Cubism by Philip Cooper (1995)

Browsing through books about Cubism in either a bookshop, library or second-hand shop can be a bit dispiriting because there are just so many of them. Where to begin? Should you read them all? And shouldn’t you know all about the most famous art movement of the twentieth century already?

The Colour Library look and layout

Cubism is a volume in Phaidon’s ‘Colour Library’ series. I came across it in a second-hand bookshop and snapped it up for £3, mainly because the size and format means it includes lots of full-page, full-colour illustrations – something often lacking in longer, more text-based accounts (e.g. the ‘World of Art’ volume, Cubism and Culture).

It’s coffee-table-sized (22.9 x 30.5 cm) but, being a paperback, is light and easy in the hand. It’s divided into two sections:

  1. Pages 5 to 25 give a surprisingly thorough history of the Cubism movement, surprising because I’d forgotten, or never knew, there was quite so much to it, nor that it spread to have quite so many exponents.
  2. Then there are 48 double-page spreads with a full-colour plate on the right-hand page, and commentary, artist biography, sometimes a b&w illustration of a related work, on the left.

Altogether the 48 illustrations show a surprising range of paintings and sculptures by precursors, core cubists and peripheral members of the movement, namely:

  • Cézanne (2 paintings)
  • Picasso (9)
  • Braque (7)
  • Léger (4)
  • Juan Gris (5)
  • Robert Delaunay (3)
  • Chagall (1)
  • Marcel Duchamp (1 – 1912)
  • Gino Severini (1 – 1912)
  • Natalia Gontcharova (1 – 1912)
  • Albert Gleizes (1 – 1912)
  • Jean Metzinger (1 – 1912)
  • Alexander Archipenko (1 – 1913)
  • Francis Picabia (1 – 1913)
  • Piet Mondrian (1 – 1913)
  • Lyonel Feininger (1 – 1913)
  • Franz Marc (1 – 1913)
  • Emil Filla (1 – 1915)
  • Edward Wadsworth (1 – 1915)
  • Max Weber (1 – 1915)
  • Henri Laurens (1 – 1920)
  • Stuart Davis (1 – 1921)
  • Amédée Ozenfant (1 – 1925)
  • Ben Nicholson (1 – 1947)

Cubist forebears

  • The Impressionists tried to capture fleeting impressions of objects in changing light, as they appeared to the artist, not as they objectively were (e.g. as depicted in the increasingly prevalent photographs).
  • Post-Impressionists – specifically van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, used unrealistic colours and vivid brushstrokes or strong black outlines and stark colour schemes to express emotion.
  • The Fauves (1905-8) took the colour idea further to represent real-life scenes or people in garishly bright and deliberately unrealistic colours.
  • The German Expressionists depicted real people or scenes in harsh, primitive woodcuts or angular ugly paintings.

The single greatest source of Cubism was the later painting of Paul Cézanne, who used a variety of techniques to bring out the geometric forms, the planes and rectangles implicit in a subject, to the fore – not least by creating patches of paint which look like facets of a view.

For example, Mont Saint-Victoire (1904) where the notion of realistically depicting the foliage of trees or houses has long since disappeared to be replaced by the idea of blocks or chunks of paint. The effect is to undermine the idea of a painting as ‘a window on the world’, and replace it with the arrangement of units of paint for semi-abstract aesthetic purposes.

In Cézanne’s still lifes he painted, for example, the bowl of fruit, the table it sat on, and the floor or background wall, all at different angles, with different implied perspectives – Still life with plaster cupid (1895).

The invention of Cubism

Cubism takes these trends a decisive step further. Cubism abandoned 450 years of the careful development of Renaissance techniques for creating a sense of perspective in a painting – rejected the notion of one particular vanishing point towards which all lines in the image converge which gives the viewer the illusion they are looking through a ‘window on the world’ – and instead set about representing the same subject from multiple points of view depicting all sides, top and bottom as required solely to create an aesthetic composition. Abandoning realism or naturalism. Conceiving the work as a purely aesthetic creation.

