Organised by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and the London Royal Academy of Arts, ‘America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s’ is to be housed by the Royal Academy of Arts from 25 February to 4 June. Although the 45 works on display are marketed as iconic, this is thankfully not entirely true, allowing the viewer to savour Grant Wood’s mythical ‘American Gothic’ and ‘Daughters of the Revolution’ as well as Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘Cotton Pickers’ without forgoing the pleasures of discovery. Alongside Wood’s most memorable pieces, the exhibition features his equally enticing lesser-known landscapes ‘Young Corn’ and ‘Fall Plowing’.
Despite the Great Depression, both paintings have a safe-space, Arcadian candour that was later echoed by the warm palette Pierre Bonnard deliberately sustained during the military occupation of France in World War II. The neat, bunchy shapes of the trees in Grant’s landscapes are cloaked in Art Deco limpidity. There’s a rich cottony smoothness to the maternal roundness of his hillocks that is also powerfully appeasing, and more subtly sensual than Alexander Hogue’s ‘Erosion No.2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare’ (1936). Hogue’s explicitly sexualised landscape is certainly one of the most iconic works of the period, providing an arresting fusion of Regionalist aesthetics and European Surrealism. Nevertheless, although it’s a memorable rendition of the landscape-as-woman trope, it arguably runs aground on a level that goes beyond the problem of its gender politics.
As surreal eroticism the painting is admittedly not unrefined: Hogue deflects the tufts of grass from the pubic fold of the pond bed and displaces the painting’s libidinal waters to the margins of the central female figure. Appearing exactly between the supine, geo-sexual figure and the phallic plough in the foreground, the displacement increases the water’s erotic charge. Yet the sexualisation of the landscape denies the implicit protest against the desiccation of the region. The iconography in Hogue’s painting goes against the conventional association of femininity and fertility and this ultimately makes the painting contradictory. The eroticisation of aridity infers a libidinal celebration of depletion rather than a lamentation for the devastation wrought by over-cultivation and the Dust Bowl poverty and distress that it engendered. Hogue’s double agenda thus ultimately sends a troubling mixed message.
The only other nude on display at the exhibition also partially misfires at its political targets. Joe Jones’s ironically titled ‘American Justice’ (1933) foregrounds a semi-draped African-American nude, set off by a hangman’s noose and eight members of the KKK in the middle ground, and a burning house in the background. While the denunciation of racist hate crimes remains clearly stated, the painting is marred by the underlying eroticisation of the narrative. The female victim is too studied in its languor, evoking overly harmonious classical life drawing poses, and while her nudity is intended to imply that she has been raped, the phallic torch held over the victim’s pelvic region by one of the hooded KKK members creates a certain tonal ambiguity. Admittedly, avoiding equivocation in a painting that focuses on rape is no easy task, but the male gaze is pandered to unduly in the circumstances. Jones’s chosen aesthetic is also unhelpful: there is too much Art Deco sweet naivety in the depiction of the perpetrators of the hate crime. Photographs of lynching victims that featured in ‘The Colour Line’, a recent exhibition at Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, were far more telling in their horrifying graphic vividness.
More successful aesthetic marriages were achieved by American painters who sought to combine figurative painting with abstraction. American Precisionists produced realistically accurate paintings of urban life which left parts of the represented scene in schematic, geometric abstraction. While paintings like Charles Green Shaw’s Wrigley’s (1937) bridge the gap between European Abstraction and American Pop Art, the one overlaying the other, works like Charles Dumuth’s …And the Home of the Brave (1931) look like a battleground between trompe l’oeil drawing and two-dimensional abstract forms.
Aaron Douglas was the most memorable practitioner of minimally dislocating American Cubism. His paintings resort to mild geometric stylisation and interconnecting lines of force that modify the shades of the shapes they dissect. The sun in Douglas’s paintings is replaced by the mathematical light of painterly geometry: dynamics are underscored by shapes such as circles or stars that radiate centrifugally, harmoniously fracturing the planes they encounter.
The lavishly illustrated catalogue to the exhibition is particularly strong on historical background. Judith A. Barter observes how the 1930s saw the opening out of high culture to the masses, largely thanks to the murals funded by the Public Works of Art Project. Barter also provides a captivating blow-by-blow account of the sometimes bitter debate between anti-intellectual, anti-urban, Jeffersonian Regionalism and European Modernism which Thomas Hart Benton called “degenerate”. It was faux-pas such as this and the aesthetic similarities between Regionalism and emergent Socialist Realism that made the Regionalists fall out of favour in wartime America.
American painters wishing to express the anxieties triggered by looming Fascism and war turned to Surrealism. Federico Castellón’s The Dark Figure (1938) seems to reference the 1936 Berlin Olympics with drooping Olympic loops and a sinister, powerfully daunting draped figure. The painting is deeply indebted to both Magritte and Dalí but steers clear of derivativeness by dint of sheer visual potency. Peter Blume’s The Eternal City (1934-7) borrowed Dalí’s crumbling eroticised visions to satirise Mussolini’s Italy, and O. Louis Guglielmi’s Mental Geography (1938) employed Dalí’s melting shapes to distort the war-torn girders of Brooklyn Bridge. Guglielmi’s inclusion of illogical, equivocal, unassimilable elements is exemplary in its use of Surrealism both as a means of exploring the world of dreams and foregrounding contemporary issues.
By Erik Martiny
America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s
Royal Academy of Arts
25 February – 4 June