Classic Essays

The Regionalism of Grant Wood

SB8_D3_I24_detModern nationalism may divide a race against itself

IF RACE IS OUR dominating cause, we must be anti-nationalist. We cannot allow ourselves to be swept up in hatred of England, Germany, Russia, South Africa, Chile and so forth. Nations, more precisely nations since the rise of France and Spain, nations in the modern and abstract sense, divide a race against itself. Nationalism means that a grouping within a certain boundary, arbitrarily determined, is, irrespective of blood or any other factor, one people; those outside it are aliens. Racial philosophy rejects this conception. It attempts rather to draw together people of a common bloodline no matter where they live. (ILLUSTRATION: Grant Wood)

Nation is one thing. Region is something else. A region can be such only insofar as a uniform race inhabit it. A region is determined by responses and feeling which are by nature genetic and racial. The word race itself apparently derives from the Latin radix or root. This would suggest a tie with the soil. While rejecting political and bureaucratic nationalism, therefore, our thinking at some point must center on the fact of location. A race may inhabit many lands or regions and still be a race. But it enters into a specific relation with each land. The response is racial but the land is different. Out of this relation arises a plurality of cultures. A culture is essentially a response to certain surroundings. This diversity of cultures and the ability to sink deep roots is a strong point of a race. By contrast the inability to establish new relations, the clinging to some old nationality or tradition, even to the extent of idealizing some remote “sacred soil,” is weakness.

A corollary to this point is that there is a lapse of time during which the tie with the land is weak. The tie needs time to take hold. During the lapse, the race is relatively cultureless. A paradox emerges. The first condition of a real culture is that the race starts out with very little culture.

Breaking the Prairie Sod_ (mural) by Grant Wood
Breaking the Prairie Sod (mural) by Grant Wood

Grant Wood (1891-1941) was a prophet not of a nation but of a region. His Americanism was precisely his regionalism. America is too big, too diverse. Out of America will come many regions. It will be occupied by men who had, in the first place, a special relation with the land, men who are capable of regionalism.

Grant Wood was born on an Iowa farm. When his father died, his mother sold the farm to buy a house in town. Shortly after, his family lost all its possessions to the banks. Nevertheless, his brothers and sisters managed to make ends meet. Grant early showed an artistic talent and the rest of the family, at some personal expense, encouraged him in that direction. Cedar Rapids, Iowa was on the face of it an unlikely place for the blossoming of high art and few individuals were regarded as more prosaic than a Midwestern farm boy, unless it was a Midwestern funeral director. Yet it was a funeral director, Dave Turner, who not only recognized Grant’s talent, but became his first and most enduring patron. He gave Grant space over his carriage house, which the latter turned into an attractive apartment. In return, Grant was to decorate and provide paintings for the funeral home. But this was just a beginning. Except for occasional trips outside Iowa, Grant spent his productive life there. Not only that, he attracted what nearly became an artist colony to his neighborhood.

Stone City by Grant Wood
Stone City by Grant Wood

In a word, Grant Wood thought that one could paint or depict with greatest depth and feeling that reality to which the artist, by virtue of birth and experience, is closest. He expresses this feeling quite eloquently in an essay, “Revolt Against the City.”

As for my own region — the great farming section of the Middle West — I find it, quite contrary to the prevailing Eastern impression, not a drab country inhabited by peasants, but a various, rich land abounding in painting material. It does not, however, furnish scenes of the picture-postcard type that one too often finds in New Mexico or further West, and sometimes in New England. Its material seems to me to be more sincere and honest, and to gain in depth by having to be hunted for. It is the result of analysis, and therefore is less obscured by ” picturesque” surface quality. I find myself becoming rather bored by quaintness. I lose patience with the thinness of things viewed from outside, or from a height. Of course, my feeling for the genuineness of this Iowa scene is doubtless rooted in the fact that I was born here and have lived here most of my life.

Gem Sweater
Grant’s portrait of Melvin Blumberg

Grant Wood could not paint, under any conditions or for any amount of money, what was foreign or repulsive to him. Strangers with money came to him asking for portraits. Mostly, as an agreeable person, he obliged them. This practice ended, however, under the following circumstances. A wealthy person, Michael Blumberg, asked Grant to do a portrait of his son, Melvin. Grant didn’t want to do it, but didn’t know how to refuse. He asked a friend for advice. The friend said to demand a lot of money, which Grant could not bring himself to do. Grant’s biographer, Darrell Garwood, puts it this way:

Like his other portraits of the time, Grant’s picture of Melvin was forceful and expressive. You got the story at once — a rich man’s son who had received plenty of candy and attention and had a new football under his arm. Michael Blumberg was well pleased with it — there was no dissatisfaction on the part of this client …Grant, however, was almost frantic by the time it was completed …He declared he would paint no more portraits of strangers …During the lean years of the depression, he refused at least a dozen portraits that would have brought him around twenty-five hundred dollars each.

Grant’s view of the relation between regionalism and art was best summed up in these words:

Let me try to state the basic idea of the regional movement. Each section has a personality of its own, in physiography, industry, psychology. Thinking painters and writers who have passed their formative years in these regions, will, by care-taking analysis, work out and interpret in their productions these varying personalities. When the different regions develop characteristics of their own, they will come into competition with each other; and out of this competition a rich American culture will grow.

To put it another way, art is a plant that will grow in many gardens, but each garden must have its own distinct soil and its own distinct gardener.

* * *

Source: Instauration magazine, November 1978

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