Someone opened a closet door at Neuwied Castle on the Rhine just after World War II and out tumbled a l00 year-old collection of American frontier art. The collection, ``Views of a Vanishing Frontier,'' is a rare glimpse of the untouched wilderness found by German naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied and Swiss artist Karl Bodmer on a perilous trek up the Missouri from l832-l834.
The entire collection is finally going on display in a nationwide traveling exhibit; it had been dispersed for several decades in private ownership. Maximilian's illustrated manuscripts, l00 paintings by Bodmer, and historical objects from their expedition are included in the exhibit, organized by the Center of Western Studies of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb.
The show is at the National Museum of Natural History through March 3l after stops in Omaha; Fort Worth, Texas; and San Francisco. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, will mount a separate exhibition of Bodmer's watercolors and sketches from July l7 through Oct. 6.
The exhibit begins with a brief film based on their adventures, straight out of an ``Indiana Jones'' scenario. The prince and the painter were the first explorer-recorders to follow Lewis and Clark's adventurous path far up the wild Missouri. They took an American Fur Company steamboat, the Yellowstone, up the river so filled with large ``snags'' or submerged trees and branches that Maximilian wrote in his journal of one huge branch ``lying in the water, forced its way into the cabin, carried away part of the door, and was left on the floor . . . one might have been crushed in bed.''
At one point the wilderness became so cold that Bodmer's paints froze next to the campfire. For a couple of frigid months they lived only on maize boiled in water. Eventually the river became so impassable they switched from the steamer to a keelboat, which had to be poled up river by 18-man teams. During the trip they dodged rattlesnakes, wild animals, and occasional warring Indian tribes. Most of these native Americans were hospitable and shared their tribal villages with the travelers, even posing for some of Bodmer's most vivid portraits. The intrepid prince was familiar with perilous trips: he had explored the Brazilian rain forest from l8l5-l8l7 and done his own sketches to illustrate six books he later published on that trip. For the Western frontier expedition, and the book he planned on it, Maximilian decided to take along a professional artist. He hired Bodmer, known for his paintings of landscapes along the Rhine.
Also included in the trip was the royal taxidermist and hunter, David Dreidoppel, who stuffed or pickled some of the hundreds of specimens of animals, birds, and snakes the naturalist prince collected. One of them, a smoky blue bird named the pinion jay, was later renamed the Maximilian jay.
The prince wrote back to his brother in Germany that Bodmer's sketches were so real ``that you will be able to travel very vividly with me.'' Indeed they are, done with a romantic grace but also a painstaking eye for detail that chronicles the trip as accurately as photos. They are small, though, so that the breadth of this vanishing frontier is best caught in the film that accompanies the exhibit and in the mural-size blowups that dramatize it.
Bodmer, that painter of castles along the Rhine, found his own natural castles on the Missouri and painted them with charm. In capturing the crenelated white sandstone formations above the river, he titled the painting ``The White Castles on the Missouri.'' Among his best work are landscapes including a misty view of a coal mine near Mauch Chunk, Ohio, in l832, and the siege of Fort McHenry.
Bodmer's most oustanding work, however, is the series of Indian studies and portraits he did of Mandan, Hidatasa, and Piegan or Blood Blackfeet warriors and chiefs. The Indians dubbed Bodmer ``Kawakapuska,'' one who makes pictures. Bodmer made pictures of such exotically named Indians as Horned Rock, Bull's Back Fat, Two Ravens, Distant Roads, and Flying War Eagle. On the cover of the exhibition catalog is his painting of Wahktageli (Gallant Warrior), the Yankton Sioux Chief who stands almost six and a half feet tall in his feather headpiece and leather outfit fringed with human hair taken from his enemies in battle.
Some of the Indians refused to sit for Bodmer because they believed that a painting stole some of their spirit. But Distant Bear, a Piegan Blackfeet, thought Bodmer's portrait of him had protected him from bullets in an attack a few days later that killed some of his tribe.
After he returned to Europe, Prince Maximilian published a book on his frontier travels illustrated with Bodmer's orginal watercolors done in aquatint.