A day out for me and my husband in London is a busy yet somehow relaxing one. We took a slow walk to Burlington House to see the new American art exhibition, then we took a stroll through Soho, saw the Tom Cribb pup, which I got ridiculously overexcited by after seeing it on David Olusoga’s BBC series, then we went to some comic book stores, and finally in the evening we saw Bill Bailey at the Leicester Square Theatre which was amazing.
Anyhow, the exhibition by the Royal Academy, America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930’s tells the story of the East of North America and the industrial mid-West. This period of economic turmoil and social change was represented by some of the most emotive and atmospheric images of the 20th century. This exhibition included Georgia O’Keeffe, Alice Neel, Grant Wood, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston and Charles Sheeler.
I mainly went to this exhibition to see Edward Hoppers work as it was the basis for one of my third year dissertations. Hopper’s works, New York Movie (1939) and Gas (1940) were exhibited there, and another main focal point was Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930). When there are iconic works of art in London from all over the world you just do not know when they will be back again. Also I love to see these iconic and famous works of art in the flesh to know what my real opinion is of them. You almost always have a different reaction to what you expect. Mark Rothko’s paintings are a key example of this for me. I never thought his work would interest me. I had read about his work and life but didn’t think too much of it. Yet, when I saw Rothko’s work in the flesh I immediately fell in love with it, I felt so strongly about it I almost cried, ha!
Works of Hopper’s that are included in the RA exhibition have not been in the UK for forty five years. They are vital to telling to story of America in the 1930’s, as Hopper focused on his “inner view” of New York, and his noir aesthetic resonated through most of his works of this period. Some of this inspiration came from the writer Ernest Hemingway, and his short story The Killers was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927. It is a writing of human experience in the modern world. A pervading sense of criminality and death was intertwined with the innocence of Nick Adams, a character that Hemingway used time and time again. Hemingway’s work has noir aesthetics that relate to Hopper’s most famous work, Nighthawks (1942); the story begins in a diner, in a location called Summit where two hit-men enter looking to kill Ole Anderson, a famous boxer who turns out not to defend himself, but to admit his fate. When a concerned Nick comes looking for him from the diner he sees that Anderson has given up, lying down on a bed with is face to the wall. Historians have stated that when the reader begins to understands the story from the point of view of Nick, does it then becomes the “discovery of evil.” On this point, the RA exhibition plays off of this theme. The works of art exhibited all portray the evils of the modern world and the consequences of living in it; loneliness, death, starvation, economic instability and the suffering of the poor.
Grant Wood’s American Gothic is an extremely iconic paining, it is arguably now as proverbial as works like Munch’s The Scream, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It is immediately seen as a painting intended to celebrate the upright, hardworking and labouring poor who survived the Great Depression with pride. Some people see the work as perhaps slightly satirical, it has been used in media, cartoons, advertisements and the like in a parodied way, but when I saw it in person the faces of the steadfast American couple did not portray an element of satire, it was a rather depressing work, which I feel was clearly Wood’s aim.
Another of the most famous works in the exhibition was Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931) and it is one of her best-know close-ups of bones and flowers. O’Keeffe suggested that these painting represented how she felt about the “wideness and wonder of the world.” O’Keeffe witnessed the drought in the south-west, she saw the effect of dehydration and starvation of animals, which as the AIC’s description states, the “skeletons littered the landscape.” O’Keeffe once said that there was something beautiful in the bones of the dead animals. Her work makes me think of the Day of the Dead skulls in Mexico, which still celebrates life, even in death. There is a spiritual journey that O’Keeffe experiences throughout her work.
Yet the work featured in the exhibition was not just on the mid-western and dust-bowl farmland, but also on the beginnings of manufacture and building sites being featured in art, which is known as Precisionism. Charles Sheeler is recognised as one of the founders of this movement, which was said to have been coined in the 1920’s by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr. Charles Sheeler’s work American Landscape (1930) stood out to me as a work of art that showed how racially changing the American landscape was during this period. Sheeler chose to paint the Ford Motor Company plant on the River Rouge near Detroit, Michigan. It was also the subject of many of Sheeler’s photographs. Only one person is barely visible in the painting, perhaps highlighting the scale of the industrial urbanisation. This certainly does make you feel as though you are standing in a wide open space.
The Sackler Galllery at Burlington House is not a huge space, yet the works fitted somewhat comfortably. Hopper’s New York Movie was framed behind glass, which would have been okay if there wasn’t a bright light directly above it. Me and my husband were leaning at an angle as though we were recreating MJ’s music video, Smooth Criminal to try and capture the full view of the painting. Also, certain paintings were almost corner to corner at a ninety degree angle with others, thus viewing them was quite difficult without bumping into people even on what seemed like a rather slow day. Grant Wood’s American Gothic was awarded with pride of place in the exhibition. I suppose this is due to it being the best work that represents the theme “America after the Fall”. However, I would have to disagree. Yes, in a literal sense the panting shows a couple who are working and suffering through the era, but Edward Hopper’s work shows a different side to the era after the Great Depression that affected city life not just the predictable mid-west. His work shows the emotive and psychological effects and experiences of people, which I feel it much more interesting historically.
Jackson Pollock, Alice Neel and Philip Guston seem to play a somewhat minor, or more inferior role than the other artists I have discussed in the exhibition. Pollocks, Untitled (c.1938/41), Neels, Pat Whalen (1935), and Guston’s Bombardment (1937) were all visually very different, yet they shared similar themes, and this was explored well in the exhibition guide, and on the exhibition labels.
My husband’s favourite piece was Hopper’s Gas, which to me also seemed to be the most atmospheric in the exhibition. Hopper was moving toward something new in this period and his work represented the beginnings of Abstract Expressionism and was also very close to Surrealism. Hopper always painted his own version of America which is vitally important in the process of understanding how people truly felt about these vast and dramatic changes in the American landscape and economy. I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and it made a brilliant precursor to the RA’s Abstract Expressionism last year, so to anyone who was able to visit that exhibition, this one would have been very exciting.