The Amer­i­can Farm

Agri­cul­tural scenes are on view at D. Wig­more Fine Art, Inc.

American Fine Art Magazine - - In This Issue - by Deedee Wig­more

Agri­cul­tural scenes are on view at D. Wig­more Fine Art, Inc.

The agri­cul­tural land­scape and the peo­ple whose la­bor made it pro­duc­tive are cen­tral to this exhibition.the farm had an his­toric place in the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion. It stood for the val­ues of self-re­liance, in­dus­tri­ous­ness and pub­lic spirit. It was a world of plenty re­sult­ing from la­bo­ri­ous repet­i­tive work. when Europe was at war from 1914 to 1918 the United States be­came the bread­bas­ket of the world, but as Europe re­cov­ered from World War I com­mod­ity prices fell, and farm­ers who had bor­rowed for new ma­chin­ery or to buy land strug­gled. Be­tween 1920 and 1929 nearly 6 mil­lion peo­ple left farms and ru­ral bank fail­ures reached record lev­els.the De­pres­sion for farm­ers oc­curred be­tween 1919 and 1932 when their net in­come fell 70 per­cent and the Plains States were af­flicted with the Dust Bowl caused by poor land use prac­tices cou­pled with wind and drought. Re­lief for the Plains States

and the Mid­west farm­ers came with New Deal poli­cies start­ing in 1933 and as Europe moved to­ward World War II late in the decade.

Farm re­cov­ery came with Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt’s New Deal. He de­val­ued the dol­lar 65 per­cent, rais­ing com­modi­ties prices, and in­sti­tuted nu­mer­ous farm pro­grams such as the Agri­cul­tural Ad­just­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion and ru­ral elec­tri­fi­ca­tion. Four gov­ern­ment projects were ded­i­cated to sup­port­ing the arts: the Pub­lic Works of Art Pro­ject (193334), the Fed­eral Art Pro­ject of the Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion (need-based sup­port of a va­ri­ety of artists, 19351943), the Sec­tion of Fine Arts in the Trea­sury De­part­ment (com­mis­sioned mu­rals won by com­pe­ti­tion, 1934-1943), and the Trea­sury Re­lief Art Pro­ject (need-based hir­ing for dec­o­ra­tion of Fed­eral build­ings, 1935-38).The Amer­i­can Scene dom­i­nated in these projects be­cause it spoke to a wide au­di­ence with its representational style and com­mon­place sub­jects con­nected to re­gional his­tory, ge­og­ra­phy, and cul­ture. The Amer­i­can Scene artists aimed to record ru­ral Amer­ica and pre­serve its in­tegrity as a vi­tal part of so­ci­ pre­serve knowl­edge of Amer­i­can farm life, artists doc­u­mented the farmer’s land­scape, work, stock, and spe­cific crops har­vested.the Mid­west was a nat­u­ral cra­dle for this kind of Amer­i­can Scene art as many of its artists came from farms and farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties then went to art schools in Cleve­land, Kansas City, Chicago, Min­neapo­lis and St. Paul. Amer­i­can Scene artists gath­ered from many art styles to cre­ate a new Amer­i­can real­ism that dom­i­nated the 1930s and 1940s. Some in­gre­di­ents in the Amer­i­can Scene style can be traced back to The Ar­mory Show of 1913, which cre­ated a state of un­in­hib­ited art ex­plo­ration of­fered by Euro­pean in­no­va­tion. These in­ter­na­tional styles, of which cu­bism and ex­pres­sion­ism are most rep­re­sented, along with the Hud­son River School, folk art and pre­ci­sion­ism were as­sim­i­lated to cre­ate a new Amer­i­can nar­ra­tive.this can be seen in the farm sub­jects se­lected for our exhibition that demon­strate the mix­ing of Euro­pean and Amer­i­can styles for a modern ef­fect. Be­gin­ning at the turn of the cen­tury, Euro­pean modern artists con­sid­ered var­i­ous kinds of folk art to break from the for­mal­ity of classical paint­ing. By the early 1930s in­ter­est in folk and ver­nac­u­lar art be­gan to de­velop in Amer­ica and the art es­tab­lish­ment came to ac­cept it as art.this was re­flected in folk art ex­hi­bi­tions at The Ne­wark Mu­seum in 1932 and Newyork’s Mu­seum of Modern Art in 1933. In our exhibition, the Amer­i­can farm as de­picted by Ben Shahn’s (1898-1969) Har­vest­ing Wheat (1940) has a shal­low per­spec­tive that is so­phis­ti­cated and de­rived from Cu­bism, while the fig­ure of the farmer and the har­vest el­e­ments have the simplicity of folk art.they con­vey the nar­ra­tive of mus­cle and heavy work done by a sim­ple, hon­est man. In Corn, Hay, and

