Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.

Epilogue

Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (2007) – the American chapters

Alex Ross’s the Rest is Noise is by far the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to the classical music of the long difficult twentieth century that I know of.

Born in 1968, Alex Ross studied classical composition, but was also a rock DJ at Harvard. He was just 28 when he was appointed classical music critic for New Yorker magazine, combining formidable technical and historical knowledge with a wonderfully clear and expressive prose style. He has a modern, unstuffy, relaxed approach to music of all sorts and sounds.

Having recently visited an exhibition of art from 1930s America and read the book of the exhibition, I decided to reread the relevant chapters of Ross’s masterwork to shed light on the musical highlights of the period. In the event this also requires reading one of the earlier chapters in the book, the one which describes the beginnings of 20th century American music.


Chapter 4 – Invisible men: American composers from Ives to Ellington

African American music

Slavery. Blacks. African Americans. The chapter opens by describing the way prescient critics and composers grasped that the one truly new and different element in American music was the black African element. It’s amazing to learn that when the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák went to New York in 1892 to teach at the new National Conservatory, he met a black composer, Harry T. Burleigh, who introduced him to African American spirituals, prompting the European master to write an article on ‘the Real Value of Negro Melodies’ in 1893 and predict that:

the future music of this country must be founded upon  what are called the negro melodies.

The early part of the chapter lists black composers who struggled to reconcile the European tradition with their background, and coming up against prejudice, racism, the difficulty of getting a full classical training and, if they did, of writing in a foreign idiom and getting performed. Ragtime classic Scott Joplin wrote an opera which was never performed. Harry Lawrence freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company and wrote two tetralogies of operas in the Wagner tradition, but which were never performed. Maurice Arnold Strohotte who Dvořák thought the most gifted of his pupils had a piece titled American Plantation Dances performed at the National Conservatory in 1894, but then couldn’t get any subsequent works performed and languished in obscurity. Will Marion Cook managed to get into one of the few colleges which accepted blacks and became a world class violinist, moving to Germany where – surprisingly – he was respected and taken seriously. Back in America he found his career blocked, began work on a classical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but never completed it, and found himself driven to orchestrating and directing blackface musical revues, and then a bandleader founding the New York Syncopated Review, and hiring the young genius clarinettist Sidney Bechet as star soloist.

Cook’s career shows how the exclusion of black ‘serious’ composers from the mainstream pushed them again and again towards music halls, revues, popular music – and indirectly fuelled the creation of jazz. Once this had crystallised as a form, a completely new style of music, towards the end of the Great War, there was an explosion of long-suppressed talent. The Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein had predicted, back in 1893, that within 25 years Negro musicians would form ‘a new musical school’.

Neither he nor Dvořák nor many of the wannabe black classical composers could have anticipated just how revolutionary the advent of jazz would be. As Ross puts it, with characteristic eloquence:

The characteristic devices of African-American musicking – the bending and breaking of diatonic scales, the distortion of instrumental timbre, the layering of rhythms, the blurring of the distinction between verbal and nonverbal sound – opened new dimensions in musical space, a realm beyond the written notes. (p.122)

Just reeling off the names of some of the masters of jazz is dizzying – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman. As is the list of Broadway masters who came to fame in the 1920s – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin. They invented rhythms, styles, timings, structures, tones and timbres, and wrote thousands of compositions which changed the nature of music all round the world.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Histories of modern American classical music generally begin with Ives. The son of a traditional marching bandmaster in New England, he grew up surrounded by the music of brass bands and church music but, after a successful university education, decided to work for an insurance company, composing in the evenings and weekends completely revolutionary works which experimented with novel musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements and quarter tones. An immediate flavour is given when you learn that Three Places in New England requires the orchestra to play orchestrated versions of two popular Victorian songs at the same time. That said, compared with most of what follows, a lot of Ives still sounds reassuringly familiar.

Edgar Varèse (1883 – 1965)

Whereas Ives was American through and through and incorporated snatches of hymn tunes, popular songs and classical references in works still titled Violin concerto and so on, Varèse was French and determinedly avant-garde. He travelled to New York during the Great War and pioneering a highly experimental sound, latterly involving tape recordings, which earned him the sobriquet ‘the father of electronic music’.

Coming from the world of Dada and cubism, Varèse was keen to incorporate non-musical sounds in a futurist attempt to capture ‘the sound of the city’ – look out for the fire siren in Amériques. His key works are Amériques (1918–1921), Offrandes (1921), Hyperprism (1922–1923), Octandre (1923), Intégrales (1924–1925), Arcana (1925–1927), Ionisation (1929–1931), Ecuatorial (1932–1934), Density 21.5 (1936), Dance for Burgess (1949), Déserts (1950–1954) Poème électronique (1957–1958).

Varèse broke down language and form into a stream of sensations, but he offered few compensating spells of lyricism. His jagged thematic gestures, battering pulses, and brightly screaming chords have no emotional cords tied to them, no history, no future. (p.137)

I like the YouTube poster who describes Amériques as like The Rite of Spring on crack.

George Antheil (1900 – 1959)

Antheil was born American, to German immigrant parents, who went to Paris determined to be the most avant of the garde, wowed modernist writers with his Dadaist/Futurist ideas, caused a riot at one of his premiers in the approved avant-garde style and brought back to New York his notorious Ballet Mécanique. This was originally intended to accompany an experimental film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with cinematography by Man Ray and which you can see on YouTube. To the kind of fire siren sounds Varèse pioneered Antheil added the use of several airplane propellers onstage. Sadly these tended to blow the audience’s programmes around and wreck ladies’ hairdos. The critics were underwhelmed at his ‘bad boy’ antics, and his reputation went into decline. After a spell in decadent Berlin writing for the stage, by the 1930s he was back in the States, writing film scores in Hollywood. Although it’s loud with four pianos and plenty of percussion, it’s striking how prominent the three xylophones manage to be. Xylophones suddenly appear in modernist music and have never gone away.

The Wikipedia article has a musical analysis of Ballet Mécanique.

Carl Ruggles (1876 – 1971)

A difficult, obstreperous, loudly racist and self-taught composer, Ruggles devised his own form of atonal counterpoint, on a non-serial technique of avoiding repeating a pitch class until a generally fixed number such as eight pitch classes intervened. He wrote painstakingly slowly so his output is relatively small. His longest and best-known work is Sun-Treader (1926–31) for large orchestra, a weighty 16 minutes long. As Ross sums him up:

If Varèse is like early Stravinsky with the folk motifs removed, Ruggles is like Ives without the tunes. (p.138)

Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965)

Cowell was another  highly experimental; American composer. He was the centre of a circle which included Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, Varèse and Ruth Crawford. In the 1920s he founded new music magazines and organisations, published much new music, and reached out to incorporate South American composers such as Villa-Lobos. Among his many students were George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and John Cage.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

The most glaring thing about Gershwin is how tragically young he died, aged 38 of a brain tumour. How much he had accomplished by then! A host of timeless songs, a pack of shows and revues, and then some immortal concert hall – Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). He grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on the lower East Side of Manhattan, was intrigued by the music-making of some relatives, wangled piano lessons, got a job very young in Tin Pan Alley while the Great War was still on, churning out popular tunes and songs incorporating the latest sounds i.e. the arrival of jazz from the great mash-up of syncopated sounds which were in the air. His biggest money-spinner was the early song Swanee which Al Jolson heard him perform at a party and decided to make part of his black-face act.

As success followed success Gershwin took to the party high life of New York like an elegant swan. And beneath the stylish surface there was an enquiring mind, always questing to improve his musical knowledge. He continued to take musical lessons throughout his life and made several trips to Europe where he sought out the masters. He was particularly impressed by the serialist composer Alban Berg in Vienna. In Paris he studied with Maurice Ravel, who ended their lessons, supposedly by telling him, ‘Why be a second rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’

Many commentators then and now have noticed how many of the popular ‘composers’ of 20s and 30s America were Jews – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin – and how thoroughly they co-opted and expressed the African American idiom. This allowed a field day to anti-Semites like some of the Regionalists and ruralists. Scholars have pointed to the similiarities, both were ‘outsider’ groups liable to harsh discrimination. In our own censorious judgmental times, how would they have avoided the block accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’?

Ross is more relaxed and points to the notion of the Melting Pot – New York in particular was a massive mash-up of hundreds of influences, everyone – writers, poets, painters, composers, singers, comedians – was stealing from, remixing and contributing to a mass explosion of creativity. Also, as I read in a history of jazz decades ago, it is commonplace to say that jazz – and the vast ocean of sounds which come out of it, rock’n’roll, pop and the rest of it – is entirely due to African rhythms, syncopations and the blurring of voices and timbres Ross describes. But this history pointed out another truth so obvious nobody sees it – there isn’t a single African instrument anywhere in a jazz band. All of the instruments were invented by white Europeans as was the system of music notation used by all the big bands. Seen from this point of view, African American music ‘appropriated’ 500 years of European tradition – and gave it a good shake from which it’s never recovered.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

One of the prime shakers was Duke Ellington, the jazz big band leader who broadened its style and appeal into a large band capable of projecting a well-organised, full sound while still giving space to many of the greatest soloists of the day. With Ellington jazz moved out of low dives and bars and into the swellest of must-see nightclubs. His impeccable personal taste and style, his good manners and slyly intelligent way with reporters and interviewers made him a star, as did a steady stream of jazz standards. From the 1930s to the 1970s his band undertook wide-ranging tours of Europe and Latin America, helping to make him a household name around the world.


Chapter 8 – Music for All: Music in FDR’s America

A host of things led to decisive changes as the 1920s turned into the 1930s.

1. The Depression wrecked the country, destroying middle class savings and crushing the rural population. Somehow, eerily, there continued to be a market, in fact the market grew, for shiny escapist Hollywood fantasies of the high life, starring a new generation of movie stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. As the country got poorer the Hollywood fantasies got shinier, the stars more glamorous.

2. Talkies And now they were in talking pictures. Sound completely transformed movies, in the obvious respect that you could hear the movie idols speak, but also because they could now carry extended soundtracks. Music. Short songs, extended show pieces or just background music. This music had to be accessible and comprehensible immediately. No place here for modernist experimentation – Varese, Ives, Ruggles, Virgil Thompson – no thank you. Opportunities opened for thousands of hack composers to mash up all the sounds they heard around them, jazz, swing, along with any useful bits of classical music, with a few geniuses standing above the crowd, most famously Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a child prodigy who produced the scores for many of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers in the 30s, and Bernard Hermann (1911-65) who kicked off his career spectacularly scoring Citizen Kane (1941) before going on to score a host of famous movies, including a clutch of Hitchcocks, most famously the shower scene of Psycho (1960). Both the children of Jewish immigrants.

3. Politics Stalin’s Communist International issued the call for a Popular Front to be formed against the fascist powers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 but the whole of the 30s are sometimes seen as the Popular Front decade, when working men and women, some politicians, as well as the intelligentsia all became politicised, all asked themselves how such poverty and misery could come to the greatest country on earth and, not irrationally, concluded there was something very wrong with the system. More than one composer decided to reject the intellectual allure of modernism – indelibly associated with ‘abroad’, with the big city specially New York – and realised it was their ‘duty’ to write about their own country, about its sufferings, in music which would be understandable to all.

4. The Exodus Also Europe came to America. The advent to power of Hitler in 1933 drove a wave of European emigrants – Jews or socialists and communists, or just people the Nazis described as ‘degenerates’ – to flee to the Land of the Free. And so half the great composers of the day landed up in America – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninov, Weill, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek, Eisler and many others. As Ross puts it, entire communities from Paris or Berlin settled en masse in New York or the Hollywood Hills (p.260). they were all welcomed into the bosom of Roosevelt’s New Deal America although, arguably, in pampered America none of them produced work of the intensity which brought them to fame in troubled Europe. But it had another impact: in the 1920s artists and composers went on pilgrimage to Europe to sit at the feet of the masters and bring their discoveries back to breathless audiences. But now the masters were here, living among us and regularly putting on concerts. The special role of the artist as privileged messenger from the other world evaporated. They had to find another role.

5. The Federal Music Project was set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935. It created employment for a small army musicians, conductors and composers and led to the thousands of concerts, music classes, the establishment of a Composers Forum Laboratory, as well as scores of music festivals and the creation of 34 new orchestras! An estimated 95 million Americans attended presentations by one or other FMP body. A huge new audience was created for a type of accessible culture which increasingly came to be defined as ‘middle-brow’ (p.278).

