Amos Bad Heart Bull was an amazing man with an amazing story to tell.
Crazy Horse was his cousin, He Dog and Short Bull, two illustrious war leaders were his uncles and his own father, Bad Heart Buffalo was a warrior and the tribal Winter Count keeper. Big shoes to fill and he did it his own way, with his art.
Eagle Lance, his personal name, was born around 1869 and grew up as a traditional Sioux boy, still experiencing a native free roaming nomadic life style centered on buffalo hunts and intertribal wars with an increasing struggle against the encroachment of the whites on Sioux land. He was too young to be part of the 1870’s Indian Wars, but nonetheless was present with his family at the village on the Little Big Horn River on June 1876 when the 7th Calvary attacked.
Shortly after the early death of his father, he took the name Amos Bad Heart Bull and was then raised by his paternal uncles, He Dog and Grant Short Bull. Even though he also died at a young age in 1913, we are fortunate that his uncles lived long lives and gave first hand, personal and accurate accounts of Amos’ life and character. According to them, young Amos was kind and very attentive particularly to the life and traditions of his people. With no formal education and self-taught in art, he followed his father’s path as an artist and keeper of his people’s history. He even learned the written Lakota language created by early missionaries. Being so eager to learn, it enticed his relatives to relate to him long and detailed accounts of wars, battles, ceremonies, rituals and others activities. It soon became apparent to him that the traditional Winter Count calendar was too limiting and inadequate to record the complexity of his society, past and present. He became the artist-historian of the Plains.
Using the well known pictographic genre of Ledger Art, he embarked on the ambitious task of what some have called “being the Herodotus of the Sioux.” He did it on his own accord, at the request of no one and from the Indian point of view.
This talented, gifted and inventive artist diligently worked on his Opus Magnum for over 20 years while experiencing, as the rest of his people, the chaotic, traumatic and destructive transition to confinement on reservation. He hired as a scout at Fort Robinson and witnessed the Ghost Dance phenomena and its consequences at Wounded Knee. He also became a cattle rancher, maybe in an attempt to better assimilate into the dominant society, while still recording in a very native fashion the transformations taking place around him and the effects of this assimilation forced onto his folks.
Amos passed away in his mid 40’s on August 3rd, 1913.
The amazing story around this great artist resurfaces in 1926, when a young graduate student researching material of Indian Art, found out about his drawings now in the guardianship of his sister, Dollie Pretty Cloud. In keeping with the amazing, no one was ever able to acquire the ledger book from the family, but were only allowed to ”rent” it for a small fee! So, Helen Blish the graduate student, kept going back to Pine Ridge, for several years between 1927 and 1940, to “rent” the document for study at the University of Nebraska.
The book was finally interred with Dollie Pretty Cloud at her death in 1947.
It could be noted that fortunately (for us) but questionably (for Dollie), Hartley Burr Alexander, whom Helen Blish was studying under at the University of Nebraska, took upon himself to photograph all 415 drawings in the ledger book. Helen Blish was able to finish her thesis on the project before her premature death in 1941.
The University of Nebraska Press decided several years later to publish Mrs. Blish’s work in what is now known as “The Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux”, an invaluable document for all of us. A new edition is coming out later this month with new material and research unavailable in 1959.
But this is not the end of the story! Having all the images from the ledger in his possession, H.B. Alexander joined into the project started in 1929 by Oscar Brousse Jacobson of the University of Oklahoma, to publish original Native American Art that was becoming increasingly recognized, here and abroad, for its novelty, freshness and excellence. Six different portfolios were created and of the two dedicated to Plains Indian Art, one is exclusively devoted to Amos’ drawings. H.B. Alexander selected 25 of them, had them reproduced and hand painted after the originals.
No one really knows how Jacobson selected this obscure, unknown workshop in Nice, France but to this day “L’Edition d’Art C. Szwedzicki” is famous for the publication of the 6 Indian Art Portfolios between 1929 and 1952!
The selection was obviously due to the high quality of their work and the specialty of their skill in the “pochoir” technique extremely popular in France in the early 1900’s for the production of quality art books by artists such as Picasso, Miro and Matisse.
“Pochoir” is a hand printing process extremely labor intensive, that uses new stencils for each color. If a print has, for example, 10 colors, it will require 10 different stencils used one at the time, therefore 10 times for each page. If a portfolio has 25 prints, it will take 250 uses of the press and if the edition is of 400 it will end up being 100,000 times!
It is not really clear how many portfolios were printed in “pochoir”, but all were produced before WWII and Amos Bad Heart Bull’s portfolio was created in 1938 in a limited edition of 400.
During the war the Szwedzicki workshop was confiscated by the Nazis and all the unsold portfolios, prints and plates were destroyed (Degenerate art?). It is thought that only half of the Plains Indian Art Portfolios made it to the U.S. and many have since been broken up and prints sold separately.
In her essay on the Szwedzicki Portfolios, Janet Berlo describes them as “precious volumes, sequestered in the rare book departments of museums and university libraries.”
Hartley Burr Alexander, in his introduction, states that Amos Bad Heart Bull “may be called a master not only of his own race but in a world sense.”
When looking at and studying the 25 images in the portfolio, one is struck by the innovative quality, skill and talent of the artist. Once Picasso said “a drawing’s intelligence isn’t simply a matter of academic technique.” The artistic intelligence of the Oglala artist is apparent throughout his work. The precision, sharpness and tension of his lines combined to his choice and use of colors, give movement and fluidity to his images. As Berlo says: “his horses move, his warriors fight!”
The composition of each scene associates several elements, view points and panoramas. Wide views infuse life and realism, near views offer details and narratives to the pictorial tales. His talent and genius reside in his effortless ability to combine at once, the pictographic conventions of his own culture and incorporate external influences without compromising the integrity of his native art, creating an authentic, original, new pictographic language. His juxtaposition of texts in Lakota to his imageries is so modern, his repetitive, all over schematic sketches of battle fields are so expressionist.
European masters were influenced by “primitive” art forms, only to create a novel, modern and undeniably European art.
The same is true for Amos’ oeuvre, it is pure, authentic, modern Sioux Art. His world views, understanding of his reality have been molded by his personal culture and his art is a representation of it. His compositions, schematics, abstraction and realism are the results of his wholesome, gifted Native American mind.
The Szwedzicki Portfolio is an astounding commendation of an artist who could have easily been lost to the world.
As a footnote: H.B. Alexander alluded to the possibility of Amos having filled THREE ledger books!
“Boys! The hunt is on!” (Robert Mitchum, “Dead Man”)
“The Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux” Helen H. Blish
“The Szwedzicki Portfolios” Janet Catherine Berlo
“Sioux Indian Paintings, Part II” Hartley Burr Alexander