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.

Aspiration, 1936, Aaron Douglas. Aaron Douglas (1889-1979) was born in Kansas and graduated from the University of Nebraska before moving to Harlem to build a career in illustration. He became a leading member of the Harlem Renaissance. Aspiration was painted for the Hall of Negro Life at the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936. It is one of the most positive pictures in the exhibition showing African-Amercians discarding their chains and seeking their place in the industrialised city on the hill.

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.

Wrigley’s, 1937, Charles Green Shaw. Advertising was a key part of the growth of mass consumerism. This picture showing a packet of Wrigley’s floating in front of a modernistic New York cityscape was conceived as a design for an advertising poster, though the poster was never produced.

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.

American Justice, 1933, Joe Jones. In the early 1930s, half of all African-Americans were unemployed and economic hardship exacerbated racial prejudice, the the Ku Klux Klan. Jones likened his picture to a Renaissance crucifixion, reinforcing the irony that one image was considered sacred, the other image unacceptable and shocking.

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).

Erosion No 2, 1936, Alexander Hogue. The Regionalism movement in American painting tended to nostalgia, looking back at a rural American idyll. But although Hogue was a member of the Regionalist movement he could not look past the realities of the dust bowl created by for farming practices which exacerbated the effects of the Great Depression. This remarkable painting highlights how mother earth has been despoiled and stripped naked; the plough now worthless in the dust bowl which has been created.

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.

American Gothic, 1930, Grant Wood. See text above for commentary.
American Landscape, 1930, Charles Sheeler. Ford’s River Rouge Plant was at the time the largest industrial complex in the world, and this picture was commissioned by Ford to celebrate it. It is a forward-looking and optimistic view of an industrial American future. Not reflected in the picture are the racially-segregated communities which Henry Ford built for his workers, Inkster for African-Americans, Dearborn for whites.
Dance Marathon, 1934, Philip Evergood. Dance marathons, as so memorably described in They Shoot Horses Don’t They were one way where desperate city folk could seek to win money. This picture brutally depicts the reality of long-term dancing, in these case for 49 days. People were moving to the cities, but that didn’t mean there was work for them.
New York Movie, 1939, Edward Hopper. There are two pictures by Hopper in this exhibition, both using light and colour to create memorable images of alienation. In the middle of a big city, an usherette stands contemplatively in a pool of light which reinforces her loneliness.