6. Radio and records These new regional orchestras were able to reach beyond concert halls into the homes of many more people as radio stations were set up across America and mass production made radios available to even the poorest families (like television a generation later). Music (as well as news, drama, features and so on) now reached far beyond the big cities. Radio made stars of some of the big name conductors, namely Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini, whose regular radio broadcasts brought Beethoven and Brahms to huge numbers of new listeners. Simultaneously the plastic discs, 78 rpm records and then long players, were a whole new medium which could bring recordings of all sorts of music into people’s homes to be played again and again. A massive revolutionary switch from live to recorded music began to sweep the country in this decade.

How as the American composer, struggling to find a voice and a role, to respond to the clamour and confusion of this new world?

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Copland was another New York Jew who went to Europe to study music and composition for three years, returned and got only small audiences for his advanced pieces until, swayed by the changing social scene around him, and participating in communist meetings and agitation, he realised he needed to devote his talents to the common man, making his music as accessible, as uplifting, as optimistic as possible. His breakthrough came after a visit to Mexico (which often helps American writers, poets, composers, painters see their own country in a new light) and the syncopations of the Spanish tradition helped him escape from both the prison house of modernism but also the sounds of jazz and Broadway which dominated his native New York.

The result was the complex syncopations of El Salón México (1936) and there quickly followed the tide of his most popular works, which used big bold motifs, lots of brass and grandiose percussion, clear harmonies and slow-moving, stately themes which somehow convey the sense of space and openness – Billy the Kid (1938), Quiet City (1940), Our Town (1940), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944).

(Although he’s associated with soft American landscapes, if you look closely you’ll see that his most programmatic music is actually about the desert and the prairie, a distinctly non-European landscape. For me this echoes the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings inspired by the deserts of New Mexico – for me – emerged as the most distinctive works in the recent exhibition of 1930s art, America after the Fall.)

Copland created a way of sounding big and brash and bold and confident, often poignant and moving, which somehow didn’t seem to owe anything to the stilted European tradition. To this day his sound lives on in the movie music of, for example, John Williams, the most successful Hollywood composer of our day. Copland is always mentioned in the company of other populist composers like:

Samuel Barber (1910-81) remembered for his haunting Adagio for strings (1936)

Roy Harris (1898 – 1979) From Wikipedia: “Johana and Roy Harris were a tour de force in American music. Their collaboration has been compared to that of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Harrises organized concerts, adjudicated at festivals, and in 1959 founded the International String Congress. They promoted American folksong by including folksongs in their concerts and broadcasts.” Harris wrote 18 symphonies in an accessible style and on grand patriotic subjects – Gettysburg Address, West Point, Abraham Lincoln. This passage from Ross gives a good sense of his easy confident often amused style:

The work that won Harris nationwide attention was his Third Symphony of 1938 – an all-American hymn and dance for orchestra in which strings declaim orations in broad, open-ended lines, brass chant and whoop like cowboys in the galleries, and timpani stamp out strong beats in the middle of the bar. Such a big-shouldered sound met everyone’s expectations of what a true-blue American symphony should be. (p.280).

Swing

To most of us the period was dominated by the form of jazz known as swing and the big band jazz of Duke Ellington (formed his band 1923) and Count Basie (formed his big band in 1935) alongside white bandleaders like Ted Lewis (1919), Paul Whiteman (1920) the rather tamer offerings of white band-leaders like Tommy Dorsey (1935), Benny Goodman and latterly Glenn Miller. It was an August 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom by Benny Goodman which is sometimes hailed as the start of ‘the Swing Era’ and the band’s ‘s confident smooth big band sound earned Goodman the moniker ‘the King of Swing’, a status when his band went on to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall in new York, previously the domain of the most high-toned classical concerts, and took  it by storm. After twenty years of hard work by black and white musicians across the country, it felt like their music was finally accepted.

The highbrows weren’t immune. Stravinsky, the great liberator of rhythm in classical music, had incorporated sort-of jazz syncopations right from the start and now, in exile in California, wrote a Scherzo a la Russe  for Paul Whiteman’s band (1944) and an Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman’s, Woody later commenting that the Maestro hadn’t made any concessions at all to the idiom of the big band – it was Stravinsky through and through.

But Stravinsky’s adventures in America belong to the next decade, the 1940s (he came from Paris to do a U.S. concert tour in 1940 and then the Germans invaded France, so he was stuck).

Imagine you were a student in 1938, what would you listen to? Copland’s serious but consciously patriotic and possibly left-leaning orchestra panoramas of the Big Country? Would you subscribe to Henry Cowell’s New Music and followed the ongoing experiments of Varese, Ruggles and Ives? Would you dismiss all that as European rubbish and tune into Toscanini’s Saturday night broadcasts of the old classics, dominated by Beethoven and Brahms? Would you know about the efforts of the Seegers and others like them to track down and record the folk songs of rural folk before they died out? Or would save your dollars to take your best girl to go see each swing band which came through your mid-Western city, and have an impressive collection of discs by the Duke, the Count, Benny, Tommy and Woody?

Another world, other tastes, other choices.


Related links

Reviews of books about America

America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s edited by Judith Barter (2017)

This is the book accompanying the exhibition at the Royal Academy of 45 or so oil paintings from the 1930s designed to give you an overview of the many different, competing and clashing visions of American art during that troubled decade, what the foreword, rather surprisingly describes as ‘aesthetically, perhaps the most fertile decade of the twentieth century.’

It significantly expands your knowledge and understanding of the period by including illustrations of many more paintings than are in the show, along with comparison art works from contemporary and Old Master Europe, as well as photos, sketches, architects plans and related visual information.

The book is structured around five long essays by experts in the period, each of which is fascinating and informative in equal measure (the writers being Judith A. Barter, Sarah Kelly Oehler, Annelise K. Madsen, Sarah L. Burns and Teresa A. Carbone). I picked it up for £15, a snip considering the high quality of the reproductions and the intelligence of the commentary and analysis.

Regionalism versus modernism

The squabble between the Regionalists and the New York-based modernists is only mentioned for a minute or so on the exhibition audioguide, but spills across several of the essays here. This allows you to understand its history, main participants, the arguments on either side, to weigh their merits, as well as considering the whole thing’s relevance to the present day.

Regionalism championed the depiction of realistic scenes of rural and small-town America primarily in the Midwest and Deep South. It was popular and populist. It defined itself against the modernism imported from Europe by New York-based artists, despite the fact that the trio of artists who became most associated with Regionalism – Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry – had all made at least one study visit to Europe and were well aware of developments there.

Regionalism is itself subsumed under a broader term – the American Scene – which also covers ‘Social realism’ paintings, also realistic and figurative in nature, but more committed to the world of urban work than the predominantly rural Regionalist ethos. If it’s about small town life it’s American regionalism; if it’s a realistic work about the city, about industrial workers, and especially if it emphasises class consciousness, then it’s American Social Realism.

The most famous example of Regionalism is Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which depicts in a minutely detailed style reminiscent of early Flemish painters, a romantically unromantic vision of the gaunt, upright honest Mid-Western farmer. In the same spirit, though softer edged, is his Daughters of the Revolution (1932), its unflatteringness easy to confuse with a type of realism. Others of his rural pictures shown here are more gently bucolic:

The most fervent regionalist was Thomas Hart Benton. In the exhibition he’s represented by paintings of rural, especially Southern, life depicted with a distinctive wriggly serpentine style.

  • Cradling wheat by Thomas Hart Benton (1938) Note the wriggly lines in the clouds, the clothes, the distant hill.

But the book adds hugely to our understanding by expanding on his activities as a muralist, works which, by definition, can’t be shown in travelling art exhibitions. The New Deal administration, via its huge Public Works of Art Project, helped fund and commission a vast range of public art for public spaces – city halls, post offices, railway stations – across America. Over 4,000 murals in public buildings were commissioned from a huge range of artists in 1934 and 1935. Benton was a leader in the field, producing works like America Today for New York’s New School for Social Research, The Social History of the State of Missouri and The Cultural & Industrial Progress of Indiana for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In these he combines his sinewy, sinuous way with the human body with a kind of muscular social realist style to portray a fascinating cross-section of American activity and enterprise.

Benton not only painted, he engaged in a fierce polemic with a leader of the New York modernists, Stuart Davis, decrying modernism as effeminate, chaotic, elitist and un-American. You can see why his Mid-Western sponsors and many left-wing-minded artists and writers (some influenced by the new dogma of Socialist Realism emanating from the Soviet Union) would support his easily accessible, heroic depictions of the working man and woman, as the real America.

But of course they were up against New York, with its sheer size (with a population of 7 million, by far the largest US city) and its entrenched, articulate and well-publicised intellectual and artistic sets, such as the circle around critic and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz (which included the artists Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe) or George L.K. Morris and the American Abstract Artists group.

It was the modernist painter Stuart Davis who ended up defending cosmopolitan modernism against Benton’s Regionalism, in a series of lectures, pamphlets, articles and a few bad-tempered personal encounters – attacking Regionalism as populist, demagogic, conservative even reactionary in form, naive, simple-minded and so on. He was even involved in a petition drawn up by New York art students to have one of Benton’s murals destroyed, because of its alleged stereotyping of African Americans. They hated each other.

Above all, the New York modernists thought Regionalism was holding America back, restraining and imprisoning American art and thought in a utopian fantasy of the past. It was provincial in the worst sense of the word, because it limited American culture to fantasies of a fast-disappearing rural reality while the entire world was urbanising and the great capitals – Paris, London, Rome, Berlin – were developing dazzling new techniques, styles and methods which it would be fatal to ignore.

Why go backwards when the rest of the world was hurtling into the new, they argued. America, above all other countries, should throw off the past and embrace the future.

There are several ways to think about this:

1. On purely personal terms, which do you enjoy most – now? To be honest, I like Grant Wood’s cartoony works and am impressed by Benton’s murals, idealised and muscular representatives of the spirit of the age. Whereas I like the overall impact of Davis’s work – extraordinarily bright and jazzy – but don’t respond to any individual work of his as strongly.

2. In terms of the debate, who do you think was right, at the time? Again, I’m inclined to think the American Scene artists depicted the country and its cultural and political moment better than Davis and the other wannabe modernists. They were right for their time. The Public Works of Art Project wanted art for the broadest mass of the public, which would reflect their local area, their local history, which would provide a unifying focus for thousands of communities across the States. Over 4,000 murals in public buildings were commissioned from a huge range of artists in 1934 and 1935. It seems unlikely that a thousand variations on Davis’s watered-down Paris abstractions could have done that.

3. Who won? With the benefit of hindsight we know that Regionalism had nowhere to go: as America became more fully industrialised during the Second World War, it became more urbanised and rural life became more and more remote from most Americans. The Regionalist artists proved incapable of developing their style: even at the time it was acknowledged to be a romanticised, idealised vision which was actually far removed from the brutal reality of the Dustbowl droughts which were afflicting the southern states. (Captured in one bleak and almost science fiction painting here, Our American Farms (1936) by Joe Jones.) Regionalism proved to be in every way a dead end.

4. Also, in the new atmosphere of the Cold War, the Social Realism of much American Scene art came to look suspiciously like the same kind of thing being churned out by the Soviet Union and her satellites. When the House Un-American Activities Committee got round to investigating artists in the 1950s, it was the Social Realists they accused of being dangerous subversives: in total some 350 artists were accused by the committee of being communists or harbouring unhealthy left-wing tendencies. In the event, the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock et al was to take the art world by storm at the end of the 1940s and, with government help, transform American aesthetics. Regionalism became an isolated backwater in the history of art.

5. However, studying the debate in some detail throws up surprising insights into our present situation, where a demagogic president has been elected on a platform of appealing to ordinary folk, especially the working class disenfranchised by globalisation, and railing against Big City corruption and cosmopolitanism. There is unemployment – 4.7% (though nothing approaching Depression-era figures, which at their worst had 30% of the workforce without jobs). There’s disillusion with the conventional parties and a rise in racism and xenophobia. Powerful reminders that so many of a country’s political or social issues never really go away but are reborn in each generation in new disguises.

The above is a partial summary of the first of the five essays in the volume. The other four:

  • Transatlantic Expressions
  • 1930s Modernism and the use of history
  • Painting the American wasteland
  • Bodies for the 1930s

are just as in-depth and illuminating, adding to our understanding of a host of other artists of the time.

