Editor's note: The Flint Institute of Arts provided source material to Resource Library Magazine for the following article and essay. The essay is reprinted with permission of the Flint Institute of Arts and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Flint Institute of Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Great Lakes Muse: American Scene Painting from the Upper Midwest, 1910 - 1960
The Flint Institute of Arts (FIA) is extremely pleased to present the special exhibition Great Lakes Muse: American Scene Painting from the Upper Midwest, 1910- 1960 from November 16, 2003 through February 1, 2004 to celebrate the museum's seventy-fifth anniversary and the acquisition of this significant collection of 105 paintings. The majority of works in the collection will come to the FIA on permanent loan from the Isabel Foundation, and the remaining portion as a donation from Michael Hall and Patricia Glascock, the collectors who assembled the outstanding group of regional paintings.
This collection represents an important national and regional movement that took place in the first half of the twentieth century, one that has been somewhat overlooked until recently. Collectively, the paintings capture the changing face of American life through a period of urban industrialization and the expansion of rural communities. The quality of these works is consistent with the FIA's strong American collection and greatly increases the depth of works made between 1910 and 1960.
Artists from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin are represented. A fully illustrated, 160-page catalogue will accompany the collection and exhibition. The catalogue essay for the exhibition follows:
Inlanders and the American Scene: Modern Great Lakes Painting
I will always be an inlander in spirit. The ocean. . . does not lure my imagination. Without discounting its awe-inspiring grandeur, it is not for me, and surely it has a worthy rival in a hay or wheat field on a bright windy day.
-Charles Burchfield, journal entry, July 12, 1954
When he wrote his reflection on being an inlander, Charles Burchfield was looking back on sixty-one years of his life and articulating something he understood to be fundamental to his identity. This was the same Charles Burchfield who, in one version of art history is identified as a pioneer American modernist and, in others, as a father of the American regionalist movement. In the big picture, he was both, but more importantly, to himself, he was an inlander. By 1954 Burchfield had concluded that his identity had everything to do with an idea of self that could not be separated from an idea of place. The modernist and the regionalist in him were both entwined in his identity as an inlander. The complete Burchfield was the inlander who recorded his experience of modern America as a regional painter in eastern Ohio and western New York State. At the end of his life, Burchfield could look back over a long historic confluence in which his personal experience of self and place became part of a much larger panorama of experience in which thousands of artists across the United States had collectively defined and imagined modern America.
The Inlander Collection presents part of that panorama in a selection of oil paintings and watercolors created by a group of very diverse painters active in the Great Lakes basin between 1910 and 1960. Broadly speaking, the Inlander Collection is an assembly of landscape paintings that address the issue of place as it informs American cultural identity. The Collection is also a text written by artists attempting to center themselves and their regional/local communities within a changing political, technological and cultural American geography. Finally, the Collection is a visual record of the aesthetic issues that attended the coming of age of modern America. It surveys the modern art of inlander painters like Charles Burchfield and it celebrates the desire to "paint America" that inspired the art of the American Scene.
The American Scene
The term, "American Scene," emerged in the early 1930s as a popular characterization of the native subject matter beginning to dominate mainstream American art. Intrigued and flattered by the recently discovered "art-worthiness" of home-grown American subjects, critics and commentators of the day proclaimed the American Scene to be a new artistic expression in which the national spirit of America and its people was finding a voice. They rallied to the work of artists inspired by the American "scene" instead of, say, the Parisian scene or the British scene or any other non-native source. Though never expressly defined as a pictorial style or a specific genre, the American Scene nonetheless became a catch-all reference for "the majority of representational pictures produced in the United States during the 1930s."
From the start, the term "the American Scene" was arbitrary and simplistic. Its arbitrary presumption that the American themes and subjects portrayed in paintings of the thirties were new ignored the fact that serious American artists had been painting American subjects for decades. The popular usage of the term as a ubiquitous label that lumped all kinds of artists together into a big amorphous movement was simplistic. Real confusion set in when it occurred to someone to clarify the term by taxonomically splitting the American Scene into two antithetical subcategories. Paintings depicting rural and small-town America (usually scenes from the agricultural Midwest) were classified under the rubric of regionalism. Those documenting the inequality and injustice in American society (usually images from the urban Northeast) were designated as social realism. In short order, this bifurcation polarized the idiom's appeal and forever set one group of artists and their work over and against another. After 1950, the whole confused and fractured issue of the American Scene went into the dustbin of history. Tainted by its evocation of the Great Depression and sundered by the sectional and ideological schisms built into its binary identity, the American Scene has generally been dismissed as an embarrassing, misguided period style. It has survived as little more than a footnote in most texts on American art published over the past forty years.
There are, however, reasons to reconsider and even rehabilitate the American Scene. Early twentieth-century American artists did put a lot of effort into an extended search for their artistic self-identity and that search did create a mountain of works addressed to American subjects-particularly landscapes. The sheer number and quality of these works begs a reassessment of the social and artistic forces that brought them into being and which may, perhaps, direct them to some new utility in our own time.
To do this effectively, the idea of the American Scene needs to be broadened and extended. Though the accepted time frame delimiting the American Scene was the decade of the 1930s, the cultural and artistic impulses that spawned it began well before the World War I and sustained it beyond the Korean War. From the late nineteenth century on, American artists sought to imagine and create a uniquely American art that would exalt the cultural identity of their nation. Winslow Homer's realist style was applauded as characteristically American by the critics and connoisseurs of his era. By the time George Bellows and the Ashcan painters of New York had retooled realism for the twentieth century, the dream of a uniquely American art was widespread among American painters. The Ashcan School and others turned to American subject matter in an effort to reveal something loosely identified as the American character. Convinced that place and identity were conditions of each other, they came to envision the painting of their native landscape as an affirmation of themselves. This perception was not restricted to artists from the realist tradition. The modernists in the circle around Alfred Stieglitz in New York during the 1920s also believed that American art would inevitably have to grow from an American soil. In her recent study of these East Coast modernists, art historian Wanda Corn noted:
This place-linked search for identity undertaken by early twentieth century American artists of every stripe essentially set the course for the history of modern American painting.
Though the Americanness the early painters sought can be retrospectively criticized as a rather narrowly defined commodity, their search itself was a heady and important cultural enterprise in its time. It was not without a down side, of course. Predictably, the quest for America did produce a healthy measure of nationalistic rhetoric and boosterism. This rhetoric, in turn, conspired to render the matter of place and identity increasingly problematic as the fascists in Europe began to exploit the propaganda value of nationalist art. The dark legacy of the project initiated by the modernists and the realists of the early American Scene was the perpetuation of "the ubiquitous importance attached to place and race." The negative critique of the American Scene has always centered on the question of just exactly whose America the early modern American painters identified and celebrated in their art. Without question, power, ignorance, insensitivity and prejudice did exclude disempowered and dispossessed minorities. However, a fully pluralist modern world was then (and still is) a work in progress. Finding inspiration in their particular American scene, the Ashcan painters, the Stieglitz modernists, and others in their time collectively articulated an idea of art as a culturally prescribed and socially addressed activity that would evolve into an ethos embraced by most American painters through the first half of the twentieth century.
To focus on the issues of art, self, and place within the specific context of Great Lakes modern art, the Inlander Collection takes an inclusive historical view of the American Scene. The early paintings in the Collection speak to the first stirrings of interest in regional subject matter in the modern painting traditions of the Great Lakes region. The late paintings witness to the durability of the American Scene in the Upper Midwest well into the 1950s. The year 1910 was selected to mark the beginning of the history narrated in the Collection because it was a year that would directly connect Great Lakes painting to the larger currents of regional modern painting being produced elsewhere in the United States. In the winter of 1910, George Bellows surveyed a snowy scene in a local New York park and painted his atmospheric, realist landscape, Blue Snow, The Battery (see fig. 4). At almost the same time, Aaron Harry Gorson in Pittsburgh was inspired to paint his moody tonalist industrial scene, Barges Passing Under a Bridge. (plate 78) Only three years later, William Sommer was painting a bright postimpressionist depiction of his Cleveland, Ohio, backyard entitled The Rabbit Hutch. (plate 39) American Scene painting had taken root in the Upper Midwest.
