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Expressionism in Regionalist Prints

Both Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood eschewed pure abstraction, and by any polar model both artists must be viewed as representational rather than Modernist. For both Benton and Wood narrative takes precedence, and Regionalist art is often perceived as a form of propaganda supported by the government during the Great Depression and in the lead up to World War II.i As one of Jackson Pollock’s teachers, Thomas Hart Benton was continually berated for his seemingly anti-Modernist stance. This criticism is not completely accurate. Both artists manipulate visible reality for expressive ends and do so through a Modernist vocabulary.

While American Modernists owes much to the art the Fauves and the Cubists, American Modernism also has a specifically American context. The acknowledged father of American Modernism was Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow’s interests in the Arts and Crafts movement combined with his enthusiasm for Japanese prints helped him forge wide-ranging theories of design which became his seminal work Composition, first published in 1899.ii The result was a design aesthetic uniting Dow’s perceived triumvirate of primary elements: line, notan (the arrangement of areas of light and dark areas or patterns), and color.

Arthur Wesley Dow (American, 1857-1922), Newbury Willows, alternatively titled Flowering Orchard, c. 1921, color woodcut. Sold for $3,318.

Dow’s concepts accentuated the flat surface of the picture plane and a saturation of color that found a synchronicity with French modernist movements. Neither Wood nor Benton could have avoided the influence of Dow. Composition became the main text on the subject in America. It was expanded and published again in 1913, and ultimately went through twenty different printings. Benton would have had more direct knowledge of Dow. Benton taught at the Art Students League several years after Dow did. Both Wood and Benton acknowledged the values of Modernism in their own work; Benton in a series of articles he wrote in the mid 1920s, and Wood in his discussions of his evolving pattern-based style of the early 1930s.

While the two are closely associated historically, and while they both applied aspects of Modernism to transform nature into something more, they transform nature in opposing ways. Wood insists on imposing order and pattern on nature, while Benton lets nature utterly run amok with exaggerated organic forms that heighten the teeming energy of the natural world. Benton’s Threshing of 1941 depicts the antiquated technology of a steam thresher engine. In spite of the rustic charm of the rural subject and techniques, Benton’s landscape and sky seem to thrum, not to the cacophony of Man’s machinery, but to Nature’s vibrations.

Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), Threshing, 1941, lithograph. Sold for $3,750.

The dominant feature of the upper half of the composition is the undulating wave of smoke and steam that billows up from the engine and crescendos into the sky before drifting back down towards the mounting pile of grain stalks. This dark, snaking form is mirrored in the curves of the horizon line, the bands of pale clouds, and the areas of open sky. These elements arch up over the main action of the scene; the thresher in the middle ground. Even the shrubs in the immediate foreground gently imply a similar arch to reinforce the rhythm. To the right, the shafts of wheat sail out of the machinery and into the sky before settling into a mound. The force with which they are expelled creates an air current so strong that some of the stalks merge into the air currents of the clouds above.

Grant Wood (American, 1891-1942), Approaching Storm, 1940, lithograph. Sold for $3,081.

If Threshing expresses the vibrancy of nature through waves of undulating form, Grant Wood’s Approaching Storm of 1940 expresses nature’s energy through its ability to overwhelm and dwarf. Wood’s harvesting subject is related to Benton’s, but the energy is utterly different. Wood’s farmers, angular and almost machine-like in their movements, shift their harvest of grain to safety as huge thunderheads loom in the distance. Where Benton repeated his snaking, billowing air currents that seem to wriggle as we watch, Wood repeats patterns that seem staid and monumental. The base of the wheat shock in the immediate foreground is described by straight lines of rigid stalks. At the top, its grains mushroom out in a rounded tuft. On the horizon, the storm cloud takes on the same form, with a base of straight lines – hardly typical of most cloud formations, though indicative of a driving rain; in this case a rain driven at a 45 degree angle – capped by a billowing thunderhead top. The duplication of the grain shock’s form on the colossal scale of the thunderhead makes the latter seem all the more monstrous. Movement is severely limited, despite the dire situation at hand. The farmers seem hard edged and static as each bends at his waist, with his knees slightly bent as if moving with meticulous deliberation rather than the expected panic that the situation seems to warrant. The only implication of the winds preceding the storm, is the bending trees dotted at intervals along the horizon line. Even the diffused quality of the light seems to contrast with the drama and movement anticipated in the scene.

