I saw these two paintings yesterday at the Royal Academy’s America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. This exhibition runs until the beginning of June, and is considerably smaller in scope than the concurrent show on art from the Russian Revolution. It describes the story of the USA immediately after the great crash of 1929, the depression, the influx of refugees from communism and fascism in Europe, changing social attitudes, and above all, the dislocation and fear that all this change brought with it. The exhibition presented a number of paired paintings either adjacent to each other or with common themes. Two paintings by O Louis Guglielmi (Phoenix, 1935 and Mental Geography, 1938) were not situated next to each other but served as a reminder of the environmental failure of 1930’s industrial development. Two paintings by Charles Sheeler – Home Sweet Home, describing a simple rural interior, complete with a Shaker chair and simple woven rugs; and American Landscape which describes Ford’s Rouge River plant in Detroit, at the time the world’s biggest industrial complex – give a sense of the movement of labour and capital during the 1930s, when half of all Americans were city dwellers.
The two paintings here are linked principally by the presence of the unharnessed ploughs in the immediate foreground. The top picture is Grant Wood’s Fall Plowing (1931) and puts me in mind of Harlan Hubbard’s paintings of Kentucky (Wood painted in Iowa). It is unashamedly agricultural. Critics said that Wood was backward looking, but art has a duty to record, celebrate and interpret as well as challenge, and Wood has done us a service in showing us this warm October afternoon.
The second painting is by Alexandre Hogue and is entitled Erosion No. 2: Mother Earth laid bare, one of a set of paintings entitled the “Erosion Series” describing the destruction of the topsoil that led to the dustbowl and badlands. Again, in the gallery devoted to country life, these two paintings are not adjacent, and it was only the ploughs that made me link them. In their own way, they are as horrifying together as anything in the Russian Revolution exhibition, and the desolation visited on the farmer who has followed the crowd and ruined the topsoil to the detriment of his own home place and to the earth, violated and abandoned, seems to be a just revenge taking on such stupidity. The one ploughman is resting, and giving his mules a rest. He will be back soon. The other farmer is long gone, and the plough is rusting,. not resting.
I read an essay last week by Wes Jackson from the Land Institute in Salina, Ka., in which he quotes Wendell Berry as saying that “when we came to this new continent, we came with vision but not with sight.” The insight here is that the earth has a history, a “genius of the place” as Jackson has elsewhere described it, and we ignore that at our peril. The heavy ploughing of shallow topsoils, like the industrial corn-and-soybean planting on hillsides in many parts of the US, has only soil erosion as a consequence, and that is not easily replaced, if at all. Much in this exhibition can be put down to those who came with vision of what a new country could be, but without the sight to see it as it was and therefore should be.
The learning from this is huge, because we make this mistake all the time. We mistake the necessity of vision (which the management gurus say we must have, and which Christian pastors adapt to their own requirements) with a clear understanding of what has gone before, what is, and what is demanded by what is. As school leaders, as pastors or as national leaders, we rarely look to our inheritance. Because we do not look to what we have been given, we are rarely grateful for what we have, and without gratitude there is no praise, no worship, no honour and no joy. And without these things, we cannot live at all.