The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 19 September – 13 December 2009
The American Scene chronicles American printmaking from the early 1900’s through to 1960, a timeframe of vast economic, political and social change. The vibrancy of the Jazz Age was culled by the crippling Depression, before the Second World War consumed all, and the post-war period slowly clawed away at regaining stability. All of which is detailed by this very real, very gritty exhibition.
Beginning with the urban, everyday etchings of John Sloan and the dark, brutal works of George Bellows in the early 1900’s, we are confronted with a harsh reality of violent American gutter life, from grubby prize-fighting to chaotic asylum wards and overcrowded high-rise tenements. It is a very savage, yet very honest, portrayal, as much engrossing as it is gruesome.
Cloud-piercing skyscrapers embodied the construction of the Modernist, industrial ideal in the 1910’s, especially the formidable, angular skyline of New York City. Louis Lozowick and Charles Sheeler’s precise, geometric representations of the Big Apple underpin the enormity and scale of such a bold industrial programme.
The optimism of the 1920’s, however, was swept aside following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, as the country itself crashed into economic hardship. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programme, however, in particular the Works Progress Administration, promoted the worth of the graphic arts, and commissioned the outlay of socially-centred prints, aimed at recording the economic plight and championing its recovery. We are thus presented with representations of both bleak working conditions, and bright illustrations of hope and prosperity.
The epic struggle of The Second World War demanded patriotic support, and printmaking was employed to promote the necessity and virtue of the war effort. Colourful nationalistic pride boasted of American might and the assurance of victory.
Following the realism and horror of war, abstract expressionism was elevated as a creative escape. The spontaneity of the works of Jackson Pollock offered a new, exciting release from the drudgery of the Depression and the war, honouring the experimental above the ordered.
This shift is outlined brilliantly by The American Scene, an exhibition that not only reflects the social conditions of the time, but doggedly drags us in to experience them ourselves. We feel the grittiness of underground city life, witness the sorrow of the Depression and sense the patriotism of the Second World War. It is an engaging, sometimes sombre, sometimes exciting, timeline of real American life, dark and dirty, yet passionate and busy.