America after the Fall – Royal Academy
The other major exhibition at the Royal Academy in the first half of 2017 was, in many ways, a counterweight to the Russian Revolutionary art – Lenin makes an appearance in a painting by Louis Guglielmi – is an exploration of American art in the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression. A small exhibition, consisting of some forty-five paintings, it is comfortably housed in three rooms in the Sackler Wing. What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality.
I managed to catch the exhibition on a boiling hot day, in those slack times at the RA when its existing shows are winding down and all its energies are concentrated on preparing for the Summer Exhibition. Despite the rather strange atmosphere, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. After all, it’s my kind of art – representational art, colourful and telling a story.
When someone mentions Thirties America to me, I immediately think of the dust bowl and the devastation that injudicious agricultural methods combined with soil erosion and winds caused in the mid-West. I found Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare hugely evocative with the plough in the foreground and the farm in the distance and in the centre bare, devastated earth moulded into a supine woman. Grant Wood’s earlier and more famous American Gothic, painted in 1930, which has never left North America before, picks up on the theme. We have a couple of elderly farmers standing in front of a rural church, anxiously staring out at us. There isn’t an ounce of flesh on them and the pitchfork, held like a trident, is both menacing and a sign that this is their only hope of salvation.
Wood was a bit of a find for me. I liked his rather grim portrayal of three daughters of the Revolution – no oil paintings, they – primly sipping a cup of tea in front of a picture of the founding fathers. His aerial view of Paul Revere’s ride to tell the news that the Brits was on their way was full of stylised energy.
Edward Hopper’s Gas shows a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. It is both a forlorn symbol of despair but also one of hope. Someone at some time must come down the road wanting to fill up. The show’s opener by Charles Green Shaw is astonishing. It is a painting of a city skyline with skyscrapers reduced to basic geometric form but almost god-like in the sky is an enormous packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Is this the deus ex machina which will lead America to salvation?
Inevitably, race makes an appearance. R W Johnson’s Street Life, Harlem shows a youthful black, urban couple, dressed to the nines. The colours are vivid and the shapes bold. Benton’s Cotton Pickers is more disturbing under closer scrutiny. In the foreground is an emaciated child and a bony woman offers succour to a man working on his knees. The American Hanging is more disturbing too, showing a noose, a group of Ku Klux Klan and a naked African-American woman in the foreground.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Life went on and there are pictures of people having fun and attending picture shows. Paul Cadmus’ The Fleet’s In is a riot of colour and louche behaviour. It caused such a stir when it was first shown that the Navy ordered its withdrawal.
A wonderful show without any makeweights and one worth braving the heat for.