Before they painted dour faces, rolling hills, clouds and doors, Grant Wood and Marvin Cone were innocents abroad, traveling to Paris in 1920 to create art in the open air around them.
To celebrate the centennial of that trip, their Impressionist impressions are on view through Oct. 10, 2021, in two second-floor galleries at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
Going to Paris was the method of “finishing your art education in early 20th century,” said Kate Kunau, the museum’s associate curator. “You weren’t really an artist if you hadn’t gone to Europe and been inspired by the old masters, because Europe was still center of the art world in the 1920. It was kind of an artistic finishing school, especially for those who would have been perceived as bumpkin Midwesterners. That was very important — to go to Europe to see the great works before you, yourself, were an artist.
“That was especially important to them, since Impressionism had come out of France 50 years ago. They’re going to the birthplace of the style that they’ve been painting in.”
They took a train from Chicago to Montreal, then set sail across the Atlantic to spend the summer immersing themselves most days in the Luxembourg Gardens, an oasis in the heart of Paris’ famed Left Bank area. Artists, writers and musicians flocked and flourished there.
Cone’s detailed diary lends delightful insight into their time and travels, Kunau noted. He wrote of the “very pretty ladies” they wined and dined in Chicago, and in Paris the two men photographed each other drinking a beer. And it’s on the trip home where Cone would meet his wife, Winnifred.
“It’s fun to think about two guys in their 20s doing a summer in Paris together,” Kunau said, adding that Cone devoted an entire paragraph in his diary to the superiority of European bread and butter, and how he could make a whole meal out of bread.
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Indeed, they traveled on a shoestring budget, staying for free in monks’ quarters in Montreal, then in hostels and rented rooms abroad, eating cheaply and cramming their suitcases full of 15-inch-by-13-inch boards on which to paint.
“This was by no means an extravagant trip,” Kunau said.
But it was rich in artistry.
They would sometimes paint together, other times work separately, painting the architecture and environments that caught their eyes. Cone incorporated more people in his paintings, whereas Wood might occasionally include one or two blurred figures. They also sought out lesser-known sights, giving viewers another glimpse of Paris apart from major Parisian landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Sacre-Coeur and Notre Dame.
“They’re drawn to out-of-the-way sights, more intimate scenes,” she said. “There are a couple of churches, but they’re not major churches. It’s a lot of village square kind of works. It’s really interesting, and they’re lovely pieces.”
The exhibition features about 30 pieces, mostly oil paintings, but also some sketch drawings and the photographs the artists took of each other. It holds surprises for viewers familiar with the artists’ later styles, which involved more bird’s-eye view of landscapes, and harder edges.
“The style is vastly different from the mature styles of both of these artists. It’s very quick, very brushy, very expressive, the paint is thicker. Marvin Cone goes on to have a very spare use of paint. You can really see the canvas in a lot of his more mature works, but this is probably as much paint as Marvin ever uses in his work. ...
“This is 1920. Grant’s style really turns the corner in 1928, when he goes to Munich to work with the Emil Frei stained glass company there,” the result of which is the 20-by-24-foot stained glass window gracing the Second Avenue entrance to the Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Cedar Rapids.
Kunau called this centennial exhibition “the front-runner” to subsequent Wood exhibitions planned for 2021. “Seriously Funny: American Gothic Parodies,” will be on view from Jan. 16 to May 2, and “Grant Wood Revealed: Rarely Seen Works by An American Master,” is slated for Feb. 13 to May 16. In addition, the museum has separate first-floor galleries devoted to works by Wood and Cone.
“The first thing I heard when I started my job here in 2015 was that we need more Grant Wood,” Kunau said. “I’ve certainly never heard anything to the contrary. I’ve never heard, ‘Too much Grant Wood.’”
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If you go
• What: Exhibition: “Americans in Paris: Grant Wood and Marvin Cone’s 1920 Trip to Paris”
• Where: Second floor galleries, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE
• When: Through Oct. 10, 2021
• Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
• Admission: $8 adults, $7 college students and ages 62 and older, $4 ages 6 to 18, free ages 5 and under; face masks required
• Details: Crma.org
• Related: Art Bites free exhibition tour with Associate Curator Kate Kunau, 12:15 to 1 p.m. today