The power of art to excite strong emotion is seen once again in the controversy over a 1904 painting by Anton Gag, “Attack on New Ulm.”
The painting was removed from the State Capitol during restoration and is now on view at the James J. Hill House, where the public is invited to offer opinions on its fate. Depicting an event in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, the painting has been criticized as inaccurate and defamatory, on one hand, and defended, on the other, as a memorial to the loss of lives and property.
As an art historian who has written a study of Anton Gag and his daughters Wanda and Flavia (“The Gag Family: German-Bohemian Artists in America,” Afton Press, 2002), I would like to offer a few observations.
The painting is as accurate as Gag could make it. He was a student of the Dakota War who sincerely tried to understand both sides. He had been fascinated by American Indians since his boyhood in German Bohemia. Once in America, where he resided in New Ulm, he developed his interest with visits to the Morton Indian Reservation (now the Mdewakanton Tribal Reservation). He painted portraits and collected clothing and other artifacts. In preparation for painting a panorama on the Dakota War with fellow artists Christian Heller and Alexander Schwendinger, he interviewed survivors, both Dakota and settlers (known as Defenders). He visited the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul to do research.
Gag chose to depict the attack on New Ulm in this painting not to further a narrative condemning the Dakota, but because it was the most dramatic event in his adopted city’s history. It actually happened.
Far from demonizing the Dakota, Gag portrayed them, in my view, as brave warriors. He put them in the foreground, with backs turned, not to make them seem like faceless savages but rather to invite the viewer’s identification with them — a device artists have used since the Renaissance to put us in the action.
It is not necessarily to be expected, in such a large-scale battle painting (5.8 x 7.8 feet) that the figures would be highly individualized. What the artist emphasized was their skill as warriors, and thus he showed their physical prowess in a variety of angles (again a Renaissance device). The figures are shirtless because Gag’s sources described them this way in the actual event.
Since Gag’s painting depicts only one moment in the Dakota War, some have decried it for not taking into account the complexities of guilt and innocence on both sides. But the selection of a moment is the nature of painting. And the moment the artist chose is not at all inconsistent with the larger story of injustice and deprivation suffered by the Dakota in the years leading up to the war.
Gag knew that the violence of August 1862 grew out of years of broken treaties and betrayals by the government. He also knew that many settlers without personal guilt for government policies were killed. This painting, which grew out of his consciousness of a tragic conflict, is an invaluable part of Minnesota’s historical record.
Whether the painting will be returned to the Capitol, loaned elsewhere for display (the Brown County Historical Society and Museum in New Ulm, for example) or simply put into storage depends in part on public reaction to the temporary exhibition at the Hill House.
I urge my fellow citizens to support the return of the painting to the Capitol, where it could be displayed with text informing viewers of its context. Appropriate, accurate text could help viewers move beyond how the painting makes them feel. Emotion is an important element in our response to art, but it is only the beginning of real understanding.
Julie L’Enfant, of Golden Valley, is an art historian.