The Royal Academy undertakes an examination of American art from an era of political and social turmoil.
Words Patrick Hamilton Courtney
The 1930s were a challenging period in American history, a decade defined by numerous instabilities and forced migrations. The Great Depression decimated an overly confident Wall Street. Enduring and unforgiving drought left arable land useless, displacing agricultural communities. Refugees fled from fascist Europe, their unhappiness about leaving their homes matched only by America’s inability to economically accommodate them. Cities became like tin cans infected with botulism, bulging uncomfortably with the many communities descending on them.
Gruelling manual labour was the dish of the day. The only work readily available was in dockyards, factories, gas refineries, or construction. American cities were productive, but in a manner that echoed the industrial revolution. It was these political and social turbulences that lead to the expressions in this exhibition.
America After the Fall’s timeline traverses the Great Depression through to the ominous rise of the Third Reich. Grant Wood, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, Thomas Hart Benton, Charles G Shaw, and Edward Hopper are among the artists on show. There are works displayed by less well known individuals too, their reputations confined to either their era or nation.
The Art Institute of Chicago was responsible for the organisation of the exhibition. Their curation attempts to separate the works into definable genres. Industrial landscapes, pastoral scenes, displaced communities, Racism and African Americans, and even abstraction. It succeeds in turning the relatively small Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy into a museum of early 20th century American history.
Though the curatorial path’s trajectory is fascinating, it is a relatively simple one that at times undermines the complexity of how events were linked. Nevertheless, it no doubt will spark curiosity into the bigger picture not fully explained here.
There are some truly remarkable works on show. Two by Grant Wood particularly stand out. American Gothic is one of the most famous American paintings of all time. It depicts a woman and man holding agricultural tools in front of a Carpenter Gothic style home. Death on the Ridge Road, a painting full of tension, shows a post box red truck hurtling along a country road moments before crashing into a black town car. A beautiful image that feels innately American.
Charles Sheeler’s internationally renowned American Landscape portrays the Ford Motor factory in a state of total quietness. The painting nods toward the financial crash’s layoffs and the increasing march toward industrialisation. Standing in front of it is fairly maudlin; it’s hard not to feel the saddening loss of rural life. The exhibition makes a small foray into works depicting the horrific racial prejudices of the day. A necessary inclusion but one that could of course be vastly expanded into a thousand subsidiary exhibitions.
Towards the end abstraction gets a brief look in, most notably by the addition of a Pollock painting. They are early works, relatively undeveloped and lacking in passion. Against the rest of the paintings in the exhibition they look trite. Without outside knowledge you wouldn’t believe that abstraction would find the dynamism and originality to eventually dominate American art.
America After the Fall takes us on a quick fire journey imparting the key historical points in a digestible style. Given the small size of the space this conciseness is commendable, if not without its issues. There are important works of art here: American Gothic and American Landscape are see-before-you-die paintings that can be ticked off without a trip to Chicago.
Most impressive of all is the curation’s perfect capture of the uneasy trepidation felt when rural communities are forced to confront their industrial futures. Something happening in many parts of the world today.