Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties at the Brooklyn Museum

Gloria Swanson, circa 1925, by Nickolas Muray (American, 1892–1965), gelatin silver print, 12 3/4 x 9 3/8 in.

Youth and beauty were two of the most prominent themes in American art following World War I.  While Europe was adjusting to the new counter-intuitive reality, that humanity could easily destroy itself – a reality which seemingly erased all of the progress that artists, poets, writers and philosophers had achieved since the Enlightenment era of the 18th century – American artists turned to the fast-evolving industrial character that underscored the continued growth of manufacturing.  Progress and output were connected to  an idealized, sportsman-like strength. There was little room for expression, only perfection.  The landscape, moreover, became a direct metaphor for mechanical sustainability and offered the perfect framework for artists of the 1920s to establish either styles or genres that were distinct from the visual traditions previously seen throughout Europe.

Brooklyn Ice House, 1926, by George Copeland Ault, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in.

The most striking aspect about Youth and Beauty is a sense of the carefree spirit that embraced everything American.   The mannerist-like paintings of Thomas Hart Benton combined with the subtly erotic photography of Imogen Cunningham, and the flat industrial renderings of Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keefe and Peter Blume, revealed a passion for the local.  Benton’s figures undulated like the trees and hills, whereas the paintings of factories served as mirrors to the future.

Congo, circa 1928, by Aaron Douglas (American, 1899–1979), gouache and pencil on paper board, 14 3/8 x 9 1/2 in.

African American culture was also a significant component of the Twenties as seen in the portraits of Winold Reiss and Malvina Hoffman.  Additional paintings by Aaron Douglas capture various night club scenes in Congo (c. 1928) and Charleston (c. 1928). Curator Teresa Carbone states in the catalogue: “The term ‘Congo’ was used to signify black Africa and was invoked by white and black artists to convey authenticity and liberating naturalness.”  However Charleston features a white noose suspended between the saxophone player on stage and the woman in the audience, referencing the racial tensions that pervaded American society.

Razor, 1924, by Gerald Murphy (American, 1888–1964), oil on canvas, 32 1/16 x 36 1/2 in.

Youth and Beauty captures a hopeful, progressive view on what could have been and features work by artists who attempted to break away from what had already been established in Europe.  However the embrace of athleticism, the classical figure, and a desire for perfection and the new, left this effort inconclusive even though the additional collage-like paintings of Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy captured the basis of American commercialism: objects and advertisements.  It could be suggested that the flaw of the Modern era was the compartmentalization of art in terms of geography.  Like today, artists in the 1920s were influenced by art and events from around the world.  Youth and Beauty is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until January 29th, 2012 before touring to museums in Dallas and Cleveland.

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