The Royal Academy of Arts website describes this exhibition thus:
“The art of 1930s America tells the story of a nation in flux. Artists responded to rapid social change and economic anxiety with some of the 20th century’s most powerful art – brought together now in this once-in-a-generation show.”
The 1930s was of course the time of severe recession in America. We know that many people lost their livelihoods overnight, committing suicide rather than face the reality. The Great War was now over but the repercussions can still be felt but there is an impending doom as another is on the horizon. There is also still a problem with racism during this period, Martin Luther King Jr has not yet taken the stage and whilst slavery had been abolished for over 65 years, black people are still seen as second class citizens for the most part. Whilst this is an ominous time, it also gives the artist many things to consider and much material for creating thought provoking, emotionally challenging work. It was with this in mind that I entered the exhibition, wondering how this would be illustrated, if at all.
I am not going to give my evaluation on all the pieces that I saw, there are far too many for this relatively short report, but I will share the work that spoke to me the most and try to explain what drew me to them and why.
New York – Paris No 3 by Stuart Davis (fig 4).
Stuart Davis (1892 – 1964) was an influential American modernist artist. He spent most of his time in New York but in 1928 he lived for a year in Paris, it is this sabbatical that is clearly the influence behind this series of work.
This painting reminds me a little of my fridge door which is adorned with magnets from the places I’ve visited, Davis uses large flat areas of colour to create a stencilled look. Nothing quite connects or is placed in any context but are rather snippets or landmarks that have grabbed his attention along the way. You can imagine Davis drawing these images in his sketchbooks and then bringing them together in this “slideshow” of images.
Whilst the style is the same throughout you can see many variations within each image, for example, the trees in the top left are curved and quite abstract, he uses 3 variations of the same colour to give a sense of distance but overall it is quite drab. Next to this however, to the far left, we have a very rigid image of a signpost standing tall, using bright red to give it some colour and make it stand out against the plain background. This is then echoed in the centre of the painting with the petrol pump which is so prominent, you almost overlook the car behind or the countryside backdrop. The image in the top centre shows a selection of furniture piled up and I wonder whether this has been pre-arranged in order to convey a thought, perhaps disarray or clutter, or whether this was just some old furniture piled up somewhere in a shop or back alley.
I think that overall this is a very personal piece a selection of subjects particular to the artist. I feel that I need a narrative alongside it to fully appreciate it, an explanation from the artist explaining where he was when he saw each piece and what it represents.
Street Life, Harlem 1939 by William H Johnson (fig 5)
William H Johnson (1901 – 1970) was an African American artist born in South Carolina. Johnson moved into Harlem, New York in 1918 at the age of 17 and began to study at The National Academy of Art until 1928 when he would move to France. Johnson did not return to Harlem for 10 years and during this time he lived in France, Denmark and North Africa and in this time you can see a huge change in his work. It seems to have taken him until this point to truly find his identity and if you look at his work throughout his life up until he returns to Harlem, you will see that he has experimented with a number of styles from a more classical approach to a Van Gogh style to some with a more abstract and simplified take. I think that once Street Life, Harlem has been completed in 1939, he has begun to settle on the artist he wants to be, a voice that he has taken almost 40 years to find.
The piece itself upon first inspection, I took to be a black couple wearing smart clothes, their “Sunday best” perhaps on their way to the local church. However when I looked closer I noticed the moon in the top left hand corner so clearly this is meant to be an evening scene and along with the blues and violets in the buildings add to the appearance of an evening at twilight. I think this changes my whole perception and now I feel like this painting is of a trendy, urban, black couple ready for a night on the town. I think perhaps that Johnson being a black artist wanted to bring everyday life of the African American into public view whilst at the same time creating something that the black community could respond to.
Johnson has used blocks of flat colour without any shading and making it almost cartoon like. It is appropriate then that the painting be full of colour which gives a vibrancy to it and whilst (other than the main characters) there are no other people in the scene there is a sense of movement making the empty street feel busy and I would suggest that this is down to the inaccuracy or looseness of the contour lines. I am rather perplexed at the expression on the faces, I would have thought that the message was to be an uplifting one of changing times, the characters are well dressed ready to hit the streets and yet they appear unhappy. Perhaps Johnson was painting them in repose but the small eyes and down-turned mouths suggest otherwise.
