The star attraction at the Royal Academy’s America After the Fall exhibition is ‘American Gothic’, Grant Wood’s iconic portrait of a stony-faced mid-western couple outside their home during the Great Depression, the man clutching a pitchfork, the woman dressed in the bleak garb of the 19th century. That it’s the highlight is unsurprising; despite its fame, this is the first time Wood’s painting has been shown outside of North America since it was completed in 1930. And while like the Mona Lisa it is smaller than you might expect, it’s still fascinating to regard, given its place in cultural history and the myriad pastiches of it over the years.
American Gothic is only one of several of Wood’s paintings on display, however, and his other works are just as much of a draw in an exhibition that brings together household names and artists who are far less well known but were equally as visionary. Two of Wood’s paintings stand out in particular; both scenes of corn fields; bucolic vistas offering a love letter to a fading way of life, but with a surreal element to them. The trees are plump, almost cartoonish, the fields gleaming, the treasures of nature larger than life; sending a message of optimism that bountiful times will return.
Indeed, much of the artwork displayed here tells an optimistic story. Despite spanning arguably America’s darkest decade of modern history, when the Dust Bowl decimated rural living and and economic hardship swept the nation – the ‘Fall’ of the exhibition’s title – there are few Dorothea Lange-esque images of hungry children, hoovervilles, or down-and-outs on the breadline.
But nor is America after the Fall a Norman Rockwell-esque whitewash of history – Joe Jones’s viscerally shocking 1933 work American Justice puts paid to that, depicting as it does a black woman who has presumably been raped lying in anguish against a backdrop of Klu Klux Klan members, a noose and house in flames. Though this was the era that the term ‘American Dream’ was coined, the exhibition focuses on art that provided social commentary, not propaganda.
Overall, it comes across as a paean to a singularly American stoicism and survival; the townsfolk sharing a Church Meal in Paul Sample’s painting seem to be enduring the hand they have been dealt, even if they are not exactly enjoying it. So the curators have chosen industrial scenes highlighting the nation’s resilience – a painting of a trade union leader considering a Daily Worker headline about strike action, for example – along with artworks created in the context of the bicentenary of George Washington’s birth. And of course entertainment; from Arthur Dove’s abstract bringing to life Louis Armstrong’s transformative music in a rush of reds and greys, to Reginald Marsh’s Twenty Cent Movie, in which fashionable types spill out of a movie theatre adorned with hyperbolic posters and a headshot of a glamorous movie star.
The influence of European artists at the time is made clear, as cubism and other abstract trends crowd out more traditional styles, and the paintings become gradually darker and more foreboding (take, for example, Wood’s Death on Ridge Road; in which a series of cars hurtle into an apocalyptic grey, the telephone poles astride the road forming crosses as if the drivers are already in some kind of afterlife). But in fact a variety of styles are on display, echoing the melting pot the country was at the time. There are only faint traces of the American-led traditions that would dominate the art world in the subsequent decades, from abstract expressionism to pop art, as with Charles Green Shaw’s painting of a chewing gum packet elevated against a Manhattan skyline.
With 45 paintings on show, including an early Jackson Pollock, a Georgia O’Keefe and several Edward Hoppers, it’s a slice of pre-war American art rather than a comprehensive showcase. But that serves to make America after the Fall all the better, since it gives you leave to fully contemplate what has been included. A celebration of how painters addressed the social and political upheaval of the 1930s, it leaves you wondering just America’s artists will respond to the unpredictability of the present era.
America after the Fall is at the Royal Academy until 4th June. Tickets are £13.50.