RegionalismAt 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 this century there was a quiet little war going on between these realists and the big city modernists...naturalism versus abstraction (or at least its forebears). After the 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 this country several non-New York centres of artistic achievement in such places as Chicago, Kansas City, Iowa City, Madison (Wisconsin), and Indianapolis. From this blooming group three artists flowered most profusely, Thomas Hart Benton, John Stuart 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 in 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 humour the inanities of Midwestern life. Their work was scoffed at by east-coast art critics as being reactionary, chauvinistic, and provincial. It was largely ignored by the buying public. It 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-garde. 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.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
5 March 1998