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  • Making Midwestern Art HistoryOskar Hagen and James Watrous
  • Lauren Kroiz (bio)

Nine Springs Creek provided the ideal environment to begin the study of European Renaissance ink drawings for University of Wisconsin–Madison art history professor James Watrous. after gathering reeds from the creek that runs about five miles south of the university, Watrous's students turned those reeds into pens and drew with inks they had also made. Watrous advised scraping chimneys in which only wood had been burned to produce bistre ink and recalled discovering rare natural earths (the red chalks Michelangelo used) on field trips with his students to iron mining sites in upper Michigan.1 We do not oft en think of midwestern creek sides, fireplaces, and ore fields as spaces for art history. Stereotypes of midwestern practicality and unpretentiousness seem at odds with those of the discipline. However, departments of art history blossomed throughout the Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s.2 This essay recovers Watrous's art history laboratory, a pedagogical experiment beginning in the late 1930s, as a case study in the teaching of art history in the Midwest that defamiliarizes both our understanding of the region and the discipline, centering making as a way of producing historical knowledge.

In 1957 Watrous published The Craft of Old-Master Drawings summarizing nearly twenty years of classroom research. He dedicated the book to his mentor—the University of Wisconsin's first art history professor, German émigré Oskar Hagen, who founded the Wisconsin department in 1925 and remained its leader until his death in 1957. Watrous's dedication points us to his project's origins within earlier Wisconsin's art historical engagements with art making. My book Cultivating Citizens considers Hagen's alliances with artist-in-residence John Steuart Curry, College of Agriculture Dean Chris L. Christensen and rural sociologist John Barton. Together, under [End Page 31] the shadow of World War II, they devised a plan to give farmers an aesthetic education. Centering art making as bulwark of individualism and democracy against threats of fascism (and later communism), their University of Wisconsin's Rural Art Program encouraged farmers across the state to make artwork. Hagen's understanding of art as a national expression accorded well with regionalist ideas and with Christensen's arguments for introducing the study of culture into an agricultural pedagogy dominated by questions of economic and scientific productivity.3 This essay begins with Hagen's art history to frame Watrous's innovative, now largely forgotten, midwestern experiments in making art history, providing a broader context for laboratory art history.

Hagen founded the art history department in 1925 after the university's German department, one of the oldest in the nation, invited him, in 1924, to become its Carl Schurz Visiting Professor.4 Hagen's arrival in the United States (nearly a decade before most German émigrés) may have been inspired by the cosmopolitan history of his own family. His German-born father had worked in the United States as one of the early members of the New York Symphony Orchestra and later became a naturalized citizen; his mother, Ellen Owen-Snow, was a British citizen; and his wife, Tyra Leisner, was a Danish opera singer. Hagen himself was a German art historian who had been trained by Wilhelm Waetzoldt, a student of the famous German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. When the University of Wisconsin hired him, Hagen was teaching in the art history department at the University of Göttingen, having secured a professorial appointment there. Along with his wife and two young children, the thirty-seven-year-old art historian left inflation-ravaged Weimar Germany for Wisconsin.

Before Hagen permanently left Germany, he spent the summer of 1925 selecting and purchasing three thousand lantern slides and a large series of photographs, books, and reproductions of artwork of all kinds, the typical pedagogical tools of art history. Because almost all the books in this collection of teaching materials (as most art history in the period) were in German, there was still little for his U.S. students to read. Hagen began working to remedy the situation, reinventing the discipline to engage his Wisconsin students. In 1927 he published, in English...