American Landscape 1930 by Charles Sheeler (fig 6)
Charles Sheeler (1883 – 1965) born in Philadelphia, was a modernist artist who not only used traditional media to create his art but also photography and filmography which at the time, was highly controversial in the art world. Whilst he produced many of his paintings from photos he had taken, he didn’t simply produce a copy but rather was fascinated by the way different mediums effected the impression of the scene. He had very mathematical or scientific approach to creating his work and buildings feature heavily amongst much of it.
When I first saw American Landscape I felt a stillness to it. There appears to be very little going on and there are no people present except for a very small stick figure like character towards the centre. There is a calm sky and still water. Given that this painting is dated 1930, presumably within a year of the Wall Street Crash and in the midst of a depression, I assumed that this was to signify work has stopped, I thought that the singular character was perhaps an industrialist or ex employee walking alone around the now empty site. I have since done some research and am now aware that the truth is to the contrary. This painting is taken from a series of photographs that Sheeler took of the Ford Motor Company in 1927 which was commissioned to give an impression of the innovation of a new, industrial America that should be embraced. I’m still not sure I can see this but perhaps that is because I have been born into an age where huge plants are no longer a modern marvel to behold.
The title American Landscape is extremely apt for this painting, although this is clearly not a landscape in the traditional sense, surely that is the point. The smoke from the chimney melts into the sky to form part of the clouds, the buildings form a mountainous backdrop and the mounds of grit look like rolling hills, we also see what appears to be a man made body of water reflecting wonderfully all of the above to complete a version of what would be considered a traditional landscape.
New York Movie 1939 by Edward Hopper and Gas 1940 by Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper (1882 -1967) born in New York, was an influential realist artist throughout the 20th century. He was fortunate enough to come from a middle class family that encouraged Hopper in his art though steered him towards the more commercial form being illustration. Whilst Hopper was successful in this field, it clearly wasn’t where his passion lay and after just one year of studying at the Correspondence School of Illustrating he shifted towards studying fine art at the New York School of Art. It was here that Hopper studied under Robert Henri who encouraged his students to paint the world in which they lived using a very realistic approach. This must be where Hopper excelled the most given that his most well known works are of just this, although there does seem to be a continuing theme of isolation and loneliness running through his work which can clearly be seen in both New York Movie 1939 and Gas 1940.
New York Movie 1939 (fig 7)
My first thought of this was how wonderful the lighting was in this painting. The lone figure (which I’m told by the tutor by the visit) is actually Josephine, Hopper’s wife. She stands alone looking contemplative lit dramatically from the right by the wall light. There is a clear divide between her and the theatre this is shown by a large dark pillar this has been further exaggerated by being lit from the opposite side, reflecting all the light away from her on that side and towards the rest of the theatre. The theatre is self looks empty with only one gentleman clearly seen and another perhaps in the shadow. Following the theme of isolation again you can see that whilst the focus is clearly on the usher, she only takes up around a quarter of the canvas, the theatre (whilst beautifully painted) however has very little impact and yet takes up the majority.
Gas 1940 Fig (8)
Whilst this painting has an altogether different subject the mood of it is very similar. Again we have an eerie feeling of isolation, loneliness and perhaps even resignation. It also is wonderfully lit, mainly from The right hand side. The backdrop is reasonably traditional a calm sky and a tree lined road leading somewhere but then we have bright red petrol pump popping out from the green backdrop with a singular man who given the lack of car clearly works here. The petrol station itself seems extremely well kept, a neatly stacked row of cans stands next to the pumps and everything is extremely clean. The man is also well dressed for a petrol station attendant and is diligently keeping himself busy in his isolation. The rendering in the man himself is particularly impressive to me, especially for the size, each fold in his shirt can be seen as can the texture in his trousers.
