TOPICS > Arts

Curry’s Kansas

August 13, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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LIZABETH FARNSWORTH: John Steuart Curry, shown here in a 1937 self-portrait, was a Kansas farm boy who moved East and became a well-known painter, but he remained obsessed with the world he’d left behind.

He painted the tornadoes that tore along the prairie and threatened family farms; his parents in their living room; and the radical abolitionist, John Brown, in all his fury. Curry was born in 1897 in this house in Northeastern Kansas, not too far from where John Brown had murdered five pro-slavery men 40 years before. Growing up, Curry sketched and painted; and he left home at age 18 to study art in Kansas City, Chicago, and even Paris for a time. He made a living first as an illustrator for books and magazines. 

He gained fame in the 1930′s as one of the so-called “regionalist” painters, along with Iowan Grant Wood shown here and Missourian Thomas Hart Benton. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney bought Curry’s “Baptism in Kansas” in 1931 for her museum in New York and supported him with a stipend, putting him on the cultural map. He was living in Connecticut then and got mostly rave reviews from the Eastern press. In 1936, he was named “artist in residence” at the University of Wisconsin.

His painting, “Wisconsin Landscape,” won first prize at an important exhibition in New York in 1942 that included many of the country’s foremost artists. But after Curry died at age 49 in 1946, his works got taken off the walls of the big museums. He and the other “regionalists” fell into disfavor as abstract expressionism took hold of the American art world. Only in recent years has there been a renaissance of interest in Curry , and this summer he is the subject of a major exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Patricia Junker, a Curry expert, is curator at the exhibit.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why the rebirth of interest in Curry?

PATRICIA JUNKER: Well, I think from the position that we are in now in the late 1990′s, as we’ve taken stock of what’s happened this century, we’ve looked at particularly the social issues and intellectual issues and cultural issues that have shaped our century. We found that this was an important transforming moment, the period of the 30′s and 40′s, and then when we’ve looked again at the art, we’ve seen that many of the issues are still with us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: If you look, for example, at the painting I’m looking right over your shoulder, the Tornado painting, what do you see in that, that makes it alive for us today, that has meaning for us today?

PATRICIA JUNKER: Well, I think there in that barnyard in Kansas, Curry presented a struggle that was really timeless. And that is the struggle of man against nature, which was one of the primary motivations of his art, reminding us that we’re vulnerable and that we’re always at the mercy of forces greater than human forces.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is that painting, I mean, some critics would say that that painting is almost cartoonish-is that painting a painting you’d consider a great painting?

PATRICIA JUNKER: Yes. I see that it is a painting that affects people. I watch people look at it. I see that they relate to the emotion that is depicted in it. I also think that this idea of conflict, of vulnerability of human beings, is something that we all feel, that we can all relate to, and I think he has captured it clearly, succinctly, powerfully.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In fact, people are so vulnerable in the paintings, I look around here, I mean, there are people dealing with war-John Brown and the Civil War. Is this what Kansan-he was born in the 90′s in Kansas-there’d been drought, there’d been terrible storms, there had been depression in the 90′s. Is this what Kansas did to him?

PATRICIA JUNKER: This is what Kansas did to him, and the other-the other force that shaped his life was how Kansans dealt with it, and particularly how faith sustained them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about “Baptism.” “Baptism” was the first painting that really put him on the map, wasn’t it?

PATRICIA JUNKER: Exactly. In 1928, he had just come back from Paris, from an eight-month period of study in Paris, where he really studied figure drawing. He had seen the work of Picasso and Matisse. But what really stayed with him in Paris was the experience of the Louvre and seeing painters like Peter Paul Rubens or Eugene Delacroix, Jacques Louis David-the great history painters who took issues of their time or timeless issues and recast them in ways that lessons could be drawn from them.

So he came back to his studio in Westport, Connecticut, because he had left Kansas 10 years previously. And he began to paint. And when he chose the “Parables,” the timeless parables, he set them in a Kansas barnyard, because this is what had shaped him. This was the context that he could understand.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s hard for us to imagine now but this was a fairly revolutionary subject, right? People were not painting these in the 30′s.

PATRICIA JUNKER: People were not painting baptisms in the 30′s, or in this case in 1928, when this really caused quite a sensation when it was exhibited in Washington, D.C..

