Sarah Manvel

Sarah Manvel is a dual Irish-American national who lives in London and is looking for an agent for her novel. Follow her on twitter: @typewritersarah

American Painting in the 1930s: The Age of Anxiety

On view at: The Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris until January 30th 2017, then Royal Academy of the Arts, London February 25th – June 4th 2017

Well, hasn’t any writing about American politics since the election been like driving a new car off the lot. The moment it hits the pavement it’s out of date. Any attempts to think about American art right now are caught up in the same roiling boil—either it’s directly political and therefore a ticking bomb, or so aggressively apolitical it’s irrelevant at best or insulting at worst. Did the curators know that this exhibit of American art from the 1930s would be so aggravatingly timely? Or were they more focused on taking Grant Wood’s American Gothic out of the USA for the first time in its life?

Oil on Beaver Board, 30.71 in x 25.71 in., 1930 Current location: Art Institute of Chicago

American Gothic, Oil on Beaver Board, 30.71 in x 25.71 in., 1930 Current location: Art Institute of Chicago

It’s the former, not the latter. In thinking about this piece I’ve had to confront a basic assumption I’ve always made about the government: while it might not be actively supporting me, for the most part it hasn’t been actively sabotaging me. I came to adulthood in the 90s, when the Clinton administration was dancing a fine line between trickle-down Reaganomics and a gradual expansion of equal rights to include people outside the heterosexual/cisgender/married-homeowner-2.2 child spectrum. I have enough privilege that I’ve been able to assume that an umbrella of protection has also covered me. In the last month or so I feel like I’m on a beach in a hurricane.

So, since right now we have to adjust our assumptions about how the world is ordered and who is on our side, art is –hopefully– a safe place for that. And as America roils and boils around us we need to think hard about a lot of the assumptions we’ve taken for granted about our world.

The subtitle of the exhibit is “the age of anxiety” but I wonder if a better meaning might be “the age of alienation.” The paintings in the exhibit show people who have been separated from things which many others took for granted: well-paid, reliable work; a rooted place in which to live; a life based on a routine of the seasons (or the body) instead of that of the machine or the clock; the ability to feel safe within your own body. The paintings are specifically gathered from the 1930s to show the spectrum of “protest art” that was made in those years; the final room also shows Hollywood movies that deal with poverty, such as Grapes of Wrath. There is also the blackface dance sequence of Fred Astaire’s that Zadie Smith used as a centerpiece of her new novel, Swing Time. So the exhibit is certainly tapping into a deep vein of the zeitgeist.

The best of these paintings manage to balance social realism with timeless feelings – so looking at New York Movie (1939) by Edward Hopper enables you to admire the usherette’s shoes whilst also understand just how bored and lonely she really was. American Gothic, unarguably a masterpiece, opens the exhibit. The attention it pays its subjects hasn’t weakened and its impact hasn’t diminished. On the reverse of the wall is Alice Neel’s portrait of Communist activist Pat Whalen, which isn’t as technically good a painting, but you can feel the fury with which she put the paint on the canvas. And hanging these works together is a clear statement of equation and provocation.

Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, Helen Lundeberg, oil on fiberboard, 1935, Chicago, Illinois, 1908 47 3/4 x 40 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Double Portrait of the Artist in Time
Helen Lundeberg, oil on fiberboard, 1935, Chicago, Illinois, 1908
47 3/4 x 40 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum

The rest of the exhibit is broken up into five sections, essentially the country, the city, the past, the present and the future (which is two paintings, the only Jackson Pollock and another, minor, Hopper). None of the four main sections are handled stereotypically. Country landscapes are a potent metaphor for the exploitation of the natural resources; city streetscapes are a crowded, hedonistic search for pleasure with mixed success. The past is a mixed bag of American history, some with a heavy influence of Soviet workers-right propaganda and others with more sarcastic Americana nostalgia.

The section about the “present,” entitled Nightmares and Reality, is the strongest. It is here the artists put their darkest thoughts to canvas. Joe Jones’ American Justice foregrounds a recently violated black woman in front of KKK members standing around by a house on fire and nooses swinging from the trees. Since 1933 this painting has lost none of its power to shock, nor, sadly, any of its relevance. My favorites in the section were the self-portraits, such as Helen Lundeberg’s surrealistic and desperately sad Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, and Walt Kuhn’s Portrait of the Artist as a Clown, which is not much more cheery. It is interesting to see, at least in this exhibition, how even in the 1930s white artists tended to focus on the self, while for artists of colour, a focus on race was seen as the same thing.

walt kuhn clown

Portrait of the Artist as Clown, Walt Kuhn, 1932
Oil on canvas, 32in. x 22in.
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

But it’s important to remember that we cannot draw direct political parallels from this exhibit to our turbulent times. The painters featured in this exhibit were, to some extent, supported by the state. Either they were hired by the Works Progress Administration under the schemes to provide work to artists – such as the murals painted in Coit Tower in San Francisco, or Hallie Flanagan’s network of theaters across the country – or they were painters like Hopper who found success in the Roaring Twenties and whose reputations helped them to survive the Great Depression.

