Lewis and Clark, and Michael Portillo (BBC2TV)

Michael Portillo has just begun a new railroad adventure in the USA…and, this time, he’s following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition up the Missouri river. Amtrak’s (US railways) , Missouri River Runner, also follows the river between Saint Louis and Kansas.

The city of Saint Louis was named by French fur traders after Louis IX of France. The settlement became an inportant gateway to the west after the Lousianna Purchase of 1803.

Thomas Jefferson,  3rd President of the United States, instructed L+C to travel up the Missouri river and to survey the new lands with a view to supporting trade and commerce…

Lewis and Clark provided the first maps to support the westward expansion of the US during the 19C. Identified as Manifest Destiny, the unification of the US continent into a single coherent political and economic entity was brutal…involving ethnic cleansing against Native Americans, Civil War with the southern Confederacy, and also established a racial fault-line across the continent that has endured to the present.

Saint Louis was the site of the infamous Pruitt Igoe housing development. PI replaced a timber shanty-town with modern blocks of flats in the 1950s. Things didn’t go according to plan and the buildings quickly became a symbol of inner-city decline. The development was pulled down in the 1980s.

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The film, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), includes a whole section filmed at Pruitt Igoe and with a soundtrack by Philip Glass. More recently, the area of wider Saint Louis has seen a number of mis-judged police attacks against various african-american males. At Furguson Mo, for example. This has understandably provoked the Black Lives Matter movement and the reactionary response.

In amongst all this, it was a lovely surprise to  find Michael Portillo looking at pictures by the American mid-western artist, George Caleb Bingham.

I love American painting….especially in its early and primitive styles. If you look at all of  GCBs pictures they are not uniformally great…some of the portraits are just not very accurate and show how difficult it is to work in isolation and without example from a teacher or colleague.

GCB produced a number of river pictures and these are his masterpieces. The best of these is, Fur Traders (c1845), shown above. Ironically, this painting lives in NYC.

Kansas City remains an important rail hub for freight services across the US. Here is a satellite picture of the yards…

 

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