America After the Fall – at The Royal Academy until 4th June 2017
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
The Fall was the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929 which triggered the greatest economic depression in US history. Combined with the Dust Bowl (drought and severe winds plus poor farming practices that destroyed millions of acres of farmland in the Mid-West and caused tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms) this devastated America in the early 1930s, and by mid-decade America was also looking fearfully to the rise of Fascism in Western Europe and the march of Communism in the East.
The artists exhibited had widely varying styles, and are linked by shared history and contemporaneity only. So what is here to show your children? Some of America’s greatest artists, and plenty more! The exhibition is in 7 sections:
I: New York
Wrigley’s by Charles G. Shaw, 1937 – a tube of gum floats in front of an abstracted view of Lower Manhattan – the gum is part of the excitement of modern life (the painting began as an idea for an advert). The work prefigures the Pop Art movement by several decades.
II: City Life
Philip Evergood’s Dance Marathon, 1934 is a colourful look at the popular competition where couples danced themselves to exhaustion to win prize money – the depth of their exhaustion speaks of their desperation for the prize – USA in the grip of the Great Depression.
III: Industrial Life
Charles Sheeler’s fantastic American Landscape, 1930 shows the gleaming monolithic Ford Motor plant – the biggest factory in the world – it’s the new “landscape” but eerily quiet. Where are the 10,000 workers? We can only see 1, and only if we look closely. The painting was commissioned by Ford, but the promise of a glorious industrial future was a lie – 2 years later the Ford Hunger Strikes saw Ford workers protesting low pay shot by Ford security guards and police, killing 4.
Edward Hopper’s sinister Gas, 1940 (pictured above) is here too – Hopper’s paintings, symbols of 1930s America, show lonely individuals isolated in their experience. His bright dark colours, diagonal lines and strong internal lighting are key. Who is the silent gas station worker, and what lurks in the endless woods? Painted at a time when many Americans were on the road to uncertain futures following the disastrous Dust Bowl, it must have resonated deeply.
IV: Country Life
This section includes grant Wood’s iconic, creepy and much parodied American Gothic, 1930 – the painting that propelled him to instant fame. Intended to recall a lost way of life, it is actually a collage painting a gothic style house that Wood stumbled upon when out walking, in front of which he posed his dentist (Wood loved sugar so was a frequent customer!) and his sister – the sitters never sat together or in front of the house, and the disparateness of its construction comes across. The severe arrangement is borrowed from German Renaissance paintings and, as with many of his landscape paintings, the local Iowans greeted the painting with deep hostility – it really doesn’t represent us they said, and who can blame them?
Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936 is a fascinating interpretation of the damage done to the land by the farmers’ deep ploughing of the topsoil – they damaged the deep-rooted grasses so that when drought came the bone dry soil blew away in dust storms leaving the land barren.
V: Looking to the Past
In a rare history painting from 1931 Grant Wood commemorates The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere – Revere was a hero of the American Revolution which took place 1765 to 1783, when the American colonies rejected British rule. Revere is best known for his 1775 night ride to warn colonists of the approaching British. Wood’s paintings all have the same non-realistic simplification – a dream version of the mid-west. Wood is often referred to as a Realist painter, but this does not mean that his paintings look “real” – American Realism was an art movement which showed the lives and activities of everyday people.
VI: Visions of Dystopia
By the mid-1930s Americans were deeply troubled by events in Europe, and this is brilliantly captured by Philip Guston’s Bombardment, 1937 which portrays Franco’s aerial bombardment of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, (look up Picasso’s Guernica too). A horrific centrifugally composed explosion, bodies hurtling out from the epicentre. The shape (tondo) and glorious colours remind us of a Botticelli Madonna painting. Guston, like Picasso intended a universal protest against hatred and destruction.
VII: Looking to the Future
Looking forward to the Abstract Expressionists featured by the Royal Academy last year, we see Jackson Pollock’s 1938/40 Untitled, from his pre-drip days – can you see the influence of his deep interest in native American art and culture?
See this exhibition! – a rare chance to see great American art in London. View here for further details
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