Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005)

This is the catalogue of a major exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portraits held at Tate Britain back in 2005. I went, loved the exhibition and bought this catalogue. In my opinion the written content of the catalogue is poor, but the colour reproductions of 100 or so of Reynolds’s best paintings are spectacular.

The catalogue contains a biography of Reynolds by Martin Postle and four essays by Reynolds scholars:

  • ‘The Modern Apelles’: Joshua Reynolds and the Creation of Celebrity by Martin Postle
  • Reynolds, Celebrity and The Exhibition Space by Mark Hallett
  • ‘Figures of Fame’: Reynolds and the printed Image by Tim Clayton
  • ‘Paths of Glory’: Fame and the Public in Eighteenth-Century London by Stella Tillyard

The essays are followed by some 100 full-colour reproductions, divided into the following sections:

  • Reynolds and the Self-Portrait
  • Heroes
  • Aristocrats
  • The Temple of Fame
  • The Streatham Worthies
  • Painted Women
  • The Theatre of Life

With separate sections of images devoted to:

  • Reynolds and the Reproductive Print
  • Reynolds and the Sculpted Image

The concept of celebrity

As the title suggests, the idea is somehow to tie Reynolds’s 18th century art and career to 21st century ideas of ‘celebrity’. In my opinion all four essays fail to do this. Despite frequently using sentences with the word ‘celebrity’ in them, the catalogue nowhere really explains what ‘celebrity’ is.

The authors have a hard time really distinguishing it from the notion of ‘fame’ and the pursuit of ‘fame’ and the risks of ‘fame’ – subjects which have been thoroughly discussed since ancient Greek times.

In Greek mythology Pheme was the personification of fame and renown, her favour being notability, her wrath being scandalous rumors… She was described as ‘she who initiates and furthers communication’… A tremendous gossip, Pheme was said to have pried into the affairs of mortals and gods, then repeated what she learned, starting off at first with just a dull whisper, but repeating it louder each time, until everyone knew. In art, she was usually depicted with wings and a trumpet… In Roman mythology, Fama was described as having multiple tongues, eyes, ears and feathers by Virgil (in Aeneid IV line 180 ff.) and other authors.

In other words, the concept of ‘fame’ and the way it unavoidably attracts a spectrum of public comment, from dignified praise at one end through to scurrilous rumour at the other end – is as old as Western civilisation.

In my opinion the authors struggle to establish a really clear distinction between these multiple and time-honoured notions of fame with all its consequences, and their attempt to shoe-horn modern-day ‘celebrity’ into the picture.

The whole thing is obviously an attempt by Tate to make Reynolds and his paintings more ‘relevant’ to a ‘modern’ audience, maybe to attract in those elusive ‘younger’ visitors which all arts venues need to attract to sustain their grants. Or to open a new perspective from our time back to his, which makes his society, his aims and his paintings more understandable in terms of modern concepts.

I can see what they’re trying to do, and it is obvious that the four authors have been told to make as many snappy comparisons between the society of Reynolds’s day and our own times as possible – but flashy references to the eighteenth-century ‘media’ or to Reynolds’s sitters getting their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, aren’t enough, by themselves, to give any insight. In fact, these flashy comparisons tend to obscure the complexity of 18th century society by railroading complex facts and anecdotes into narrow 21st notions and catchphrases.

Being modish risks becoming dated

The authors’ comparisons have themselves become dated in at least two ways:

  1. the ‘modern’ celebrities they invoke have dated quickly (David Beckham is given as a current example)
  2. it was written in 2005, before the advent of social media, Instagram, twitter etc, so has itself become completely out of date about the workings of ‘modern celebrity’

There is a third aspect which is – Who would you trust to give you a better understanding of social media, contemporary fame, celebrity, influencers, tik tok and so on – a social media marketing manager, a celebrity journalist or… a starchy, middle-aged, white English academic?

There is a humorous aspect to listening to posh academics trying to get down wiv da kids, and elaborately explaining to their posh white readership how such things as ‘the media’ work, what ‘the glitterati’ are, and showing off their familiarity with ‘the media spotlight’ – things which, one suspects, library-bound academics are not, in fact, all that familiar with.

The authors’ definitions of celebrity

The authors attempt numerous definitions of celebrity:

Reynolds’s attitude towards fame, and how it was inextricably bound up with a concern for his public persona, or what we today would call his ‘celebrity‘ status.

So Reynolds was concerned about his fame, about building a professional reputation and then defending it, but wasn’t every other painter, craftsman and indeed notable figure of the time? As Postle concedes:

In this respect he was not untypical of a whole range of writers, actors and artists  who regarded fame as the standard for judging the worthiness of their own performance against the achievements of the past.

Postle goes on to try and distinguish fame from celebrity:

However, Reynolds [achieved fame] by using the mechanisms associated with what has become known as ‘celebrity‘, a hybrid of fame driven by commerce and the cult of personality.

Hmm. Is he saying no public figures prior to Joshua Reynolds cultivated a ‘cult of personality’ or that no public figures tried to cash in on their fame? Because that is clearly nonsense. And putting the word celebrity in scare quotes doesn’t help much:

Reynolds pandered to the Prince [of Wales]’s thirst for ‘celebrity‘ and fuelled his narcissistic fantasies.

The author doesn’t explain what he means by ‘celebrity’ in this context or why the prince thirsted for it and how he was different in this respect from any other 18th century aristocrat who ‘thirsted’ for fame and respect.

Through portraits such as these [of the Duc d’Orleans], Reynolds openly identified with fashionable Whig society; the Georgian ‘glitterati’ – liberal in the politics, liberated in their social attitudes, and libidinous in their sexual behaviour.

