American RegionalismAmerican Regionalism is an artistic movement specific to the United States, which mainly characterised painting and more generally the visual arts during the inter-war period, and which depicted rural genre scenes, drawing its themes from the small towns of the Midwest and the South.
American Realism, also called American Scene, refers to a style of realist painting that emerged in the United States of America (USA) in the first two decades of the 20th century. Its characteristics are the most realistic possible rendering and the often socially critical depiction of the "typical American" lifestyle and sensibility. American Realism is considered the first national art style of its own in the USA; Abstract Expressionism, also known as the New American Scene, developed from it in the 1940s. Stylistically, American Realism is close to New Objectivity and genre painting.
The term "American Scene Painting" is more rarely used to describe the development and affirmation of this vast realist movement specific to this country, which had taken off during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, embracing all forms of art and expression: this scene asserted itself during the 1920s, especially in urban centres with an organised artistic life, groups of artists, and a mature art market, and whose identity was defined in reaction to European modernism, particularly French modernism3.
Grant Wood's American Gothic (1930), which draws its motif from the South, is seen as the emblematic work of this regionalist and social movement, a painting that the dramatic consequences of the 1929 crisis, the Great Depression, will in retrospect transform into a true icon.
Supported during the New Deal period by cultural action programmes, this trend spread beyond American borders and included other artists from all over the continent, such as Diego Rivera.
The Sources of American Regionalism
Prior to 1845, the art market in America was almost non-existent, but this does not mean that there were no artists exploiting motifs specific to this vast country or that there were no buyers. On the contrary, the landscape was the first genre to denote the identity of this country and to enjoy a form of success, for representing the singular, vast and varied American landscape motivated artists from Europe as well as from the East Coast, thus fostering intercultural exchange as the continent's exploration westward progressed during the nineteenth century. As America became more aware of itself, it gradually sought to represent itself through the genre scene, which art critics considered to be produced under the influence of European, and particularly English, pictorialism. Here again, however, the representations were drawn from the variety of populations that cohabited in both urban and rural areas. A first regionalist current - of a pastoral and romantic nature -, drawing on folklore, miscegenation, slavery, Indo-Americans and the social specificities linked to rurality, was thus born shortly before the middle of the 19th century, and William Sidney Mount was one of its most famous representatives.
The beginning of Americanisation in 20th century modern art is generally associated with the outbreak of the First World War. An important pioneer was the New York gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, who held the first exhibitions with European artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia in his Gallery 291, but was soon to turn away from European Modernism. In his own photographic work, Stieglitz preferred to devote himself to the modern urban landscape of New York (Old and New New York, 1910), emblematically documenting the transformation from the Old to the New World.
Art historians, however, generally consider the extensive Armory Show, which was also held in New York in 1913, to have been a real stimulus. It so drastically illustrated the European "hegemonic position" in the visual arts that it was perceived by American critics as a shocking affront to native culture. Many artists who had hitherto felt "inferior" or "faceless" in comparison to the traditional, dominant art world of Europe and its protagonists initially reacted in a snubbed manner and, after a brief phase of self-discovery, countered at the latest at the beginning of the 1920s with an unusually patriotic-conservative regionalism in statement and visual language.
The search for identity and the accompanying authenticity initially took place through the thematisation of the expanding urbanisation and industrialisation of the New World: Stylistic borrowings from Cubism and Futurism initially gave rise to American Precisionism: it contained above all geometric and technoid stylistic elements. The main representatives of Precisionism were Ralston Crawford, Charles Demuth, Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Sheeler. Sheeler experimented with the photorealistic depiction of huge industrial plants; since he preferred to use photographs as models for his works, he can be called the first photorealist ever. Georgia O'Keeffe extended this photographic approach to an almost microscopic view of things by depicting organic forms and structures realistically, but at the same time making them abstract by enlarging them to fill the format. Her first solo exhibition at Gallery 291 in April 1917 showed semi-abstract charcoal drawings that were not inspired by European contemporaries. Ralston Crawford, who depicted clear, flat and geometric street and industrial landscapes, can already be described as an early pioneer of colour field painting and Pop Art.
