America’s cool Modernism at The Ashmolean, Oxford
This is a beautiful show, with incredible paintings by artists such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’ Keeffe, Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler all on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.
In the Jazz Age of the ‘roaring’ 20s, and the ensuing Great Depression of the 30s, many American artists expressed their uncertainty about the rapid modernisation and urbanisation of their country by producing work that had a cool, controlled detachment and a smooth, precise finish. It seems to be their statement about this changing world and speaks of a powerlessness to control or prevent it or the corresponding effect on the population.
There are no figures in the paintings and this gives the overwhelming feeling of emptiness and loneliness. I was reminded of the literature of that period, novels full of lone characters forging their way through poverty and depression in the world, as Tom Joad was in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”.
The artists used muted colour palettes with beautiful, yet sparse, splashes of colour which are moving and atmospheric. In this respect, I loved Edward Hopper’s “Dawn in Pennsylvania”. I looked at it for a long time, trying to determine how he achieved the duck-egg blue that so beautifully invokes dawn.
I also appreciated the cool, clean lines of Ralston Crawford’s “Buffalo Grain Elevators”, capturing how these stark structures puncture our skylines. It reminded me of the abandoned cement works near where I live that I painted before they pulled them down some years ago. Painting is often a record of history. Just as journalists do, as artists we report our vision of the world.
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