The Birth of Regionalism

Thomas Hart Benton's Self Portrait on the cover of Time Magazine
During the early 30s, American artists began a departure from the work of their European counterparts, instead looking to their own surroundings for inspiration. In 1934, TIME magazine gave a name to this trend: the “U.S. Scene” or “Regional art”. The corresponding article recognized Benton’s influence as a leader in the movement, and, appropriately, the cover featured Benton’s 1925 Self-Portrait.  The text below is from the TIME article, U.S. Scene, published Dec. 24, 1934.

PORTRAIT OF THE U.S. Few years ago many a good U. S. artist was content to borrow from France, turn out tricky, intellectual canvases which usually irritated or mystified the public.  Today most top-notch U. S. artists get their inspiration from their native land, find beauty and interest in subjects like Kansas farmers, Iowa fields, Manhattan burlesques.  On this and the following three pages is reproduced a collection of such pictures.  Thomas Benton’s The Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley is the only canvas in the group which dips into fantasy but the story he tells is crisply clear.  The three hillbillies sing and play an oldtime West Virginia ballad whose most dramatic incident—the stabbing of a bare-foot mountain wench by her jealous lover—is depicted in the background.  The swirling rhythm of the road, repeated in the fence, the field and the sky, suggests the lilt of the music.  Typical Americana are the jug of whisky, the outhouse.

Cotton Town is the result of Benton’s trip through Georgia in 1932.  In spite of his personal gaiety, Artist Benton excels in imbuing his Negro characters with an indolent melancholy.

Thomas Benton has filled scores of notebooks with sketches of the U.S. scene, which eventually find their way into his work.  He boasts that all his burlesque queens, stevedores, Negroes, preachers and college professors are actual persons.  His vivid portraits of them are fast becoming collectors’ items and the cost of Bentons has been steadily rising since the Navy put him on the right artistic track.  Last week, Thomas Benton, who is usually jolly, had a special reason to be cheerful.  He sold his oil, Cotton Town, to Marshall Field III.

If Thomas Benton is the most virile of U.S. painters of the U.S. Scene the honor of being a pioneer in the movement belongs to Charles Ephraim Burchfield, 41, a tailor’s son from Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio.  In his childhood Burchfield found nothing so fascinating as tumble-down houses, freight trains, railroad tracks.  Today most up-to-date museums have Burchfields.  Not so spectacular a draughtsman as Benton, Burchfield manages to invest his paintings with a calm if somewhat dismal dignity and an exceptionally acute feeling for light and space.  He lives in an eight-room frame house outside Buffalo, N.Y. with his wife and five children, amuses himself by tending to his garden and building frames for his pictures.

A painter of the city is Reginald Marsh who was born 36 years ago to Muralist Fred Dana Marsh in Paris.  As a tousle-headed boy (he is now almost bald) he went to Lawrenceville, later to Yale.  In spite of his very proper education Artist Marsh thinks “well bred people are no fun to paint,” haunts Manhattan subways, public beaches, waterfronts, burlesque theatres for his subjects.  The Metropolitan and Whitney Museums thought enough of his work to purchase examples.

A friend who had not seen John Steaurt Curry since he was a potent footballer at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa. 15 years ago would hardly recognize him today.  Apple-cheeked, fat, bald, he now weighs 187 pounds, lives quietly in Westport, Conn.  He is so sensitive about his art that he frequently decides to give it up.  But Curry is generally considered the greatest painter of Kansas and of the circus in the U.S.  His two most famed works Tornado and Baptism in Kansas won him important critical accolades in Chicago and Manhattan but only served to irritate his fellow Kansans who felt that such subjects were best left untouched.  In 1932 John Ringling gave him permission to follow the “Greatest Show on Earth.” The result was a spectacular group of canvases showing herds of elephants, the Flying Codonas, the Wallenda Family, Baby Ruth, the fat girl, etc.

Curry’s art is simple and dramatic.  Whether he likes it or not no Kansan who has looked at his State or been to the circus can fail to recognize the authenticity of Curry’s subjects.  Latest Curry is a two-panel mural for the Westport High School.  In Comedy  Artist Curry has included himself and his wife, has gaily jumbled Charlie Chaplin on roller skates, Mickey Mouse, Mutt & Jeff, Shakespeare’s Bottom, Will Rogers, Popeye the Sailor.  In TragedyU ncle Tom prays by the bedside of Little Eva, Hamlet sulks, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O’Neill scowl, Aerialist Lillian Leitzel drops from her circus partner’s arms to death.

The chief philosopher and greatest teacher of representational U.S. art is Iowa’s chubby, soft-spoken Grant Wood.  Like Benton, Grant Wood studied in France, Turned out his share of Blue Vase, Sorrento, House in Montmartre, Breton Market.  But in 1929 he radically changed his style.  From his palette issued a series of rolling, tree-dotted Iowa fields done in a flat, smooth manner.  His landscape of West Branch, Iowa, got the birthplace of Herbert Hoover almost as much public attention as the infrequent visits of that President.  Wood’s credo U.S. art suffers from a “Colonial attitude” to Europe, a feeling of cultural dependence upon the older continent.  To combat this attitude Wood chose irony.  His American Gothic and his spectacular Daughters of Revolution, three prim spinsters against a background of Washington Crossing the Delaware, were his first attack.  This year, what most critics consider his most important painting, Dinner for Threshers, won no prize at the Carnegie International at Pittsburgh but was voted third most popular by the public.  Simple and direct, the picture bears as genuine a U.S. stamp as a hotdog stand or baseball park.

