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The West of the Imagination by William H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann (Norton: $34.95; 458 pp., illustrated) : Carl Rungius: PAINTER OF THE WESTERN WILDERNESS by Jon Whyte and E. J. Hart (Salem House: $34.95; 192 pp., illustrated)

November 09, 1986|Bobbie Justice | Justice is a Times news editor.

In this '80s era of high technology, with satellites capable of beaming pictures to us from some of the most remote parts of the world, it's difficult to imagine that 150 to 200 years ago, people in the East had no way of knowing what was to be found in a vast land west of the Mississippi River.

A thin population, scattered from the Eastern Seaboard to Chicago and St. Louis, relied on word pictures from explorers, such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the early 1800s. Later their visions came from magazine illustrations and calendar art produced by artists who were as much "frontiersmen" as the adventurers who set out on scientific explorations to settle an untamed land.

The simultaneous publishing of two volumes about Western art suggests a growing appreciation of the historic role of these artists. The first reveals selected artists' images of the settling of the West, early and late. The second is a word-and-picture story about the life and works of one artist, Carl Rungius, who is not a subject of the first volume.

In "The West of the Imagination," William H. Goetzmann, a Western historian and teacher at the University of Texas, has compiled a chronological history of the "real West."

But as the title suggests, he has, as well, recorded the reality of what people imagined the West to be, the legends based on paintings, drawings, sculptures, cartoons and later photographs and films. These myths were garnered not only from the artists' presentation of what they saw, but also from their creative interpretations of personal experiences and stories they heard about a heretofore unknown people and the West's awesome landscapes.

It's the "tale of the tribe" as described by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Goetzmann and his son, William N., who, when the elder Goetzmann suffered a heart attack, joined his father in finishing the book. They worked as a team with others on a public television series on the subject, a six-part miniseries with the same title, narrated by James Whitmore.

The book could have been too hastily edited--Edgar Paxson identified as Frederic Paxon in the text and Frederick Paxon in the index--but perhaps this was due to the heart attack at that critical time.

Nevertheless, the Goetzmanns weave their tale from the 1820s' wildlife drawings of Titian Peale and the scenic paintings and portrayals of the "noble savages" by George Catlin through the Mountain Man adventures of Alfred Jacob Miller and the 1860s' and 1870s' scenic wonderlands of Yosemite and the Rocky Mountains by Albert Bierstadt.

Paintings by Thomas Moran revealed, and photographs by William H. Jackson confirmed, the grandeur of the Colorado Rockies and the boiling cauldrons of Yellowstone. The tragedy of blood-spilling encounters of Indians and the military were brought to life back East through works of Charles Schreyvogel.

Aficionados of life in the early West will be more at home in the last 200 pages of the Goetzmanns' research with the more familiar works and stories about photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis and "The Wild Riders," Frederic Remington and C. M. (Charley) Russell.

And even nearer to our own day in the continuing saga of Western imagery are the legendary portrayals by Hollywood, the representational art that is uniquely Georgia O'Keeffe and the artistic photographs of Ansel Adams.

Unlike many critics in a European-oriented art world, the Goetzmanns don't inflict art judgments; they merely suggest that it's time "to take stock of the rich visual inheritance from the West that has been so influential on our behavior."

Like "The West of the Imagination," the Carl Rungius saga is a coffeetable volume with exquisite color reproductions. The storytelling of Whyte and Hart is sometimes as riveting to today's reader as the adventure tales of the early Western explorers must have been.

Rungius was born (Aug. 18, 1869) and reared in Germany. While studying art in Berlin, he spent most of his free time at the Berlin zoo sketching the lions, lionesses and cubs and tigers.

He showed an early interest in hunting and, just before his 25th birthday, eagerly accepted an invitation from his uncle to hunt moose in the United States. Hunting trips to Maine and later his first visit to Wyoming snared the interests of this artist-sportsman, who was to devote his life to hunting, studying his kills and painting game animals.

This definitive story of Rungius, who died in 1959, covers the diversity of his styles, from the academic, naturalistic beginning through his years as an illustrator for sporting publications to his boldly brushed, near-Impressionistic late work. It deals with his friendships with leading conservationists and follows the artist into the Canadian Rockies, where he became enamored of the area and divided his time thereafter between Banff and New York.

His timeless paintings of wildlife and the scenic splendor of the Rockies transfix the viewer as much today as when they were painted.

Lesser known than many of the West's finest painters because, perhaps, his specialty of game animals has had limited appeal, Rungius is an interesting study in himself, and the authors reveal both the artist and the sportsman in a story that should appeal to armchair adventurers as much as to critics.

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