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Friday, November 18, 2011

John Steuart Curry

There's an old, World War I vintage song with the line, "How ya gonna keep'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?" Couched in humor, it bespoke a serious concern as prairie farm boys fled the family farms in droves to the cities (albeit poor imitations of Paris) and industrial jobs, jazz, bathtub gin, flappers, and families of too many kids crammed into too few rooms of a Chicago tenement. An artist typifying this stereotype was John Steuart Curry. Born in 1897 on a farm just outside Dunavant, Kansas, he grew up as much a part of the land as the corn, wheat, cows and chickens he grew up with. His art training began in Kansas City at the Art Institute there, then moved on to the Chicago Art Institute, Geneva College in New York, and though he didn't see France during the war, he did end up studying in Paris during the mid-1920s. He liked Rubens, Gustave Courbet, and Honore Daumier. Back in the U.S., having seen "Paree," there was no keeping him "down on the farm."

Tragic Prelude, 1938-40, John Steuart Curry
During the good times of the late 1920s, Steuart taught at the New York Art Students League and the Cooper Union. With the onset of the Depression, he traveled with Ringling Brothers Circus for a time before finally returning to the Midwest and an artist-in-residence position at the College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin. There he came to know fellow Midwesterner, Grant Wood, and painted murals while turning out some of his best regionalist work. Later, his work included a mural in the Capitol building of his home state of Kansas. Tragic Prelude (above) depicted the fiery abolitionist, John Brown in a guise reminiscent of Moses leading his followers to rise up in rebellion against the scourge of slavery.  (Kansas was a hotbed of antislavery violence just before the Civil War.)

Tornado Over Kansas, 1929.
John Steuart Curry
Yet, as they say, you can take the boy from the country, but you can't take the country from the boy, which was largely the flavor of Curry's art career. His most famous painting, Tornado Over Kansas, done in 1929, combines the heroic painting style he found in Rubens with the realism of Courbet and the common decency of Daumier. It depicts a Kansas family fleeing to a storm shelter, mother with an infant in her arms, the children struggling to contain their pets, as a swirling funnel cloud bears down upon their prairie farm. The same year, Curry saw firsthand the devastation of another of nature's horrifying rampages, the Kaw River flood near Lawrence, Kansas, which inspired a series of paintings upon the theme "sanctuary."  The central image in each one was an island, either natural or manmade (usually in the form of a building roof top) completely surrounded by water upon which were stranded various farm animals seeking refuge from the flood.  His 1932 lithograph titled, Mississippi Noah, depicting an African-American family clinging bravely to the roof of a wooden shack, is perhaps the best work in this theme, which preoccupied him intermittently right up until his death in 1946.
Mississippi Noah, 1935, John Steuart Curry

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