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Friday, April 27, 2018

The survival of realism


In the 1930s, a quiet battle was going on between the forces of realism and abstraction. Abstract painting won—for a while.

Death on the Ridge Road, 1935, Grant Wood
American Regionalism arose during the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression. It had a short life as art movements go, ending in the 1940s. Focusing on small-town America, it rose in opposition to Abstract Expressionism. While it seemed dead by mid-century, it paved the way for the later resurgence of realism in American art.

The 1913 Armory Show introduced New York audiences to the experimental styles of the European avant garde. New York might have been dazzled, but the rest of America was not. Regionalism gave American artists the confidence and voice to look to their own culture for inspiration, rather than endlessly parroting Paris and New York.

Achelous and Hercules, 1947 mural, Thomas Hart Benton, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
Regionalism was the first completely indigenous American art movement. It was reactionary, but it was more than that. It was closely tied to Social Realism and its impulse to depict the real conditions of working class America. Its regional pride originates partly in its overlap with the New Deal artwork we discussed yesterday. Regionalist artists were, like the rest of small-town America, looking for something to celebrate in all the bad news of the Great Depression. That made them tied to their audience in a way the abstract painters were not.

There were three stars in Regionalism: Grant WoodThomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. All three started their education at the Art Institute of Chicago, all three started their careers looking east for inspiration. In the end, each turned back to a distinctly middle-American viewpoint.

Plaid Sweater, Grant Wood
Grant Wood is famous for his American Gothic, but that shortchanges his contributions to American art. Born in rural Iowa, Wood was raised in Cedar Rapids by his widowed mother. After attending The Handicraft Guild in Minneapolis and the Art Institute of Chicago, he returned to Iowa to teach in a one-room school house. In the 1920s, he traveled repeatedly to Europe. "I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa,” he told critics of American Gothic.

The painting was wildly misinterpreted. East Coast elites lauded it as a criticism of the narrowmindedness of middle America. Iowans were furious at this. In fact, Wood meant it as homage.

Thomas Hart Benton was born into a family with advantages. His father was a four-term Congressman. Benton was raised between Washington, DC and the Ozarks. Intended for a career in politics, he rebelled and attended the Art Institute of Chicago and the Académie Julian in Paris. After a stint as a military artist during WWI, he settled in New York. It was not until his late 40s that he abandoned New York and return to the Midwest.

Ajax, 1936-37, John Steuart Curry, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
Like Benton, John Steuart Curry was known for his murals. Although his parents were Kansas farmers, they were college-educated and well-traveled. After a brief stint at the Kansas City Art Institute, he transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago, ultimately transferring again to Geneva College. Curry worked for several years as an illustrator. In 1926, he too made the obligatory trip to Paris. On his return, he settled in the New York City area.  

In 1936, Curry was appointed as the first artist-in-residence at the Agricultural College of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His job was to promote art in rural communities by providing personal instruction to students. This same year he was commissioned to paint New Deal murals in Washington, DC and Kansas.

We modern artists owe these three painters a great debt for keeping the tradition of realism alive in the US. And that’s all I can write. In a moment they’ll be calling my flight and I’ll be off to Santa Fe for Plein Air Fiesta. Have a great weekend!

It's about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

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