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Sunday, June 5, 2011


The Wreck of the Ole 97 Train, 1943, Thomas Hart Benton

At a time when the Group of Eight and their Ashcan School were rocking the New York art scene, there was taking form in the Midwestern hinterlands an equal and opposite reaction we have come to call Regionalism. In the early years of the twentieth century a quiet little war was going on between these realists and the big city modernists...naturalism versus abstraction (or at least its fore bearers). After the century's first real war, this conflict simmered down a bit as the country increasingly became isolationist and later settled into the throes of the Great Depression. Turning inwardly for its art, there began to spring up in the U.S. several non-New York centers of artistic achievement in such places as Chicago, Kansas City, Iowa City, Madison (Wisconsin), and Indianapolis.     

Sanctuary, c. 1936, John Steuart Curry

From this blooming group three artists flowered most profusely, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. They were not country hicks. All three had studied in Paris and brought back with them a solid foundation in formalistic art from Impressionism to Cubism. Yet, by and large, there was little stylistic influence from their studies, only technical fluency. Benton, from Missouri, evolved a sculptural style of mural painting influence by no less than Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and El Greco, in his dramatic murals of Midwestern life and history. Curry employed life-and-death drama in his scenes depicting the never-ending struggle for survival amid the harsh realities of Depression rural life. And Grant Wood, though a political radical by Iowa standards, at the same time chose a more sedate style in gently underscoring with humor the inanities of Midwestern life.        

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931, Grant Wood
Their work was scoffed at by east-coast art critics as being reactionary, chauvinistic, and provincial. Moreover, it was largely ignored by the buying public. Their style was too sophisticated to be considered folk art and too countrified to be taken seriously by the wealthy patrons inclined to buy other than New York avant-gard. Yet as government support for art and artists grew as a result of the Depression, and public commissions demanded themes of past or present American culture, the Regionalists found a stage upon which to perform and one upon which they felt right at home. This was art the public could understand (perhaps taking its last bow), but nonetheless rising heroically over the moral, economic, and political shambles of the 1920's and 30's.

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