America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s – Royal Academy of Arts



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The title of America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s (Royal Academy of Arts) refers to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Surprisingly, the US government did not descend into what we now call austerity, but actually spent public money. For the first and last time in history, the government paid an army of “federal” artists for their work. These artists painted posters and designed brochures for government offices. They were free to express their own ideas in paint, but had to hand a percentage of their output over to the administration.

This situation paralleled a changing society, with people moving from the land into the towns, partly because of the Depression but also the result of the severe drought that spanned half a decade in the mid-west. These events fed into creative expression such as music, film and novels, but also into painting. As well as the government, companies commissioned artists. American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler, stems from a commission by the Ford Motor Company. This image of factories and smokestacks is set aback a still canal, rendering the industrial park almost like a large ship, sailing off into an unknown future. Interestingly, no humans are present.

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 (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

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 (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Ethnic groups and women, as always, were vulnerable to sociological change – and this change gave rise to new art forms. African-American sharecroppers who had fallen into poverty left the land and filled the towns, thus giving rise to the “jazz” age. Aspiration (1936) by Aaron Douglas, is a stunning pictorial evocation of this situation. Three Negroid silhouettes occupy the platform or stage in the centre of the painting while gazing in wonderment at the lighted citadel that forms the background of the image. In the foreground, a montage of chained hands rises as if trying to grasp at these “free” citizens. These hands are painted purple, the stage and the three aspirant people in lighter mauve, while the cubist planes of the citadel glow lemon and green, evoking the jazz age.

By 1930, more than half the population of the US lived in cities, and this swift societal transition  did bring problems. The Fleet’s In (1934) by Paul Cadmus, is a burlesque on a group of sailors consorting with prostitutes, while an older lady looks on in outrage while walking her dog. We can almost hear her say: what’s the world coming to? But judging by Edward Hopper’s Gas (1940) and New York Movie (1939), the city was as much about loneliness and alienation as about crowds and aspiration. In the former painting, the isolation of the man alongside the anthropomorphic gas pumps is tangible. In the second painting, a young female usherette stands alone in a movie theatre foyer, separated from its scant audience by a curtain. The red velvet upholstery, gilt railings and baroque columns do nothing to dispel the unease of the image. The pretty face of the usherette is set in a resentful grimace, while her head is pressed to her hand in a stance eerily prescient of a present-day denizen holding a mobile phone. I ask: is that why mobile phones were invented, so that we would no longer feel alone?

But the countryside is not any more assuring than the town. The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) is Grant Woods’ comment on the hollowing out of prairie towns, in response to the drought. A fine piece of “American Gothic” this, a lone ranger galloping through a town eerily devoid of people, yet with window lights blazing on to the street. Yet, the homestead dream lived on: Thanksgiving (1935) by Doris Lee is a picture-postcard perfect evocation of the kind of life that depression and drought-era victims were not living. Women, children and animals populate a “traditional” kitchen, complete with bow-legged stove, dresser laden with crockery and red/white check floor tiles. The subjects are merrily bustling bags of comestibles indoors, and cooking and eating. Yet, the human figures have an aura of oddness, by turns vapid and comic, as if they might vanish in an instant. The kitchen door opens onto a parlour where a woman is seated, seemingly staring into space. Is she the only “real” person in the painting, I wonder, while the ghosts relive past, happier times in her kitchen? Or maybe the “ghosts” are cooking for the subjects of Church Supper (1933) by Paul Sample, an image of down-and-out people being fed by a cheerless old lady.

Haunted House (Morris Rantor, 1930), and Home, Sweet Home (Charles Sheeler, 1931) are side by side in the exhibition, presenting very different house interiors. In the former, we see a living room bare of furniture, but with dingy floral wallpaper, marble inlaid fireplace and bare-boarded floor, in situ. A spooky, vapid human shadow figure stares out at us from the right-hand side of the painting. The latter depicts a typical “modernist” house, complete with shiny floor and geometric-patterned rugs, minimalist furniture and boiler. The lack of dust suggests that someone occupies the house but we do not see any humans, nor signs of human activity, nor even the “ghost” of the Rantor painting. Which house is more haunted, I wonder, that home with its traces of former occupants or the vacuous, shiny emptiness of Home, Sweet Home?

The dichotomies of the 1930’s, town versus country, old versus new, black versus white, were bound to give rise to expressions of conflict. In the Visions of Dystopia area of the exhibition, we see Zealotry of Guerin: The Eternal City (1934-7), by Peter Blume. A ruined city occupies the background, while an excavated catacomb fills the foreground. From the latter, a bright-green fright head, hideous enough to give an adult (let alone a child) nightmares – pops up, Jack-in-the-box, style out over it. But the real American nightmares took place during waking hours. In American Justice (1933) by Joe Jones, a Ku Klux Klan-type group stand over the lifeless body of a Negroid woman, her pet dog looking up grief-stricken at the noose from which she has just been hanged and released. Here, I cite the quotation of Georgia O’Keefe: “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be considered.”

It is a quotation that we would do well to remember, all of the time. A must-see for anyone who loves painting, and anyone who wants to understand how human activity and creative expression are inextricably linked, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s is open at the Royal Academy of Arts until June 4.

(Citation from ‘Faces of America’ by Sarah Churchwell, RA Magazine)

(Mary Phelan, 2017)

About Mary Phelan

I am an art historian, magazine editor and design philosopher. In addition to editing Artyonline, I have my own website, http://www.maryphelan.info/ and write a blog, Design Victim, on the pain and pleasure of encountering designed objects in modern life. http://maryphelan.blogspot.com/ Readers can also follow my latest Hub Pages article that provides directions on how to create Ray Lichtenstein-type images using computer drawing software. http://hubpages.com/hub/Draw-Like-Lichtenstein-Using-Computer-Graphic-Software