Rhythm and Reaction @ Two Temple Place

This is a surprisingly in-depth and thorough account of the arrival of jazz in Britain and its impact not just on popular music, but on the technology behind it (recording studios, radios, gramophones), on the design of everything from fabrics to dresses to shoes to tea sets, its appearance on posters and adverts, and its depiction in the fine arts, too.

And it’s FREE.

The exhibition is curated by Catherine Tackley, Professor and Head of Music at the University of Liverpool, one of the UK’s leading authorities on jazz, and it really shows. She’s authored a book on the subject – The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880–1935 – and the two big galleries and hallway are dotted with wall panels packed with historical information.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band at The Palais de Dance, Hammersmith 1919. Photograph, Max Jones Archive © Max Jones Archive

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band at The Palais de Dance, Hammersmith 1919. Photograph, Max Jones Archive © Max Jones Archive

Minstrels and ragtime

The chronology starts before the turn of the twentieth century with photos and props showing the earliest stage performances of black minstrel music. This developed into ‘ragtime’ just about the time of the Great War. There are photos of some of the early stars of both forms as well as a wall of banjos, the signature instrument of late-19th century minstrel shows. Apparently, visiting Afro-American banjo players gave lessons to the future King Edward VII.

American banjos from the 1870s and 80s

American banjos from the 1870s and 80s

The craze for ragtime swept Britain’s cities in 1912 or so, epitomised by the hit show Hullo Ragtime. There’s a display case of contemporary cartoons and postcards showing comic situations all based on the new sound and its jagged funky dance style.

I especially liked the caricatures by W.K. Haselden, including one where the new syncopated music is presented to a board of very stiff old bishops who, in a sequence of cartoons, slowly loosen up until they are jiving round the floor in pairs. (As it happens, googling W.K. Haselden brings up some of his anti-suffragette cartoons of the day.)

Jazz arrives

It was only in 1919 that the first actual jazz bands arrived in Britain, specifically an all-white outfit called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. In fact, the majority of the jazz which Britons heard and danced to during the Jazz decade, the Roaring Twenties, was performed by white musicians who quickly adapted to the new sound.

Jazz had a huge impact on popular culture. In terms of live performances it quickly spread throughout post-war dance halls and bars. The vibrant new sound, and the revolutionary new and uninhibited dances which went with it, were captured in the new medium of film, and the exhibition features half a dozen clips of crash-bang jazz performers, or of nightclub performers putting on floor shows to jazz accompaniments. Eat your heart out, Keith Moon!

The exhibition has lined up a playlist of vintage jazz for visitors with smart phones to access via Spotify, so you can listen while you read while you look.

Impact on the fine arts

The show features a sequence of paintings by artists who responded to the new sound. These include several works by Edward Burra, who went to New York in the early 30s to seek out the music on its home turf and painted what he saw there.

I was thrilled to see several works by Vorticists, the home-grown alternative to Cubism led by Vorticist-in-chief Wyndham Lewis. The show includes an original menu designed by Lewis for the ‘Cave of the Golden Calf’ nightclub, admittedly just before the Great War (and jazz) but a forerunner of the kind of post-War dives and nightclubs which would feature the new sounds. The Vorticist theme is continued with the inclusion of several works by the painter William Patrick Rogers.

The Dance Club (The Jazz Party) 1923 by William Patrick Roberts © Estate of John David Roberts

The Dance Club (The Jazz Party) 1923 by William Patrick Roberts © Estate of John David Roberts

Next to Roberts’ energetic Vorticist caricatures, are hung a number of more staid and traditional paintings, maybe reflecting the reaction against war-time modernism and the move back towards greater figurativeness and social realism of the 20s and 30s, as in this painting by Mabel Frances Layng.

Tea Dance by Mabel Frances Layng (1920)

Tea Dance by Mabel Frances Layng (1920)

Decorative jazz

You’d expect artists to paint the new thing, just as they had painted scenes from nightclubs, theatres and the opera for decades. What was more surprising and interesting about the exhibition was the way jazz-inspired motifs appeared in the decorative arts. There are several wall-height hangings of fabrics created using jazz designs, images of jiving bodies, or even more abstract, zig-zag patterns conveying a dynamic sense of movement.

Maybe the most unexpected but striking artefacts were the jazz-inspired ceramics – including some wonderfully colourful vases and a jazz-inspired Royal Winton tea service.

Royal Winton, Grimwades Jazz Coffee Set (1930s) Ceramic Private Collection © Two Temple Place

Royal Winton Grimwades Jazz Coffee Set (1930s) Ceramic Private Collection © Two Temple Place

Jazz memorabilia

There’s a section devoted to old gramophones such as my grand-dad might have owned, along with shelves full of delicate old 45 rpm records, and 1920s covers of Melody Maker magazine giving the hot news on the latest from the jazz scene.

