America After the Fall

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.

American Gothic

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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 daughters-of-revolution-1932

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.

Revolution!

Russian Art 1917-1932

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Russian Art’? The majority would probably picture geometric shapes, sharp angles and bright colours, but this is only an example of one genre of art that has emerged from Eastern Europe. It is one of the few styles that managed to spread to the Western world before the Russian government had an opportunity to crush it. Russian art is actually so protean, it cannot be summed up in a simple description. How would you describe British art, American art, French art, Italian art etc? So many movements have influenced artists, thus constantly changing the styles and fashions of each country. Russia was no different.

For centuries, Russia was under the autocratic rule of the Tsars until in 1917, provoking a civil war, Vladmir Lenin rose to power as a Communist leader. With this revolution came dramatic changes to Russian society, and art was swept up alongside it. Avant-garde artists were excited about the new developments and the opportunities they would bring about for creative individuals.  However, their eagerness was short lived.

Lenin and the Bolshevik party came to power so suddenly, they has been unable to gain the support of the majority; therefore drastic measures needed to be taken to ensure they gained popularity. This, however, was not going to be an easy thing to tackle in the profusely illiterate country. For that reason, artists were given the task of spreading ideology through the means of mass propaganda.

In April 1918, Lenin revealed his Plan for Monumental Propaganda, which relied heavily on artists and photographers to carry out. Paintings, sculptures and everyday paraphernalia were utilised in order to glorify Lenin and the Bolshevik party. Graphic designers were commissioned to design posters sporting slogans that honoured the party. The colour red was often used to represent the revolution.

One of the most shocking tasks Lenin demanded was the removal of artworks used by the Russian Orthodox Church, replacing the figure of Jesus with an icon of himself. It is hard to imagine how a predominantly Christian country would agree to let this happen, however, it did, and Lenin became almost saint-like.

After Lenin’s death, Russia became a very dangerous place to live, especially for artists who wanted to express their own voices. Joseph Stalin took Lenin’s place as leader of the Soviet Union. Throughout his dictatorship, Stalin made many changes and demands. One of these was the proclamation that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable artistic style. Gone were the opportunities for artists to experiment with their creativity. Ironically, the artworks accepted hardly revealed the truth about the Soviet Union, despite being classified as Realism.

Stalin believed that Russia was behind the times and was determined to industrialise the country. He introduced the concept of a Five-year Plan, which would set targets for every factory and farm belonging to the Soviet Union. Physical labour was demanded of all citizens in order to reach these goals. To encourage the population, Stalin commissioned – or more likely forced – designers, photographers, film producers etc. to promote his scheme. Photography was perhaps the preferred medium since its content is more believable than a painting and could be easily reproduced on posters and spread amongst the masses. However, these photographs were often staged in order to make situations appear better than they really were. Behind the lies of smiling faces, most workers were treated like slaves, often imprisoned or killed for not working as well as others. Thousands died from accidents, starvation or poor living and working conditions during this period.

Kazimir Malevich

The effects of the Russian revolution and Stalin’s dictatorship is evident through many artists’ changing styles. Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is a significant example of this. Although Social Realism was not enforced until the very end of his life, the reshaping of Malevich’s personal style documents the gradual elimination of techniques by the Soviet Union.

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Black Square 1929 by Kazimir Malevich. Photograph: State Tretyakov, Moscow, Russia

Born pre-revolution, Malevich believed that art was a method of expressing spirituality, therefore outcomes need not be realistic, and could be based on metaphor rather than truth. At the height of his career in 1915, Malevich patented a style named Suprematism, a purely abstract art movement characterised by the use of geometric shapes and a limited range of colour.  A particular famous piece that symbolises this movement is Black Square.

Unfortunately, Malevich’s movement was eventually denounced by Soviet authorities on the basis that it failed to convey social realities.

Malevich attempted to conform to Soviet ideology, however was still adamant to work in an abstract style. Despite rebelling against the governments artistic rules and regulations, Malevich’s new paintings were accepted and displayed at the State Russian Museum in 1932.

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Woman with Rake, c.1932 Photo:as above

Presumably the subject matter of Malevich’s paintings were what granted him approval to painting in an abstract style. Depicted were anonymous figures showing peasant workers out in their fields. The blank faces and limited colour make up a characterless person that hides the truth about their working conditions. On the other hand, it also represents the loss of identity these people felt under the oppressive rule of Joseph Stalin.

At the very end of his life, shortly before dying of cancer, Malevich was painting in a style that the Soviet Union was enforcing throughout the country. Contrasting Malevich’s final self-portrait with an earlier one shows these dramatic changes and emphasises the control the Soviets’ held.

Although there were artists who refused to conform, yearning for the days when art showed the beauty and charm of Tsarist Russia, the world saw a utopian version, hiding the terrible truths.

As you can see, it is impossible to categorise something as “Russian Art”. There is pre-revolution art, which encompasses a wide variety of styles, and then there is Soviet Art, a “realistic” portrayal of Russia under Lenin, and then Stalin – as long as it expressed Communist ideology. Then, of course, there are contemporary artists living in a post-Soviet country, giving “Russian Art” a brand new meaning.

To fully understand the effects the Soviet Union had on the art world, it is best to see it with your own eyes. Luckily we have hindsight on our side, preventing us from falling into the trap of believing the lies and exaggerations shown in paintings and photographs.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1931 is an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. You have until 17th April 2017 to go and see it.

 

 

David Hockney: 82 Portraits of People You Probably Haven’t Heard of

This year David Hockney returned to the Royal Academy of Arts with a selection of his latest works, 82 Portraits and 1 Still-Life (July-October 2016). Throughout his life Hockney has painted a variety of subject matter, however the almost octogenarian is continuously lured back to the genre that has played a major role in his lengthy career: portraiture.

Although born in West Yorkshire, Hockney has spent a vast amount of time in Los Angeles from where he accumulated numerous friends and acquaintances. Critics on viewing the recent exhibition will have noticed that the sitters Hockney has painted, although named, are unknown to the general public. Hockney has painted the many friends of Los Angeles, their friends and their families, thus giving an insight into the types of people Hockney chooses to be associated with. As Hockney does not take commissions, instead inviting individuals to sit for him, he has not painted any celebrities.

Some may feel disappointed at not being able to recognise any of people in the portraits hanging in the gallery, however this gives everyone the opportunity to admire the artwork and painting technique without being distracted by who is being depicted. Whilst Hockney’s portraits are realistic they do not resemble photographs, thus highlighting different personalities, emotions and attitudes surrounding each individual. There is a uniformity in colour (vibrant blue and green acrylic backgrounds) and use of brushstrokes that makes it obvious that each portrait belongs to one body of work.

Studying the paintings closely the brushstrokes may look rushed or imprecise, however Hockney spent two to three days working on each individual canvas. His is a style that is impossible to replicate by anyone else, as only he can create such an immersive effect. Hockney’s work is not merely a painting of the subject in front of him, it is an intense psychological study of both the model and the artist.

Those already familiar with David Hockney will instantly recognise the style of painting – mostly due to the garish colours – and for those who don’t, these 82 portraits (and one still-life) are a great introduction to the renowned artist.

– If you are wondering about the “1 Still-Life” aspect of the exhibition, here is the story behind it: “The still-life was painted when one sitter was unable to keep the appointment; primed to paint, Hockney turned to what was available in the studio – a selection of fruit and vegetables.”

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