The De­pres­sion-era artists cap­tured the feel­ing of dis­quiet and de­spair of 1930s Amer­ica, dis­cov­ers Michael Mur­ray-fen­nell

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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

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