The Inlander Collection includes works from the hands of a very heterogeneous company of artists, each with a distinctive political and artistic temper. Some of the works could be described as radical, others as reactionary. Some express a high measure of singular vision; others are more communitarian in spirit. Some of the paintings reflect the optimism of artists who viewed the modern age as a positive thing; others betray a skepticism that borders on a kind of anti-modernism. Finally, certain works in the Collection express the passions of artists who were actively engaged in the social and political culture of their time, while others display a quiet remove. Throughout, the Collection suggests that the modern art of the Upper Midwest was peculiarly synthetic. The cliché-ridden "regionalists vs. social realists" understanding of the American Scene doesn't particularly advance a study of Great Lakes modern painting. The artists who created it were not, for the most part, ideologues-they were painters. They were artists fascinated with the world as they observed it and deeply committed to the images they created on their canvases.
Through the first half of the twentieth century, American Scene painters in the Great Lakes region were not alone in their artistic efforts to understand their changing world. American artists and writers everywhere participated in the chronicling of their nation's coming of age. A changing world demanded a new identity and in the second decade of the new century, local and regional identity was being reshaped and newly asserted all across the United States. Major cities throughout the country began to sponsor professional sports teams that were passionately adored by their local fans. Architects began constructing the tall buildings that individuated the skylines of the large cities that were becoming America's regional hubs. Similarly, great art museums were built to house prestigious artifacts that signaled the cultural awareness of the nation's bustling new heartland metropolises. The sports teams, skyscrapers, and museums that would identify the major cities of the Great Lakes region were almost all in place by the 1930s. In the same period, the country was also experiencing enormous population shifts. By 1935, one out of every three Americans lived in the region bounded by the Great Lakes to the north, the Appalachian Mountains to the east, the Ohio River to the south and the Mississippi River to the west (see fig. 5)
As the Great Lakes region built its modern identity, its artists responded. From the region's smoke-filled and frequently leaden skies, they derived a distinctive tonal palette favoring subtle grays and browns over strong blues and yellows. From the immigrant populations of their cities and small towns, they selected the cast of characters who animated their muted scenes. From the imposing freighters, bridges, blast furnaces, and grain elevators that supported the commerce of their region, they developed the icons that became the signature forms of their most distinctive pictures. In exactly the same spirit of nationalism that had shaped so much American art since Winslow Homer, the modern painters of the Upper Midwest dreamed of providing their nation a glimpse of its longed-for oneness.
A Landscape Tradition
Americans have always been preoccupied with their country's landscape. For them, land has symbolic as well as economic value. The diaries of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers are filled with long descriptive passages concerning the land-its bounty, its beauty, and the spectacle of its natural monuments. In the nineteenth century, folk limners created hundreds of paintings depicting the harbors and hills of New England, the wilderness in the Hudson River Valley, and, of course, Niagara Falls. Their professionally trained contemporaries also painted Niagara and the Hudson Valley along with a whole array of scenic wonders they found in the American West. For all these artists and for their audiences, landscape was a symbol of the idea of America, and a metaphor for the renewal Americans could expect to experience in the New World.
Inheriting a landscape tradition in which place and identity were strongly linked, the Great Lakes artists of the twentieth century took their cues from both the popular and the elite traditions of their land-traditions that were literary and political as well as artistic. Representations of place, invested with meaning, pervade modern Great Lakes pictures. Driftwood-strewn shorelines, flooding rivers, and ripening fields of wheat were all subjects that were attractive to the eyes of inlander painters. To them, these subjects symbolized the uniquely American richness and vitality of the Upper Midwest. Similarly, views of cities, factories, steel mills, and lake freighters spoke to their ideas of American ambition, inventiveness, and progress. Great Lakes painters even found wonder and identity in seemingly prosaic scenes filled with signs of home and family. They painted views of the back streets of their towns, the shops and bars in their neighborhoods and even their own cluttered backyards.
The landscape tradition in Great Lakes art was a tradition rooted in the idea of home. Eschewing European subjects (particular those associated with Paris) the painters of the American Scene have often been accused of being artistic and political isolationists. In point of fact, however, they were probably less concerned with rejecting foreign associations than they were with the discovery of the wonders in the world with which they were most familiar. Great Lakes painters in particular, were not so much hostile to European art as they were circumspect about the elitism that privileged European culture in the minds of so many museum directors and collectors. The American Scene artists were, after all, part of the groundswell of populism and egalitarianism that arose in the heady opening decades of the modern age. Their art flourished in the proletarian, populist soils of the Upper Midwest.
In 1920, the American philosopher John Dewey proclaimed: "The country is a spread of localities." Dewey's assessment of America seems as true today as it was in 1920. A national Social Security system and the dream of universal health care have not changed the fact that the American experience remains one of multiplicity. The motto, "E Pluribus Unum," reminds us that our nation is a multifaceted social and political entity scattered across a large and topographically varied land mass. American art, however, posits a conundrum in which "pluribus" and "unum" are distinctly at odds. In American art, the idea of the local has always been problematic. A nation seeking to establish a recognizable artistic identity for itself has been loath to acknowledge any localisms that would pluralize (and some would contend, mongrelize) its art. In the interest of concision, American visual culture has traditionally been packaged into a linear and hierarchical history constructed as a progression of art styles sequenced into a mainstream narrative. The mainstream narrative, in turn, perpetuates itself by dismissing or ignoring anything outside of its purview. Still, (and here is the rub) in terms of their political expectations, Americans dream of a democratic, egalitarian and nonlinear world where individualism and local variation prevail over conformity and hegemony. In this dream, pluralism is a good thing wherein the local spawns (and nurtures) the conditions of difference that make pluralism a reality. Our response to the contradiction posed by our art history is generally ambivalent. The modern American art community has been alternately thrilled and appalled by the possibility that something of artistic value could come out of the American provinces.
A different but correlate issue comes into play when a monolithic art history posits abstract art as the mode of visual expression better suited to the representation of a sophisticated modern era than more representational art styles. Americans have tended to resist this idea. Modern Americans in general have had a difficult time reconciling the transcendent vision of abstract art with the particular, and often prosaic, day-to-day living of their own American experience. For example, though the taming of the American frontier can be abstracted as a mythology of manifest destiny, it was actually accomplished in a process that entailed the building of frontier cabins, one cabin at a time, and the establishment of settlements, one at a time. Similarly, if great cities and skyscrapers abstractly identify the modern American skyline, most Americans actually witness the creation of this skyline as a plodding girder-by-girder enterprise of construction. Thus, although the painters, John Marin, Joseph Stella, and Georgia O'Keeffe could abstract modern architecture into mountains and canyons of planes and cubes, other artists from the same period chose to depict the same modern structures naturalistically as walls, pilasters, cornices and windows. The latter group in no way can be said to have derived their art from any less modern a world.
The painters of the American Scene generally endorsed the credo, "to know a city is to know its streets." This approach inclined them to construct pictorial images shaped by what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls "local knowledge." For many of them, a painter's local knowledge was presumed to be the shaping force that would give specific character or spirit to a painting. These artists felt that local knowledge was something worthy-something not achieved through tourism, but garnered experientially over time. Most importantly, they recognized local knowledge as concrete-not abstract. Regional painting asserts its identity in terms of the concrete information that informs its imagery. It also connects with its local audience in terms of its specifics. (fig. 6a, 6b.)
