Fear, paranoia, anger, poverty, conservatism, unemployment. Sound familiar? 1930s America bears a worrying resemblance to 2017 America: a bubbling cauldron of toxic ingredients, an angry, disenfranchised population, crushed by failure and trying desperately to pull themselves out of the mire.
The triggers were the 1929 Wall Street crash, the Great Depression that followed, and the devastating drought that decimated the American farming industry. Suddenly, rural America was being abandoned en masse for the cities. The paintings in the opening room here are filled with the hope of urbanity. A young black couple heading for evening out in Harlem; muscular workers pointing to bright city lights; people gyrating in dance competitions. There are gigantic hulking machines and drunken sailors lolling about on shore leave.
But the cracks are starting to show: disenchanted black workers, exhausted union leaders. Edward Hopper’s crisp, minimal, iconic works are full of dark sadness. A solitary man struggling at a gas pump; a woman, tense and forlorn, hiding in the corner of a cinema. Not all the paintings here are good, let alone great, but what a story: the American Dream was leaving people lost in a nightmarish abyss.
So it’s no wonder that the ruralists came along. This group of artists longed for America’s pioneer past, when men were men, fields were fertile and women all looked like sad Dutch potatoes. The traditionalism captured here by Paul Sample and Thomas Hart Benton is so far removed from the skyscraper adrenaline rush of New York that it’s hard to believe they co-existed. But the undulating fields and contented farmhands here are a lie: a dream, a pining for something long dead. These artists were looking for pride, simplicity, glory – they’re proto-Trump voters with paintbrushes.
OK, That’s a little unfair. These artists just wanted things to get better. Grant Wood’s famous ‘American Gothic’, the sullen farmer and his haunted-looking daughter, is the quintessential American painting: reactionary yet critical, nostalgic yet hyper-aware that it shows a country on the brink of total collapse.
The final room is even more obvious about the gloom that was shrouding America like a gloomy blanket of gloom. Surrealist influences show human bodies studded with bombs, or complex underworlds full of gangsters and monsters. Among all the allegories, Joe Jones captures the brutality of the KKK in his horrifying ‘American Justice’.
The show ends with the early abstraction of Jackson Pollock. What better to make sense of all this tension than through senselessness.
America was changing in the 1930s. The tormented upheaval that it was suffering through would alter the course of history. We stand on that same cliff edge now, in Europe and across the pond. If this exhibition shows us anything, it’s that we’re in for a turbulent ride.