Does use of the word ‘glitterati’ add anything to our understanding?

He was also the first artist to pursue his career in the media spotlight.

‘Media spotlight’? Simply using modern clichés like ‘media spotlight’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘glitterati’ didn’t seem to me to shed much light on anything. The reader wants to ask a) what do you understand by ‘media spotlight’? b) in what way did Reynolds pursue his career in a media spotlight?

As experience of the modern media tells us, a sure sign that an individual’s fame has been transmuted into ‘celebrity’ is when press interest in his or her professional achievements extends to their private and social life.

I’m struggling to think of a time when there hasn’t been intrusive interest in the lives of the rich and famous, and when it hasn’t been recorded in scurrilous satires, squibs, poems.

People gossiped about Julius Caesar, about all the Caesars. We have written records of the way Athenians gossiped about Socrates and his wife. Prurient interest in the personal lives of anyone notable in an urban environment go back as far as we have written records.

Here’s another definition:

In a process that seems to prefigure the ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture, the exploitation of celebrity typified by Reynolds’s representation of [the famous soldier, the Marquess of] Granby depended not only on the glorification, in portrait form, of individuals who had already gained a certain kind of renown within the wider realms of urban culture, but also on a continual replenishment – from one year to the next – of this hyperbolic imagery of bravery, beauty and fame.

I think he’s saying that visitors to the annual exhibitions liked to see new pictures – or, as he puts it with typical art scholar grandiosity, ‘a continual replenishment of this hyperbolic imagery’.

‘The ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture’? Does that tortuous definition have any relevance to Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Rihanna et al?

What these authors are all struggling to express is that Reynolds made a fabulously successful career by painting the well-known and eminent people of his day, making sure to paint army or naval heroes as soon as they returned from famous victories, making sure he painted portraits of the latest author after a hit novel or play, painting well-known courtesans, carefully associating his own name (or brand) with success and fame.

It was a dialectical process in which Reynolds’s portraits, often hung at the annual Royal Academy exhibition – which was itself the talk of the town while it lasted – promoted both the sitter and their fame, but also kept Sir Joshua’s name and reputation as Top Painter Of The Famous continually in the public eye.

That’s what the essay writers are trying to say. But you have to wade through a lot of academic rhetoric to get there. Take this questionable generalisation thrown out by Stella Tillyard, which sounds reasonable, until you start to think about it.

Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now, celebrity appears to have been made in the eighteenth century and in particular in eighteenth century London, with its dozens of newspapers and print shops, its crowds and coffee houses, theatres, exhibitions, spectacles, pleasure gardens and teeming pavements. (Stella Tillyard, p.61)

‘Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now’? What would you say defines modern society in 2020? I’d guess the list would include the internet, mobile phones, social media, webcams and digital technology generally, big cars, long-haul flights, cheap foreign holidays, mass immigration, multi-cultural societies, foreign food… things like that.

Quite obviously none of these originated in eighteenth century London.

Tillyard’s essay is the best of the four but it still contains highly questionable assertions. She thinks there is a basic ‘narrative’ of ‘celebrity’ which is one of rise, stardom, fall and rise again. The examples she gives are Bill Clinton getting into trouble because of Monica Lewinsky, and the footballers Francesco Totti and David Beckham. She thinks this basic narrative arc echoes the story of Jesus Christ, rising from obscurity, gaining fame, being executed, and rising from the dead. You have to wonder what drugs she is on.

Nonetheless, Tillyard’s is the best essay of the four because she’s an actual historian and so has a wide enough grasp of the facts to make some sensible points. She also gives the one and only good definition of celebrity in the book when she writes that:

Celebrity was born at the moment private life became a tradeable public commodity. (p.62)

Aha. Right at the end of the four essays we get the first solid, testable and genuinely insightful definition of celebrity.

According to Tillyard’s definition, the really new thing about celebrity is not the interest in gossip about the rich and famous – that, as pointed out, has been with us forever – it is that this kind of fame can be packaged into new formats and sold. It has become part of the newly mercantile society of the 18th century.

Celebrity, among other things, is about the commodification of fame, about the dissemination of images representing the individual celebrity, and about the collective conversations and fantasies generated by these processes. (p.37)

The assertion is that Reynolds was able to capitalise on his reputation. He made money out of it. He was able to exploit the new aspects of mid-18th century fame in order to build up a successful business and make a fortune.

He developed a process for making his portraits well known. The lead element in this was ensuring they were prominently hung at the annual exhibition of paintings by members of the new Royal Academy and so became the subject of the enormous amount of comment the exhibition attracted in the scores of newspapers, magazines, cartoons, lampoons, caricatures, poems and plays which infested Georgian London.

Deftly riding this tide of gossip and talk and critical comment, Reynolds was able to assure his sitters that he would make them famous – and he made himself famous in the process. And, as a result, he was able to charge a lot of money for his portraits.

He was able to turn the insubstantial, social quality of ‘fame’ into hard cash. That’s how the argument goes. I’ve put it far more plainly than any of these four writers do, and it’s an interesting point, but still begs a lot of questions…

Robert Orme’s 15 minutes of fame

When Postle says that the soldier Robert Orme got his ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ (p.27) it strikes me as being a flashy but misleading reference.

Andy Warhol’s expression, ‘in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’, refers very specifically to the 15-minute time slots allocated on the kind of American TV programmes which are punctuated every 15 minutes or so with ad breaks. Its merit derives from its source in a very specific technology and at a very specific moment in that technology (the later 1960s).

