He painted the true Colorado

(Denver Post, Mar. 7) “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” mutters a world-weary American to his paramour at the end of a Hemingway novel. The acid dismissal of love typifies suspicion of idealism in any form, a timeless temptation for humankind.

Hemingway gave his story a modern setting but borrowed its title, “The Sun Also Rises,” from Ecclesiastes, a world-weary classic of 2200 years ago. Since the novel’s publication in 1926, Americans have gone on to conquer the Depression, defeat Hitler and Tojo, end segregation and polio, win the Cold War, computerize earth and explore space. Still the stance of cynicism toward nobility and goodness is widely fashionable.

To enter the new wing of the Denver Art Museum, for example, you walk past a huge whiskbroom-and-dustpan sculpture and make your way into a jarring, angular Daniel Liebeskind structure that resembles a glass skyscraper felled by an 8.8 earthquake. Don’t assume you know what beauty is, the objects seem to say. Not so fast with your delight in the human spirit and your pride in our civilization.

After running this gauntlet of the unpretty on a recent afternoon, however, I was more than rewarded by the DAM’s enthralling exhibit of the works of Colorado painter and muralist Allen True, 1881-1955. His heroic depiction of man and nature in the older and newer West may not tell the whole story, but it immortalizes a proud part of it that we should gratefully cherish. You need to see our state’s past through True’s eyes.

Trappers, prospectors, pioneers, cowboys and Indians, builders and aviators come to life under his imagination and brush in a way that celebrates their “men to match my mountains” vision and purpose while escaping Hollywood cliché. And equally striking as the art itself is the self-confidence of an era that could give it a public place of honor all across the city and region, not so very long ago.

“More people, more scars upon the land,” the gate-closing grumble of John Denver in “Rocky Mountain High” (named an official state song in 2007), was not the way Allen True’s generation viewed the human settlement and beautification of this vast territory previously written off as the Great American Desert. A good example is the specimen of his art most familiar to Coloradans, the water saga with True’s murals and Thomas Hornsby Ferril’s verse in our State Capitol rotunda. The theme is people flourishing as modernity advances – rather than the depopulation grimly sought by leftist scolds.

Water project construction: True mural in Colorado Rotunda. “[Let] aqueducts be laid to nourish cities,” says the caption by Ferril.

Under the painted, silent gaze of True heroes and heroines, lawmakers not only in our capitol but also in those of Wyoming and Missouri (from which Lewis and Clark, Pike and Fremont started west) make decisions for this new century. You’d like to think the vitality, generosity, and optimism of his art – and of Ferril’s poetry, sure that “beyond the sundown is tomorrow’s wisdom” – would guide them more than the cramped and gloomy green ideology now ascendant.

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” said Shelley. The way we visualize and verbalize our sense of possibilities has more power to limit or liberate us than any government. Sentimentality is no substitute for reason and reality, of course, as Hemingway’s scorn for “pretty” thought reminds us. But there is a realism in the American success story, captured by the painter True and the poet Ferril, superior to the sentimentalism of frightened Gaia-worship. Let’s embrace it.

The West portrayed in old songs, an open range and Front Range with never a discouraging word, mountain majesties near gleaming cities undimmed by tears, may lack practicality. Yet it’s a better ideal to strive for than anything in Al Gore’s lugubrious poetry – and Allen True depicts it gloriously. The True exhibit runs through March 28, not to be missed.

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