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Retarditaire Wisconsin

by Gary John Gresl

I first learned the use and meaning of the word, retarditaire, in the 1970’s as I sat in a History of Interior Design class at UW Madison. An interpretation of its meaning is simply this: Some new ideas are slow to move from one area to another, implying that what is new in one place is not simultaneously new all over. Some important and freshly minted art movements take their time to arrive in other geographic regions due to physical, technical and cultural reasons, and due to human obstinacy and obstructionism.

For example during the second half of the 18th century the fresh neoclassical styles in architecture and furniture such as Hepplewhite and Sheraton took their time to move from England to America due to the slow pace of communication and transportation. These Classical Revivals were the new “hot” thing following news of excavations in Herculaneum and Pompeii. Those who could afford it chose to employ architects and designers who could create for them the latest popular styles. Sailing ships took a long time to traverse the seas.

Gradually, over the course of months and years, these revival styles made their way across the expanding western United States. However, what was new in New York might not be seen produced in western territories for many years, or perhaps never if there was no local demand for it. Sometimes there was resistance to change less adaptable attitudes simply slow to accept outside influences, especially if local styles were vital and preferred. Sometimes there were the local idiosyncrasies and mutations that made regional styles unique, possibly a positive trait seen thru the eyes of an exploring art historian or artist.

Eventually throughout the 19th century rail travel and distribution of literature lessened time gaps and the expansion of ideas moved at greater speeds. We also sometimes overlook that artists did not merely wait for things to come to them. They often traveled in many directions to learn about other places and ideas. Travel in the 19th century was not a rare thing. It was taken with greater frequency than we think. There were day trips on rail and coach, as well as extended travel to the East and West.

However, the acceptance of the important European art movements of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries did not take hold in American until decades after they arose in Europe. It took a major art event like the 1913 Armory Show in New York, which traveled to Chicago and Boston, to set fire to slowly awakening artists and to the drowsy or recalcitrant general public. This titled “International Exhibition of Modern Art” was the brain child begun and executed by American artists, especially Arthur Davies and Walt Kuhn, and the organization they formed called “The Association of American Painters & Sculptors” in 1912.

In 20th century Wisconsin we can see that the advent of Modernism did arrive in a retarditaire fashion. In the first several decades of the 1900’s the remaining influence of German academies was very strong due the several 19th century immigrant German artist teachers and their respect for the academies they had known. Academic teaching techniques meant that students followed long established curricula; including study from classical molds, figure drawing, traditional use of color, composition and technique, with little to no thought about taking advantage of accidents. Accidents were not supposed to happen. Paintings were planned and were meant to be executed in stages, with little deviation from that plan.

The influence of 19th C. French Impressionists did eventually make its way into the Midwest. Even some paintings by German influenced Wisconsin artists, such as the important and academically trained Carl Von Marr, reveal a softening and diffusion common to Impressionism. Full blown impressionism generally came late to America, as evidenced by the late dates of American Impressionists compared to the period of its blossoming in France.

In the second and third decades of the 20th Century, as seen in Europe and Russia, more advanced styles of art emerged, including Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism, and more…all breaking with traditional academies. The noted New York Armory Show of 1913 remains a touchstone moment in the education of American artists and the public at large. As word spread from the East coast to the West, more adventurous artists came to vent their own experimental tendencies, embrace artistic freedom and follow new hypotheses.

Some Wisconsin artists who broke from hide bound traditions had to leave the state to find an audience and make a name for themselves. We have important regional examples from early 20th Century like Edward Steichen, Georgia O’Keeffe and Frank Lloyd Wright who became internationally prominent. Others who a bit later reached outside our limited regional community to take jobs or commissions that provided them success and broader name recognition included Edmund Lewandowski, Aaron Bohrod and Brooks Stevens.

There were second and third generations of our regional artist who remained here and who responded to the revolution and evolution of 20th Century Modernism by engaging in their own brands of progressive contemporary styles, such as Schomer Lichtner and his wife, Ruth Grotenrath, Elsa Ulbricht and George Niedecken, but even they benefited from reaching outside the geographic and cultural restrictions of our locale. After all, even New York artists do not just show their wares in New York.

Adding to the mix of expressions there were some artists working in the style called Midwest Regionalism and Social Realism who believed that their mission was to represent the working classes of country and city. In their art they proclaimed that it was working class citizens that provided the raw materials, the food stuffs, the factory produced goods, as well as the human character and social adhesion that holds our societal fabric together. Such nationally known artists as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood stand out as Regionalists.

Their art was a representative one that technically and stylistically appeared conservative when compared to some progressive art accepted in avant-garde circles. Wisconsin had its share of these Midwest Regionalists, some associated with art schools like UW Madison, UW Milwaukee and Layton School of Art. I speak respectively of John Steuart Curry, Robert von Neumann and Gerritt Sinclair.

It was during the decades of the 30’s to the 50’s that breaks with traditions in Wisconsin seem to have really emerged, a process that may have been “retarditaire” in the true sense of that word. What was modern and progressive in Europe and the Eastern US eventually made its way to cities further west. Students from Wisconsin looked outside their environment and attended the likes of the School of the Chicago Art Institute and traveled to far flung contemporary exhibitions.

The group of older academically trained artists was passing on while the influence of newer styles was being seen in literature and media, in text books and art classes. Artists such as Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, etc. were being studied and emulated. Progress was also amplified due to the movement of European artists coming to America as a result of the First and Second World Wars. The liberalizing of American Art, including in Wisconsin, would not be stopped.

Of course, like all regions, Wisconsin has its appreciators and proponents of some art forms which must be considered conservative. There will always be the lovers of landscape and inspired pictures of natural places, still lifes and portraits. There will always be some artists, dealers and collectors of more traditional art forms. This does not mean that the work is flawed, unskilled or backward. Such work can be very sophisticated, long studied and historically relevant. It is an extension of traditions that have proven historically significant and which speak to human conditions and ideals.

Today the word retarditaire has little relevance in our culture. Besides the great ease of travel, we have access to the latest art and ideas from around the globe coming at us thru TV and the Internet. The media loves to tell us about what is new, topical and often outlandish. Specialized publications are delivered to our doors. We learn what is being exhibited and talked about from California, London, Australia, to Johannesburg and China. Each morning I can look at my online New York Times and get reports about the latest major art news. I Google and add layers of knowledge.

In conclusion, art emerging in Wisconsin in the early 21st century does not seem at all “retarditaire”, unless we can find a regional artist who lives in a cave without electricity, and who avoids contact with the rest of humankind. But…you know, I would love to see the work of such an individual creating an art form that has not been affected by the popular influences of the time.

Perhaps a national study of regional art is in order, as we attempt to find inspiration. After all, many artists have looked to the work of Naives, the mentally affected, and Outsiders for inspiration. Maybe somewhere in neglected regions, away from the urban centers of influence, there are unique expressions which are being overlooked, but which can themselves serve as influential models.

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