American Painting in the 1930s

A few weeks ago I did something that, I think, I’ve never done before: I went to an art gallery specifically to see an exhibition I was interested in. Last year I was dragged around a display of badly-crafted junk and paint ejaculated at random over dirty patches of canvas in what was called a modern art exhibition in the Palais de Tokyo, but other than that I don’t think I’ve ever been to an art gallery. And yes, that includes the Louvre to which I have free access and I don’t need to queue, thanks to my employer shovelling a load of money in their direction at some point. I also skipped the Hermitage every time I’ve been in Saint Petersburg. Those scraping sounds you can hear are my knuckles dragging on the floor as I hunt for my banana.

This one was different, though. I saw it advertised on the metro, and immediately took an interest. The subject was American Painting in the 1930s and it was being held at the Musée de l’Orangerie. What caught my attention was their use of Grant Wood’s American Gothic in the poster:

I can’t say I was familiar with this painting beforehand but I had seen it occasionally and rather liked it, and I was curious to see what else they had on display. So along I went, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It helped that I knew about the era in question to begin with. I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, and noted other cultural references such as Brother, Can You Spare a Dime and the more recent Cinderella Man. I’m also fairly clued up on the history of America’s industrial development, which meant I could recognise the names and roles of companies, brands, and cities that were depicted in the paintings.

Quite a few of the paintings, particularly those created by the aforementioned Grant Wood, depicted rural landscapes and the agricultural life which was clobbered by the Great Depression and the dustbowl conditions. I probably found these the most interesting, originally hailing from a farming region myself (albeit one considerably wetter). I was interested to note that one of them – Fall Plowing – was owned by the John Deere Art Collection and depicted an abandoned plough.

I then proceeded to bore by companion with an (inaccurate) explanation of who John Deere was and the huge developments in the mechanisation of agriculture that occurred in the US following WWII.

Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare made a powerful point:

Another section concentrated more on the political side of things, with a lot of the painters having obvious Communist sympathies – hardly unusual for the time (or now!). A particularly good painting was Peter Blume’s The Eternal City.

The picture above simply doesn’t do the colours justice. The man in the room on the left was painted so well that the original makes it look backlit, and the turquoise of the head (Mussolini’s, I think) was almost fluorescent. One thing that was obvious from this collection was how much better the paints were compared to artworks of previous eras and how much better preserved they are. Not being hung for a century in a room with an open fire probably has something to do with it, though.

Philip Guston’s Bombardment, which depicts an aerial attack during the Spanish Civil War, was also very good. Again, the picture below doesn’t do the colours justice.

The exhibition tour finished with a projector on a loop showing clips from films of the era including Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and The Grapes of Wrath among others. I believe the purpose of this was to emphasise how much the Great Depression influenced American culture, and it showed there were two elements to this: works showing its terrible effects and those depicting hope and the country’s eventual climbing out of it.

The exhibition is finished now; I went on one of the last evenings and it was packed. If everyone else’s experience was like mine, it is easy to see why. It was excellent, and I think it’ll be a long time before I am as impressed by what is hanging on the wall of an art gallery. Hopefully that scraping sound has softened a notch.

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9 thoughts on “American Painting in the 1930s

  1. I sincerely hope Andrew Wyeth’s work was among the showings. I think he is excellent (though no Turner, admittedly) and an outstanding American painter.

    Especially I would ask anyone to take a look at his painting Christina’s World, which I first saw on the cover of an issue of Rolling Stone magazine (back when it was more cutting edge than weedily political, as now)* True it was painted in 1948 but Wyeth lived with Christina’s family from the ‘thirties. The woman in the picture is crawling (no, it isn’t demeaning) to get home, because she couldn’t walk and that was how she got around her family’s farm. I think it is very evocative and up there with the best of the period’s art.

    *The cover illustration of that issue of Rolling Stone, IIRC, was a long article about Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and subsequent ‘did-she-or-didn’t-she’ conversion to the kidnapping group’s cause and subsequent crimes. can;’t think why they might have used Wyeth’s art, but then I have seen American Gothic used as the basis for all sorts of images. Wouldn’t surprise me if there isn’t a Killary and Trump version.

  2. I sincerely hope Andrew Wyeth’s work was among the showings. I think he is excellent (though no Turner, admittedly) and an outstanding American painter.

    I don’t recall any of his stuff. Perhaps his subjects weren’t specific to the Depression era?

    I’ve just had a look, and I agree his paintings are excellent.

  3. The National Gallery has a wonderful exhibition of Australian Impressionists. Until the 26th: hurry up and book.

  4. Lucky you! I’ve never gotten to see the original American Gothic, although I’ve seen a few other paintings by Grant Wood, including The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, probably my favorite. By the way, have you seen Boundin’, Pixar’s short animation film from 2003? Its creator said he had been inspired by Grant Wood’s landscapes, although Wood mostly painted Iowa and Boundin’ is set in Montana.

    Andrew Wyeth started his career in the 1940s so he wouldn’t be eligible for that exhibition. He mostly worked in watercolor and tempera. If you get a chance to see any of his work, by all means do. Christina’s World is almost as iconic as American Gothic, but there’s so much more to see by Wyeth. BTW, his father, N. C., was a well-known illustrator and his son, Jamie, is also a painter.

  5. including The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, probably my favorite.

    Yup, that was there. 🙂

    By the way, have you seen Boundin’, Pixar’s short animation film from 2003?

    I haven’t, no. I’ll have a look for it.

  6. You might be a bit more sympathetic to the painters of yesteryear who had little access to knowledge of paint chemistry. For example, up until around 1800,if you wanted to show blue, you could use a cheapish mineral called azurite or a highly expensive mineral we call lapis lazuli. Depending on how much you were being paid – until the mid 19th c most paintings were commissioned by private folks – you would decide whether to use azurite or lapis lazuli,or woad or…. Lapis still shows blue. Azurite, if not protected by a thick layer of varnish, goes brown. So just remember that if you look at a painting of a woman in a brown dress from 1659, it might have been meant to show someone who could afford to buy a blue dress.

    Modern painters have access to much better materials. Back in the day, you would work up from grinding minerals in a pestle and mortar for hours, then mixing with oil or egg white to make your own emulsion. After some point in the 19thc. you could just squeeze a tube without knowing what labour had created the pigment

  7. And as for restorers or preservationists, if you take a picture of a brown dress and repaint it blue, then there is shock, horror and outrage as experts despoil our precious artistic heritage….. It happened when the Sistine Chapel frescoes by Michelangelo were restored. The newspapers called it vandalism, with no exceptions. Only the luvvies knew what was happening

  8. You might be a bit more sympathetic to the painters of yesteryear who had little access to knowledge of paint chemistry.

    Indeed, that’s why I acknowledged the superiority of the modern-day paints. Thanks for the other info!

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