Twentieth-century art: resistance to modernism -- Part 1. American art celebrates cornfields and common folk.

ART no longer presents a unified front as it did at the time of the Pharaohs, the Renaissance Popes, or Napoleon. There may have been differences between artists in those days, and styles may have changed a bit from one period to another, but the notion that it was legitimate or even laudatory to work in a style at odds with the dominant mode of one's culture would not have been taken seriously, not even by the artists. The issue first came to a head when the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists rejected the ideals of the French academy and struck off on their own, thereby planting the seeds of modernism.

Much to the surprise of the revolutionaries, however, the conservative, academic tradition didn't just curl up and die. In France, it quickly learned to absorb the outer trappings of modernism, and to appear much more modern than it actually was; in England, it found security by ignoring everything that was not at least two decades old; and in Germany, it buried itself deep in the artistic glories of the past.

Things were different in the United States, not only because it was several thousand miles from the center of modernist activity, but also because it had no deeply ingrained artistic tradition for its younger painters to rebel against. Modernism, for all its passion and power, was originally a European matter, and despite all efforts to import it, first in the form of Impressionism, then through the 1913 Armory Show in New York, and finally by means of various offshoots of Cubism and Constructivism, it remained essentially that until the Abstract-Expressionists Americanized it in the mid-1940s.

American art resisted the blandishments of modernism for almost 75 years and, in several important ways, it still does. Even during the 1950s and '60s, when Americans were conquering the international art scene and it was almost impossible for a nonmodernist painter to get a major gallery in New York, large pockets of resistance could be found throughout the US. These have since expanded dramatically to the point where American art can now be said to be operating under something like a two-party system,

with modernism and its derivatives occupying the top stratum, and a variety of other modes occupying the lower.

The mainstream art world, of course, refuses to acknowledge this, and insists that the battle begun by the likes of Claude Monet and Paul C'ezanne is over and the enemy is finally defeated.

Nothing is further from the truth, as can be seen by the growing number of artists who reject modernist principles and procedures and produce work that is genuinely vital and significant. They are neither naive nor reactionary, but talented and dedicated painters who have devoted their lives to alternative modes of expression. For them, art is a private matter, a lifelong engagement between reality as they perceive it and their talents, sensibilities, and ideals -- not a set of theories or dogmas spelle d out by others and enforced by critics and curators.

Early 20th-century American art has numerous precedents for these artists' position, beginning with the group of realists known as ``The Eight,'' who in 1908 staged New York's first major anti-establishment exhibition. Although their stance was more in opposition to the highly conservative National Academy than it was anti-modern, their example did much to reinforce the independent attitudes of such younger artists as George Bellows and Reginald Marsh.

The notion that American art should be vigorous and wholesome, and should represent the actions and virtues of ``everyday folk'' going about their business, took hold with a vengeance in the 1920s, and became something close to a dogma in the 1930s.

Modernism, when it was considered at all, was viewed as effete and affected -- but most of all, as foreign. ``Real'' Americans painted cornfields, farmers threshing, sandlot softball games, or street vendors in Manhattan. Art, almost everyone agreed, was based on fact and observation, not on theory or fancy ideas, and only sissified Europeans or ``decadent'' Americans spent their time drawing circles and squares or splashing raw paint on canvas. NO one flexed his muscles nor thumped his chest more manfully than Thomas Hart Benton -- which was odd, in a way, since he had spent several of his student years in Paris as a dedicated modernist. His conservative Midwestern background won out, however, and shortly after his return to the US, he found himself in the forefront of the Regionalist movement.

Together with John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, he produced large numbers of murals, easel paintings, watercolors, and prints that celebrated the history, folklore, and daily life of the Midwest. Of the three, Benton was the most famous and articulate, although Wood, thanks largely to such popular favorites as ``American Gothic'' and ``Daughters of Revolution,'' was to prove the most accessible and best loved.

Other nonmodernists of the period included Rockwell Kent, Alexander Hogue, Raphael Soyer, Isabel Bishop, Ivan Albright, Philip Evergood, Ben Shahn, Robert Gwathmey, Doris Lee, Paul Cadmus, and Peppino Mangravite. Not one stands out with the clarity of Edward Hopper, however, and none appear as likely as he to be remembered a century or two from now. HOPPER was special, not so much because he was exceptionally gifted -- several of his contemporaries were at least his equal in that -- but because he had a very clear perception of what he wanted to ``say'' and the patience and discipline to find the very best way to shape and communicate it.

The viewer, as a result, cannot help but respond to the brooding, deeply introspective nature of his work. It is seen in his lonely-looking lighthouses, to his somber hotel room and theater interiors, to the isolated farmhouses near railroad tracks, and the bleached summer cottages by the sea.

Even those who don't share his vision of life, and aren't particularly thrilled by his handling of paint, cannot help but be affected by the depth of his emotions, and by his dogged determination to make everyone feel at least something of what he felt.

Most of Charles Burchfield's paintings of the 1930s were also somewhat brooding, although he had begun his career a decade or so before as a fanciful watercolorist, and would devote the last 20 years of his life to producing some of the most exultantly romantic landscapes America has ever seen.

During the '30s and '40s, however, he concentrated on rather straightforward depictions of rural, urban, and industrial life, with a heavy emphasis on wind-swept fields, deserted Victorian houses, and the less elegant sections of small towns and cities. The majority of these were executed in watercolor, a medium he dignified as few Americans have and which, in his hands, acquired much of the complexity and richness usually associated with oil painting.

Neither Burchfield nor Hopper -- nor anyone else, for that matter -- could possibly have guessed, as the 1930s drew to a close, just how drastically American art would change over the next decade, and how few well-known painters of the pre-World War II era would survive the onslaught of Abstract Expressionism. Both of these artists not only pulled through but went on to even greater success a few years later.

The vast majority of their contemporaries did not, however, and either never again exhibited seriously, or adjusted their styles to accommodate the new fashions in art.

Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.

First of two parts. Tomorrow: American realism endures

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