Whereas Robert Orme took part in an important battle of the Seven Years War (surviving the massacre of General Edward Braddock’s forces by French and Indians in July 1755), returned to England and was for a while feted and invited to dinners to give first-hand accounts of the massacre.

OK, so interest in Orme petered out after a while, but his story hardly conforms to the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ description in the very precise, TV-age way Warhol had intended.

It’s an example of the way the authors are prepared to twist the historical record in order to shoehorn in their strained comparisons with modern ‘celebrity’ or the ‘glitterati’ or ‘the media spotlight’.

My point is that just chucking modern buzzwords at historical events doesn’t help us understand the historical events and doesn’t shed much light on the buzzwords or the ideas behind them, either. Not without a much more detailed analysis, anyway.

What was new about 18th century ‘media’

The one place in the four essays which comes alive i.e. presents new facts or insights, is in historian Stella Tillyard’s essay, where she explains that a new concept of ‘fame’ was being driven by some genuinely new developments in mass publication. She suggests four factors which account for the rise of a new type of fame in the mid-18th century:

1. A limited monarchy – the mystique surrounding the Divine Right of Kings which had clung to the Stuart Monarchy (1660-1714) drained away from the stolid Hanoverian monarchs who replaced them after 1714. Their powers were circumscribed from the start by Parliament and this made them much more human, much more worldly and, well, sometimes boring figures, for example. George III, widely known as Farmer George.

2. Royal glamour migrated – instead of surrounding the monarch in a nimbus of glory the human desire to have glamorous figures to look up to and gossip about migrated to new categories of ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’, namely top military figures, successful actors and even writers.

3. The lapse of the Licensing Act left the press a huge amount of freedom. By 1770 there were 60 newspapers printed in London every week, all looking for gossip and tittle tattle to market. Combined with a very weak libel law which allowed almost any rumour and speculation to be printed. Well before the tabloids were invented, the taste for an endless diet of celebrity tittle tattle was being catered to.

4. A public interested in new ways of thinking about themselves or others. This is the tricksiest notion, but Tillyard argues that this huge influx of new printed matter, combined with shops full of cheap prints, to make literate urban populations think about themselves and their roles as citizens of a busy city, and as consumers, in new ways.

Now all this chimes very well with the picture painted in Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds, which clearly shows how almost every incident, not only from his personal life but of the lives of all his famous friends (e.g. the writer Dr Johnson, the actor David Garrick, the historian Edmund Gibbon, the poet Oliver Goldsmith) was quickly leaked to scurrilous journalists, who reported them in their scandal sheets, or made cartoons or comic poems about them.

Reynolds’s world was infested with gossip and rumour.

By contrast with Tillyard’s authoritative historian’s-eye view, Postle’s art critic assertions are less precise and less persuasive:

Reynolds grew up in an age that witnessed the birth of modern journalism.

Did he, though? ‘Modern’ journalism?

Googling ‘birth of modern journalism’ you discover that ‘modern journalism’ began with a piece written by Defoe in 1703. Or was it during the American Civil War in the 1860s? Or maybe it was with Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, often referred to as the ‘father of modern journalism’?

In other words, the birth of ‘modern’ journalism happened more or less any time you want it to have done, any time you need to add this cliché into your essay to prop up your argument. And that little bit of googling suggests how risky it is making these kinds of sweeping assertions.

In fact it suggests that any generalisation which contains the word ‘modern’ is dodgy because the term ‘modern’ itself is so elastic as to be almost meaningless. Historians themselves date ‘the modern period’ to the 1500s. Do you think of the Elizabethan era as ‘modern’?

The modern era of history is usually defined as the time after the Middle Ages. This is divided into the early modern era and the late modern era. (Define modern era in history)

Postle’s assertion that there was something uniquely and newly journalistic about Reynolds’s era sounds fine until you think of earlier periods – take the turn-of-the 18th century and the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) which was packed with coffee house publications and scurrilous poems written against each other by leading figures. Alexander Pope’s entire career exemplifies a world of literary gossip and animosity.

Going further back, wasn’t the court of Charles II the subject of all kinds of cartoons, pictures, scurrilous paintings and poems and plays? Lots of John Dryden’s poems only make sense if you realise they’re about leading figures of the day, either praising or blaming them. During the British civil wars (1637-51) there was an explosion of pamphlets and leaflets and poems and manifestos denouncing the actions of more or less every notable figure, and giving a running commentary on the political developments of the day. Wasn’t Shakespeare’s time (1590 to 1615) one of rumour and gossip and pamphlet wars?

And in fact I’ve just come across the same idea, on page 4 of Peter H. Wilson’s vast history of the Thirty Years War, where he writes:

From the outset, the conflict attracted wide interest across Europe, accelerating the early seventeenth-century ‘media revolution’ that saw the birth of the modern newspaper.
(Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson, page 4)

So surely the widespread availability of gossip sheets and scandal mongering publications was a matter of degree not kind. Artists of the late-17th century (van Dyck, Peter Lely, Godfrey Kneller) had earned types of ‘fame’ and certainly tried to capitalise on it. By Reynolds’s day there were just more outlets for it, more magazines, newspapers, journals – reflecting a steadily growing urban population and market for all things gossip-related. Between 1650 and 1750 the British population increased, the population of London increased, the number of literate people increased, and so the market for reading matter increased.

So when Postle asserts that newspapers played an increasingly important part in the critical reception of art, well, they played an increasingly important role in the critical reception of everything, such as war and politics and religion, such as the Seven Years War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and every other kind of debate and issue.

