Art can be the an­ti­dote to Amer­i­can iso­la­tion­ism

Country Life Every Week - - Athena - Cul­tural Cru­sader

WITH their ten­dency to ob­sess about ‘na­tional schools’, mu­se­ums and gal­leries of­ten present a rather parochial view of art in which the Span­ish, Ital­ian, Nether­lan­dish, French or some­times even Bri­tish school is given a priv­i­leged po­si­tion. Hardly sur­pris­ing re­ally, when cu­ra­to­rial de­part­ments have tra­di­tion­ally been much con­cerned with clas­si­fi­ca­tion and when so many mu­se­ums were cre­ated as ex­pres­sions of na­tional pride, if not su­pe­ri­or­ity. Al­though Athena be­lieves that any­thing of any worth, in­clud­ing paint­ing—don’t get me started on the ex­cel­lence of Apelles—was in­vented by the An­cient Greeks, she nonethe­less takes her univer­sal role as a pro­moter of cul­ture se­ri­ously. She is, there­fore, de­lighted at the pos­i­tive out­burst of in­ter­est now tak­ing place in Bri­tain in Amer­i­can art.

This is prop­erly con­cerned not with the con­tem­po­rary, but what we might call his­toric Amer­i­can art: that is, any­thing be­fore the Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ists. Such work has long been se­ri­ously un­der­val­ued by Bri­tish and other Euro­pean au­di­ences, largely be­cause they’ve had so lit­tle op­por­tu­nity to see it. Few of the great names of Amer­i­can art—gil­bert Stu­art, Winslow Homer, Thomas Cole—are well (if at all) rep­re­sented in pub­lic col­lec­tions ei­ther in the UK or Con­ti­nen­tal Europe.

Mean­while, hav­ing spent their work­ing lives on this side of the pond, some of the most uni­ver­sally fa­mil­iar Amer­i­can artists—whistler, Sar­gent, Cas­satt—have stealth­ily slipped into the Euro­pean canon. In do­ing so, they have per­haps re­in­forced the mis­ap­pre­hen­sion that Amer­i­can artists could only re­ally flour­ish in the cul­tur­ally richer soil of the Old World. Many peo­ple’s per­cep­tions will change as they visit the Royal Acad­emy’s spring block­buster ‘Amer­ica Af­ter the Fall: Paint­ing in the 1930s’, ar­riv­ing in Lon­don af­ter a hit stint at the Orangerie in Paris. Sud­denly, the names of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Ben­ton and Charles Sheeler will be­come fa­mil­iar.

This recog­ni­tion has been slowly but surely com­ing and, in this, the Na­tional Gallery de­serves much credit. In 2011, it pro­moted the work of Ge­orge Bel­lows and his fel­low ‘Ash­can School’ painters. Four years ago, it dis­played Fred­eric Church’s rav­ish­ing land­scape sketches to ap­pre­cia­tive crowds and, in 2014, dug deep and spent $25.5 mil­lion (£20.4 mil­lion) to buy Bel­lows’s Men of the Docks, the first time a UK gallery has ac­quired a work by this great Amer­i­can artist.

There has been a great deal of aca­demic plough­ing of the Amer­i­can fur­row, too. The Cour­tauld In­sti­tute, for ex­am­ple, re­cently es­tab­lished the Cen­tre for Amer­i­can Art, with its own pro­fes­sor. Who knows—be­fore too long, the names of Ge­orge Caleb Bing­ham and Peter Blume could be as fa­mil­iar as those of Kneller and Frith. If or when they do, it will all be a pleas­ant an­ti­dote to Amer­ica’s new iso­la­tion­ism as well as an aes­thetic ad­ven­ture.

‘Such work has long been se­ri­ously un­der­val­ued by Bri­tish au­di­ences

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