JOHN STEUART CURRY (1897-1946) told critic Thomas Craven in 1939, ``I was raised on hard work and the Shorter Catechism.'' He also confided that ``the emotional impressions of my youth temper everything that I do and feel.'' Since those emotional impressions of his youth were formed in the rural Kansas home of his devoutly religious Covenanter parents, where Bible reading was an important daily occurrence, his statements clue us into the fact that his art was ``tempered'' by his religious upbringing. Led to examine his painting in this light, we find that his apparently secular, modern-day scenes, often of farm life and animals, are resonant with biblical references.
Curry understood clearly that modern art in the 1920s and '30s, while it included the spiritually inspired work of some modernists, had little place for overtly religious subject matter. Nevertheless, he wanted his art to make the Bible come alive. He solved the dilemma by emulating the Old Masters.
``Notice,'' he told his Midwest listeners in a lecture that he gave in 1944 on the history of agriculture, ``that [Benozzo Gozzoli] puts his biblical characters into a setting which is logical and in keeping not with characters in the Bible but with the [15th century] artist himself. The artist has used a biblical story in such a way as to make it very real and meaningful to his public.''
In this way Curry, too, used biblical narratives to make them realistic and familiar to his public. In ``The Mississippi,'' for example, a black farmer with his family is perched on the roof of their home that is all but submerged in the flood-swollen river. His head is thrown back and his arms are raised in prayer. All of America was aware of the periodic catastrophes that occurred along the rivers. It was not hard for Curry's contemporaries to recognize in the farmer a modern-day Noah.
Among the most powerful of Curry's youthful experiences were the tornadoes that struck with such violence in Kansas. His ``Tornado Over Kansas'' is based on his memory of, as he recalled, ``how we used to beat it for the cellar before the storm hit.''
A tornado would inevitably have been linked with the whirlwind of punishment in Hosea, ``For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind ...''; in Jeremiah, ``Behold, a whirlwind of the Lord is gone forth in fury, even a grievous whirlwind: it shall fall grievously upon the head of the wicked''; in Isaiah, ``For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger....''
Fire and whirlwind are indeed the images that appear in Curry's monumental masterpiece, ``The Tragic Prelude,'' the mural that he painted for the Kansas State Capitol at Topeka in 1938.
The principal figure represents John Brown, the ardent abolitionist who with several of his sons settled in Kansas in 1855 to help win the territory's admission to the union as a free state. His militant antislavery activities brought him national fame. When Kansas was established as a free state, Brown's militancy had grown to such an extent that he concocted a scheme to fight slavery in the South itself.
Brown gathered a handful of followers in Hagerstown, Md., and on Oct. 16, 1859, he attacked the federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Va., planning to arm slaves with the weapons there and lead them in a revolt. Government forces put down the uprising and Brown was arrested, tried, and condemned to hang. He was executed on Dec. 2, 1859.
Curry's portrayal of Brown set for all time the image we have of the deeply religious, Bible conscious, martyr-fanatic who passionately believed that it was God's intent that he free the ``slaves'' as Moses had before him.
In ``The Tragic Prelude,'' Curry depicts his John Brown-Moses with his arms fully extended. In his left hand he holds a Bible with the letters alpha and omega from Revelation written on the open pages; in his right hand is a rifle known as a ``Beecher Bible'' because Henry Ward Beecher and his abolitionist friends shipped rifles to Kansas marked ``Bibles.'' Brown strides forward with a Kansas tornado behind the gun and a prairie fire raging behind the Bible - God's thunderous `wrath'' and consuming flames.
The extended-arms pose calls up powerful associations with the crucifixion, which is reinforced by Brown's towering figure, so tall that the outstretched arms are high above the heads of the crowd - as if he were suspended above them. To the Mosaic image is added Christ's.
For Christians, the New Testament details the fulfillment of the Old Testament (``Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfil,'' Jesus says in Matthew). Moses and Jesus parallel each other in the sense of being the two great liberators. Indeed, the long walls of the Sistine Chapel are covered with scenes from the life of Moses on one side and that of Jesus on the other. Moses is seen by Christians as the Old Testament prelude to Jesus.
There is also a New Testament ``precursor'' to Christ, John the Baptist. According to Matthew, ``In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, ... /For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. /And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins....'' To the people, Christ identifies John, as written in the gospel of Luke, ``...he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.''
Brown wears a rough-looking garment, the color of camel's hair, and two heavy leather belts. His hair stands up wildly. With his mouth wide open he is John, the voice crying in the wilderness, as well as the radiant Moses descending from Sinai, and the crucified Christ, all of them personifications of salvation.
The tornado and the fire, then, are compressed images that carry the meaning of ``The Tragic Prelude.'' They represent the awesome natural phenomena that Curry experienced in his youth, but they also symbolize the apocalyptic storm to which Harper's Ferry was a prelude - the terrible, destructive Civil War rending a path through the prairie of America, a tragic prelude to freedom.