1. That is what newspapers do – tell people what’s going on and editorialise about it – and 2. there were more and more of them, because the population was growing, and the number of literate consumers was steadily growing with it.

Reynolds didn’t invent any of this. He just took advantage of it very effectively.

Reynolds’s strategies for success

  • Reynolds was apprenticed to a fellow Devonian, Thomas Hudson, who not only taught him how to paint portraits but introduced him to important patrons
  • Hudson introduced Reynolds to leading gentlemen’s clubs of the time (the 1740s)
  • Reynolds took care to keep a large table i.e. to invite notable people to dinner, specially if they had had a recent ‘hit’ with a novel or play or work of art
  • Reynolds took dancing lessons, attended balls and masquerades, cultivated a man about town persona
  • as Reynolds became well known he was invited to join top clubs and societies e.g. the Royal Society and the Society of Dilettanti
  • he helped to found the blandly named The Club, with a small number of very eminent figures in literature, theatre and politics, including Garrick, Goldsmith, Johnson and Edmund Burke, later to include Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan
  • in the 1770s Reynolds painted portraits of the friends to be met at the Streatham house of his friend Mrs Hester Thrale (who became nicknamed ‘the Streatham Worthies‘)
  • during the 1770s and 80s there was a growth in a new genre, ‘intimate biographies’ told by authors who knew the subjects well, such as Johnsons Lives of the Poets (1781) and Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785) – the intimate portraits of the Streatham Worthies tied into this taste, in fact Boswell considered writing an intimate biography of Reynolds
  • the point of having a cohort of friends like this was that they provided a mutual admiration and mutual support society, promoting each others’ work – for example, Oliver Goldsmith dedicated his famous poem, The Deserted Village to Reynolds, James Boswell’s vast ‘intimate biography’ The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) was dedicated to Reynolds, as was Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777)
  • in former times, getting an appointment to work for the king had been crucial to artists’ careers – by Reynolds’s day, however, it was no longer vital because 1. the monarch no longer had the absolute powers of the Stuarts – the Hanoverian kings’ powers and patronage were much more limited and often determined by Parliament 2. there was a well enough developed domestic market for art for a painter to make a career and livelihood without explicit royal patronage
  • Reynolds very consciously bought a large house in fashionable Leicester Fields; the Prince of Wales owned a big house in the same square
  • Reynolds bought an expensive coach that had formerly belonged to the Lord Mayor of London, renovated it and encouraged his sister Fanny to drive round in it in order to prompt gossip and awe

But was Reynolds unique?

As mentioned above, the four essayists have clearly received a brief to make Reynolds sound as modern and edgy and contemporary and down with the kids as possible.

But the tendency of the essays is also to try and make Reynolds sound unique – in his painterly ambition, in the way he used connections and pulled strings to paint famous sitters, promoted himself socially (by being a member of many clubs and inviting all the famous men and women of the time to large dinners), promoted his work through public exhibitions, tried to wangle key painting positions to the royal family, and by having prints made of his portraits which could be sold on to a wider audience.

The trouble is that – having just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which presents an encyclopedic overview of his times, its clubs, newspapers, magazines, his colleagues and rivals, of the mechanisms of a career in art and an in-depth overview of all Georgian society – I realise these were the standard procedures of the day.

For example, the authors point out that Reynolds was keen to paint portraits of famous people to boost his career – but what portrait painter of the day wasn’t? Allan Ramsay and Thomas Gainsborough, to name just two contemporary painters, lobbied hard to win aristocratic patrons, to promote their portraits to other potential clients, to expand their client base, and so on. It was a highly competitive and commercial world.

The catalogue contains sections on the portraits of aristocratic ladies, military heroes and courtesans as if Reynolds had invented the idea of painting these kinds of figures – but paintings of aristocrats go back at least as far as the Renaissance, and statues of emperors, notable figures and military leaders go back through the ancient Romans to the Greeks.

There’s a section devoted to showing how Reynolds used prints extensively to promote his career, not only here but abroad, where British art prints commanded good prices. (One of the few new things I learned from the essays was that British mezzotinting was so highly regarded as to become known as la maniere anglaise, p.51)

But all his rivals and colleagues did just the same, too – otherwise there wouldn’t have been a thriving community of printmakers and of printbuyers.

And the authors strain to prove that the kind of high-profile aristocrats, military leaders, and top artists-writers-actors of the day that Reynolds portrayed were often discussed, profiled, ridiculed and lampooned in London’s countless scurrilous newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, poems, broadsides, gossip columns and so on.

But this was just as true of all the notable figures that all the other portrait painters of his day painted. It was an extremely gossipy society.

In other words, none of the activities the authors attribute to Reynolds was unique to him – they were being energetically carried out by scores of rivals and colleagues in the swarming ant hill of rivalry and competition that was Georgian London. What is interesting, is the extent to which Reynolds did all these things best (when he did), or where he failed, or where he pioneered a new aspect of this or that activity.

Unfortunately, the four authors don’t really have much space to make their cases. The four essays are relatively short. They have nowhere like the 550 closely-typed pages that Ian McIntyre has in his masterful biography of Reynolds. Therefore, to anyone who’s read McIntyre, the four essays come over as fleeting and superficial sketches of subjects and issues which deserve to be dealt with in much, much greater detail if you want to understand why Reynolds was the towering figure that he was.

It wasn’t that he did all these activities listed above – it’s that he did many of them better, more comprehensively, and more systematically than his rivals.

And also that he just worked harder at it. He was extremely disciplined and professional, working a solid 6 or 7 hour days, every day, often on Sundays. He produced, on average, well over one hundred commissions a year, an extraordinary workrate. This isn’t mentioned anywhere in the essays, but it is a key reason for his success.

