Thursday, June 5, 2014

Under Western Skies: The Art of Carl Oscar Borg

 Thomas H. Wilson

Carl Oscar Borg first visited the land of the Hopi and the Navajo in 1916, when he was 37 years old and had reached maturity as an artist.  The experience transformed him.  “In its varying moods," wrote Borg, "this country seems limitless.  There is no end to the light, color, form and distance, and every object seems enveloped in a haze of blue, yellow, pink, or lilac.”  To Borg, the country offered superb artistic opportunities and endless possibilities to explore the relationships between Native Americans and the land.  Thereafter, he focused much of his artwork upon the native peoples, pueblos, canyon lands, mesas, deserts and skies of the Southwest.  He became one of the greatest artists of the American West.

The Hush of Evening

Borg visited the Grand Canyon on that first trip to the Southwest in 1916, and often subsequently.  The Hush of Evening, a painting that Borg completed about 1925, is one of his iconic images of the Grand Canyon.  In it, the majesty of the great canyon is spread out before five persons, all probably Navajo, who have paused at the rim to contemplate the magnificent work of nature.  One of the central figures has slung a leg over his saddle as he watches the shadows of evening envelop the canyon.  Vegetation, both living and dying, surrounds the riders.

The Hush of Evening expresses some of the themes that Borg developed in his art of the Southwest:  the immensity and beauty of nature, the insignificance and impermanence of humans in this landscape, the cycle of life in which humans and plants alike live and die as part of a natural rhythm, Native Americans as an integral and inseparable aspect of this world, the spirituality that links and unites land, peoples and plants, and the sense that the landscapes themselves are part of the great cycle of life and death, as natural forces create and then erase the formations.

Carl Oscar Borg (1879-1947)

Borg’s early years made him an improbable candidate to paint the Southwest.  Carl Oscar Borg was born into a modest household in Dals-Grinstad, Sweden on March 3, 1879.  He developed an early interest in art, but opportunities were few.  Like many dreamers before and after, the lure of California as a land of opportunity eventually attracted the young and hopeful artist.  Soon after arriving in Santa Monica in late September 1903, he encountered his first cowboy on horseback in the nearby hills, who appeared to Borg as “a knight from an age long past.”  His romantic fantasy thus fired, he later made his way to Los Angeles, where he made his living in a photography shop and painted signs, sets and scenes for the theater industry.

In his early years in southern California, a number of influential people advanced Borg’s career, including art critics, gallery owners and cultural broker Charles Fletcher Lummis, who introduced Borg to southern California’s social, artistic, literary, scientific and cultural elite.  He met Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who collected his artwork and arranged for Borg to exhibit his work.  As his patroness, she supported him financially and arranged and paid for a tour of Europe and North Africa between 1910 and 1914 to further his artistic skills.  Upon return, Borg settled in San Francisco, where he lived, painted and taught art.  In 1916, Phoebe Hearst arranged for Borg to visit, photograph, sketch and paint at the Hopi mesas and the Navajo lands in northern Arizona.

If Borg’s experiences in North Africa and Europe were an education, his 1916 trip to the Southwest was a revelation.  His experiences in the Southwest, among the Hopi and the Navajo, at the Grand Canyon, on the plateaus, among the mesas and in the deserts, redirected his life and art.  In the Southwest, Borg encountered the “varying moods” of the seemingly limitless land.  He romanticized the terrain as “peaceful, silent and impressive,” and “by day and by night . . . always calm and majestic.”  He loved “the great mesas, the wind-swept plains,” and found the air “so clear that it looked as though one should be able to reach the stars just by reaching up one’s hands.”  Borg obtained intellectual and spiritual sustenance among the Hopi and the Navajo.  He returned to Indian country, which he found “the most interesting [land] in the whole world,” every year through 1932.  These experiences gave Borg intimate knowledge and understanding of his subjects and inspired his greatest artistic achievements.  There is considerable truth in Lummis’ comment in 1925, “You paint finely, because you see sincerely.”

