Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing @ the Barbican Gallery

To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, potentially unattainable…

This is a major retrospective of one of the best known documentary photographers of the 20th century, the American Dorothea Lange. It brings together some 300 objects – hundreds of vintage prints and original book publications through to ephemera, field notes, letters, magazines and books in which her photos featured.

It also includes a documentary film interview with her made towards the end of her life in which she explains her ideas and motivations.

Rarely has an artist or photographer been so overshadowed by one work, Lange’s super-famous portrait of a Migrant Mother which has come to symbolise the suffering of America’s Mid-Western farmers in the Great depression of the 1930s – forced to abandon their land due to bank foreclosures and catastrophic environmental collapse.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

But the exhibition goes out of its way to present this period of Lange’s work in the broader, and more varied context of her entire career.

The show proceeds in straightforward chronological order, from her earliest professional photos of 1919 through to her last project in 1957.

Room 1 Portrait studio

In 1919 Lange set up a portrait studio in San Francisco, which she ran until 1935. The studio became a meeting place for San Francisco’s creative community, including bohemian and artist friends such as Edward Weston, Anne Brigman, Alma Lavenson, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard van Dyke.

There’s a portrait of photographer Roi Partridge, and of painter Maynard Dixon, Lange’s first husband and father of her two sons.

The style and mood are soft focus with plenty of self-consciously artistic poses from artists, writers, poets and musicians – people like the founder of the San Francisco Opera, Gaetano Merola. There’s a misty, soft focus, aesthetic feel to most of them, like the wonderfully romantic Woman in a black hat, and a beautifully caught mother turning away from the camera. The baby is rather rubicund but the mother’s pose has the self-conscious (and slender) grace of a Virginia Woolf.

Mother and child (1928) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Mother and child (1928) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

This is bourgeois, arty Lange – before she was ‘woke’.

Rooms 2, 3, and 4 – The Great Depression and the Farm Security Administration

In the early 1930s Lange began to notice homeless men hanging round on the San Francisco streets. Along with everyone else she watched as this trickle turned into a flood of homeless families, farmers uprooted from the Mid-Western states by crop failures caused by drought and over-farming and exacerbated by bank foreclosures by banks who were themselves fighting off bankruptcy. Altogether some 300,000 farmers and their families were forced to head West in the hope of getting work as casual labourers in California.

This, and the accompanying political uproar it caused, woke Lange from her aesthetic slumber and gave her a subject. She took her camera out onto the street and was soon snapping demonstrations, unemployed workers, and breadline queues.

This section of the exhibition displays some hundred photos she took of these subjects, as well as displaying some of the magazines they were shown in, alongside letters and diaries of her travels into the Dustbowl and among the temporary encampments set up by these poverty-stricken migrants all across southern California.

Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration work (1935–1939) to publicise the problem in a range of government-sponsored publications. By association she was supporting the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to create a New Deal and support the farmers. She worked alongside other notable photographers, including Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein.

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

The photos show a wide range of subject matter including:

  • urban poverty in San Francisco
  • tenant farmers driven off the land by dust storms
  • mechanisation in the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas
  • the plight of homeless families on the road in search of better livelihoods in the West
  • the awful conditions of migrant workers and camps across California

Traveling for many months at a time and working in the field, Lange collaborated with a prominent social economist and expert in farm labour, Paul Schuster Taylor, who became her second husband. With him she published the seminal photo book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in 1939. A copy of the book and associated letters and diaries are on display here.

Room 3 Migrant Mother

There’s an entire room devoted to the iconic Migrant Mother photo, rather as there used to be a room at the National Gallery devoted to Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks. And after all the two images have a lot in common, being images of a mother and baby.

But what justifies giving it a room of its own is the backstory to the photo. Driving along, Lange saw a sign to a pea-picking camp, took a detour to visit it, wandered round, saw this particularly wretched mother and her swarming infants in a truly pitiful make-do shelter, and asked permission to photograph her.

Because the final version is so iconic it’s lost a lot of its power to shock. The photos she took in the run-up to the final version were – to me at any rate – completely unfamiliar and their unfamiliarity recaptures that sense of squalor and abandonment. It’s just a makeshift tent in a crappy bit of scrubland, sheltering children in rags with nothing to eat. There’s nothing epic or artistic about it. It is pure misery.