Socially critical and psychologising realism
Among the early representatives of socially critical painting were the members of the Ashcan School (initially also called The Eight), a group of artists founded in New York in 1908, who took up primarily socially critical themes with scenes from the big-city milieu. Their works, which were often stylistically oriented towards early press photographs, depicted, for example, poor people in the slums, drunks, criminals, accidents and crime. Among the members were George Wesley Bellows, Robert Henri, George Benjamin Luks, Maurice Prendergast or John French Sloan. Some of the artists later joined left-wing political movements or trade unions.
The prosperous economy of the Roaring Twenties was followed in the shadow of "Black Thursday" in 1929 by the Great Depression of the 1930s, which led to drastic cuts in social and cultural life in the USA. The art world reacted to an "American way of life" suddenly dominated by unemployment and renewed migration with a socially critical examination. The work of Edward Hopper in particular reflects this new state of mind, which was now characterised by emptiness, meaninglessness and aimlessness.
Hopper was able to heighten his psychologising realism through a virtuoso play with light and shadow as well as the unsparing depiction of the loneliness and anonymity of "modern man" in enigmatically alienating, almost surreal-looking pictorial worlds. Hopper thus consistently opposed the subjects of his contemporaries, who were still determined by technocratic euphoria: his unmasking subjects are the bleak scenarios of a village and petty bourgeois pseudo-idyll with crumbling huts and abandoned houses that offer neither warmth nor protection. The lonely protagonists of his metropolitan settings, mostly offices or shabby motels, are depicted coolly, distantly and without any sympathy; they are subject to sober analytical observation in which the viewer, ergo the painter himself, does not seem to be emotionally involved. One of Hopper's best-known works is Nighthawks [Figure 1] from 1942, which is one of the most popular paintings of the 20th century.
Like Hopper's work, Grant Wood's works, which are influenced by the local colour of the Midwest, are characterised by their stylistically precise and distanced realisation. Wood's works reflect the puritanical bigotry of American rural life. Wood, who had spent several years in Europe and studied there, lamented, like many of his fellow American artists, the lack of acceptance by the European artistic scene. In his later years, Wood concentrated almost exclusively on a peculiar regionalism that borrowed in manner and iconography from late Gothic and Old Netherlandish painting. The artist was hardly influenced by the European avant-garde; at most, he can be said to have been stylistically close to the New Objectivity of Franz Radziwill and Christian Schad. Grant Wood's best-known work is the 1930 painting American Gothic, a portrait of a farmer couple standing in front of a house. Although it was rejected by critics who suspected it to be a satirical indictment, the painting became immensely popular in the 1930s. The style of depicting people and the composition of the picture was copied by numerous artists in subsequent years, and the title "American Gothic" became synonymous with this variant of American Realism. In general, the subjects of the Regionalists were characterised by provincial-small-town pictorial themes (farms, agrarian landscapes, farmers working in the fields, etc.), which pointed to the pathos of the free American pioneer spirit, which was on the wane in the mid-1930s due to the economic crisis.
Marsden Hartley: Blueberry Highway, Dogtown, 1931, High Museum of Art, Atlanta Other better-known regionalists were Thomas Hart Benton, George Biddle and Marsden Hartley. Hartley originally came from traditional painting and oriented himself towards the European avant-garde, here primarily towards Kandinsky, until he finally found his "very own" figurative-abstract pictorial language, which he implemented in genre paintings or seascapes dealing with his native Maine. Hartley became a leader of the Regionalist movement of his time in the 1930s.
