America After the Fall at the Royal Academy of Arts
The 1930s: economic turmoil, political dissatisfaction and militant nationalism on the rise. It’s a set of circumstances that sound worryingly familiar today and for this reason America After the Fall at the Royal Academy couldn’t be more appropriately timed. This neatly formed exhibition offers an insight into the socio-political context of 1930s America and demonstrates the reactions of painters working across a range of movements and styles.
The show is arranged around thematic sections, such as “Industrial Life”, “Looking to the Past”, “Visions of Dystopia” and “Country Life”. These themes are used to demonstrate how different artists often reacted to the same issues in very different ways. For example, New York-based artists offer a vision of the city as a vibrant cultural melting pot – flawed, but certainly never dull. In 1934, Paul Cadmus’s painting The Fleet’s In! caused a scandal because of its depiction of rowdy sailors getting drunk and chatting up flirtatious women (and men). The US Navy even banned it from being exhibited; nowadays it forms part of their art collection.
Hanging elsewhere, however, is Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic (1930). This sombre depiction of a pitchfork-clutching farmer and his daughter is a nostalgic vision of an older, bucolic society – something that was quickly disappearing in the US with the rise of industrialisation and urbanisation.
However, there remains something unsettling about this iconic work: a lingering unhappiness, a sense that the painting’s subjects are misfits in some way. It is this feeling of unease that the exhibition draws out well. It effectively shows how artists were uncertain about how to respond to these difficult times, when problems loomed both internally (the Wall Street Crash) and externally (the immigration of Europeans fleeing fascism in Europe). From intense realism to abstract gestures, the diversity of work on display is striking.
Don’t miss this small but powerful exhibition for a snapshot of America caught in the turbulence of the 1930s.
America After the Fall is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 25th February until 4th June 2017, for further information visit here.