At the Kansas Capitol, progress always comes with pain

Joe Brentano, coordinator of the Capitol Visitors Center, describes John Steuart Curry's artwork on the second floor. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

There’s this beautiful thing that sometimes happens at the Kansas Capitol.

A group of people will stop in front of some striking piece of art, and a tour guide will tell them a story. They’re usually kids on field trips or elders, perhaps with an RV parked outside. They look enraptured.

“It’s an awe-inspiring building,” says Joe Brentano, coordinator of the Capitol Visitors Center, who has given such tours for 14 years, before and after the state spent at least $320 million restoring the 1903 building to its astounding grandeur.

Brentano has visited other state capitols.

“I’m biased because I’m a native Kansan,” he said, “but this is at least the top five if not one of the best in the nation: architecturally, the attention to detail, the quality of the artwork.”

Brentano has hours’ worth of stories about the Kansas Capitol. I asked him for a tour because my colleagues at the Kansas Reflector were launching a news website to cover state government, and I wanted to remind myself that along with so much beauty there’s also great pain.

Let’s start with the building’s most iconic image.

John Steuart Curry’s “Tragic Prelude,” on the second floor of the Kansas Capitol, is 11′ 6″ tall by 31 feet long. It was commissioned and painted from 1937-1942. (Kansas State Historical Society/kansasmemory.org)

The painter, John Steuart Curry, was born on a farm near Dunavant in 1897. He studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and with painters in Paris. He’d done illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post. By 1928, the Whitney Museum in New York City had acquired one of his paintings. Others are now in the Smithsonian’s collection. He was teaching at the University of Wisconsin when a bunch of newspaper editors campaigned to bring him back to tell his home state’s story in its most prestigious building.

Besides John Brown’s furious face, “Tragic Prelude” also depicts dead or about to be dead  soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, enslaved people cowering under the terror of the Confederacy and some wagon-trainers trudging past a prairie fire while a tornado approaches.

Kansans hated it.

“He’s standing in here up on his ladders and scaffolding and he’s painting this in 1937,” Brentano says. “As the image comes together, people are very concerned. They don’t particularly like the image of John Brown. They didn’t want Kansas to be associated with just the freaks or the weirdos of history.”

They didn’t like the prairie fire, “but what really upset people was the fact that he painted the tornado here,” Brentano adds. Curry was obviously using a fact of Midwestern life to suggest the gathering storm of civil war.

“Perhaps in the ’30s, the critics of the time thought Curry was going to come in here and paint a pretty field of sunflowers,” Brentano says. “But that’s not the kind of painter he was.”

Across the rotunda is Curry’s “Kansas Pastoral.” The imagery is much calmer but drew no less criticism.

On one wall, a Hereford bull grazes peacefully in a field.

“People didn’t like the livestock,” Brentano says. “The front leg was too short, too stumpy. The body was too long, the color was too red for the Hereford cattle breed.”

Critics complained about John Steuart Curry’s depiction of a Hereford bull on this wall of “Kansas Pastoral.” As tour guide Joe Brentano says at one point, “a stockman from Lebo, Kansas, came up one afternoon to look at this bull. He declared it was a fine example, and the critics didn’t know anything about the finely bred bull we raise in Kansas.” (Kansas State Historical Society/kansasmemory.org)

To the right of this scene, Curry depicted a farmer and his family. People said the pig’s tail was curled in the wrong direction, that the woman’s skirt was too short for a pioneer woman (she’s a farm wife).

Critics complained that in this scene of John Steuart Curry’s “Kansas Pastoral,” the pig’s tail curled in the wrong direction and the woman’s hemline was too high. (Kansas State Historical Society/kansasmemory.org)

Finally, there’s Curry’s scene of the prairie at night. This is the one that always gets me.

“People thought it looked too much like the ocean,” Brentano says, as if there’s anything wrong with amber waves of grain resembling a sea in the moonlight.

They griped that the howling animal in the lower right corner looked like a seal, that the oil derricks on the horizon were ships.

John Steuart Curry never signed the third wall of “Kansas Pastoral.” (Kansas State Historical Society/kansasmemory.org)

“By this time Curry has gotten very frustrated,” Brentano says. “He was supposed to have put other things in here — a factory, a power plant — remember this was to show the modern ingenuity of Kansas in the ’30s.”

Instead, he painted a family of skunks along the bottom to represent his critics, then left without signing what he considered an unfinished mural.

John Steuart Curry considered the third wall of his “Kansas Pastoral” unfinished, so he never signed it. But he did paint a family of skunks across the bottom to represent his critics. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

Curry went back to Wisconsin, where he died in 1946.

“He was only 48,” Brentano says. “He died of heart disease and hypertension, so it probably did affect his health.”

Which is the scholar’s way of saying Kansas broke John Steuart Curry’s heart.

Kansas does that to hearts. Especially when you see visitors mesmerized by beauty while you know what lawmakers are doing, or not doing, under the same copper dome. Still, every good story requires at least a little heartbreak. Consider this my tragic prelude.

Correction: An earlier version of this column reported the incorrect year of John Steuart Curry’s death. It has been updated.