In yet another appropriation of the area's localisms, the painters of the American Scene often portrayed the landscapes in their workaday world as places inhabited by local people with whom they felt a certain kinship. In such works, the artists, their subjects, and their audiences were conjoined by the durable communitarian American social spirit (especially strong in the Midwest) already identified as an American trait in the early nineteenth century by observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville. The artistic challenge facing American Scene painters was one of creating works filled with specific, local details that would somehow transcend specifics and communicate in the realm of the universal. Some were more successful in this than others. Historically, however, the self-consciously registered local knowledge in many American paintings produced from the time of World War I until well into the 1950s is the hallmark of a certain nonlinear American art history endlessly intersecting (and even contradicting) the official mainstream narrative.
The poetic case for the local was, perhaps, best articulated in 1938 by a curator in Buffalo named Gordon Washburn. In his introduction to the catalogue that accompanied the Great Lakes Exhibition 19381939, Washburn discussed the aesthetic power he felt had been harnessed by the Buffalo painter Charles Burchfield in his depictions of his region:
Politics and Paintings
There is definitely a political turn to the act of defining American Scene painting as modern art. Two fundamental American beliefs collide when this idea enters any conversation on American art. The sacred cow of progress finds itself confronting the equally sacred cow of democracy. Modernism, as a style, has tended to find its support among a cultural elite. Through much of the twentieth century, this elite posited abstraction as the progressive mode of art. Each new modernist style regarded as a "breakthrough" was moved to the forefront of a history of presumed artistic progress. This model, however, fails when judged by democratic and pluralist ideas of what art is and how it functions in society. If the political goal of modern democracy is the creation of a more egalitarian world, then both artistic achievement and vision must be expected to evidence themselves broadly and to take many forms. They would also be expected to serve multiple (and interpenetrating) systems of taste and consumption. In short, an egalitarian vision presumes that talent and creativity are distributed randomly through a sociocultural matrix and that art, as a social production, cannot be elite or exclusive and still serve a democracy. Thus, given its democratic sympathies, American Scene painting subverts the presumed leadership of official modernism in a politicized mythology of cultural advancement and progress.
The regional disposition that shaped much of the art of the Great Lakes was not just a product of elite versus populist aesthetic agendas. It also entailed a measure of class distinction that caused the Great Lakes painters themselves to be indifferent (if not slightly hostile) to authority based on class and privilege. Their biographies provide some insight into the source of this bias. In general, they saw the world from a Main-Street perspective. Few of them belonged to the class of wellborn or well-married painters associated with the art scenes in New York, Gloucester, Taos, and Provincetown. They came from (and remained part of) the working middle class. Burchfield designed wallpaper in Buffalo until his art began to support him. Kenneth Wood in Cleveland worked as a commercial artist until retirement. Zoltan Sepeshy, Aaron Bohrod, Carl Gaertner, Gerrit Sinclair, Ethel Spears, and many others were all teachers through most of their careers. Finally, Lawrence McConaha was a telegraph operator for an Indiana brokerage house who painted at night and on weekends.
The decade of the 1930s was a uniquely democratic period for artists in the United States. Art clubs and watercolor societies proliferated through the era, welcoming amateurs and professionals alike. A good number of women gained recognition among the first ranks of American artists. When the organizers of the 1939 New York World's Fair compiled a roster of painters for the American Art Today exhibition, one out of every six names on the list was a woman's. In the Great Lakes Exhibition 19381939, the ratio was better than one out of four. The World's Fair roster also revealed considerable ethnic diversity. This pattern was consistent in the Upper Midwest, where, through the era, Anglo American painters shared recognition with artists of German, Polish, African, Italian, Hispanic, and Scandinavian descent. As Great Lakes industry and agriculture grew, immigrants from eastern and northern Europe and African Americans from the southern United States arrived seeking jobs. Their children became the region's artists. Recently, the cultural historian Bram Dijkstra has argued that the children of immigrants perceived the American myth of self-reliance as "quite meaningless without a concept of community. . . . This fundamental recognition produced a generation of humanists, of idealists, of people who were able to see beyond themselves." This sense of identity, as it attended the immigrant experience in the Great Lakes region, was complemented by another factor that also maintained a sense of community. As the demographic complexion of the area changed with each influx of newcomers, one thing remained constant: the blue-collar ethos that gave the Upper Midwest its enduring cultural identity. This ethos is reflected everywhere in the paintings produced by the Great Lakes artists of the American Scene.
A Matter of Style
The question of style in American Scene painting is a complex subject obscured by much historical baggage. For decades, American Scene painting has been characterized as academic and banal. Upon close inspection, however, regional modern paintings from the Great Lakes exhibit a variety and richness of style that defies any such dismissive, generalized description. Over the five decades during which Great Lakes artists painted their regional scene, they seem to have divided their stylistic concerns between two poles: one broadly identifiable as naturalistic, the other as postimpressionist. Without question, the naturalistic style we know as impressionism was the pan-regional Great Lakes style at the time of the Armory Show. Impressionism suited Midwestern artists since it was essentially a realist style.
The impressionist tradition of painting en plein air inclined Great Lakes painters to go outdoors, to observe nature first-hand, and to paint light and atmosphere as they really appear to the eye. It should be noted, however, that although most of the region's early painters can be called impressionists, almost none of them attempted to paint like Monet or even like American Impressionists practicing in New York, such as Ernest Lawson and Childe Hassam. Midwestern painters were less interested in the impressionist brushstroke or impressionist color theory than they were in the idea of capturing an impression of some subject, usually a landscape. They understood impressionism to be an art that subjectified the objective. It was this idea of impressionism, as it related to problems of representation and expression, which captured and held the affection of modern Great Lakes painters. The region's only "pure" impressionist works came principally from central Indiana and nearby Cincinnati, Ohio. Even there, impressionism was not of the orthodox French sort. Instead, it was a form indebted to Munich-trained painters who worked in a tonalist style of impressionism saturated with grays and browns rather than the brighter hues of the Parisian palette.
Postimpressionist styles entered the general repertoire of Great Lakes painters in the years just following the historic 1913 Armory Show in New York. Though the Armory Show traveled to Boston and Chicago, comparatively few Great Lakes painters actually saw it in person. Its impact lay in the additional authority it lent to the word of postimpressionism that was already circulating in the Great Lakes region before the landmark date of 1913. The area was hardly an isolated backwater-at least four major Cleveland painters had traveled to Europe to study the new art before the Armory Show, as had others from Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The Armory Show, however, received major press coverage and created excitement about postimpressionism throughout the ranks of America's emerging modern painters. In the Midwest, the exhibition was a wake-up call; it inspired regional painters to enliven their works with bold, arbitrary colors and to rethink painting both as a visual experience and as a form of self-expression.
In the Great Lakes region, as in most of the United States, postimpressionism was understood to be a broad term embracing not only the work of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne, but also that of various expressionists, fauves, cubists, and even futurists. Regional painters endlessly synthesized various stylistic aspects of this catchall postimpressionism. And, as with impressionism, their synthesis included the work of German painters. The raw immediacy of northern painting appealed to the artists of the upper Midwest. They especially responded to the mystical, folkloric spirit of German expressionist art.