These include lesser known figures like Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dover, Charles Green Shaw, Millard Sheets, Doris Lee, Helen Lundeberg, Walt Kuhn, Ivan Albright, Peter Blume, Alice Neel, Paul Cadmus, Archibald Motley, Philip Evergood, Reginald Marsh, Paul Sample – as well as, for me, the standout artist of the era – the great Georgia O’Keeffe, with her triumphant marriage of the distinctive New Mexico landscape with an unsettling modernist sensibility.

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

New names

Presumably familiar to any student of American art, the following were artists who I first learned about at the exhibition and who then especially benefited from the longer treatment and further illustrations provided in this book:

Charles Sheeler

Represented in the show by his wonderful linear depiction of the River Rouge Ford Motor factory – American landscape (1930) – Sheeler is explored in further detail in the book. Not only did he produce these wonderful linear, monumental evocations of pure architecture, but also took many modernist photographs of industrial buildings, interiors and machines. Just my kind of thing.

But Sheeler is also one of the beneficiaries of the well-known phenomenon that some art works which are easy to overlook in the flesh, look much better in reproduction, in book form. Thus the exhibition – divided into 8 or 9 themes – has one devoted to interiors, generally depicting old-fashioned styles and furnishings, and it would be easy to overlook Sheeler’s item in the set, Home Sweet Home. But the book reproduces it in big and lovely colour detail and highlights the continuity between the fascination with geometry and lines evinced in his well-known industrial photos and paintings, and his more recherche interest in traditional fabrics, Shaker furniture and so on, which combine in this quiet but mesmeric interior.

Aaron Douglas

Represented by one work in the show, the impressive mural Aspiration, in the show, the book gives a lot more about his life and work – and searching the internet reveals a brilliantly dazzling talent. Douglas uses a kind of Art Deco silhouette-based style, flooded by geometric washes of pastel colours, to depict an amazingly bold, explicit overview of the African American story, from Africans in Africa dancing and celebrating, their capture into slavery, transport across the seas, to African Americans throwing off their shackles and then Ayn Rand-style monuments of them contributing to the building of the modern (1930s) city with its outline of soaring skyscrapers.

Conclusion

This is a genuinely interesting book, not just about American art but about a pivotal moment in American history. By the end you are ready to believe the claim made at the start (several times) that the 1930s was ‘the most artistically creative and important period of the twentieth century’ (p.24).


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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.


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Warhol by Klaus Honnef (1990)

Taschen editions tend to be:

  • cheap (this one cost me a fiver)
  • full of excellent quality colour reproductions (I count 92 illustrations, about 80 in colour)
  • translated from the original German – which often makes the prose feel a bit lumpy

Biography

Andrew Warhola was born in 1928 or 1930, in Forest Hill, Pennsylvania son of a Czech immigrant miner and construction worker, who was often away from home and died after a protracted illness in 1942. 1945-9 Andrew studies at Carnegie Institute of Technology Pittsburgh before moving to New York and quickly finding work as a commercial artist for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and other top-end magazines, while also producing commercial art, sales images of shoes and shop window-dressing. First solo exhibition in 1952 and first group exhibition in 1954. 1956 exhibition of Golden Shoes and wins awards for his commercial design. 1957 wins another award for commercial artists. 1960 creates first works based on comic strips and Coca Cola bottles.

1962, after 13 years in New York, he paints his breakthrough paintings of Campbell soup tins, dollar bills, the first silk-screen prints of Hollywood stars, takes part in a pioneering exhibition of Pop art, produces silk prints of car crashes and the electric chair, rents the attic which will later become famous as the Factory. In the next two years he and a cadre of keen young assistants produce over 2,000 works.

In 1963 he starts producing films with Sleep and Empire: he’ll go on to produce 75 experimental and avant-garde movies.

1964 first sculptures of commercial products – Brillo, Heinz and Del Monte packaging. 1965 announces he’s giving up art to focus on film-making and meets the Velvet Underground with whom he’s involved for the next few years.

1969-72 few works, only a handful of commissioned portraits. 1972 series of Mao. 1975 publication of his book, From A to B and Back Again. 1876 The Skulls and Hammer and Sickle series. 1977 Ten athletes. 1980 retrospective exhibition Portraits of the 70s. 1980s develops a TV channel. Publishes POPisms. A series based on famous paintings e.g. Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. 1986 series of Lenin portraits and self-portraits prove to be his last. 1987 dies as a result of surgery.

Work

You can read a book like this or just skip through the pictures. For a start the examples given here of his commercial art or of his early drawings are astonishingly weak.

This early part of the book is the most interesting because it describes his struggle to find a voice and style. The art world in the 1950s was dominated by Abstract Expressionism – Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko et al. The tone was intensely intellectual and serious, with each spatter of paint symbolising the anguish and agony of the Great Artist struggling with his medium and against his own psychological demons. A few lone voices argued for a lighter view of the world, namely Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who both, in the mid-1950s, had begun to experiment with using everyday imagery (numbers, targets) or detritus from the streets. Similar ways of thinking are visible in his famous window display at Bonwit Teller department store, 1961.

In the panel on the left the use of fragments of words and letters is reminiscent of Johns; while the large-scale blowing up of a scene from a Superman comic to make the third panel obviously brings to mind Roy Lichtenstein who was to make a career out of blowing up comic illustrations. The book tells us that Warhol was introduced to Lichtenstein, saw his early comic book work, recognised Lichtenstein was doing it better and dropped his on the spot.

Storm Door from 1960 is fascinating because it shows the influence of both Johns, in the use of words and fragmented phrases, with the deliberately loose dripping which characterised Abstract Expressionism. He is so obviously caught between stools. And the same with Peach halves.

Then, suddenly, Bam! Soup tins, dollar bills, Marilyn, electric chair and he has found his brand, a look and feel he would never depart from and – crucially – could be mass produced, turned out in large numbers.

He experimented with a stylised treatment of newspaper front pages but these seem to me very poor.

What these and the early illustrations of boots and shoes and hamburgers seem to show is that his own drawings were very so-so. But his eye for a photographic image – and then the silk screen printing of them, with variations in colour and contrasting – was nothing less than genius.

Warhol and the Portrait

Millions of words have been written about Warhol’s obsession with or deconstruction of glamour, the movies, celebrity culture, sex appeal, consumer capitalism and the rest of it. Honnef makes a simpler more powerful point when he observes that Warhol’s longest lasting and most prolific genre was The Portrait, a genre as old as painting. Consider how he refreshed and altered it, especially by using series with variations, in ways hard to explain.

It would be interesting to get a copy of the book, Portraits by Andy Warhol which features some images, including Elvis, Mao, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Blondie, Mick Jagger, Ginger Rogers, Prince, Grace Kelly, Rudolf Nureyev, even Queen Elisabeth II of the UK. He was described as ‘the court painter of the 70s’ and there is a new shallowness, a cocaine and Studio 53 vapidity about many of the 70s portraits; there’s certainly a ‘late’ feel to the silk screen portraits done after the 60s, just as brilliant but somehow less inspired.

He also did quite a few self-portraits, particularly in the 80s.

Do Warhol’s portraits say anything about the sitter? Or do the pencil and paint additions to the basic photographic likeness, the mad multiplicities of gaudy colourings, do they reinforce, undermine or empty the images of all feeling? Are good photos transformed into semi-divine icons?

Just on this one issue of portraits, the book (not the author, his selection of images) makes crystal clear that when Warhol strays away from the human subject his work – even when still using striking images and the silk screen technique and multiple iterations with colour variants etc – by and large gets pretty dull. Sort of OK, a bit interesting, but…

In the 1980s he returned to actually drawing things – coloured and printed in sets like the photos but still, images he himself drew in the endearingly amateurish style of the 1950s.

Yes, nice enough in their way, and once coloured and printed in sets then, yes, attractive. But fundamentally, Andy was a people person.


Five types of repetition

Does repetition empty of meaning or fill with meaning? Or both.

Honnef quotes a comment by the German art historian Werner Spies that some of the repetitions capture ‘the desolation of repetition’. More precisely, ‘the destruction of feeling by overexposure and of enjoyment by overconsumption’ (quoted page 68). These are two distinct things:

1. The destruction of feeling is something Warhol apparently celebrated in his own life, carefully cultivating a completely affectless persona, studiedly indifferent even to the creation of his own artworks, leaving – for example – the colour combinations of many of the Marilyn prints to his assistants. On this interpretation Pop aims at complete cool, not just deadpan presentation of hyper-familiar artifacts but actual emotional deadness. Emptiness but not with negative connotations. Just nothing being there.

‘If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me. There’s nothing behind it.’

2. The second phrase comes from a different register, suggesting the repetitions re-enact the destruction of sensory enjoyment in a culture which is overwhelmed with too much of everything: the obsessively repeated images of glamour and stardom and iconic figures become a visual form for the other sense which are over-stimulated in affluent America: fast food leading to obesity; drugs leading to 50,000 overdoses every year. They amount to an overdose of imagery; they embody the excess of overweight American culture.

Well, they’re possibilities, just two of the several hundred which can be teased out of Warhol’s work.

3. Repetition with variation also strongly suggests music: the classical tradition is full of composers who took simple themes and showed off their dazzling skills by putting them through all sorts of musical hoops and distortions, from the listenable works of Bach and Mozart through to the fiendishly mathematical structures of the post-war serialist composers. Theme and variations is a basic genre of classical music and a common task set all aspiring composers.

4. Towards the end of the 1960s, the New York composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich rejected the stifling complexities of serial composition and began experimenting with the fundamental building blocks of music, the repetition of very basic motifs, with very slight changes in tempo and co-ordination which turned out to create strange hunting blurred effects.

These composers came to be called Minimalists and became famous in the early 1970s at the same time as the Minimalist artists – but the fascination with the aesthetic, psychological and semantic meaning of repetition which they explore, is already a key aspect of Warhol’s style a decade earlier.

5. But Warhol is quoted elsewhere as saying Repetition amounts to reputation and, delving into this phrase, it turns out to be a commonplace of marketing and brand management i.e. the dependable repetition of service, a delivery, a purchase, underpins a brand’s reputation. Warhol seemed to be using it in a slightly tangential way to indicate that repetition of an image imprints it on the viewer’s brain. This can be taken on at least three levels:

a) As a basic tenet of advertising and brand management – get your product in front of the consumer as often as possible – hence the proliferation of Warhol’s own prints helped to make them well-known and created a virtuous circle, creating his brand, which led to more art in series and multiples, which then boosted the brand. Until we find ourselves in a situation where works by Warhol are now among the most expensive in art history so that Eight Elvises recently sold for $100 million and Car Crash for $105 million.
b) On a psychological level, if we see something enough times it becomes part of our mental furniture and an emotionally and psychologically reassuring presence. Is that how we feel about the Mona Lisa or a picture of Churchill? Does it explain how and why photos of movie stars (and latterly, pop stars) seem so reassuring – simply because we are saturation bombed with them from billboards, hoardings, TV ads, all over the internet, the front of magazines and newspapers? Is that what ‘screen icon’ means, a look which either taps into archetypal longings in our animal minds, or creates a profound sense of familiarity and reassurance by virtue of its repetition?

Which comes first, the brilliance of the photographic image which Warhol selects – or his artistic treatment of it, his proliferation of it into sets of paintings and prints? Or do both conspire in a potentially unlimited virtuous circle until part of the great Vortex of Images which all sighted people inhabit, the so-called Mediasphere, becomes permanently Warhol.


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The American Dream: pop to the present @ the British Museum

American prints

The first thing to emphasise is that this is an exhibition of American prints, so it might have been more accurate and factual to have titled the show ‘American Prints’ rather than ‘The American Dream’. The latter title leaves open the possibility that the exhibition includes oil paintings or sculptures, the whole range of artistic media. It also suggests that the selection will be somehow presenting a historical or political or cultural analysis of ‘the American Dream’- and, when it increasingly does this, in the second half of the exhibition, it introduces political and social issues which, I think a) increasingly distract from the art as art and b) are surprisingly limited.

The title, these later political galleries, and even the introduction by exhibition sponsor, the global financial services firm Morgan Stanley – for whom the show ‘charts the story of the modern Western world as seen through the lens of the United States’ – are designed to stimulate the visitor to reflect on the post-war history of America. I have expressed my views in a separate blog post; this post focuses on just the prints themselves.

The American Dream: pop to the present

The British Museum has one of the biggest collections of prints in the world, with more than two million in storage. This huge, beautifully laid out and imaginatively designed exhibition sets out to showcase:

‘the Museum’s outstanding collection of modern and contemporary American prints for the first time… shown with important works from museums and private collections around the world.’

