Much of the 20th century’s most iconic art movements—and artworks—were uniquely American: Pollock’s drip paintings took abstraction to their logical end, whilst Warhol and other Pop artists redefined art in a new world of commercialism and mass media. However, America, After the Fall is a rare and insightful look at a younger America that was still not sure of itself and its identity, especially during a period of global instability and war in the 1930s. Held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, it features a selection of paintings that offer key insight into a turbulent, yet defining times of a country.
The phrase in the title of this exhibition, After the Fall refers to the state of the USA in the 1930s, after the Great Depression: during the rise of dictatorships and violence in Europe. As with any period in the history of art, the main question the exhibition seeks to answer, is how did artists respond to their social conditions? In this exhibition, the question becomes, how did artists paint the hopes, dreams and fears about their country?
This is a complicated question to answer, as America is enormous and there are many, contradictory ideas of nationhood. However, the curators create a remarkably cohesive exhibition by framing the issue as a struggle between modernity and a rural past. For instance, the section entitled City Life contains artists such as Edward Hopper, which portrays the lives of people in urban landscapes that revel in the endurance of everyday, city life. Other artists, such as Charles Sheeler, showcase the power of industrialisation: a booming industry offering a glimmer of economic hope during a time of great poverty.
Contradictory to these artists who embrace modernity, are the Regionalists. Perhaps the most memorable section of the exhibition, this movement found comfort in a rural past, harking back to colonial America. The highlight (not only of this section, but perhaps of the entire exhibition) is Grant Wood’s iconic painting, American Gothic. One of the most recognisable works of art, the portrait gets its own wall, on the furthest end of the gallery. This is the first time it has been shown outside the USA. It’s infamous depiction of the farming couple: their conservative seriousness evident in their grim expressions and Puritan-style clothing (out of place in a 1930s America) shows that Grant Wood and his contemporaries openly reveled in a simpler—and idealised— vision of their country. Wood, for instance, quite infamously detested cities.
However, as we can see by our world today, the Regionalists could not stop the modernising forces that would come to shape our world. This is only reinforced by the concluding section of the collection, entitled Looking to the Future. The ‘future’, here, not only refers to modernity in life, but also to the death of traditional art.
This is the room where we see artists exploring abstraction, influenced by European contemporaries such as Kandinsky and the Cubists. In this final section, we see the traces of what will become giants in the 20th century: an early Kandinsky, a Pollock piece from a period where he was torn between representation and abstraction. It is in this room where we can retrospectively trace the inception of American art in the 20th century.
That is the cleverness that lies in America after the Fall. Although it presents many contradictory views of America, the exhibition is always reminding us how the country will come to redefine art in the future, thus tying all the disparate threads of America together through this knowledge. For instance, we are made aware that Wood’s deification of the countryside is futile, just as we know that Pollock’s early reliance on representative art will not last. That is what makes America After the Fall, Painting in the 1930s, a success: the fact that they are willing to go beyond this period and anticipate the future.