Despite the appeal of postimpressionist styles, Great Lakes painters seemed disinclined to actually declare themselves cubists, fauves, or the like. Repeating their seizure of the idea underlying the impressionist style, they instead appropriated various postimpressionist ideas that would allow them to recast their realist/impressionist art in new forms. The painted record contradicts the often-heard complaint that regional artists simply became lost or overwhelmed in the face of the Armory Show challenge. Rather, it could be said that the Great Lakes artists of the 'teens were so perfectly centered between cosmopolitan and provincial America that they could pick and choose their modernisms, and make of them whatever their regional and personal mandates prescribed. This conclusion is supported by a note published by a Chicago Post editor, Floyd Dell, who championed the new art through the 'teens. Assessing the meaning and impact of the Armory Show in his 1933 autobiography, Dell wrote:
The many gospels to which Dell alludes were soon folded into the multiplicity of styles already practiced in the Great Lakes area, forming a matrix of styles in which realist, impressionist, postimpressionist, and expressionist art were intertwined. Over the next four decades, the highly individualistic and often inventive works that grew out of this stylistic melding witnessed to the curious sophistication of Midwestern regional painters. Exercising what might be called their "local option," they mixed and matched whatever stylistic currents were flowing through the consciousness of their art community at various points in time. Ohio painters in the 'teens were experimenting with cloisonnism and fauvism; Michigan painters in the late twenties were exploring cubism and futurism; and Chicago painters at the same time were painting in a variety of expressionist styles. Significantly, however, these artists turned their work inward to harness style not for its own sake, but as a means to express the local and regional experience that they shared with the communities in which they lived and worked.
Centers and Influence
The story of early Great Lakes modern art is dominated by two urban centers: Cleveland to the east and Chicago to the west. Viable patronage evolved early in these centers and an important school dedicated to the training of young artists also emerged early in both. Cleveland was a city with strong cultural ties to northern Europe. Its art reflected this historic condition. Chicago was more of an ethnic melting pot. Its artists came from eastern and southern Europe as well as from Germany and Scandinavia. Some also came from the American South during the Great Migration of African Americans to the cities of the industrial North. In both Cleveland and Chicago, there were major art museums that actively supported the artists of their regions by exhibiting their work and sponsoring competitions that attracted the support of local patrons. It is also important to note that in Cleveland and Chicago the local press embraced and supported the regional art scene. Critics and feature writers in both cities reviewed exhibitions and generally encouraged public interest in the activities of local artists and the institutions that supported them. Although most of the other Great Lakes cities also had museums, art schools and wealthy patrons, it was Cleveland and Chicago that cast the longest shadows across the region. Both of these cities had a particularly strong cultural identity that directly and indirectly shaped the identity of its art. Each also received national recognition for the achievements of its artists and employed this prestige to export its own version of a regional art culture to the smaller centers within its sphere of influence.
Cleveland's art culture was classically grounded in long-standing traditions of the arts and crafts. Since many of Cleveland's early modern painters were of German descent, they often looked to the academies of Munich and elsewhere in northern Europe for their training. Cleveland's German-trained artists practiced and taught art as a discipline built on a foundation of drawing and composition. Thus, many of the city's modern painters built their styles on formalist principals such as those propounded by Arthur Dow and other art theorists of the period who stressed design, color, and line as the most critical (and mystical) ingredients in successful painting.
Cleveland's patrons reinforced the classicism of the Cleveland style through their decided preference for well-designed and well-crafted works. Cleveland was, after all, a manufacturing city long known for its skilled workforce of tradesmen and artisans. In light of this local heritage, the city's art patrons were predisposed to an appreciation of art works that demonstrated an artist's manual skills and technical expertise. Most Cleveland artists worked in several disciplines. Many of the city's potters and enamellists were also painters. Some of its designers also painted and worked in various craft media. When the Cleveland Museum of Art first established an annual exhibition for Cleveland artists, local taste required that the exhibition "be as broadly based as possible, calling upon the entire spectrum of the fine and applied arts." The exhibition became popularly known as the May Show, but its official title was: The Annual Exhibition of Work by Cleveland Artists and Craftsmen.
Cleveland's regional painting style reflected the skill and versatility of the city's artists. Many of its best early painters earned their livings as illustrators, lithographers, or designers. Their paintings, particularly their works in watercolor, demonstrated their mastery of drawing. The watercolor tradition established by Cleveland's early modern painters became known and respected across the entire United States. The roster of great watercolorists from Cleveland in the early decades of the twentieth century is only matched by that representing the painters of the California watercolor school of the thirties and forties. Aspiring young painters from small towns all across Ohio came to Cleveland to study, to learn, and to master the skills they saw evidenced in the paintings of the several generations of regionally and nationally famous artists that sustained the primacy of Cleveland as the dominant art center of the eastern Great Lakes region.
On the list of Cleveland's most influential painters, we find the names of Carl Gaertner, William Sommer, and Clarence Carter. All three were virtuosio draftsmen. All three were gifted and well-trained. Carl Gaertner (plate 83) gained renown for his monumental oils depicting Cleveland's industrial landscape. His skills with line and paint imbued his pictures with an energized muscularity befitting their subjects. The sculptural use of light and shadow in Gaertner's work acknowledges the American realist tradition and its potential for stylistic adaptation. William Sommer (plate 22) was Cleveland's poetic sage. Intelligent and intellectually curious, Sommer read both English and German texts on art and philosophy. His airy, sensitive watercolor views of the rural Ohio landscape are both joyous and mystical. They have no equivalent in the whole of American regional art. Clarence Carter (plate 88) was one of the few American Scene painters identified as a magic realist. His tightly rendered style alternately reveals and obscures the subjective content in his landscapes. The space where the sky meets the earth in a Carter painting is a space filled with tension and mystery.
Other painters also enhanced Cleveland's reputation as a regional center. Henry Keller (plate 14) influenced generations of young painters as a teacher at the Cleveland School of Art. His work was included in the Armory Show of 1913. He was the most vocal and important advocate for postimpressionism in the years when Clevelanders were first establishing their identities as modern regional artists. The decorative and design-based aspects of the Cleveland style can be readily seen in the work of August F. Biehle, Jr. (plate 16) and Clara Deike (plate 69). Biehle subsumed landscape subject matter into Jugendstil-inspired arrangements of organic shapes and flat areas of color. Deike was a cubist who structured her geometric landscape compositions as intersecting planes of color and line. Perpetually reinvigorated by the influx of young artists drawn to its art school, Cleveland nurtured a lineage of American Scene painters. The African American painter Hughie Lee-Smith (plate 11) was trained in Cleveland during the Great Depression. Even into the 1990s, Lee-Smith's personal, realist style bespoke his Cleveland roots. His enigmatic depictions of figures in fantastical landscapes reflect the impress of his old mentors, Carl Gaertner, and Clarence Carter.
The influence of Cleveland can be seen in art produced all across eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and even into western New York State. Many of the best painters in Akron and Youngstown were trained in Cleveland. Youngstown's Roland Schweinsburg (plate 97) was one of them. His many public murals reflect his Cleveland training in drawing and design. Youngstown's most renowned American Scene painter, however, was decidedly not a Cleveland artist. Clyde Singer (plate 92) was trained in Columbus, Ohio, and in New York. Against the stylistic tide emerging from Cleveland, Singer was a realist who grafted his own version of Ashcan school painting onto the regional Ohio painting tradition. In the late 1930s, Clarence Carter took the artistic traditions of Cleveland to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when he accepted a teaching position at the Carnegie Institute, influencing, several classes of young Pittsburgh artists. The most distant Cleveland outpost might well have been Buffalo, New York. Charles Burchfield, (plate 46) the best-known Cleveland-trained painter, settled in Buffalo in 1922, and remained there for the rest of his life. Buffalo, like Cleveland, was a city with overlapping fine art and craft traditions. By the time Burchfield arrived, painters such as Alexander Levy (plate 8l) had already found a niche within Buffalo's system of patronage, which favored well-designed paintings executed in various realist styles. Burchfield's presence brought important change to the history of art in western New York. His idiosyncratic landscape style and the commitment to watercolor that he brought with him from Cleveland challenged the Buffalo art community to re-imagine its local modern style. Internationally known by 1935, Burchfield became a major influence on many of his contemporaries in the Buffalo area and ultimately far beyond the Great Lakes. Through Charles Burchfield, the Cleveland tradition indirectly extended its impact to the entire American Scene.
