Drought Survivors, 1936
[This is a guest post by the French geographers Alexis Metzger and Martine Tabeaud. They are members of the International Commission for History of Meteorology and the Climate Perception Network.]
“I did them because to me, aside from the tragedy of the situation, the effects were beautiful, beautiful in a terrifying way.” The American regionalist artist Alexandre Hogue painted a series of six pictures between 1933 and 1936 revealing how winds of sand gobbled up fields, animals, and farm implements on the Texas plains. As repeated droughts between 1931 and 1939 ruined small farmers in the Dust Bowl region, climate challenged American myths of its Wild West conquest.
Born in 1898 in Memphis, Missouri, Alexandre Hogue spent his childhood in Denton, Texas and studied in Dallas. From 1921 to 1925, he worked in advertising in New York, before returning to Texas. Supported by New Deal Programs, he later taught in the schools of art of Denton (1931-1936) and Dallas (1936-1942). The State of Texas also hired him to paint murals on three public buildings in Dallas and Houston. His sister and brother in law owned a ranch near Dalhart in one of the most affected regions.
Drought Survivors confronts the viewer with a tractor buried in sand, barbed wires which no longer enclose anything, a dead tree under a sky without cloud. The human beings have also disappeared. The only ones alive are a prairie dog and a rattlesnake. Art historian Lea Rossen DeLong points out the irony of these “survivors.” The prairie dog and the rattlesnake “were exactly the two creatures most despised by the farmers trying to cultivate the plains.” (De Long, quoted by Hartviksen, 2015, p. 21).
This painting and others in the series were presented for the first time in Life Magazine on June 21st, 1937. Under the headline "The US Dust Dowl: Its Artist is a Texan Portraying ‘Man’s Mistakes’,” Hogue’s paintings and aerial photos revealed the dramatic destruction of a rural world. More than meteorological hazards, what Hogue condemned was the over-exploitation of nature by humans. The abandoned tractor symbolized excessive mechanization. "Artist Hogue feels that grazing land was destroyed first by fence, then by overplowing, then by drought," was printed below one painting. Hogue’s attribution of the Dust Bowl to people echoed the findings of a major US government report, The Future of the Great Plains (1936).
In Texas, this point of view was poorly understood and much criticized, and it remains controversial even today.
[Alexis and Martine add: Our research explores the connections between historical climatology and the history of art. We focus on landscape paintings and what they can say in view of climatic anomalies and extreme events. This project about Hogue’s paintings will be developed in a conference about historical droughts in June 2017 and the International Festival of Geography next autumn with a special focus on “human territories, animal worlds.”]
- Hartvigsen, Ann K., "The Terrifying and the Beautiful: An Ecocritical Approach to Alexandre Hogue's Erosion Series" (2015). All Theses and Dissertations. Paper 5695.
- Delong, Lea Rossen, Nature's Forms/Nature's Forces: The Art of Alexandre Hogue, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984
- White, Mark Andrew, "Alexandre Hogue's Passion: Ecology and Agribusiness in The Crucified Land" (2006). Great Plains Quarterly, Paper 132.