visual art in the 20’s

Dempsey and Firpo , George Bellows (1882-1925/American) (900-125827 © SuperStock)

George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924.

It’s probably a little unfair to use this Bellows painting as an intro to this post, as he became famous for doing these (boxers) more than a decade before the twenties. Nonetheless it’s a great painting and as a transitional statement into the twenties, still fits the bill. Bellows was a member of the famous Ash Can school of American art which grew out of a group of realist painters called The Eight. There were four artists in The Eight (William Glackens, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Robert Henri, and George Luks) who focused exclusively on depicting the low down gritty big city aspects of the emerging modernity. Four members of The Eight  (now including Bellows) went on in the next decade (1916) to form the Ash Can school American art concentrating and expanding on what the four members had previously laid out, but added another twist. After the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1913 , when a large selection of European art was brought to America and showcased in such a manner that that put American art woefully behind the modernist curve. The Ash Can artists decided they were going to have nothing to do with this state of affairs and subsequently declared that they were not interested in European modernism, but preferred instead a uniquely American version of modernism, based on traditional academic painting styles,  one would presume. A similar attitude also informed the (earlier) American Arts and Crafts movement from 1900 to 1920, that witnessed a massive and successful flourishing of the decorative arts. It should probably be pointed out that because of this inconsistency, the Ash Can rebellion against European modernism was largely rhetorical, in that advances in picture technology (formalism) and subject matter (psychological content) were ignored in favor of using more traditional academic methods to address the changing citified American scene, that were only vaguely modern in the first place.

The rebellious notion however, remains important in that the next development, Precisionism (see examples in previous post) – that was to become the defining visual art of the twenties – carried with on the same America first exclusionary rhetoric throughout 1920’s, although with a much less convincing pretense to stand on. Please note (in the below examples) that the conventional academic realism of the Ash Can artists has given way completely to and entirely new form of (Euro-modern) depiction and while the subjects remain centrally American scenes, the scenes have been expanded and have taken on a whole new complexion. The new depictions are in fact if not in spite, decidedly modern in both pictorial conventions; picture plane now either flat with little depth or modeling, and the subject matter has been expanded from the “frozen horse shit on Broadway” kind of image to the imposing and staid monoliths of industrialization and the pretenses of emerging consumerism along with a tacit nod to European cubism. The precisionist movement  typified in many respects  America’s response to modernism in general, in that it was with great reluctance that the problems inherent in modernism were addressed directly, and chose instead to remove themselves from overt confrontation. The precisionist world of the twenties was generally devoid of people altogether and when they appear they only do so as isolated individuals caught, as it were, in the great impersonal maw of indifference. It’s not that the precisionists were against social statement, it’s just that they were satisfied to address it only by  indirect implication. One is never really sure whether they are critics of modernist evolution, or are embracing it without reservation, or simply standing by and silently witnessing it in a state of psychological shock and awe.

Like most thing 20’s, the precisionists were the prototype examples for later modalities of (specifically) American art predicated on abstraction and ambiguity, such as pop art, minimal art, op art, photo-realism, earth works, and all the subsequent and more current “neo” versions of these.

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