The Chicago side of the Great Lakes equation was very different from its Cleveland counterpart. This should not be surprising, for Chicago as a city was (and is) very different from Cleveland. Chicago was always a larger city with a more diverse population. Where Cleveland found a balance between its provincial and cosmopolitan outlooks early on, Chicago continually displayed confusion and frustration over its cultural identity. At the beginning of the modern era, Chicago was a city with dreams of glory that chafed against a persistent sense of inferiority. Entering the twentieth century, Chicago exhibited both pride and embarrassment over its frontier ethos and its reputation as a wide-open, brawling Midwestern center of trade and manufacturing. The story of the Armory Show at the Art Institute of Chicago illustrates the contradictory nature of Chicago as an art center in this era. The positive side of the story is that the show did travel to Chicago. In 1913, few American cities would have considered hosting the project. Even after the exhibition ignited a firestorm of complaint and controversy in New York, Chicago went forward with its plan to present the show. Once the exhibition was open, however, the good citizens of the Windy City rejected it out of hand with a howl of ridicule and outrage surpassing anything heard in New York. Modern Chicago was a volatile and conflicted place on many levels.
Whereas Cleveland had embraced modernism early (albeit at a certain remove), in the aftermath of its Armory Show disaster, Chicago resisted. The faculty at the School of the Art Institute refused to change or expand their conservative curriculum to accommodate anything connected to modern ideas or postimpressionist styles. It took George Bellows, a realist from New York, to open the school to modernism in any form at all. Accepting a two-month appointment as a visiting artist at the School in 1919, Bellows (through the force of his own reputation and personality) provided a bridge between the school and the new ideas of art being tested in other centers. It was Bellows's "espousal of the Ashcan School's non-genteel style of social realist painting that caused the change." In the wake of his departure, Chicago painters found their way to modern painting styles and the spirit of the American Scene.
The Chicago art world after 1920 became multifaceted. The Chicago painters who cast themselves as "radicals" eagerly embraced the postimpressionist mythology in which artists are considered cultural outsiders. They began to express a new idea of individuality in both their life styles and their work. Ironically, the durable Midwestern spirit of communalism compelled these new independents to join every art club and society with which they felt a kinship. The city literally bristled with art organizations pushing one or another issue into the Chicago art conversation. As Sue Ann Prince put it, "From design guilds to artists' clubs, avant-garde exhibition clubs to conservative amateur painting societies, no-jury exhibitions to groups promoting 'aesthetic sanity,' nearly every cause, both conservative and modern, was represented by at least one organization."
By the 1930s the major figures who shaped American Scene painting in Chicago were actively exhibiting their work regionally and nationally. The best of them energized the idiom with their uniquely Chicago-based approach to imagery and style. The Annual Exhibition of Artists of Chicago and Vicinity, which had been inaugurated by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1896, became an important showcase for the artists creating new art in and around the city. Some of them won important prizes for the American Scene paintings they submitted to the Vicinity show. The annual national painting and watercolor exhibitions also sponsored by the Art Institute gave the Chicago public a good perspective on the modern work being produced in their locale as well as that being created across the entire United States. They saw that their local product held up well in the competitive arena of the Art Institute's annual survey exhibitions.
A polyglot Chicago style blending surrealism, expressionism, and cubism evolved in the 1930s. Formulated (and perceived) principally as a mode of self-expression, this style of painting embodied the self-image and temperament of an art community enthralled by all forms of idiosyncratic and highly personal art gestures. In the complex Chicago art scene, however, traditionalists held their own with the new iconoclasts. Both could be found among the painters drawn to the American Scene movement. A short survey of Chicago painters from the twenties and thirties makes this fact self-evident. The homegrown fauvism evidenced in the landscape and cityscape paintings of Jean Crawford Adams, (plate 3) exemplifies both the naïve and savvy aspects of Chicago's regional style. Older than many of the Chicago avant-gardists painting the American scene, Adams nonetheless was one of the first artists in Chicago to explore direct painting and the power of unblended color laid down in broad strokes. William Schwartz (plate 41) followed a different path. His distinctive cubist-derived style exploited arbitrary color and the spatial complexity of competing aspects of flatness. A thoughtful and traditionally trained artist, Schwartz painted equally well in oil and water media. Aaron Bohrod (plate 66) became Chicago's best-known eccentric realist. Energetic and intelligent, Bohrod produced hundreds of oil and gouache paintings chronicling urban life on Chicago's north side. An unforgiving observer, Bohrod painted his city, "warts and all." Following a more radical muse, Bernece Berkman (plate 71) became one of Chicago's most passionate social commentators. Her expressionist style owed its monumentality to the Mexican mural painters she most admired.
Chicago's influence on regional art in the western part of the Great Lakes basin extended north and south. To the north, painters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, kept a watchful eye on the Chicago scene. Many had actually studied at the School of the Art Institute and all of them commuted regularly to Chicago to view exhibitions and share ideas with other artists in the city. Milwaukee painters alternately accepted and rejected the avant-garde strategies of their southern neighbors. Conservatively trained at the Art Institute in the period of the Armory Show, Gerrit Sinclair (plate 59) became a teacher at Milwaukee's Layton School of Art in 1920. He remained invested in the Chicago scene, however, exhibiting in various Art Institute annuals for over thirty years. Painting in a fairly traditional modern style that blended aspects of impressionism and realism, Sinclair chronicled Milwaukee in much the same way that Bohrod documented Chicago.
Studying under Sinclair at the Layton School, Joseph Friebert (plate 45) developed a style of moody expressionism that has a strong affinity for northern European painting. Like Sinclair, Friebert also exhibited regularly in Chicago. He was, nonetheless, a Milwaukee painter more concerned with the emotional content of his own work than with the exuberant postimpressionism of the Chicago scene. Santos Zingale (plate 28) was Milwaukee's painter of conscience-an artist concerned with the human condition. His mural and easel paintings reflect his belief in the heroic spirit of workers and minorities struggling against poverty and oppression. The Great Lakes precisionist Edmund Lewandowski (plate 89) also studied with Sinclair. His crisply rendered formal abstractions of architecture and machinery are stylistically far removed from anything done in Chicago. Still, like most of his Milwaukee contemporaries, Lewandowski exhibited his work in Chicago and can be considered a part of the city's extended circle of influence.
Elsewhere in Wisconsin, John Steuart Curry (plate 24) carried the standard for what might be called a style of narrative realism-a style he formulated in the late 1920s and brought to national prominence in his depictions of life in his native Kansas. Curry arrived in Wisconsin in 1936 to become Artist in Residence at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Despite his great reputation as a mural painter and as one of the founders of the regionalist movement, Curry had little effect on the style or content of regional art in Wisconsin. Though he created several major oil paintings in Wisconsin depicting subjects from the region, his impact on the other professional painters around him seems to have been limited. The fact that he was not originally from the state may have isolated him from the local community of painters. In addition, his employment, which based him in Madison rather than in Milwaukee, may also have minimized his interactions with Wisconsin's larger artistic community.
Curry died unexpectedly in 1946. His lasting contribution to the state of Wisconsin may have been his involvement with the Rural Art Project. Curry's post at the University required him to travel throughout Wisconsin providing encouragement and mentoring to amateur and self-taught artists working in the state's small rural communities. His easy supportive manner made him popular with the artists he mentored. Under his management, the Rural Art Project became a successful outreach program for the University. The painter Lois Ireland (plate 102) was one of the artists Curry encountered in the Project. With Curry's help and support, Ireland went on to have considerable success exhibiting and selling her distinctive and very regional paintings.
To the south, Chicago's sphere of influence reached into Indiana. As was the case in Wisconsin, painters in Indiana seem to have felt some ambivalence toward Chicago and its art culture. Though few of the important American Scene painters in Indianapolis had been trained in Chicago, they certainly stayed abreast of what was going on at the Art Institute and elsewhere in the Chicago scene. Rail service and highways linked the two cities. So too, did the venerable institution called the Hoosier Salon. The Hoosier Salon was the premiere exhibition for Indiana painters and was presented annually at the art galleries of Marshall Field's department store in Chicago.