Migrant Mother alternate takes by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother alternate takes by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Architecture

It’s possible to become a little overloaded with Lange’s powerful images of the poor trudging along streets carrying all their earthly possessions in a blanket, or dirty men hanging round street corners begging for work.

The exhibition points out that Lange also had an eye for the stark architecture of the Mid-West. She shot buildings in a classic, square-on way which gives them a striking monumentality.

Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas, June 1938 by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress

Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas, June 1938 by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress

There’s also a section which focuses on Lange’s interest in parts of the body. Photos of people’s arms, or legs, or torsos, capturing the arrangement of limbs in a self-conscious, posed, artistic way. The curators speculate that this may have been something to do with the fact that Lange had polio when she was seven, which left her right leg and foot noticeably weakened.

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Later in life Lange came to think that having to overcome such a physical trauma at such an early age had shaped her personality, her ambition, her refusal to quit.

It was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me.

Maybe her own personal struggle against illness predisposed her to be interested in the underdog?

Room 6 Japanese American internment

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the U.S. Government decided to round up and intern all U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. Even at the time many people thought this was a mistake and it has gone on to become a well-known radical cause célèbre.

Over the next year more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up by the War Relocation Authority and housed in makeshift camps. Lange’s series of photos depict not only the Japanese-Americans themselves, but the architecture and infrastructure of the camps. There are bleak signs and posters attacking the Japanese, or in which patriotic Americans announced their loyalty.

It is the first time this series of works has been shown outside the US and Canada.

Centerville, California by Dorothea Lange. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942. Courtesy National Archives

Centerville, California by Dorothea Lange. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942. Courtesy National Archives

Room 7 California shipyards

As America swung into full wartime production mode, all aspects of agriculture and industry across Lange’s native California were called on to play their part. The shipyards at Richmond, California became an important centre for producing naval vessels. Along with friend and fellow photographer Ansel Adams, Lange documented the war effort in the shipyards for Fortune magazine in 1944.

The town experienced an explosive increase in population numbers and business of the endlessly changing shifts of shipyard workers. To quote the wall label, Lange was ‘drawn to images that transgressed accepted attitudes towards gender and race’ i.e. women and blacks.

Shipyard worker, 1943 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Shipyard worker, 1943 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

After the rooms full of photos of begging farmers, of the wrongfully interned Japanese, and of black and woman shipyard workers, you have got a good feel for the way Lange had made herself a portrayer of the underdog, a chronicler of society’s victims or defiers of conventional values.

She faced a problem, then, after the war, when America headed into a prolonged period of high employment and affluence. The wall label tells us that Lange disapproved of the arrival of mass consumer culture, cheap homes, a radio and then a TV, a fridge and an affordable car for everyone.

To me, it seems that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t produce tear-jerking images of utter poverty and wretchedness, begging the government for something to be done – and then be upset when people finally find work, employment, and can afford somewhere decent to live, a house, a car.

It seemed to me that Lange, by now a familiar figure on the Left, had settled into a posture of permanent opposition, even when Americans had never had it so good.

Room 9 Public defender

This comes over in the project she embarked on in 1955. California had instituted a new system of public defenders to represent the poorest plaintiffs in court, and Lange spent six weeks shadowing one of these new public defenders, Martin Pulich.

From the jaws of the most affluent nation on earth, Lange was able to pull a series of photos which still managed to focus on poverty, bad education and the sorry squalor of the criminal classes.

She has such a great eye. The courtroom shots are all powerfully composed. There are classic shots of a grim-faced judge sitting under an American flag, of Pulich standing next to a sequence of sorry, shame-faced defendants, of the defendants’ wives or girlfriends slumped in anguish in the corridors outside the court. Of prison vans and prison cells.

Public Defender in Court, Oakland, California (1955) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Public Defender in Court, Oakland, California, 1955 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

In the era when more Americans had better paid jobs than ever before, bought their own houses and cars, and their kids were cruising round listening to Elvis on the radio, Lange was exploring the US legal defence system for the poor and disadvantaged through the work of a public defender at the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland.

I guess affluence and happiness are just such boring subjects for artists. There is an in-built bias in modern (post-Great War) art, towards always focusing in on the underdog, the downtrodden, the pitiful and the outcast. The many millions who have great jobs, drive big cars, have barbeques with family at the weekend? Not seen so often in ‘modern’ art, film or photos.

Room 10 Death of a valley

In 1956 Lange heard about a town in California that was going to be destroyed by the construction of a dam.

