America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s at Royal Academy #AmericaAftertheFall

As well as Russia, @RoyalAcademy has America on show this spring, until 4 June 2017.  The exhibition shows artists’ responses to the deprivation and changes that took place in the 1930s, through seven themes covering city, industry, countryside and the future.  I really enjoyed seeing the paintings and recommend it to all!

The exhibition is in the Sackler Wing.  This is 2 floors above the main entrance in Burlington House but they are high floors!  Take the lift (turn right in the anteroom at the top of the main staircase) unless you feel really fit!

It is a small space, 3 rectangular rooms, two joining at their long side and the third fitting along their joined short sides.  The walls are white.  The material is hung at a reasonable head height, catering to the average human.  There are information panels close to each picture providing at least the artist and the title and materials.  The audio guide was clear and useful.  All in all, I found it a friendly space and the art felt accessible.  There was only one piece, Thanksgiving, where I had to bob down a little to get a good look at all the detail.

You enter one of the side-by-side rooms.  As you come through the entrance you are guided to the left into the end of the room.  That created a bunching of people which didn’t work too well for me.  And, across from the entrance is an opening to the final section.  I found that confusing.  I guess you could be maverick and go backwards round the exhibition but I’d prefer not to, at least the first time.  I wouldn’t object to more signage.  Of course, if you have the audio guide, it includes a little plan to help you.

Let’s start at the top of the first room.  Aspiration, by Aaron Douglas, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, was created for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas.  It features in the education guide for this exhibition and the difficulty of reproducing artwork in print meant that I really wanted to see the original.  I thought the hands at the bottom were applauding but in fact, like it says in the text, they were manacled, a reminder of the slavery from which the figures at the top, with their learning, were escaping.

Working down the room, there is Industrial Life on the left and City Life on the right.  I liked so many of the pieces here that it is hard to pick out one or two.  American Landscape, a 1930 painting by Charles Sheeler of Ford’s River Rouge plant, includes hard edges and precision on the buildings and train but the reflection is softer and more sympathetic.  The soft pastel palette reminded me of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin in the Russian exhibition.

Then there’s Alice Neel’s portrait of Pat Whelan, a trade union leader.  It is not quite photographic realism but the way she has portrayed the face conveys the character and passion of the man.  It looks like he’s just slammed down his fist on the table.

Gas by Edward Hopper shows a petrol station (to give it its British name).  It is at the forest edge and the road bends away to the right into the unknown.  The lighting is amazing with sunrise or sunset from the natural world and artificial light spilling from the building.

The cityscapes are generally ambiguous.  Are the people happy or caught up in something miserable?  In The Fleet’s In, Paul Cadmus exaggerates the figures and shows them rearing backwards.  It’s uncomfortable.  Phil Evergood’s Dance Marathon 1934 is a danse macabre.  The men or women at the front are caught in a spider web of the markings of the panels on the floor.

There are two images of cinemas.  Reginald March’s 20¢ Movie is busy with people outside the theatre dressed like the people in the movie posters, all glammed up.  But the titles of the movies: ‘The Joys of the Flesh’, ‘Who is Without Sin’, ‘Damnations or Hell?’, ‘Dangerous Curves’, etc. suggest a world that you might not want to be part of and make me think it is more about the dangers of the movies than the cheap innocent escape it might seem.  I did think my mother would like the fashion portrayed.  Meanwhile, New York Movie, another Edward Hopper, is a much larger canvas to show a much less busy scene.  The inside of the theatre is luxurious and the usherette is dressed in a correct but plain dress.  It is impressionistic giving a real sense of the place but quite sketchy and soft detail when you look closely.

Moving into the second gallery, there is Looking to the Past at the nearest end and Country Life begins half way along the room on the bottom wall and works around the far end to the doorway to the third gallery.  Here you will see perhaps the most famous piece in the exhibition, Grant Wood’s American Gothic.  But, don’t rush, wallow a little in the past, in the nostalgia for a past that maybe never existed.  This is another reminder for me of the Russian Exhibition and the sled rides, birch forests and onion-shaped church domes of their artists’ memories.  In this case it is more the founding myth of the revolution and the cosy hospitality of the past.

Several of the pieces here are also by Grant Wood.  I very much liked The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.  It is moonlit with people emerging in their night shirts from the houses.  To the right in the distance up a long and winding road are the lights of the pursuers.  There are New England houses and a church but they are almost cartoonish.  I thought there a little too much light in the houses for the late 18th century.

In Daughters of the Revolution, Grant Wood portrays three very proper ladies who can trace their ancestry back to the American Revolution.  They are smiling and yet serious.  One very politely holds a cup.  There is great precision in the painting of the cup and of the lace one of the women wears.  It is a British tea cup, which is an irony.  There is a story in the painting, long enough for a whole article

Similarly, in Paul Sample’s Church Supper, there are several stories.  The big scene of the supper, people seated at tables, is in front of a winding road through fields, people playing baseball in the distance, a car and a horse drawn wagon.  It reminded me of The Waltons.  However, there is also a rather racy lady lifting her skirts to give one of the proper men a view of her legs.

