COMING OF AGE | April 16th 2008
George Bellows, "The Circus" (detail), 1912, Oil on canvas. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; gift of Elizabeth Paine Metcalf (1947.8) All rights reserved.
Between the 1850s and the 1950s American art came of age, say the organisers of a show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Evidently all those immigrants from Europe helped. Stephen Fay investigates ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
The Dulwich Picture Gallery, at the edge of the playing fields of Dulwich College in south London, can be reached by a ten-minute journey on a suburban train from Victoria. But it is, as a Michelin Guide would say, "vaut le voyage".
The neat, neo-classical, single-story brick building was designed in 1811 by Sir John Soane, an inspired architect, to house a collection put together by two French dealers named Bourgeois and Desenfrans, operating in London. Stanislaus II, the King of Poland, commissioned the dealers to purchase a national collection, and they did him proud. They concentrated on good examples of the work of Peter Paul Rubens, Nicholas Poussin and the Dutch School, Rembrandt among them. But the King was forced to abdicate before he took delivery, and the dealers kindly left the collection to their adopted home. Since the British Museum was not enthusiastic, they chose Dulwich College instead.
This was England's first public picture gallery, a building so admired that its sublime proportions and neat division into half a dozen internal galleries became a model for art galleries the world over. Although the permanent collection makes the journey worthwhile, it is worth making special trips for visiting shows. The latest of these, called "Coming of Age", is a 70-work survey of American painting and sculpture from the 1850s to the 1950s. (It comes courtesy of another school that relishes art and has kept its collection with the times: the Addison Gallery of American Art at the Phillips Academy of Andover, Massachusetts.)
The commentary throughout the show is provided by the painters themselves. James McNeill Whistler declares: "Art should be independent of all clap-trap...of emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotions, pity, love, patriotism." Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, a couple of abstract expressionists, agree: "The world of the imagination is fancy-free, totally opposed to common sense."
The first rooms in the exhibition are full of common sense: skilful painters such as Winslow Homer, who used a foaming sea, bent bushes and a billowing coat to paint the wind (pictured below); Thomas Eakins, a master of realistic portraiture; and George Bellows, who is represented here by a marvellously energetic and intimate scene from a circus (pictured above).
Common sense also inspired the landscapes of Frederic Church and George Inness. We can see it begin to diminish in the work of artists whose names are unfamiliar to British audiences, such as John Sloan and George Luks. (One reason for this is the poor representation in London of American painting before 1945; the National Gallery has precisely two, by John Singer Sargent and Inness. Finally, under a new director, it wants more.)
In 1913 the Armory Show in New York introduced the riches of contemporary painting in Europe. Cubism, Futurism, fauvism and expressionism began to filter into the fancy-free imaginations of artists such as Stuart Davis and Patrick Bruce (though the lateral New York landscape by Edward Hopper in this show has more in common with Homer than, say, Milton Avery). The final room contains a striking Jackson Pollack, a beautifully balanced Calder mobile, and a brutal steel sculpture by David Smith.
For William C. Agee, the professor of art history who wrote much of the catalogue, this work is the climax, the coming of age: "The rise of American art to the position of world leadership after 1945, [is] now an accepted fact of art history." Agee makes art sound as if it were an Olympic team sport in which America has won a gold medal. But the exhibition tells us that some of the best American artists--Homer and Eakins, for example--benefited from a transfusion of fresh ideas from Europe. Immigrant artists such as Arshile Gorky, William de Kooning and Mark Rothko responded to the energy and intellectual freedom of their new home with abstract expressionism, and rewarded New York City by turning it into the world's leading art market for a while.
As if to emphasise the point, the last room in the show has work by Naum Gabo (b. Russia) and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (b. Hungary). As Whistler recognised, art, denuded of the clap-trap of patriotism (and "of emotions entirely foreign to it"), is fancy-free. American art is not an assertion of superiority; it's work by artists who live in the United States. The rest is clap-trap.
American Art, 1850s to 1950s, is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until June 8th 2008.
(Stephen Fay is a journalist based in London, and author of the book "Tom Graveney at Lord's".)