AMERICAN SCENE PAINTING OR REGIONALISM. A CONSERVATIVE REACTION TO REALISM , AND EUROPEAN ART MOVEMENTS LIKE CUBISM , SURREALISM AND EXPRESSIONISM. A REJECTION OF MODERNISM: AN EXPLORATION OF THE ART OF THOMAS HART BENTON ( 1889-1975) AND GRANT WOOD (1891-1942). PART 1.

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In This posting I am going to consider an Art Movement which I consider reactionary and backward looking .It emerged in the 1930’s and its great fault was to reject Modernism and the revolutionary road towards abstraction. The movement which was dubbed ‘Regionalism’ sought to portray an idyllic lifestyle of small townships in the Midwest where everything was peaceful in the period of the greatest crisis of Capitalism . It was of course a fantasy and a concept engineering primarily by Benton and Wood.

American art describes the origins of the movement.

” The new trend was labelled regionalism and was recognised throughout the USA a major movement, regionalism was in many respects a rejection of the European Avant-Garde”.[1].

” In State City Iowa 1930 Woods vision however was notably a fantasy , a mythical world of escapism produced in the wake of the economic crash of 1929. indeed the 1930’s was an era in which the rural Midwest experienced economic hardship”.[2].

Indeed the most classic vision of  this fantasy world was portrayed by Wood in his fable Parsons Weems Fable (1939).

” Grant Woods idealised vision of the American Midwest attracted considerable attention throughout the 1930’s. His works promoted traditional values of Honesty , Hard work and Religious sentiment. By the later 1930’s Regionalism was increasingly criticised for its naivety and its Chauvinism”. [3].

” Hired Man 1934-42 During the 1930’s in the midst of the depression and widespread unemployment Grant woods idealised vision of the American Mid-west  proved highly popular”. [4].

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1929 Grant Wood  (American regionalist artist, 1891-1942) Woman with Plants

As American art shows Wood was a complete Idealist ignoring the instances of Poverty and unemployment , instead concentrating on Home spun issues tinged with nostalgia.

” His works avoided dwelling on poverty, providing instead a nostalgic escapist world inhabited by contented people. In this way his work contrasts sharply with the contemporary social realist painters like Reginald Marsh , Ben Shahn and Isabel Bishop”.[5].

Thomas Hart Benton on the other hand did on occasions portray Industrial life in the steel Mill but his portrayal seems to indicate the power of machines rather than the exploitative Capitalist nature of production itself.

” Thomas Hart Benton’s depiction of a Steel Mill ( The steel Mill 1930) working at full tilt carried strong political resonances. Benton’s work is neither a celebration or a condemnation of American Industry”. [6].

” While ignoring the reality of closing factories and the subsequent social destitution Benton’s work extols the sheer energy and force of Industry”. [7].

If you look at his Steel Mill Ordinary workers are the last thing that Benton wants to show us, he is not interested in the American Working class but content to peddle his own reactionary outlook.

”  Yet his diminutive workers silhouetted  against the  infernal smoke stacks of an energy as powerful as nature itself. appear as little more than anonymous  minions mere cogs in the wheel of powerful Industry”.[8].

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Matthew Baigell in his commentary of Benton and Wood show the anti urban quality of their work.

” By the early 1930’s an American scene movement was recognised (Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood) assumed the central role in the American scene Movement and gave it a particularly Xenophobic  and anti-urban character”. [9].

” As the miseries of the depression increased an amorphous urban orientated and politically motivated group also emerged called Social realists. they were supported by left leaning groups such as the John Reed Clubs and various Communist factions”. [10].

Wood and Benton opposed this development and instead of recognising the real material world continued to depict this fantasy of happy contented farmers and workers in the Mid-West.

” But the differences remained, the most important being the regionalist concern for particular American experiences and the Social realist interest in universal class experiences. The Social realists saw in the past the seeds of contemporary problems and were fearful of Nationalism in any guise”. [11].

” During the 1920’s Thomas Hart Benton began chipping away at the veneer in order to point the measure of the Country, An American style derived from American Themes”. [12].

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Benton’s assertion that he drew and painted what he saw was a fallacy. Benton and wood created images of their pretend World to convince American Rural and urban workers that there was nothing wrong with Capitalism. A patent lie of course. Both Benton and Wood never had to live the life of ordinary workers all they did was construct a false image in defence of the Capitalist system.

” But Benton’s reality was an American one based not on emotional mysticism but on common experiences”. [13].

” Consequently he titled landscapes and juxtaposed spaces in broken Kaleidoscopic fashion. His figures with their bulging muscles seem also to have been given extra set of joints”. [14].

Out of the two of them Benton at times did denounce aspects of Capitalism as in his portrayal of his native Missouri shows.

” Benton’s  major mural achievement a representation of the true and legendary history of his native Missouri is the masterpiece of the rural American Scene , tempering his praise for self-sufficient working person he painted a scathing denunciation of predatory Capitalism false and self saving religiosity and political Corruption”.[15].

” Several artists altered their styles and Outlook about 1930 by emphasizing  the American aspects of their art. grant Wood was one of them”. [16].

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Baigell shows how the American Scene Painters Benton and Wood displayed the worst of the American people.

” They offend because they project personalities incapable of compromise , they doubly laid bare the worst qualities of the American Character”. [17].

” This attitude Nationalistic and Idealist was based upon two assumptions that regional cultures and ultimately a National character could develop in a vacuum untouched by the potent and mobile forces of modern life”.[18].

Baigell now shows how Benton’s and Wood’s extreme Nationalism instead of bring people together drove them apart , by rejecting class they were unable to see that their Art had a European basis German Fascism. This was ultimately the danger they faced by showing these scenes they would motivate extreme Reactionary politicians to exile large quantities of Immigrants from the United States.

” The implications of wood’s and Benton’s Americanism enraged Left leaning artists when considered in the context of contemporary Germany’s murderous Nationalism. Many social Realists the children of East European Immigrants obviously understood that to survive, let alone t flourish a climate of International cooperation was essential. these movements provided forums for necessary change (in a communist or socialist direction)”.[19].

This concludes my first part of my investigation into the American Scene Movement. In part 2 I will further explore the reactionary ideals of Wood’s and Benton’s Regionalism.

FOOTNOTES

  1. AMERICAN ART FLAME PUBLISHING PG.44
  2. DITTO.PG.190
  3. DITTO.PG.262
  4. DITTO.PG.326
  5. DITTO.PG.326
  6. DITTO.PG. 114
  7. DITTO.PG.114
  8. DITTO.PG.114
  9. MATTHEW BAIGELL A CONCISE HISTORY OF AMERICAN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE. PG.261
  10. DITTO.PG.261
  11. DITTO.PG.261
  12. DITTO.PG.261
  13. DITTO.PG.262
  14. DITTO.PG.262
  15. DITTO.PG.263
  16. DITTO.PG.263
  17. DITTO.PG.264
  18. DITTO.PG.264
  19. DITTO.PG.265

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