The new national consciousness of the still young American art movement also aroused the interest of the US government, so that under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, artists' aid programmes were initiated. At this time, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) came into being, which was intended both to promote "folk art" as a job creation measure and to set a "standard quality" for American art. This so-called "project realism" or "WPA realism" was significant in the history of the development of modern American art in the 20th century.
Muralists and Social Realism
Also promoted by the WPA and an important source of inspiration for the American Realists were the Mexican Murales, murals that date back to the Mexican Revolution. The main representatives of this Latin American-influenced social realism were the artists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siquiros and Ben Shahn, also known as "muralists". (cf. also Socialist Realism).
Towards a split with Europe
The history of American painting, strongly marked by the Civil War (1861-1865), was then traversed by three main currents: the exaltation of nationalism, the affirmation of the regional specificities of the South and the enhancement of the urban poles of the North, which were themselves aware that they were not representing modernism - a very European concept that would take time to spread - but modernity and progress5. In the last quarter of the 19th century, American painters appeared who, for the first time, achieved an ideal synthesis, standing at the crossroads of everyday life, folklore, multiculturalism and the massive industrialisation that was taking place in this country. Above all, this painting does not only represent high society, it turns its gaze towards ordinary, humble or neglected people. American realism, of popular essence, was to enter into contradiction with the European avant-gardes, before integrating them, and then developing its own marks, exalting the Nation, the People, its motives, its inhabitants, its myths. This was the birth of a specific American aesthetic scene with its own codes5. Thus the impressionist school, European expressionism and naturalism, without being ignored, were recycled for the benefit of a broader vision, anchored in social realism, driven by a very utopian and romantic ideal. Painters organised themselves, grouped together: first in Cincinnati (the Cincinnati Art Club, from which Joseph Henry Sharp left to explore Taos in New Mexico), then in Philadelphia, the historic capital where, before New York, the new trends were asserted.
In 1908 and 1910, however, it was New York that was chosen to show the art world what American painters could produce differently (The Eight, "The Exhibition of Independent Artists"). But in 1913, the great international exhibition of modern painters, which moved from the Armory Show in New York to Chicago and Boston, opened up a significant divide: On the one hand, there was painting perceived as being for the elite, for rich collectors, seen by the press and even the American president as too European or incomprehensible6 , and on the other, a reaction that sought to capture the very essence of America and to make art for everyone: this very nationalistic programme was driven by political and social ideals, the concern to face up to the realities of the country and to make the most of the opportunities it offered.
Decline of the movement
The critical aesthetic debate about the definition of an 'American modernism' in its specificities culminated in the 1930s and 1940s. With the Great Depression and the New Deal, three painters became the bearers of the regionalist and social realist banner, namely Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry, supported among others by the influential critic Thomas Craven (1888-1969). All three had been to Paris, and their work was quickly picked up by the populist and chauvinist media7 , and became popular, a momentum supported by vast federal aid programmes for artists, themselves decried as socialist by the right. The pictorial anchorage remained deeply rural, reminding the masses of their origins. As a result, even precisionism remained limited to the big cities on the eastern side. Many regionalist painters were considerably influenced by artists such as Diego Rivera, JosÃ© Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who came from the Spanish-American area5. New media appeared, such as wall paintings and large posters, and the explosion in the circulation of popular magazines made it possible to communicate to the greatest number of people a realistic and progressive imaginary, the American way of life, an ideal based on optimism rather than on the cracks in the system, of which Norman Rockwell was the most popular representative.
This "crisis" in the representations of American modernism came to an end at the end of the Second World War, when New York became the hub of the international art market and carried abstract expressionism, like a veritable showcase, throughout the West: in fact, it was no longer Europe that dictated its artistic conduct to America, but rather the reverse.
End of the Epoch
With the outbreak of the Second World War in the early 1940s, American Realism lost importance and was soon replaced by the Abstract Expressionism called New American Scene. The misleading term "New American Scene" for this style of painting, which was stylistically opposed to figurative realism, was intended to refer to the still immanent national moment with America as the place of origin.
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