America after the Fall @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition brings together 45 big oil paintings (no prints or sculptures) to provide an overview of American painting from the 1930s (with a handful spilling into the early 1940s).

After the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties – the Jazz Decade – the 1930s were of course marked by the Great Depression, triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Broadly speaking many (but not all) artists’ interests moved away from European-inspired Modernism or from images of the glamorous high life, to the use of figurative approaches to depict a more realistic, not to say downbeat, world.

Industrial America

In 1927 the Ford Motor Company opened the biggest factory in the world at River Rouge, Detroit. Artist Charles Sheeler spent weeks taking photos of the plant and the landscape around it before beginning work on a series of paintings. I’m a sucker for straight lines, diagrams and strong draughtsmanship and also the romanticism of industrialisation and big machines, so I think this painting is marvellous. No people. ‘Surreally silent’, to quote the catalogue.

American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler. Photo (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler. Photo (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Next to it hangs Suspended power (1939). The commentary for the exhibition is relaxed and chatty, devoid of the usual curatorspeak, instead giving interesting background to the works. For example, after Sheeler’s visit, the Depression hit the plant hard and a wave of redundancies led to serious unemployment and a spike in suicides in Detroit. Unemployed workers marched on the plant in what became known as the Ford Hunger March, or the Ford Massacre, because four of the marchers were shot dead by the Dearborn Police Department and Ford security guards, and another 60 were injured. Shortly afterwards the famous Mexican mural artist Diego Rivera arrived, commissioned by Ford to produce some murals of the plant and its workers.

Many of the artists were committed to the new socially conscious political movements, the social idealism of the New Deal under President Roosevelt, or more left-wing Popular Front and even Communist ideas imported from abroad. This theme is epitomised by Alice Neel’s portrait of communist Trade Unionist and agitator Pat Whalen (1935). Joe Jones was a communist who painted scenes of everyday proletarian life, like Roustabouts (1934).

Street life

The 30s were the first great period of talking pictures, which some critics look back to as the Golden Age of Hollywood. As well as glamorous portrayals of high life in the musicals of Fred Astaire and so on, the decade also saw the emergence of violent crime movies about Prohibition gangsters and, as the 30s turned into the 40s, the development of what a French critic later called films noirs, gritty crime thrillers depicting a tough, dog-eat-dog world of crime and underworld in the big cities. This too is caught in contemporary art.

An oblique light was shed on this world (as on everything) by the famous artist Edward Hopper, a couple of whose works are here including New York Movie (1939). As in so many Hopper paintings the focus is on one person, looking down or detached, contemplative, detached from the realistically depicted scene around them. Up close it’s interesting to note the thick, rather ragged gestural use of paint: prints always smooth this out, flatten and simplify (and beautify) images which are, in the flesh, a little more roughly finished and, somehow, hesitant.

Gas (1940) by Edward Hopper. Photo (c) 2016 Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Gas (1940) by Edward Hopper. Photo (c) 2016 Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

African American artists and subjects

I recently visited the British Museum’s exhibition of American prints which features a whole room devoted to African American printmakers and artists, with the commentary emphasising that many feel their story has not been told and the black experience written out of American art and culture. So it was a surprise to see the number of works here about black Americans or by them. These later accounts seem to forget about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when the Harlem neighbourhood of New York was home to the ‘New Negro Movement’ and a cultural centre for black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars.

Far from being ignored by white authorities etc, black artists were supported. Aaron Douglas’s enormous mural , Attraction, was commissioned by the Federal Government to hang in the Hall of Negro Life at the Texan Centennial of 1936. It shows black Americans rising above the shackles of the past and aspiring to a bright new future. There is William H Johnson’s piece, Street Life, Harlem (1940), which does what it says on the tin, showing an African American couple on a street corner.

Far away from the buzz of city life was the harsh life of sharecroppers in the South, tied to land they didn’t own and forced to work punishing hours to grow cotton which was owned and sold by the rich landowner, who allowed his workers a pittance to survive on.

Cotton Pickers (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton (c) Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2016

Cotton Pickers (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton (c) Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2016

And, of course, there was the out-and-out racism of the Ku Klux Klan and the terrible lynchings and murders dealt out to blacks by murderous thugs.

Country life

The poster, book and exhibition itself are dominated by probably the most famous American painting, Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic (1930). It’s never left North American shores before. As a big fan of late medieval art I was delighted to learn that so was Wood and this double portrait contains subtle references to the late medieval/Northern Renaissance tradition: in the ugliness of the faces, the tremendous attention to detail of the clothes. It even refers to Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini portrait a little in the way the man is looking at the viewer while the woman is looking away.

I hadn’t realised the word Gothic refers to the Gothic lancet window in the farmhouse behind the couple. The commentary draws attention to the bombardment of vertical lines, on the face of the building, the thin supports to the porch, the upright planks in the red barn, the upright lines in the man’s shirt and denim dungarees, and the shiny prongs of the fork, as well as the vertically elongated stretching of their faces. Even the spire peeking out over the trees to the left. All this is growing up, tall and strong, from the good solid American earth.

