Amid the backdrop of breadlines, Hoovervilles and the rising threat of fascism across the Atlantic, American artists of the 1930s experimented with myriad styles in the quest to forge a new national identity — and artistic expression — from the despair.
The Art Institute of Chicago's upcoming exhibition "America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s" features 50 pieces that offer a glimpse into that turbulent time. The works, on display at the museum from Sunday to Sept. 18, juxtapose the nation's pastoral past with its industrial future and tackles some of era's social, political and economic strifes.
The prominence and platform that artists received in the form of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Project Number One and Federal Artist Project kept people producing work during the Great Depression.
"It kept a lot of painters and sculptors employed," said Judith Barter, the Art Institute's Field-McCormick Chair of American Art. "The arts were important. They were visible and they were everywhere in the '30s. … I think the '30s were important because it was a redefinition of American culture. It redefined the way the individual related to government (and) how government related to communities."
Paintings were borrowed from large institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as some smaller donors such as Williams College in Massachusetts.
The exhibition begins with artwork that introduces the eclectic styles of the era, which range from the reflective, melancholy realism of Edward Hopper to the "Mother of American Modernism" Georgia O'Keeffe.
From there, attention shifts to the battle between labor and industry. The pieces highlight unemployment, workers and an attempt by business to reverse its negative reputation and return to its prior role as a cultural leader, Barter said. Charles Sheeler's 1932 "River Rouge Plant," a painting based on a photograph that Sheeler was commissioned to complete by an advertising agency on behalf of the Ford Motor Co., is featured in the section, Barter said.
From labor and industry, the exhibition then highlights those artists celebrating the land, such as Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, whose depictions of pastoral scenes and the people who called them home hark back to the Jeffersonian farms and villages of days long gone. The Midwest's industrial hubs of Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit had already called people to the cities in large numbers, resulting in the 1920 census that would show that the Midwest — and the nation — was urban.
From bucolic to apocalyptic, dystopian works become the focus. The American wasteland is laid out in Grant Wood's famed "Death on the Ridge Road," as well as O. Louis Guglielmi's "Phoenix," which uses cold, industrial imagery to send an anti-capitalism message. This set also includes Peter Blume's "The Eternal City" and Philip Guston's "Bombardment," related "to the violence and run up to (World War II)," Barter said.
American surrealism is next, with art meant "to show the interior landscape of the painter's feelings," Barter said.
Entertainment becomes the focal point. Hopper's realism makes an appearance once again with "New York Movie." Works by Arthur Dove and Archibald Motley help anchor the section.
The closing segment demonstrates the two directions in which art was heading at the end of the '30s: abstraction and realism, Barter said.
Hopper's famed "Gas" is displayed next to an early abstraction by Jackson Pollock, which was a sign of art's evolution in the '40s.
But the very public battle between competing voices and visions is not the only reason the '30s were chosen for "America After the Fall." While the show is about the art, the '30s seem like a natural era to return to with political, economic, and social justice parallels to our present or recent past, Barter said.
"There has not been a major show on the '30s in a long, long time," she said. "It seemed like after that 2008 debacle we saw some similarities to what happened in the '30s."
Peppered throughout the collection are not only commentaries on international politics, but on American issues such as racial violence.
The Red Summer of 1919 was long gone, but lynchings were taking place not only in the Deep South, but in so-called border states such as Kentucky and Indiana. Joe Jones' haunting "American Justice" depicts the aftermath of a lynching. But artists such as Aaron Douglas offered a hopeful vision for blacks in America with his work "Aspiration," which contrasts the chained hands of slaves with the professional class of men and women looking to build toward a brighter future.
After its time at the Art Institute, the show will travel to the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris and London's Royal Academy. This marks the first time many of these iconic American works — including the museum's treasure, according to Barter, Grant Wood's "American Gothic" — have journeyed outside North America. For many French and British visitors, it will be their first extended exposure to American art of the '30s.
"They know the names Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe but they don't know Paul Cadmus or Helen Lundeberg or Joe Jones or so many of the people that are in this show that were important."
To sum up the era in 50 paintings wasn't an easy task, Barter said.
"My expectation was to find a very rich ground to plow and indeed that has been true," she said.
"America After The Fall: Painting in the 1930s" runs through Sept. 18 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., (312)-443-3600, www.artic.edu.
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