Major art exhibitions are, of course, planned years in advance, and if they seem to have a striking resonance with the world in which they finally open that may be as much fortunate coincidence as it is inspired curatorial intent. All the same, though, with the state and direction of the US so prominently in the minds of many the fact that London is currently hosting two major shows of the nation’s art gives visitors ample opportunity to put America’s cultural life into the spotlight and to see if any of that light reflects back in such a way as to provide suggestions for the present and the near-future.
The British Museum’s survey of print-making in the US from the 1960s to the present reminds the viewer of how the political is never far away even in the most superficially aesthetic of pieces. From Warhol and Rauschenberg to May Stevens and Willie Cole the issues that have polarised the nation, challenged it, and forced it to re-define itself for the better (however imperfect that ‘better’ may still be in relation to the ideal) are never far away. Calling the exhibition ‘The American Dream’ reminds us that for the past fifty or so years US history has had its moments of breath-taking achievement alongside its public setbacks and disappointments.
The Royal Academy’s current show is different, however, in its focus on a very distinct period: the decade after the 1929 Wall Street Crash when the US had to face a challenge to many of the ideas that had underpinned its growth and ask some searching questions about what it was and what it could still be. In a world darkening with the clouds of imminent war these paintings show Americans trying to make sense of what had happened to what must have looked for so long like an unstoppable rise to pre-eminence. With a ruined economy, a dust bowl instead of a farming belt, and an uneasy sense that the world outside of the US was by no means inclined to remain stationary while it sorted itself out, many of the items in this show give insights into how America tried to find itself again before its dream was lost altogether. The exhibition’s title, ‘America After the Fall’ brings a post-lapsarian reference to the US in the 1930s, a fall from security, from confidence, and from grace.
Posters for the exhibition unsurprisingly show the seemingly timeless faces from Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ (1930) – loaned to a show outside of North America for the first time in its history. Beyond this iconic image, though, Wood is represented throughout the Sackler Galleries of the RA with a fascinating range of landscapes and portraits that capture something of the tense mood of the times. The winding road that runs through 1931’s historical interpretation ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’ for example, an image designed to stir up the patriotic urgency of a nation in peril recurs in 1935’s ‘Death on the Ridge Road’ as the scene of an impending and unavoidable automobile accident, that most 20th century of deaths. The past seems, on occasion, to have been too far away and the future as much a source of concern as of promise.
We see in many of the images in the show the ways by which 1930s America tried to reconnect with itself, both in the greater historical sense and in the more communal, lived experience of its farmers and rural communities whose lives seemed for some artists (though perhaps not for everyone) an antidote to the rootless modernism of the cities and social fragmentation found in them. Edward Hopper’s ‘New York Movie’ (1939) captures this perfectly: the bored usherette leaning against the wall to take the weight off her feet as the few audience members sit spaced about in the auditorium watching the grey and white shapes just visible on the screen. The glamour of Hollywood is seen here as second-hand escapism, briefly diverting attention from the world outside in a manner found in Philip Evergood’s ‘Dance Marathon’ of 1934, in which the energy and grace of Rogers and Astaire becomes a ring of near-unconscious people propping each other up to try and win $500.
Elsewhere, landscapes of industrial plants and images of power turbines hint at an industrial might that had taken a blow but was by no means defeated, and in the later stages of the display the viewer recalls that America’s road not only to national recovery but to global pre-eminence really became clear with the outbreak of World War Two and the sheer volume of US material and manpower added to the scales on the Allied side against the Axis of Germany, Japan, and Italy. In Peter Blume’s ‘The Eternal City’ (1937) we get a glimpse of Italy, and more particularly, Rome under the rule of Mussolini: a landscape of partially excavated Roman ruins (of which ‘Il Duce’ was particularly fond) within which soldiers on horseback beat civilians as priests run and flee. Mussolini himself emerges, surreally, as a bright-green jack-in-the-box, his oversized head looming into the picture to be both terrifying and ludicrous. The countdown to war still had some way to run when Blume’s painting was complete, but for the US the defeat of such dictators would prove to be an act not only of national but of international transformation – the ascent that made the ‘fall’ seem a long time ago. Mussolini’s attempts to revive lost Roman greatness were soon bankrupted, but if there was a new Roman Empire after 1945 it was surely based amid the neo-classical monuments of Washington DC. With history often looking and feeling like it’s running in reverse in 2017, the placement of such an image within this excellent exhibition is timely indeed.
America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 4th June.
For more information see https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/america-after-the-fall