For tourists streaming west each summer, Cody, Wyo. is the gateway to Yellowstone Park. They bed down in Cody by the hundreds of thousands to avoid the high rates of park lodging, then make the short run to Yellowstone and back out.
To paraphrase the old Gerber ad, "Tourism is Cody's business, its only business."Still, there is some authenticity tucked among the McDonald's and Pizza Huts here. The showpiece of Cody is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, and this summer - through Sept 5 - the showpiece of the museum is the Frederic Remington exhibition; a traveling display called "Frederic Remington: The Masterworks."
The exhibit will visit only four cities in the country. It includes 46 paintings and 20 bronze sculptures plus reams of historical and artistic copy about the man.
If you're from the West at all, seeing the Remington show is more than a novel way to spend your summer vacation, it's a pilgrimage. Famous Remingtons such as the painting "Downing the Nigh Leader" and the bronze piece "The Cheyenne" are icons of the West. And seeing them in person - for a westerner - is a little like Christians seeing da Vinci's "Last Supper." The experience touches places inside you, places you weren't aware were even there.
Remington and Charles Russell were the two cowboy artists; "gifted primitives" the art establishment liked to call them. Theodore Roosevelt called Remington "one of the most typical American artists we have ever had." Remington called himself a man "born wanting to do certain phases of life" and he was a man who planned to die doing them.
By patterning his work on French army art he'd seen, Remington was able to put so much intensity and spirit in his paintings and bronze pieces that almost all western art since feels derivative. Curators at the Buffalo Bill Museum spend hour after hour going through pieces of western art passed off as Remington originals. Brush strokes are taken into consideration, theme, style. "The museum has all the paints that Remington used in his studio," says Public Relations director William David Little, "so we can match colors and components pretty closely when paintings are tested."
Once in awhile, however, something real actually does turn up.
Margaret Frank of Rockville, Md. was told her family's Remington painting was a skillful forgery. One of thousands. It was a painting of two 17th-century explorers. It was supposedly from a collection of paintings that Remington was unhappy with and eventually burned.
When she called Remington expert Harold McCracken in Montana, he told her of the artist's famous bonfire and that the painting was probably not an original.
She wasn't convinced.
She took it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. When curator H. Lasker Cooke unwrapped the canvas, he became very excited. After several examinations _ including a black light test _ Cooke said it was real. Remington had said in a letter that he'd preserved just one painting from the explorer series. This was apparently it. Dr. McCracken in Montana asked to see the painting. He, too, felt it was authentic and the painting now hangs in the Buffalo Bill Historical Museum.
In the end, however, the museum itself houses much more than Remingtons. There are several gardens with sculptures in them, several by well-known western artists. There is also a crackerjack collection of rifles in the lower level of the place that is unparalleled. In the "gun room" a short film tells you more about rifles than you thought knowable. (We say "cock a gun," for instance, because early marksmen thought the hammer of the rifle going down looked like a rooster pecking at pebbles).
If you visit the museum, don't expect a lot of quiet time to reflect. As was mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Cody really capitalizes on tourism, and busloads of museum-goers are there at all hours.
What you will find, however, is a nice resonance with the past, a touch of the Western myth still intact and maybe a chance to take a little more pride in the western heritage.
For more information call Public Relations man William David Little at (307) 587-4771 or write him at Post Office Box 1000, Cody, Wyo. 82414.