Jul 2008 Journal
The dawn of a modern nation is captured by the British Museum in a comprehensive collection of American prints from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock (until 7 September) is a confessional view of the American dream and its accompanying nightmare, as the US develops its indigenous artistic identity. The vitality and rhythms of American history are strikingly captured, even when the ideas are deliberately grotesque to enhance their message. George Bellows’s 1917 boxing matches and mental asylums are later developed by Satirical Realists like Adolf Dehn, whose 1941 Swinging Savoy shows the tormented and demented residents of a mental home, or Robert Riggs’s powerful Psychopathic Ward, which indicates hapless people in eternal torment.
Early twentieth-century artist Dox Thrasch highlighted social inequalities in his portrayal of black miners hauling a coal trolley from an open seam. Thrasch was the first Afro-American artist to join the fine print workshop in the Philadelphia Federal Art Project, an innovative wartime programme which put screenprinting on the artistic map.
The same theme is depicted in Blanche Gramb’s coarse aquatint Miner’s Head, with its hint of coal dust over the face. The miner’s helmet light emphasises the set of his nose and the hardness in his eyes.
One artist who identified closely with the suffering of the black and poor itinerant workers during the 1930s was Robert GwathmeY, from Virginia. The raw, blatant, imagery of these American artists contrasts starkly with the refinement of their European counterparts. Gwathmey’s cartoon-style colour screenprint Hitchhiker (1937) shows a bloated, nonchalant man in shirtsleeves thumbing down an unseen vehicle, while an itinerant worker sits on the roadside beneath a glamorous Hollywood poster.
Julius Bloch’s The Prisoner was dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt. Life eased with the New Deal, but left-leaning American artists like him faced new threats. The challenge of European Fascism had led to conflict between the isolationists and those artists who had championed leftist causes after Pearl Harbour. Socialist ideas, so popular in the battle against Hitler, were suddenly viewed with suspicion in the McCarthy era following the rise of Soviet Communism, and many socialist artists were put under FBI surveillance.
Etchers working between the wars often turned their attention to their urban environment. From John Sloan’s much earlier New York etchings onwards, many immigrant artists mirror a sense of alienation in portraying a city that never sleeps. Stuart Davis’s kosher sign on a building in 6th Avenue El conveys this high-rise loneliness in his geometrically eerie New York prints. Edward Hopper’s Night on the El Train is a black-and-white etching of a romantic couple oblivious to the movement of the train, yet it is that very movement which captivates you. The train’s open window is a metaphor for interior and exterior worlds.
But the haymaking heartlands of rural America enthral Jackson Pollock in two untitled works between 1944 and 1951. There are several ‘wild west’ touches by John Stewart Curry, who also depicts John Brown’s anti-slavery campaign.