The American Scene developed late in Indiana. A hegemony of Brown County impressionism defined Indiana painting throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century. As the complexities of modern life encroached into provincial America, a certain nostalgia for an earlier time became a predictable response for a significant number of Americans uncertain about the future. For many in Indiana, the rustic scenes depicted by T. C. Steele, William Forsyth, and others in the Hoosier Impressionist group provided a link to a less challenging age. They were loath to give up Steele's idyllic world in exchange for the one promised by the Armory Show. As a result, Brown County impressionism was the one (and only) style of American Scene painting in Indiana into the 1930s. Only then did a much younger generation of Indianapolis artists break with the impressionists to create a modern style for the Hoosier state.
The most ambitious regional modern painting in Indiana was created by a small group of Indianapolis painters who were, for the most part, all trained at the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis. Floyd Hopper (plate 77) emerged as one of the most talented and inventive artists in this group. Hopper was adept in oil paint, watercolor, and egg tempera. His paintings capture moments of activity in the lives of ordinary people and seem to freeze them in time. Working in a realist style enriched by arbitrary color and simplified design, Hopper was a fine draftsman with a keen eye for the artistic possibilities to be found in locally observed everyday subjects. Edmund Brucker (plate 37) was the Indiana scene painter with the most restrained and classic approach to his work. This is not surprising, for he was trained in Cleveland. Brucker's industrial and urban scenes often combine disparate figure and landscape elements drawn from the many sketchbooks he compiled as he traveled around Indiana and Ohio. Brucker's vision of the Great Lakes region, then, was a constructed place based in reality but filtered through the imagination of an artist with a sophisticated understanding of collage.
The most interesting postimpressionist in the Indiana scene was basically self-taught. A lack of academic training, however, was no deterrent to the artistic ambition of the Richmond painter, Lawrence McConaha. (plate 23) Discovering the paintings of Paul Gauguin on a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930, McConaha immediately abandoned his somewhat naïve experiments with impressionism. He booked passage to Tahiti, where he painted for three weeks in the footsteps of Gauguin. Returning home to Richmond, McConaha became a very unique American Scene artist. His colorful, flat postimpressionist views of his native state provide a thought provoking commentary on the connections between local and mainstream art narratives. The most original of the Indiana painters may have been the magic realist, John Rogers Cox. (plate 104) After completing his art training in Philadelphia, Cox returned to his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, where he became director of the Sheldon Swope Art Museum in 194l. There, he assembled one of the great public collections of thirties and forties American Scene painting. Leaving Indiana in the late 1940s, Cox moved to Chicago where he taught at the School of the Art Institute between 1948 and 1965. His own signature landscape vistas are imaginary Midwestern places filled with emptiness-visual contradictions suffused with momentous and ominous signs.
Geographically distanced from both Chicago and Cleveland, two lesser centers of regional painting in the Upper Midwest should be acknowledged. In Minnesota, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul nurtured a vigorous production of American Scene paintings from the mid-1920s through the 1950s. Similarly, in Michigan, Detroit-based artists created some of the most interesting and independent works in the modern Great Lakes repertoire. Each of these centers supported a vigorous art museum as well as several active art schools where local artists received good training in the fundamentals of drawing, painting, and design. Both Minneapolis and Detroit were major hubs for the art activity in their respective regions and both functioned in a condition of independence and isolation relatively free of distraction or influence from either Cleveland or Chicago.
From the early 1920s on, Minnesota's regional scene had its own identity. Some of its artists were totally provincial in their outlook; others were very cosmopolitan, traveling to New York and Europe on a regular basis. Adolf Dehn (plate 25) was one of the latter. Born in a small farming town in southeastern Minnesota, Dehn became a political activist, an international traveler, and one of America's best-known printmakers. His major contribution to the American Scene was the large body of watercolors he created in Minnesota documenting the farms and wheat fields in the region where he was born. The Minnesota scene painter Dewey Albinson (plate 18) was painting in a bold cubist inspired style as early as 1925. Like Dehn, Albinson traveled widely. His signature paintings, however, depict the rugged landscape along the St. Croix River north of Minneapolis. An admirer of Cézanne, Albinson created works that are remarkable for their realization of the structural aspects of landscape forms.
The St. Paul painter Clara Mairs (plate 36) was a colorful bohemian who found her American Scene just outside the windows of her studio. Though Mairs studied in Europe and traveled widely, she painted principally for herself. She worked in a deceptively primitive expressionist style that belies the acute observation registered in her scenes and portraits. Mairs's whimsical etchings are often as original and beguiling as her paintings. The dean of the Minnesota scene was Cameron Booth. (plate 1) The only major figure in Minnesota trained in Chicago, Booth became an important American Scene painter in the early 1920s during a year he spent sketching and painting on a Chippewa Indian reservation in north-central Minnesota. Like Gauguin in Brittany, Booth discovered a connection between an indigenous culture and his own modern artistic sensibility. The landscapes and figure paintings he produced in this period record a most elusive American Scene.
Regional modern painting from Michigan is a blend of many elements, both worldly and naïve. At its best, however, it is conceptually straightforward and highly ambitious. The most compelling aspect of regionalism in Michigan is its stylistic theatricality. Michigan's painters saw both the great and the mundane aspects of their local landscape as being charged with energy and drama. The city of Detroit was the hub of the Michigan scene. In the Detroit area, the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts and the Cranbrook Academy of Art provided art training for many of the state's most prominent painters and sculptors. As was the case in Cleveland, the art culture of Detroit favored a full spectrum of art that melded both the applied and fine arts. Many important potters and metal-smiths were trained at Cranbrook. Though some of the city's painters worked as illustrators-particularly in the automotive industry-few possessed the cross-media versatility found in Cleveland. The Annual Exhibition for Michigan Artists held at the Detroit Institute of Arts was restricted to painters and sculptors only.
Early regional painting in Michigan was fairly interchangeable with much of the typical impressionist landscape painting found throughout the Midwest. Change set in during the mid-twenties. A Hungarian immigrant named Zoltan Sepeshy, (plate 53) who had come to Detroit in 1922, painted some of the earliest modern regional landscapes in the state. Within six years of his arrival in Detroit, Sepeshy began painting canvases inspired by the factories and smelting plants built by the Ford Motor Company along the River Rouge. He also painted views of the busy commercial centers of downtown Detroit. All of Sepeshy's early works are abstract arrangements of shapes with layers of carefully observed details overlaid on them in bold strokes of line and color. Sepeshy's urban and industrial scenes use a somewhat radical futurist style to express the explosive energy and optimistic spirit of a city enthralled with the drama of its unfolding future. By 1940, Sepeshy had become one of America's masters of egg tempera painting and, thereafter, rendered his work in a realist style better suited to the subtleties inherent to the tempera medium.
Jack Keijo Steele, (plate 74) a student of Sepeshy, was a realist from the beginning. His poignant views of life in the run-down, skid row sections of Detroit are filled with pathos and, occasionally, a touch of melodrama. In his scenes of missions and burlesque houses, Steele captured the often bizarre theater played out in the back streets of his city. Amy Lorimer (plate 55) studied in Detroit under the New York modernist Samuel Halpert. Lorimer's stylized landscapes particularize (and localize) the decorative flat modern abstract style she learned from Halpert. Carl Hall (plate 100) was Michigan's only nationally recognized magic realist. Though he painted in Detroit for only a short time, Hall broadened and enriched the American Scene in Michigan with his dramatic and symbolic landscape scenes. Emigrating from Cuba to the U.S. in 1919, Carlos Lopez (plate 47) first studied painting in Chicago. His 1930 arrival in Detroit had several important consequences for the Michigan scene. As an outsider, he brought a fresh perspective to the Michigan subject matter he painted. As a teacher, he set several important painters (Carl Hall among them) on the path that would establish them as artists. Cited earlier as a Cleveland-trained artist, the painter Hughie Lee-Smith (plate 105) joined the Detroit art community during the 1950s. His presence enriched the art of Detroit much as it had that of his hometown. The arid tableaus from Lee-Smith's Michigan period frame solitary figures poised like dancers in landscapes of ambiguity and ambivalence. Lee-Smith's background as a stage-set designer unquestionably imparted a theatrical quality to his paintings that made them particularly appropriate to Detroit's American Scene tradition.
