The excellent little exhibition of American painting now showing upstairs at the Royal Academy in The Sackler Wing begins, chronologically, in 1929, the year of the stock market crash and ends in 1941, the year that Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the United States entered the war. From the beginning of the Great Depression to what would lead, at the war’s end, to a period of relatively wide-spread prosperity. Nothing like a good war, as the US was discovering, to perk up the economy.
Not surprisingly, it was a period of great upheaval, marked on one hand by the devastation of the Dust Bowl and the consequent western migration and on the other by the opening of the Empire State Building and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. The art on display – much of it emanating from the Art Institute of Chicago – echoes this disparity, riven between nostalgia for the past and visions of the future that are themselves divided between optimism and dread, between realism and modernism.
If only for the presence here – liberated from Chicago for the first time – of his famously enigmatic American Gothic (the stoicism of the rural past admired or ironised?), Grant Wood is a key figure here, the rolling golden hills of plenty of his early work giving way to the impending disaster of Death on the Ridge Road, where the telegraph poles evoke not only Christian cross but, to my mind at least, the use to which such crosses were put by the Ku Klux Klan, and the devastating portrait of conservative white supremacism evoked so chillingly in his Daughters of Revolution.
Hopper is represented here, of course, and – though only in one example – Georgia O’Keefe, and there are markers laid down for the explosion of Abstract Expressionism that was to follow the war’s end: both Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston with paintings that were clearly inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, which had been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, the museum itself having opened ten years earlier.
Of all the works on display there were four that excited me most and which have engraved themselves most strongly into my memory. William H. Johnson’s vibrant Street Life, Harlem, with, for me, pre-echoes of Spike Lee and friend strutting his stuff in the latter’s Malcolm X.
Charles Demuth’s … And the Home of the Brave, which seems to take one of Charles Sheeler’s architecturally correct representational images and flatten it against the picture plane – my eye being drawn back constantly to the top left hand corner.
And finally, thrillingly, two works by an artist I was sadly ignorant of before, Arthur Dove, one of which can be seen below: Abstract Expression here we come.