Pat Whalen 1935 by Alice Neel (fig 9)
Alice Neel (1900 – 1984) is a female Artist born just outside of Philadelphia. Although she painted landscape and still life, she is most well known for her portraiture. Although Neel painted many of her friends, family and loved ones, many of her portraits would have a political or social influence behind them and Pat Whalen being a communist activist and union leader is actually a very good example of this. She had many traumatic episodes throughout her early life, her brother died whilst she was still very young. Later her daughter died before her 1st birthday and later her Husband would emigrate back to his homeland with her child. This led to a failed suicide attempt in 1930 which in turn ended her in a sanatorium for a year until she was deemed stable. This period of her life would no doubt have dramatically influenced her art. After her Husband left her and before she was committed, Neel took to drawing many female nudes which are well known for their brutal honesty. She felt that by going against the traditional way of depicting women as wall flowers to be gazed at, she was empowering women, showing the world truly what the female body and femininity is. I think she clearly enjoyed pushing the boundaries of conventional art. In terms of the depression Neel worked for the WDA (Work Progress Administration) and during this period would paint mostly street scenes as well as extreme left wing leaders and thinkers, I can only assume this was for propaganda purposes. It was during this time that Alice Nell painted Pat Whalen.
You don’t need to look too hard to see what this piece is about, especially knowing that Pat Whalen was a well-known communist activist and union leader. He is sitting in a grey room with a plain blue shirt and crumpled jacket. Beneath his clenched fists is a copy of a newspaper titled “Daily Worker” the headline being “STEEL, COAL STRIKES SET………” (you can’t read the end of the sentence), it is dated Monday June 16, 1935 I assume the very date it was painted. This is clearly a message to the impoverished, hard-working man. The man’s eyes are red with tiredness and yet his hands are clenched to show resoluteness and perhaps frustration. The hands are outlined thickly, much more so than the rest of the painting and they are higher in saturation too, I would suggest that this is to draw your attention to them they almost make a focal point within the painting. The subject has an expression of weariness about him, the aforementioned eyes have a redness to them with puffy bags beneath, his forehead appears creased, yet his mouth shows something different, the hint of a smile maybe or perhaps this is all he could muster. Neel seems to have used broad, expressive strokes, especially on the background and shadows, the paint looks quite thin and to have been built up in layers. I also notice that whilst the face is quite realistic the hands and sleeves seem a lot more cartoon like.
Grant Wood (1891 – 1942)
Grant Wood was a member of the regionalist movement that took place throughout America during the 1930’s. Wood, born on a farm in Iowa, felt modernist art to be elitist and wanted to create something that represented the hard working, suburban families. It was in 1928 during a trip to Munich that Wood was inspired by the realism of 15th and 16th century Flemish masters. He decided to try and take a far more realistic approach to his work than he had in the past. It was in 1930 that Wood exhibited American Gothic – one of America’s most iconic paintings – and this catapulted him and the movement of Regionalism into the limelight. This was the start of his work portraying rural, Midwestern people and landscapes, looking to his childhood for inspiration. Wood was keen to spread the word of Regionalism and used his fame to create many opportunities for this. In 1932 Wood co-founded the Stone City Colony and Art School, 2 years later in 1934, he took a position in the Art Department at the University of Iowa and in the same year was named director of the Public Works of Art in Iowa, he was also featured in Time Magazine, he used these positions as a catalyst to spread his nationalistic message.
American Gothic 1930 (fig 10)
American Gothic depicts a man and woman – that could be Husband and Wife or Perhaps Father and Daughter – standing in front of a suburban style, weather boarded house with a steeply pitched roof and long gothic window. The man stares directly at the viewer whilst the woman is looking to the right of the painting, though not directly at her husband (or father). They are dressed very traditionally in working class clothes which whilst plain are well presented, the woman’s clothes have a very similar style to the curtains in the window. The man looks strong, resolute and proud, the woman on the other hand is not quite as confident, looking perhaps a little worried though standing by her Husband in unity. There is great attention to detail in this painting down to the buttons on the man’s shirt ro the plants on the porch. The pattern on the woman’s dress, whilst plain, is extremely uniform as is the curtain in the window. It looks to me that Wood has a very tight style, his brush marks appear extremely well considered and I would think this takes many hours of observation and thought as well as the painting itself. Other than the figures themselves, we have lots of vertical lines in this piece, the boarding on the house, windows mirrored by the pitch fork and even the stripes in the man’s shirt. This gives a calm yet structured feeling to the painting which I think is probably the overriding theme, especially given the times.