Cézanne had died in 1906, and 1907 saw two major retrospective exhibitions of his work held in Paris. It is a neat coincidence (or maybe no coincidence) that the first, proto-Cubist painting was made the same year, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso. In this seismic work the idea of a coherent perspective giving depth and shape to the objects depicted has obviously been ripped up in favour of a stylised depiction of space and objects which is is impossible to relate to in any of the traditional ways of ‘seeing’ art.

In 1907 Braque saw Les Demoiselles in Picasso’s studio. He was also bowled over by the big Cézanne retrospective. By the next year he was painting landscapes at the village of L’Estaque in a kind of exaggerated Cézanne style, converting houses, trees and roads into increasingly stylised geometric forms. – Houses in l’Estaque (1908)

Thus began a period from about 1908 to 1914 when Braque and Picasso worked very closely together, to begin with both living in rented rooms in a rundown building in Montmartre, the bohemian area in northern Paris, named the Bateau Lavoir. Here they spent the days painting and the nights drinking, partying, joking, discussing ideas, and often spending the summers painting in the same or similar locations.

Very quickly they moved towards painting a relatively small selection of objects:

  • common-or-garden objects from their lives – jugs, newspapers, guitars
  • interiors – so few if any landscapes
  • in muted tones of grey and brown

If Matisse and the other ‘Fauves’ (Vlaminck and Derain) were continuing to explore colour in all its garish vibrancy, B and P undertook an almost scientific analysis of what happens if you paint things after abandoning the idea of there being one point of view in either time or space, if you bring in facets from every angle, if you abandon the idea of producing one coherent perspective on an object and instead, use your artistic power to depict whatever elements you want.

In 1910 Braque painted Violin and pitcher, the palette restricted to grey or brown, the entire composition broken up into numerous clashing planes, with only hints of the ostensible subject (actually, the violin is fairly easy to make out). The trompe l’oeil image of a nail hammered into the top of the painting (complete with its own shadow) conveys the ideas that a painting is a two-dimensional artefact.

Analytic cubism

Violin and pitcher is an example of so-called ‘analytical cubism’ i.e. the subject has been taken to pieces and the resulting fragments reassembled so as to seem splayed out, so as to emphasise a multitude of clashing picture planes.

Now objects can be seen from all points of view at once. Or denoted by one or two scattered attributes – a moustache for a man, an eye for a human being, a fragment of text to denote a newspaper, and so on.

The effect was liberating and seismic. It spread right across the art world like wildfire. As early as 1912 Gleize and Metzinger published a book On Cubism. Contemporary critics and artists related it to Einstein’s undermining of the traditional world of Newtonian physics with his new theory of relativity. Others related it to the philosopher Henri Bergson’s idea that Time isn’t made up of discreet, definable moments measured by clocks and human reason, but is instead an endless flux in which perception of the present moment is flooded with memories of the past and anticipations of the future: all happening at once, as all sides of an object can be depicted simultaneously in a cubist picture.

In 1911 Braque and Picasso went on to break objects down into constituent parts and not even reassemble them, making it almost impossible to see what they are. This further stage is referred to as ‘hermetic’ or ‘high analytical’ cubism. Thus Woman Reading (1911) by Braque – you can make out the curlicues at left and right indicating the wings of the chair, but after that…

It created the notion of the painting as puzzle, with only the title giving the viewer any help in identification.

It’s all the same to me whether a form represents a different thing to different people or many things at the same time. (Braque)

the book reinforces how cubism really was a joint venture by the artists, the look of their works converging into the same style. They often didn’t sign works, giving rise to a century of confusion and misattribution.

