Peoples of Kansas

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The Controversy Surrounding “Tragic Prelude”

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Courtesy: Kansas State Historical Society

Courtesy: Kansas State Historical Society

In 1937, a group of prominent Kansas newspaper owners and businessmen began a campaign to bring nationally recognized artist John Steuart Curry back to his home state to paint murals that would cover the walls of the statehouse.  The group included Jack Harris of the Hutchinson News as well as William Allen White from the Emporia Gazette.  Curry accepted the invitation based on the terms that he could have full control of the creation of the murals, with no outside influence or attempts at changing the themes he presented.  Curry believed he could fully represent the characterization of the state, as he grew up in a small town in northeast Kansas called Dunavant.  Even before the controversy that ensued after he painted the murals for the statehouse, Curry had a large group of dissenting critics in his home state.  Many citizens and officials from Kansas believed Curry’s previous works on the state focused on the negative aspects, namely the bad weather (tornadoes) and religious fanatics.

When Curry finished his first three murals for the statehouse, members of the Kansas legislature passed a measure to keep them from being hung on the walls.  The controversy was all based on his depiction of Civil War Kansas and John Brown in “Tragic Prelude.”  Critics of the mural were concerned about multiple things including: the blood on Brown’s hands could signify the murderous traitor some thought Brown to be, the tornado in the background and prairie fire showed Kansas to be a dangerous, inclement place and the Bible would add to the sentiment that Kansas was home to religious fanatics.  Curry contended that the blood on Brown’s hands signified the violence of the Border War and the Civil War while the Bible signified Brown’s Calvinist, religious background.  The tornado and prairie fire simply illustrated the damage that happened to Kansas during the Civil War battles.  Curry left the murals unsigned and left Topeka in anger and the murals were not on the walls of the statehouse when he died in 1942.  Today, “Tragic Prelude” hangs in the Kansas statehouse and is an important aspect of Kansas history as well as the most important piece John Steuart Curry completed in his artistic career.  The mural of John Brown has been featured in multiple articles and documentaries on John Brown as well as Bleeding Kansas.  University of Kansas fans definitely recognize the significance of “Tragic Prelude,” as poster recreations and t-shirts are made every year for the annual Border War with the University of Missouri.

Sources:

– 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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Written by ajaybrenn

September 17, 2009 at 12:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. Thanks for your post, I found it’s refreshing to see someone to comment on the value an iconic image like this one can have. The struggles that Curry faced have been pervasive in artist/patron relationships throughout history – especially when dealing with controversial imagery. Although many of Curry’s themes have come under scrutiny for how they depict Kansas, I agree with you in that this will forever be a significant image of Kansas because of that very honesty.

    mselby13

    September 18, 2009 at 12:30 am

  2. It was great to learn more about this iconic mural that is located in the Kansas State Capital. I find it interesting that people tried so hard to prevent such a historically significant and symbolic piece of art from being displayed. In my opinion, this painting should make Kansans proud, outsiders often fail to acknowledge the important role our state played leading up to the civil war. They were worried about how the image depicted Kansas, but I think it is important to always remember the sacrifices that had to be made in order to fight for what you believe in. It would be wrong to cover up our state’s history because parts were violent, but had those events not happened, our country would not be what it is today.

    vjmohr

    September 18, 2009 at 9:19 am

  3. Wow! How interesting! I had no idea that this mural had such a controversial beginning. Do you know when the painting was finally hung or who spearheaded that movement to do so? I feel like the painting needed to be embraced because you have to understand your history. It is such an fascinating part of our history and I think it would be foolish to hide it. I think it is kind of funny how people didn’t want tornados to be depicted because then others would think of Kansas as a dangerous place. I feel like that is the thing we are most known for and yet we are seen as a pretty tame state.

    Thanks for the post!

    Madeline Johnson

    melon19

    September 18, 2009 at 11:29 am

  4. I had no idea that the mural created that much controversy within the state. I would maybe have thought that Missouri or a few other states would criticize Curry’s work, but Kansans. I have always wondered what the symbols in the mural represented such as the tornado and the prairie fire. I am really thrilled to finally know. I think Curry did a great job depicting in his mural to what actually happened in Kansas during that time. Do you know when the mural was finally hung in the statehouse and what caused the reversal of the statehouse’s decision? Looking back on his mural now I really appreciate that Curry pushed to have all of the representations in his mural, and it really reminds us of what actually happened during the early years of Kansas’s statehood.

    Eric Mosier

    September 18, 2009 at 2:56 pm

  5. As famous as this picture is, it does contribute to a few negative stereotypes regarding Kansas. I grew up 1500 miles east of Kansas, and I can attest that this literally paints a mental picture of how the east coast views Kansas.

    Recent events have not helped these east coast views either. For example, the Greensburg Tornado, the Fred Phelps gang, and finally the murder of George Tiller.

    Each the the items I mentioned are in the painting, tornado, bible, and bloody hands. Although stereotypes are typically not true, they do hurt the image of the state.

    rbeabout

    September 18, 2009 at 3:24 pm

  6. Had he shown this mural to a historian, there would have been even a greater controversy. First, the Confederate battle flag shown in the mural was not even designed until 1861, a year after Brown’s death, and long after Brown was in Kansas. And second, when Brown was in Kansas he was clean-shaven. He only grew the beard later as a disguise.

    David McKibbin

    October 31, 2016 at 7:47 pm

  7. It’s what happens to good artists when they swim in the political swamp.

    gueppebarre

    February 10, 2018 at 7:09 pm

  8. […] They would deny that, of course. Just as Kansas legislator Steve Alford denies he is a racist, on the heels of saying something incredibly racist. The painting is Tragic Prelude. […]


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