Monday, 20 March 2017

America After the Fall is a bona fide must-see

American Gothic, Grant Wood
A couple of weeks ago, booking for the following evening to see America After the Fall at the Royal Academy, I observed to The Other Half that it would be worth the entry fee just to see Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic.

As we discovered 24 hours later,  that was an entirely fair statement. But the rest of this concise exhibition means that its £12 ticket is an even better – if unexpected – bargain. 

Entering the first of just three rooms and turning left, one of the first works you see is Aspiration, a big canvas by Aaron Douglas, painted in 1936.

In the foreground are the manacled hands of slaves, while rising above them are three African American figures holding symbols of education, looking and pointing toward a bright future that’s represented by a conjunction of industry and tower blocks that could be Oz meeting Metropolis.

Aspirations, Aaron Douglas
A really strong piece, its key to the exhibition, which it also links to the RA’s other running show on Russian revolutionary art until 1932.

Here is the same hope for a better future; the same harking back to a rosy past and a hagiographic representation of tradition (in both cases, of agriculture) and the future – also in both cases, of industry.

Seeing them both is not obligatory, but doing so certainly benefits the understanding and appreciation of each one. 

Here, in the industrial category, we have work by Charles Sheeler – pristine industrial landscapes that come close to a sort of super-realism, including Classic Landscape from 1931, while Suspended Power (1939) is reminiscent of the some of the Russian industrial photography on display downstairs.

O Louis Guglielmi’s Phoenix from 1935 includes a portrait of Lenin within a landscape that is arguably close to di Chirico in terms of it use of symbols.

Cotton Pickers, Thomas Hart Benton
And indeed, it’s worth remembering that many of the artists shown here were themselves immigrants or first-generation Americans. The influences of European art are clear.

As are the political influences. Peter Blumes The Eternal City (1934-37) is a savage, Daliesque take on Mussolini, while Philip Gustons Bombardment (1937) is from the same year and covers the same subject as PicassoGuernica.

In terms of the natural landscape, there’s Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion No2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936), which rather overdoes the point and was disappointing after works by Hogue we’d previously seen at the Pompidou in Paris.

Daughters of the Revolution, Grant Wood
Thomas Hart Benton’s pastoral paintings are more interesting – not least because one on display, Cotton Pickers (1945) treads a fine line between the brutal realism of picking cotton and sentiment: personally, I think he just manages to get it right.

But nobody could be in any doubt that Joe Joness American Justice (1933), showing the aftermath of a KKK lynching, is intended as anything other than a total damning of such racist murders.

Young Corn, Grant Wood
Yet the revelation here is Grant Wood.

Yes, yes … we all know and recognise American Gothic (1930). And it is a brilliant work that merits time spent looking at it in detail, including up close enough to see the brush work (it needs a clean, mind).

But this one painting has so come to define Wood that few of us – certainly on this side of The Pond – will be aware of his other works. From the stylised, pastoral landscapes such as Young Corn (1931) to the history painting of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931), from his simply brilliant Daughters of the Revolution (1932) to the equally fabulous Death on the Ridge Road (1935) – which seems to nod to comic book art – Woods paintings are a major reason to visit this exhibition.

Death on the Ridge Road, Grant Wood
Deceptively simple on many occasions, his use of perspective and angles illustrates the facile nature of such a view.

I haven’t even mentioned the two works by Edward Hopper – and they are no disappointment either.

Indeed, quite the contrary. Hopper was a superb artist. Gas, from 1940, is an absolute star of a painting, with a haunting sense of mystery about it.

But this exhibition – first seen in Paris – offers wonderful opportunities to explore the work of artists we shamefully know little of in Europe.

A friend who saw the exhibition in Paris thought it clunky curated. I do know what they mean, but seeing it in the wake of the Russia exhibition downstairs firms up that curation.

Gas, Edward Hopper
And even if you set aside that, this is worth seeing if only because there are so many good – and a few great – paintings here that it would be criminal to miss the opportunity to see art that rarely (if ever) has left the US before.

We went on a Friday evening and, amazingly, it was not crowded, so we had the time to stand in front of any individual work and enjoy at our leisure.

I’d recommend seeing this and the Russian Revolution exhibition, but if you can only do one, do this – the standard of the actual works on display is, overall, far higher.

* America After the Fall runs until 4 June at the Royal Academy, London.

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