In 1912 Braque introduced several further techniques:

  • the use of stencilled lettering, which he had learned as an apprentice housepainter, and which further flattens the surface
  • a method of using steel combs to create the effect of wood grain (faux bois)

There were also three major innovations in materials:

  • Collage, i.e. attaching real objects and non-artistic elements onto the canvas. – Still Life with Chair Caning (May 1912) by Picasso.
  • Paper sculptures – Braque pioneered the idea of making sculptures of paper and then drawing or painting on them i.e. paper is no longer a flat surface i.e. the picture itself can be folded and sculpted.
  • papiers collé where collé means pasted. You paste a flattish medium onto paper and then paint or draw on that. Braque pasted imitation wood-grain wallpaper onto white paper and drew on it; Picasso, always the brasher and more experimental of the two, used newspaper pages. –
  • They mixed sand with paint to give the paintwork a real texture.

All these experiments with medium move the work of art away from being a flat, illusionistic window on the world into being a fully autonomous object in its own right, completely divorced from all previous aesthetic theories. It was a volcanic upheaval in art.

Picasso extended these techniques into the sculpture, Guitar, a) made from scrap metal b) with a rough finish c) inverting space (the sound hole should go into the guitar; instead it protrudes out from the surface like a tin can.

All these deliberate rejections of the entire history of Western sculpture were to have seismic repercussions and affect sculpture right down to the present day.

Synthetic cubism

These latter works are examples of what the critics came to call ‘synthetic cubism’. Whereas ‘analytic cubism’ reduced a given object to its constituent elements and then reassembled them according to a new aesthetic, ‘synthetic cubism’ took elements which had nothing to do with each other (newspaper, sand, spare metal) and assembled them into new objects, which were the end result of the process, not the starting point.

1913 saw Braque and Picasso experimenting with introducing more colour into analytical works, and experimenting further with sculpture and synthetic works.

Montmartre cubism and Salon cubism

But these stunning innovations had not gone unnoticed. Juan Gris was living in the same building as B&P, observing their innovations, and decided to give up his career as an illustrator and commit to becoming a painter.

In 1912 Gris painted a cubist portrait of Picasso. Immediately you can see the difference between his approach and that of B&P – how the idea of breaking down an object (here a human being) into facets can be done in completely different ways by different artists with different personal styles. The facets here are bigger and arranged in a much more orderly way – to the line across the top and the lines off at diagonals create a very regular geometric space of a kind never found in Picasso or Braque. (Cooper points out that Gris trained as an engineer and this may explain his love for architectural regularity.)

This is what now happened – at first a trickle and then a flood of other artists began to incorporate one or other aspect of analytical of synthetic cubism into their own practice.

While B&P didn’t exhibit their new works in 1912 or 1913, another group of artists, based around Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, was exhibiting regularly at the various Paris art shows and/or had dealers who promoted them. They quickly soaked up the lessons of cubism and incorporated them into their own works. Other members of Salon cubism at the time loosely include Robert Delaunay, Henri le Fauconnier, Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Roger de la Fresnaye, Louis Marcoussis and Alexander Archipenko.

Salon Cubism is characterised by:

  • size – B&P’s works are often small and intense: Salon Cubist works are often immense, metres across
  • ambitious subject matter
  • less severe, demanding and complex

They also theorised and wrote about their work, something B&P never did. Thus it was Metzinger and Gleizes who co-authored On Cubism, which put the ideas into phrases which are still quoted. They had realised they were working in the same direction when their works were hung more or less by accident near each other in the 1910 Salon des Indépendants.

They recruited like-minded colleagues and then lobbied the hanging committee to get their works deliberately hung together in one room for the next year’s (1911) show. The effect of having a roomful of the new style hung together was to cause scandal (as so often in Paris art history). The poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote a long defence of the show and thus came to be seen as a spokesman for the movement.

As to the name, Matisse, who was on the hanging committee of the 1908 Salon which B&P submitted some early works to, is said to have dismissed them as little more than a bunch of ‘cubes’.