Flags I. Colour screenprint (1973) by Jasper Johns. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

Flags I (1973). Colour screenprint by Jasper Johns. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

The American boom in prints

The exhibition covers American prints from the last 60 years. Why that particular period?

A revolutionary and enduring change in the production, marketing and consumption of prints took place in the 1960s. Inspired by the monumental, bold and eye-catching imagery of post-war America, a young generation of artists took to printmaking with enthusiasm, putting it on an equal footing with painting and sculpture and matching their size, bright colour and impact. Meanwhile, the growth of an affluent middle class in urban America also opened a booming market for prints that was seized upon by enterprising publishers, print workshops and artists. Artists were encouraged to create prints in state-of-the-art workshops newly established on both the East and West Coast. The widening audience for prints also attracted some to use the medium as a means for expressing pungent, sometimes dissenting, opinions on the great social issues of the day.

It is also relevant that this exhibition is a sequel. In 2008 the Museum held a big show titled The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, which ended at the turn of the Sixties i.e. where this one begins. Both shows were curated by Stephen Coppel, the Museum’s curator of modern prints and drawings.

This exhibition consists of twelve rooms, which take us through American prints from the early 1960s to the present day, each room focusing on a particular group of artists, periods or themes – Pop in the first few rooms, minimalism half way through, the ’80s, and then onto contemporary issues like race, AIDS and feminism in the final three.

Gumball Machine, colour linocut (1970) by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016

Gumball Machine (1970) colour linocut by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016

The process of print-making

Wall labels for separate eras (the 1990s) or groups (the Minimalists) or for individual works, shed light on the multifarious techniques of print making – etching, lithographs, working with stone, wood or silk – along with the micro-histories of the many workshops and businesses set up across the States to cater to the growing market for prints, like Universal Limited Editions in Long Island (est. 1957) and Gemini set up in Los Angeles in 1966.

Half-way through the show there are two big video installations showing artists actually creating prints, including Andy Warhol working with silk prints and Ed Ruscha creating his Dead End signs. A later video includes interview snippets with Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, Glenn Ligon and Julie Mehreti.

Interesting though these were, they were really snippets from longer films and so, for example, although I saw Warhol and an assistant running a wooden block up and down a print presumably to press paint into the paper, I still didn’t understand how a silk screen print is made and had to look it up on YouTube.

Standard Station. Colour screenprint (1966) by Edward Ruscha. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Standard Station (1966) Colour screenprint by Edward Ruscha. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist

The exhibition room-by-room

Room 1 Pop art

The early 1960s saw an explosion of artists incorporating the imagery of consumer culture, adverts, movie posters, newspaper photos and so on, adapted whole, or cut up into collages, or remodelled into huge spoof cartoons. The first room (and arguably the entire exhibition) is dominated by Andy Warhol and his genius for identifying stand-out iconic imagery. One wall is covered by ten enormous silk prints of Marilyn Monroe (1962), plus the original poster for the 1953 movie Niagara, which inspired them.

Opposite them is a set of ten prints depicting the electric chair (1964) along with the source photo.

Lining another wall is an enormous 86-foot-long print by James Rosenquist called F-111 (1964), a characteristic hymn to gleaming chrome technology and itself an epitome of America’s super-confidence: Bigger. Brighter. Shinier.

There’s a so-so print of Claes Oldenburg’s Three way plug (1970) beside which is hanging the only non-print in the show, an enormous wooden sculpture of the same object suspended from the ceiling.

It’s the 1960s, pre-feminism and awash with kitsch ads and comics from the 1950s, so American babes can be celebrated without guilt, as in Tom Wesselman’s series The Great American Nude (1963). Work on numerous iterations of  this image took up most of Wesselman’s 60s, in fact the final, hundredth, version was only published in 1973. It is odd that an exhibition which (later on) features feminist artists being very cross about the sexual objectification of women opens with such a glaring example.

Next to them is king of comic art, Roy Lichtenstein’s Reverie (1965) hanging alongside is one of his canonical action cartoon-paintings, Sweet Dreams, Baby! (1965).

Repetition 

The obvious thing about prints is not only that they can be run off in large numbers to be sold and owned by a potentially limitless audience – but, as Warhol above all else discovered – they can also be repeated with deliberate variations, in detail, design or colouring.

Warhol dominates the field with his series of iconic silk prints of Marilyn, Mao, Elvis and so on, but it is striking the way so many of the other artists shown here, right up to the present day, conceived of their prints as parts of sets or series on specific topics, themes, images, issues. This is not possible in painting; it is an artistic option only really available in print.

What is it about these repetitions and iterations, – something unnerving, subverting, and yet mythologising at the same time? All those Marilyns become shallower and shallower and yet simultaneously more and more powerful. Ditto Jasper John’s obsessive reiterations of the American flag or Jim Dine’s multiple series of household tools – Repetition equals… what? Maybe we need a perceptual psychologist to explain what they do to the brain.

Room 2 Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine

Jasper Johns comes from an earlier generation than Warhol. He began his blank-faced paintings of humdrum objects in the 1950s. He repeatedly uses motifs of numbers, letters and words, generally working in large sets or series which showcase all the types of variations which print-making produces: there are so many variations on Flags I and Flags II it’s difficult to decide which is the ‘key’ example (see first illustration, above). There are also sets devoted to: Grey alphabetNumbers, Targets.

There’s something about the blankness and the obviousness of these subjects which suggests a kind of zombieness of American culture. I like that Johns has rarely if ever commented or interpreted his work. There it is. The flag. Letters. Numbers imposed over each other (the Colour Numeral series). Make of them what you will. Johns started in the mid-50s and is represented well into the ’80s.

Robert Rauschenberg was recently given a massive and hugely enjoyable retrospective at Tate Modern. His prints are as great as everything else he did. Here he is represented by some works from his Stoned moon series, a set of 33 lithographs which he created in response to the manned Apollo flights to the moon (Rauschenberg was actually invited by NASA to be the official Moonshot artist). Make a collage of press photos and technical diagrams. Run off prints of it using different colour washes. Voila!

Sky garden at 2.2 metres tall broke the record for the largest hand-printed lithograph of the day. Bigger. Brighter. Shinier.

Sky Garden from Stoned Moon. Colour lithograph and screenprint (1969) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York

Sky Garden from the Stoned Moon series (1969) Colour lithograph and screenprint by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York

One of the Stoned moon variations is Sky rite – I like the blurred, half-obliterated image of the NASA technician pointing to the skies. The selection, the arrangement and then the partial obliteration of these bold clear photos and designs by pencil lines and colour washes say so much – about dynamism and thrusting confidence, but at the same time somehow about those things being eclipsed and washed out – so much that is difficult to put into words – as art should. Nearby was one of another large series based on X-rays of his own body, Booster (1967).

Jim Dine seems to have rejected big grandiose subjects and concentrated on the here and now, banal household objects, a kind of artistic William Carlos Williams. I liked his series about Paintbrushes (1973), showing different numbers of paintbrushes lined up neatly, but with different amounts of sketching, light and shade in each one. Here we had examples of the ‘first state’, ‘third state’ and ‘sixth state’, presumably as the image became more worked over, scarred and scratched and busy. The more you look, the more beguiling they become.

Given the same treatment are images of a saw, hammers – each becoming strangely luminous, charged with meaning – or just beautiful by virtue of the deadpan depiction of their wonderful functional design. Nearby is one of the extensive series he made of his own dressing gown (1975), for me redolent of the cocaine and rock star 1970s. Why not?

There is a kind of wonderful emptiness about so many of these images. They shoot through the retina and flood the image-recognition centres of the brain as a MacDonald’s hamburger floods the hungry palate, pushing all the big obvious buttons. Lots of fun, but taken together, somehow hinting at a huge emptiness, at the isolated unhappiness which has been the subject of so much American fiction these last 60 years.

Room 4 Made in California – the West Coast experience

The next room swaps focus to the West Coast, to the California of swimming pools and endless sunshine.

  • Claes Oldenburg Profile airflow (1969) an intriguing three-dimensional relief print made of polyurethane.
  • Ed Ruscha – an artist of the archetypal post-War west, with its highways, gas stations and huge signs – Every building on Sunset Strip (1966), Hollywood (1968), Sin (1970), Whiskers (1972) Made in California (1971)
  • Wayne Thiebaud – Careful etchings and linotypes of colourful fatty American sweets –Gumball machine (see above), Boston cremes (1962), Suckers state (1968)
  • Robert Bechtle’s quiet depictions of California suburbs, mostly empty of people with only a parked car suggesting human presence – Burbank Street – Alameda 1 (1967), 60 T-Bird (1967), Alamedo Carrera (1967) cars which make me think of the movies Bullitt (1968) or Dirty Harry (1971)
  • Bruce Naumann – a harsh negative vision obsessed with the power of words, not phrases, just potent words, arranged forwards and backwards, often in slanting italics, often in harsh black and white – Clear vision (1973), Malice (1980)

Talk on the wall label of clear blue skies and swimming pools made me think of David Hockney and, turning a corner, who do we find! Hockney is another great fan of sets and series:

Room 5 Persistence of abstraction – gestural and hard-edge 1960s-1970s

Pop was seen by many as an anecdote to the angst and bleak psychologising of 1950s Abstract Expressionism (as recently displayed at a major retrospective at the Royal Academy). This room shows how some print-makers continued, despite the shiny externalities of real life celebrated by Pop, to experiment with abstract shapes, and blurs and swirls of paint.

Walking into this room after the previous four was like walking into the screening of some European art movie after spending a couple of hours watching Star Wars and chomping on popcorn. It required quite a change of pace to calm down from the big bright, super-colourful and, above all, instantly recognisable imagery of Pop, to get back to grips with more abstract experiments in colour, texture and design.

Room 6 Minimalism and conceptualism from the 1970s

The sobering up process continued in the next room with a sample of the very black and white, minimalist aesthetic which came in in the early 1970s, as a reaction against everything bright and shiny. I very much like the sculptures of American minimalism – many of which can be seen in Tate Modern – but my palette had been so spoilt by the Mickey Mouse pleasures of the preceding rooms that I found it hard to tune in to their subtleties.

Room 7 Photorealism – Portraits and landscapes

Apparently there was a revival in the 1970s of the deeply unfashionable genre of portraiture.

Of the landscapes I liked Craig McPherson’s Yankee stadium at night (1983), a powerful and absorbing image because it is in fact so entirely figurative. Best things in the room were prints of the hyper-realistic / ‘photorealistic’ paintings done by Richard Estes, from his Urban Landscape series.

Room 8 The figure reasserted

Had the figure ever been away? Well figurative depictions of the human form were grouped together in this room, though often in a stilted or deliberately naive style – maybe a refreshing change after the blank coolness of ’70s minimalism.

The standout images were to almost life size prints wonderfully capturing a fully-clothed man and woman in the act of dancing, writhing, jiving.

  • Robert Longo – Eric (1985) from the Men in the cities series. Cindy (2002)

Room 9 – Politics and dissent

Once again Warhol trumps the room with his fabulous silk prints of Nixon and Mao (1972), alongside the more subdued print of Jackie II (1966).

Vote McGovern, Colour screenprint (1972) by Andy Warhol © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Vote McGovern (1972) Colour screenprint by Andy Warhol © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Note these dates, though. This is very old protest. Johnson? Nixon? Beautiful, striking, imaginative but – old.

The Politics and dissent room segues into a room about AIDS which was first clinically observed in the United States in 1981. The 1980s was, therefore, among other things, the decade in which medical investigation of the condition went hand in hand with growing public awareness, with attempts to overcome the stigma of illness and then lobby for more research to be done. This room features prints by gay artists responding to the crisis.

Room 10 Feminism, gender and the body

Big Daddy with Hats (1971) Colour screenprint by May Stevens © May Stevens. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

Big Daddy with Hats (1971) Colour screenprint by May Stevens © May Stevens. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

I found a lot of this work a little understated, almost amateurish. The correctness of your beliefs or vehemency of your faith don’t of themselves make for particularly interesting art.

For a palette spoiled by big shiny consumer images, the most immediate impact in this room was made by the sharp, advert-based images of the Guerrilla Girls.

If Pop in the ’60s cut up and pasted cheesy adverts, the GGs in the ’80s create what amount to striking ads in their own right. They’re still very active.

Room 11 Race and identity – Unresolved histories

The inclusion of a room of Feminist art and a room of Black art gives the visitor a strong sense of the academic background of the exhibition’s organisers. I’m not saying they’re not big issues, but the inclusion of these issues, and only these issues, at the end of the show reflects their dominance of academic life and university campuses and doesn’t necessarily reflect the major social, economic and technological upheavals of the last 30 years.

