The promo for America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s says that the art of this period, “tells the story of a nation in flux.” Surely an understatement as the 1930s was a period of immense turmoil in the US, as well as abroad. The 1929 Wall Street Crash trashed the global economy and, at home, when combined with the savage droughts and dust storms across the Southern Plains, it plunged America headfirst into the Great Depression.
Huge internal migration (as well as the vast numbers of arriving refugees from Europe), great swathes of devastated rural areas and deeply entrenched racism threatened to rip apart the social and political cohesion of the country. With communism on the rise in Europe, and America with its haves and have-nots (let’s not forget that Rockefeller became the world’s first billionaire during the Great Depression) there was the very real threat that a popular uprising could destabilise this bold, young nation. America was on a precipice.
It’s a small show, up in the Sackler Wing, that examines how American artists responded to these tumultuous times but, boy, what a show. Such a diverse range of artists and artistic styles. And, indeed, that is the very point. For just as much as America was wrestling with its place in the world, its purpose, and its identity, so was its artistic scene.
Yes, the mighty American Gothic is here. The first time it has visited the UK. It’s an iconic painting and you can see its influence in many of the works that surround it. Its clean lines, its simplicity. Its stoicism and its low-key colour palette.
Yet contrast this with the tentative signs of abstraction in an early Jackson Pollock in the next room, and nearby, similarly in Charles Green Shaw’s fantastic Wrigley’s, 1937, that puts a packet of gum to equal scale as the New York skyline. For as much as American Gothic captured the public imagination, there were many other artists well aware of the developments in artistic styles overseas, and they were keen for American art to develop its own modern, radical style too.
And it’s this conflict – between artistic styles, depiction and purpose – that, somewhat ironically, gives this show its unifying theme.
Take the rural scenes on display. Inevitably in these times of national crisis, there are some artists who lost themselves in idealised depictions of the past. Of happier times. Whimsical portrayals of times that never were, such as Doris Lee’s Thanksgiving, 1935, where buxom, well-fed women busy themselves in a large rural kitchen, merrily fussing over the large turkey dinner.
And in a similar vein of positivity, Alexandre Hogue’s evocative Erosion No, 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936, shows the battered rural landscape not just as a desolate dustbowl, but as earth capable of renewal, of breathing life back into itself. These are messages of hope, yes, but there were also artists prepared to confront the dark underbelly of American society, such as Joe Jones in American Justice, 1933, which depicts a lynching. A black woman, stripped to her waist, lies dead underneath a noose whilst a group of hooded KKK men remain nearby.
And this conflict between artists, their wildly different interpretations of the same settings, can be seen in the cityscapes too. The bustling urban scenes in Philip Evergood’s Dance Marathon, 1934, and Reginald Marsh’s In Fourteenth Street, 1934, show packed diverse crowds. These are scenes brimming with energy and activity. Yet, compare these to the pained studies in isolation from Edward Hopper. His New York Movie, 1939, sees a woman, maybe an usherette, standing to the side in a movie theatre, lost in her own thoughts, her gaze impassive and impossible to read.
There’s also an interesting creep of almost propaganda to some of these paintings. Charles Sheeler’s mighty American Landscape, 1930, portrays an industrial site as a scene of might and beauty. The billowing clouds of steam the only soft shapes in a scene of elegant, ordered lines and geometric beauty. This is industrial energy as efficient, clean and methodical. Order from chaos. And somewhat ironic given the Russian art exhibition in the galleries downstairs.
But for all the artists wanting to venerate industrial might, there were those who saw it in a far different light. O Louis Guglielmi’s Phoenix, 1935, has a portrait of Lenin leaning up against a pylon whilst a skeletal arm of a dead man can be seen in the pile of rubble beside it. And in his Mental Geography, 1938, the Brooklyn Bridge seems to have been devastated in an explosion, a bomb wedged into a woman’s back.
For these artists were not inward looking, oblivious to the dogs of war beginning to howl overseas. Indeed, some were migrants from overseas themselves. Philip Guston takes his stab at Guernica in Bombardment, 1937. Always a tricky subject matter given that other artist who took a swipe at capturing this massacre on canvas, but Guston’s work is a furious spiral of bombs, anguish and pain. Similarly, Peter Blume’s Eternal City, 1937, takes its jab at the fascists with its depiction of a clownish Mussolini presiding over the rubble and ruins of Rome.
So overall, this is an utterly absorbing show that demonstrates how the great shocks in American economics, politics and society in the 1930s were also reflected in an artistic scene trying to find a way to respond to the world it inhabited, a scene that would eventually find its feet in the decades that followed with abstract expressionism and Pop art.
Royal Academy of Arts, London, to June 4, 2017
Admission: £13.50 (without donation £12). Concessions available.
1 Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930 Oil on beaver board, 78 x 65 cm The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection, 1930.934
2 Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1938-41 Oil on linen, 56.5 x 127.5 cm The Art Institute of Chicago, Major Acquisitions Centennial Fund; estate of Florene May Schoenborn; through prior acquisitions of Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison, Marguerita S. Ritman, Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Borland, and Mary L. and Leigh B. Block, 1998.522 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016
3 Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940 Oil on canvas, 66.7 x 102.2 cm Collection of Museum of Modern Art , New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1943 Photo © 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence
4 Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930 Oil on canvas, 61 x 78.7 cm The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Abby Aldrick Rockefeller, 1934. Photo © 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence