Today we are still affected by the economic downturn that began in 2008, yet we may forget that our nation once faced even greater economic peril during the Great Depression. The collapse of Wall Street in 1929 began another terrible economic crisis, not only in the United States but with repercussions that were felt worldwide. As a result, during the 1930s, the United States moved toward isolation, turning its attention inward to deal with the domestic situation. American art also followed this trend toward nationalism and national artistic autonomy, rejecting the popular modernist influences coming from Europe.
This desire for art with true American themes led to the development of the artistic movement known as American regionalism. The movement included artists of different styles who had in common the use of an intense and effective realist language to describe the various aspects of America during the years of the Great Depression.
American Regionalism: Selections from the Art Museum Collection presents the Art Museum's most iconic regionalist works from all over the country, executed during the years between the World Wars by artists using a realist pictorial language. The Exhibit is divided into four sections—the Midwest, the South, the East, and the West—to demonstrate the variety and similarities of regionalism occurring across the United States. The resulting geographical divisions cause the works to act as portraits of each region, and yet, considered all together, they evoke the whole of America. The subject matter ranges from farm work, family, and community to scenes of transportation. All of these are characteristics that typify the American experience during the Depression.
Situated at the center of the exhibition are works by Thomas Hart Benton, who was both prolific and a key spokesperson for the regionalist movement during the 1930s. Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, is a characteristic example of Benton's work, depicts a historical moment when America was beginning its journey toward its "manifest destiny." The focus of the painting is not the explorers, who are barely visible, but the wild and roving Oregon landscape, a truly American subject.
Also included in the exhibition are works by John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, who are nearly as synonymous with the regionalist movement as Benton. However, these three artists' styles could not be more diverse. Wood is renowned for his satirical humor conveyed in a precise realist style. His typical curvaceous hills rolling over dream-like, fantasy farm scapes are seen in the artwork, In the Spring. Curry is less known for his artistic skill but has been praised for his regard for social justice expressed through allegory. Substantial figures, whether animal or human, are usually seen overwhelmed by some all-powerful natural force, such as a bolt of lightning, a thunderstorm, a tornado, or a flood, as seen in the lithograph, Sanctuary. The weather in Curry's work may be symbolic of the uncontrollable and unnatural force of America's economic woes.
The leaders of the American regionalism movement argued that art serves a vital function in society. Acknowledged by the federal government, a stance was taken toward protecting the fledgling movement during the great economic crisis through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). All the works in the exhibition are drawn directly from the Art Museum's collection, some directly from the WPA.
However, the patronage of the government meant that the regionalistic art took on characteristics of nationalism, yet at the same time was free to express a crisis of values or evoke subjects living in a troubled time. Regionalism managed to be both nationalistic about the American experience while simultaneously looking on society honestly during troubled time. As we face our own economic crisis today, it will be interesting to see our contemporary artistic reactions.
Visit www.uwyo.edu/artmuseum for more information.