From 1918 to 1924, Borg lived and worked in Santa Barbara, and he then entered a new phase of life in Hollywood, where he served as art director in a series of major movies.  He returned to Sweden several times in the 1930s, and spent the war years there.  Borg settled in Santa Barbara after the war, where he resumed his art career.  He passed away of a heart attack on May 8, 1947 at age 68.  Following his wishes, his ashes were scattered at the Grand Canyon.

In the Pueblos
Borg conceived of the land, Native Americans and indigenous architecture of the Southwest, as parts of an organic whole.  “Both the Hopi and … the Navajo,” Borg wrote, “have evolved out of their surroundings and the natural phenomena of their country….”  Borg wrote of "the endless mystery" of the cliff dwellings, "these spectral palaces . . . hidden in the sphinx-like silence of the desert."  “All that man has forgotten,” wrote Borg of the ancient ruins, “Nature seems to cherish!”

A series of washes flowing southwesterly off Black Mesa towards the Little Colorado River in northeastern Arizona sculpted the three mesas on which are located the Hopi pueblos.  Borg created some of his most memorable images of pueblos at Walpi, which occupies the southern-most tip of the narrow mesa.  His 1916 gouache, Walpi, is a view from the very southern edge of the community looking back northeast towards the three pueblos of First Mesa.  In this magisterial image, the tiered pueblo rises like a battleship’s superstructure from the deck of the mesa’s surface.  In the foreground rise the boulders of the mesa’s edge, the vertical surface of the rock face paralleling the walls of the pueblo’s rooms and reinforcing a sense that the pueblo has grown out of the stone.  The shadows indicate early afternoon, and a few pueblo people go about their activities.  The clouds suggest a summer day, perhaps with just the hint of a coming shower.  Two eagles perch atop the highest point of the pueblo, representing the spiritual world of the Hopi.

Borg exhibits superb draftsmanship in Hopi Houses, Walpi.  The artist makes it appear as if the crushing weight of antiquity itself were bearing down, causing the roof to sag.  Borg honors the scene by offering detail: the doors, the windows and the building materials are each essential subject matter in the composition.  Boxes and cans rest next to the door. 

Spirituality and Ceremonialism

The Hopi and the Navajo do not separate the world into sacred and secular.  Rather, they consider that spirituality is inseparable from the daily life and well being of the community.  For Hopi, spirituality infuses all aspects of each day’s activity, and many inanimate things contain a spiritual force.

Ritual and ceremony are formal expressions addressing the spiritual world.  Hopi ceremonialism assures vital equilibrium among individuals and harmony within the society.  Much of Hopi ceremonialism revolves around the kiva, a rectangular underground structure entered by ladder through the roof, which serves variously as clan house, ritual center and meeting place.  In several works Borg depicts Hopi kachinas, masked male dancers who help to bring well-being to the pueblo, including rain, harvests, health and peace.

The Hopi snake ceremony, which culminates in the famous snake dance, takes place over a nine-day period in August.  The Antelope and Snake societies conduct the ceremonies, the general purpose of which is to solicit rain for the growth of corn.  The context of the watercolor Hopi, Snake Priest is Oraibi, the oldest and most conservative of the Hopi villages.  The scene, rendered in solemn tones of brown, shows a Hopi snake priest standing on a kiva.  The snake priest wears red feathers in his hair, turquoise or shell necklaces, painted white forearm and bracelet probably of shell, a turtle shell rattle on the leg, and moccasins stained red with iron oxide. The kilt is red, with two of three parallel bands shown:  the middle band representing the plumed serpent and the lower band of parallel lines representing the rainbow.

The snake priest stands adjacent to the ladder, which ascends from inside the kiva and partially obscures his face.  The priest is attending the á-wa-ta-ná-tci, which hangs across the ladders of the Antelope and Snake kivas during the Snake ceremonials.  The snake chief will carry the á-wa-ta-ná-tci at the front of the snake dance procession.

