Hot on the heels of its Russian Revolution exhibition downstairs, the RA continues on an exciting trajectory in its programming with an equally intriguing – and rigorously curated – show in its Sackler Wing, focusing on American art in the decade following the Wall Street Crash of October 1929.
Much has been made of the UK debut appearance of its starring piece, Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ of 1930; even if you are unfamiliar with the title, you will have seen this famous painting (above) duplicated, referenced or parodied somewhere in contemporary life.
For a relatively small exhibition, so many themes are crammed in.Yet they’re represented perfectly in the 45 paintings selected here that it is impossible to emerge without a better appreciation and understanding of the uncertainty and turmoil that characterises this strange period.
The compact rooms efficiently cover key themes; mass migration from rural areas to cities in search of prosperity and, in turn, the importance of New York City as a focal point; slowly recovering industry and cautious optimism twinned with nostalgia for its agricultural past.
Striking, then, is Charles Green Shaw’s giant Wrigley’s chewing gum floating amidst abstract skyscrapers, the ominous onset of commercialism and advertising (anticipating American Pop Art as we know it), contrasting with Alexandre Hogue’s ‘Erosion No.2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare’, which imagines the dust bowl literally as a female figure abandoned, lamenting the passing of an era. In this context, the question of whether Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ celebrates or satirizes old-style rural America is compellingly renewed.
Elsewhere, more forceful images delve into darker issues: Joe Jones’s ‘American Justice’ of 1933 shows a lynch mob behind a prostrate black woman, while Philip Guston’s ‘Bombardment’ of 1937, directly inspired by the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, refers to a universal terror of conflict.
What emerges from this collection is a distinct aesthetic; none of these paintings are large scale or particularly ambitious. Rather, many appear subdued, communicating a tangible unease and anxiety, keenly felt during the Great Depression.
Against this background, more recognisable names – Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe – are illuminated in a more sombre social-political context than we usually see them, allowing us to experience their works anew in this most turbulent period of American art and history.