In images of rural life from the first half of the 20th Century, piety goes hand in hand with hardship. A new exhibit shows "religious art" from America’s pre-Jet-Ski era.">
American regionalist art of the 1930s and 1940s often gets described as "sentimental." But I think "devotional" hits nearer the mark. It's as close as we've ever come to an American religious art.
The rural images of this period, especially, portray lives of saints, nameless ones in brogan shoes. They wear cotton dresses and overalls. Heads bowed, they muscle against the elements. As dutifully as St. Catherine clutched her wheel or Lawrence lay down on a brazier, these rural saints squint into dust storms, toil and drink from rainbarrels. Rural landscapes of this era are scenes of spiritual reckoning, too, the puckered barns and twisted treetrunks as dreadful as Golgotha, just in an American way.
The Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University now has on view an especially strong group of these devotional works. "Rural America: Remembering the Family Farm" presents 23 prints from the collection of native Kansan Steven Schmidt. Here are some of the best known American regionalists — Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton — alongside printmakers that were new to me, like Grace Albee and John Stockton deMartelly. Curator Michael Beam has organized the show thematically with images of labor, landscape and architecture, and (what sounds most intriguing) "phasing out." In this last grouping, Beam includes images of the dust bowl and mechanization, when modern industry and change intruded on the vision of rural sacredness.
THE BOYER PLACE (1946)
Wood engraving by Grace Thurston Arnold Albee
from the Steven Schmidt Collection
Photo: Courtesy of the Castellani Art Museum, Niagara University
As you look over the images in Beam's catalogue, you may find yourself asking, as I did, Where are the trucks, the boats? Where are the flags and Shoney's restaurants? Where's the NASCAR track? And, of course, where are the Hispanic fieldworkers? The red-state rural of 2007 has its own stock of images — and sentimentality, to be sure. But the halos are missing.