Or the even more obvious fact that a his success was down to the fact that he was, quite simply, the best portrait painter of his time. He may well have adopted the canny career strategies listed above, but they’d have been meaningless if he hadn’t also been a painter of genius.


Art scholarship prose style

This section contains no facts and is devoted to an analysis and skewering of pretentious artspeak. Art scholar prose is very identifiable. It has at least three elements:

  1. use of fashionable, pretentious buzzwords such as subvert, interrogate, engage, gendered, identity, desire, site, gaze, other
  2. combined with a curiously starchy, old-fashioned locutions such as whilst, amongst
  3. thin actual content

1. Buzzwords

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of prostitutes… (p.29)

‘Wish’ wouldn’t be a better word?

When the ancient philosopher, Socrates, visited the artist’s house with friends, the courtesan was to be found under the gaze of the painter (p.29)

The word ‘gaze’ now has the adjective ‘male’ attached to it in all contexts, and is always a bad thing.

[At the new public exhibitions of the 1760s] the visitor’s encounter with the painted images of celebrities was crucially informed by those other burgeoning cultural sites of the period, the newspaper and the periodical. (p.35)

Do you think of a newspaper or magazine you read as a cultural site? Alliteration is always good, makes your ideas sound grander and more important.

In arranging that his pictures of such women [the royal bridesmaids at the wedding of George III and Queen Charlotte]… Reynolds… was contributing to, and trading upon, a burgeoning cult of aristocratic celebrity within the sites and spaces of urban culture. (p.39)

Tillyard in particular likes the word and idea of the ‘site’:

In response to the overwhelming attention of the London public [Jean-Jacques Rousseau] took himself off to the wilds of Derbyshire and began to write his Confessions, in which he demanded the right to be heard on his own terms rather than to become the site for others’ imaginings. (p.66)

Omai [a South Sea islander Reynolds painted] is both sophisticate and innocent, celebrity and savage, an eloquent but mute subject whose lack of the English language and inability to write allowed his audience and the picture’s viewers to make him a site for their own imaginings. (p.69)

It is surprising that Omai isn’t taken as an example of The Other, an almost meaningless word commonly used to describe anyone who isn’t a privileged white male.

The press functioned as one vital counterpart to the exhibition space in terms of what was emerging as a recognisably modern economy of celebrity… (p.37)

The ‘modern economy of celebrity’ sounds impressive but what does it mean, what is an ‘economy of celebrity’ (and remember the warning about using the word ‘modern’ which is generally an empty adjective used solely for its sound, to make the text sound grand and knowledgeable).

Reynolds painted a number of portraits of aristocratic patrons such as Maria, Countess Waldegrave and Elizabeth Keppel. This allows art scholar Mark Hallett to write:

In being invited to track the shifting imagery of such women as Keppel, Bunbury and Waldegrave, attentive visitors to the London exhibition rooms thus became witness to an extended process of pictorial and narrative transformation, choreographed by Reynolds himself, in which his sitters became part of a gendered, role-playing theatre of aristocratic celebrity that was acted out on an annual basis in the public spaces of the exhibition room. (p.39)

If you read and reread it, I think you realise that this long pretentious sentence doesn’t actually tell you anything. It is prose poetry in the tradition of the mellifluous aesthete, Walter Pater, just using a different jargon.

‘Narrative’, ‘gendered’, ‘theatre’, ‘spaces’ are all modish critical buzzwords. What does ‘gendered’ even mean? That some portraits were of women and some of men? Hmm. And a gallery isn’t really a theatre, no matter how hard art scholars wish their working environment was more jazzy and exciting. It’s a gallery. It consists of pictures hung on a wall. Therefore to say a gallery is a ‘role-playing theatre’ is simply a literary analogy, it is a type of literary artifice which makes absolutely no factual addition to our knowledge.

Translated, that sentence means that regular visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition often saw portraits of the same famous sitters and so could judge different artists’ treatment of them, or gossip about how their appearance changed from year to year. That’s what ‘pictorial and narrative transformation’ means.

The artist’s portrait of Granby can now be understood as just one element within an unfolding iconography of military celebrity that was being articulated by the artist in the exhibition space during the 1760s.

Translated, this means that Reynolds painted many portraits of successful military heroes. As did lots and lots of other portrait painters of the time. But it sounds more impressive the way Hallett expresses it using key buzzwords.

We can even suggest that such details as the Duchess [of Devonshire]’s ‘antique’ dress and rural surroundings… transform her into a figure of pastoral fantasy, a delicately classicised icon of aristocratic otherness… (p.43)

Ah, ‘the Other’ and ‘otherness’, it was the last empty space on my bullshit bingo card. What does ‘otherness’ mean here? That aristocrats aren’t like you and me? That, dressed up in fake Greek robes, leaning against a classical pillar in a broad landscape, they seem like visions from another world? Better to say ‘otherness’. Makes it sound as if you understand complex and only-hinted-at deeply intellectual ideas (taken, in fact, from Jacques Lacan and other French theorists).

2. Starchy prose style

It’s peculiar the way art scholars combine these flashy buzzwords from Critical Theory (interrogate, subvert, gender, identity, The Other) with creaky old phrases which sound as if they’ve come from the mouth of a dowager duchess.

It’s as if Lady Bracknell had read a dummy’s guide to Critical Theory and was trying to incorporate the latest buzzwords into her plummy, old-fashioned idiolect. For example, art scholars always prefer ‘within’ to ‘in’, ‘amongst’ to among, and ‘whilst’ to while – versions of common English words which help them sound grander.

