True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950

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[Image: Mabel Dwight (American, 1876 – 1955), Night Work (1931), lithograph, image: 25.4 × 19.4 cm (10 × 7 5/8 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Hannah S. Kully]

The new exhibition True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 15 October 2019-19 January 2020) brings together iconic images from early Twentieth Century American realism alongside a collection of lesser known prints. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The two fathers of American realism are Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Robert Henri (1865-1929). Both had troubled relationships with the art establishment. Eakins can be viewed as establishing the discipline of pictorial realism – plein air painting, thorough anatomical classes and application of perspective and use of photography – while Henri is thought of as a founder of social realism, mainly in urban settings. Henri’s contribution was attitudinal rather than technical. Henri studied under a former student of Eakins at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was wanted to realism that Eakins had pioneered in America to be applied to subjects that would not typically be considered the province of fine arts. Eakins had led the way in depicting common activities such as sports as a subject for oil painting but Henri sought to apply this new American realism to be applied to life in the modern American world.

Henri’s progressive artistic and political sensibility was influential, spreading via to his students (through his teaching at Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Art Students League, New York) and artists (through his book The Art Spirit (1923)). He exhibited widely and his ideas were disseminated by these and associated reviews. Henri opposed prettiness and what he thought of as the stiffness of conventionally sanctioned fine art. Henri’s passion for depicting everyday life entailed a degree of social realism. This tendency became movement, centred in New York, which became called the Ashcan School. Followers and associates included George Bellows, John Sloan and William Glackens. Edward Hopper was commonly grouped with the Ashcan School but he stands a little aside, more closely influenced by French painting and cinema than the others. Hopper is more interested in exploring the emotional distance and psychological isolation of his characters than in the general social/political commentary that Ashcan School tenets tended to produce. We might also view this group as a rejection of haute mondaine clientele, ostentatious internationalism and insulated hedonism of the Cosmopolitan Realists Boldini, Singer Sargent, Sorolla and Zorn.

After a brief heyday, by the early 1930s the Ashcan School had been quickly overtaken by Modernism, with its emphasis on abstraction and pictorially advanced styles such as Cubism, Orphism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Ironically, the exploration of realism found a home in the 1930s in Regionalism, a movement that combined nativism and social conservatism with social realism and satirical commentary on modern life, often in rural settings. Precisionism of the 1930s applied realism, photorealism and hyperrealism to modern life but it was largely centred on buildings, objects, landscapes and townscapes rather than people within urban settings and it entirely lacked the satirical element.

Such developments are not covered within True Grit – admittedly, not a large exhibition – which confines itself to socially-centred art. Artists include Bellows, Hopper, Sloan and others. The prints in True Grit range over the most common mediums: aquatints, drypoints, etchings, lithographs and a wood engraving. The exhibition provides a view of modern city life as seen through the eyes of socially conscious artists of the 1920s and 1930s.

It would be wrong to entirely ascribe the choice of the working class as subjects for art to a political commitment on the part of artists. It was also an element of the younger generation wanting to slay their predecessors and surpass them in audacity by using working people to inject energy and rawness, courting attention through controversy. This is certainly true of Bellows and the printmakers here who focus on making outright social critiques. The subjects of prints are art classes, street scenes, park views, nightclubs, courting couples, tramps, vamps and crowds participating in entertainment and on public transport.

Two classic images of urban America are Hopper’s Night Shadows (1921) – showing a man walking alone in a street, seen from a high window and accompanied on by his own shadow – and Bellows’s A Stag at Sharkey’s (1917). The latter is Bellows’s most famous composition – a boxing match in a darkened room, where the smoke and din are almost palpable. Other Hopper etchings are of a couple in a subway train and woman alone in a bedroom. Hopper is the quintessential urban artist of the inter-war period, his eye trained on the telling moment or the poignant interlude. Nothing is happening in Hopper’s pictures and that is the point. They are moments of reflection for the subject or moments that are later recalled because they impressed a witness. Hopper’s proto-existentialist ennui is manifest in the metropolitan anomie and the melancholic vignette. Hopper is lacking as a painter and draughtsman – none of figures actually seems comprised of flesh, skin, hair and all the other matter of a human body; he has little instinctive feeling for his mediums – but he is a consummate image-maker. His etchings are technically more fluent than his paintings.