Motion is further stifled by Wood’s intense use of pattern. Every surface is described as a pattern of lines. The field is a cross-hatched matrix of vertical and diagonal lines, rather than earth and stubble. The intensity and crowding of this hatching increase to form shadows, but the modulation from areas of highlight to shadow is abrupt, thus flattening form. The patterning of the farmer’s overalls and shirt read more like a weaving of horizontals and verticals. While this might imply the weaving of cloth it fails to describe the actual texture. Wood’s use of lines and placements of light and dark show a direct relationship to Dow’s ideas, although Wood’s use of pattern probably came from a different source. Wood began working a plein air during his travels to France in the 1920s, and such sketches would remain the beginnings of his major works throughout much of the rest of his career. By 1924 he was already experimenting with Pointalism. Wood appropriated the staccato brushstroke of Georges Seurat, although he largely ignored Seurat’s theoretic underpinnings.iii The monumental, if static, qualities of the figures are also derived from Seurat and the use of small, patterned brushwork. These figures are reminiscent of the figures of the early Italian Renaissance, albeit in a more rusticated and modern form.

Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), Down the River, 1939. Sold for $3,075.

If Wood’s figures have a Classical quality, Benton’s are more Mannerist, both in their attenuation and movements. Benton also sketched in nature. Benton’s Down the River captures the essence of a lazy afternoon spent fishing and drifting along the rivers of the Ozarks. The view was sketched on the White River, and the boy fishing is actually the artist’s son, T.P. (Thomas Piacenza).iv Benton again focuses on a sinuous element of the landscape, this time to mimic the gentle, meandering flow of the river. The snag along the left edge of the foreground impedes movement to the left and points to the right. Above this a tree trunk leans precariously to the right drawing our focus along with it, and two more distant trees along the riverbank do the same, though less dramatically so. A leafless branch hangs over the water in the far distance, drawing the eye further to the right, where, at the composition’s edge the river begins its movement back towards the left. The slow, gentle flow of the water is echoed in the slow, easy movements of the figures. Only the paddler in the foreground exerts himself to any degree. In spite of this, we are aware of the sinewy strength inherent in the figures that, in conjunction with the lush vegetation on the far riverbank implies nature’s energy at rest in the midday heat, saturated in bright light and deep shadow, and ready to come alive again in as the afternoon cools.

Grant Wood (American, 1892-1942), February, 1940, lithograph. Sold for $6,875.

Benton’s landscapes capture the very energy of nature and are the antithesis of Wood’s view of the world around him. Instead of a fecund landscape alive and vital, Wood’s imposition of pattern on nature reads almost as a controlling hand of a god organizing nature’s grand plan. Grant Wood’s February is imbued with a stillness very much in keeping with its subject; a cold, snow-muffled pasture. Wood again applies a miniscule overarching pattern of short, cross-hatched lines. The hatching uses ever-increasing directions of parallel lines to create darker values, but the resulting grid work creates a sense that all of the elements of the landscape and sky are composed of the same material: the patterned lines are Wood’s molecular structure to his universe. Pattern is also visible on a larger scale. The barbed wire fence has an inexplicable bend in the center. While this allows us a more unobstructed view of the statuesque horses – who are composed of the same hatch marks – it has a more unifying function. The lines of the bent wire echo the horizon line and edges of the fields beneath it. The result is a grid-like space that seems ordered rather than organic. The inclusion of the horses lends a note of vitality to an otherwise bleak winter snowscape, but even they seem frozen and immobile.

The contrasts between the landscapes of Wood and Benton are broad, despite the strong association between the two artists. Both certainly espoused the tenants of Regionalism, and a love of the landscape, albeit two very different kinds of love. Both employ the tools of American Modernism to their own unique expressive ends: Benton to exude a sense of Nature’s life force and Wood to express the grand fabric of Nature’s design. Color cannot enter into a discussion of black and white lithography, but the other two legs of Dow’s design trilogy are fully utilized by both artists. Benton’s sinuous, writhing lines are a stark contrast to Wood’s short, clipped, controlled ones. Likewise Wood’s staid, monumental forms seem stagnant in comparison to the vibrancy of Benton’s. Even the contrast between Benton’s highlights and shadows is extreme in comparison to Wood’s more narrow range of values. Although the emotive outcomes of both artists seem diametrically opposite, the application of a clearly Modernist vocabulary is undeniable.

This post is an update to the article “Expressionism in Regionalist Prints” in Journal of the Print World (volume 35, number 3) July 2012, page 11 and 18.

i The New Deal’s Federal Art Project resulted in a proliferation of American print-making. Associated American Artists, who published works by both Benton and Wood, sought to profit from the situation – and help the artists do likewise – by marketing fine art prints to the middle classes. Part of the AAA marketing campaign was to promote the works for their educational and patriotic sensibilities, and to accentuate the relative affordability of prints.
ii The full title of the book was Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers.
iii Brady M. Roberts, “The European Roots of Regionalism: Grant Wood’s Stylistic Synthesis” in Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed (Davenport Museum of Art, Pomegranate Art Books: San Francisco), 1995, pp 1-3.
iv Creekmore Fath, The Lithographs of Thomas Hart Benton (University of Texas Press: Austin) 1969, p. 86

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