Painting in the 1930s
Art exhibitions can have various purposes: to show case an artist’s work, to explore a certain style or art movement, to inspire others, etc; but they can also educate you on a variety of subjects. The Royal Academy of Arts is currently running an exhibition that focuses on a particular timeframe and location: 1930s America. Titled America After the Fall, the curators have sourced a large display of paintings from various artists who depict the visual and economic climate during that period. To the ignorant spectator, the choice of artwork may have little significance, however, knowing the historical importance turns them into a perfect illustration of the life of Americans at that time. The academy helpfully supplies a written account and timeline of events around the gallery.
As the title suggests, America had fallen. On 29th October 1929, the US stock market crashed causing a severe drop in the prices of goods and crops. This was the beginning of what is now labelled the Great Depression, which America took over a decade to start to recover from. These price drops, unfortunately, did not make consumer items cheaper to purchase. Instead, it made them more expensive to produce. Millions of people lost their jobs because their employers could no longer afford to pay them. People were living in poverty, often homeless or living in hand-built communities.
To complicated things further, the population of America was increasing dramatically, principally due to the inrush of Europeans escaping conflict and hoping to find jobs in the rising industrialised cities. As a result, the President and fellow politicians had to step in to resolve the devastating issue. America eventually recovered, but it was not easy. America After the Fall reveals the effects on the common people during this most dramatically changing era.
This famous painting by Grant Wood (1891-1942) is the poster painting for America After the Fall, and arguably the main attraction. American Gothic (1930), as it is titled, has become one of the key icons of American art due to the principles it symbolises. The late nineteenth century-style house, along with the appropriately dressed, conservative couple represent the importance of family, manual labour and landscape for Americans at the time.
The placement of the two figures says a lot about the way farmers felt about the threat of industrialisation. Filling the canvas from left to right, the man and woman block the path to their home as though they are trying to prevent the viewer or the rest of America from infiltrating their land. The gripped pitchfork and stern faces evoke feelings of hostility and opposition. These are people who have worked hard to achieve results and do not want this taken away from them. Notice, however, only the man directly staring out of the painting. This suggests male dominance and demonstrates the inequalities befalling women at that time.
Daughters of Revolution
Two years after American Gothic, Grant Wood painted another icon of American art. Daughters of Revolution shows a contrasting scene to the rural one above.
Presumably, the three women are mother and daughters and, as the title suggests, were born after the American Revolution. DAR or Daughters of the American Revolution was a group founded in the nineteenth-century for decedents of soldiers who fought in the American War of Independence. Immaculate outfits, neat hairstyles, and a cool gaze emphasise the group’s claim to privilege and superiority.
The framed image in the background is a replica of Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Leutze. The year 1932, when Wood painted Daughters of Revolution, marked the bicentenary of George Washington’s birth. Placing the frame behind the women, in what is presumably their home, implies they truly believe in the greatness of their bloodline.
Wood, however, may have been mocking DAR in this painting, giving them plain, simplified faces, rather than features that evoke strong personality. Also, the inclusion of a tea cup is ironic in that it symbolises Britain, the empire they fought to break away from.
There are, of course, plenty of other paintings and artists to see in this exhibition. Additional works by Grant Wood are included amongst similar and contrasting images. What is easily noticeable is the range of styles portrayed across a small timeframe – something that would not have occurred during an earlier period of time. This gives visitors to the Royal Academy the opportunity to understand varying points of view about the crisis in America, as well as view the physical changes and developments of the land and industry.
Some artists, such as Stuart Davis (1892-1964) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967) concentrate on city life, recording the fast-changing world through their independent styles. Whether these artists were successful at the time is irrelevant to today’s exhibition, what matters is their educational value. By painting an urban scene, artists are not only documenting the changes in physical appearance of the cities, they are reflecting the character of the population.
In constrast to the metropolitan landscapes are the country life focused paintings. Grant Wood is one of the key artists in this area, although as already mentioned, American Gothic and Daughters of Revolution were far superior. While the towns and cities became more industrious, the countryside had to adapt to create suitable roads to connect them together, or even to build new towns. This would not have helped the unemployment situation – the demolishing of farms would mean the termination of jobs and the loss of homes.
Although the landscape paintings show the changes and destruction of the countryside, it is arguably American Gothic that truly captures the effects on the rural population. The despondent feelings are far easier to capture in a face than in a farmland illustration.
Cityscapes and landscapes are not all that the exhibition has to offer. Some artists, instead of focusing on the world around them, looked to the future, producing dystopian scenes of doom and gloom, almost as if they believed the Great Depression a sign of the end times.
Some of these paintings follow a similar style to the previously mentioned, however many take on surrealistic themes, or are expressed in the form of abstract expressionism. Not everyone appreciates or understands these modern art techniques, but it exposes a confusion of feelings and anxieties Americans had at the time.
With hindsight on our side, some of the dystopian ideas may seem farfetched or laughable, but it makes us realise the seriousness the effects the stock market crashing had on an entire nation. Add that to the war brewing in Europe, and you have got yourself a very daunting situation.
America After the Fall is less about who painted what, or how so-and-so achieved such an effect, but rather a history lesson using imagery. The Royal Academy of Arts has achieved a museum-like effectiveness that teaches as much as it entertains – although, in a far more interesting way than a generic textbook or presentation would manage.
With artistic and historical appeal, America After the Fall is worth the visit, however it will not be on display forever. Closing on 4th June 2017, you have a couple of months to see the exhibition before it is too late.