Some contemporary critics thought Reynolds’s experiments with oil and painting techniques meant his works would eventually decay and disintegrate. Mark Hallett says:

The fact that an exhibition including paintings such as these is now taking place, more than two hundred years after Reynolds’s death, helps put paid to such aspersions.

‘Helps put paid to such aspersions’? Isn’t that the voice of Lady Bracknell? ‘I should certainly hope, Mr Moncrieff, that in future you shall keep your aspersions and animadversions to yourself.’

3. Thin content

See above where I’ve highlighted the relative lack of new or interesting insights in the four critical essays, which can’t be concealed by tarting them up with references to the eighteenth century ‘glitterati’ or Andy Warhol.

Sometimes the essays descend to the bathetic. When we read that scholar Richard Wendorf has written a paper in which he observes that

Reynolds was adept at cultivating patrons through observing the rules of polite society

we are straying close to the University of the Bleeding Obvious.

When we learn that Reynolds sometimes flouted these rules in order to create a Bohemian effect, in order to copy the more raffish end of the aristocratic spectrum of behaviour, it feels like a variation on the obvious, and hardly something which required an entire essay to ‘explain’.


Conclusion

Having read the four essays twice, what you take away is that Reynolds specialised in painting portraits of famous people, this ensured the portraits were much talked about, written about and commented on by the larger-than-ever number of daily newspapers and magazines, and encouraged other famous people to commission their portraits from him, all of which boosted his professional career.

And that he was canny in using the means available to him – aristocratic patrons, choosing famous people to paint – famous soldiers, sailors, aristocrats, courtesans, writers and fellow artists – socialising and hosting grand dinners, joining top clubs, getting supporters to talk him up in the press, and encouraging the distribution of prints of his work – to build a successful and profitable career.

All of these were strategies adopted by most of his contemporaries were doing. He just did it better.

I’m confident making a statement like that because I’ve just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which places the great man in the incredibly busy, buzzing, competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of Georgian London, and  gives extended portraits of scores and scores of his peers, rivals, colleagues and competitors.

It shows how British society changed during Reynolds’s long career, from his earliest paintings in the 1740s to his last ones in 1790. He changed, art changed, society changed.

None of the essays in this catalogue have much space to play with and so these art scholars play very fast and loose with the historical record, yanking together quotes and events which were actually far separated in time, in order to impose on the people and culture of a very different society the modish contemporary art scholar concerns of ‘gender’, ‘identity’ and ‘celebrity’.

The point being: these essays are actually quite an unreliable introduction to the life and career of Joshua Reynolds, written at the behest of a gallery with an agenda and a marketing plan. By all means buy or borrow this book for its wonderful reproductions of the paintings. But read the McIntyre biography to understand the man and his times.

Unanswered questions

Having read both MacIntyre’s book and this catalogue, I still have a couple of unanswered questions:

1. They both tell me that History Painting was meant to be the highest and most prestigious genre of the day. In which case, how come the greatest painter of the age, Reynolds, didn’t paint any history paintings, and neither did his closest rivals, Allan Ramsay or Thomas Gainsborough?

2. Why are there so many black servants in 18th century portraits?


Related links

Blog posts about the 18th century

Käthe Kollwitz: Portrait of the Artist edited by Frances Grady and Max Egremont (2019)

This is the catalogue to accompany the recent Käthe Kollwitz exhibition at the British Museum.

The two or three essays in the book include:

Käthe Kollwitz’s biography

Born Käthe Schmidt in 1867, left-wing upbringing, married a left-wing doctor (Karl Kollwitz) who practiced in the slums of Berlin, specialised in prints, devoted herself to left-wing subjects i.e. lives of the working poor, plus historic subjects e.g. a weavers’ rebellion, sent son off to the Great War and he was killed within weeks, decades of mourning and grief and obsession with death.

Detailed looks at Kollwitz’s major print series

  • A Weavers Revolt (1898)
  • The Peasants War (1902-8)
  • War (1922-3)
  • Death (1932-7)

A lifelong obsession with death

What comes over from the essays is Kollwitz’s obsession with death – possibly, as one essay suggests, as a result of the death of some of her siblings in infancy – definitely compounded by the poverty, sickness and death she saw all around her in the slums of Berlin.

She was unnaturally, morbidly attracted to the subject in the 1890s and 1900s, well before she made the fateful decision to help her beloved son Peter enlist into the army in the first weeks of the Great War, despite him being under age, only for him to be killed a matter of weeks later. The guilt must have been staggering.

From that point onwards, Death and the grief of mothers was to become her enduring subject.

The prints

The factual content of the book, then, is solid but not revelatory, and all the images are hedged around with an extreme of scholarly punctiliousness and accuracy. After all, this is a reference book for other scholars as much as an introduction to us lay people.

No, the reason for owning the book is not for the biography, detailed though it is – but for the quality of the reproductions, including close-ups of many of the key prints. These let you really savour the details, and make them even more powerful and moving.

Some of her images can be a bit clunky, some of the faces in the weaker pictures are less than persuasive, even though her figure drawing and composition are almost always powerful and commanding. But at her best, there’s a solid body of work of breath-taking power and depth which surely make Kollwitz one of the great artists of the twentieth century.

Self portrait 1912

Kollwitz did at least 50 self-portraits and no portraits of anyone else, hence the focus of the BM exhibition and of this book. They are no frills, no pretense records of a journey through a hard life and a gruelling era of history.

