The Standard Journal
New Atlanta exhibit explores rural influence on modern art
ATLANTA — A new exhibition takes a look at how American artists found inspiration in rural landscapes during an era of modernist art that was more closely associated with cities.
“Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950” opens Sunday at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It features about 200 works from more than 80 artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Grant Wood, Jacob Lawrence and Andrew Wyeth. It is divided into five geographical regions — the South, Mid- Atlantic, Midwest, Northeast and the West — based on the part of the country featured in the works.
“The thing that they all share is that these are all works that reflect an artist thinking about or being moved by a specific location,” High curator of American art Stephanie Heydt said.
While American artists still traveled to Europe for instruction and inspiration in the first half of the 20th century, many also began to focus on things that were new to them closer to home, Heydt said. They looked outside major cities and found pastoral settings with barns and rolling hills, industrialism creeping into previously pristine spaces, dramatic vistas and scenes of regular people living their everyday lives.
“We often think of modernity being sparked by modern urban spaces,” Heydt said. “But the story should also include the rural spaces, the places that artists retreated to.”
She cited four main reasons for the artists’ travel: relaxation and escape from the bustle of the urban environment; a sense of community found in artist colonies and art schools; government or foundation grants or commissions from commercial customers; curiosity about unfamiliar places and a desire to experience the unknown.
Thomas Hart Benton, usually associated with the Midwest, traveled to the South and captures a weathered old tobacco farmer teaching a slight young girl about tobacco leaves in “Tobacco Sorters,” a commission for a tobacco company that was ultimately rejected. Another of his pieces, “The Cliffs,” shows sculpted- looking cliffs rising over crashing waves on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.