Death of a Valley (1956–57) was the series of photos she made in collaboration with photographer Pirkle Jones, to document the disappearance of the small rural town of Monticello in California’s Berryessa Valley as a consequence of the damming of the Putah Creek.

The pair set out to capture the traditional rhythms of rural life in spring and summer – and then to document the uprooting of the town, the literal carting away of many of the wooden houses and the digging up of the dead to be reburied elsewhere, before the developers moved in with their giant earthworking machines and the remaining buildings were burnt to the ground.

Her depiction of cowboy hat-wearing old-timers dressed in dungarees in village stores are classic evocations of small-town California life. More vocative shots of rugged, individual people.

What also struck me about this sequence was that Lange was rarely good with pure landscapes. The few shots of the valley, as a whole,, on its own, are flat. Whenever people enter the frame, the photos jump to life.

These photos haven’t, apparently, been displayed or published since the 1960s.

Death of a Valley by Dorothea Lange (1957) © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Death of a Valley by Dorothea Lange, 1957 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Room 11 Ireland

In 1954 Lange made the only trip she ever made outside the USA, to Ireland. She spent six weeks in County Clare in western Ireland, capturing the experience of life in and around the farming town of Ennis.

Once again she demonstrates her terrific eye for spotting immensely characterful people and capturing them in richly evocative black and white photographs.

Ennistymon fair, County Clare Ireland (1954) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Ennistymon fair, County Clare Ireland (1954) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

But also, this series clinched for me the feeling that, at some point, Lange stopped portraying the world, the actual world – the big wide world of the Cold War and supersonic jets and colour TVs and cars with big fins pulling into diners where Elvis is blaring out of the jukebox.

Her black-and-white vision of the underdog, forged in the Great Depression, was only a part of American culture, even back then – and became a slenderer, almost endangered vision of outsiderness, as the majority of America headed confidently into an era of unprecedented affluence.

It seems to me wholly characteristic that she had to go abroad, leaving America altogether, to seek out the kind of peasant ‘honesty’ and ‘truthfulness’ and the ‘dignity of labour’ and so on, which she was temperamentally attracted to but was ceasing to exist in the land of I Love Lucy and the drive-in movie.

Lange’s politics

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, says:

Dorothea Lange is undoubtedly one of the great photographers of the twentieth century and the issues raised through her work have powerful resonance with issues we’re facing in society today.

Well, yes and no. There isn’t currently, in 2018, a great collapse in American agriculture forcing hundreds of thousands of farmers to migrate to the coast. There isn’t a world war in which people from the enemy nation are being interned in mass camps. Ireland is no longer a nation of sturdy peasants riding carts to market, but of financial over-reach and Catholic paedophilia.

If Alison means that Lange depicted poverty, well, when in human history hasn’t there been grinding poverty somewhere in the world? And when haven’t there been moralists, from Goya to Dickens, who have felt it their duty to record poverty and squalor?

1. This is a major overview of a really important photographer, showing how she brought an acute eye for the human, for human character, for the pathos of the human condition, to a wide range of embattled situations.

2. But it also made this visitor, at any rate, think about the nature of oppositional artists who thrive by focusing on the downtrodden, on society’s losers. It made me ponder whether this choice of subject matter represents a political act – in the sense that setting up a political party, making speeches, writing manifestos and hammering out party platforms is a political act – or whether it is more of a temperamental and artistic choice, a preferred subject matter – the subject matter which brings out the best in an artist and which they therefore learn to focus on it, as Stubbs specialised in horses or Bacon on screaming popes.

In other words, whether what Alison describes as ‘politics’ isn’t really, in fact, just a type of style.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Killed Negatives @ the Whitechapel Gallery

The Farm Security Administration Photography Program

The Great Depression of the 1930s wreaked havoc on America’s farmers. Collapse in demand coincided with several years of drought-like conditions to turn a lot of the mid-West into what contemporaries described as the ‘dustbowl’.

President Roosevelt instituted a broad set of economic policies designed to stimulate the whole U.S. economy, referred to as the New Deal. To help and support farmers struggling in real poverty, often close to the starvation line, Roosevelt set up the Resettlement Administration (1935–1937) which was succeeded by the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Among numerous other strands of activity, the FSA commissioned a photography program which ran from 1935 to 1944. The aims were to send America’s best photographers to the poorest parts of the country to expose and document the terrible extent of American rural poverty. The shots were used in government publications to justify government spending and were widely distributed to newspapers and magazines to alert urban readers to the terrible conditions in the countryside.