Right now it feels like we are more poised on that cusp – the end of the Roaring Twenties and about to embark on an uncertain future, where good things are almost certainly not going to happen. The major difference is that the artists in the 1930s were, for the most part, working under the New Deal, a political administration that was trying hard to reverse the economic downturn of the 1929 Wall Street crash and the downturn under the Hoover years. Whatever your political opinion, you can agree we are not in the same place now.

It’s not quite reassuring to learn that the feelings of artists in a time of turmoil are unchanged. We have this belief in progress, in the improvement of the way people are treated and how we face both individual and communal challenges. Whether or not this belief is misguided, we have exhibits like this to mark how it was dealt with in the past, and to offer a suggestion for what we could do going forward.

Through His Eyes

When art lovers think of the southwest, images likes Georgia OKeeffe’s landscapes come to mind: the New Mexican desert, the bones and the flowers and the vistas where she lived for over forty years. But O’Keeffe’s work is rarely displayed in the United Kingdom, so this autumn’s retrospective at the Tate Modern is an unusual celebration of her work on this side of the pond.

Though the show is hers, the exhibition also includes work by other artists, mainly men with whom she was friendly that worked in the same southwestern style, and photographs by her husband, Albert Stieglitz. The insistence on pairing her work with theirs, whatever the intent, in this case, minimizes her phenomenal achievements. Displaying Stieglitz’s photographs so broadly throughout the show seems determined to give him comparable credit for the work that she did, which is startling.

It is true that Stieglitz recognized her talent instantly and arranged the first gallery showing of her work (without her knowledge or consent, incidentally), but his determination to shape the narrative around her work, through his writing in art magazines, pushed her into exploring new subjects so that her work would not be defined by the analysis of others.

Learning that she used to paint cityscapes from the roof of a New York City apartment is a shock—a bit like Bob Dylan going electric. Her cityscapes were the freshest part of the exhibit, as I thought I had a pretty thorough knowledge of her work, but I had never even heard of them before. There is stillness and pulsing life in the work, light radiates from a street lamp like it was the pistil in some of her lilies, with the glow pulsing outwards. Rooftops ripple like her cliffs, with each one showing its own shape and personality.

There is a feeling to her work, a sensibility, which the display notes attribute to synesthesia. Maybe so, as the paintings communicate a deep care and act of close attention that is rare, unless we are seducing someone. You feel as if she has painted her subjects, whether a horse’s skull or a rock face, the way it would want to be portrayed. The attention she paid to the items on her canvas is almost indistinguishable from love, which is why her flower paintings feel so sexual. According to the exhibit notes, she rejected any sexualized interpretation of her work, and stopped painting flowers in order to prevent that interpretation from defining it. And yet attempting to define her work (and to an extent, herself) was what Stieglitz and her other male contemporaries did.

I am not sure any male artist would have nude photographs of themselves by another artist (even one that they were married to) included in a career retrospective of themselves. Putting these photographs in the same room as O’Keeffe’s paintings is a strange, and frankly, demeaning choice. What does seeing the shape of her nude torso add to our appreciation of her paintings?

Other than a prurient interest, it is hard to justify. O’Keeffe rarely painted human subjects except as abstracts in her early charcoal sketches, and to my knowledge never painted herself, so it’s not as if she used her own body as a canvas. Did the Tate feel that her work could not exist independently of her personal relationships? Her talent would have been recognized regardless of who she was married to, and yet you get the sense that Steiglitz’s feelings for her were something she needed to keep a healthy distance from. Why wasn’t the work of the other artists included in one room, separate from hers, if the curators felt a context had to be provided? Why did the curators feel a context had to be provided at all?

This intrusive and unnecessary comparison partially spoils the exhibition, but luckily there are enough treasures on display to make the other works easy to ignore. The first room, where O’Keeffe’s charcoals are displayed, is laid out in homage to 291, the gallery where they were first displayed in 1916, and it’s easy to realize what an immense power and skill she had right from the start. The flower paintings (including the one of two poppies and one of the jimson flower) are in a large space organized as four smaller ones, breaking up the crowds and giving you the time to really focus on these slightly smaller paintings.

O’Keeffe’s ability to capture the light and shadow of shifting moments is best shown in a sequence of paintings of a cliff behind her home – four different versions of the same scene. The green and pink one is the most dramatic for its Gauguin-esque use of unnatural colour, with the warmth and the feeling of the desert still permeating.

The nicest thing about the exhibit was the number of girls under the age of ten sketching the paintings for themselves. Close attention to O’Keeffe’s work is always rewarded at any age, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to learn how to look.

Featured Image: Pineapple Bud, 1939, oil on canvas