The Niman Kachinas represents the last ceremony of the kachina cycle, the “returning home” of kachinas to the underworld, which occurs around the time of the summer solstice in June-July.  Kachinas re-emerge in January or February of the next year, as the masked ceremonial cycle begins anew.  The rain shower suggests a higher spiritual presence as the kachinas prepare for the ceremony.  They wear spruce boughs, representing the close relationship between spruce trees, clouds and rain in Hopi cosmology.  In this powerful work, Borg captured the intimacy and reverence of these various spiritual aspects without being intrusive.


Borg’s portraits of Native Americans are compelling visual likenesses that capture the individuality, personality, character and spirit of his subjects.  There is little romanticism in his images of Native Americans, but rather revelations of individual character based upon deep knowledge and empathy with his subjects.  He depicts them respectfully and captures their humanity.  Borg’s portraits always reveal the dignity of the individual and express the cares and experiences of his or her life.

Borg knew well the Supela family of Walpi.  He did multiple images of the elder Harry Supela, his wife Salako and their son Harry.  The woodblock portrait of Supela’s wife, Salako, Hopi, reveals the cares and burdens of age.  Harry Supela, Hopi, their son, shows the powerful visage of a man in the full flower of his maturity, squinting into the sun, with traditional hairstyle and headband. 

Navajo Mother is a beautiful composition of a mother and her child.  The mother is shown in almost full left profile, while the child turns slightly towards the viewer.  The baby nestles snugly on the mother's back, held on by a cloak or blanket, the baby's cheek nuzzling the mother's hair.  The subject is as much about motherhood and the universal relationship between mother and child as it is about the Navajo mother.  Both appear determined as they face the world, and secure in their relationship with each other. 
Land of the Navajo
Borg explored the relationships between the Hopi and the Navajo and the lands they inhabited, “the people of these limitless horizons--this wilderness of color and form. . . .”  His work almost always depicts Native Americans as intimately part of the land rather than as intruders upon it.  Borg’s work among the Navajo emphasizes their ways of life, the striking landscapes and vast areas.  In his work in the land of the Navajo, Borg placed the Native Americans directly upon the landscape.  A sense of the majesty of nature is very much present in much of his art.

Canyon de Chelly (from Navajo, Tséyi’, “inside the rock,” or “canyon”) is one of the most striking features of Navajo country.  The Anasazi, ancestors of contemporary pueblo peoples, abandoned Canyon de Chelly about 1200, leaving many spectacular ruins.  Today the Navajo inhabit the canyons.  Borg presents the canyon and its features as more than just naturalistic renderings of landscapes, but as iconic forms imbued with an awe-inspiring sense of spirituality in nature.  Perhaps no painting captures the majesty of the area more than Canyon de Chelly.  Four Navajos ride across the sandy valley floor, below a canyon wall so high that it ascends beyond the edge of the painting.  The size of the riders, accurately scaled against the height of the canyon walls, makes clear the fragility and transitory nature of life compared to the canyon’s stolidity and permanence.  A great gap in the canyon is washed in sunshine and filled with the sky beyond.  The walls of the canyon are in shadow, but their vibrant hues show the staining characteristic of the great sandstone massifs.

The soaring rock monoliths of Canyon de Chelly, bathed in Southwestern light, are the subject of The Red Cliffs.  A great cleft in the rock creates a narrow side canyon partially enshrouded in shadow.  In the foreground, also in shadow, stand two Navajo horsemen, framed by craggy rocks on the canyon floor at the base of the cliffs.  A lone tree rises on the left.  In both of these works, the cliffs emphasize the immensity of such works of nature and how lightly the Navajo impact the land.  Even so, the Native Americans are as much a part of this natural environment as the tree.  Each element is involved in a great cycle of birth, growth and sustenance from the land, which, though now mighty, will someday erode to nothingness as the cycle continues.  The Red Cliffs gives the massive rocks a monumentality heightened by the light shining on the cliffs.

