John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West

By Patricia Junker



The career of John Steuart Curry spanned only two decades: from 1924, when he first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York, until his death in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1946. They were, however, decades that shook the foundation of American life and art. Defined by the Great Depression and the country's entry into W odd War II, they were years of upheaval that would reshape the economic, political, and social structure of the nation and challenge the spiritual and moral grounding of all humanity.

As much as he was spiritually and artistically a product of the Middle West, Curry was an artist of these times. Born in rural Dunavant, Kansas, in 1897 and raised in a family of devout Scottish Calvinists, he appeared to struggle in the face of the nation's economic ruin and social upheaval to fmd meaning in religious faith. He confronted the challenges of modern life in subjects ranging from religious fanaticism to bigotry, from environmental destruction to war, exposing the real danger posed by the self righteous. He developed as a painter amidst sometimes bitter national and international debate on the appropriate language for modern art, realism or abstraction.

Through two decades of dramatic change, Curry held fast to an art that took as its foundation the relation of humankind to nature and of men and women to one another. Inevitably this son of a Kansas stockman saw that interconnectedness most clearly in rural life. In his paintings, inspired by the lives of people of rural Kansas, Curry gave form to issues that extended far beyond America's Middle West. He articulated both the complex concerns of his generation and universal human experiences. He elevated the rural Midwestern landscape to a higher level of discourse -- to a consideration of social and spiritual values. At its best Curry's art has the power to transcend region, and that, in the end, is what makes it such a revealing window into a time and a place.

Baptism in Kansas, painted in 1928, established Curry as a master story teller. Drawing upon his innate feeling for the human form, his profound formative experiences as a Scottish Calvinist, and the growing national interest in religious fundamentalism, Curry found in this religious rite a potent subject for his art. Baptism by submersion in a farm tank in rural Kansas was, like many of the subjects of his eady canvases, a recollection of Curry's childhood.

The elaborate figural composition was a supreme test of drawing skills he had honed at the Paris academy of the Russian instructor, Basil Schoukhaieff, and the narrative detail pointed to his skill as a popular magazine illustrator, an occupation that had engaged Curry to this time. The popularity of these canvases in New York struck a chord with the country's urban, East Coast intellectuals. Curry's Middle West, like that of America's collective imagination, was a landscape and a society stripped bare, revealing essential characteristics that shaped a national character -- cultivation of the land, community, simplicity, and faith.

Yet, in his art and in his life, Curry was, as he put it, driven "past the ballyhooers of the status the attractions at the other end of the fair ground." [l] Even from his vantage point in the East Coast artists' colony of Westport, Connecticut, where he spent the first half of his career, Curry saw that the most revealing aspects of the American social landscape were to be found not on his immediate horizon but well beyond-in the Midwest, and on the fringe.

The restive, even dispossessed farm families he encountered on his 1929 trip home to Kansas were one kind of marginal group. The troupers of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, with whom the artist traveled for a few months in 1932, were another. These individuals inspired a group of genre paintings whose subjects are easily regarded as members of the American scene's sideshow. Migrant road menders, uprooted farmers, and circus itinerants all contradicted traditional views of stable family and community. Their often pathetic lives and heroic survival served as living parables of faith tested -- as emphatic reminders that God works in strange ways.

The years between 1936 and 1940 were a time of intense national self-reflection. In the wake of the Great Depression and facing the threat of world war, Americans increasingly looked to the nation's past for protection against the trials of the present. Given unprecedented support by the federal government's New Deal programs, public art -- especially public mural art -- became an important forum in these years for the expression of what were considered defming national experiences, history, and beliefs. When Curry turned to grand historical themes in his painting, it was primarily to serve public mural projects. The subjects he chose were less American historical narratives than they were broad statements about human character.

Through one of the mural projects for the Federal Arts Program, Curry created murals for the United States Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C., under the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture. For this commission, he was assigned specific subjects to develop: "The Migration Westward, the Settlement of Land, and the Bringing of Justice," for one panel, and "The Freeing of the Slaves and the Coming of the New Immigrants" for the second. Curry's conception of The Freeing of the Slaves with its central figure of a triumphant black man astride dead white Union and Confederate soldiers, was, however, not accepted by the government's Commission of Fine Arts. Executing a second design, Curry depicted a judge in his robe on the steps of the courthouse holding back an angry mob.


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