Stowage. Woodcut on Japanese paper (1997) by Willie Cole © Willie Cole. Reproduced by permission of the artist courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Publishing, New York

Stowage (1997) Woodcut on Japanese paper by Willie Cole © Willie Cole. Reproduced by permission of the artist courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Publishing, New York

In this room the standout artist for me is Kara Walker, with her stylised black and white silhouettes of slave figures. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But it is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Room 12 Signs of the times

The wall label in this last room mentions 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008 but addresses neither of them directly. Instead the 12 prints in this concluding section comment obliquely on the sense of America’s economic decline, or at least the decline of traditional industries and jobs. Commercial collapse, bankruptcy and anomie. The unwinding of America.

It is a depressing conclusion, but it follows logically from the AIDS, feminism and black rooms. Somewhere in the 1980s America began to hate itself and look for someone to blame. A lot of the AIDS images are angry at the slowness of medical research into the condition, the stigma attached to it, Reaganite persecution of gays, the slander of calling it a ‘gay plague’. The feminist room is full of anger at the Patriarchy, at the countless ways women have been suppressed, silenced, objectified and abused. And the black room is also angry at the grotesque abomination of slavery, the slave trade, the systematic abuse of millions of men, women and children bought and sold like cattle, worked to death, raped and murdered and ongoing discrimination against people of colour, police shootings of black men, the huge black prison population.

A sympathetic reading of these three rooms leaves the visitor shaken and exhausted, and this final small downbeat section matches your mood with images of an America which has somehow reached the end of the line. The breezy confidence of the 1960s has evaporated. Gays, blacks and women are just the most vocal of the groups attacking a culture which seems on its knees.

The most haunting image, deliberately and carefully chosen to end the show, is Ed Ruscha’s reprise of his 1966 brilliant iconic image of a gas station – now redone in pure white, emptied out, a ghost of itself. In fact one of the stylish ‘windows’ cut here and there into the exhibition walls, means you can look directly back into the earlier gallery where the 1966 print is hanging and compare the two.

The hollowing out, the blanking of Ghost station suggests that the chrome-plated consumer paradise depicted in thePop art of the 1960s has become a drug-addicted, derelict shell of itself.

What happened? Where did it all go wrong? And if Donald Trump is the answer, what on earth is the question?


Post script 1: The elephant in the room

This is a panoramic and exciting exhibition which brings together many of the biggest names in American art, alongside lesser-known but just as interesting artists, to give a vivid sense of the boundless experimentation and creativity of this huge country. Above all it successfully stakes a claim for print as a medium as creative, varied and beautiful as painting or sculpture. You exit the show, mind ringing with all kinds of images, ideas, issues and reflections.

For me, at the end, one big question stood out. The exhibition’s publicity encourages us to combine the art with history and politics, to experience post-war American history through these artists’ eyes. Which is why it seems to me extraordinary that there is only one throwaway mention of the single most important event in 21st century American history – 9/11.

From this traumatic attack stem the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, the war in Afghanistan and the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, official defence of waterboarding and torture at Guantanamo Bay, further acts of domestic terrorism, along with armed interventions in Libya and Syria and the ever-increasing use of drone attacks.

All these events have contributed hugely to the sense contemporary America has of being embattled and threatened by forces it doesn’t understand and can’t contain, to the tide of anxiety and xenophobia which helped Donald Trump to the White House. It seems to me extraordinary that an exhibition which at least in part claims to survey American history ‘to the present’ omits this seismic subject.

Surely there are American artists making prints on these subjects – 9/11 is burned into our minds as a set of horrible images, not to mention iconic images of Osama bin Laden’s face, Saddam’s statue being pulled down, the torture victims in Abu Ghraib, drones cruising the skies. I can’t believe that scores of American artists haven’t addressed these issues and haven’t mined these images for creative purposes.

Why aren’t they here?

Postscript 2: Native Americans

The feminist artists complain about the oppression of women in general, of women artists in particular, of the suppression of their stories and experiences by the Patriarchy, which women artists are only now bravely telling. The black artists complain about the oppression of Africans, the brutality meted out to slaves, the suppression of their narratives and stories, which black artists are only now exploring.

My son asked me, So where’s the room for Native Americans? There isn’t one. Why not? If there aren’t many Native American artists, why not? Isn’t that a bit of an issue? And if there truly aren’t many Native American artists, doesn’t that mean that any history of America told through its art will inevitably privilege European forms of expression and necessarily exclude the voice and experience of its original inhabitants?

In between the endless artworks, books, documentaries and conferences about gender and the body or slavery and the black experience – just possibly the occasional mention should be made of the original inhabitants of this huge continent who were almost exterminated and the survivors shunted to the edge of American life and for so long written out of the American story. And – in this exhibition at least – are still written out of the American story.

No Native American artists? No Native American print makers? No Native American narratives or stories? Not even one solitary mention of them? No.

Gays, blacks, women – these are the academically-approved minorities, the groups which have their own political movements and voices, novels, plays, movies, Hollywood stars lobbying for them, TV shows about them, and art and criticism and exhibitions and academic papers and dissertations and conferences and books devoted to them, which are, in other words, part of the state-approved cultural discourse.

As for the original victims of European colonisation? Silence. Absence. Invisibility…


The video

Related links

Newspaper reviews of The American Dream

Reviews of other British Museum shows

Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, lesbian or gay, bisexual or transsexual?

And does it matter?

If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging male ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, encouraging lascivious thoughts in the male viewer, reducing women to sexualised objects, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes?

If by a woman, is it a joyously unashamed celebration of the female body, the lazy posture and yawning stretch of the subject marvellously capturing a moment of real, unvarnished intimacy?

Does knowledge of the painter’s gender or sexual orientation change your ‘reading’ of this picture, your enjoyment of it, your ‘understanding’ of it? And why?

These are just some of the questions raised by this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

Declaration of interest

I was a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality back in the 1970s, going on marches, signing petitions, habituating Windsor’s only gay pub, campaigning for gay rights, the central one being getting the age of gay consent brought down in line with the age for straights. In the years since, I’ve supported gay marriage, gay and women priests, and so on. It’s always been obvious to me that LGBT people should be treated absolutely the same as anyone else, and benefit from exactly the same rights and life opportunities. I am not myself gay, but it’s always seemed obvious to me that a) no-one should judge any form of sexual practice among consenting adults b) no-one should be allowed to discriminate in any way against anyone on account of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.

The jargon of desire

In the late 1960s French structuralist literary criticism began to morph into post-structuralist criticism and theory. Reflecting the move from the politicised 1960s into the more narcissistic 1970s, and an ongoing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis – and also being French and proud of it – a lot of this criticism became more personal, about identity, as constituted in texts and wider society, and a lot more about sex.

The works of literary critics like Roland Barthes (b.1915,  The Pleasure of the Text), the historian Michel Foucault (b.1926 A History of Sexuality), the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.1930), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b.1901), feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous (b.1937) and Julia Kristeva (b.1941 Desire in language), and the pioneer of Queer Studies, Judith Butler (b.1956, Subjects of desireGender trouble, Undoing gender), plus many others have led to the vast proliferation of the ‘discourse of desire’, to countless books and articles and conferences and degree and postgraduate courses about gender and sexuality, demonstrating how this, that or the other work of art or fiction or film ‘subverts’ or ‘challenges’ or ‘confronts’ gender conventions and ‘transgresses’ gender stereotypes and ‘rewrites’ gender narratives.

With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, young students wanting to prove how rebellious and subversive they were found themselves bereft of an ideological alternative to consumer capitalism, and so found themselves forced towards the only two games in town, anti-sexism and anti-racism, embodied in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies, respectively.

For at least thirty years humanities departments – literature, art, philosophy – have been teaching courses showing how all Western writing, art, philosophy was riddled with racist/sexist assumptions, and built on evil imperialism and slavery. Many graduates of these courses, imbued with this way of thinking, moved on into the media and press, into film and theatre and the art world, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, and in galleries and theatres across the West, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles, producing documentaries, putting on plays angry about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.

But there are more women than immigrants in this country and, as a result, more Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies courses than Post-Colonial courses – and so books and articles and films and documentaries about the multiple unfairnesses and injustices perpetrated on women throughout the ages by the ever-present Patriarchy, continue to thrive and proliferate.

On one level this exhibition represents a triumph of this kind of discourse, a discourse a) obsessed by sex, conceived of in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) driven and animated by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. Exhibitions about any aspect of sexuality represent a perfect marriage of victim politics with the high-flown ‘discourse of desire’.

Why use the word ‘queer’?

To quote the curators:

Queer has a mixed history – from the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. Our inspiration for using it came from Derek Jarman who said that it used to frighten him but now ‘for me to use the word queer is a liberation’. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Historians of sexuality have also argued that it is preferable to other terms for sexualities in the past as these often don’t map onto modern sexual identities. In addition to carrying out audience research, we took advice from Stonewall and other LGBT charities and held focus groups with LGBT people. The advice from all of these sources was overwhelmingly that we should use it. While we tried other titles, no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show.

What is a queer work of art?

Does it have to portray a homosexual or lesbian act i.e. be pornographic (as a small number of the works here do, some rude sketches by Keith Vaughan and the super well-known big phalluses of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata)?

Is queer art any  work by an overtly gay or lesbian or bi or trans artist? But how many Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian painters thought of themselves in those terms? Don’t the curators run the risk of – in fact aren’t they running headlong into – defining, naming and limiting people from the past a) by our own modern 2017 categories of sexuality (Yes); and b) of defining people entirely by their ‘sexuality’, whatever that is. I thought that was precisely what CHE and Gay Rights and their successors were trying to escape from: from being tied down, limited, constrained and defined solely in terms of your sexual preferences, as if that were the only important part of your life, as if society is correct to pigeonhole all of us on the basis of this one attribute.

And what if the queer artist’s subject matter is not only not particularly erotic, what if it’s not even of human body? For example, is this queer art?

Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895 – 1978) was a lesbian painter. So is her painting of flowers a work of queer art?

Should queer art also include works which just look ‘sort of’ homoerotic or a bit lesbian, either a) in the eyes of contemporary viewers (in which case it might have caused a ‘scandal’ and ‘shocked Victorian society’), or b) in the eyes of modern curators trained to spot the slightest sign of gender stereotypes being ‘subverted’ and gender norms being ‘transgressed’ and narratives of heterosexuality being ‘questioned’ and ‘interrogated’?

Either way, categorising art in terms of the audience’s response to it, is dicey. What constitutes ‘art’ has changed out of all recognition the past 150 years. People’s responses to ‘art’ have become similarly complex and varied.

Tricky questions. In the event, this exhibition includes works chosen by all these criteria, and more.

The drawbacks of telling history through art

This decade Tate Britain has run a series of exhibitions based not around artists or movements, but on broad themes and topics. Thus they’ve staged exhibitions about: folk art, the aesthetic of ruins, the British Empire, Victorian sculpture, the destruction of art works, the depiction of war. Many of them had an amusingly random element, delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey placed next to vast photos of Nazi war bunkers (Ruin Lust), or some maps of the Empire next to some flags of the Empire next to random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).

Although they put a brave face on it, the cumulative impression of visiting all these shows raises the suspicion that the curators are under orders to find pretexts to bring out the more obscure and neglected works languishing in Tate’s vast archives, and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ themes.

While the aim of rotating their (doubtless huge) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts the curators come up with are sometimes ambitiously wide-ranging and grand-sounding, while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be rather patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is an enormous subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and vast periods of time involved: the Empire used maps, here’s some maps; the Empire had flags, here’s half a dozen flags; the Empire allowed botanists and naturalists to travel the world and see exotic species so here’s a painting of tiger; here’s some native spears; and so on.

Although Tate calls in plentiful loans from other collections to create the exhibitions, the core of these shows tends to be focused on dusting off and displaying many of it hidden assets, themselves bought at various times for various reasons, hence the feeling they give of a patchwork quilt made from odds and ends. Sometimes it feels as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.

Written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas at will: in words, anything is possible. Histories told through objects, however, immediately limit which areas can be covered, and which stories can be told, by virtue of what is available, what has survived. And histories told through works of ‘art’ are even more limited by the random nature of any particular art collection, as well as biases intrinsic in what kind of subjects get turned into ‘art’ and what don’t (the experiences of most ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work, especially housework).