Rye (1946), Ge­orgina Kl­it­gaard saw the har­vest land­scape as a flat all-over pat­tern which she com­posed like a stage set with vines fram­ing the top and bot­tom. Pe­tra Cabot’s (1907-2006) The Hog Pen (ca.1940), con­trasts a close up view of a rustic hog pen against a highly edited back­ground of a pink barn. The unexpected com­bi­na­tion gives the paint­ing the charm and whimsy of folk art.

Cu­bism, like folk art, was also used by Amer­i­can Scene artists in tra­di­tional sub­jects.the orig­i­nal Cu­bists were look­ing for the geo­met­ric forms un­der­ly­ing na­ture and aban­doned deep space per­spec­tive to achieve a more com­pact com­po­si­tion in which fore­ground and back­ground are fused. Field Work­ers (1930) by Pep­pino Man­gravite (1896-1978) and The Farm at Evening (ca. 1927) by Jan Mat­ulka (1890-1972) each use a cu­bist per­spec­tive and its neu­tral dark pal­ette. The fun­da­men­tally geo­met­ric shapes of farm build­ings lent them­selves to the Amer­i­can Pre­ci­sion­ist style de­vel­oped in the 1920s. Pre­ci­sion­ism, like early cu­bism, sim­pli­fied forms and sup­pressed de­tails. Both styles were a com­pro­mise be­tween ab­strac­tion and real­ism. In pre­ci­sion­ist paint­ings the ab­stract qual­ity was never lost due to the style’s se­vere sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of planes and vol­umes to em­pha­size ar­chi­tec­tural and in­dus­trial forms. Im­pact was achieved through edit­ing de­tails of a scene, leav­ing only those which cre­ated a feel­ing of strong rhythm and pace. Use of pho­tog­ra­phy by pre­ci­sion­ist artists led to new treat­ment of light that could ei­ther be clar­i­fy­ing or mys­te­ri­ous.with the de­vel­op­ment of the in­ex­pen­sive hand­held cam­era in 1930,Amer­i­can Scene artists be­gan to use pho­tog­ra­phy to cre­ate paint­ings with un­usual an­gles, per­spec­tives, and light­ing. Pre­ci­sion­ist com­po­si­tions of flat­tened forms and sil­hou­et­ted struc­tures with sharp edges are eas­ily rec­og­nized. Us­ing

pho­tog­ra­phy and the Pre­ci­sion­ist in­ter­est in ar­chi­tec­tural forms, this al­lowed artists to both ro­man­ti­cize the pi­o­neer days and cre­ate a more modern ef­fect in their farm sub­jects.

We see the ar­chi­tec­tural fo­cus cou­pled with dif­fer­ent photo-like per­spec­tives in three paint­ings—close up in Ernest Fiene’s (1894-1965) Lasher Farm in­win­ter (1926), the mid­dle view in Paul Sam­ple’s (1896-1974) Ver­mont Farm (1937) and a dis­tant view in Peter Hurd’s (19041984) Ran­cho del Charco Largo (1939). The light­ing in Ernest Fiene’s Lasher Farm is win­ter’s flat gray. Farm build­ings keep the fo­cus in the fore­ground where there is rhyth­mic re­ten­tion of detail in the fields. Paul Sam­ple’s Ver­mont Farm has the light of mid­day.two el­e­ments in the paint­ing keep the viewer’s eye in the midground—the white barn and the shad­ows un­der the cows. Peter Hurd’s dis­tant sil­hou­ettes of Ran­cho del Charco Largo against an evening sky strength­ens the viewer’s feel­ing of an open, end­less, dry farm­scape.the role of pho­tog­ra­phy is more ob­vi­ous in the work of Luigi Lu­cioni (1900-1988) in such paint­ings as Barns on the Road (1948) and Nes­tled Barns (1948). Be­cause Lu­cioni saw the great barns as mon­u­ments to la­bor threat­ened by eco­nomic con­di­tions, he painted them close up with pre­cise detail in dif­fer­ent lights.

