Monday, April 02, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 2: John Steuart Curry's "The Tragic Prelude" mural in the Kansas Statehouse

John Steuart Curry painted a mural for the Kansas Statehouse that has become an iconic image of anti-slavery fighter John Brown, The Tragic Prelude (1937-42):

The painter's design places the towering figure of John Brown between the contending armies of the Civil War. His arms are stretched out in a melodramatic pose, a rifle in the right hand and a Bible (?) in the left, the gun on the side of the Union armies, the Bible on the side of the Confederacy. Brown has a flowing white beard and wild hair blowing in the tumult, looking like some combination of a hellfire-and-brimstone preachers, an angry Greek god, an Old Testament prophet and a raving madman, his mouth bellowing out, what: a sermon? a war cry? a howl of rage?

I find this over-the-top melodramatic image appealing because of its grand sense of historical drama. The ambiguity of Brown's nature in the image and the melodrama of the scene remind me a bit of this not-quite-so-famous image:

How knows, maybe Jack Kirby took some inspiration from The Tragic Prelude in drawing that cover. (And, yes, Hulk fans, he was gray in his first appearance! Get over it.)

In a new collection of essays by R. Blakeslee Gilpin, John Brown Still Lives! America's Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality & Change (2011), Gilpin writes about Curry's creation of the Kansas Statehouse mural and Curry's view of Brown in the essay "Revising Kansas: John Steuart Curry and the Fanaticism of John Brown".

In the design proposal for the mural that was accepted, Curry proposed to show "John Brown in the center of a struggle between pro and anti-slavery forces [which] shows the Osawatomie crusader towering above a struggling crowd." Gilpin writes:

As the artist's wife recalled of the Topeka mural and especially of the centrality of Brown, Curry "thought [Brown] was what represented Kansas."

However, Curry's knowledge ofthe abolitionist was rather meager, consisting mainly of vague schoolboy memories. Moreover, the only written work the artist consulted was a single pamphlet by Alfred A. Santway, "an aged negro," the work's frontispiece described, "who had remembered [Brown] from boyhood and whose family had been liberated through the [abolitionist's] efforts." Regardless of the dubious accuracy of this claim, Santway's 1934 reminiscence laid out the heroic vision of Brown that detractors had decried since 1859. Recalling Albion Tourgeé, Santway described "John Brown, The Traitor, John Brown, The Fanatic, John Brown, The Martyr .... Thus has this man, one of the most dramatic characters of all times, been denounced and acclaimed." Curry ignored that history of acclaim and focused almost exclusively on Brown as a traitor and fanatic. Curry's canvas shows this very man: fire in his eyes, Bible and rifle in hand, amid a sea of destruction. [my emphasis]
But the public and legislative reactions to the mural as it progressed showed, as Gilpin puts it, that "Brown's memory still could have dangerous and unpredictable consequences."

A controversy arose over the expense of some remodeling required to complete additional portions of the Statehouse mural project according to the original design. But Gilpin believes that controversy was really a talking point in support of objections arising to the content as perceived by some Kansans:

The most aggressive denouncers were a collection of civic organizations, the Kansas Council of Women, the American War Mothers, and the Topeka Women's Club, all of whom protested the mural. The groups claimed that the artist's murals, "while true in a sense, do not portray the true Kansas.'"? In highlighting Brown, Kansans were outraged that, as they had feared, the artist had "emphasized the freaks in history."
He doesn't expound on the expressed content of the criticism from those groups. But he does quote a state legislator who just didn't like John Brown:

By 1941, Kansas politicians had swung completely behind their incensed citizens. "John Brown's murals may rank tops with the art experts," the Topeka State Journal snidely noted, "but the legislature is thumbs down on them. For the second time during the session the Curry paintings were denounced from the floor." Several state representatives let reporters know just how much they disliked the mural. "I don't know how the rest of you feel about John Brown," Representative Van De Mark explained, "but I think he was [an] erratic, crazy old coot and a murderer."
On an interesting biographical note, Curry felt personally wounded and discouraged by the criticism. While lots of artists would love to generate some controversy. Curry was a well-known painter, though, so maybe he thought he had all the notoriety he wanted already.

