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Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties

DATES October 28, 2011 through January 29, 2012
  • YOUTH & BEAUTY Art of the American Twenties
    Few moments in American cultural history are as readily recognized as the “roaring” twenties—their mere mention conjures dynamic images of flappers, Fords, and skyscraper cities. And yet, American artists responded to this dizzying new modern world with art that evoked stillness, clarity, and order. The works on view in these galleries, all dating from 1920 to 1929, represent the efforts of sixty-seven painters, sculptors, and photographers to express their individual responses to the cultural upheaval that occurred in the interval framed by the aftermath of the Great War and the onset of the Great Depression. Confronted with a population and an environment that was newly, and permanently, altered by a sweeping wave of mechanization and urbanization, artists coined a lean modern realism to process an overwhelming barrage of stimuli and to create something authentic and grounded. Though long perceived as entirely conventional, this new brand of realism is tellingly inscribed with the dislocations and adaptive struggles of the individual in a profoundly changed world. One quickly comes to recognize works of American art created during the decade of the twenties. They are objects in which opposites appear to meet and recombine: formal perfection with blunt immediacy; visual clarity with an erasure of detail. In the new realism that typified American art of the decade, liberated modern bodies resonate with classical ideals, the teeming modern city is rendered empty and silent, and still life is pared to an essentialized clarity. Rising to a self-imposed challenge, American artists sought to be vividly present and emphatically modern—to extend, in the words of Thomas Hart Benton, “new feelers for new realities.” Their modernity was evinced, above all, in a desire for direct engagement, a faith in the potency of youth, and a belief in the sustaining value of beauty.

    Teresa A. Carbone
    Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art
  • BODY LANGUAGE Liberation and Restraint in Twenties Figuration
    Throughout the twenties, American artists, as never before, addressed the physical fact of the human body in a stunning array of subjects. Conditioned by popularized theories of “healthy-body culture” and Freudian psychoanalysis, and by the newly body-centric advertising and motion-picture industries, this generation embraced ideals of physical perfection and sexual liberation, and represented the human form unmasked and at close range. Equally mindful of the increasingly pernicious effect of machines on American lives and bodies, they created figural art that was deliberately natural in its emulation of the precisely graceful lines and polished volumes of Italian Renaissance models.

    While paralleling the contemporaneous European style known as the “call to order,” which has been interpreted as a response to the horrors and destabilization wrought by the First World War, the idealized realism of these American figure subjects speaks less of postwar recuperation than of liberation—the physical and sensual American body freed from restrictions. And yet, American figurative art of the twenties is insistently restrained—stilled and weighty—especially in the context of the accelerated energy and activity of a new, urban-industrial consumer society. Its modernity lies precisely in this uneasy reconciliation of liberation and restraint. The exposed body was the source of both euphoria and apprehension during the twenties: the body was judged as often as it was celebrated. While the decade’s figurative art rarely presented overtly moralizing narratives, it was deeply invested with the idea of a “right” kind of body presence: an emphatic but disciplined physicality that was described at the time as “clean.” The twenties motif in which these qualities merged most naturally was that of the modern swimmer or bather, who appears fit, pristine, and boldly exposed.
    Throughout the twenties, many American artists sought a new and liberating aesthetic with natural physicality as its ideal. At the same time, they averted their attention from the explicit sexuality that was increasingly a feature of popular culture. Seeking more subtle ways to “dip down into the living stuff,” in the words of the writer Sherwood Anderson, they suggested physical intimacy through images that conveyed an attentive proximity to the body or presented suggestive natural forms as bodily surrogates. Addressing the vibrant physical presence of limbs, torsos, leaves, flowers, and shells, artists suggested an alternative to a numbed and routinized modern existence.