Art and Social Change
Although the general circumstances attending the advent of the American Scene in the modern Great Lakes region have been previously touched on, it is probably useful to examine the ways in which American Scene painting in the upper Midwest evolved over time in response to the enormous changes that took place there between 1910 and 1960. It is possible to map the philosophical and stylistic evolution of the movement in a decade-by-decade survey in which the region's artists can be shown to have maintained a spirit of growth and discovery in their work over a fifty-year span. Although the cursory survey presented here obviously overlooks certain exceptional works, it can still illuminate general trends and directions and, ultimately, benefit a study still in progress.
As was previously stated, the Armory Show decade of 191020 was the decade of genesis for Great Lakes modern art. In fits and starts, the region awoke to its modern consciousness though this decade. So, too, did its painters. Before this period, most trained Midwestern artists were painting traditional portraits and pastoral landscapes. In general, a fairly academic realist style prevailed throughout the region at the turn of the century. Though a few artists were working in an impressionist manner, the pastoral subject matter and the restrained palette in their paintings conspired to render their impressionism rather bland and predictable. The first sign of change was the appearance of urban and industrial subject matter in canvases painted by Great Lakes artists. By 1910, the great factories and steel mills in the region's port cities and along its river systems were beginning to inspire painters to refocus their vision. To capture the vitality of the urban landscape, the more adventuresome artists created a new tonalist form of impressionism tailored to the representation of industrial subjects engulfed by an overcast atmosphere of smoke and steam. In the process, they imparted a new energy and muscularity to their paintings. By the end of the decade, a number of Great Lakes painters had also folded postimpressionism into their stylistic lexicon. Cleveland's landscape painters, in particular, became bold and expressionistic in their landscape paintings. They began to flatten and brighten their compositions in ways that transformed both the man-made and the natural worlds into patterns of color and line remarkable for their evocative design. (see Biehle, plate 16) In other parts of the region, of course, change came slowly. The impressionists of central Indiana continued painting rustic, picturesque scenes in their traditional local style well into the 1930s.
The same decade that celebrated the advent of the modern also experienced an anti-modernism that remains a part of American life. In the Great Lakes region, many painters seemed alternately positive and skeptical about their changing world. Charles Burchfield was one such artist. The exuberant colors and expressionistic brushstrokes in his 1917 watercolors seem distinctly at odds with his images of the brooding houses and decrepit barns. During the Armory Show decade, regional art in the Great Lakes was in transition. It was stylistically plural and sometimes quite vigorous and experimental. But, like Burchfield himself, it frequently seemed ambivalent. The generally progressive decade of the 'teens closed with the enactment by Congress of a highly conservative national prohibition on alcohol.
During the 1920s, Great Lakes painting took an appropriately sober turn. Just after World War I, the last generation of painters born in the nineteenth century reached their artistic maturity. They were justifiably circumspect about the modern. They had seen its grimmer side firsthand on the battlefields of Europe. Many of them returned to painting in naturalistic styles-abandoning postimpressionism as too arbitrary and decorative. Although their work often seems tentative, in its best moments it expresses the American preference for experience over theory, and body over spirit. The regional artists of the second decade of Great Lakes modern painting reasserted the reality and physicality of their world.
The decade's most progressive painters focused their concerns on compositional structure. Having absorbed what they believed to be Cézanne's constructed approach to landscape painting, certain Great Lakes painters in the 1920s attempted to achieve a new solidity in their work. The machine aesthetic, architecture, and engineering all influenced their thinking in much the same way that it impacted the thinking of artists throughout the Western world. The best Great Lakes pictures from the 1920s have a constructed, often geometric appearance. (see Albinson, plate 18.) The painters consciously seem to have wanted to incorporate the freewheeling painterly experimentation of the previous decade into a more disciplined and monumental vision of what a painting might be. The style of Great Lakes paintings in the 1920s often appears to be somewhat cautious. As serious creative gestures, however, many of the era's paintings distinguish themselves as remarkable visual embodiments of a complicated and uncertain time. In 1929 the stock market crashed, taking many modern dreams and illusions with it. Moving to the center of a national stage turned upside down, a new generation of American Scene painters would come into their own in the aftermath.
The decade of the 1930s was the golden age of regional painting. During the Great Depression, Americans became curiously introspective, self-critical and distrustful of novelty. The nation embarked on a collective search for its lost identity and the creative focus of the era became one of retrieval and documentation. Photographers and writers went into the rural communities of the Appalachian South and into the migrant worker camps of California to record the stories and faces of Americans fighting adversity. Their goal was to document that which "dignifies the usual and levels the extraordinary." They were seeking some sign that, at least at the grassroots level, America was still a place where people could stand their ground and prevail over hardship. The American Scene painters of the 1930s joined in the effort. They took on their nation's identity crisis frontally, documenting the America they knew from an earlier time and inventing the America they aspired to for the future. They tried to give a visual voice to the expectations and frustrations of the nation's ordinary people on whose shoulders they believed the rebuilding of a whole society would rest. (see Berkman, plate 71) As a result, a certain number of their paintings became narrative, political, and sometimes preachy. Others, however, became icons that continue to resonate in the American imagination. Grant Wood's American Gothic and John Steuart Curry's Wisconsin Landscape come immediately to mind.
Art created for and about its audience precipitated a new popular interest in the art of painting. The American Scene became a favorite with the popular media. Journals such as Life published regular features on regional artists and their work. New Deal politicians also became involved. With the support of government work projects (The WPA and its several relatives) the artists of the 1930s American Scene began producing murals for public buildings all across the country. The public and the press followed their efforts enthusiastically. Elitists, of course, complained that the populist attitudes of the American Scene betrayed art and compromised culture. Their complaints, however, overlooked the fact that the regional art movement of the 1930s served art in a very tangible way. It brought contemporary painting to a broad cross section of modern Americans for the first time.
Too frequently, assessments of 1930s American Scene painting are distracted by issues of politics and the allegation that the WPA and other federal art projects made propaganda artists out of the mural painters and other artists they employed. In truth, the bulk of the paintings from the Great Depression were created independently by artists working at easels in their own studios. Nobody prescribed a utility for the paintings they created there. The regional painters of the Great Lakes were particularly independent in their production through the 1930s. Some revived modernist styles and reintegrated them into their evolving regional idiom. Others began painting scenes intended to express highly personal visions in which landscape subjects became armatures supporting very free and fanciful art-for-arts-sake gestures. Consistently, however, the Great Lakes painters continued to eschew nonobjective abstraction and to revisit the touchstone of local knowledge in everything they created. Documenting, describing, remembering, and imagining America, the regional scene painters of the Great Depression created a vision of their nation and its people that portrays a longed-for egalitarian America still bought and sold in both the commercial and political culture of the present.
The attack on Pearl Harbor signaled yet another turn in the fortunes of Great Lakes painting. The regional art community of the 1940s was disrupted when its young painters were drafted into the military. Its older artists also abandoned their easels in order to record the European and Pacific fronts as war artists for Life, Fortune, and other popular publications. When they returned home, these artists found that their art newly challenged by talented European modernists who had fled their war-torn homelands and settled in the United States. The Europeans brought with them not only new forms of abstract and nonobjective painting but a culture that was international rather than regional. They also brought the style of surrealism. The surrealists introduced Americans to an art comprised of forms and images conjured in a subconscious interior world far removed from the local/regional landscape celebrated in the art of the American Scene.
