Spencer Museum of Art
Remembering the Family Farm: 150 Years of American Prints
March 24 - June 3, 2001
Catalogue introduction for "Remembering the Family Farm: 150 Years of American Prints"
by Stephen H. Goddard, Senior Curator, Max. Kade Department of Graphic Arts, Spencer Museum of Art
Printmaking often has served as a vehicle for memory. Today a variety of technologies allow us to set down in multiple what we consider to be a memorable visual record of human affairs, but for centuries printmaking was the only means to do so. Printmaking has been central to efforts to capture and remind us of the atrocities of war, as in the "Miseries of War" by Jacques Callot and "the Disasters of War" by Francisco Goya.; it has been used to memorialize individuals, as in Rembrandt's tracking of his own aging through numerous self-portraits, or the propagandistic prints exalting Emperor Maximilian; and printmaking has been used to record the vanishing features of a city, as in Albrecht Altdorfer's 1519 print of the Regensburg synagogue just before it was destroyed, Giovanni Battista Piranesi's scrupulous images of Roman ruins, or Charles Meryon's renderings of old Paris in the midst of modernization. This exhibition examines prints that memorialize a specific feature of the American landscape: the family farm.
If the prints in this exhibition are considered as establishing a cultural memory of a vanishing way of life, it must be noted that it is often an especially sentimental record. This may have to do in part with the fact that rural subjects have traditionally been tinged with sentimentality. Consider two literary forms that have treated rural subject matter in the west from antiquity onwards: the Pastoral and the Idyll. The former is defined as "a literary or other artistic work that portrays or evokes rural life, usually in an idealized manner," and the latter as "a short poem or prose piece depicting a rural or pastoral scene, usually in idealized terms."1 While there is just as rich a tradition of satirical prints of peasant existence, there is no escaping the stereotype of an ideal agrarian world. This stereotype feeds on the notion that rural life comprises an ideal world where there is harmony and balance between humankind and nature, where humility (literally "being close to the ground") and labor lead to simple but ample rewards, and where the family is central to social fabric. (left: David Edwin Bernard, born 1913, Threshing Run # 7, 1984, color woodcut, Spencer Museum of Art, Gift of Charles L.Marshall, 92.213)
It is not surprising that many of the exhibited prints have not escaped this sentimental framework. However, this exhibition chooses not to analyze the idealistic or nostalgic aspects of images of the American farm, or the related issues of provincialism, the mythologizing of the midwest, or the general notion of regionalism. Rather, we have elected to investigate the prints for the wealth of information that they convey as records of rural existence, regardless of their stylistic or allegorical characteristics. We have set our task to mine the prints for what they contribute to the cultural memory of the American family farm. (right: Norma Bassett Hall (1889-1957), Haying in Vermont, color woodcut, ca. 1940, Spencer Museum of Art, Gift of Steven Schmidt, Class of 1958, 99.141)
Many of the printmakers represented in this exhibition consciously used the medium as a means of remembering or memorializing a vanishing phenomenon. John Mackie Falconer is known to have recorded in etching and watercolor the "vestiges of Long Island's Dutch and English past [that] survived in old houses." Hershel Logan jotted down about his prints:
Fodder in the Shock. "A composition made from memory of the old winter days on the farm."
Sorghum Mill. "Typical of bygone years were scenes like this in Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri, where this scene was sketched. And, who can forget the taste of newly made sorghum?
A Kansas Wheatfield. "Many is the time I have shocked wheat in this field on the old boyhood farm. Or helped to set up a few fallen bundles after a severe rain."
For Logan, printmaking was a means to set down memorable aspects of life in Kansas. After moving to California in mid-career (where he was active as a printer of miniature books and an authority on historical firearms), he rarely returned to printmaking. Alternately, artists Roger Medearis (now living in San Marino, California) and Jackson Lee Nesbitt use printmaking as a tool for remembering their earlier rural experiences. Nesbitt's activity as a printmaker was interrupted by a career in advertising. Upon returning to printmaking after a hiatus of 29 years, he remarked of his first post-retirement lithograph, Ozark Farmer of 1988, "I had met this blacksmith-farmer on a trip to Jasper, Arkansas many years before. It was during the Depression and that was poverty." (left: Jackson Lee Nesbitt, December Afternoon, 1993)
This exhibition offers readings of the tangible aspects of the past that have been set down in prints of the America family farm. To do this, a team of essayists was chosen whose expertise lends itself to the task: Dennis Domer, Martha Gage Elton, and James R. (Pete) and Barbara Shortridge.
Domer is professor of architecture and Director of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the University of Kentucky. Previously he taught at the University of Kansas in the School of Architecture & Urban Design and the American Studies Program. He has published and lectured extensively on subjects in American vernacular architecture, historic preservation, and German-American culture. Domer was raised in Centralia, Kansas. The family lived at the edge of town and worked three farms, one of which was known as "the home place."
