Wednesday, July 20, 2016

After the Fall: American Painting in the Thirties

After the Fall:  American Painting in the Thirties is a nicely proportioned exhibition of iconic paintings on canvas made by American artists during the Great Depression.  The show, curated by the Chicago Art Institute, features 93 paintings, about the ideal size for an exhibition -- you can look at each work with some degree of attention without succumbing to exhaustion.  Furthermore, the show's tight focus allows a maximum of comparing and contrasting, one of the pleasures of attending any gallery exhibition.  The level of the art works in the exhibition is very high -- you will recognize about half of the paintings in the show.  These art works are so highly characteristic of American painting in the Depression that many of them have come to stand as symbols for that period of American history.

With a few notable exceptions, these works are not "painterly" -- that is, there are very few bravura displays of paint application:  these works are nothing like art by Van Gogh, for instance, or Max Beckmann or, for that matter, Velasquez or Goya.  To the contrary, the artists are mostly interested in clear draftsmanship and the works feature figures carefully drawn and, then, it seems, colored-in.  Generally, the color schemes are intended to be realistic and even conservative in their appearance -- some of the works, in fact, seem tentatively colored, as if the artist used a medium like colored pencils or watery pastels to tint the images.  In effect, much of the work could be graphic, that is, an engraving or woodcut, that has been laboriously colored.  For this reason, many of the paintings really don't gain that much by being seen in person -- a reasonable reproduction generally suffices to convey the information in these pictures.  And, it is the information, that is paramount to these artists.  In fact, a number of paintings, particularly those by the precisionist Charles Sheeler, look like textbook illustrations for a particularly stolid and obtuse 9th-grade science primer -- for instance, a startling image of a huge hydro-turbine being lowered into place in a power-plant, as reproduced in the catalog, looks almost exactly like an image in a school textbook.  Viewed in the museum, the painting is quite large -- four by six feet, perhaps, and this gives it a certain authority, but the image is, in effect, a glossy technical illustration, something you might expect to see in an old issue of the Saturday Evening Post or Life.  In general, almost all the paintings in the show are primarily illustrative:  this describes many of Grant Wood's canvases, all of them witty but his landscapes, at least, afflicted with the pulpy brown tint of Iowa's soil. (Wood's painting of the "Daughters of the Revolution" and his "American Gothic" by contrast are carefully made portraits, similar to the northern European work of Memling, Holbein, or Cranach -- the catalog touts these paintings as ironic or satirical, in the vein of Sinclair Lewis:  I don't see the images in that light and think that they are, in fact, rather earnest and, even, perhaps, tending toward sentimentality.  There is a large self-loathing painting by Paul Cadmus, "The Fleet's In!" showing floozies with big asses, carousing sailors, and, even, pinch-faced homosexual in a pink tie flirting with a beefy seaman -- the picture is pleasantly lurid, painted in colors that are intentionally vulgar.  Georgia O'Keefe is represented by several iconic images of cow skulls, paintings devoid of any interest other than as a kind banner or pictorial equivalent of a commercial logo -- in my view, O'Keefe is consistently overrated, although she is a fine decorative painting and an ingenious inventor of "trademarks."  A couple of paintings by Reginald Marsh of garish metropolitan scenes features strangely restrained and dim color palettes -- the big paintings of urban chaos, nonetheless, are effective and eye-catching.  Ben Shahn's "Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti" gains nothing really by being seen in person other than the fact that it is a big painting, the size of one wing of a Gothic altarpiece, apparently, the reference that the artist intends.  There is an extraordinarily luminous painting by Edward Hopper in which the artist has staged a combat between the twilight and electric light bulbs illumining a rural gas station -- the picture creates a fascinating sense of peace riven through, however, with disquieting notes.  For me, the highlight of the show is a painting by Marsden Hartley, a savage-looking landscape called "Mount Katahdin, Maine, Autumn No. 2 " -- this is one of the few works in the exhibition that has painterly qualities, that is, thick application of paint, wildly different types of brushstroke and intensely expressionistic colors:  Mt. Katahdin appears as a pitch-black spike poking up above an autumnal forest that is a solid field of dense red, all of this poised above evergreen green and the acid blues of a lake distressed by the wind.  It's a remarkable landscape.  Also remarkable, and possessing some painterly qualities, is a canvas by John Steuart Curry showing feral boars ripping serpents apart -- it's some sort of all-purpose allegory, but the sheer ugliness of the composition and the painting is worthy of admiration.  This image seems similar to Grant Wood's "Death on the Ridge Road", a wildly canted picture that shows two vehicles, literally flying (wheels off the road) into a fatal collision -- again, the intent seems to be generally allegorical, but not specific to any particular calamity.  By contrast, there are a half-dozen paintings by forgotten artists, among them O. Louis Gugliemi and Peter Blume, that apply the techniques of European surrealism to political commentary -- these images are startling, particularly Gugliemi's "The Eternal City" with a profile of Mussolini, luridly colored, popping up out of a jack-in-the-box.  Probably allied to this work is a very early round-shaped canvas by Philip Guston showing a bombing raid on a city, a very effective piece of agit-prop and painted in the manner of the Italian Mannerists -- the colors look like those in Pontormo's works.  Semi-abstract works in the show, a painting by Stewart Davis and another by Charles Demuth are negligible -- the image by Davis in particular is clearly inferior to other works by this artist, including some nice paintings in the American wing of the same museum.

This exhibit remains in Chicago until September.  The show travels to the Musee d' Orsay in Paris thereafter and will be presented in London as well.

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