For a long time records could only handle 3 or 4 minutes of music, which made recording classical music problematic, but was perfect for the new punchy jazz numbers.

Similarly, as the newly founded British Broadcasting Corporation (established in 1922) began broadcasting, it encountered problems scheduling entire orchestras to play classical pieces which could be up to two hours long. On the other hand, the house bands from, say, the Savoy ballroom, could easily fit into a modest-sized studio in Broadcasting House and play precisely to a half-hour or hour-long time slot, as required. Very handy.

Thus the requirements of the new technology (the practicality of radio, the time limitations of records) and the format of the new music (short and flexible) conspired to make jazz both more popular and accessible than previous styles.

And more collectible. By the 1930s record collecting was well-established as a hobby, with networks of ‘rhythm clubs’, shops and specialist magazines.

The Melody Maker, Xmas 1929 © Time Inc. (UK) Ltd, courtesy of the National Jazz Archive

The Melody Maker, Xmas 1929 © Time Inc. (UK) Ltd, courtesy of the National Jazz Archive

Visits of the jazz greats

Meanwhile, back with the story of the music itself, a series of wall labels in the stairwell describe how the visits of leading black jazz artists in the 1930s deepened the understanding of British musicians and fans alike to the black origins of the music, and to its real expressive potential.

Louis Armstrong visited in 1932 and Duke Ellington in 1933, as shown in British press photographs of the day. It is hard to credit the photo of Fats Waller playing the Empire Theatre, Glasgow, in 1938. Talk about ‘when worlds collide’.

The section on Bronislava Nijinska the ballet dancer was unexpected. Nijinska trained and performed with Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes. In 1925 she left to set up her own company, the Théâtre Chorégraphique, where she developed a piece titled Jazz based on Stravinsky’s 1918 piece, Ragtime.

The exhibition features sketches for the dancers’ costumes as well as display cases showing two full-length outfits for Jazz. And the first venue in the world where this wonderfully cosmopolitan piece was premiered was — Margate! Before moving on to Eastbourne, Lyme Regis, Penzance and Scarborough.

Costumes for Bronislava Nijinska's production of Jazz (1925)

Costumes for Bronislava Nijinska’s production of Jazz (1925)

The jazz ban

Maybe the most interesting historical fact I learned was that the British government brought in a travel ban on American jazz bands in 1935. This was in response to calls from the British Musicians Union to retaliate for a similar American ban on British bands playing over there – but it’s hard not to think that the British public was by far the biggest loser.

Individual soloists (such as Fats or Sidney Bechet) were allowed to travel here, and play with pick-up bands – but this one single fact maybe explains why the kind of ‘Trad Jazz’ my Dad liked lingered on in this country long after American jazz had evolved through swing and bebop into cool jazz by the middle 1950s, when the ban was finally dropped.

It helps to explain the oddly reactionary image which British jazz fans acquired by the 1950s (I think of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin’s grumpy devotion to the earliest jazz styles).

Premier Swingster 'Full Dress' Console drum kit (1936) courtesy of Sticky Wicket's Classic drum Collection

Premier Swingster ‘Full Dress’ Console drum kit (1936) courtesy of Sticky Wicket’s Classic drum Collection

Two Temple Place

Two Temple Place is on the Embankment, a few hundred yards east of the Savoy Hotel. It is an extraordinary building, worth a visit in its own right.

The American William Waldorf Astor was one of the richest men in the world when he decided to move to England in 1891. He wanted a building with offices which he could use as a base to manage his impressive portfolio of properties in London and so, in 1895, he bought the small Gothic mansion on the Victoria Embankment at Two Temple Place overlooking the River Thames. He commissioned one of the foremost neo-Gothic architects of the late-nineteenth-century, John Loughborough Pearson, to carry out a $1.5 million renovation in order to turn it into the ‘crenellated Tudor stronghold’ we see today.

Two Temple Place, London WC2R 3BD

Two Temple Place, London WC2R 3BD

It is pure pleasure to wander round inside the remarkable building, marvelling at the intricate wood panelling on all the walls and, in particular, on the elaborate staircase – as well as the spectacular stained glass creations in the Long Gallery upstairs.

The staircase at Two Temple Place

The staircase at Two Temple Place

The building is now owned by the Bulldog Trust and every winter they hold a public exhibition. This is the seventh such show, a joint venture with the Arts Society, and brings together artefacts from museums and galleries around the country, not least from the venerable National Jazz Archive in Essex.

The setting is stunning, and the Rhythm and Reaction exhibition is wonderful, informative and uplifting. And it’s all free. What are you waiting for?


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From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!


Related links

Related reviews

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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