Monday, 20 March 2017

America after the Fall.

"By uniting we stand. By dividing we fall" - John Dickinson.

The Royal Academy's new America After the Fall show may not have been as big as I'd expected but it was absolutely bursting with vitality and chock-full of absolutely wonderful paintings. The big selling point was that Grant Wood's American Gothic was to be shown in the UK for the first time ever but not only is that not the best painting in the show it's not even the best Grant Wood painting in the show.

The Art Deco font utilised on the information panels is a sign of how lovingly curated this exhibition is. It may be a small touch but it's a nice one. America in the 1930s saw the horrors of the Dust Bowl, drought, and the Great Depression. Woody Guthrie sang about it, John Steinbeck wrote about it, and Dorothea Lange photographed it. Many of those who were living in it migrated to rapidly growing cities where they were joined by Europeans fleeing fascism. America, then at least, was seen as a friendly land of liberty where people would be safe and free from persecution.

Of course that wasn't the whole story but as Europe was crumbling under what would now be called populist rule America, with her more forward looking policies (except where race was concerned), went from strength to strength. It was in this decade, 1931, James Truslow Adams coined the term 'American Dream', an ethos of democracy, rights, opportunity, and equality. He wrote, in The Epic of America, of the "dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position".

It was admirable stuff but it was a lot easier to say than do. Later in the decade President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched his New Deal with the aim of providing relief, recovery, and reform (the 3 Rs) for those who'd been most adversely affected by the Great Depression. Advances in social security were, of course, contested by Republicans but, by and large, history looks back favourably on both the New Deal and FDR's twelve year tenure.

It wasn't as if the rich were suffering because the country was helping the poor. Quite the opposite. Between 1890 and 1930 the US doubled in population and, for the first time in her history, more people were living in cities than in rural areas. New York was the greatest of all cities and as Art Deco skyscrapers like Raymond Hood's Rockefeller Centre, William Van Alen's Chrysler Building, and, the daddy of them all, the Empire State Building began to dominate the skyline American artists looked to respond to this new world.

Charles Green Shaw - Wrigley's (1937)

Aaron Douglas - Aspiration (1936)

Stuart Davis - New York (1931)
Charles Green Shaw predated Pop Art when he made use of the iconic Chicagoan chewing gum logo and set it against a backdrop of skyscrapers that could just as easily be building blocks. It borrows something from de Chirico's metaphysical paintings and Morandi's rectilinear simplicity. Swinging curves were permitted alongside the straight lines, though, and Aaron Douglas and Stuart Davis seem to have caught the jazz bug that was sweeping the country at the time. In New York Davis seems to be paving the way for Ed Ruscha six years before that artist's birth.

Industrialisation and increased city living played out in the works of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler too. Sheeler's American Landscape reflects the heavy industry of Pennsylvania where he was born. Now deindustrialised it's very much the Rust Belt from where Trump garnered much of his support. These paintings of nominally ugly things are invested with a beauty and dignity by Demuth and Sheeler's majestic depictions.

Charles Demuth - ....and the Home of the Brave (1931)

Charles Sheeler - American Landscape (1930)

Alice Neel - Pat Whalen (1935)
Alice Neel did the same for Irish union leader Pat Whalen and Joe Jones' Roustabouts populates these urban landscapes with actual humans complete with both their many foibles and graces. The Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Complex had become the largest factory on Earth and the Star Spangled Banner had become the national anthem but not all artists responded favourably to these developments. Neel was a committed communist and others looked to the loneliness that could be found just as easily in a crowded city as in America's remotest wildernesses.
Most notably of course Edward Hopper. I find his paintings more wistful than sad or depressing. Gas is as good example as any. We simply can't read the emotion of the man at the gas station so we imbue it with our meaning by conjuring up our own experiences, feelings, and memories. It's one of the many things that's so great about Hopper. He lets us do some of the work and, because of that, we share some of the reward.

Joe Jones - Roustabouts (1934)

Edward Hopper - Gas (1940)
After a hard week at the factory, or on the docks, there was fun to be had. William H Johnson's Harlem scenes look way ahead of their time whilst Cadmus' The Fleet's In, despite focusing on bawdy sailors on shore leave, could almost be from the Renaissance. Both are equally effective in showing the Manhattan milieu at the time of the talkies and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Philip Evergood's Dance Marathon (there was a craze for them at the time) doesn't look a lot of fun at all. It has something of the ghastly quality of a James Ensor. The grotesque mise en scene so expertly rendered you're loth to look away in case you miss something.

William H Johnson - Street Life, Harlem (1939)

Paul Cadmus - The Fleet's In (1934)

Philip Evergood - Dance Marathon (1934)
I kept returning, too, to Grant Wood's Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Amongst tough competition it was my favourite painting of the exhibition. Mysterious, eerie, and utterly compelling. I'd not seen anything quite like it since an El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery many years ago.
It overshadowed everything else in the room with it though Paul Sample's almost Bruegelesque Church Supper and Charles Sheeler's Shaker furniture inspired Home Sweet Home were charming. Sheeler may not have been a Regionalist artist himself but this admiration of simplicity and rustic values as a bulwark against encroaching modernism was certainly well attuned to the ideologies of that group.