    The intense observation behind the creation of these works—a reckoning with vivid living forms and physical interconnectedness—established the artistic process itself as natural, active, and sensual. With this in mind, twenties artists extended the use of the word clean to denote the directness and honesty of their personal experience, their creative process, and their visual expression. The representation of revelatory contact with the living world remained pivotal to their personal and artistic liberation during the twenties.
  • HEROICS Power, Movement, and the New Body
    Every aspect of modern life posed challenges to the physical integrity of the body. For an American population that was, for the first time, more urban than rural, and whose physical routines were dramatically reformulated by automated labor and travel, as well as by modern eating habits and processed foods, new concerns arose about how to relieve and rejuvenate overtaxed, overstimulated bodies and brains. Amid this dilemma, artists celebrated the heroic human form in art that suggested the ideal body’s potential force and dynamism. While inspired by sources in classical and Renaissance art, these works also shared an investment in the restoration of bodily wholeness that must be viewed against the backdrop of the devastation recently wrought by World War I.

    American artists represented the body empowered not only by its ideal physique but also by new and liberating forms of dance performed in outdoor theaters, on burlesque stages, and in urban nightclubs. Liberated by unfettered modern styles or nearly nude, bodies were transformed by choreographies based in exuberantly unrestricted movement. As swimsuits revealed arms and legs, new dances proved that those limbs could move freely and with abandon.
  • MODERNITY AT THE KITCHEN TABLE American Still Life in the Twenties
    In the twenties, still life became a favorite genre for localizing, or bringing close to home, the pressures and pleasures of modernity. William Carlos Williams, a leading twenties poet famous for his imperative “no ideas but in things” and for his insistence on an American idiom, understood still life’s potential to express not only personal feeling but the individual’s relationship to the dynamic American environment. This same desire to explore ideas in things, the universal in the local, motivated many of the still-life artists of the twenties.

    American still life of the twenties often suggests the tensions then building within modern everyday life: an increasingly industrialized America intruding on an older agrarian tradition; or a new erotic openness and assertive self-fashioning unsettling conventional codes of beauty, modesty, and social interaction. For the first time in American art, manufactured soup cans, safety razors, and cocktail shakers competed with the natural forms of eggs, apples, and calla lilies for a role in the paintings and photographs that embodied modern habits and values. In these distilled and meticulously described formal arrangements, artists sometimes harmonized prevailing frictions and at other times exposed the era’s more anxious energy.
  • CLOSE-UPS Scrutiny, Perfection, and the Twenties Portrait
    Although the all-consuming preoccupation with the body would seem to have left little room for consideration of the face, portraits were a vital aspect of twenties art. Taking a cue from advertising and the movies, these images fixed on the close-up as the new portrait form of choice. Whether in the context of a cosmetics ad or a refined commissioned portrait, modern close-up portraits participated in the exacting new standards of external beauty, and they often suggested the process of self-scrutiny that these standards required.

    The modern close-up, through which artists attempted to see further “into” their subjects, also implied a deeper level of contact with an individual. Photographers, in particular, empowered by their cameras and the new straight photographic aesthetic, aimed for proximity and clarity as markers of visual truth. It was, of course, entirely in keeping with the age of Freud that an external likeness was considered to offer only a hint of the complex psyche of any individual. The knowledge that there was more than meets the eye may have been what motivated so many artists to create portraits that conveyed reserve or inaccessibility. One might study a face with the expectation of discovery, but that discovery was likely to be incomplete.
  • SILENT PICTURES Encounters with a Remade World
    Throughout the twenties, cities and their outskirts were changing radically before the eyes of their inhabitants. Unsettled by their altered world and its difference from the mostly rural, traditional environments in which they had been raised, artists shifted uneasily between a brave embrace of the exciting new urban-industrial realities of scale, speed, and sound, and a visceral revulsion toward the same. Skyscrapers and industrial structures were awe-inspiring in their machined precision and lofty functionality, but urban crowding and the human toll of the punishing effects of mechanized labor were equally pressing realities. In their effort to respond to this proliferating new environment, visual artists, unlike the decade’s writers, edited out the crowds, clamor, and conflict, and only rarely represented the inhabitants of the American environment. Most embraced a reductive realism that transformed the daunting modern world into something more contained and knowable, even as cultural critics debated the impact of urban and industrial expansion on the individual and society.

