Art London

America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s

After a first stop at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris at the end of last year, “America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s” arrives at the Royal Academy of Arts in London 👌. The exhibition brings to Europe some of the best-known paintings produced in the American Continent in the period between the Great Depression of 1929 and the involvement of the United States in the Second World War in 1941. Among these works, this is the first trip on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean for the “American Gothic”, the celebrated portrait by Grant Wood 😃.

We are greeted in the first room by a sense of hope and ambition.

America after the fall entrance
The Royal Academy of Arts
The first room, with the splendid artwork from Aaron Douglas down the hall.
The first room, with the splendid artwork from Aaron Douglas down the hall.

The end of the roaring twenties in the US was brutal and hit the American state harder than anybody else. The Wall Street crash caused many families to go into bankruptcy, and society was severely shaken to its very core. The artistic world of this period reflects these feelings, with a mixture of critique, nostalgy to the past and renowned patriotism. The exhibition, curated by Judith Barter of the Art Institute of Chicago (where the artworks are coming from), explores the ambivalence of those years and the multitude of feelings America was experiencing👌.

29 October 1929. Wall Street closes -12%. The incredulity of the employees coming out from the building.
29 October 1929. Wall Street closes -12%. The incredulity of the employees coming out from the building © Wikimedia Commons
'Aspiration' Aaron Douglas, 1936 © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
'Aspiration' Aaron Douglas, 1936 © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

One artwork exemplifies these sentiments, and in particular, the celebration of the Afro-American Emancipation movement called Harlem Renaissance’ which started in the 1920s. ‘Aspiration’, by Aaron Douglas, depicts three Afro-American people, two men and a woman, raising up from a sea of chained arms and pointing to a futuristic city.

The road to the town is illuminated by a star, in a reminder of the north star, which guided escaped slaves to freedom before the Civil War. It’s a painting of power, hope, and confidence, with the figures projecting an aura of strength over the place, protected by the light of the star.

These feelings are put in severe contrasts by the works on the other side of the room. Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh investigate the desperation and the solitude of human condition. ‘Gas Station’, by Hopper, is an extraordinary example.

'Gas' Edward Hopper, 1940 © MoMA

A man, the only living figure in the picture, is working at an isolated gas station on an empty road. The scene is depicted at dusk. The soft light of the dying sun increase the sense of drama of the scene and adds tension in a place where there is absolutely nothing. The road is empty, without any road sign. Nobody will ever travel on that path; the man will keep on waiting for something that does not exist. That’s what Hopper wants to say in this painting. Humans are lonely, waiting for something that will never happen until the end of the light, until the end of the days.

Isolation and solitude are not feelings confined to the countryside. The sense of loneliness is present in the city. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not show ‘Nighthawks’, the most famous painting by Edward Hopper. Nevertheless, we have a fantastic juxtaposition of two works, ‘New York Movie’ by Hopper and ‘Twenty Cent Movie’ by Reginald Marsh, depicting the depression and desolation in correlation to the great protagonist of the visual arts of the time, the cinema.

Three of the first blockbusters of all time: The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the wind and King Kong
Three of the first blockbusters of all time: The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the wind and King Kong

Movies play a fundamental role in the culture of the Post-Depression era. Hollywood industry born at the beginning of the century, and the first blockbusters (even if the term was coined much later) were appearing on the screens of every city. The relatively low cost of the ticket (twenty cents, as Marsh titled its work) let many people be able to watch masterworks like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, King Kong. Still, cinemas increased the sense of solitude.

‘Twenty Cent Movie’, by Reginald Marsh, approaches the solitude theme by a subtle angle. The subject of the painting is the entrance of the Lyric Theatre in New York City. On the foreground, several visitors to the cinema are trying to resemble the characters they just watched on the screen, posing as they were on a stage set. The image is cruelly satirical 👌, as Marsh emphasize the misery of the real subjects who try hard to imitate.

'Twenty Cent Movie' Reginald Marsh, 1936 © Whitney Museum of American Art

In the background, the actual source of income of the cinema and the place most people are eager to see, a peep-show. The real stars, painted as posters, dominates the public from above, like gods watch their population. Marsh wants to portray the solitude and the sadness of human condition even in a crowded situation. There is no interaction among the characters, everybody is focusing on their own appearance while the only thing people want actually to see is the peep-show.

'New York Movie' Edward Hopper, 1939 © MoMA

Edward Hopper approaches the theme of solitude in the cinema from a more direct point of view. There is no satire in New York Movie. While a film is played on the screen, a woman stands alone, next to a set of stairs covered by a curtain. The stairs are not actually leading anywhere, there is nowhere to go. In the background, a couple of people, whom we see only the back of their head, are watching the movie. 

The red lights and the screen are the only sources of lights, giving a gloomy atmosphere to the scene. What is the lady thinking? What is she waiting for? We don’t know, and Hopper doesn’t let us know. He only wants to let us think about how the cinema destroyed any kind of human contact.

The Dust Storm approaching Stratford, Texas © Wikimedia Commons

Artists, and Grant Wood, in particular, turned its interest toward the countryside world. Grant Wood was a native of rural Iowa, and he always had a profound ambiguity toward the world he came from.

With this mindset, he created American Gothic. The painting, dated 1930, is the best-known artwork from the USA 🇺🇸 and one of the few images to reach the status of cultural icon. A father and his daughter are portrayed in front of their house. The scene is set in a rural village, the man is painted with a pitchfork in his hand as a symbol of his job. We can clearly understand how the father is the head of the family, warning us with a severe look, while his daughter looks at his shoulder, as an attempt to hide beneath the taller figure of the man.

