespeare and Milton, but in his response to America.

Am I patrioteering? I don’t think so. No one ever accused me of it before, but then I probably never before gave as much opportunity for such a gibe. Circumstances have changed, as I said previously, in commenting on the issue with which the war faces us. But the thing goes further than that, for before the outbreak of the war, a realization was growing up among us that if the great spirit of modern art could make foreigners feel that Paris was home for them, the city’s power was not a thing to carry back to their native lands. And so Jongkind and van Gogh, Brancusi and Picasso remained in France, save for visits at home. And returning from one of these, Picasso said it would be impossible for him to live and work in Spain.

The decadence of men like Sargent and John W. Alexander after most promising starts in Paris, the decline in quality and then the subsiding into sterility of Frank Duve-neck after what seemed like the start of mastery in his Munich years, all show that the battle is not won even if the young man has apparently proved his mettle upon contact with a great art center. He has to keep on: “It isn’t the work of boys that counts, it’s the work of mature men,” as Maurice Prendergast used to say.

Do they mature in a vacuum, or a wilderness? Eakins and Ryder paid a heavy price, each in his way, for living out of touch with the great movements of art. The grimness of Eakins’ struggle, gradually but grandly won as it was, left deep scars on his art, and Ryder’s isolation surely had much to do with the paucity of his production; probably his seventy years did not yield seventy pictures that one would be satisfied to say were his. Of a happier temperament and a happier philosophy, Mr. Prendergast made the most of a talent slenderer than those of the two painters just mentioned, and went steadily ahead to work which constantly outstripped even its own high standards of sensitiveness and significance. One reason for this great success is to be seen in his periodic trips to Europe, his renewing of contact with the masters, ancient and modern.

The greatest men in their art collecting—Poussin and Rembrandt will serve as examples—tell us that even such as they have need for the presence of master-work to which they can turn for inspiration at any time. Raoul Dufy once remarked that Cezanne could stand his isolation at Aix-en-Provence because of the fine museum there. And the very fact that there are schools of painters or sculptors tells that men do not achieve art individually, but collectively. The most original of them are usually those who have given the hardest study to the classics.

And now I come back to Diego Rivera’s pregnant phrase, “we must study our classics.” Some are too far removed from us; until now, those of Asia have proved so, even if some charming surface effects have been obtained by the observation of Japanese prints. But take van Gogh, who used them as intelligently as any one: Can we see anything essential in his relation to the Japanese, or must we not look for his true descent in the art of Rembrandt and, nearer by, in that of Delacroix and Daumier? For him, the classics were, very surely, those Europeans.

For us Americans, the same background holds; yet we have just seen that it is enriched from time to time, and the process may concern the early as well as the later classics. Often there is a need, a hunger that we are hardly aware of, for a change of nourishment. Not only has the salt lost its savor, but all the things that meant to us clear eyes, quick muscles, and strong sinews, have gone stale. Then we have to change our diet, perhaps in the matter of nearby elements, perhaps in the matter of those further away in time, the basic elements, the classics.

We have not consulted the Greeks and the Romans as directly as did the men of earlier centuries, we have neglected the language of the Greeks and Romans, and have seen their arts very largely through the glasses, progressively more clouded for us, of the intervening schools. The classics of Europe are as fine, as invigorating as ever, and we shall look them in the eye once more when we have rid ourselves of respect for the person whom Bertrand Russell speaks of in terms something like: “He imitated a man who imitated a man who imitated a man who imitated Homer.”

In morning-clear contrast to this effeteness comes the thrill of the primitives. They go straight to acts and to men—as Homer does. And, like the early books of the Bible, they are worlds away from the formlessness, the lack of skill, the inability to carry things through that people have in mind when they make a different use of the word, as in talking of “crude, primitive attempts.” In the primitives who have restored our thinking and our art, again and again, there is no question of mere attempts, but of realizations.

The realizations of early America are so complete, so perfect, in thousands of instances, that one is astonished to hear the word “primitive” applied to them. It does not fit at all when you have before your eyes a hard stone smoothed to a gleaming polish and shaped to bring a man or an animal so sharply into your mind that you feel you have never before grasped so fully what the creature meant, or even what he looked like.

From this small object, perhaps the pendant of a necklace, to a sculpture twenty feet high, the same feeling runs. It is the feeling you get as you stand on a height of Monte Alban and look down its slopes, that have been re-graded by the hands of men into great new masses, whole chains of them, that are temples, tombs, walls, and courts: the entire city drawn to the scale of a mountain, just as that little stone jewel was—which is the reason (and not just its faultless finish) why it is so wonderful.

The mountain, again, is only one of thousands of mountains in the single; range that, from Alaska to southern Chile, makes the backbone of the continent. With all its varieties of aspect, climate, and men, it is one country, really. The term “Hemisphere Solidarity” has a true meaning, and the heart-rending effort we are making today is worth what it costs if we succeed in defending its freedom. It looks as though we are succeeding, as far as concerns the Nazi and Japanese attempt to encroach on us. Even so, however, the freedom of America will still have to be defended, from its enemies on the inside. To fight for it intelligently we must know it; we must see how it belongs to the land as a whole. American art, in its larger sense, belongs to the land as a whole, and to grasp that fact is to go a long way toward seeing the course ahead of us.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading