Photographer's Note

I love the texture in this photo: it almost seethes with energy and movement. I will post a wider shot later which illustrates the title more prominently. Suffice to say, this figure is front and center, in gigantic scale, compared to the figures around him. The detail is also highly symbolic and significant, from his wielding of a rifle in one hand and a bible in the other, and the chaos and environmental destruction going on around him.

This famous mural is technically entitled "Tragic Prelude." It was painted by nationally recognized artist John Steuart Curry, a native Kansan who was born near Dunavent in Jefferson County. His work had caused some prior controversy, apparently, in that he painted some aspects of the state which cast it in a negative light, specifically tornadoes and religious fanatics. Curry had become quite famous, however, painting multiple murals in various federal buildings in Washington, D.C. He accepted the commission to paint the murals at the statehouse, however, but reportedly only on the condition that he maintain full artistic control, with no outside interference regarding the subjects he chose or the way in which they were portrayed.

These murals proved to be no exception: when Curry had completed only three at the Kansas statehouse, members of the legislature passed a measure to stop them from actually being installed, based largely on the one seen here, specifically the portrayal of John Brown. They particularly took issue with the fact that Brown was portrayed with blood on his hands, as well as the tornado and prairie fire in the background (some people really take issue with natural phenomena!). Curry reportedly stated that the portrayal was in reference to the violence of the Border War and "the historic struggle of man with nature," but the legislature was unconvinced.

Apparently some of the other issues they had was the portrayal of a Kansas homestead with barbed wire fences, featuring the plagues and soil erosion, some of the more contentious environmental problems caused by rapid development and replacement of native vegetation with domestic cultivars. He also depicted Kansas as a land of bounty, however, featuring cattle drives and abundant harvest. Even the public started to complain about the way some subjects were portrayed, including some curious minutiae, such as the length of a woman's skirt and the curling of a pig's tail. The complaints culminated the issuance of a statement by the Kansas Council of Women, which read in part as follows: "The murals do not portray the true Kansas. Rather than revealing a law-abiding progressive state, the artist has emphasized the freaks in its history-the tornadoes, and John Brown, who did not follow legal procedure." No pleasing some people, I suppose.

Curry left the murals unsigned and left Topeka, never to return, refusing to continue with the others which had been commissioned. He died in 1946, and the murals were not installed until after his death from a heart attack at age 48. Ironically, "Tragic Prelude" is now recognized as the most important piece Curry ever produced over the course of his illustrious career. Reproductions now adorn many different media, including posters.

For more information see:

– Kendall, Sue, Rethinking Regionalism, John Steuart Curry and the Kansas Mural Controversy (Washington, D.C., The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986).

-The Kansas State Historical Society (www.kshs.org)

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Additional Photos by Terez Anon (terez93) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 83 W: 78 N: 909] (1703)
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