December 28, 2011

"Youth and Beauty" at The Brooklyn Museum

As I was looking for a suitable topic for the last blog of the year, the exhibition "Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties" now on view at The Brooklyn Museum caught my eye. The 1920s holds a certain romance for me - the era of flappers and bathtub gin, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Art Deco and Modernism - and the lure of "Youth and Beauty" on top was irresistible.  It seemed like a perfect choice.

The exhibition started off well.  It promised 140 works done between 1920-1929 by 67 different painters, sculptors and photographers, all American, and all exploring the "new realism" of the Post World War I age.  Some of the names were very familiar to me - Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Weston, Thomas Hart Benton, Joseph Stella - but there were many artists I did not recognize and was keen to see more.  The first galleries explored the new sexual freedom and body culture of the decade and presented several marvelous nudes done in a cutting edge style for the time.  The influences of Sigmund Freud, "Naturalism" and the idea of personal liberty could clearly be seen although classical ideas and formalism were not far behind.

The exhibition continued with a look at the Harlem Renaissance and "The New Negro", then "Silent Pictures" and how the movies re-interpreted our world.  So far so good.  Then things started to get sticky.  In what I can only assume was an effort to affix her own personal stamp to the decade, the curator, Teresa A. Carbone, began a dialogue on the angst of urbanized America and how such developments as mechanization, bureaucratization and a new consumer culture caused a reflex reaction in American art.  Now, I'm not an expert, but it has always been my understanding that the era was called the "Roaring Twenties" for a positive reason.  The Great War was over.  People had work and money to spend on enjoyable activities.  Technology was responsible for marvelous things like automobiles and skyscrapers and the cities were the centers of life.  It was a time of celebration, the last great age before the crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Depression, life was good.

I am not a fan of the current trend of revisionist art history and the application of 21st Century mores to past events and cultures.  I have had several recent encounters with professors and young art historians re-attributing works done by artist couples from the husband to the wife in an effort to counteract "gender-bias".  Most of these re-attributions are done without much in the way of facts or scholarship, rather an "idea of the moment" and an effort to stand out in the competitive world of academia.  It is a fashion that I would love to see go out of style.

To be fair, Ms. Carbone did include some iconic paintings of the period including Georgia O'Keeffe's "The Shelton [Hotel] With Sunspots, N.Y.", 1926, Edward Hopper's "Night Windows", 1926, and Charles Demuth's "My Egypt", 1927 to name a few.  There were also some marvelous photographs by Stieglitz, Cunningham, Man Ray and Weston.  And in one of the last galleries dedicated to still life pictures in the kitchen and bath, were not just one but two wonderful Precisionist works by Gerald Murphy "Razor", 1924 (see right) and "Cocktail", 1927, both great examples of their genre.  These paintings alone were worth the trip!

As 2011 draws to a close, and I mark six years and 300 blog posts, I'd like to thank all my loyal readers for their wonderful support and wish all of you a fabulous New Year!

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