The current moment is not the first time the idea of America as the “city on a hill” has started to wobble. But Trump’s nation has yet to reach the levels of introspection and uncertainty that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the “Dust Bowl” agricultural crisis shortly afterwards. The 1930s signalled a wholesale reassessment of the American dream (a phrase first coined in 1931): the belief that anyone could make it big was now dosed with the chilling realisation that anyone could also lose their job, home and dignity – and the number of people who did remains staggering.
In the years immediately following the crash, 13 million workers became unemployed and a million families lost their farms. The country with the world’s highest standard of living suddenly found itself confronting a 40 per cent reduction in annual family income, a 45 per cent decline in industrial production, and a stock market that had lost 90 per cent of its value.
The responses of America’s artists to the Great Depression mirrored those of the rest of the population: they looked, bewildered, for answers in both the nostalgic and the forward-facing, town and country, the industrial and the artisanal, the nation and the world at large. And they, too, veered between pessimism and optimism.
The crisis also jolted American art away from the highfalutin and numinous and forced it to confront harsh realities. In doing so it gained an identity. Previously, apart from the mid-19th-century Hudson River School of landscapists, the country had largely looked to Europe for inspiration – first to the impressionists, then the post-impressionists and then to the cubists. The Depression helped to group together such disparate individualists as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Grant Wood and even Jackson Pollock into something approaching a national caucus. Franklin D Roosevelt, the author of the New Deal, said: “Art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another land, but part of the present life of all living and creating peoples.” America’s artists, by inventing a national iconography, had a role to play in the way their country negotiated the Depression.
The nature of this role is illuminated by the 45 pictures by 32 artists, which date from 1929 to America’s entry into the Second World War in 1941, in “America After the Fall” at the Royal Academy in London. It is a fascinating exhibition, not only for the multiplicity of artistic responses to the unprecedented challenges of the decade, but also for introducing a plethora of little-known painters and unfamiliar pictures. The overriding image of the hardship of the 1930s has been shaped by John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and photographs by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans – all those impoverished sharecroppers enduring without hope – and this show presents the painters’ equivalents.
It was agriculture that highlighted most clearly the lack of artistic consensus. Some regionalist painters, among them Thomas Hart Benton (Jackson Pollock’s teacher) and Grant Wood, depicted farm life not as a struggle against drought, failing crops and soil degradation, but as an Arcadia; others, such as Charles Sheeler, painted cityscapes, seeing America’s industrial centres as the last, best hope for economic redemption. Wood’s land of plenty, all rolling hills and fields surrounded by pillowy trees positively popping with fecundity, resembles Samuel Palmer’s idylls of 1820s Kent every bit as much as his native Iowa.
There is no worm in the apple, no whispered et in Arcadia ego here. Paintings such as Young Corn and Fall Plowing, both from 1931, are paeans to well-being not hardship; they are works of denial. The unreality of Wood’s calls on a mythical past are highlighted by American Gothic (1930), one of the most riffed-on paintings in art and which has now left North America for the first time in its history.
This picture has long been an emblem as much as a work of art, showing the sort of Puritan, no-nonsense, fustian farmer and wife held to embody American values. In reality, the models are not farmers at all but Wood’s sister, Nan, and his dentist, Dr Byron McKeeby (and were meant to show not a husband and wife but a father and daughter – “tintypes from my old family album”, as Wood put it). The painting’s title comes partly from the house shown, built in the vernacular “Carpenter Gothic” style, but also from Wood’s borrowings from 15th-century Flemish art by the likes of Hans Memling. For an image celebrated as an exemplar of authentic American principles this is not an authentic painting at all. Wood was not alone in his antebellum yearning: it was also the era of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936).
Hart Benton, in a work such as Cotton Pickers, presented a more realistic but still predominantly gentle – though disquieting – image of black workers in the fields. At the turn of the 20th century two-thirds of the Midwest’s yeoman farmers were foreign-born, and agriculture in the South relied on African Americans too poor to leave for the cities. However, even Benton’s evident sympathy for the working classes was not enough for the likes of Joe Jones and Alexandre Hogue. Hogue’s Erosion No 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936), for example, is an extraordinary allegorical image of anthropomorphised erosion: the earth in front of an abandoned homestead has been stripped of soil by sun and wind to expose the womanly form beneath, a cross between a sex doll and a balloon figure, and just as barren.
