The Royal Academy is staging its own early 20th century Cold War this spring with its concurrent hosting of America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s and Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932. Upstairs in the Sackler Gallery, above the vivid Revolution roaring downstairs, is a more solemn exhibition exploring an America grappling with its own identity as its rural past meets its industrial future. The 1930s were a turbulent time in the United States’ history and many artists used their art to respond to the rapid social change and economic anxiety of the period. In 1929, following the Wall Street Crash, the USA looked inwards and the 30s would become a decade that defined Modern Art.
Beginning with portrayals of New York, the exhibition plays with the paradoxes of a divided nation. By 1930 more than half of the US population lived in cities, with the city of New York having boomed in previous decades. Charles Green Shaw’s Wrigley’s (1937) begins a gallery of optimism displaying the branded perfection of Wrigley’s chewing gum flying across a Cubist New York skyline. Directly opposite hangs the abstract New York -Paris No. 3 (1931) by Stuart Davis who, in an explosion of colour, layers the iconic architecture of both cities into the single space. The new and modern New York, as exemplified by this “perfect gum”, is holding its own against the classical beauty of established European centres.
As the viewer progresses into a section of the exhibition entitled “City Life”, Edward Hopper moves beyond the skylines to examine individual and personal stories. New York Movie (1939) shows a place where the city’s inhabitants can escape reality, if only for a few hours. One’s eyes are drawn to the lighted usher on the right leaning gracefully against the wall in a pose that implies boredom as she is caught up in a daydream. The illusory world of the movie theatre is enticing, but also empty and isolating. While the departure from the everyday has an air of grandeur, Hopper skilfully depicts the melancholy and isolating nature of city life. This isolation stands in stark contrast to the painting’s neighbour, Reginald Marsh’s Twenty Cent Movie (1936). Here the crowds of people present a spectacle, and the tones are far more vivid. These conflicting feelings of fulfilment and emptiness set the tone for an exhibition full of opposites.
While the centrepiece for the exhibition is undoubtedly American Gothic (1930), on its first ever excursion from North American soil, it is Hopper’s other piece Gas (1940), tucked away in a corner, that speaks greater volumes about the transitional America on display. Despite its warm tones and soft lighting, the piece examines the desolation of change. Here the viewer is at the borderline; the road is about to give way to the darkening wood behind, and the station acts as a last outpost on the verge of closing for the evening. Its swinging sign mimics the days of the Coaching Inns of the past as the solitary figure moves into central view. This is certainly the road to nowhere, an America that is full of anxiety for the journey ahead.
The opening depictions of buzzing cities, industry, and skylines begin to give way to pastoral scenes following on from Gas as if we ourselves have made the journey. However, instead of moving forward it feels as if one has stepped even further into the past. In response to the transformation befalling America, as well as shifting demographic and geographical trends, the artists on display appear to have consciously constructed more idyllic images that are not reflective of this change. At the centre of this is the cover image for the exhibition: Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930). This iconic painting portrays two figures, who appear to be father and daughter, standing outside their farmhouse, modelled excellently by Wood’s sister and dentist. The highly detailed and polished piece offers a throwback to the Flemish Renaissance, and Wood intended the piece to be a reassuring and positive statement in a time of increasing change, although it is often perceived as satire. A personal favourite take on this image is that created by The Muppets, with Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog switching places; unfortunately, but probably understandably, this has not been included by the Royal Academy.
The final room offers a darker take on the changes that America was undergoing in this period. Dystopian images are at the centre of this part of the exhibition, and the landscapes become almost unrecognisable. In one corner a solitary Georgia O’Keefe painting of a cattle skull gestures at potential desolation and an end to the farming scenes. One of the harrowing last sights is Joe Jones’ American Justice (1933), a particularly poignant reminder, given the current climate, of the future that followed the 1930s. A dead black woman lies at the forefront of the painting, a dog howls next to her partially naked body. At the centre dangles a noose from a tree with a house burning in the backdrop and the Ku Klux Klan loom in the background. Here is a very different United States from that displayed in those first images of dancing in Manhattan. Through situating Jones’s depiction of the extreme violence inherent in America’s racial history (a violence that was in no way near to abating in 1933) amongst a selection of 1930s dystopian imaginings of the country’s future, America After the Fall allows its audience a space to consider the atrocities that were to follow the creation of these paintings as well as the past that inspired them. America After the Fall charts the varied artistic output of a troubled nation reeling from an economic crash. Given the similarity of our own present situation, it is important that we pay attention.
America After the Fall continues at the Royal Academy until June 4th. Tickets and further information can be found here.
 Gallery notes, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s