Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Art review: Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties at the Dallas Museum of Art
Women are portrayed as bathing beauties, men are heroic and strong. They lived without indication of the oncoming Great Depression.
DALLAS Often overlooked for its frivolity, the American Twenties was an era of perfection, strength, and heroism. Presented by the Brooklyn Museum, Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties at the Dallas Museum of Art features 138 paintings, sculptures, and photographs by 67 artists that explore a decade whose beginning and end were marked by the aftermath of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression.
The 1920s is an America in the midst of the din of the machine age, moving full-steam ahead in a world made more urban and industrial and increasingly spontaneous and superficial. Beyond the roar of mechanization and beneath the spontaneous swing of the jazz age, Americans became enamored of new ideals of beauty and vigor. During a decade when chaos reigned and excess was king, artists sought to embrace an idealized realism evoking man as heroic and strong, as well-oiled as a machine, as perfect a man that could be made.
American artists of the age skirted European Expressionism, and, although deemed “non-progressive” by the art world at large, forged ahead with a renewal of figurative art that wed classical imagery with inhibition and a never-before-seen sensuality. Their elevated engagement with the human figure, now undressed, dissociated the view of modern man as superficial, birthing an authenticity.
The exhibition at the DMA is divided into several over-arching themes, most of which concern the body.
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Self-Portrait with Rita” is placed alone just outside the exhibit walls and stands as an exemplar of what’s to come. Emphasizing the focus on the physique, he portrays himself as hero: Shirtless on a beach, he is broad and well sculpted, flanked by his thoroughly modern wife, Rita, donning a time provocative wool bathing suit.
The twenties mark a turning point in previously accepted ideas of beauty. Long gone are the curvaceous Botticellian wonders of the past. Joseph Stella’s reimagined “Birth of Venus” is a cosmetic exploration of new beauty. Here Venus is slender, emerging from a lotus, her arms raised above her body, her hands clasped behind her head. She is both brazen and aloof, looking up and away.
While women are portrayed as bathing beauties, men are seen as virile and heroic. Lewis Hine’s iconic “Power House Mechanic” shows man as machine. The subject is captured as a working class hero turning a bolt with a giant wrench in hand. The brute power of the industrial works in union with the biological specimen of perfection.
There is an overall acceptance of the human figure that reveals an immediacy and a resistance to new social standards. The form is erotic and sensual without being explicitly sexual; these works activate the senses and advocate humanity. The focus on athleticism and beauty announce the beginning of a valuation of honesty and serve as an antidote for a world quickly mechanized.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s “The Shelton With Sunspots” is perhaps the most telling marriage of the industrial and natural worlds. The Shelton, a New York City skyscraper, cuts upward over the canvas. Her precise line work calls to mind the swift urbanization of the time. However, over the grays and blacks of the building, she has painted circular golden sunspots that give the painting an ethereal feeling reminding the viewer that despite the rampant industrialization, nature exists.
Many of the works in the exhibit harbor a darker aesthetic. The 1920s’ status as in-between time is no different than the Weimar Republic’s cabaret age, a time of pointed recklessness and measured machinations, the unsettling calm of what Freud considered to be the inability to capture a complete human essence. At first glance, many of these paintings seem overly concerned with the idea of the perfect or the superior. However, what is perhaps most unsettling is the anxiety of the breaking age and the sense that before long, the center will not hold, the beauty will be tarnished, and the machine will not be able to withstand the oncoming suffering of America’s Great Depression and World War II.
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