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Why American art boomed after the Wall Street crash

How American art boomed after the bust

A new exhibition of paintings from the 1930s shows how the Wall Street Crash led to a creative flowering

A new exhibition of paintings from the 1930s shows how the Wall Street Crash led to a creative flowering

Jane Morris | March 7th 2017

The title of a new exhibition at the Royal Academy, “America after the Fall”, refers to the Wall Street crash of 1929, but it’s hard to ignore its Biblical implications. Nor should you: this tightly edited selection of 45 paintings from the 1930s is a hymn to the loss of innocence of a generation of Americans who were afflicted by the Great Depression and the storms of the Dust Bowl, which laid waste to millions of acres of farmland. With mass migration, racial tension and the rise of fascism in Europe, this decade was a time of uncertainty, conflict and angst.

Ironically the economic turmoil gave American artists unexpected freedom. For the first time, the government offered financial support to artists through New Deal programmes, reducing their dependence on the tastes of the market and wealthy patrons. Art, music and literature were still dominated by Europe, so artists began to search for an authentically American way of painting. Like John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath" (1939) and Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” (1942), many visual artists made work for and about the lives of ordinary Americans. 

All-American ”Cotton Pickers” (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton

But artists were divided over which of the many faces of ordinary America to paint. While Thomas Hart Benton reimagined the America of the pioneers as a kind of rural paradise, Charles Sheeler made idealised images of American industry, and Charles Demuth showed homes and factories abandoned after the crash. Artists differed over subject and style. Some looked to figurative, folk and primitive art traditions, while others like O. Louis Gugliemi, whose nightmarish painting of a collapsing Brooklyn Bridge owes more than a nod to De Chirico’s surrealism, were heavily influenced by the European avant-garde, from geometric abstraction to cubism. A handful, including Paul Cadmus, made cartoons and illustrations that now look like precursors of pop art. Divisions over how to paint America sometimes spilled over into bitter rivalries. Hart Benton, whose nostalgic landscapes capturing everyday experiences made him the most famous painter in the country at the time, had particular ire for those like Stuart Davis, who continued to champion the techniques of European modernism.

As it turned out, the future of American painting lay neither with Hart Benton nor with Davis, but with one of Hart Benton’s pupils, Jackson Pollock. The exhibition closes with an early, semi-abstract work – “Untitled” (1938-41) – by the artist who would go on to pioneer abstract expressionism, a movement of the 1950s and 1960s that many regard as the high point of American painting, and which is the subject of endless exhibitions, books and PhDs. This exhibition makes the case, however, for a much closer look at the 1930s. Judith Barter, the curator, argues that, in contrast to the post-war decades, when artists were in thrall to Pollock, the 1930s was a crucible of artistic experimentation, making it “aesthetically the richest and most important decade in American art.” 

 

“American Gothic” (1930) by Grant Wood

As so often happens when times are tough, the hardship of the 1930s inspired a popular retreat into the past. To many, it seemed that the American spirit – embodied by a Jeffersonian nation of hard-working, morally upright farmers – was vanishing. The power of “American Gothic”, by far the most famous painting in the show, lies in the ambiguous way in which it seems both to channel the nostalgia of the era and undermine it. Is this a paean to the past, or an image tinged with the relief felt by anyone who’s escaped a small town? Are the figures in the painting man and wife, or father and daughter? Grant Wood saw the 19th-century board-and-batten, gothic-revival farmhouse from his car while driving through his home state of Iowa, and modelled the figures on his sister and dentist. A leading figure in the Regionalist movement, Wood painted many scenes like this, of America’s simple but rapidly disappearing rural life. 

 

“American Landscape” (1930) by Charles Sheeler 

The Federal Art Project, a New Deal programme run by a folk-art specialist, encouraged artists like Charles Sheeler to paint images of vernacular design, from chairs and sideboards to 19th-century weathervanes. An enthusiastic collector of Shaker furniture, Sheeler featured it in many of his paintings, although given he was also a leading modernist this probably stemmed from his admiration for the simplicity of Shaker design rather than a preoccupation with tradition. He was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company to paint its massive River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. His precision, as well as his appreciation of the subdued Shaker palette, are evident in this strangely flat, clean portrayal of the factory. The title is a knowing reference to typical European pastoral landscapes and suggests that Sheeler believed the future lay in American industry – not nostalgia for the past.

 

“Aspiration” (1936) by Aaron Douglas

From 1916 to 1930, some 1.5m African-Americans made their way from the rural southern states to the cities of the north, in what became known as the first Great Migration. Aaron Douglas was actually born in Kansas, on the Great Plains, but he eventually made his way in the 1920s to New York where he became a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, a dynamic black cultural movement. This painting captures the opportunity America’s growing cities seemed to promise rural migrants before the crash. Three African-American figures, holding instruments symbolising Enlightenment learning, stand on a dias above the manacled arms of their slave forebears. They look up to a “shining city on the hill”, a reference to the model Christian society puritan settlers hoped to build; Douglas probably intended to evoke New York City. The work was one of four pieces commissioned by Texas for the state’s centenary celebrations in 1936 (note the Lone Star on the right-hand side). Douglas drew on ancient Egyptian and African art, as well as cubism, giving the work a decidedly Art Deco feel.

 

“Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare” (1936) by Alexandre Hogue

The combination of drought and mechanised farming on what had once been grassland resulted in the stripping away of the topsoil, which in turn led to huge dust storms reaching as far as the east and west coasts. At its worst the Dust Bowl ruined 100m acres of farmland, mainly in Texas and Oklahoma. As the economy collapsed, and farmland turned to dust, many farmers lost their homes and were forced to flee west in the hope of finding work in states such as California. This farmstead has clearly been abandoned: the outbuildings are tumbling down and the fences and plough are broken. But the central image is of “mother nature” herself, her once-fecund body splayed out and stripped bare. Alexandre Hogue’s rather surreal painting is an unusual and early depiction of the consequences of environmental degradation. 

 

“New York Movie” (1939) by Edward Hopper

Today, fewer than one in ten Americans go to the cinema each week, but in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, an estimated two-thirds of the population made their way to increasingly opulent palaces of film. Set in a converted 19th-century burlesque theatre, this painting features Hopper’s wife as the withdrawn, disconsolate usherette. For many artists, theatres, cinemas, speakeasies and diners were places to celebrate the bustle and sociability, even licentiousness, of the modern urban experience. But Hopper – who distanced himself from New Deal programmes thinking they would stifle his artistic independence – was a master at capturing the feeling of being alone in the middle of a crowd. This painting speaks of the isolation of city life, especially for rural immigrants, and the empty promises of the Hollywood dream.

 

“Swing Music (Louis Armstrong)” (1938) by Arthur Dove

Like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, Arthur Dove spent much of his career painting landscapes. But he also flirted with abstraction, as in this homage to Louis Armstrong. A keen musician and fan of popular music, he captures some of the rhythm, syncopation and excitement of Satchmo’s music. Many of Dove’s contemporaries associated abstract art with Europe, but his representation of jazz signalled an Americanisation of the form. While Dove is now a marginal figure in the history of abstract expressionism, this painting, filled with sound and movement, pre-figures the energy of Jackson Pollock’s seminal “Mural” by five years.

America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s Royal Academy, London, until June 4th

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