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

In total the FSA photography programme generated some 175,000 photographs, amounting to a vast pictorial record of rural American life between 1935 and 1944.

The photography programme was headed for most of its existence by Roy E. Stryker, in his capacity as head of the Information Division of the FSA. He launched the photography program in 1935 and continued to oversee it after it underwent various administrative mutations, through until 1944.

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

The programme clinched the reputations of some of the great photojournalists including Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and Russell Lee (1903 – 1986), who produced heart-rending images of rural life which have also come to be seen as great art. Books were compiled from the photos – such as the influential Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) which had an elegiac text by writer James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Original prints of the more famous shots now command large sums at auction. (N.B. An exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s photos is just about to open at the Barbican.)

So far, so well known. But there is a little-told aspect of the whole programme which this exhibition is designed to bring to a wider audience.

Strict control and killed negatives

For what is not often mentioned is the iron control which Stryker exerted over the photographers and their work.

Stryker personally selected the photographers and gave them detailed briefs or ‘shooting scripts’ to work from. He kept in close touch with ‘his’ photographers, via letters and telegrams sending his responses to the photographers’ work and giving detailed suggestions on how they could improve, which locations they should be going to, what they should be snapping – always cajoling and instructing them on how to take the kind of images which the Administration needed to support and validate its work.

Most harshly of all, Stryker developed a ruthless method of editing work he didn’t like. He examined every roll of film by every photographer, as they were posted back to, and developed at, the Administration’s Washington headquarters.

And if he didn’t like it, if it wasn’t good enough quality, or was off subject, then Stryker personally mutilated the negative with a hole puncher. Any prints made of these rejected images would be definitively unusable because of the big black dot plonked right in the middle by Stryker’s hole puncher.

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

And so thousands of negatives by American photographers were systematically destroyed in the 1930s, these irreparable images becoming known as ‘killed negatives’.

The exhibition

This one-room free exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery display presents about 70 prints made from some of the thousands of negatives rejected and mutilated by Stryker, shedding a fascinating sidelight on this well-known period and its photographic output.

Some photos you can see straight away aren’t that powerful and not good enough to be included in a book or magazine article. But quite a few others have the potential to be really powerful.

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper's wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper’s wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

The 70 or so prints are hung in a great cluster across two walls of the gallery. Nearby are display cases showing original correspondence from Styker to his snappers, demonstrating just how much detail he went into when critiquing the work of his photographers. The cases include examples of the typed-out shooting scripts which the photographers were given, alongside a selection of the photographers’ personal and administrative records. Both the letters and the shooting scripts give a really candid insight into the tone of voice used among these professional men, and into the day-to-day practicalities of selecting destinations, finding likely subjects, hiring cars, arranging hotels and so on.

Censorship to surrealism

So far, so interesting and so much a contribution to a little-known aspect of a well-known part of photography history.

But bringing all these killed negatives together like this has the odd effect of creating a distinct aesthetic. Having a big black circle added to them somehow lends quite a few of these images a strange surreal beauty.

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Viewed from our modern perspective, eighty years later, and taken together, as a collection, the effect of the ‘black spot’ stamped harshly onto faces, buildings and landscapes is to transform old images into something weird, extra and beguiling.

And so, quite unexpectedly, something which ought to be a dry historical footnote has been turned, by selective curating, into a kind of work of art in itself.

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George's County, Maryland, November 1935

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George’s County, Maryland, November 1935

Contemporary responses

So much so, that the collection has prompted responses to the killed negatives from contemporary artists, some of which are included here.

Etienne Chambaud (b. 1980) responds to a Walker Evans ‘killed negative’ by attempting to fill the hole. William E. Jones’ (b.1962) work Punctured is itself created from a sequence of ‘killed negatives’. Bill McDowell’s (b. 1956) art book Ground takes ‘killed negatives’ as its subject. Lisa Oppenheim (b. 1975) is interested in the space obscured by the hole; her print After Walker Evans fills in the hole in a photo of wooden shacks with colour detail, while blacking out the rest of the image.

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Interesting and creative, aren’t they? But can’t really compete with the originals’ peculiar combination of black and white nostalgia for a time of terrible poverty with this strangely modernist feature of the random black dots lifting them into Marcel Duchamp territory. Fascinating and eerie.


Related links

Other exhibitions currently on at the Whitechapel Gallery

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery 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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