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about race? I notice in these paintings there are– aside from the treatment of John Brown-there are quite a few paintings that have to do with race. He was very interested in the whole subject of race, wasn’t he?

PATRICIA JUNKER: Exactly. And when he was looking for heroic types for tales of American heroism, those trials that make us the strong characters that we are, he was really deeply moved by the struggle of blacks in America. The most troubling images-I think the ones that still affect us most deeply-are paintings like “The Manhunt.”

There are no obvious allusions to race in the actual picture, itself, and yet, we know that it’s all about lynching. And it was painted at a time when anti-lynching legislation was before Congress. That painting was acquired by the vice president of the NAACP, who saw it as a painting that really spoke to him and his efforts and interests.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Curry was also concerned about war, and he worked on this painting of a World War I funeral until the eve of World War II. The picture is one of Patty Junker’s favorites.

PATRICIA JUNKER: The title of this painting is called “The Return of Private Davis from the Argon” that was actually a funeral that Curry remembered from his youth. From that title you might expect to see a celebration, the return-celebratory return home of a war hero.

Here, the hero has returned home in a coffin. And this entire community, the town of Winchester, Kansas, has turned out for this funeral. And the smallness of the community, the essential place that a young man plays in such a small community is made even more emphatic by the vastness of this prairie that the entire population of this village really you get a sense is gathered here at this funeral.

The figures, you don’t really read them as individuals at all but just a kind of a collective mourning here in all of the bowed heads that the clouds seem to repeat that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Clouds and prairie still dominate the view in Northeastern Kansas. And other images favored by Curry remain visible here too: the barn outside his parents’ living room in this painting, for example. The barn survives, barely, and members of Curry’s family still farm this land. Bill Manville is a cousin.

BILL MANVILLE: As you see the tornado picture, the ’32 tornado, the family coming out of the back door of the house, this was the barn and the silo’s right out there, and there’s a chicken house that they finally tore down.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re farming the very land that he farmed; you’re facing the same storms that he faced. Does it look like the Kansas that you know?

BILL MANVILLE: Yes. If you want to go back to the line storm, I mean, you can go to the top of the hill and see what we think was a line storm, and where he painted it and portrayed that in the painting.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what do you think is happening in that picture? Explain it to us, from your point of view.

BILL MANVILLE: Well, a lot of anxiety with the farmers, knowing that they have to beat the-beat the rain, the storm. Their hay was on the wagon; let’s get it in the sheds; and we still go through that today.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Curry returned to Kansas in 1937 to begin five years of work on a series of murals in the state house in Topeka. He considered them the best paintings he’d ever done. They featured his vision of the period before the Civil War known as Bleeding Kansas, as symbolized by John Brown. He clutches a Bible in one bloody hand and in the other a Beecher Bible, the rifle named for abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. A tornado approaches on one side and a prairie fire on the other. Underneath Brown’s feet are dead soldiers from North and South. Some Kansans watched Curry paint the murals and approved. Others hated them.

PATRICIA JUNKER: It was the subject matter, the sort of showing Kansans at their worst. John Brown, whose activity in Kansas really led eventually to his activity at Harper’s Ferry, and his work was prelude to the Civil War, and this was-he is not to Kansans a heroic figure but really the figure that led to this fratricide that was the Civil War.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In 1941, because of the strong public reaction against the paintings, Kansas legislators refused to allow Curry to finish the murals in the way he had planned. In response, Curry refused to sign those already in place.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think it’s true what his wife said, that his heartbreak over that led to his death?

PATRICIA JUNKER: I do. I absolutely do. It had-for a Kansan to be invited to paint murals on Kansas history in the state house was the crowning achievement of Curry’s career. And he really felt validated by his people. And to have them immediately begin to attack his-the worthiness of his subject matter-meant that they didn’t really see the big issues; they didn’t appreciate them as he did. And that was devastating to him.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Curry died in 1946. Nearly half a century later, Kansans finally gave him the validation he had sought. In 1992, the legislature issued an official apology for its treatment of the artist and bought all the drawings related to the State House murals. This recognition of his cousin’s work, however belated, was a vindication of sorts for Curry cousin Bill Manville.

BILL MANVILLE: It’s kind of sentimental to me that nobody knew anything about it until just the last few years. All of sudden he’s become-hey, he was good!

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So John Steuart Curry is a big name in Kansas again, as he is at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, where the Curry exhibit runs until the end of August.