Some Amer­i­can Scene artists found the ex­pres­sion­ist style of­fered a means to ren­der vis­i­ble their com­plex feel­ings to­wards a place.they felt pho­tog­ra­phy lacked emo­tion and edited out ge­o­graphic speci­ficity. In a re­al­ist style, char­ac­ter and feel­ings could be ex­pressed through ges­ture and at­ti­tude. How­ever, by adding el­e­ments adapted from ex­pres­sion­ism, greater im­pact could be achieved in por­tray­ing both eco­nomic and so­cial prob­lems.while pure ab­strac­tion did

not al­low easy dis­cus­sion of prob­lems, the use of ex­pres­sion­ist in­tense ar­bi­trary color, tex­tu­ral sur­faces, and star­tling dis­tor­tions of form add punch to so­cial com­ment. A paint­ing by Abram Tromka (1896-1954) ti­tled Old Ken­tucky

(1938) uses this kind of acidic color and tex­ture to speak of the hard­ship of farm life.the ex­pres­sion­ist ten­dency to ex­ag­ger­ate types of hu­man­ity al­lowed for satir­i­cal use as well.a paint­ing open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion is Clarence Carter’s (1904-2000) Jane Reed and

Dora Hunt (1943). Carter uses as­pects of ex­pres­sion­ism to em­pha­size the pluck of two very thin farm women pick­ing up coal chunks on the rail­road tracks for fuel.their bon­nets ei­ther sug­gest the women have been ma­rooned in time or com­ment on their iso­la­tion and poverty. Critics de­scrib­ing the Amer­i­can Scene style as too di­rect or sim­ple do not con­sider the feat Amer­i­can artists achieved in de­vel­op­ing a rec­og­niz­able style out of an amal­gam of ideas de­rived from the cu­bists and ex­pres­sion­ists, which of­fered modern stylis­tic el­e­ments such as dis­tor­tion, ir­reg­u­lar per­spec­tive, ex­ag­ger­ated or re­duced spa­tial depth, and elon­gated fig­ures.amer­i­can Scene artists added from their own his­tory pre­ci­sion­ist com­po­si­tional ideas that dis­carded ex­cess detail, gen­er­al­ized char­ac­ters, and used pho­tog­ra­phy to mod­ern­ize com­po­si­tions and tell the story of Amer­ica fac­ing the changes brought by in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, immigration, de­pres­sion, and world war.the De­pres­sion of the 1930s and WPA pro­grams cre­ated new so­cial re­la­tion­ships, ba­sic changes in the so­cial func­tion of art, and new aes­thetic con­cepts. Re­spon­si­bil­ity of the in­di­vid­ual and free­dom were not ab­stract ideas in the 1930s and 1940s. Amer­i­can Scene art fo­cused on the farm and ru­ral Amer­ica was a new na­tional style, the prod­uct of Amer­ica dream­ing of a demo­cratic art.

Peter Hurd (1904-1984), Ran­cho del Charco Largo, San Pa­tri­cio, New Mexico, 1939. Tem­pera on panel, 241⁄8 x 42 in. Ex­hib­ited at the Golden Gate Ex­po­si­tion, San Fran­cisco, 1939.

Dale Ni­chols (1904-1995), Spring Plow­ing, 1938. Gouache on pa­per, 5 x 9 in.

Luigi Lu­cioni (1900-1988), Barns on the Road, 1948. Oil on can­vas, 10 x 14 in.

Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Har­vest­ing Wheat, 1940. Fresco, 33 x 44½ in. Ex­e­cuted in prepa­ra­tion for the com­mis­sioned mu­ral The Mean­ing of So­cial Se­cu­rity, Fed­eral Se­cu­rity Build­ing, Washington, D.C.

Abram Tromka (1896-1954), Old Ken­tucky, 1938. Oil on can­vas, 29½ x 25 in.

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