Elton is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas working on a degree in art history with Professor Charles Eldredge. She has conducted research on the silo in John Steuart Curry's Kansas Pastoral. As a child, she spent weekends at the farm of family friends in Missouri and more recently has frequented the Macy family farm at Blue Mound near Lawrence, Kansas. (left: John Steuart Curry, The Line Storm, 1934, lithograph, Collection of Steven Schmidt)
Pete and Barbara Shortridge both teach in the Department of Geography at the University of Kansas. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and has received numerous honors for teaching excellence. His fields of interest include cultural ecology, cultural geography, agricultural geography, and folk culture. Pete has published widely on the cultural geography of the plains and has served on numerous advisory boards, most recently for the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition "Barn Again!: Celebrating an American Icon." Barbara has conducted extensive research on the issue of regional identity as conveyed by regional foods, the subject of her recent book, The Taste of American Place: A Reader on Regional and Ethnic Foods (Lanham, Maryland: 1998). Pete was raised in the small town of Pleasant Hill, Missouri. As a child he spent much time at the nearby farm of his grandfather.
The incentive to undertake this project is due in large part to a friend of the Spencer Museum of Art, Steven Schmidt (University of Kansas, class of 1958), who has an intuitive sense of the importance of prints of rural subjects. A native of Salina, Kansas, Schmidt has proven to be an indefatigable seeker of prints of rural America, many of which he has given to the permanent collection of the Spencer Museum of Art. We are also grateful to Bud and Ruby Jennings and a recent anonymous donor who have contributed significantly to the Spencer Museum's holdings of prints of rural subjects. (left: Edward Penfield, (1866-1925), Harpers / March [horse-drawn plow], 1899, color lithograph, Collection of Steven Schmidt)
Many other individuals have helped to make this exhibition a possibility. I would like to thank my interns in the Max Kade Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Spencer Museum of Art, Joni Murphy and Cori Sherman, as well as printroom assistant Ramona Denijs, for their assistance as this project developed over the past few years. Linda Ferber (Brooklyn Museum of Art), Bill North (The Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University), Rona Schneider (Rona Schneider/Fine Prints), and Roberta Waddell (New York Public Library) have generously shared their expertise. Finally, I would like to thank Wayne Flory and Alvin Fishburn, retired farmers in Douglas County, Kansas, for taking time to look at the prints with the catalogue essayists. This was a valuable and pleasurable experience for all of us. Their reaction to the prints emphasized to us how little the printmakers contrived.
About the Curator
Stephen Goddard is Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Spencer Museum of Art and Professor of Art History of the University of Kansas. He received his Ph.D. in art history from the University of Iowa in 1983. His doctoral thesis concerned the workshop of the early sixteenth-century Antwerp painter known as the Master of Frankfurt. After two years of dissertation research in Belgium, he returned to the U.S. for an appointment in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery. He currently serves as President of the Print Council of America.
Goddard's major exhibitions and catalogues include Ubu's Almanac: Alfred Jarry and the Graphic Arts (1998), An Eye on Flanders: The Graphic Arts of Jules De Bruycker (1996), Les XX and the Belgian Avant-Garde: Prints, Drawings, and Books, ca. 1890 (1993), and The World in Miniature: Engravings by the German Little Masters, 1500-1550 (1993). He also collaborated with his intern Bill North on the exhibition Rural America: Prints from the Collection of Steven Schmidt (1993)
Introductory Wall Label for Remembering the Family Farm: 150 Years of American Prints
Printmakers have been tireless recorders of the American experience. In the nineteenth-century the publishing firm of Currier & Ives produced countless lithographs detailing everything from American ships and trains to scenes of hunting and farming. During the 1930s and 1940s many American artists worked hard to record the "American scene," drawing inspiration from the city and from rural America, as do many artists today.
In recent years we have witnessed the decline of the traditional family farm, although the buildings, the soil and the social fabric have been under attack for much longer. In many instances acreage has been sub-divided into smaller building sites while in others family farmland has been taken over by agri-business. These and other economic and demographic problems have resulted is the erosion of a way of life. This exhibition looks at the past 150 years of prints of farming activity as documents of the imperiled family farm. Even when these prints are frankly nostalgic or sentimental they have much to offer for our understanding of the rich varieties of the American farm, its built environment, its traditions, and its customs. In taking this approach we have also drawn heavily from works by lesser-known artists, which we hope will also offer some fresh and rewarding insights into the wealth of American printmaking.
The exhibition is organized according to agricultural activities and structures, beginning with prints that show farms in their entirety, then moving on to scenes of plowing, haying, corn cultivation, and other aspects of the farm such as farmhouses and fencing.
This exhibition and catalogue are supported by Steven Schmidt (University of Kansas Class of 1958); the Mary Margaret Brett Fund; and the Kansas Arts Commission, a state agency; and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.
The above essay is reprinted with permission of the Spencer Museum of Art.
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