Unreal Nature

June 2, 2015

Land of Make-Believe

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… prescribed restriction denied all three artists any right to modernist exaggeration, distortion, caricature, conceits, or imaginary inventions.

This is from Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry by James M. Dennis (1998):

… The adaptations of modernist abstraction by the three major Regionalists eluded most of their critics. At the same time, their wide range of subject matter deviated from the expectations of urban viewers who wanted to keep them down on the farm. An array of socially derisive figures, ethnocentric caricatures, satires of American myths, and personal fantasies disturbed the curiously staid critics of the political left up to the end of the Depression. After a long lapse in attention following the Second World War, equally severe reactions accompanied a revival of interest in Regionalism during the ideologically confused post-Vietnam War period.

Acting like art world agents for one constituency or another, a majority of critics found it difficult and at times impossible to accept Wood, Benton, and Curry as modern artists who created pictures determined more by inner perceptions than by the familiar facts of their native region in the midsection of the country. After all, they were supposedly committed to the agenda of a conservative movement. Therefore, a mobile Wood, Benton, or Curry was forsaking an ideological obligation when he abandoned the realities of his birthplace and escaped into a land of make-believe.

Wood_midnight_ride_1931
Grant Wood, Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931

… Critical aversion to personal fantasies amounted to a campaign to force Regionalism into a reputed American tradition of “objective” realism. This prescribed restriction denied all three artists any right to modernist exaggeration, distortion, caricature, conceits, or imaginary inventions. Upon appearance, any of these features would either be criticized as flaws or, as [Thomas] Craven did in Curry’s behalf, rationalized as true reality. Indeed, a critic for the London Studio viewed the “brittle” style and the “precise and meticulous” drawing in Grant Wood’s Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and Death on the Ridge Road, for example, as a “decorative realism.” While skeptical of the frills and curves and bizarre foliage of the landscapes, this same anonymous writer nonetheless suggested that Young Corn was “a more realistic interpretation than is generally supposed by those unfamiliar with the Iowa countryside.”

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Grant Wood, Young Corn, 1931

… [Milton] Brown (like critics of various convictions before and after) reduced [Benton’s] career of highly varied subject matter, of modernist pluralism, to “nothing more than a retreat to ruralism.”

While preoccupied with masculinity and proving himself equal to “any member of a Kiwanis Club or saloon patron,” Benton had also over-indulged in childish whimsies: figures that resembled “small animated toys,” distorted surroundings made up of “props for the homely and the cute,” and spatial manipulations that looked to Brown like “artificial constructions or stage sets.” Such personal fantasizing proved too farfetched for an essentially apolitical observer who could understand why a hard-times art might revolt against, or retreat from, contemporary reality into a “sectional mythology,” but distrusted Regionalism as “an exploitation of the nostalgic and sentimental.”

[line break added to make this easier to read online] With no mention of Benton’s beloved steam engines, Brown dismissed his work as coming little closer to “a thorough-going examination of regional life under modern industrial conditions” than did Wood’s ornamental, streamlined farmscapes or Curry’s melodramas of boyhood experiences on a midwestern farm heightened by exaggerated encounters with wild nature. While intending to expose their lack of relevant realism, Brown underlined the diversity of imaginative themes among the three midwestern Regionalists. In so doing, he inadvertently hit upon the fantasy factor that had eluded or upset critics of Regionalism from the outset.

A year and a half after Benton died in 1975, as interest in the Regionalists revived amid the back-to-the-land sentiments of the late sixties and early seventies, Art in America critic Lawrence Alloway somewhat vaguely, but unmistakably, reverted to the original consensus that a Regionalist could successfully daw and paint only the most immediate barnyard episodes. Everything else — particularly mythic American figures and historical events — was subject to too much invention; such items were, in a word, fantasized.

… [Wrote critic Hilton Kramer in the 1980s] Not only was Grant Wood’s imagery “a calculated lie from start to finish — the fantasy of an emotionally retarded, adolescent sensibility desperately seeking refuge from the realities of life in a dreamworld of his own invention”; it was “abysmally phony,” “pervasive fakery,” “shallow,” “trashy,” and “Camp.” As a “psychological deformation,” Wood’s “compulsive need to invent an idealized childhood dreamworld” typified the whole school of Regionalist painting, which, “while wholly dependent upon the techniques of representation, has absolutely nothing to do with the aesthetics of realism.”

Wood_death-on-the-ridge-road-1935
Grant Wood, Death on the Ridge Road, 1935

This emotional tirade thus ends, as if by rote, with a familiar refrain. Bypassing his own allusion to the social significance of Regionalist fantasy as an escape from reality, and thereby reflective of it, Kramer followed his predecessors in a straight line of monotonous repetition. He then accused Wood and his fellow midwestern Regionalists of ultranationalism. He judged them guilty of unadulterated chauvinism, a “shameless” extolling of native self-righteousness, and a “ruthless” rejection of alien influences.

My previous post from Dennis’s book is here.

-Julie

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