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Regionalism in Art: Characteristics & Style

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How can something based in regional attitudes form a unified style? In this lesson, we're going to check out American Regionalism in the arts and see how it reflected American attitudes.

Regionalism

Every kid had that one older teenager they always looked up to, and whose attention and acceptance they craved even if the feeling wasn't entirely reciprocated. Sure, the big kid was nice and all, but the relationship was never one of equals.

This experience sound vaguely familiar? Even if you haven't experienced it yourself, it's a common theme the history of the USA. Ever since achieving its independence, the United States tried to demand a spot at the big kids' table of global politics and often did so by emulating European arts and culture. Americans felt they could prove that they deserved to be treated like intellectual equals if they could keep up with European artistic movements. Of course, Europeans continuously treated American arts as unoriginal and uninspired knock-offs.

That was the relationship between the USA and Europe for a long time, until the Great Depression of the 1930s. With this economic crisis emerged a new artistic movement, one which embodied nationalist and isolationist attitudes of a country looking to withdraw from an international community that had recently fought a world war and was now in economic peril. This movement was Regionalism. In many ways, by rejecting European art rather than emulating it, America was growing up.

Characteristics of Regionalism

Regionalism was a unique movement that grew out of the fear and uncertainty of the Great Depression. It was a rejection of many things that Americans blamed for the Depression, including the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the last several decades. Thus, Regionalism abandoned the cityscape and instead looked to rural America (which was still most of the country at this point), particularly the Midwest.

The resulting images were nostalgic and reassuring, celebrating American endurance and perseverance even in the bleakest of compositions. Regionalist art embraced the idea that the USA could provide for itself, representing a literal looking inwards of art rather than looking to the world. As a result, it was strongly nationalist, patriotic, and isolationist.

A lot of these ideas were carried in the physical elements of Regionalist compositions. At the time, Modernism was sweeping Europe and abstraction was seen as the hallmark of the future. The United States had tried to participate in this, notably hosting their own modern art exhibition called the Armory Show in 1913. However, the Regionalist artists strongly rejected 20th-century abstraction (even if the influence of late 19th-century French painters like Matisse and Gauguin is evident in their work).

Baptism in Kansas, a painting by Regionalist John Steuart Curry
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Regionalist styles tended to be straightforward and direct, reflecting the spirit of the Midwest. In rejecting abstraction, they further demonstrated an isolationist and nationalist withdrawal from Europe and asserted that American arts didn't need to be like European ones in order to be valid. American arts, designed for American tastes, were good enough on their own, and whether Europe approved or not was irrelevant. So there.

Notable Artists

Aside from this coming-of-age self-assurance, Regionalism didn't actually have a definitive manifesto. There was no body of artists who set the agenda or tone, which is partly why the movement died out after World War II. This also meant, however, that it was open to regional tastes and aesthetics. So, the best way to understand Regionalist art is just to look at some examples.

Let's start with John Steuart Curry, a Kansas artist who ranks among the big three of Regionalism. Curry's paintings embrace agrarianism and rural life, although often with an eye towards the violence and danger of it. One of his most famous works, however, is 1928's Baptism in Kansas. Embracing themes of community, religion, and unconcealed faith in rural America, it shows a baptism in a water tank after the creeks had dried up in the Dust Bowl. Despite this foreboding drought, the scene is peaceful and resolved in its perseverance through adversity.

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