The Depression-era artists captured the feeling of disquiet and despair of 1930s America, discovers Michael Murray-fennell
Michael Murray-fennell surveys 1930s American art
After the roaring twenties came the Great Depression. ‘America after the fall’ at the royal Academy looks at that decade-long morning after the night before, the fall of the title referring to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It’s an exhibition of pinched puritanical faces, sweaty crowds in thrall to cheap thrills, the dust bowls of the Midwest and the streets of New York.
It’s also a fascinating B-side to the show downstairs at the royal Academy, ‘revolution: russian Art 1917–1932’. that exhibition documents the first 15 years after the fall of the tsar and how both the avant-garde artists and the Socialist realists celebrated the brave new world of Communism and collectivisation. the dominant atmosphere there is one of onwards and upwards; the prevailing mood of ‘America after the fall’ is of anxiety.
the contrast is most noticeable in the treatment of industry. American artist Charles Sheeler paints an enormous propellerlike machine hanging over three factory workers, its size rendering them insignificant. the title, Suspended Power, might as well refer to the status of the USA during the 1930s and its dull, antiseptic colours are a world away from the black-and-white photo- graphy celebrating the gleaming turbines and tractors of the Soviet republic.
Although, at least, in America, dissent was allowed. there is no equivalent in the russian exhibition to Alice Neel’s portrait of the thorn in the Baltimore establishment’s side, Pat Whalen, which shows the IrishAmerican trade unionist with his clenched fists on a copy of Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker.
Considered deeply unpatriotic at the time, Paul Cadmus’s The Fleet’s In!, with its deeply sarcastic exclamation mark, shows drunken and bawdy navy men soliciting the locals for a good time. to the left of the boisterous crowd, the face of an elderly woman in Victorian-era dress is green with disgust.
the royal Academy has scored a coup with the inclusion of American Gothic, on display outside North America for the very first time. Grant Wood’s portrait of a severe, buttoneddown farming couple, against the backdrop of a chapel-like clapboard house with the man gripping the most famous pitchfork in art history, has been parodied mercilessly over the decades. for all its starkness, its brilliance lies in its ambiguity. It was decried by some as a patronising caricature but celebrated by others as an ode to the country’s frontier spirit.
Wood is not the only artist in this exhibition to invoke national identity in the title of their paintings. American Landscape by Sheeler puts the tower and railway lines of the ford Motor factory on the same monumental level as the mountains and valleys of the American West.
elsewhere, a painting by Joe Jones crackles with anger as it shows a black girl dead at the foot of a noose, a dog howling by her side, as, further back, Klu Klux Klan members stand in front of a burning farmstead.
American Justice serves as a bitter rebuke to some of the
exhibition’s idealised pastoral scenes. If the farm remained such a potent symbol of the country, it was partly because, by 1930, more than half the population lived in cities.
Poverty was not just confined to the fields and ‘America after the Fall’ shows the artists of the period interrogating the fruits of capitalism. Philip Evergood’s purposefully garish Dance Marathon depicts the participants of those endurance competitions as emaciated and exhausted; Evergood pointedly including a grinning Mickey Mouse in the top-right-hand corner.
As America was scratching its head over how to escape from this economic malaise, artists were asking themselves— in much the same way as their Russian counterparts had a decade before—whether representational art or abstraction was the most suitable approach to capturing the spirit of their
country. It was not a question that would be answered in that decade, although an early Jackson Pollack nods to the Abstract Expressionism that was to flourish after the Second World War.
It is left to Edward Hopper to best capture the melancholy of that time and the exhibition is worth it alone for two of the
artist’s masterpieces, Gas and
New York Movie. The latter, with its forlorn usherette and the mostly empty red-velvet seats of the cinema, evokes only too well the feeling Tennyson describes as:
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick And tingle; and the heart is sick, And all the wheels of Being slow.
The lines could equally apply to that deflated decade.
‘America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s’ is at the Royal Academy, London W1 until June 4 (020–7300 8090; www.royalacademy.org.uk)
Next week: ‘The Morris Dancer and the Ratcatcher’ at Southampton Art Gallery
Artists showed that the rural idyll was anything but in powerful works such as Thomas Hart Benton’s Cotton Pickers (1945)
Above left: On display for the first time outside North America, Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) is one of the show’s highlights. Above right: Industry in action: Suspended Power (1939) by Charles Sheeler
Edward Hopper’s Gas (1940) captures the melancholy behind the American dream