Shy Bachelor Wood, 42, hates to leave his native Iowa where his fellow-citizens have been buying his pictures and singing his praise almost since he began painting.  He is often convinced he is a better teacher than painter.  In Munich, he once mastered in a few weeks the technique of glass painting when German artists insisted on making a bearded Civil War soldier (for a Cedar Rapids memorial window) look like Christ.

No man in the U.S. is a more fervid believer in developing “regional art” than Grant Wood.  Long before Public Works Art Project started the Government’s $1,408,381 program to give work to more than 3,000 artists, Wood had established his own Iowa art colony in Stone City.  There for little more than $50 an artist could live and learn for a six-week session.  When PWAP was established Wood became its Iowa leader, taught Iowa artist to paint the “U.S. scene”—prime purpose of PWAP.  Today he is trying to continue the work PWAP started.  He and a group of students are preparing a series of murals for the Iowa State University Theatre at Iowa City.

Wood’s theory of regional art rests upon the idea that different sections of the U.S. should compete with one another just as Old World cities competed in the building of Gothic cathedrals.  Only thus, he believes, can the U.S. develop a truly national art.  Whether PWAP has sown the seeds of a national art no man can yet tell, but, beyond dispute, PWAP’s investment has not only enormously stimulated the public’s interest but has also revealed definite regional traits in art.  Some of these districts and their characteristics

Chicago’s leading artist is Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, 37, who likes to picture men whose skins are as wrinkled as a dirty handkerchief.  His heavy baroque style brought him local fame when he applied it to a loutish, hunched figure called the Lineman.  Other noteworthy Chicago artist: Malvin Albright, twin of Ivan, who sculpts under the name Zsissly; Aaron Bohrod (pronounced Bo-rod) who does sketches of Chicago streets and coal yards, Jean Crawford Adams (landscapes, Archibald John Motley Jr., a Negro who gets a bright, sculpturesque quality in his portraits of fellow Negroes, Frances Foy, whose specialty is city parks and streets.

Detroit.Artist who has spent the most time with the most success portraying Detroit is a Philadelphian—Charles Sheeler.  Commissioned by Edsel Ford in 1927 to do a series of paintings of the Ford River Rouge plant.  Painter Sheeler turned out a series of meticulous, exact canvases that in black and white reproductions are almost indistinguishable from Photographer Sheeler’s excellent camera studies of similar subjects.  In spite of objecting to his photographic technique, most critics allow Sheeler a top place among U.S. painters of industrial scenes.  Michigan’s nearest approach to a catching U.S. scene in paints is a Flint school of artists led by Jaroslav Brozik which applies to industrial themes an impressionistic manner.

Bostonremains conservative.  Ten years ago Artist Harley Perkins, Charles Hovey Pepper and Carl G. Cutler started a minor revolt against what they called the “Museum [of Fine Arts] School” which was then turning out replicas of John Singer Sargent.  The revolt sagged.  Today Boston’s best artist concerned with the contemporary U.S. scene is Molly Luce, wife of Allan Burroughs, X-ray art researcher for Harvard’s Fogg Museum.

California. The Pacific Coast has given its fair share of fame to San Francisco Artists Lucien Labaudt, Otis Oldfield, Jane Berlandina, Charles Stafford Duncan.  Lately from Southern California have come two study contenders for the title “best in the West”—Los Angeles’ Millard Sheets and Pasadena’s Paul Starrett Sample.  At 19, husky blond Artist Sheets deliberately set out to win prize money to finance his painting, made $2,500 from ten prizes in two years.  Today, at 27, he is head of the art department at Scripps College, Claremont.  His PWAP canvas Tenement Flats, showing gossiping women against a design of bleak, wash-strung flats, was chosen by President Roosevelt to hang in the White House.  Huge Paul Sample, a onetime Dartmouth tackle, divides his time between California and Vermont.  He has sometimes shown the influence of Benton and Wood, like many another modern says his favorite painter Breughel.  A professor of painting at University of Southern California, he won two successive National Academy prizes with completely unacademic pictures.

Taos is in incredible country.  The New Mexican sunlight is so intense that it casts shadows that would seem outrageous anywhere else.  In Taos, reality is almost Cubism and Taos shadows are actually as elongated and mysterious as those in Salvador Dali’s Surrealism (TIME, Nov 29).  The Taos art colony was founded in 1989, today boasts some 54 painters.  Most influential is barrel-chested Andrew Dasburg who looks like Beethoven and tortures himself in order to translate Taos light and form into oil paintings.  Emil Bisttram is slowly working away from representation to symbolism but has never yet failed to produce a lucid canvas.  Kenneth Adams thinks the Southwestern artist should evolve a formal design from the distortions of light, displays a strong feeling for form.

Probably no region in the U.S. can produce such distorted pictures as Taos and still claim that they record actuality.  The fact that Taos artists are, as a rule, content to exaggerate their region’s natural exaggerations, puts them directly into the main stream of U.S. representationalism along with Grant Wood and his Threshers, Burchfield and his gloomy houses, Benton and his squirming racketeers.

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