Alexandre Hogue, Crucified Land

Alexandre Hogue, Crucified Land, 1939, oil on canvas, 106 x 152.1 cm (Gilcrease Museum)


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This work at the Gilcrease Museum

 

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking at a large, expansive landscape of the American West, specifically, of Denton, Texas.

Laura F. Fry: [0:16] This is “Crucified Land” by Alexander Hogue in 1939. You can see a wheat field that has been plowed in vertical rows across the canvas, but water erosion has carved these gashes through the land. It’s almost as though the land has been cut open and revealed this red earth underneath the crops. You get this great contrast between the green of the wheat crop and the red of the eroded soil.

Dr. Zucker: [0:42] That vivid contrast, these brilliant colors in the foreground that are so starkly at odds with each other, change as your eye moves towards this high horizon, where we see those greens and reds merge into blues and lavenders and purples.

[0:58] We see an approaching storm. There’s the silhouette of a tractor. And just peeking from behind the horizon line we see the roof of a house.

Laura: [1:07] Perhaps the most prominent detail of this painting is the scarecrow. In the upper left corner, you see a scarecrow that is depicted like a crucifix. This is even swaying to the side, almost as though the little bit of field that it’s resting on is about to give way as the erosion continues.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] The broad expanse of millions and millions of acres of grasslands in the American West had been disrupted in the early 20th century by farming and ultimately by the plow. It caused irreparable damage.

Laura: [1:42] This painting was created as part of the Erosion series that Hogue worked on through the 1930s, that were referencing some of the ways that destructive and reckless agriculture practices were harming lands in Texas and Oklahoma and across the southern Great Plains.

[1:57] In this particular painting showing water erosion, Hogue is very clearly placing the blame on that skeletal tractor in the background. It’s the use of industrial equipment. It’s the disregard for the contours of the land and for the needs of the land that is causing this destruction.

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] You have the sense that before the tractor, this land had been an uninterrupted expanse of green, and it’s almost as if the earth below has been bloodied, has been opened. It is a wound, a kind of gash in the surface of the earth.

Laura: [2:29] To really make the point that he sees this as a sin against nature, Hogue has added numerous biblical references throughout this painting. Most obvious is this scarecrow crucifix shape, which is comparing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to this human-caused devastation to the land.

[2:46] Art historian Mark White has noted that the water flowing away from this eroded field is almost snakelike, as a possible reference to the biblical serpent.

Dr. Zucker: [2:56] This was painted in 1939, at the end of a tragic period in the Midwest which we know as the Dust Bowl, when the very fragile topsoil of the prairie had been disrupted and after just a few seasons had become dust, dust that was sometimes blown up by the prairie winds into enormous walls that covered towns, that buried houses, and that displaced so many farm workers.

Laura: [3:19] The tractor in the background of this painting is telling us a couple of things. One, that the tractor itself caused the destruction of this prairie topsoil, but tractors also reduced the need for farm laborers and the migration from places like Texas and Oklahoma to California and the loss of jobs was more due to tractors replacing farm workers than to the destruction of the Dust Bowl itself.

Dr. Zucker: [3:40] This is erosion that is caused by man’s impact but is actually effectuated by rains, by water. We often think of Oklahoma as a dry state, but it’s really the water that is doing the damage here.

Laura: [3:53] In the top left corner of this painting, you can see the next storm approaching, letting viewers know that there’s even more destruction to come.

Dr. Zucker: [4:00] How do you take a contemporary ecological disaster and make it into a work of art? What are the historical sources that you draw on? Hogue is using the tradition of biblical reference in order to draw attention and draw sympathy for and draw potentially political action toward saving this landscape.

[4:18] He had grown up in Texas on his sister’s enormous sheep and cattle ranch and had developed a real sensitivity, a real awareness of the beauty of that land and had watched it be destroyed. He was very much an artist-activist.

Laura: [4:32] “Life” magazine, in 1937, described this painting series as a scathing denunciation of man’s persistent mistakes.

Dr. Zucker: [4:40] I think that Hogue was successful. When I look at this painting, I see an image that is incredibly beautiful and visually compelling, but it is also telling this tragic story and telling a story that we can take action to prevent.

Laura: [4:53] During his lifetime, and at the time these were painted, some of Hogue’s Erosion series paintings were causing calls to action or at least disruption. The alarm that these politicians felt on seeing this image indicates how powerful these images were and how they could function to change people’s opinion about these farming practices and this reckless, rampant capitalism destroying the environment.

Dr. Zucker: [5:13] Issues that we’re still facing today.

[5:15] [music]

Cite this page as: Laura F. Fry and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Alexandre Hogue, Crucified Land," in Smarthistory, September 12, 2022, accessed May 27, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/alexandre-hogue-crucified-land/.