Several questions raise up from this work, displayed here alone on the wall (in the same way the Musee de Louvre expose Mona Lisa, the only painting occupying an entire wall in the museum). Is the painter mocking the farmers or celebrating them? The gothic in the title is a source of uncertainness 😕. 

American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930 © Art Institute of Chicago
American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930 © Art Institute of Chicago

Gothic may refer to the romantic Gothic literary movement, in reference to Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley’s works (BTW, Dracula and Frankenstein will be the two blockbusters in 1931). Is there any hidden secret concealed beneath the curtain on the top floor of the house 🤔? Or maybe it’s just a reference to the style of the house, with its gothic window. Gothic may also be a synonym for medieval.

American Gothic is mesmerizing. You can't get your eyes off
American Gothic is mesmerizing. You can't get your eyes off

Grant Wood perhaps wanted to express how outdated and obsolete is life in the rural America. The painting is technically impressive 🔝, very detailed with a technique resembling primitive Flemish paintings, like a Van Eyck portrait. The faces of the protagonists are painted in a realistic form, exposing to us the difficulties of their lives. It’s a masterwork and it’s well deserving its status of icon, and being able to look at it live, confronting eye to eye the man in the painting it’s something every art lover should be able to do 👌.

While American Gothic is the most celebrated painting in the exhibition, our personal top pick goes to another canvas on the other side of the same room. The satirical ‘Daughters of Revolution’ is put side by side with ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’👌🔝👍. The juxtaposition of the two images would have been a Wood’s favorite. On one side, the legendary patriotic tale of Paul Revere, riding at a breakneck pace for warning the patriots against the imminent attack of the British army to the US colonies. A tale of courage, patriotism, and heroism 👍.

The Midnight ride of Paul Revere, Grant Wood, 1931 © Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Midnight ride of Paul Revere, Grant Wood, 1931 © Metropolitan Museum of Art

On its side, the ‘Daughters of Revolution’ 👌. It’s difficult to imagine a less revolutionary image than this group of posh old ladies, sipping tea while questioning the observer with their eyes. Daughters of American Revolution is an exclusive society which (at least in the past) leaned toward racism and white supremacy. The access to this society is conditioned by being a descendant of a fighter of the American Revolution. The irony of a conservative group associated with the concept of revolution is central to Wood’s work. The three old ladies, perfectly dressed, confront the observer with an inquisitive look, as they were checking the appearance of the spectator.

Daugthers of Revolution, Grant Wood, 1932 © Art Institute of Chicago
Daugthers of Revolution, Grant Wood, 1932 © Art Institute of Chicago

Behind them, the famous celebratory painting from Emanuel Leutze ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’. A scene of intense dynamism conveying genuine feelings of revolution and patriotism, far away from the staticity and the general atmosphere of petty nobility taking place in the foreground❗️

The particular of the bone china heirloom teacup and the aristocratic finger of the lady is an extra dash of satire. Grant Wood admirably link the posh sipping of tea of one the descendants of the very same group of patriots who formed the Boston Tea Party. That’s our top pick of the exhibition, without any doubt❗️🔝👌

The more you look at them, the more you hate them.

In the last room, we have a fascinating analysis of the concept of violence. There is an amazing combination, one put in front of each other, of two works. ‘The Eternal City’, painted by Peter Blume, expresses the interest of the artists toward the rising of totalitarian regimes in the old continent. While US politics was persecuting an isolationist agenda, the artistic world was very sensible to what was happening in Europe. In this painting, the artist denounces the destruction of Rome (the eternal city) by the fascist regime. Mussolini is depicted as a grim jack-in-the-box, overseeing his troops who are killing the Roman population in the background ❗️

The Eternal City, Peter Blume, 1937 © VAGA
The Eternal City, Peter Blume, 1937 © VAGA

On the other side of the room, ‘American Justice’ by Joe Jones, is a harsh critique of the racist issues, strongly present in that period. A black woman, barely covered by a white cloth and with her breast exposed, is lying half-dead in the foreground, while a group of Ku Klux Klan members stands behind her.

Next to the woman there is a howling dog and a noose hanging from a branch, while a house is burning in the background. Jones stresses the main subjects of the canvas with light as if the moon is looking at the tragedy in progress. The eyes rolled back of the woman, the white cloth, the under neck fur of the dog, the noose, and the white dresses of the Klan members are all illuminated. The title of the painting is a macabre satire. American justice is no justice❗️

American Justice, Joe Jones, 1933 © Columbus Museum of Art

This is a small exhibition. Three rooms, less than 50 artworks. Yet it’s one of the deepest, intense, and detailed galleries we have ever seen. Royal Academy of Arts and The Art Institute of Chicago did an excellent job in the organization and in the setting of the exhibition. Sure, bringing the Nighthawks together with American Gothic would have been better, but we understand how we can’t ask that much from a single institute, it’s not like they could close the Art Institute for the time the works are in Europe. One thing for sure: Chicago climbed several positions on our list of places where to go❗️

useful info

When and Where:

25 February – 4 June 2017

@ The Royal Academy of Arts

Opening times:

Saturday – Thursday 10am – 6pm

Friday 10am – 10pm

Price:

Adult £13.50 (without donation £12)
Concession £8.00

Did you see the exhibition? Which was your favorite artwork?

Wanna know more about current exhibitions in London? Read here.

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