The art critic Louis Vauxcelles (who has the distinction of having made the throwaway remark about the paintings of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck looking like the works of wild things – thus naming the art movement of Fauvism) in 1910 referred to the collected works of Metzinger, Gleizes, Delaunay, Léger and Le Fauconnier as ‘ignorant geometers, reducing the human body, the site, to pallid cubes.’

Whatever the precise origin, the book On Cubism cemented the term and promoted it to a wide book-reading public.

La section d’Or

The Salon cubists held another show in October 1912, named the Section d’Or, French for ‘Golden ratio’, a mathematical concept which had fascinated artists for 2,500 years. It contained over 200 works and was designed as a deliberate retrospective, showing the evolution of a number of artists from 1909 to 1912, and also to establish cubism as a much broader range of styles and approaches than the narrow high cubism of Picasso and Braque.

Its strength (its diversity) was also its weakness. By 1913 many of these artists were pursuing their own visions and interpretations, so much so that Apollinaire’s book of 1913 – The Cubist Painters – was forced to divide the movement into four distinct categories.

Robert and Sonia Delaunay named their experiments in colour combination – painting interlocking or overlapping patches or planes of contrasting (or complementary) colours – Simultanism. Apollinaire called it Orphism or Orphic cubism insofar as it was interested in abstract shape and colour, and the play of colours was identified – by Delaunay and Apollinaire (as by Kandinsky, who Delaunay corresponded with) with music.

Meanwhile, a work like Metzinger’s Dancer in a café (1912) uses cubist rhetoric but is obviously much more decorative and accessible than P&B’s more demanding experiments – the lamp at top right is pure Art Nouveau.

Contemporary movements affected by cubism

Futurism The impresario of Futurism, Filippo Marinetti, published his loudmouth Futurist manifesto in 1909, then took his gang of painters and poets to Paris to see the latest work. Well organised and polemical, the Futurists adapted many of cubism’s tricks but focused on the modern world of machines and on the challenge of depicting movement. They were soon attacking cubism for being quaint and staid and conservative (ladies with mandolins, newspapers on cafe tables, how dull!).

  • States of mind: the Farewell by Umberto Boccioni (1911) breaks down the subject into facets (and uses a very obvious bit of stencilling) but in order to convey the dynamic and modern subject of a fast steam train gathering steam in a railway station.

Rayonism Russian artists wanted to create a home-grown brand of modern art. In 1911 Mikhail Larionov invented Rayonism, an attempt to depict the rays of light reflected from objects using spiky splintered forms. Kasimir Malevich experimented with this angular look and in 1913 he would invent Suprematism, starting from the radical ground zero of his famous black square. Many other contemporary works are described as Cubo-Futurist, for combining elements of both.

Expressionism Cooper sees the influence of cubism on the German Expressionist painter Franz Marc, whose rather naive paintings of animals from 1910 or so, become steadily more involved and broken up by complex sheets or facets as the cubist vision influenced him.

In fact Cooper attributes this highly colourful use of facets and planes more to Robert Delaunay’s version of cubism, than to the grey and brown style of Picasso or Braque.

Vorticism Established in London by the Canadian writer and artist Wyndham Lewis, named by the American poet Ezra Pound, Vorticism published on edition of its bombastic journal, Blast, trying to outdo the Futurists at their own game, and (inevitably) pouring scorn on cubism for being pale and passive. Nonetheless, in its brief life Vorticism attracted impressive talents including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Edward Wadsworth, David Bomberg, C.R.W. Nevinson and Jacob Epstein.

The Great War

World War One brought modern art to a grinding halt – Vorticism ceased to exist, Futurism’s key artists were enlisted; two of the key artists of German Expressionism (Marc and Macke) were killed.

Many of the French artists were called up (the Spaniard Picasso being lucky in this respect) and ceased working for the duration. Across Europe there was a reaction against the avant-garde in face of an understandable rise in patriotic nationalism. In France this was called the rappel a l’ordre.

The best example I know of this move to order is in the music of Igor Stravinsky, who moved from the barbaric primitivism of the Rite of Spring (1914) to the orderly, post-war, neo-classical ballet Pulcinella of 1920, which is still recognisably Stravinksian, but made orderly and sensible.