Daughters of Revolution 1932 (fig 11)
This painting the depicts three middle-aged women stood in front of the painting George Washington crossing the Delaware River by Emanuel Leutze. There is an air of reverence about these women although they clearly are not particularly wealthy, dressed in quite plain clothing with the little adornments. The woman in the centre holds a China teacup in a very prim and proper fashion with small finger pointing outwards, which signifies to me a I want of betterment. They have strong expressions of resoluteness and authority, the matriarchs of the community. What is a distinct separation between the two women on the left and the third on the right, framing the painting hanging on the wall in the centre, and reproduction of the aforementioned George Washington crossing the Delaware river. This is clearly meant to be a focal point in this painting. Set during the American Revolutionary War in the late 1700s, George Washington crossing the Delaware river the commemorate the first surprise attack buy Washington’s forces on the hessian army. Therefore Daughters of Revolution to me is an extremely nationalistic painting, showing pride in one’s Country.
Although Wood in this painting has again paid attention to fine detail which we can see in the picture frame, the patterning on the teacup and the excellent reproduction of the painting in the background comma this piece has a slightly different feel to it. The figures seem to have a lot more of an illustrative effect, the necks seem out of proportion and the chins seem quite short. We can still see that’s every mark has been carefully considered and looking at the patterning in the woman’s dress to the left or the Lace collar of the woman on the right it almost appears as they have been stencilled on due to the accuracy and uniformity of the patterning. Again it seems like Wood has used layers of thin paint giving the piece a smooth, refined finish.
Death on the Ridge Road 1935. (fig 12)
This painting is of impending doom. Set in a picturesque landscape of rolling hills and lush green grass with a quaint, winding road running through the centre. However there is a collision on the horizon. A bright red truck is hurtling over the hill tyres off the floor whilst in the other direction a town car driving across both lanes, neither will be able to see the other until it is too late, a third is sat slightly behind. We can see what inevitably will happen next. The road on either side is lined with barbed wire fencing preventing any means of escapes for the vehicles. There is a menace to this painting too, a storm is looming, with clear sky only above the truck, accentuating it’s bright red colour. You can also see large telegraph poles which look like crosses and suggest graves or death.
The landscape in this painting appears to be delicately rendered with fine detail in the grass Telegraph poles and fencing the focal Point i.e. the cars are less and have a much blockier appearance, perhaps this is due to the difference between the smooth man made objects and the natural landscape. For the most part, this painting has also been built up in layers and it looks Like starting From dark to light. The grass towards the centre right hand side of the painting has a luminous quality to it, showing the brightness from the sky. However the Sky this seems to have some marks made from long broad strokes and others from scraping paint away. This give a tumultuous look to the sky and adds character.
Overall this exhibition gave me a real feeling of both the political landscape and the overriding emotions that will have been felt throughout 1930s America. Of course there were many more pieces that both impressed and spoke to me, but the ones reviewed are those which appeal to me the most. They all have very different things to say and different viewpoints with which the artist will have painted from and I think that all these art works in one place sends a different message to that which you would receive if each of these were viewed individually. I came away from the exhibition with a phrase in mind “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” a famous expression throughout Britain during World War II. The strong expressions from the Grant Wood paintings, industrialisation of America in the Charles Sheeler works, the singular figure carrying on with their work in the paintings of Edward Hopper and to a degree, the emerging black community in William H Johnson’s Street Life Harlem.
Royal Academy of Art, The – https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/america-after-the-fall?gclid=CNiWjc383dMCFUKx7QodBqEHBA
Wikipedia.org – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuart_Davis_(painter)
William H Johnson
North by South (website) – http://northbysouth.kenyon.edu/1998/art/pages/whjohnson.htm
Museum of Modern Art, The – https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79032
National Gallery of Art, The – http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/features/slideshows/charles-sheeler.html
Metropolitan Museum of Art, The – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hopp/hd_hopp.htm
National Gallery of Art, The – http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/artist-info.1404.html#biography
Philadelphia Museum of Art – http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/2001/42.html
Wikipedia.org – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Neel
Nation Gallery of Art, The – http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/artist-info.1982.html
University of Iowa Museum of Art – https://uima.uiowa.edu/collections/american-art-1900-1980/grant-wood/
Wikipedia.org – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daughters_of_Revolution#
Wikipedia.org – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware