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American Painting in the 1930’s – the Age of Anxiety at Musée de l’Orangerie

So we went  and saw the new exhibition at the museum of Orangerie. A cute little museum, that acts as an appendix to the Orsay (apart from the Monet’s Nymphs, its permanent setting features the less attractive and less known  works of the impressionist and post impressionist era) doesn’t really have the capacity to match larger museums and is not perceived as sporting the ambition to do so. Knowing that, and having the lowered expectations, we were pleasantly surprised (or perhaps it was exactly because the lowered expectations) by this exhibition.


At the entrance, the open with the expo’s most famous and prominent work, the Grant Wood’s American Gothic (featured here on the cover of the article as well as on the poster of the exhibition). What can you say about this painting that was not already said, many times over? Its cult status and the defining influence it had on the American culture are well known. If you are interested in the subject, we speak of it on our Art Nouveau tour – how the Gothic revival movement defined the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Suffice to say here that it didn’t disappoint in person, as it is as well made as one is inclined to think it would be. To offset our delight, on the wall just next to it is a rather horribly made Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting of a flower, that technically and in any other aspect is honestly nothing more than a blotch.


*An ulterior update on the Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting. After several of the readers have kindly pointed out that this is a harsh judgment that passes of as misogynistic and anti-feminist,  we aim to give further explanation. This painting is not deemed to be a blotch for what it represents (a flower as an image of a vulva) but for how it’s painted. As it was pointed out in our review of the Oscar Wilde’s exhibition, the main quality of a painting (as a visual medium) is in how it represents, not what it represents.  The fact that this painting has a feminist agenda has nothing to do with the fact that it is very-badly-painted. We are addressing the technique and the visual, plastic aspect of the work in question, not its content. So when it’s written  “that technically and in any other aspect is honestly nothing more than a blotch” it addresses the visual aspects of a painting. The very term “blotch” is used to denominate a visual blunder, not a conceptual one.*


But let’s go back to actual art, as there are plenty of great paintings in this exhibition.


Grant Wood’s style and skill are a pleasant surprise in person. You may not be a fan of this “naive” approach to painting and that particular aesthetics, much down the lines of Douanier Rousseau, whose works you can also check out in the regular, permanent exhibition of the Orangerie museum – but you can’t deny him skill and talent. The way he solved the space and the composition, the way he framed the dynamics of the movement, his color palette, it is all quite impressive. We’d dare say that he is even underrated as a painter. This statement merits a supplement explanation – off course, speaking of one of the most notorious american artists of all time, it is hard to pass the notion that he is underappreciated. However, his fame lies with the themes he used and with the supposed humor and irony he treated them with – this specially stands for his most well known work American Gothic. His style, however, rarely gets a mention, and there are a couple of paintings where he truly excels. Just take a look at this thing of beauty:



Grant Wood Death on the ridge road, 1935.


The simplicity and the dynamism of the painting, as well as the bold composition, are worthy of notice. Also, the implicit humor performed by the plastic aspects of the painting on the next one is very much worthy of mention:



Grant Wood, Daughters of revolution, 1932.


We could go on about how they are the “daughters of revolution” and not “the daughters of the revolution” – as if it’s the more general revolution and a more general notion of daughters of it, not the daughters of the american revolution, a very amero-centric view of the world, but we don’t deem it to be that relevant compared to the visual aspects of the painting. Finally there is this beauty of framing and composition and dynamism (coupled with such stilted scenery, that the contrast is really rather amazing) :



Grand Wood, Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931.


Much to our surprise (and misguided expectations) this exhibition was not solely made around the topic of american gothic and regionalism. It is actually meant to be a rather comprehensive study of the entire decade of the thirties. Plagued by the great economic crash of 1929, followed by the great depression, the period is one of America’s most (if not the most) difficult ones, where enthusiasm and faith in the “American Dream” came to a bitter and unresolvable clash with the harsh realities. “The roaring twenties” were over and here were the grim thirties. Some of elan was still there – admiration for the great space of the country, the large industry (as the first couple of painting are dedicated to industrial landscape made in a very idiosyncratic palette) and the relation the Americans had to its soil. So we see some idyllic sceneries, skillfully made by Grant Wood, contrasted to paintings such as this one, that have an overtly accusing tone :



Alexandre Hogue, Erosion or Mother Earth laid bare, 1936.