Marsh Pass is in northeastern Arizona, at the mouth of Tsegi Canyon, up which lie the great Anasazi cliff dwellings Betatakin and Keet Seel.  Borg painted Marsh Pass with bold strokes and thick paint.  The view is probably the entrance to the canyon, showing the red and buff colors of the Navajo sandstones, with the valley bottom in mid-ground.  The foreground offers a sample of the piñon and juniper woodland of the area. 

In Navajos, four riders move tall in their saddles across the endless space of the desert scene.  The foreground is in shadow, with a light patch of water.  A break in the storm in the distance backlights the Navajo riders, but above them the dark clouds give a sense of foreboding.  The diagonals of the rain shower at right cut across the horizontal lines of the powerful composition.  Borg’s strong draftsmanship and his masterful use of dark and light tones create a dramatic and believable setting.  Borg possessed great ability to create atmosphere and a sense of place with his art.  In Navajos, you can almost smell the fresh cool rain on the desert.  

Under Western Skies

Southwestern vistas captivated Borg from his first trip to the region in 1916.  He clearly considered Western landscapes more than rock and dirt.  Borg’s deep respect for the land and an eternal nature is evident in his works.  “My desert!” Borg wrote in 1937, “Here one is nearer the creator of all. . . .  Here one is so near the heart of nature, undefiled and pure as it was from the beginning of time.”

Borg became one of the foremost painters of the Grand Canyon.  In 1916, Thomas Moran, in the top rank of America’s landscape artists and himself painter of some of the most magnificent images of the canyon, stated, upon viewing a Borg painting of the Grand Canyon, that he considered Borg its finest painter.   In contrast to the sweep and splendor of the scene in The Hush of Evening, On the Rim, Grand Canyon is a study of a tree on the edge of the canyon.  In the foreground, bathed in light, is the rock and earth to which the trunk precariously and tenaciously clings.  The bent and broken tree leans over the edge of the canyon, still sprouting some leaves that mix with other vegetation on the left.  The canyon is a distant background, its opposite rim forming a horizontal plane across the landscape.  The ancient tree stands as a metaphor for the aged canyon, the composition showing the effects of natural processes on living as well as inorganic objects.  The work, certainly one of Borg’s finest drypoint etchings, creates a marvelous sense of place.
Colorado River Gorge presents a view of the Grand Canyon from the level of the river. The thick clouds in the overcast sky cast a gray tint over the reds and browns of the canyon walls, and lend a similar color to the churning waters of the river.  The whitecaps of the current parallel a patch of white cloud and the whites and pinkish whites that emphasize the rocks.  The whole composition presents a somber, almost sinister, desolate and powerful image.

Under Western Skies is an awe-inspiring display of the elemental forces of nature:  water, earth, clouds and sun.  Two mesas converge towards the center of the panorama and give breadth to the landscape.  A dry wash runs from the foreground towards a gap between the mesas, and through this rent in the landscape more mesas appear in the distance.  Above rises the great Western sky, and dark, menacing clouds cross the top of the scene.  The sun's rays break through the storm clouds and spread across the landscape.  The image offers a powerful essence, as if one is present at the creation.

The Arizona Museum of Natural History will shortly present an exhibition of the art of Carl Oscar Borg, generously lent to the museum by Abe and Lalla Hays of Paradise Valley, Arizona.  The Hays’ Borg collection comprises 89 works of art in oil, gouache, tempera, watercolor, drypoint etching, woodblock print, lithographs and ephemera.  Abe and Lalla Hays have graciously allowed reproductions of artwork from their collection for this essay.  The exhibition will travel nationally.

The Arizona Museum of Natural History is working with the Scottsdale Museum of the West and Arizona West Galleries to produce an exhibition and catalogue of the work of the artist Carl Oscar Borg.  The catalogue should be published in Fall 2014.  The Scottsdale Museum of the West is scheduled to open December 2014.

Thomas H. Wilson is the Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History.

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