AMERICAN SCENE PAINTING OR REGIONALISM. A CONSERVATIVE REACTION TO REALISM AND THE 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 2.

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Ann Lee Morgan starts her commentary by discussing Thomas Hart Benton and his contribution to Regionalism.

” A vigorous style of swirling, interlocking forms energies his scenes of American Life and History , however before 1920 he rejected the individualistic ethos of Modernism and sought instead to give expression to the collective American Experience”. [1].

Morgan is wrong to refer to Modernism as Individualistic. if you study the different movements that was Modernism you would see that it was collective theories that encompassed Cubism , Dadaism , Futurism and Expressionism.

” In the 1930’s along with John Stuart Curry and Grant Wood he attracted much critical and popular attention as a leader of the Regionalists variant of the American Scene movement”. [2].

Referring to Benton again Morgan comments further on this reactionary form of painting.

” His (Benton) work became caught up in the nativist rhetoric of the Pre-world war 2 decade, but he was insensitive to values other than his own and occasionally allowed coarseness to undermine the merits of his patriotism”. [3].

Morgan shows how Benton with his reactionary racist ideology tried to remove all foreign influences from his painting forgetting that many of the European artists now practising their variant of Modernism like , Duchamp , Picabia and others sought the safety of the United States to escape from German Fascism. With his art Benton was indirectly encouraging the development of a Fascist art in the USA.

” About the time he (Benton) returned to figural representation in the early 1920’s Benton began to ruminate on the desirability of a uniquely American Art free of Foreign influences”. [4].

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” Benton’s small town Midwestern, background primed  his sympathy for the Ordinary people that he believed were responsible for the greatness of the Country and he found in their lives or their History the fit subjects of his art”. [5].

Benton of course was living a lie . This was not the situation in the 1930’s , in fact the truth of the matter was that small Farmers were being made Bankrupt , driven to the wall and had to sell their properties. Ben Shahn who I will consider in a separate posting was a more honest artist and as a Social realist depicted the situation as it really was , not to construct this false picture of a happy rural countryside.

“His (Benton) efforts helped to spur the 1930’s revival of mural painting which took place largely under the auspices of the federal arts project”. [6].

”  Even before the end of the 1930’s he presaged the decline of Regionalist favour by engaging other themes such as stories from mythological or biblical History often situated in specific American locales”. [7].

Morgan points out that Benton’s art did change in that as he returned to figural subjects his concentration was on Portraiture and religious imagery.

” Benson’s style became more sedate , less agitated and emotional and he produced many unaffected portraits , figural scenes and landscapes”. [8].

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

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Morgan now turns her attention to Grant Wood.

” Grant Wood drew meticulously scenes of American life and History  brought him fame in the 1920’s as leader of the Regionalist tendency within the American Scene movement”. [9].

“American Gothic, this ambiguous painting long lived popularity reflects the range of interpretations that viewers of different backgrounds can bring to it”. [10].

 Referring to the Woman with plants an image which I have shown here Morgan comments showing aspects of Wood’s brushwork.

” Among the first works in his mature personal style continues in the landscape background his prior loose technique”. [11].

” Wood’s painstaking technique of Oil glazes restricted his output but together with relatively few finished paintings catalogue an affectionately observed view of American Life”.[12]

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Morgan points out the naivety of some of Grant Wood’s work.

” The calculated naïve effect of his approach particularly visible in stylised rolling landscapes serves to heighten the uncertainty of Wood’s means for it can be seen  as underlying the innocence of American Life or mocking it”.[13].

” Recent scholarship has further suggested that the equivocations evident in the meaning of many works may reflect a mode od self-concealment necessary to a Gay man living in a unsympathetic era and region”. [14].

Robert Atkins the author of Art Spoke gives a dictionary definition of what Regionalism was.

” American Scene painters can loosely be divided into two groups The Mid-western Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, despite the Nationalistic Benton’s swashbuckling murals depicting subjects like the settlement of the west”.[15].

” The American Scene paintings were painted in a virtuosic  style reminiscent of 16th century Italian Mannerism and wood’s nostalgic image of a fast disappearing Farm life were painted in a late Medieval manner”. [16].

This concludes my exploration of Regionalism or American Scene Painting. I will next be discussing Social Realists Like Ben Shahn Isabel Bishop and Reginald Marsh who did reflect working class life unlike Benton and Woods who created an Idealistic vision of rural satisfaction.

FOOTNOTES

  1. THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN ART AND ARTISTS ANN LEE MORGAN .PG.39
  2. DITTO.PG.39
  3. DITTO.PG.39
  4. DITTO.PG.39
  5. DITTO.PG.39
  6. DITTO.PG.39
  7. DITTO.PG.40
  8. DITTO.PG.40
  9. DITTO.PG.528
  10. DITTO.PG.528
  11. DITTO.PG.528
  12. DITTO.PG.529
  13. DITTO.PG.529
  14. DITTO.PG.529
  15. ART SPOKE 1848-1944 ROBERT ATKINS .PG.52
  16. DITTO.PG.52

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