Alexander Nemerov’s essay investigates the impact of Bellows’s death upon Hopper. The artists had been colleagues and allies, in many ways pursuing similar goals. Both Bellows and Hopper were former students of Henri. Hopper, Henri and other artists were recorded as being distraught at the sudden death of Bellows due to appendicitis. Nemerov suggests that Hopper experienced survivor’s life-long guilt. It was only in 1925 that Hopper achieved his critical and popular breakthrough – something which perhaps could only have happened with the disappearance of his colleague-competitor. In other words, Hopper may have considered his success to have been dependent on Bellows’s death. It is too much to attribute the pervasive melancholy of Hopper’s isolated characters to the reverberations to this 1925 event but Nemerov’s case is thoughtful and well put.

John Sloan (1871-1951) is credited as the leader of the Ashcan School. He was a prominent advocate of realism and taught many students in New York. Rather than selecting the subjects generally considered ennobling in the fine arts, Sloan encouraged students to depict typical scenes of everyday life. He is best known for his street scenes. Stephanie Schrader notes that the juxtaposition of public and private spaces was typical of Ashcan art. Glimpsing domestic interiors through windows from other buildings or whilst travelling on elevated metro tracks was a common experience for city dwellers. Schrader is condemnatory of Sloan’s etchings of interiors with women in a state of undress. Her criticism is redolent of the moral certitude that critics displayed towards Degas’s candid female nudes, which they thought to be positively bestial. Viewers may have a more relaxed and charitable attitude than Schrader towards Sloan’s etchings. When passing moral judgment in art criticism, critics should be aware that their audience has a moral sense (informed by different life experiences) that is at least as developed as their own.

What of these lesser known printmakers? The Kyra Markham (1891-1967) was a producer of satirical and socially conscious lithographs in the 1920s and 1930s.  Her scenes depart from realism through the exaggerated features of figures and invention of settings which use fantasy and magic realism. Peggy Bacon (1895-1987) was an unabashed satirist, whose prints we could expect to see in journals. The beautifully effective Night Work (1931) by Mabel Dwight (1875-1955) is a lithograph showing a nocturnal vista with a glimpse of a person working in a studio – the artist? – under a moon and the silhouettes of chimneys and water towers. It is a fitting choice for the catalogue cover. Arnold Rönnebeck, Ellison Hoover, Howard Norton Cook and Howard Pennell are represented by views of skyscrapers in New York. These unpeopled vertiginous views show the American metropolis at its most inhuman but exhilarating. However, despite their concentration on the architecture and spatial effects of city design without figures, these prints should be seen as extensions of Futurism and Expressionism (including Expressionist cinema) rather than instances of Precisionism. They lack the emotional coolness and technical clarity of Precisionism in order to achieve the impact the printmakers intended.

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[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Glow of the City (1929), drypoint, image: 28.6 × 36.2 cm (11 1/4 × 14 1/4 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Purchased with funds from Russel I. and Hannah S. Kully.]

The outstanding artist of the exhibition is an artist of whom I had never previously heard. Martin Lewis (1881-1962) two etchings leave a lasting impression. A brilliant evocative print (Glow of the City (1929)) by Lewis shows a woman in profile on an apartment fire escape, a skyscraper illuminated in the background, seen behind a row of house backs and washing lines. This is another night scene – something of a speciality of these artists, at least on the basis of this selection. It is easy to see why Hopper credited Lewis’s tuition in etching for advancing his compositional abilities. Lewis’s Down to the Sea at Night (1929) is a masterclass in tenebrous realism. A group of women walk into the surf, illuminated by the headlamps of a parked car. The handling of light and shade, silhouette and modelling, and a single in-scene but concealed light source, are all exquisitely conceived and executed. Lewis will be the discovery and star of the exhibition on the basis of these two prints alone. More than a handful of visitors will leave the exhibition with the intention of scouring for sources on Lewis.

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[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Down to the Sea at Night (1929), drypoint and sand-ground etching, image: 20.3 × 33 cm (8 × 13 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of
Hannah S. Kully]

The three essays have footnotes and there is an index. Illustrations include other prints and photographs of the era, as well as some paintings for comparison. Overall the catalogue is well designed and informative. Compliments go to the designers of the catalogue, which includes colophons and signatures in the illustrated prints. However, no paper sizes are given in the text and no editions or colophon markings are indicated, which is disappointing. True Grit is an enjoyable and stimulating tour of American realist graphics and social realism of the inter-war era.

 

Stephanie Schrader, James Glisson, Alexander Nemerov, True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950, J. Paul Getty Museum, September 2019, hardback, 112pp, 83 col. illus., $35/£28, ISBN 978 1 60606 627 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art