I particularly liked Doris Lee’s Thanksgiving, despite having to dip down to see it properly.  This shows a kitchen with a clock at 10.15, painted in a naïve style.  It won the Logan New Acquisition Prize but even the contemporary scion of the donating Logan family didn’t agree with the prize at the time so it is controversial in artistic circles.  However, it portrays a happy and fecund atmosphere, which is lovely to experience.

As you move through the room to Country life, you see the pain that existed.  In Erosion #2 Alexandre Hogue shows the sand coloured earth shaped in the curves of a female form, Mother Earth figure laid bare by the lack of water.  It is a very powerful image, particularly set against the other paintings showing what the countryside used to look like.

American Gothic is placed at the head of this second room, dominating the space.  It shows very realistic faces except that they are slightly elongated.  Grant Wood has a habit of painting his trees, and even his grass, as collections of green blobs, not painting the individual leaves.  You see them here but mostly behind the house in the background.  The guide talks about the vertical lines that link the parts of the composition.  These extend from the columns on the veranda to the spire above the trees.  Obvious, once pointed out.

The walls of the final room are mostly filled with Visions of DystopiaLooking to the Future takes up the end nearest the doorway back to the exit.  I found the former more interesting and attractive than the latter.  I will not spend any more time here contemplating why; I just offer it as an observation.

There are two very famous pieces in Looking to the Future and you may wish to see them when you have the chance.  Neither, however, did much for me.  Jackson Pollock’s Untitled ca 1938/41 has amazing colours and I could just about make out the shape of the head of a bull, perhaps the shape of a man.  It’s quite pleasant but it didn’t speak to me.  Similiarly, Georgia O’Keefe’s Cow’s Skull with Calico Rose, although possessing an admirably descriptive title, didn’t do much for me either.  I much prefer her landscapes that I saw in 2016 at Tate Modern.

So what Visions of Dystopia did catch my eye?

Firstly, Helen Lunderberg’s Double Portrait of the Artist in Time didn’t just attract me but it taught me a lesson about Surrealism.  The Surreal is about things that cannot happen in our reality.  I didn’t understand that definition (I’ve told you before that I didn’t know much about art) before seeing this piece and this piece is a good way for me to remember it.  A baby sits holding a bud in front of a picture of herself all grown up with the flower in full bloom.  This cannot happen in reality.  The opposite, if you like, can: a person can sit in front of a picture of herself as a baby, but not this way around.  The baby and the picture are linked by a large shadow – of the artist, I thought.  So, if this is a self-portrait, there are in fact three portraits of the artist.

Philip Guston’s Bombardment is probably a response to the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War and a foretelling of what was to hit other European cities and towns in the following ten years.  It is circular, blasting the bodies of people out towards the viewer and away from the explosion in the centre of the piece.  It is extremely impressive standing in front of it – more so than you can imagine from the picture in a book.

Grant Wood portrays Death on the Ridge Road.  You can see his green grass like a slightly shapeless carpet, in the same style as his blobby trees, and above a forbidding front of black cloud and rain.  A big red truck crests the hill, on a collision course with a black car slewed across the road! I could almost hear the crash and shrieking metal in the moment after the picture.

Similarly realistic was John Stewart Curry’s Hogs Killing a Snake.  It is figurative piece showing a group of pigs and a snake writhing among them.  It portrays an amazing sense of movement.  You can see that the snake is fighting back!

American Justice by Joe Jones shows a house ablaze in the background and, on the left, a group of Ku Klux Klansmen gathered around a candle or lamp, while one of whom holds a glowing brand.  On the right a dog looks up at a noose, seeming to be caught before howling.  The trees surround and press in on the scene.  At the front lies an African American woman, naked from the waist up, her eyes rolled up in her head.  Lighting is used to highlight the key shapes: the woman’s nightdress and whites of her eyes, the white bark of a tree and the Klansmen’s robes, the brand and the fire.  I didn’t think the woman was dead – yet – just in shock from what had happened and was likely to happen.  Either way, it was a sobering and moving piece.

To leave the room on a high note, Arthur Dove’s Swing Music (Louis Armstrong) was an energetic and positive piece.  It captured the sense of rhythm and music with bursts of colour, particularly red, which portrays almost half a face on the right, in the midst of abstract shapes.  It seems to move and change as you watch it: red on black or black on red as shapes merge.

All in all, I enjoyed the exhibition, the different themes worked for me as an organising principle and I found insight into the art of the era.  Royal Academy tells us, “The art of 1930s America tells the story of a nation in flux. Artists responded to rapid social change and economic anxiety with some of the 20th century’s most powerful art.”  I would agree that the exhibition shows us some powerful, lovely and interesting pieces.  The RA goes on to say, “In the devastating wake of the Wall Street Crash, artists sought to capture the changes in urbanisation, industrialisation and immigration that pulsed across the country, resulting in one of the most vital periods for American artists in the 20th century. This was a decade like no other that saw them search for an elusive ‘Americanness’ through realism, populism and abstraction, rural and urban themes, the farm, the new, the traditional.”  What struck me is that ‘Americanness’ means many different things to different artists.  There isn’t much unanimity about it although it contains a strong nostalgia for the past.

There’s always lots of really interesting material on the Royal Academy website to support exhibitions so, if you like to read up about an exhibition before you go, have a look here.  You’ll even find details of a free tour you can join.  The teachers’ guide is really good at giving you something to think about and you’ll find that here.

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