Art Review: America after the Fall at the Royal Academy

Upstairs at the Royal Academy, the pokey Sackler Wing bursts with a tremendous energy that encapsulates the despair, hope, fear and nostalgia that consumed 1930s America during a time of great uncertainty. This is an exhibition that, with its wild diversity, refuses to let you get comfortable.

Visitors are thrown into a loud and bustling expressionist-led New York with Paul Cadmus’ rowdy drunk sailors and Philip Evergood’s dance marathon contestants edging closer to a brutal collapse as they desperately yet barely carry on. Away from the crowds, Edward Hopper’s lone usherette in New York Movie is bored waiting for the picture to finish for yet another night.

Amidst the growing industry in the city, workers strive for empowerment. In Aaron Douglas’ Aspiration, the shackled arms of African American slaves wave underneath the defiant purple silhouettes of their descendents firmly grasping industrial tools and boldly pointing towards a towering city on a hill. Pat Whalen, an Irish-American union leader and one of many political figures painted by Alice Neel, gazes determinedly with strong fists firmly placed atop a local Communist newspaper.

Meanwhile in the country, a yearning for a return to a homely past emerges as locals desert the fields in favour of the cities’ factories. Worlds away from the radical new European influences that urban dwelling artists had started to adopt, Doris Lee’s Thanksgiving could be a charming illustration straight out of a cosy children’s book with women cheerfully preparing a family dinner while excited babies and pets play around them.

The sullen-faced father and daughter in Grant Wood’s realism icon American Gothic have, aside from their assumed seriousness, a sense of vulnerability. With his pitchfork and her 19th century dress, Wood’s pair are determined to stoically cling onto their traditions yet their eyes betray a touch of sadness, maybe even defeat.

Horror was inescapable in 1930s America as we bear witness to an unstoppable crash in Grant Wood’s Death on the Ridge Road and Joe Jones’ corpse of a naked black woman raped and lynched by a Klan mob in American Justice. Overseas, fascism rose and war erupted. Philip Guston’s Bombardment was a reaction to the death of Spanish civilians by General Franco’s warplanes. Guston captures a moment of sheer terror through a mural-esque tondo that unflinchingly zooms in on the atrocity - this a scene not just from Spain, but of humanity the world over.

Many of the paintings in America after the Fall are over eighty years old yet, when the contrasting ideas in reaction to economic upheaval are put in the same space, they feel eerily current. Maybe history does repeat itself.


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