Not only that the mother Earth looks barren and striped of life, she also looks very plastic and fake. The core of any community and national pride is (and that was especially true back in the day) the relation to the soil. Here, the men of America have stripped the soil bare and basically killed it, turned it into a desert. There is no enthusiasm here, no hope – just bitterness. The simile  is direct and not at all elegant, but effective and apt.


Continuing through the exhibition, we get to visit several sections. Again, contrasted to the industrial decay and the broken promises of the American Dream, we have the vision of a city – flashy, colorful, aggressive and brash. Here would be a couple of examples:



  Reginald Marsh, Twenty cent movie, 1936.


There is an opulence of colors, good times are promised, but the scene looks stilted and sleazy. There is an air of darkness and vulgarity looming in this painting, as it well captures the malaise of the era. The next example does it in a more direct and brutal manner:


philip-evergood-dance-marathon-1934 Philip Evergood, The Dance Marathon, 1934.


The institution of a dance marathon is an especially dark and uncomfortable piece of american history related to the great depression and the thirties. If you’d like to know more about it, you can watch the They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,  a Sydney Pollack movie, a great depiction of the said phenomenon. Here, as well as in the previous, we see what kind of entertainment the city has to offer. It seems that this type of criticism is even harsher than the previous. So much so, in fact, that the artists of America are seriously doubting their ideology and the way of life. The thirties are also the era of the Soviet Union emerging as a great super-power and a considerable geopolitical factor – it was a time before it became associated with the Stalin’s strict regime and was considered a viable alternative to the current system. This painting of Lenin in the (american) desert stands as a testament to that, now hard to imagine, situation:


louis_guglielmi-phoenix-1935Phoenix, Louis Guglielmi, 1935.


Eternal city, Peter Bloom, 1937.


This particularly direct criticism of fascism targets Mussolini, represented as an angry jack in the box. It also accurately depicts the very intimate relationship between the aesthetics of neoclassicism and the aesthetics and indeed ideology of fascism. But more on that controversial topic later, in a different article altogether.  Seeing how the situation was so difficult, one part of the public turned to communist ideas, and the other to fascist ideas. As you can imagine, that left the society quite divided.

The criticism of the american society does not stop there. The next section, called The Nightmare and Reality, deals with the self-image of the artist, and it offers paintings filled with similar amount of hope (that is, none):



Portrait of the Artist as a Clown, Walt Kuhn, 1932.


Self-portrait, Ivan Albright, 1935.


Perhaps a personal favorite of our staff (that is,its section that went to see the exhibition), this painting not gives a great insight into a visually skillful representation of artistic despair, self-irony and self-deprecation (doing it more subtly than the previous one), but also clearly paved the way for the low-brow style that is yet to come. A great example and a treasure mine of reflexions to be taken from here. From here, the exhibition presents an early work of Jackson Pollock and shows how he emerged from this particular atmosphere as an artists. At the end of the visit, there is a large projector showing snippets from the cult movies associated with this era – Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, The Wizard of Oz, etc. It is a good way to give further info on this historic period so that the works of art could be better placed in a proper historical context.


So, our final thoughts ? It is a very good exhibition, largely thanks to  some truly excellent works of art it represented. While American Gothic by Grant Wood is the largest attraction of the show, there are many others (here we’ve only mentioned some that caught our attention) who deserve to be seen. Come for the American Gothic, stay for almost everything else. The only flaw would be the size of the exhibition, as you are left wanting more, but objectively the museum of that capacity could hardly pull it off. Be warned of the long waiting lines and a considerable crowd in a small space though. So, a hearty recommendation – don’t miss this one. It rarely happens that we, blazé and spoiled by an opulence of museums and exhibitions we get in Paris, get this enthusiastic about a show – this is one of those times.



New York movie, Edward Hopper, 1939.

(you didn’t think it could go without a Hopper painting, did you?)


Do you wish to know more on the period ? Book our Center Pompidou museum visit. Would you like a custom made tour of the Orangerie? Let us know and we’ll make it happen.


American Painting in the 1930’s – the Age of Anxiety

12th October 2016 to the 30th January 2017, Muséé national de l’Orangerie