America after the Fall, Painting in the 1930s at The Royal Academy
The Royal Academy is currently providing visual histories of both the United States and the Soviet Union in the early part of the C20. It makes for two fascinating exhibitions which give considerable insights into pivotal moments in the history of both nations.
America After the Fall focuses on American art in the period from the Wall Street Crash of 1929, through the Great Depression and up to the eve of the Second World War. This was a painful period of American history with the crash of 1929 precipitating a national economic crisis with large scale unemployment, the demise of small scale farming, particularly in the south west, and mass migration to the cities as America moved decisively from a rural to mass industrialisation and mass consumerism. In Oklahoma alone more than 1 million people migrated from the state in this period.
The political response to the Great Depression was of course the New Deal, famously introduced by President Roosevelt in 1933. With a focus on Relief, Recovery and Reform, this programme pumped huge sums of money into the economy and made the Federal Government, directly or indirectly, the largest employer by far in the United States. Amongst those employed through the New Deal were artists of all kinds, through programmes like the Public Works of Art project creating art for a wide range of new public buildings that were also being funded by the New Deal.
The fifty or so pictures in this exhibition demonstrate vividly the breadth and depth of emotions that consumed America through this period. There is hope, excitement, fear, alienation, nostalgia for a lost innocence and a rural past and towards the end of this period an eye towards the future. This exhibition serves as the prequel Abstract Impressionism, so well covered in another recent RA exhibition (see here).
There are some wonderful pictures in this exhibition and I have selected a few of them to illustrate the range of emotions depicted. Perhaps the most iconic picture in the exhibition is American Gothic, painted in 1930 by Grant Wood. It is a stunning picture, but the central characters are hard people to warm to. To the right stands the archetypal rural farmer holding his pitchfork and staring uncompromisingly at the camera. This is a man who is a rugged, self-sufficient individualist, but deeply conformist in his individuality. He is guarding his church-like house behind him and challenging you to dare approach him. To our left and slightly behind him stands his wife who is glancing at him with a look that I could only describe as resignation. He might be protecting her, but he is also controlling her. It is a spooky picture.