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

It was a haunting image even at the time, because so many nativists felt that the white settler pioneer and farmer spirit was being lost a) in the flood of urbanisation and city culture b) by the devastation inflicted by the great Dustbowl environmental disaster and the catastrophic collapse in prices for farm goods. But anyone expecting harsh realism of something like Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo, Migrant Mother (1936) is in for a surprise. Nothing here has anything like that intensity. In fact, although the audiocommentary includes an intense description of the destructiveness of a Dustbowl sandstorm, the actual paintings on display are lush and green.

And Grant Wood, with half a dozen works in the show, emerges as by far the most fun and entertaining artist, some of his works skidding good humouredly over the border between art and cartoon-style entertainment. Thus:

The last two could be illustrations for a children’s book. The Daughters hover somewhere between fine art and satire, but it’s an impressively conceived and beautifully painted work, just like American Gothic, it rewards close attention to the fine brushlines and strokes.

International politics

What Auden called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s was intensely politicised, not only by the apparent failure of capitalism in many Western countries, and the rising power of communist parties, but by the fraughtness of the international scene, where the League of Nations proved powerless to stop the aggression of Germany, Italy and Japan. This is referenced in several internationalist works including this depiction of the Fascist bombing of Guernica, done in the style of a Renaissance roundel by, say, Titian or Raphael.

Bombardment (1937) by Philip Guston. Philadelphia Museum of Art (c) The Estate of Philip Guston

Bombardment (1937) by Philip Guston. Philadelphia Museum of Art (c) The Estate of Philip Guston

European modernists

There’s a section on American artists striving to be avant-garde who are in fact pretty obvious clones of their European originals.

There’s a section on American surrealists i.e. American artists adapting European visions of collapsed buildings, melting structures or faces, to the American scene. OK, but not convincing.

Davis versus Benton, Modernism versus Regionalism

The commentary explains that Stuart Davis and Thomas Hart Benton had a famous row about the future of American art, Benton declaring himself an ‘enemy of Modernism’ and asserting the future lay in manly depictions of real working lives (as per his Cotton pickers), Davis championing his variation on sophisticated European Modernism, which Benton found effeminate. Benton quit New York and moved to the mid-West, where he painted successful murals and was associated with the art movement known as Regionalism, which flourished in the 1930s and petered out during the war.

Looked at from 2017 the squabble seems funny and futile, symptomatic of so much political bickering which was to be swept away by the titanic upheaval of World War Two, and then the hardening of lines during the Cold War. In artistic terms, the bitter feud between American Modernists and American Nativists was eclipsed by the advent of Abstract Expressionism, heavily supported by both the New York intelligentsia and (surprisingly) the Federal government, which used it as a weapon against the deadening cult of Social Realism in the Soviet bloc. Then it was the 60s and Pop and then – whoosh – the floodgates to all kind of conceptual and post-modern art.

Georgia O’Keeffe

And then, as in every period, there are artists who stand apart from social and economic trends. Georgia O’Keefee, wife of New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz and heavily involved in the New York artistic scene, first visited New Mexico in 1929 and thereafter spent part of every year on ranches in the desert. Here she developed a unique style combining found objects with stylised depictions of the sun-baked landscape.

I found this work by O’Keeffe to be almost the only really grown-up, fully-formed, distinctive work in the exhibition. For my money, although lots of the others are good and interesting – in their different ways I really enjoyed the cartoon Grant Wood and the moody Edward Hopper – nonetheless, O’Keeffe struck me as the standout artist of the period.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

The future

There’s a striking early work by Jackson Pollock, from the period when he was still pursuing his own demons in the not-very-well-disguised style of Picasso. But already present are the torment, the swirling composition and the very wide landscape format which will form the basis of the drip paintings he began to paint in about 1947.

Untitled (c. 1938-41) by Jackson Pollock. The Art Institute of Chicago (c) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Untitled (c. 1938-41) by Jackson Pollock. The Art Institute of Chicago (c) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

At a stroke (a drip and a splat) Pollock would invent the first authentic American art movement – Abstract Expressionism – the first artistic idea which owed nothing at all to European tradition and would itself open numerous doors to the explosion in American art in the 1960s and beyond.

This show acts as a kind of retrospective hors d’oeuvre to the massive exhibition of Abstract Expressionism the RA hosted last year. And the current exhibition of American Prints at the British Museum is a dazzling survey of new ways of seeing and making which opened up in the post-Pollock era. Together they form a kind of American trilogy.

From the vantage point of posterity – looking back past Minimalism and conceptualism and Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, this American art from the 1930s bespeaks a country of huge geographical and cultural contrasts but all wedded to an essentially realistic tradition, or which has borrowed its modern art lock, stock and barrel from Paris. It is immensely enjoyable but all of it is dated, music from a lost world – with the one exception of O’Keeffe whose work, in my opinion, still stands tall today.

The videos

Promotional videos describing American Gothic.

60-second commentary on Ed Hopper.


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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