Jones, a member of the Communist Party, was every bit as uncompromising when depicting another trait of the Great Depression in the South. American Justice (1933) shows one of the lynchings that had become increasingly commonplace, in part under pressure from economic competition that aggravated the existing racism. Between 1932 and 1933 documented lynchings increased fourfold but Congress nevertheless repeatedly refused to pass anti-lynching legislation. Jones’s painting shows a black woman stripped to the waist and prone in front of a noose-bearing tree and a group of Klansmen who have just torched her house. When it was met with fierce criticism, his response was to liken the picture to a Renaissance crucifixion: both showed mob violence, he pointed out, but why was only one seen as beautiful and sacred?
Fall Plowing by Grant Wood
Roosevelt’s New Deal, with its make-work schemes, did much to rebalance the economy, and initiatives such as the 1933-34 Public Works of Art Project – which commissioned artists to paint realistic American scenes for government buildings, schools, post offices and community centres – saved many from the breadline (Nation magazine called the Depression the best thing ever to happen to American artists). Yet fear and death nevertheless stalk many of the pictures in the exhibition.
It emerges in numerous forms. Take John Steuart Curry’s Hogs Killing a Snake (c.1930), a painting of elemental violence, full of energy and menace, though without apparent meaning. Although the encounter between seven pigs and the hissing snake they are about to tear to pieces takes place under an apple tree, the biblical references don’t coalesce into a message.
Even the rose-tinted Grant Wood wasn’t immune to the threat of violence. His Death on the Ridge Road (1935) shows a country lane the instant before a sleek saloon car and a lorry are about to collide on the brow of a hill. It is a painting of skewed perspective and pulp-fiction drama that originated in Wood being a nervous driver, and in an incident when a close friend and his wife were hit by a truck while driving. The picture was subsequently bought by Cole Porter as a grisly you’re-better-off-with-me reminder to his wife, whose ex-husband was the first American to kill someone in a car accident.
The rise of fascism in Europe also added threatening overtones, especially for those artists who had visited or been influenced by European trends. The German and Italian bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in 1937 served as a portent, but also as a reminder that despite an improving economic situation, the darkness of the Depression had not lifted. Philip Guston painted the atrocity in Bombardment (1937), which uses a circular, tondo format from the Renaissance and shows bodies being hurled centrifugally almost out of the picture by an explosion in the middle.
O Louis Guglielmi envisaged what such a bombing might mean for America in a surreal fantasy called Mental Geography (1938), in which the Brooklyn Bridge is shown as a mass of twisted metal and shattered piers: “The rivers of Spain flowed to the Atlantic and mixed with our waters as well,” he said. Meanwhile, Jackson Pollock saw Picasso’s great Guernica when it was exhibited in New York and the memory of it is evident in Untitled (c.1938-41), a painting on canvas that apes a mural and uses not just Picasso’s concertinaing of space, but even the celebrated motif of the screaming horse.
Small wonder, perhaps, that Americans sought relief in the escapism of the cinema. Yet it wasn’t a given that they would find it. Edward Hopper’s New York Movie (1939) depicts a half-empty cinema with a blonde usherette standing in an aisle to the side, lost in her own thoughts as the film plays. With her eyes half closed and chin on her hand, there is no escape for her – from ennui, loneliness, heartbreak or work. No such introspection for Reginald Marsh, a man who was once a staff artist for the New York Daily News. In Twenty Cent Movie (1936), he shows the bustling scene at the entrance to a movie theatre. A crowded image, it is full of visual asides and flashes of humour, such as two dolled-up young women standing underneath a poster bearing the words “STRIPPED BARE”, part of a critic’s praise for the film showing. Opposite them is a nattily dressed man beneath a poster emblazoned with “Joys of the Flesh”. Whoever these people are waiting for, the main feature they have in mind is not the movie.
Paul Cadmus was more explicit with The Fleet’s In! (1934), an image of drunken soldiers gathered at the edge of a park where they grope, solicit and fool around with a motley of streetwalkers and one gay man (Cadmus was gay). The cartoonish painting was a government commission but fell foul of a retired admiral who demanded its withdrawal from an exhibition because it demeaned the US navy. Needless to say, this act of censorship immediately made the painter and the painting famous.
Cadmus’s picture of sexually charged buffoonery – a scene he said he’d seen a hundred times – is also a representation of the fear of what tomorrow might bring. After all, why bother with decorum in either art or behaviour when the world is shifting on its axis? What lies behind this picture is what lies behind almost every painting in this subtly unsettling exhibition: anxiety.
America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s uns until 4 June. For more details visit: royalacademy.org.uk
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again