Grant Wood - The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931)

Paul Sample - Church Supper (1933)

Charles Sheeler - Home Sweet Home (1931)
In some ways the Regionalists, with their comforting depictions of Mid Western rural idylls, were conservative throwbacks yet many of their paintings continue to astound. Alexandre Hogue's landscape looks like a comfy bed and it takes a little while to notice the female form. It's a nod towards the Surrealism that was already huge in Europe and would soon find itself slipping into a more American form.
Grant Wood's rolling hills can look both idealistic and unsettling at the time. Much like his iconic American Gothic (on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago). It's long debated if Wood was cocking a snook at the supposed values of the rural Iowans or showing solidarity for and respect with them. It's a painting that's been endlessly parodied. Even the most perfunctory Google search will find Trump and Clinton, Darth Vader and Princess Leia, Popeye and Olive Oyl, the Flintstones, Minions, and the stars of Breaking Bad. The parodies are as deathless as the painting. To have such effect it must be, and is, a fantastic piece of art but it's very hard not to view it through countless prisms of irony these days.

Alexandre Hogue - Erosion No.2:Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936)

Grant Wood - Young Corn (1931)

Grant Wood - American Gothic (1930)
So I gazed at it for a respectful amount of time, even having a brief moment with it to myself, before moving on to the equally conflicted Regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton. His rural scenes don't look so idyllic. They look tough and I couldn't be sure if his elongated forms were artistic devices or reportage. Georgia O'Keeffe's ruminations on the harsh landscapes of the frontier lands suggest the latter. Ivan Albright's self-portrait is as fractured as the cracked desert earth. It could be a Bacon, a Freud, or even an Auerbach. These British artists surely took influence from much of the work on show here.

Thomas Hart Benton - Cotton Pickers (1945)

Georgia O'Keeffe - Cow's Skull with Calico Rose (1931)

Ivan Albright - Self-portrait (1935)

Grant Wood - Death on the Ridge Road (1935)
If you added a splash of Fauvist colour to Grant Wood's Death on the Ridge Road you wouldn't be too far away from some of David Hockney's recent landscapes. It's no surprise he spent so much of his career working in America. Death on the Ridge Road has political allusions too. We can all see the head on crash coming but we're all powerless to do anything about it. It's highly possible that the curators of this exhibition were trying to hint at parallels between the 1930s and the current moronic, and venal, administration in the White House.
Joe Jones' American Justice leaves pretty much nothing to the imagination. This isn't a metaphor or an allegory. It's a straight out depiction of something very very wrong indeed and, more than eighty years later, it still has the power to shock. In fact with the emergence of alt-right figureheads and even the KKK themselves it's more topical than it has been for decades. What a fucking shame.

Joe Jones - American Justice (1933)
The surrealism that did arrive in America, much like the Surrealism of Europe, seemed to be turning away from the very real horrors the people of the world were inflicting upon each other and looking to internalise the macabre machinations of man's psyche. Darkened faceless figures, collapsing architecture, and a retrospectively bizarre reliance on Lenin as some kind of saviour (despite many of the artists involved receiveing funding from FDR's New Deal) became the tropes of the Stateside Surreal. It wouldn't be the last time a Russian leader was implicated in the American politic. Nor would it be the last time folks rebelled against those providing them with financial assistance during hard times as those in Cornwall will be able to tell you after Brexit.

Federico Castellon - Dark Figure (1938)

O Louis Guglielmi - Mental Geography (1938)

Peter Blume - Eternal City (1934-1937)

O Louis Guglielmi - Phoenix (1935)
War was raging across Spain and soon to engulf all of Europe and much of the world. Regionalism didn't really have an answer. Abstract Expressionism would soon become the dominant form and some of its practioners were already finding their way towards it. Philip Guston's Bombardment was his response to the bombing of Guernica. Though nothing could have the power of Picasso's masterpiece it was, nevertheless, a highly powerful work that boldly made use of the tondo form so popular in Renaissance Italy.
Ilya Boltowsky and George L K Morris moved away from figuration towards pure abstraction. They sought a new American style, paradoxically, in European artists like Picasso, Braque, and Miro. Another future Abstract Expressionist found influence in fusing the style of his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, and the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Pollock was to become the most famous Abstract Expressionist of them all, Jack the Dripper, but in his untitled work from the end of the 30s we can see a different side to him, the young painter, still in his twenties, obviously talented but still yet to find his style. When he, and others, found that (American) style the centre of the art world shifted from Paris, clearly helped by the war and the Nazi occupation, to New York.
New York was now where artists could dream of making it big but as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art became the dominant styles something of the loose, experimental nature of the 30s was lost. The Royal Academy have done a terrific job providing us with a whirlwind tour of a decade, not unlike the one we're living in now, when outcomes, both in art and life, were uncertain and the painters of that time worked with necessary urgency to capture that,

Philip Guston - Bombardment (1937)

Ilya Boltowsky - Study for the hall of Medical Sciences Mural at 1939 World's Fair in New York (1938-1939)

George L K Morris - Indian Composition No.6 (1938)

Jackson Pollock - Untitled (1938-1941)

The quote from Founding Father John Dickinson that topped this piece came from 1789's Liberty Song. It was still relevant in 1932 when the US celebrated the bicentennial of George Washington. It's more relevant than ever now the reins of power are in the hands of divisive and amoral demagogues. This exhibition was a timely rejoinder of all that's great, and not so great, about America and how the concept of founding a country on an idea was such a bold, and admirable, thing to do. Militaristic adventures weren't the only reason the US became the most powerful nation on Earth but future militaristic adventures could soon see that title wrested away from Uncle Sam.

Thanks to Sanda and Kathy for accompanying me to this marvellous exhibition and for the debrief over hot drinks and shortbread afterwards.

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