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.

The art of the Great Depression

Santa Fe, the visionary New Deal, and the start of a new American art movement.
The Voice of the Earth (The Basket Dance), 1934, Will Schuster, courtesy New Mexico Museum of Art.

In 1934, one in four American workers were idled. The government stepped in with programs we would eventually lump together as the ‘New Deal’. Asked why the program included artists, WPA head Harry Hopkins replied, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people!”

That was only half the picture. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration was keenly interested in advancing American culture. “I, too, have a dream—to show people in the out of the way places, some of whom are not only in small villages but in corners of New York City—something they cannot get from between the covers of books—some real paintings and prints and etchings and some real music,” Franklin Roosevelt wrote.
Tonight, I head out to Santa Fe for Plein Air Fiesta. Santa Fe is the capital and cultural center of New Mexico, and it is home to much New Deal art and architecture.
Acoma Trail, William Penhallow Henderson, courtesy US District Courthouse, Santa Fe.
William Shusterwent to New Mexico because he had tuberculosis secondary to being gassed in WWI. He was commissioned to paint murals at the New Mexico Museum of Art, portraying the traditional life of Native Americans.
Six murals by William Penhallow Henderson hang in the US District Court building. Henderson was a Boston-trained painter who went west for his wife’s tuberculosis. The courthouse recently acquired three more New Deal murals. These scenes of Navajo life were originally painted by Warren Rollinsfor a post office in Gallup.
The murals of Santa Fe were part of a series of Federal New Deal art programs. In the first four months of 1934, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) hired 3,749 artists and produced 15,663 artworks for government buildings around the country.
Golden Gate Bridge, 1934, Ray Strong for PWAP. Franklin Delano Roosevelt liked it enough to hang it in the White House. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
“They had to prove they were professional artists, they had to pass a needs test, and then they were put into categories—Level One Artist, Level Two or Laborer—that determined their salaries,” said George Gurney of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Because the program was based on need, not skill, most of these artists have fallen into anonymity; the more famous Depression-era artists came from the Works Projects Administration. But the PWAP artists were instructed to paint ‘the American Scene,’ which in most cases meant landscapes populated by American workers. That makes their work an important historical record.
The murals in Santa Fe are among the 1400 New Deal murals in municipal buildings around the nation. There is one in the little post office in Middleport, NY, when I was growing up; there is one in the post office near Franklin Roosevelt’s grand house in Hyde Park.
These came from a successor project to PWAP, the Section of Painting and Sculpture. Its purpose was to select, administer, and pay for these public murals. Its mandate was to make high-quality art accessible to all people.
The focus was on buying excellent work, not work based on artists’ reputation or neediness. Artists were selected through blind jurying and were paid a lump sum for their efforts. In return, they were expected to create work that reflected the host communities. In practice, that meant that many of the artists were locals. Those who weren’t sometimes visited their towns. Others carried on lively correspondence with the postmaster. The paintings were done on 12’x5’ canvases that were then shipped and glued in place.
The New Deal not only kept artists alive during the Great Depression, it introduced Americans to the idea that there was something here worth painting. Along the way, it helped create an indigenous American art movement, Regionalism. More on that tomorrow.
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.

American history through British eyes

Death on the Ridge Road, 1935 by Grant Wood. Williams College Museum of Art

Occasionally a painting gets stuck in my head. Such is the case with Death on the Ridge Road, by Grant Wood, above. Viewers in 1935 understood this painting as something painfully probable in rural driving: innocent passengers careening happily toward their imminent deaths. One could see it as a metaphor for life, since we’re all in that state of happy ignorance. We are, however, in a new era, and current conventional wisdom is that it is a metaphor for Woods’ own privately tortured sexuality.

That’s a contemporary American viewpoint, however, and it’s unlikely to hold up. Death on the Ridge Road is currently in London, in America after the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. If I find any spare change, I’m going to see it before it closes. It’s not that I can’t or haven’t seen these paintings here in their native home. I’d like to see them interpreted through British eyes.
Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936, Alexandre Hogue, Philbrook Museum
The Telegraph called this show “a pungent mix of American horror stories,” but there’s more than a bit of Schadenfreude there. We Americans don’t necessarily think of urbanization, industrialization, or any of the other themes of the Great Depression as horror stories. They are the stories of our parents and grandparents, repeated down through the generations.
Nor were they the end of an idyllic past, as the title implies. We had been riven by Civil War two generations earlier; we had suffered through rocketing financial depressions before. Ours was a society that was constantly in flux.
It was, however, a “decade like no other,” as the Royal Academy describes it. The impulses in art were varied and many. Painting wandered down many different by-ways, from the regionalism of Wood to the Symbolism of Philip Evergood, the Precisionism of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, the folk expressionism of William H. Johnson and the modernism of Georgia O’Keeffe. It was a ferment that we can only begin to sort out in retrospect, and it happened in literature and music along with painting.
Gas, 1940, Edward Hopper, MoMa
“He’s putting the pump back, he’s staring into the dial, he’s falling apart: who knows? The garage stands empty, its light sinister as the dusk descending over the woods, presaging a thousand movies. The rural past meets the industrial future in this vision of a lone American lost out there in the spreading vastness,” wrote the Guardian about Edward Hopper’s Gas.
I, through my American eyes, see the homely Northeast in that painting. It’s the Maine of my childhood, moving from Mom-and-Pop gas bars to whatever it is today. 
Meanwhile, in 1940, when Hopper painted it, Britain was enduring the Blitz. It seemed as if defeat at the hands of Luftwaffe was inevitable. A British public has to see the night sky in Gas as intensely personal. It’s more about them than us.

When the going got tough…

This Dardanelle, Arkansas, Post Office WPA Mural is not much different from the one in my home town, except that the crop is cotton.
The logical successors to the Ashcan school were the Federal Art Project painters. This was the visual arts part of the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. At no other time in American history has government made such an effort to support the arts in all forms. While autocrats sometimes employed art to create an ethos for their state, democracies do not, in general, use art and artists like this.
Whereas this WPA Office Mural from Arlington, Massachusetts is distinctly northern in character, and refers back to our original settlement stories.
Since non-representational artists—still considered the avante garde—were not making much of a living in the Thirties, you can imagine what a boon government support was for them. But most of the WPA art was representational, and most of it was local. We remember the WPA for the murals in our post offices, libraries, schools and hospitals, not because it supported the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock before they became famous.
Could this be from anywhere else but America’s heartland, celebrating corn as it does? In this case, Mount Ayr, Iowa.
Yesterday I wrote that art is primarily a reflection of the aspirations and values of the society that created it. The WPA art is an example of art as a change agent. In the midst of the Great Depression, America needed to be reminded of her exceptionalism. In government buildings across the country, painters did just that.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click 
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