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  • It is Time to Rethink Regionalism in Midwestern LifeHow Two National Magazines Caricatured a Midwestern Art Movement and Hid Its Critical and Community-Engaged Edge
  • Travis E. Nygard (bio)

If the regionalist visual art of the 1930s is embedded in American cultural consciousness today, it is likely thanks to the most parodied painting of all time, Grant Wood's American Gothic of 1930.1 The regionalist movement—known for its innumerable farmscapes—was anchored on the creative communities that surrounded a "triumvirate" of Midwesterners: Grant Wood of Iowa, John Steuart Curry of Kansas, and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. The people of the Midwest took great pride in the fact that their painters were celebrated in nationally distributed magazines, such as Time and Life.2 One may erroneously think that the movement is well understood within intellectual culture, but in this essay I argue the opposite. Midwestern American art specialists have come to appreciate its complexity, but the broader multidisciplinary field of midwestern studies has not. Regionalist art is enigmatic, because it was pitched differently to a national and a midwestern audience. Nationally, in the aforementioned magazines, it was considered a celebratory movement that bolstered American values. Within the Midwest, however, newspapers expected the art to document the area with objective accuracy.3 Within the history of the Midwest, however, we should think of the regionalists as cultural workers who had an eclectic set of practices to engage the public and expand its thinking.

Regionalism was not self-declared by its practitioners in speeches and manifestoes in the way that realism, symbolism, cubism, futurism, surrealism, and so many other "isms" of art were, but rather was an artificial construct imposed on them. The movement began when Maynard Walker, a journalist, united Benton, Curry, and Wood under the rubric of "regionalism" [End Page 77] in 1933 for an exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute titled "American Painting Since Whistler."4 In many ways this movement was a visual parallel to literary regionalism, which also thrived at the time. The historian Jon Lauck has astutely explored regionalism in the context of literature, noting that the nation-wide academic discourse of the 1910s through 1940s celebrated regional creativity. However, beginning as early as 1920 midwestern creativity came under attack and began a slow decline.5 Critics who were originally from the Midwest and had come to enjoy a national audience, such as Carl Van Doren, presented the area as repressive.6 This was the beginning of a so-called "revolt from the village" thesis that continues to inform academic discourse to the preset day.

The concept of regionalism in art was popularized nationally by Time and Life magazines, through lavishly illustrated articles that bolstered pride in American culture.7 Indeed, according to the art historian Erika Doss, "regionalism's first and foremost business patron was Time–Life, Incorporated," which "supported regionalism for reasons related to profit and politics."8 Time placed Benton on its cover for Christmas Eve 1934, as the leader of the "U.S. Scene."9 Both magazines published banter about Wood's quest for historical reference material to use in his paintings, including red long underwear. This story appeared first in Time in 1935 and later in a follow-up in Life in 1939.10 Life ran a lavishly illustrated feature on Curry in its inaugural issue of 1936, celebrating his position as an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and declaring that he was "the greatest painter Kansas has produced."11 Life covered Benton's painting of a mural titled A Social History of the State of Missouri in 1937.12 Life covered Wood's teaching of students in Iowa in 1939.13 The magazine also covered a sexy scandal that year surrounding a nude painting by Benton, titled Persephone.14 Still more coverage that year included Curry's teaching of painting and his artist-in-residence program in its Christmas Day issue.15 Life also covered the Rural Art Exhibit that Curry organized each year in Wisconsin in 1941.16 Clearly the magazines treated regionalist painting as an aspect of America to be celebrated and followed closely.

Coverage in national magazines, however, is...