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Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties

on October 5, 2011 – 3:34 am

Paul Cadmus, 1928 by Luigi Lucioni (1900–1988)
Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund.

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.

Gloria Swanson, circa 1925 by Nickolas Muray (1892–1965)
Gelatin silver print. George Eastman House, International Museum
of Photography and Film, Rochester, New York.
Gift of Mrs. Nickolas Muray. © Estate of Nickolas Muray

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. Whereas 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.

Self-Portrait with Rita, 1922 by Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)
Oil on canvas. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Art Resource, NY

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 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.

Brooklyn Ice House, 1926 by George Copeland Ault (1891–1948)
Oil on canvas. Newark Museum, Purchase 1928 The General Fund

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 fan like 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 similar hybrid realism, as does Ansel Adams’s 1929 photograph of the sculptural Church at Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico.

Vegetable Dinner, 1927 by Peter Blume (1906–1992)
Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum
© Estate of Peter Blume / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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.

Following the Brooklyn presentation, the exhibition will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art, Texas and to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio. A multi-author exhibition catalogue accompanies the exhibition, the first publication solely devoted to an overview of American painting, sculpture, and photography of the 1920s.