Grant Wood's most famous statement on his conversion, as it were, from European bohemianism to American regionalism spoke to a country in the midst of the Depression, hungering for reassurance and looking for validation of its own worth and staying power:

"‘I found the answer [about what I knew] when I joined a school of painters in Paris after the war who called themselves neo-meditationists. They believed an artist had to wait for inspiration, very quietly, and they did most of their waiting at the Dome or the Rotonde, with brandy. It was then that I realized that all the really good ideas I'd ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. So I went back to Iowa'" (Dennis, 43).


 

 

 
Fruits of Iowa:
Boy Milking Cow

1932
Perhaps this is Grant Wood's truer painting of his "return from Bohemia."

Although this may legitimately have been the process of Wood's thinking, the statement itself nods publically (for Wood repeated this often to reporters from around the country) to a self-conscious American image; Wood allies himself with the farmer, the worker, and the Jeffersonian yeoman intellectual. He disavows himself of loiterers, foreigners, and academics like the obscure "neo-meditationists." Wood described himself and his movement, essentially, as the American dream led by the American dreamer at a time when popular sentiment was looking hard for a positive national note.

Perhaps it is true that Wood's ideas about a regionalist art, one which sprang from the belief that an artist should "‘paint out of the land and the people he knows best'" ("Wood, Hard-Bitten"), materialized that quickly. However, his search for a style to express his regionalist ethos was slower in coming. Ironically, although Wood spoke of regionalism as "anti-colonialist" (Renegade Regionalists, 53), a movement against the European art flooding the New York markets and the abstract style that young American painters were learning in Paris, the style that Wood settled on was influenced heavily by German modernism, Northern Renaissance masters, and the forms inspired by the Parisian Arts Decoratifs show of 1925. Thus, it seems clear that stylistic divinations were peripheral to the meaning of regionalism; it was, and remained throughout the 1930's to all its adherents, a school based in subject rather than in form or style. During the 1930's, the lack of sophisticated form or style were the main criticisms of Wood's regionalist work; after the second World War, his art was criticized equally for its subject matter.

Regionalism, to Grant Wood, was a simple concept: artists should paint what is around them, what they know and what they see. He took great inspiration from the Flemish masters, noting their skill in painting local scenes while capturing the universal significance of the subject matter. Wood was for the most part neutral on the finer points of style or form; he encouraged his students and fellow artists to experiment broadly, insisting that those in his art classes paint on brown wrapping paper so that they felt more free to test new stylistic waters. His dogmatism remained focused on subject matter; only appropriate was what the artist personally knew about. This is a curious paradox when considering Wood's landscapes and even some of his portraiture. Wood only partially adhered to his own formula, as his paintings were clearly set in the nineteenth century: clothing, the lack of machines, the arrangement of the land all underscore this. Dinner for Threshers even includes the false date of 1892 on the barn door. Thomas Hart Benton, Wood's friend and partner in regionalism, may have inadvertently offered the rationalization for this: "distinctly indigenous art forms would arise...from ‘an American way of looking at things, and a utilization of the materials of our own American scene'" (Renegade Regionalists, 60). An "American way of looking at things" might well be seeing an idealized and usable past in a difficult and uncertain present, as Grant Wood did in his many landscape paintings.

By contrast, however, the other two members of the regionalist triumvirate, Benton and John Steuart Curry, painted pictures that reflected not only events of the 1930's but also a national mood. Curry tended towards representations of families surviving natural disaster, certainly a prevailing theme of the Depression years as the dustbowl and farm foreclosure drove the Midwest into an economic tailspin. Both Tornado Over Kansas and The Mississippi reflect this inclination in Curry's art of the period. Benton, the most stylistically flamboyant of the three, tackled issues even more directly; he fearlessly addressed the relationship between the farmers and the government (Politics and Agriculture), racism (A Lynching), and sexuality (Hollywood). Where Wood's paintings reflect a kind of pastoral serenity that seems to have been pointedly absent from the 1930's, both Curry and Benton painted action, movement and obvious emotion, be it fear, lust, excitement, or despair.

Without question, regionalism was a success during the Depression. Wood spoke widely, promoting the idea of small regionalist art centers around the country that would support the indigenous art, untainted by "‘colonial dependence on European art.'" James Dennis explains that Wood felt that "free from institutional dictation or authoritative expertise, artists and viewers could instinctively set aesthetic standards suitable for the community they shared. In total, regional art works would emit a national stylistic identity through a democratic diversity of techniques, compositions, subject matter, and content" (Renegade Regionalists, 53). As a model for the ideals of regionalism, Wood himself began an art colony in 1932 in the place he had made famous, Stone City, Iowa; the colony died out after two summers for lack of money and time on Wood's part. Although it might seem that the closing of Wood's own colony would undermine the public view of regionalism, Stone City's failure appeared to pass unnoticed. Quite to the contrary, "by 1935...identification with Regionalism as a precisely defined movement was of commercial significance to its ‘triumvirate.' They enjoyed name recognition with a marketable product bearing a popular label" (Renegade Regionalists, 60).

The popularity of regionalism at a time when the country was floundering economically and ideologically is not difficult to fathom. Regionalism was really a specified brand of nationalism, one which suggested that America was more than capable of producing for Americans within her own borders. As the Great Depression was a time of isolationist and protectionist policy and rhetoric, particularly Wood's brand of regionalism fit right in, providing, on the surface, a sanitized and hopeful view of America's heartland. Wood's paintings tended to foster an ideal of small-town community, of independently employed farm families, of security found in the wealth of arable land--all things that were of highly questionable stability during the Depression years. Since regionalism was promoted as an off-shoot of realism--a record of what the artist saw around him-- a Wood painting denied, for a short time, the instability of modern life; this denial, sold as an affirmation of reality, brought Grant Wood and regionalism vast popular support during a decade a turmoil.


 

 

 

 

 


Tornado Over Kansas
1929
John Steuart Curry



The Mississippi
1935
John Steuart Curry

 


Politics and Agriculture
1936
Thomas Hart Benton

 


A Lynching
1934
Thomas Hart Benton

 


Hollywood
1937
Thomas Hart Benton