    In this changing climate, critics and observers expected American artists to infuse their machine-age subjects with their own personal experience—to overcome, in a sense, the modern engineer’s denial of the natural or the intuitive. Artists conveyed their humanity and individuality in part through the vacancy and stillness that is a persistent feature of these works. Whether vertiginous visions of upward-surging skyscrapers or grounded perspectives of urban streets, these controlled and refined compositions suggest the desire to sustain an individualized life within the cacophonous universe of modern America.
  • UNEASY PEACE Views from the Road
    In the rare instances when young American artists represented figures in the landscape, the people tend to appear ill at ease in their surroundings or distanced as spectators. Encounters with the American landscape were reshaped in the twenties by the new ubiquity of automobiles (numbering 23 million by 1930) and the ninety-six thousand miles of national highway, created from 1921 to 1927, that transformed motoring into a necessity and a national pastime. While the automobile is virtually absent from American art of the decade, its presence is implied.

    For many Americans in the twenties, small villages and country settings offered respite from the noise, grit, and impersonality of the cities and industrial towns where they spent most of their time. Artists who sought a more authentic existence rooted in natural cadences and simple values were challenged to recast the subject matter of rural America in a formal language that conveyed both modernity and individuality. The spare and lucid realism they preferred was praised for its telling austerity and for its resonance with the naïve art of the country’s early American past.
  • CLEAR SIGHT The Revelation of Straight Photography
    Whether in portraits, body imagery, architectural views, machine subjects, or tabletop still lifes, incisive clarity and infinite tonal nuance are the hallmarks of twenties photography. Photographers at the forefront of the medium throughout the decade embraced the innovative approach and techniques of “straight” photography as pioneered in the United States by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, allowing the pure mechanical propensities of their cameras to determine the character of their photographic prints. In doing so, they rejected the decades-old practice of manipulating negatives or prints in order to achieve evocative “painterly” qualities thought to elevate photography to the status of high art. Exploiting the remarkable capability of their cameras to see and record more clearly, and with infinitely more detail, than the naked eye, practitioners of straight photography expressed their subjectivity in the deliberate selection of their subject matter, in their decisive framing and cropping, and in the authorial presence implied by the sheer immediacy of their photographs.
  • April 1, 2011 The Brooklyn Museum will present the first wide-ranging exploration of American art from the decade whose beginning and end were marked by the aftermath of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression. Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, which includes some 138 paintings, sculptures, and photographs by 67 artists, will be on view from October 28, 2011 through January 29, 2012 prior to a national tour.

    American life was dramatically transformed in the years following the Great War, as urbanization, industrialization, mechanization, and rampant materialism altered the environment and the way people lived. American artists responded to this dizzying modern world with works that embraced a new brand of idealized realism to evoke a seemingly perfect modern world. The twenties saw a vigorous renewal of figurative art that melded uninhibited body-consciousness with classical ideals. Wheareas images of the modern body were abundant, artists represented American places and things as distilled and largely uninhabited arrangements of pristine forms. Encompassing a wide array of artists, Youth and Beauty celebrates this striking and original modern art and questions its relation to the riotous decade from which it emerged.

    The first section of the exhibition’s two primary thematic sections is Body Language: Liberation and Restraint in Twenties Figuration, which investigates the realist portrait, naturally erotic figure subjects, and heroic types. Throughout the twenties, motion pictures, advertising, “healthy body culture,” and the theories of Sigmund Freud all contributed to an era of physical liberation, sensuality, and a near obsession with bodily perfection. Many artists celebrated the modern physical ideal in nude subjects that pictured the newly exposed body freed from conventional restrictions and empowered through fitness or liberating forms of dance. Artists also responded to the rising influence of urban black culture with representations of the idealized black body. Although startlingly direct, these images are also restrained in a way that suggests an uneasiness with the accelerated energy and action of modern life. Works that celebrate this controlled modern physicality include George Wesley Bellows 1924 Two Women, in which a nude and a fully clad figure are juxtaposed in a domestic setting; and Thomas Hart Benton’s 1922 Self-Portrait with Rita, which portrays the bare-chested artist beside his wife, who sports a daring body-revealing swimsuit. Works such as Alfred Stieglitz’s Rebecca Salisbury Strand, a voluptuous nude subject for which the wife of photographer Paul Strand served as a model, display a direct and frank sensuality. John Steuart Curry’s 1928 Bathers, a scene of robust male nudes cooling themselves in a water tank, channels heroic proportions and Renaissance ideals to foreground healthy physicality in an age of rampant automation and urbanization.