All these limitations apply to this exhibition, with the additional challenge that sex, sexuality, gender, desire – call it what you will – is, by and large, quite a private part of most people’s lives. Artists and performers, by the nature of their work and output, are a kind of exception to the rule that most people keep their sex lives pretty private. And forms of sexuality which were banned by law and subject to harsh punishments are all the more likely to be hidden and suppressed, to not leave traces in the written – and especially the painted – record.

In other words, even more than Tate’s other wide-ranging historical exhibitions, this one feels haunted by gaps and absences.

The dates

In 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished; in 1967 sex between men was (partially) decriminalised. These provide handy end dates.

The exhibition is in eight rooms

Coded desires covers the later Victorian period. This was dominated by the Aesthetic Movement and the group of painters known as the Olympians, who specialised in sensuous paintings of lightly-clad women lounging around in a dreamy ancient Roman baths or terraces. Just thinking about either of these interlinked movements brings to mind the extraordinary sensuality present in so much art of this period, along with a worship of the classical world, in pictures and in words, which stretched towards a feel for the same-sex relationships present in, especially, the writings of the Greeks, where a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger man or boy was socially acceptable. This may or may not be present in the works here, But the bigger story about most late Victorian art is the remarkable extent to which ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms, was more openly depicted than ever before in this period.

The exhibition has some striking works by the king of the Olympians, Frederick Leighton, on the basis that he sometimes depicted sensual male nudes – although many of his works are characterised by sensuality for men or women.

Leighton was rumoured to be gay, but then again it’s thought he had an affair with one of his female models. Tricky, therefore, to shoehorn him into modern categories of straight, gay, bi etc. One of the liberating things about studying history, past lives, is they did things differently, thought, wrote, spoke, painted, perceived, differently to us. Don’t fit into our modern categories.

The bulk of works in the room are by Simeon Solomon, who was unfortunate enough to be arrested in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, charged with attempting to commit sodomy and fined £100, then a year later arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This makes him a bona fide gay hero. To the viewer, however, his works seem mostly sub-standard examples of the Olympian style done much more smoothly by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) is a painter you don’t hear about much. He also painted supremely sensual paintings on sunny classical themes, e.g. Hera in the House of Hephaistos or just sumptuous late-Victorian portraits e.g. Mrs Luke Ionides. Nothing particularly ‘transgressive’ about these, in the way our curators want to see ‘gender norms’ being ‘transgressed’, but they’ve included one big painting The Bowlers.

Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians?) for its inclusion of naked women (you can see some breasts) and naked men in the same scene. And some of the men have their arms round each other. Shock horror. Richmond was married and wasn’t arrested in any toilets, so not a transgressive hero per se. After looking at it for a while I noticed the way a line drawn along the top of the heads of the figures on the right forms a diagonal going down towards the centre of the composition, while the heads of the women on the left line up as a mirror diagonal heading down towards the centre: at the very centre is a black vase against a thick central pillar, to the left of which is a woman in a see-through toga and on the right the zigzagging black trunk of a wisteria tree. Which means or symbolises? Who knows.

My favourite things in this room were the three paintings by the marvellous Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). Tuke was one of a group of artists who settled in Newlyn in Cornwall and painted en plein air. Almost all are of young men, nude or half-undressed, by the sparkling sea in the sunshine. In the permanent gallery upstairs they display August Blue (1893), a wonderful composition in terms of the draughtsmanship of the figures, also the figurative accuracy of the rowboat and the ships on the horizon, and also of course the wonderfully clear blues and greens – you can smell the sea, you can feel the sun on your skin. There are three of his paintings here alongside a cabinet showing some of the many photographs he took of gorgeous-looking young men.

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

Public indecency ‘looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public from the 1880s to the 1920s.’

Thus we have the trial of Oscar Wilde (who has not heard of the trial of Oscar Wilde? How many films have been made of it?) the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall for her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), and we get some of Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘scandalous’ illustrations for the Greek play Lysistrata thrown in.

This is the kind of thing you should learn in 6th form and certainly early in an English or humanities degree course, so that you can tut and fret and criticise horrible dead white men for repressing ‘transgressive’ sexualities. But it’s worth remembering that this period also saw the persecution of male heterosexual artists as well – James Joyce’s Ulysses went on trial in 1921 because of its description of a man masturbating, the police raided an exhibition of paintings by D.H. Lawrence and (admittedly not in England) the Austrian artist Egon Schiele was arrested and 100 of his art works were confiscated – one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist -for their sexual explicitness.

It was an era when many artists of all persuasions were pushing at the boundaries of what society thought was acceptable depiction of sexuality, and many artists, gay, straight or what-have-you – fell foul of the authorities.

Alongside the Wilde and Beardsley are testaments to the work of the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, who collaborated with the gay writer John Addington Symonds on his book Sexual Inversion (1896). These ‘scientific’ works can either be seen (optimistically) as the start of a ‘modern’ liberal attitude to a wide range of sexual practices or (pessimistically) as ‘science’ and the State beginning to move into areas of private life, with a view to defining and categorising all possible practices (or perversions as they’d have been called) and the human ‘types’ which engage in them.

You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to suspect that the ‘liberating’ effects of writing about varieties of sexuality can be accompanied by new types of definition, surveillance and control.

Theatrical types The theatre and performing arts have long offered a refuge for exhibitionists, people who like to dress up, fantasise, play act and generally behave in ways which would not be acceptable in everyday life. So the theatre has long attracted gay men and this room features photos of famous performers who were gay, photographers who were gay, with a special case devoted to cross-dressing entertainers.

There’s a lot of photos by Angus McBean (1904-90) the fabulous b&w photographer, who did lots of semi-surreal fashion shots before the war (his ‘surrealised portraits’), was arrested in 1942 for homosexual acts and served two years in gaol, before emerging to resume his career post-war in a rather more traditional vision. But everything he did is touched by class and style. The show includes a typically weird portrait of the now-forgotten actor Robert Helpmann as Hamlet, though I know him for his appearances in Powell and Pressburger’s two extraordinary films, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The British have a problem with sex, full stop, whether straight or gay, and have long had a reputation for gross hypocrisy, with the ‘respectable’ classes enforcing repressive laws at home then vacationing in Paris where they could sleep with countless courtesans (as squeaky clean Charles Dickens was reputed to do and the heir to the throne, Prince Albert certainly did) or swanning off to North Africa, to Algeria or Morocco where there was an endless supply of boys for sex.

This nervousness, shame and embarrassment may be part of what lies behind the long tradition of men dressing up as women for vaudeville entertainment, a tradition which goes back a long way, but is certainly present in the Victorian music hall, through the pre-war years and was still going strong in my boyhood in figures like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery (‘Oh you are awful… but I like you!’), Kenny Everett (‘and then all my clothes fell off!’), Dame Edna Everage, Lily Savage. And that’s without mentioning the vast tradition of English pantomime with its Widow Twanky and Ugly Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risqué and ‘transgender’ comedy.

A display case here presents a dozen or so photos and posters illustrating some of the cross-dressing stars of yore, most of which I’d never heard of simply because they were before the days of TV. Here, as elsewhere in the show (and as often in the Tate ‘history’ exhibitions) you feel this is an absolutely vast subject which has been only briefly sketched and hinted at, and possibly not one which is necessarily best approached through the medium of ‘art’ at all.

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Bloomsbury and beyond I am prejudiced against Bloomsbury because of their snobbery and their smug, self-congratulatory elitism. They all slept with each other and described each other, in private letters and public reviews, as geniuses. What’s lasted has tended to be the writings of figures on the periphery – the economics of John Maynard Keynes, the novels of E.M. Forster, the novels of Virginia Woolf, though she was a core member. The art work of figures like Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (recently featured in a handsome exhibition at the Dulwich Picture House), Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, hasn’t really stood the test of time.

The catalogue says this room is meant to represent:

a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.

Which makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert symbolises everything pretty, decorative and forgettable which I tend not to like about Bloomsbury art. Perhaps I just can’t slow myself down to this atmosphere of coma-like inaction. The commentary on the other hand, because Sands was in a queer relationship with fellow painter Nan Hudson, claims it is a ‘quietly subversive’ work, with ‘queer undercurrents’. Can you spot the queer undercurrents?

The commentary makes the case that, although not overtly sexual in the least, these tranquil interiors are a) painted by queer artists and b) if you look closely, very closely, you can see small hints and traces of ‘queer lives’ which ‘history has long neglected’. Maybe…

That said, I did find myself, on repeated viewings and to my surprise, warming to the selection of works by Duncan Grant on show here. These ranged from small, explicitly gay pornographic sketches to a vast mural, commissioned to decorate the dining room of the new Borough Polytechnic in 1911.

It’s a huge work – and the more I looked at it the more I admired the mix of abstract and figurative elements to achieve an overall decorative effect, and came to understand that it follows the action of a single diver from standing poised on the shore, at right, through diving in, and swimming to the boat which he clambers into at top left.

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Similarly, I was impressed by the sheer size of the massive Excursion of Nausicaa by Dame Ethel Walker. It’s 18 metres wide by almost 4 high and makes a dramatic impact. It’s just as well a bench is provided for you to sit and take it all in. Although, when you look closer, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Gauguin-style primitivism with Art Deco style neo-classical figures, it is still at first sight, an enormous and confident composition.

There is a vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant. In fact there were half a dozen Philpots scattered through the show, though this is the most vivid.

Similarly, the South African artist Edward Wolfe is represented by a portrait of Pat Nelson, his model and thought to be his gay lover.

The Bloomsburyites’ pursuit of ‘unconventional’ sexual arrangements (i.e. being bisexual, living with several lovers at once etc) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the cultural dominance of gay writers, poets and artists during the 1930s, given extra bite by the availability of the ‘decadent’ Weimar Republic in post-war Germany, whither trekked a generation of young gay men like Auden, Christopher Isherwood and so on.

Defying convention This room shows how early 20th century British artists ‘challenged gender norms’ i.e. by being lesbians, living with other women, having ‘open marriages’ and so on. For example, Laura Knight, the curators claim, in this picture is laying ‘claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’. It’s another very big painting and very red.

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

There is a factual background to the image in that Knight was prevented from attending the life classes at Nottingham Art College because she was a woman; only when she moved to Newlyn was she able to hire life models, and so this composition is a sort of act of defiance. That changes our attitude to the image. Still, in and of itself, would you know that it lays claims to masculine sources of artistic authority, if it hadn’t been carefully explained. Maybe…

Anyway, on pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of big, colourful and attractive works are on show in this room, especially of the phenomenally posh women who populated early 20th century feminism.

  • Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, the Honourable Mrs Harold Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville. She is holding her recently published book of poems – Poems of West and East – showing the influence of Tennyson’s world-weariness, A.E. Housman’s lad poems, and the childlike orientalism of John Masefield and other Georgians.  They’re sweet and melancholy.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell (1916) by Alberto Guevara – daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort.
  • Romance (1920) by Cecile Walton – Walton doesn’t appear to have been gay, having had two marriages (to men) but this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth. Having been present at the birth of my daughter, I can testify that it certainly challenges the reality of childbirth which is a lot less calm and dignified than this static scenario.

Arcadia and Soho ‘London was a magnet for queer artists’.

The most striking works here are by the neglected surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-76). According to a review of his biography, his sensibility was gay, and his closest friend was a male ballet dancer, ‘but they were never lovers’. Am I alone in finding this modern inquisitiveness about the exact nature of other people’s sexuality, and the precise borders of their sexual activity, prurient and controlling? Who cares? His art is weird and extra, a really stunning, outlandish vision.

  • Soldiers at Rye (1941) Burra incorporates masks from Venetian carnival, fabric from Spanish baroque, with a kind of sado-military hugeness to create this monstrous surreal panorama.
  • Izzy Orts (1937) Burra was introduced to the portside bars of Charleston, with their mix of jazz musicians, pimps and dealers, and sailors in tight-fitting uniforms. Perfect!

The opposite wall is devoted to a trio of gay artists – John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan – who were loosely described as ‘neo-romantics’ in the 1940s. They were certainly gay. There’s a display case of overtly gay and pornographic pencil sketches by Vaughan, as well as a handful of photos he took of gorgeous young men.

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

At an exhibition years ago I saw a whole stand of the b&w photos Vaughan took of beautiful young men lounging around classic 1930s lidos, at Hampstead Pools or the Serpentine, and have been haunted by them ever since.

Next to the figurative sketches are his much more abstract paintings:

In these Vaughan seems to me to have developed a new and exciting way of depicting the (mostly male) figure. Alongside Vaughan are some lighter, more ‘naive’ works by John Craxton.