Black and white charcoal drawing of an old lady's face

Self-portrait by Käthe Kollwitz (1912) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Woman with dead child (1903)

The most finished or prominent feature is the woman’s left knee and then, perhaps, her big left foot. This isn’t a dainty Rococo woman or an air-brushed sex object. This is a cave woman, Cro-Magnon Woman. No frills or make-up, no sexuality, just blunt primeval human feeling with extraordinary power.

Black and white drawing of a primitive, almost ape-like woman clasping the body of her teenage son

Woman with Dead Child by Käthe Kollwitz (1903) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unemployment (1909)

A large reproduction lets you see the fullness with which the baby and the children’s faces have been gently etched, and brings out the contrast between their soft child faces and the rest of the spare, scratchy, shadowy scene, the gaunt shadowed face of the exhausted mother.

Black and white drawing of an ill-looking woman tucked up in bed, holding a small baby, with several other small children asleep on the bedding, while the dark image of her husband sits and broods beside the bed

Unemployment by Käthe Kollwitz (1909) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Arming in a vault (1906)

From 1789 to 1989, the great theme of European history – terror of uncontrolled, violent revolution from below.

Very dark image of a hoard of people armed with axes and spears and halberds thronging catacombs and, on the right of the image, surging up a very steep staircase, presumably into the light of day

Arming in a Vault by Käthe Kollwitz (1906) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Call of Death (1937)

Here I come, ready or not.

Stark, primitive black and white charcoal drawing of a bald woman with an ape-like head, hear arms across her chest so you're not sure of her gender, and from the top right a veined and bony hand reaching down to touch her - the touch of Death

Call of Death by Käthe Kollwitz (1937) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is the eighth and final image in Kollwitz’s final series of prints which was titled, simply, Death. 

In fact it’s also a self-portrait as a glance at the 1912 self-portrait confirms – but now without hair, without any attributes which identify her gender. Just raw, elemental human.

In the Death series, completed before the Blitzkrieg and Stalingrad and Warsaw, before the Holocaust and the camps, it is as if Kollwitz has plumbed the depths of human experience, not in the relatively superficial terms of despair or emotion, but reaching far deeper down than that, to a grunting, primeval, prehistoric stratum of human experience.

Tell me what you think





Related links

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2019

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is the world’s largest open submission exhibition, running every year since 1769. This, the 251st exhibition, was curated by Jock McFadyen RA, he has overall responsibility for its look and layout – although it’s worth noting that most of the fourteen or so individual rooms were allotted to other artists to sub-curate.

1,583 works

Over 15,000 works were submitted by artists professional, super-famous, or utterly amateur. From these the curators have chosen 1,583 pieces to be displayed in the Academy’s fourteen massive exhibition rooms, in the courtyard outside, and even spilling over into a street display in nearby Bond Street – ‘a colourful installation of flags featuring work by Michael Craig-Martin’.

Large walking figure by Thomas Houseago, in the Royal Academy courtyard (not for sale)

Variety of media

Over 1,583 works in every imaginable medium – prints and paintings, film, photography, sculpture, architectural models and much more – making it the largest Summer Exhibition in over a century. How on earth can the visitor be expected to make sense of process such a vast over-abundance of artistic objects?

Well, the answer is that everyone does it in their own way. My son and I always have a competition to find the cheapest – and the most expensive – works on offer (see the winner at the end of this review). He also likes comic or quirky pieces so he loved this sculpture of a tiger covered in Tunnock teacake wrappers.

Easy Tiger by David Mach (£57,600)

The architecture room

Some people come to see the room of architectural models and blueprints. Usually I call the architecture room the Room of Shame, from a lifetime’s experience of growing up close to an appalling New Town in my teens, and then starting my working life in the poorer parts of London amid slums and rundown housing estates. The planners and architects who designed those places should be ashamed at the barren, soul-destroying environments they condemned other people to live their lives in.

But to my surprise, I quite liked the Room of Shame this year. If you think of all the elaborate models on display as sets from science fiction movies, utterly unrelated to the actual world we all live in, then I found a lot of them entertaining fantasies. And there were some quirky and genuinely inspiring buildings, from the model of an enormous concrete grain silo which has actually been converted into an art gallery in China, to a pyramid of recycled plastic bottles built on a hypothetical beach somewhere.

‘Bottlehouse’, in the architecture room

I couldn’t help sniggering that a lot of architects – from the evidence here – appear to have just discovered something called The Environment, and are making bold little wooden models of cities which will be environmentally friendly and carbon neutral and made from recyclable materials. Well done, chaps. About fifty years too late, but it’s a nice thought. The army of cranes I see around Battersea Power Station don’t seem to be putting up anything beautiful or sustainable, and when I recently visited Stratford East I had a panic attack at the sheer amount of concrete that has been poured to make vast walled sterile walkways and esplanades without a tree in sight.

Amaravati Masterplan Model (1:1000) by Spencer de Grey RA (not for sale)

Photography

Some visitors like photography, and I noticed what I thought was a higher proportion of photos than usual though, as always, that may be a purely subjective impression. They give you a handy pocket-sized catalogue of all the works as part of the entrance price, and I’ve kept the ones from the last five or six years, so I suppose I could go through and do a precise analysis of how many photos have been included in previous years compared to this year…

For me, a lot of art (and certainly a lot of writing about art) is very samey, covering the same sort of subject matter, often small and set indoors. I really liked this photo because it was one of the few images which conveyed the sense that it is a big world with lots and lots, and lots, of people in it, people who live in worlds and conditions we can’t imagine, whose day-to-day existence is as different from our comfortable Western lives as Martians. (It’s a bloody big photo, too, at 1.5 by 2 metres.)

