Thursday, December 30, 2010

Grant Wood in an Art Historical Context

My first few weeks at the American Gothic House Center were spent rapidly absorbing facts about Grant Wood’s life and artwork: The timeline of his birth, travels, and artistic career; his influential and well known works; and his jobs as teacher, designer and professor. I learned all about Wood’s internal motivations for pioneering Regionalism, like his Iowa farm roots and a style-altering trip to Germany.

I am a big picture person, and I always want to know why. Very quickly I began to rifle through my memories of an American art history class I took at the UI. What was on the world news during the late 1920s and 1930s? Who were the other standout painters of the time period, and what relationship did Wood’s work have to those artists?

Between World Wars I and II, “Regionalist artists reflected the isolationist attitudes of the country.” The UIMA, in its description of “Plaid Sweater,”goes on to describe the art created during this time as socially conscious but exceedingly patriotic in its portrayal of American life and land. Themes like agriculture and small-town America, emphasized by the WPA, were meant to empower Americans suffering through the Great Depression.

Outside this small bubble of Regionalism consisting of Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Stewart Curry was Modernism. The Modernist movement included well known artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Juan Miro and Jackson Pollock. Modernists were interested in human values and concerns, and have been described as global thinkers. Regionalists promoted America and viewed Modern art as elitist and foreign.

It’s easy to see the contrast between the two movements, but is there a comparison?

Jackson Pollock is a particularly interesting connection between Regionalism and Modernism. Pollock studied Regionalism with Thomas Hart Benton for three years, learning its philosophy of authentic American realism. However, by the early 1940s his work had become completely abstract. He abandoned the use of brushes and dripped paint onto a canvas placed on the floor. Benton’s student made so complete a transformation that he spurred a new great movement within Modernism—Abstract Expressionism.

Pollock supposedly said his teacher’s traditional ideas gave him something to rebel against. Even so, a close look reveals some similarities to Benton’s organizational principles in the composition of Pollock’s abstract works.

From a wide view, the history of art is simply one movement rebelling against the last. In most cases these movements occur simultaneously, and as with Pollock, multiple movements can even arise within the work of a single artist. There’s no real stopping place, and I could spend hours researching the ongoing influences of Modernism and Regionalism right up to today. But I better save something for next Thursday.

Best wishes for the New Year.

Molly Moser
American Gothic House Center

P.S. I couldn’t resist including a link to this awesome interactive webpage, where you can splatter paint with a click of your mouse! Experience Pollock’s style for yourself!

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