This summer, the Indiana State Museum hosts the first major show of Indiana painting from the 1930s and 40s.
Indiana Realities is drawn from the Regionalist paintings in the Robert L. and Ellen E. Haan Collection. Having collected the work of the state’s women artists as well as some of the finest landscapes by the significant American impressionists known as the Hoosier Group, the Haans have gone on to invest in the Indiana artists who—although not as well-remembered now—helped define American Regionalist painting.
A Midwestern Sensibility
By the early 1930s, Regionalism had swept the nation. A show at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1933 had put three Midwestern artists on the map: John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton. Although the three never worked together and were stylistically heterogeneous, they came to be considered in unison for their affinities in subject matter, which encompassed everyday life in the Midwest.
In Indiana, a faction of artists, many of whom studied and taught at the Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, were practicing their own form of Regionalism, which strayed significantly from the impressionist style that had put Indiana painting on the map at the turn of the century.
Rachel Berenson Perry is Fine Arts Curator at the Indiana State Museum. “They were showing a lot of subjects that that the Hoosier Group would not have shown,” she explains, “industrialism, men working on the railroad tracks.”
A Good Hard Look At Reality
T.C .Steele, for example, the Monet of Brown County, would not ever have painted the likes of Edmund Brucker’s Oil Tanks (1945), a gritty, post-apocalyptic scene dominated by two hulking oil tanks and a pile of gypsum, overhung with an ominous sky. In Henrik Mayer’s Foreboding (1940), three wooden female figures stand vigil at a jetty that juts out into a choppy gray sea.
It’s a far cry from the dappled light and purple shadows of the plein air canvases of the Hoosier Group. Although not all of the 37 paintings hanging in Indiana Realities are quite as foreboding as Mayer’s canvas, it’s a good reminder that this is Depression-era art. Perry recalls,
We were in a period of isolationism between the world wars, as well as the Great Depression. The fundamental ideals of place, history, politics, and social change replaced the individual consciousness as sources of artistic motivation. More abstract art was becoming popular, but the American government gave mural commissions, prizes, and scholarships to artists whose work reflected the everyday man in America.
And everyday life in the 1930s wasn’t a day at the beach, as these paintings bear out. We see train wrecks, shotgun shacks and alleys draped with telephone wires. A heavy mood hangs over these images.
“The sensibility of Edward Hopper comes to mind here,” Perry ventures. “A lot of the paintings are kind of lonely and desolate, and show rain and dark clouds. There’s a mood of man’s vulnerability.”
Film Noir’s Painterly Prototype
That mood might be best distilled in one of the show’s standout pictures. The Red Farm, a 1937 painting by Floyd Hopper—no relation to Edward—offers a scene straight out of Hitchcock: a delivery truck rushing into the distance on a ribbon of road, with a row of farm buildings looming on the ridge above, and a dramatic play of lights and darks foretelling an imminent storm.
Trained at Herron, in the 1930s Floyd Hopper rented a studio on Indianapolis’ Market Street in Indianapolis, along with Cecil Head and William Kaeser, whose work is also represented in Indiana Realities. The Market Street Artists, as they became known, made frequent excursions to the outskirts of town, where the makeshift shacks of the city’s own ‘Hooverville’ provided subject matter for some of the boldest, freshest canvases in the show.
Art In A Time Of Austerity
That such strong work emerged during such an austere time begs the question of the impact of today’s economic climate on contemporary art. Explains Perry,
One of the reasons I wanted to do this exhibition after the recession was to see how artists respond to what’s going on economically in their country. The Regionalists were guided, of course, because we had a US government that believed in supporting the artists; whereas now, it’s been very difficult for individual artists to make it because they haven’t received any particular support from the federal or state governments. As a consequence, they’re just following their own evolutions.
Indiana Realities: Regionalist Painting 1930-1945
Indiana Regionalist paintings from the Robert L. and Ellen E. Haan Collection.
Indiana State Museum, 650 W. Washington St, Indianapolis, IN 46204
March 6-September 11, 2011; Tuesday-Saturday, 9 am-5 pm, Sunday, 11 am-5 pm
Museum admission: $7/adults, $6.50/seniors, $4/children