Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Farming from The Workers’ Landscape: American Images

Kresge Art Museum at Michigan State University hosted The Workers’ Landscape: American Images, 1900-1950, from January 8 to March 18, 2007. It is now available online!

Drawn from the Kresge Art Museum collection, American Images celebrates Americans at work and leisure in the first half of the 20th century. The exhibition features over 70 paintings, prints and photographs organized by themes -- around the farm, company towns, working the waters, time off, and documenting the Thirties. Among the artists in this show are Berenice Abbott, George Wesley Bellows, Ralston Crawford, Charles Scheeler, and Dorothea Lange.

Early examples contrast an American Impressionist view of the idyllic countryside by Henry Rodman Kenyon with Lewis Hine’s young newsboy, part of his series that exposed child labor abuse. Regionalist artists Thomas Hart Benton and John deMartelly present a romanticized view of farming.

Kansas Farmyard

American Regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton adapted this print from his mural Politics, Farming and Law in Missouri, which is located in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Benton believed in creating a uniquely American art that represented the country’s heartland. His paintings and lithographs record common scenes from the lives of working Americans.

In this organic, rhythmic composition all parts of the farmstead -- a mule-powered sorghum mill, out-buildings, workers and animals -- relate to the whole. As Thomas Craven wrote of Benton in 1934, “the form that he has developed is almost a perfect equivalent of the realities of American life. The tumultuous forces of America, its manifold dissonances, and its social anarchy, are perfectly expressed in the restless counterplay of his forms.”

John deMartelly’s print is representative of his 1930s and 1940s Regionalist work. Epitomized in the art of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, this style recorded small-town and rural American life with nostalgic reverence. DeMartelly taught at Michigan State University from 1943 to 1979.

Looking at the Sunshine

With a kiln behind him, a brickyard worker takes a break as he gazes across the lush, unending fields. While teaching in Kansas City, Missouri, deMartelly visited local brickyards “to watch the workers who were all black men. They were just fantastic in the way they handled the brick and tiles.” The lithograph also recalls the fertile land at a time when parts of the Midwest were reduced to dust bowls and further devastated by the Great Depression.

Man of the Soil

Stevan Dohanos’ depiction of a farmer is typical of the Regionalist art movement’s rural subject matter, as well as its general treatment of the figure and the land. Here the farmer’s close-up, rather severe and gaunt image reflects the widespread hardships endured in middle and rural America in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Dohanos painted murals in 1936 under the WPA’s Federal Art Project and later was a founding faculty member of the Famous Artists School of Westport, Connecticut. In the 1940s and 50s, his paintings of slices of American life graced more than 100 covers of The Saturday Evening Post.

Documentary photography of the 1930s, part of the Farm Security Administration work programs, offers a more realistic picture of the harsh Depression era. From farm to factory to city, women increasingly entered the work force as shopkeepers, photographed by Jessie Tarbox Beals, and sales girls, portrayed by Isabel Bishop. Entertainers and those who are entertained, captured by Billy Sunday’s fiery sermons or rodeo stars or majorettes, complete the picture of the life of the American worker.