Great Lakes painters (as was their habit upon encountering new styles) folded certain aspects of surrealism into their representational tradition. As early as 1940, Great Lakes painters began to subtly inflect their images with expressions of angst, alienation, and fantasy. Their most successful efforts to suffuse surrealism into the American Scene resulted in a style known as magic realism. (see Hall, plate 100) In practice, the style involved the precise rendering of highly realistic images intended to convince viewers "that extraordinary things are possible simply by painting them as if they existed." The edgy magic realist landscapes created by a small number of highly imaginative Great Lakes painters transform otherwise believable vistas into mysterious evocations of dreams and memories. Elsewhere, other Great Lakes painters of the 1940s began overhauling their regional idiom in equally productive ways. Many began constructing composite vistas comprised of images from several sources superimposed one over the other. (fig. 7a, 7b) Paintings of this sort were often developed over long periods of time and brought together an assortment of source materials stored in the artist's memories or in their sketchbooks, or sometimes in systematized files of photographs taken directly or torn out of magazines and newspapers. Great Lakes painting from the 1940s took the American Scene to a new level of visual and conceptual sophistication.
As the suburbs of the 1950s drew people away from city and town centers, the many artist clubs and community art societies that had supported so much earlier regional art dissolved. The energy went out of American Scene painting. An easy blended geometric realism (a kind of "modernism lite") became the contemporary mode illustrators used to depict the American landscape in popular magazines and travel brochures. This generic idiom served the public as modern art but was, in most applications, an empty form of expression that avoided issues of style and meaning. The few serious artists that continued painting the American Scene in the fifties were generally realist "hold-outs." Against the tide of abstract expressionism that would be celebrated as "the triumph of American painting" they managed to produce some of the most meditative and idiosyncratic works yet seen in the American Scene. (see Bohrod, plate 51.) The last regional realists once again reinvented their tradition. Their figurative, narrative, and landscape works began to include a new expressly autobiographical message. Obsessive and deliberately obtuse, the last American Scene pictures became collages of identity that fully exploited the expressive potentials suggested in the composite landscapes painted by earlier Great Lakes artists.
American Scene painting exited the American stage as the Eisenhower presidency ended and the war in Vietnam began to escalate. Realism and its offshoots seemed retardataire in the post-Jackson Pollock era. Plein air painting became a hobby for amateurs and post office murals became curiosities. The manufacturing supremacy of Great Lakes industry was being challenged by global competition and the city of Pittsburgh was aggressively removing the soot and smoke from its air. Most significantly, the regional community of people celebrated by the Great Lakes painters of an earlier time had ceased to invest their identity in the signs of its own local landscape and ethos. After 1960, the Great Lakes region became a made-for-TV place. In programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Laverne and Shirley, Good Times, and Home Improvement, sitcom Midwesterners caricatured regionalism (and Americanism) for satellite broadcast, and Charles Burchfield's inlander locale was repainted in pixels for a new postmodern culture.
Art is a cultural enterprise. As such, it becomes a part of a dialogue in which we talk to ourselves about the experience of being ourselves. In this conversation, our local voice is as important as any other. The painters of the Great Lakes scene found their artistic voice in a period that struggled endlessly with questions of regionalism versus cosmopolitanism. By 1960, history seems to have settled the matter. A global political and economic culture forced the United States to identify itself as cosmopolitan. Today, there is ample reason to reconsider that determination. Pluralism is a vital and pressing issue in our time. As increasing numbers of minorities seek an identity in an emerging new American pluralism, we might well reconsider the art of regional painters from an earlier time whose work still confidently proclaims the real and enduring America as a spread of localities. Contemporary art critic Donald Kuspit makes a strong case for rethinking regional art in a pluralist world in which identity politics of race, gender, etc. denote a whole new constellation of locales where people "live." According to Kuspit:
Kuspit's logic suggests that a reassessment of the most profound aspects of American Scene painting could provide an important perspective on the new regionalism of today. A truly comprehensive history of modern American art would recognize the fact that serious regional painting from all across the United States relates to the mainstream historical narrative in a very American way. As the idea of balanced and delegated power creates a bond between federal, state, and local government in American political practice, so too, there is a real and necessary distribution of artistic authority between local and national art. Ideally, the complex American ethos is a sum of parts: regional, ethnic, religious, and individual. American art has only recently begun to include the creative works of women, minorities, and other outsiders into a new made profile. Revised historical (and political) sense is being made from the idea of difference and from the related idea that national character in America results from the tension between the whole and its parts. By recovering an art based on an affirmation of local identity, we may discover a better way to navigate between the multiple poles of our own experience as individuals living within the increasingly layered contexts of our communities.
The Inlander Collection is a kind of meditation on America. It is both a social and an aesthetic document by design-a collage of art and history. As history, the Collection documents a period when the industrial and agricultural productivity of the Great Lakes region ushered in the modern era. It also recounts the shaping of that history as a cultural production undertaken (and shared) by men and women from a broad ethnic and racial cross-section of the population residing in the upper Midwest. It recognizes their efforts to identify themselves individually and collectively within a very specific context of time and place. Artistically, the Collection celebrates the aesthetic achievements of a dedicated art subculture seeking to reconcile the two opposing views of art that have persistently confronted modern American artists. On one hand, the early twentieth century regional painters of the Great Lakes remained faithful to the traditional notion that art should function as a language in which the values, beliefs, and histories of a community (or a whole society) can be given a visual voice. On the other, they actively embraced the modern idea that a work of art is first, and foremost, a gesture of self-expression revealing the unique vision and self-identity of its maker. As a chorus of images invested with layers of aspiration, meaning and even contradiction, the paintings in the Inlander Collection remind us that compelling works of art can be found in places far removed from the straight-and often overly narrow-main roads that traverse our own locale and time.
Michael D. Hall
l. Nancy Heller and Julia Williams, Painters of the American Scene (New York, 1982), p. 17.
2. See Bruce Robertson, Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and Their Influence (Cleveland, 1990), pp. 14849.
3. Wanda Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935 (Berkeley, 1999), p. 249.
4. Robertson, p. 67.
5. Aaron Bohrod, interview with the author, Madison, Wisconsin, Sept. 22, 199l.
6. Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York, 1983), p. 167.
7. Gordon Washburn, "An Artists' Society Sponsors a Regional Show," in Great Lakes Exhibition 1938-1939 (Buffalo, 1938), n.p.
8. Bram Dijkstra, American Expressionism: Art and Social Change 19201950 (New York, 2003), p. 12.
9. See William H. Robinson and David Steinberg, Transformations in Cleveland Art 17961946 (Cleveland, 1996), pp. 71101.
10. Susan Noyes Platt, "The Little Review: Early Years and Avant-Garde Ideas," in Sue Ann Prince, ed., The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde: Modernism in Chicago, 19101940 (Chicago, 1990), p. 140.
11. Jay Hoffman, Dee Driscole, and Mary Clare Zahler, A Study in Regional Taste: The May Show 19191975 (Cleveland, 1977), p. 9.
12. Charlotte Moser, "In the Highest Efficiency: Art Training at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago," in Sue Ann Prince, ed., The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde: Modernism in Chicago, 19101940 (Chicago, 1990), p. 202.
13. Sue Ann Prince, p. xxii.
14. Bohrod interview.
15. See John Rector Barton, Rural Artists of Wisconsin (Madison, 1948).
16. William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (Chicago, 1986), p. 49.
17. Lincoln Kirsten, "Introduction," American Realists and Magic Realists (New York, 1943), p. 7.
18. Donald Kuspit, "Regionalism Reconsidered," in The Critic
is Artist, The Intentionality of Art (Ann Arbor, 1984), p. 287.
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