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Craxton, Minton and Vaughan are three interesting figures, maybe worthy of a joint exhibition some time.

Public/private lives In the decade leading up to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted – the eminent actor John Gielgud was arrested for indecency in a public toilet in 1953, was fined, released and was roundly applauded the next time he took to the stage. Maybe the most famous example was the close ‘friendship’ between England’s leading composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears. The fuzz couldn’t go arresting the nation’s premier composer. But they did continue to arrest and imprison a steady stream of less well-known gay men, creating the trickle of protest which grew louder and more widespread for the law to be repealed or abolished.

This room goes heavy on the lurid relationship of gay playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell, because it ended in a garish tragedy. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, a genuinely taboo-breaking work starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccably upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with good-looking young Peter McEnery, and blackmailed. I saw this film as a boy and it left a lasting impression of the needless pain and suffering caused by bigots and criminals given license by a stupidly interfering state. It influenced me to join the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

Francis Bacon and David Hockney I think we all know about these bad boys. This final room gives us the opportunity to marvel again at the bleak power of Bacon’s nihilistic paintings and the scratchy undergraduate humour of Hockney’s early Pop style.

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

As I progressed through the exhibition, reading every wall label carefully, a theme began to emerge (above and beyond the obvious ones about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘same-sex desire’):

  • ‘De Morgan’s repeated images of Hales have encouraged speculation about the nature of their relationship…’
  • ‘There is some evidence that Henry Bishop was attracted to men…’
  • ‘Beardsley does not seem to have had relationships with men…’
  • ‘There has been much speculation about Tuke’s relationships with his Cornish models although nothing has been substantiated…’
  • ‘Little is known about Meteyard’s sexuality, other than the fact that he was married…’
  • ‘Leighton’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation from his own times to the present, but he guarded his privacy closely…’
  • ‘Glen Byam Shaw had almost certainly been the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon…’
  • ‘The exact nature of Thomas and Philpot’s relationship is unknown…’
  • Duncan Grant’s ‘close friend and possible lover Paul Roche…’
  • ‘There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of Walker’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian with whom she lived and worked in the 1880s although little evidence survives…’
  • ‘The poet Edith Sitwell does not seem to have had sexual relationships…’

What does it matter to an appreciation of their work what an artist did or did not do with their penis or vagina, or to someone else’s penis or vagina? Why do scholars obsess about the sexual act being a vital threshold in a relationship? On one level, this breathless fascination with the precise nature of people’s relationships, and whether they ever did the deed together, is just a highbrow form of gutter gossip, an educated equivalent to who’s shagging who in The Only Way Is Essex or Celebrity Big Brother, little different to the tittle-tattle of the tabloid press.

On a more disturbing level, this intrusion of scholarly enquiry into the heart of people’s private lives is because modern art critics and curators need to know precisely who had sex with who and when, so that they can categorise and define artists, writers, poets, photographers, performers and so on according to their tidy definitions. So that artists can be neatly arranged into canons and genres and books and essays and exhibitions about straight or gay or queer or whatever art.

  • ‘[Dirk Bogarde] never publicly affirmed a sexual identity and his personal life has to be inferred from his long relationship with his manager Tony Forwood (1915-88) with whom he shared his home.’

Has to be? Who says it has to be? Why this compulsion? Why must everyone’s sexuality be nailed down and defined?

To be a bit fierce, you could say that modern art scholars and curators talk the talk about gender fluidity and multiple narratives and transgressing this, that or the other – but in practice, it is they more than any other group in British society who are obsessed with tracking down their subjects’ every sexual act and desire in order to categorise, limit, define and control both artists and their works.

I found the obsessive probing into these dead people’s private lives unpleasant and disturbing.

Conclusion

The repetition over and again, in the introductions to each room and on labels for individual works, of the phrases ‘same-sex desire’ and ‘gender norms’, all of which are ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ and ‘transgressed’, of artists ‘fearlessly stripping away’ convention and ‘pushing the boundaries’ – all this gets pretty monotonous after a while.

Luckily, the art itself is much more varied, stimulating and unexpected than the ideological monomania of the commentary would suggest. If the downside of these historically-themed Tate exhibitions is that they take on vast subjects which they then struggle to adequately cover, the upside is that they turn up all sorts of unexpected treasures by relatively unknown figures, and make you want to see more.

For example, I’d love to see an exhibition devoted to Craxton, Minton and Vaughan, exploring that strange sensibility of the 1940s, surely the most overlooked of 20th century decades. An exhibition devoted to the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ artists would not only be a feast of sensuality but could explore in more detail the complex areas of sexuality and sensuality which were so present in Victorian art, yet so repressed in Victorian life.

Edward Burra, can we have a show dedicated to him, please, his last retrospective was in 1973. How about a show devoted to Tuke and the Newlyn School, what a wonderful treat that would be for the dark English winter. The more I looked at the Angus McBean photos, the more wonderful they seemed – how about an exhibition of him – or a broader exhibition about Theatre and Photography? Or, as simple an idea as ‘Neglected Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.

In conclusion, I was irritated by the curator-speak but I thought it was a wonderful show, went back to see it twice, bought the catalogue, and am still being pleasantly beguiled by many of the wonderful paintings, large and small, brash or quiet. What an extraordinary, and huge, contribution gay/lesbian/queer artists have made to every aspect of British culture.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Paul Nash @ Tate Britain

The nine rooms in this show comprise a major exhibition of the life’s work of the painter, illustrator, sculptor, photographer and art critic, Paul Nash. The show proceeds in simple chronological order and, as well as oil paintings and watercolours, includes display cases containing letters, photographs, magazine articles, book illustrations, collages and sculptures, as well as two rooms putting his work into the context of contemporaries and collaborators. It is a comprehensive overview of a much-loved English artist.

Mysterious landscapes

Nash was born in 1889. He spent his early life in Iver Heath in what was then rural Buckinghamshire and early on developed a special feel for the modest highlights of the Home Counties landscape. He felt trees so powerfully that he thought they had almost human personalities – he depicted a particular stand of three trees near his home again and again, in different lights – and he was much taken with nightscapes and the moon and mysterious winged figures. He wrote poems and illustrated them in the manner of William Blake or Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Room 1 is dedicated to these, many of which felt childish and immature to me.

The great exception is a watercolour of Wittenham Clumps, in Oxfordshire, one of the oldest planted stands of beech trees in England, set atop an Iron Age fort. It is, in fact, only a very gently sloping hill, but in these pictures you can see his interest in pattern and linear shapes emerging from his not particularly accurate landscape technique.

The Great War

Nash was 24 when the Great War broke out. He was called up but not actually sent to France until 1917, when he saw the devastated landscape left after the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. For such a sensitive man, so in tune with the special meaning of natural landscape, the war was a terrible blasphemy. He wrote blistering attacks on the war leaders in letters to his wife (on display here).

‘I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back
word from men who are fighting to those who want the war to go forever. Feeble,
inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their
lousy souls.’

In terms of technique, the war inspired him to start using oil (as opposed to his previous light watercolours) and speeded his tendency to find simplified geometric shapes in landscape.

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917 by Paul Nash (1917) Imperial War Museum, London © Tate

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917 by Paul Nash (1917) Imperial War Museum, London © Tate

He was always poor at depicting the human figure. Not many appear in the early watercolours, and the few soldiers in the war paintings are weak compared to the soldiers of C.R.W. Nevinson or Wyndham Lewis or John Singer Sargent or William Orpen. His most famous war painting contains no humans – the shattered tree stumps represent the countless blighted lives – and highlights the new more abstract vision.

Vying with it is Menin Road 1917, in which the soldier figures have successfully blended with the design, appearing as just another set of angled lines in a composition dominated by verticals and diagonals.

Nash began his career as an illustrator and a display case here shows the pen-and-ink illustrations he did for a book of poetry by war novelist Richard Aldington. These are cleaner and sparer than the big oil paintings. I’m a sucker for strong outlines and silhouettes, so I really like them.

The 1920s

Nash emerged unharmed from the war and came back to live in a succession of rural locations. His paintings reflect pastoral views at Whiteleaf in Buckinghamshire or Dymchurch in Kent, but now done in an unapologetically modernist style.

I’ve always liked the Dymchurch paintings. They have a peculiar understated ominousness about them. Now I learn from the audio-commentary that shortly after moving there in 1924 Nash had a nervous breakdown, probably a delayed reaction to the war.

He has converted the ungainliness which characterises all his work into Unease. They are English landscapes, southern English landscapes, with the flatness and homeyness and boredom that implies but with… edge, disquiet, pregnant with some unspoken meaning…

Discovering de Chirico

In 1928 Nash visited an exhibition of works by Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist more or less his contemporary. De Chirico’s empty piazzas and abstract architecture had, by  his own admission, a dramatic impact on him. Nash wrote a lot about his own practice and phrases like ‘the power of abandoned objects’, ‘dreamlike ominousness’ and ‘isolated architectural elements’ begin to enter his prose.

Some of these paintings look Mediterranean, as if Nash has swallowed de Chirico whole. Others are still set in the English landscape but now seen in a completely new way, where isolated objects somehow bring out meanings which were always latent but not expressed in ‘reality’.

Nash trained as an illustrator, was at one time art critic for the Listener and became an avid photographer, as well as designing fabrics and china, so he had many strings to his bow. He was also involved in set design for contemporary theatre and some of the post-de Chirico works take his existing interest in the geometric aspect of landscape and add a new element, imposing frames within the frame to create angles and perspectives and plonking down abstract features in landscape as if they’re stage sets incongruously abandoned in a field or wood.

Unit One

In 1933 he joined forces with a host of other modern British artists to create ‘Unit One’, a movement he helped publicise. They held an exhibition which went on tour round the country in 1934 and 35. The exhibition devotes a room to Unit One and it is very useful to see works by other artists alongside Nash, very illuminating, clarifying what visual elements he shared with his contemporaries and what made him different. Works on display include:

I realised what all his peers have in common is that their works are very finished, with sharp lines, smooth paint surfaces or – in sculpture – the smoothly modelled shapes of Moore and Hepworth. By contrast, most of the half dozen or so works in this room by Nash seemed rough and scrappy, on canvas where you can often see the fabric of the canvas showing through the oil, where colours deliberately don’t go up to the edge of others colours, leaving canvas showing through, and where the oil is applied with thick strokes which are visible from even a few yards away. This scrappiness and lack of finish is really obvious in a work like Pillar and moon (1932) but it’s present in all his work, something photographic reproductions smooth out but which seeing them in real life makes really apparent.

This patchiness extends to entire compositions, which are clearly not interested in either crispness of outline or really pure, mathematical geometry. Although they make an impact, I don’t really like them, they make me feel uneasy.

Although they’re obviously landscapes and presumably come out of Nash’s lifelong numinous sense of place and nature, they actually remind me of early Francis Bacon in the sense of lumpish unhappiness they convey.

Alongside these blotchy works, Nash had another style which was much more precise and seems to stem from his training in graphic illustration. From his flat in St Pancras he looked out onto an advertising hoarding kept in place by multiple struts. Combine this with the strong de Chirico influence and you get images which are interested in line and intersection (like the window frames used in ‘Month of March’):

The background is pure de Chirico, no?

Swanage

In 1934 Nash moved to Swanage in Dorset. His wife gave him a camera. And he met the artist Eileen Agar. The result was an explosion of activity recorded in a fascinating room containing scores of works by both artists. As surrealism took hold of his imagination he became fascinated by the juxtaposition of objects found along the seashore and then, by extension, anywhere.

As the audio-commentary points out, the sea, in itself, is a surrealist work – an improbable realisation of our weirdest dreams, and the evocative driftwood, stones, fossils and human detritus it washes up are ready-made objects which only need to be placed on pedestals to become works of art.

He and Agar photographed incongruous objects placed together, experimented with photo-collage, made reliefs and sculptures and assemblages – boxes containing mixed media, seashells, driftwood, stones, eggs, fabric. In fact, as with the Unit One room, I was more taken by the non-Nash – in this case Agar’s – work than by Nash’s. For me her stuff has a crispness and sharpness which contrasts with his vaguer, unfinished feel.

Eileen Agar in Swanage

It amused me that, like so many women artists, Agar was interested in depicting her own naked body. But – like so many woman artists – only when she was young and nubile.

Nash got some of Agar’s pieces into the landmark 1936 exhibition of Surrealist art in London, making her the only woman artist represented.

