Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

America after the Fall @ the Royal Academy

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

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

Industrial America

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

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

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

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

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

Street life

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

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

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

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

African American artists and subjects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International politics

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

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

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

European modernists

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

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

Davis versus Benton, Modernism versus Regionalism

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

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

Georgia O’Keeffe

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

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

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

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

The future

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

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

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

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

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

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

The videos

Promotional videos describing American Gothic.

60-second commentary on Ed Hopper.


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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