Something similar can be seen by comparing any of Picasso’s pre-war cubist works with Three Musicians of 1921. The later painting keeps many of the elements of cubism, but is somehow completely different. Every object now has a solid outline unlike the swirling blurring of facets in the pre-war work. There are brighter colours instead of the earth browns and greys of high cubism. The colours themselves are painted in solid unshaded blocks, unlike the very rough dabs and strokes of paint in pre-war work. All these changes go to make the later work much more readable that the esoteric ‘hermetic cubist’ works of the pre-war.

The use of much more clear and precise forms has given rise to the term crystal cubism to describe this late style.

Braque fought in the war, and survived. On his return he was never again so close to Picasso and continued to plough a traditionalist cubist furrow, earth colours and all, reworking the same still lifes, becoming maybe a bit more decorative. For example, Fruit on a table cloth with a fruit dish (1925). You can see why Picasso’s style would be more popular.

Léger, meanwhile, was perfecting the ‘shiny tube’ style which was to last the rest of his career. – The card players (1917)

These and other post-war ‘cubist’ works are included in the forty-eight colour plates of this impressive little book.

After cubism

By 1919 the poet Blaise Cendrars wrote a piece saying Cubism had been hugely important but was now finished. Artists were looking elsewhere. In Russia socially-committed Constructivism influenced the new post-revolutionary avant-garde. In Germany the airily ‘spiritualist’ Expressionists were succeeded the grotesque social satire of Otto Dix and George Grosz, which came to be called Neue Sachlichkeit.

In Zurich, Berlin and New York, the Dada movement (1915-20) ridiculed everything, all previous art included, in an outburst of nihilism whose most enduring artistic legacy was the invention of photomontage by John Heartfield in Berlin, a sort of spin-off of cubist collage but focusing exclusively on elements found in newspapers and magazines.

And when Dada fizzled out it was replaced by a new anti-rational movement, Surrealism, led by the imperious writer André Breton in Paris, and exploring dreams, automatic writing and drawing, which also criticised Cubism for being tame and passive.

Around 1918 the Purist movement was founded by Edouard Jeanneret (better known as the modern architect Le Corbusier) and Amédée Ozenfant who co-authored a book, After Cubism in which they criticised the fragmentation of the object in cubism and the way in which cubism had become, in their view, decorative by that time.

They proposed a kind of painting in which objects were represented as powerful basic forms stripped of detail. Purism reached a climax in Le Corbusier’s Pavilion of the New Spirit built in 1925 for the International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris which contained works by the three principals and the cubists, Juan Gris and Jacques Lipchitz. Soon afterwards the movement lapsed and the painters went their separate ways. – Still life with jug by Amédée Ozenfant (1925).

But it didn’t really matter what these or any other art movements said about Cubism – its historical important is still vast, as seismic as the French Revolution. It definitively ended a centuries-old way of thinking about art as naively representational, and opened up a whole range of strategies and ideas and opportunities, and the use of new media and materials, which are still playing out to this day.

But that’s the subject of another book (in fact, whole libraries of books). This Phaidon volume combines a fact-filled and intelligent introduction with a generous selection of works to show how cubism influenced an entire generation of artists.


Related links

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Related exhibition reviews

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

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

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

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

Regionalism versus modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are several ways to think about this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New names

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

Charles Sheeler

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

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

Aaron Douglas

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

Conclusion

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


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America after the Fall @ the Royal Academy

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

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

Industrial America

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

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

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

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

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

Street life

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

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

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

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

African American artists and subjects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International politics

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

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

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

European modernists

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

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

Davis versus Benton, Modernism versus Regionalism

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

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

Georgia O’Keeffe

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

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

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

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

The future

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

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

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

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

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

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

The videos

Promotional videos describing American Gothic.

60-second commentary on Ed Hopper.


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