    The new realism was also apparent in portraits that portray natural beauty with decisive clarity and assertive immediacy. Often cast in the format of the newly popular “close-up,” twenties portraiture emerged from a culture in which advertising prompted rigorous self-scrutiny and current theories of psychology suggested complexly layered personalities. The portraits on view will include Luigi Lucioni’s magnetic 1928 likeness of the young artist Paul Cadmus; Imogen Cunningham’s intimate photograph of the seminal writer Sherwood Anderson; and Romaine Brooks’s stark 1924 portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge, lover of the English novelist Radclyffe Hall.

    The exhibition’s second half, Silent Pictures: Reckoning with a New World, explores subjects as diverse as still life and industrial and natural landscapes while highlighting their shared qualities of compositional refinement and muted expression. Painters and photographers depicted the ready-made geometries of industrial towers, stacks, and tanks, and the webs of struts and beams, with little reference to their utilitarian actualities or to human activity. In his masterful 1927 composition My Egypt, Charles Demuth transformed the functional architecture of a massive grain elevator complex into a transcendent composition swept by fanlike rays. Charles Sheeler paid homage to modern engineering in his pristine 1927 photograph Ford Plant, River Rouge, Blast Furnace and Dust Catcher, commissioned by Ford’s advertisers. In George Ault’s 1926 Brooklyn Ice House, the artist’s reductive treatment of the industrial buildings and playful description of a black smoke plume result in a compelling combination of the modern and the naive.

    Challenged by the sensory assault of the modern urban-industrial world around them, artists also portrayed American landscape settings as precisely distilled and largely uninhabited. Intent on maintaining their own individuality in a new era of mass-production and mass-market advertising, they described the features of more remote American places with a marked intensity and austerity. In Edward Hopper’s 1927 Lighthouse Hill, the forms of architecture and landscape are stripped of incidental details and cast in a transcendent raking light. Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1927 Lake George Barns (one of seven works by the artist in the exhibition), offers a similar hybrid realism, as does Ansel Adams’s 1929 photograph of the sculptural Church at Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico.

    In their still-life compositions, American artists of the twenties applied a modernist penchant for essential form to exacting arrangements of insistently simple things. Objects as disparate as flowers, soup cans, razors, eggs, and cocktail shakers, appear in compositions that suggest the new tensions between the traditional and the modern in art and in life. Twenties images such as Peter Blume’s Vegetable Dinner, in which one modern woman enjoys a cigarette while her counterpart peels some humble vegetables, prompts consideration of the individual’s relationship to the larger material world. Imogen Cunningham’s 1929 photograph Calla Lilies embodies a precise, natural perfection akin to modern body ideals, while Gerald Murphy’s 1924 Razor employs a hard-edged billboard aesthetic to foreground the required accessories of the well-groomed modern man.

    The exhibition has been organized by Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Following the Brooklyn presentation it will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art, Texas (March 4-May 27, 2012) and to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio (July 1-September 16, 2012).

    A multi-author exhibition catalogue co-published by the Brooklyn Museum and Skira Rizzoli accompanies the exhibition. The first publication solely devoted to an overview of American painting, sculpture, and photography of the 1920s, it includes essays by Dr. Carbone; Dr. Sarah M. Lowe, a leading historian of modernist photography; Dr. Bonnie Costello, Professor of English, Boston University; and Dr. Randall R. Griffey, Curator of American Art, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College.

    Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties is made possible by the Henry Luce Foundation. Additional support has been provided by The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, and Sotheby’s.

    The accompanying catalogue is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and a Brooklyn Museum publications endowment established by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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