Nash in Swanage

One of the many display cases has a magazine open at an article by Nash entitled ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’. This title somehow captures the slightly amateurish modernism of these suburban surrealists, a slightly shamefaced English provincialism which has more in common with Philip Larkin’s down-at-heel Hull than Louis Aragon’s glamorous Paris.

The surreal landscape

The Swanage experiments helped crystallise the Surrealist message that one or two carefully placed objects somehow bring out features of a landscape, which are otherwise left implicit and unobserved.

As usual I felt there was a big difference between the deliberately unfinished feel of most of these works and his other style, which is much more rectilinear and complete and – to me, as a fan of clean lines and sharp draughtsmanship – more immediately enjoyable. Such as:

Equivalents for the Megaliths by Paul Nash (1935) © Tate

Equivalents for the Megaliths by Paul Nash (1935) © Tate

The Surrealist exhibition 1936

Nash was one of the curators of the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, which caused a sensation and aligned him in the public mind with the movement. All his influences came together in a series of works in which mysterious objects, sometimes with stage set framings, appear in otherwise placid landscapes. What do they mean? The most famous is Landscape from a dream.

Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash (1936-8) © Tate

Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash (1936-8) © Tate

The Second World War

And then – war again. Nash was invited to be a war artist. The Ministry wanted him to depict our heroic pilots in their gleaming Spitfires – but Nash found himself attracted to the wrecks of airplanes – German fighters and bombers, so cruelly yanked out of their element, their mangled metal wreckage looking like so many of the found objects he had been studying and creating over the previous decade.

The war was Surrealism come true. Many of the works here are watercolours again, showing the same lightness as the early Wittenham Clumps watercolour back in 1912.

Near his home in Oxford was a vast dump of wrecked German planes, the Cowley Dump. The exhibition features many b&w photos Nash took of the wrecked masters of the sky, and includes b&w film footage of our hero looking out over the vista of twisted metal. The result was what is often regarded as one of his masterpieces, Totes Meer (German for ‘dead sea’).

By this stage, after looking closely at 50 or 60 paintings by Nash I had developed a feel for what I liked and what I didn’t, and to my surprise I’d come to dislike paintings like this and prefer the more geometric works. Thus I find the arrangement of elements in the equally famous Battle of Britain (not included in the exhibition, for some reason) much more pleasing.

Last works

Nash only lived a year after the war, dying in 1946 at the early age of 56 from the complications of the asthma which had dogged him with ill health for much of his life. In these final years he returned to landscapes but now pregnant with obscure symbolism. The final room includes several of the series of works he painted which feature enormous sunflowers – a symbol of life when in its prime or, when dead and dessicated, of mortality.

Artists’ last works often reveal new knowledge; they have achieved everything and feel liberated to say what they want. According to the audio-commentary, the Queen Mother liked Landscape of the vernal equinox enough to buy it. She is quoted as saying you can almost imagine an animal or spirit emerging from the woods.

Thoughts:

1. Right to the end he keeps the scrappiness I noticed in room 2 or 3, in fact it is exaggerated, with white gaps between areas of paint forming holes in thickly covered paint through which something – what? – might emerge…

2. No people: early on he realised people weren’t his thing and so hardly any of his paintings, after a few war ones, feature them – the humans are implied by the objects, in the collocations of objects and landscapes from the 1930s, in increasingly subtle, complex and mystifying ways.

3. Pink-peach-apricot: a lot of these last works feature variations on apricot or peach colours, applied to skies, sometimes to other objects, even to shadows. As I strolled back through the show I realised this unreal peach-apricot crops up throughout the work from the beginning – for example, it’s there (improbably enough) in the wartime setting of Spring in the trenches, or in the 1930s surrealism of Landscape from a dream. 

In some way I can’t quite define I think that if you like Landscape of the vernal equinox, its patchy design, blotchy paintwork and apricot coloration – I think you will have penetrated Paul Nash’s mystery.

In these last works I can sort of see it, but I don’t quite get it. Why did he paint giant magnolias in the sky in his final paintings? I think it takes time to feel your way into Nash’s world, and this big thorough exhibition is an excellent place to begin…


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Beyond Caravaggio @ the National Gallery

Biography

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Lombardy in northern Italy in 1571 where he trained before moving to Rome at the age of about twenty. By the mid-1590s he was working regularly as a painter, pioneering a new realistic style depicting street life and interior scenes with people doing mundane things, eating, playing cards, sitting round a table – painted with a lavish attention to detail and with a spectacular use of light and shade to create drama and movement.

His breakthrough came in 1599, when he received a commission to paint the Calling of Saint Matthew and Martyrdom of St Matthew in the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. The public unveiling of these works a year later caused a sensation and led to Caravaggio’s instant fame. He quickly found wealthy patrons including the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei (1542–1614) who commissioned both The Supper at Emmaus and The Taking of Christ (1602), brought together again in the exhibition.

The Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1601) © The National Gallery, London

The Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1601) © The National Gallery, London

All the records indicate he was an extremely difficult man, he argued with colleagues and patrons, was involved in several brawls and then, in 1606, murdered a man after an argument over a game of tennis. Caravaggio fled to Naples, where he soon exerted an influence  over artists in that city with his light effects and dramatic compositions. He died from unknown causes in 1610, aged just 38.

Beyond Caravaggio

The key thing about this exhibition is that it is about Caravaggio’s influence on contemporaries and followers. Of the 50 paintings in the show, only six are by Caravaggio himself (and three of those belong to the National Gallery i.e you can see them free anytime). The six Caravaggios on display are:

  • Boy peeling fruit (1592)
  • Boy bitten by a Lizard (1595)
  • The Supper at Emmaus (1601)
  • The Taking of Christ (1602)
  • Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1604)
  • Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist (1609)

A handful of others are represented by tiny photographs on the wall labels (e.g. Victorious Love, The Seven Acts of Mercy, The Musicians). But the majority of the show consists of works by contemporaries and followers.

Boy bitten by a Lizard by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (About 1594-5) © The National Gallery, London

Boy bitten by a Lizard by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (About 1594-5) © The National Gallery, London

The immediate and lasting impression is that none of them are a patch on Caravaggio. None of the other paintings are in the same league. Caravaggio’s paintings have:

  • beauty of detail as in the finish on the fruits and flowers or the beads of water on the outside of the glass vase in Boy bitten by lizard
  • the dramatic intensity of composition of a work like The Taking of Christ, where the eye has so many interesting directions to follow – along the shiny black armour of the soldier’s outstretched left arm, down Christ’s arms to his strangely locked hands, across the trilogy of heads from right to left, of Judas kissing, Christ looking down and one of his disciples crying out – or following the curve of the red cloak above Christ’s head around and back to the cluster of three soldiers’ heads with the white-faced lamp-holder clustering in among them.
The Taking of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602) On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

The Taking of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602) (On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

  • In The Supper at Emmaus a whole raft of tricks are deployed to heighten the drama: the lighting highlighting Jesus’ face and casting  his shadow on the wall; the outstretched arms of the disciple on the right indicating the depth of the picture plane and drawing us in; the spectacular figure of the disciple half-rising from his chair on the left – in front of this big picture in the flesh I was more and more impressed by this figure and the taut energy of his bent arms lifting his body from his chair. And the commentary made a neat point that even the basket of fruit on the right of the table is actually poised just over the edge of the table and, when you focus on it for a moment, makes you want to lean in and push it safely back onto the table.

Followers and inheritors

None of them are as powerful as Caravaggio; only a handful come close; some are very poor indeed. Particularly poor were:

Take Rutilio Manetti’s Victorious Earthly Love and compare it with Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (not in the exhibition but represented by a small colour photo). Manetti’s painting is horrible. What an ugly specimen his cupid is! The commentary does what scholarly commentary does on such embarrassing occasions and dwells at length on the objects symbolising the arts of music and painting and architecture or whatnot – evading the elephant in the room which is how astonishingly ugly and repellent the central figure is.

Victorious Earthly Love by Rutilio Manetti (about 1625) © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Victorious Earthly Love by Rutilio Manetti (about 1625) © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Compare and contrast with Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (1602), where the dramatic use of extreme light and shade, the stunning mastery of detail, for example the folds of flesh on the stomach, and the naughty impish face – every single element of the painting is by a master of his art, and barely thirty years old.

Amor Vincit Omnia by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602)

Amor Vincit Omnia by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602)

Catholicism

Obviously all these Italian painters are committed Roman Catholics, and living in the Italy of the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition, when the Catholic church really established itself as a worldwide force for reaction, repression, torture and execution.

Quite a few of the paintings here bear out the English poet William Empson’s disgust for a religion which places the torture to death of a human being as its central icon. In The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera the saint has been tied up and the figure on the left is sharpening the knife which he is going to use to cut the skin off the old man’s body. Nice. The commentary tells us that Ribera specialised in the flesh of old men and also attended lots of hangings, floggings and so on, to observe the effect of torture and evisceration on the human body.

Obviously the use of light and the way the saint is looking up into it, as if up to the light of heaven, is dramatic and striking. According to the curators this is due to Caravaggio’s example, though the raddled face of the flayer and even more so the figures behind him have more the weathered blurriness of Rembrandt, with which this painting is contemporaneous.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1634) Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1634) Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

More contemporary with Caravagio himself is The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione from 1601. Look at the wooliness of the saint’s cloak – poor. Look at all three faces – bad. Any Catholic painting of saints or monks or nuns showing the whites of their eyes as they look up to their glorious Redeemer in heaven is revolting and it’s made ten times worse if there are angels hovering around.

The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione (1601) © The Art Institute of Chicago

The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione (1601) © The Art Institute of Chicago

Many of the paintings here rely on the viewer sharing the artist’s lachrymose Catholic sentimentality and/or taste for holy torture, as the original patrons and viewers, of course, would have. If you are a modern post-religious liberal and don’t share this sympathetic opinion of holy torture, then many of the works in the show seem clotted with brutality and/or weeping melodrama.

A striking and typically unpleasant example is Christ displaying his wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (about 1625-35). Very possibly the striking chiaroscuro i.e dramatic use of light and dark, was influenced by Caravaggio. But it seems a gross, tasteless, blatant image, at odds with the tastefulness which characterises all the master’s works.

Christ displaying his wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (about 1625-35) © Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

Christ displaying his wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (about 1625-35) © Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

A perverse combination of medieval torture with French sensuality comes in Nicolas Régnier’s Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant (about 1626). The musculature and depiction of the saint’s body is splendid, but the female figures look contorted and unreal, and the combination of their opulent contemporary dress and the figure on the left’s plump bosom give it an inappropriately soft porn feel, a wilting languorousness which is completely at odds with the dramatic intensity and strangely ascetic sensuality of Caravaggio’s best work.

Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant by Nicolas Régnier (about 1626-30) © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant by Nicolas Régnier (about 1626-30) © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

Some of the works seem difficult to justify. In his earlier works Caravaggio painted street scenes and settings inside inns – ordinary folk playing dice, cheating each other at cards and so on. This is used as an excuse to hang a series of paintings on the same subject by contemporary and later artists, some pretty removed in style and feel from the master. Probably the most extreme example is The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour (about 1634). There’s light in it, for sure; and it is a game of cards alright. But the peculiar stylisation of the faces and postures seems a million miles away from the intense realism combined with high drama and intense light effects of Caravaggio.

The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour (about 1630-34) © Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour (about 1630-34) © Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Compare and contrast with Caravaggio’s John the Baptist (1604), a masterpiece of simple striking composition, brilliant chiaroscuro, mastery of tone and palette (almost everything a variation on yellow, brown, orange) and the brooding intensity of the central figure – and a wonderful celebration of the beauty of the human body, specifically the young, male naked body. Seeing it in the flesh is breath-taking and worth the admission price on its own!

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (about 1603-4) Photo Jamison Miller © The Nelson - Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (about 1603-4) Photo Jamison Miller © The Nelson – Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Conclusion

This is less an exhibition of Caravaggio than an opportunity to immerse yourself in the visual world of early 17th century painting in a show which highlights the strengths and weaknesses – mainly weaknesses – of his followers and copyists.

In every room where a Caravaggio original is hung it wipes the floor with the competition, many of which are interesting, some of which are pretty good – but none of them are masterpieces, none have the intensity, purity, drama and sheer skill with oil that Caravaggio was blessed with.

And after spending an hour and a half underground (the National’s main exhibition space is down a massive flight of stairs into a series of basements) in darkened rooms full of Roman Catholic images of humans being tortured, crucified, stabbed, speared, shot and hanged, it was quite a relief to emerge back into the open daylight of Protestant Trafalgar Square.

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