The Roaring Twenties was a decade of contrasts. Exuberance and excess characterize the period, especially in major cities, when faith in American technology and finance produced unbridled optimism. The decade also had its dehumanizing qualities - the alienation of the modern city and the monotony of the assembly line. The swelling immigrant population, labor strikes, terrorist bombings, Ku Klux Klan lynchings, and the Red Scare added to the paranoia.
The Crash of 1929 brought the optimism of the Roaring Twenties to a screeching halt, and the 1930s were defined by the bleakness of the Great Depression. The period's art reflects this faith, fear and failure. While some artists celebrated the city and technology, others recorded the fear and failure.
The folk art exemplified Americans' increasing uneasiness with modernity in the 1920s and '30s. In the 1910s, modern artists discovered 19th century folk art, which they admired because of its resemblance to their own work. In the 1930s, folk art became widely popular, reflecting a discomfort with industrialization, urbanization and the foreign-born, and a yearning for a simple agrarian world.
Images (top to bottom):
Joseph Stella, Voice of the City of New York Interpreted [detail, The Brooklyn Bridge (The Bridge)], 1920-22, Oil and tempera on canvas, Purchase 1937 Felix Fuld Bequest Fund 37.288
George Ault, From Brooklyn Heights, 1925, Oil on canvas, Purchase 1928 The General Fund 28.1802
Minetta Good, At the Country Auction, 1935, Oil on canvas, Gift of Miss Dorothea Mierisch 1949 49. 153
William Edmondson, Angel, 1932-38, Limestone, Bequest of Edmund L. Fuller, Jr., 1985 85.30
World War II destroyed the dream that technology and science would produce unfettered progress and a utopia. Rejecting the external world, many artists instead turned inward for truth and subject matter. They painted abstractions of bold, sweeping brushstrokes, gestures that in effect were "footprints" recording their presence or emotions.
The war ended the Depression, and by the 1950s, America entered a period of unprecedented prosperity. The years of the Eisenhower presidency were characterized by the triumph of consumerism, a media explosion led by television and transistor radios, car culture and the resulting suburban development, and a flood of inexpensive products made of such synthetics as vinyl and Formica.
As artificial as these products was the stifling aura of social conformity based on white, middle-class suburban values. This consumerism and the popular culture it spawned replaced the self as subject matter for many artists, who used the imagery of the mass media to critique the status quo. They made an art without boundaries, using anything at their disposal, including comic books, stamps, and televisions.
Melvin Edwards, Resolved, 1986, Welded steel, Purchase 1989 Estate of Gertrude Weinstock Simpson in memory of Marshall Simpson 89.54
The psychoanalytic writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were widely read in the 1910s, sparking a fascination with the unconscious mind, the seat of human needs and passions. Writers, filmmakers and artists responded by creating Surrealism, a style that became popular in America in the 1930s. Some Surrealist artists created dreamlike images, since dreams supposedly reveal the innermost psyche.
Others made abstract art using biomorphic shapes that strongly evoke landscape or figures but in a primordial state. After World War II, Surrealism evolved into Abstract Expressionism as American artists made large canvases filled with bold brushstrokes that recorded the impact of their physical presence and emotions. Entirely abstract, with no hint of landscape or figures, the work was designed to capture the sublime moment when the artist was swept away by elemental forces.
Images (top to bottom):
Kenzo Okada, Sand, 1955, Oil on canvas, Gift of Stanley Posthorn 1973 73.116
William Baziotes, White Silhouette (Still-Life - White Silhouette), 1945, Oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Milton Lowenthal, 1951 51.163
Banner Image: Albert Bierstadt, Western Landscape, 1869, Oil on canvas, Purchased 1961 The Members' Fund, 61.516
All works shown here are from the Collecton of The Newark Museum.