Saw Mills #2, Lagos, Nigeria by Edward Burtynsky (£47,000)

Big names

Some come looking for the works by big-name international artists like Wim Wenders or Anselm Kiefer or Richard Long. There was a huge muddy oil painting by Anselm Kiefer (2.8 metres by 3.8 metres), a turbulent thick impasto of brown tones, over which he had scored lines and patterns and writing. Sounds pretentious but it had real presence, it knocked most of the other paintings in its gallery out of the park. This reproduction is useless at conveying its huge, looming, disturbing, and very physical presence.

Fünf Jahre Lebte Vainamoinen Auf Der Unbekannten Insel Auf Dem Baumlosen Land by Anselm Kiefer

Modest works

Size isn’t everything. All the rooms were packed to overflowing and it was often only on the second or third go-round that I noticed small, shy and retiring works, such as a pair of lovely photos of small songbirds which, on close inspection, appear to be attached to their perches next to brightly coloured brickwork by tiny golden chains.

Gasconades (Letsdothis) by Mat Collishaw (£685)

The Wohl Central Hall where this photo was, is themed around animals, who appear in all shapes and sizes, in paintings and photos and sculptures. Other strong themes were concerns for the environment and recycling in the Room of Shame, and ideas of immigration and identity, particularly in Gallery I which was sub-curated by Jane and Louise Wilson.

Identity

As soon as you see the world ‘identity’ you know there’s going to be images of black people, and gays and lesbians, and probably refugees and immigrants. It’s a stock theme usually accompanied by stock images, and sure enough there’s paintings of a black couple and group of ladies (by Arthur Timothy), a video of a black girl dancing in her front room (by Sophie Perceval), a photo of a black mother and daughter (by Pepukai Makoni). There’s a painting of two men kissing by Ksenija Vucinic.

A Portrait of a Couple by Ksenija Vucinic (£750)

[In fact I completely misinterpreted this painting, thinking it depicted a gay couple – not least because of the word ‘couple’ in the title – when it is a much more complicated image. See the comment below this review, from the artist, explaining her motivation.]

The room is dominated by a big blue hanging fabric by Jeremy Deller with the motto: ‘We are all immigrant scum.’ This made my son quite cross. He thought it was patronising its audience, as if a) wall hangings will have the slightest impact on one of the great social and political issues of our time and b) as if absolutely all the nice, middle-class white people who attend an exhibition at the Royal Academy are not already bien-pensant, cosmopolitan liberals.

We are all immigrant scum by Jeremy Deller (not for sale)

‘Preaching to the converted,’ is the term he used.

Wolfgang Tilmans

Dodging the woke messages, I liked this photo best of anything in the PC room. Possibly the two guys are gay and so shoehorned into the ‘identity’ theme. But the image is caught so vividly, I could almost feel the wet sand giving way under my own feet, evoking memories of when I’ve done this kind of thing.

And, to be honest, I fancied the two blokes. Fit-looking young men, aren’t they?

It was only when I looked it up in the catalogue that I realised it’s by the über-famous Wolfgang Tilmans (who had a big retrospective at Tate Modern not so long ago). And that it’s on sale for the not inconsiderable sum of £72,000.

Liam and Tm jumping up the cliff by Wolfgang Tillmans (£72,000)

Most of us, I suspect, just like pottering around this vast gallimaufrey of every style of contemporary art work you can imagine, letting ourselves be surprised and sometimes astonished at the big, the small, the political, the personal – the world of animals (beautiful prints of whales, photos of dogs) and world of men (a number of works depicting brutalist high-rises), the world of woke (gays and blacks) and the world of weird.

The Scarred One by Benedict Byrne (not for sale)

It doesn’t come over at all in this photo, but you know all the little fuses and bits of wire and coloured components you find inside transistor radios? Well, this work is actually a three-dimensional piece made up of a hundred or so of those wires and coloured components all attached to a black background to make this design.

Technological Echnological Mandala by Leonardo Ulian (£9,000)

From patterns made by man to the incredibly beautiful patterns of nature, he also liked this 3-D rendered giclée print on cotton rag depicting in vibrant super-colour a beehive.

The Language of Bees by Richard Devonshire (£500)

For my part, I liked this screenprint, unsure whether it’s a photo or a painting, or a graphically altered photo. Whatever the precise nature, on a hot summer day, it spoke to me of cool water. I could feel the ozone breeze blowing off the splashing water into my face.

Falling Water II by John Mackechnie (£1,100)

There are about 1,500 other examples I could give, but maybe that’s enough…

For the last couple of years we have been a little disappointed by the Summer Exhibition. This year, maybe it was the weather or my hormones, but I felt it was a return to form, I thought there was a really massive variety of works on display and, for some reason, lots of it really clicked with me.

For sale

As always, most of the artworks are for sale with proceeds helping to fund the Academy’s non-profit-making activities, including educating the next generation of artists in the RA Schools. The free catalogue I mentioned earlier lists all 1,583 works, their titles, artists and prices, if for sale.

It’s always part of the fun to try and figure out the cheapest and the most expensive works on display, and, as you wander round and different pieces take your eye, having a bet with your friends or family about how much each piece costs. As far as I could tell, this is the most expensive piece, an untitled bronze sculpture of an androgynous woman with a branch on her head and coils of wire round her hands with a couple of metal numbers thrown in, by Mimmo Paladino, which will set you back a cool £337,000.

Untitled by Mimmo Paladino (£337,000)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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).


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions

Reviews of books about America

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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