'I saw the whole works with my own dust-filled eyes'
Alexandre Hogue is alive and well and still painting up a storm - a fact that will surprise many who remember him as the painter who helped make the Dust Bowl famous way back in the '30s.
I must admit it's a pleasant surprise. No one who lived in the United States during the depression years will ever forget Hogue's stark and haunting paintings of the effect drought and dust storms had on the farms and people of the Southwest. His pictures of deserted houses and barns, broken windmills, dust-covered farmland, and emaciated cattle pawing the earth for food and water gave Americans of the time a much better idea of the horrors of the Dust Bowl than any photographs or verbal descriptions. Even in retrospect, these canvases better epitomize the period than do the works of Curry, Benton, and Wood, who, after all, tended to idealize the agrarian life and values of rural America.
''Drouth Stricken Area'' (1934) is probably his most famous and effective painting. (It now hangs in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.) In it, a buzzard and a starving cow are the only living creatures in a dust-devastated landscape that not long before had included a working farm and fertile fields. The sense of loss and hopelessness that permeates this image is almost unbearable, and yet Hogue managed somehow to transform its bleak forms and mood into a stunning and unforgettable work of art.
His approach was direct and uncompromising. ''I saw the whole works with my own dust-filled eyes,'' he recalls. ''I consider this subject beautiful in a terrifying way. I've always been interested in that kind of beauty - things that scare you to death, but still you've got to look at them.''
His confrontational creative tactics convinced both the public and most of the art community of the truth and significance of what he was doing. When Life magazine reproduced a few of his erosion series canvases in 1937, it reported that his aim was ''to make the observer not only see the Dust Bowl, but also feel its heat, its despair, its anguished death, the tragedy of its farmers.''
Not everyone was happy with his work, however. His 1936 ''Drouth Survivors'' so enraged and embarrassed a west Texas chamber of commerce that they tried to buy it for $50 in order to burn it publicly. It was saved from that unhappy fate when it was purchased for the Jeu de Paume in Paris, but local anger at his refusal to soft-pedal the effects of mankind's deliberate misuse of the land continued to smolder.
Hogue's response was to keep right on working. He painted murals, produced a series of paintings and prints that focused on the abstract beauty of oil field derricks, pumps, and tanks, and worked as a production illustrator in an aviation plant during World War II.
From 1945 to 1968, he taught at the University of Tulsa. Throughout the '50s and '60s, much of his work was abstract - a fact that thoroughly confused his local critics who remembered him merely as ''the Dust Bowl painter.'' They were probably just as confused in the '70s when Hogue once again returned to landscape painting, and began a still ongoing series of pictures depicting the Big Bend country's spectacular mountain scenery.
These landscapes are boldly conceived and dramatically structured, depend as much on precise delineation of form and stylization as his works of the 1930s, and are painted in colors that may seem unreal and garish to those not familiar with the Southwest, but that are recognized as true to life by those who have been there.
Each is based on a sketch made on the spot during a 1965 trip to the Big Bend region, representing a dramatic and, in some instances, awe-inspiring view that could almost be of the moon were it not for the clusters of sparse vegetation scattered about. Human beings and animals are conspicuously absent, and one quickly gets the impression that water is at a premium in this world, and that life is sustained here only with the greatest difficulty.
On the surface it would appear that such a recent painting as ''Canyon Totem, Erosional Remnant'' represents the same kind of isolation and devastation we saw in his earlier Dust Bowl can-vases. Indeed, important technical and structural similarities do exist. The conception and intention of this landscape, however, are totally different from those produced in the '30s, for this work depicts the majesty of nature as it was before men and women claimed the land and began to misuse it for their own often shortsighted purposes.
These recent paintings are Hogue's respectful and even loving paeans to one of the few remaining true wilderness areas in the US. Like them or not - and I suspect that many of those who were conditioned early in life by modernist theories and ideals will find them ''old hat'' and overly romantic - these pictures are extraordinary statements about a place and a philosophy of life that are fast disappearing. I for one was very pleased to discover that these landscapes exist, that Hogue is alive and working hard, and that a retrospective of his life's work is travelling throughout the US during 1984 and 1985.