Eugene’s Little Savages
by Pasadena Adjacent
Florida Everglade Siminoles were never officially conquered
Everglades/Eden: date unknown
Draining the Everglades 1936
Does this title make you nervous? As in “Oh gads, Pasadena Adjacent isn’t going there is she?” well, yes I am because here at Pasadena Adjacent the obtuse reigns supreme. Little Savages is the derogatory term given to the Yale art grads who were subject to the long held influence of Eugene Francis Savage 1883-1978. His backing meant a a generation of Yale-ettes would achieve the Prix de Rome, thereby carrying on the figurative tradition. A tradition apparent in the work of “regionalist” artist Thomas Hart Benton 1889-1975. A contemporary admired by Savage, who had followed the same trajectory, only his time spent in Europe had him, upon his return, declaring himself “an enemy of modern art”
Benton made the cover of Time and would go on to teach Jackson Pollock and Dennis Hopper. Savage made the inside pages of Time, where a critic called him “bristle-lipped” his students “Little Savages” and derisivly described a typical work, employing “greenish paint, many-muscled nudes in extravagant attitudes before Italianate backgrounds of rolling hills, almond blossoms, firmly white Tuscan oxen.” ouch
Now that the politically incorrect “Little Savages” has been explained, lets segway into the Seminoles. Although Francis Eugene Savage made his name in the tiki trade, his heart was in the Florida Everglades. Intermitingly, over three decades Savage would document the native people during the Florida land boom; (remember the joke? “and if you believe that….I’ve got some swamp land in Florida I’d like to sell you). Although the majority of the series is idyllic, those representing the most interesting in this group are the paintings depicting the destruction of the waterways and swamp foliage; a result of lakes drained and trees being cut. All done at the same time an effort was under way to create the Everglades National Park.
Eugene Savages’ depiction of colorful native dress is considered accurate. It was thought by some that at the turn of the century almost all of the Seminole homes had a human powered Singer Sewing Machine. Interesting to note that when engineer Issac Singer was first approached with designing a “personal” sewing machine, his response was “you want to due away with the only thing that keeps women quiet?” The hours saved on the machine had men fearing women would use the freed up time for vice; namely card and drink, oh vey. Perhaps more on the Indian/Singer connection might be discovered at the current Autry show “Home Lands, How Women Made the West”
Editor’s Note: The Cummer Museum in Jacksonville Florida owns work by Eugene Savage. It is hoped that Savages’ work will eventually be catalogued and exhibited in a touring show with stops outside of Florida at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and the Thomas Gilcrease Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma, both places renown for their scholarship regarding ethnographic collections of American Indian art and artifacts.
Update from Savage dealer Alexander Boyle
Savage was an art teacher whose contact with the Seminoles should be placed in the same temporal context as Margaret Meade and her visits to the indigenous inhabitants of the south pacific. Savage later went to Hawaii to paint landscapes and murals there too, so that analogy is confirmed in his own travels. WW2 interupted the intended conclusion of that work. The Seminole paintings were exhibited in 1936 at Ferargil Galleries, NY with “Draining” also exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago that year under its original title of “Lakes With out Water.” Do note Savage’s paintings of the Seminole existence in the everglades precedes the famous book River of Grass by twelve years, so they are ahead of their time in terms of concern about over-development and the destruction of natural ecosystems. Savage detested the inclination towards abstraction because he feared and rightly so it would erode generations worth of knowledge in traditional painting techniques as the tickle towards shortcuts became a flood and any genius who could paint like a kid tried to pronounce himself a Picasso, not understanding the training Picasso underwent as a student to get where he got.
Despite the creation of the National Park, Florida’s pollution of the Everglades continued unabated and noted by my father in Sports Illustrated in 1981.
After a while abstract shortcuts do all look alike. I love finding art that inspired better behavior by man, decorative/visually pleasing and a remarkable period snapshot into times and conditions that no longer exist a fascinating window into humanities strangely cultured past. That adds up to something very special. I think the Smithsonian will agree.