Gilpin finds the legislator's criticisms puzzling and an ironic turn:

Van De Mark's comments are jarring. Curry's John Brown was exactly the character the representative described: an erratic, crazy old coot and a murderer. Furthermore, Curry hoped to alert the nation to the danger of such men. If anything, Curry had honored Kansas by showing how Brown had used the territory as a platform to launch an extremist campaign against slavery. However, because these conversations were being mediated through Brown, Curry's painting was totally misunderstood by people outspokenly sympathetic to his interpretation. [my emphasis]
Gilpin's allusion to Curry hoping "to alert the nation to the danger of such men" has to do with what he describes as Curry's isolationist sentiments at a time when the danger of a new general European war was clearly growing. Gilpin believed that Curry baked an isolationist plea into his John Brown mural:

Who was the John Brown that Curry presented? As he described it, "I portray John Brown as a bloodthirsty, god-fearing maniac." Throughout American history, Curry argued, men "like [Brown)" had "brought on" wars. Curry was an isolationist and saw his nation on the "eve of conflict," a second world war in Europe. When decisions were made by "pious cranks" like John Brown, only bloodshed, death, and destruction would ensue."
This is very interesting information, and Curry's own expressed opinions there indicate that he viewed Brown as a dangerous fanatic and that he intended the mural to be an isolationist/antiwar image.

Gilpin's essay, though, makes me more curious about the painting and its reception. For one thing, as I indicate at the start of this post, I find the image far more ambiguous that the raving-madman reading that Gilpin prefers. Even if Curry intended to portray Brown as a destructive madman, as he apparently did, the mural that he actually produced is more complex than that. The background showing images of the westward settlement with the tornado on the left and the prairie fire on the right suggest that the Civil War depicted in the middle was a dramatic high point in a long and tumultuous history of the United States. As much as I try to keep a part of my thinking skeptical of notions of meaning in history, I have more than a little sympathy for ideas like Hegel's concept that the self-development of Freedom is the driving force of history. All such Western theories of history, and not only the Western ones, owe a great deal to the prophetic visions of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian adaptation of them.

And Curry's tableau places John Brown - not Abraham Lincoln, not Jefferson Davis, not George Washington, not Andrew Jackson, not Frederick Douglass - but John Brown at the center of the grand sweep of American history, the man who Curry described as "a bloodthirsty, god-fearing maniac". In some sense, it places the Brown figure as beyond good and evil, a ferocious conductor of the train of history.

I have a major suspicion of any imagery or descriptions of the Civil War that declare some kind of equivalency between the Union and the Confederacy. From any standpoint I would take on the movement of American history, the Union represented the progress of democracy and freedom, the Confederacy the destruction of democracy and the flowering of human slavery. Whatever one thinks of classical liberal notions of democracy (Franklin, Jefferson, Tom Paine) or the centrality of freedom in classical German philosophy in Kant and Hegel, or the notion of some tendency to progress in history, the two sides were not equivalent in their goals and their results. From any point of view that I would consider "the right side of history", the Union was on it, and the Confederacy was trying to destroy it.

So in creating a seeming equivalence between the two sides, Curry's mural does comport with the Lost Cause/neo-Confederate view of history. Which also regards John Brown as Curry described him, one of the "pious cranks",  "a bloodthirsty, god-fearing maniac".

And yet the equivalence suggests that the Civil War was a key turning point, a moment of momentous decisions that far transcended the moment in its significance and effects. And placing John Brown at the center of it, as the "god-fearing" leader (maniacal or not!) who forced the country to confront the historical decision they faced, cannot be entirely comfortable to those who are fond of the Lost Cause view of American history.

See also:

Curry's Kansas PBS Newshour 08/13/1998 (text and audio)

Kansas Historical Society, Cool Things - Curry's Statehouse Studies n/d

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