American Modern: Hopper to O'Keeffe

American society underwent significant changes in the first half of the twentieth century. At a global level this change was easy to understand and come to terms with: it had emerged as the most powerful nation in the world and as keen exponents of liberal democracy it was fine with this.
However, domestically, this was a lot more problematic. Ever since the Founding Fathers had liberated the colonies from so-called tyrannical British rule, it has struggled to bring together its disparate population. America, the land of free, had struggled to make its land a home for all.
A new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York examines the “cultural preoccupations” of a nation that was experiencing an unprecedented amount of rapid change, thanks largely to the gargantuan engines of industry.
This is realised through an analysis of works of art executed between 1915 and 1950, by artists like Charles Burchfield, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, Florine Stettheimer, Alfred Stieglitz, and Andrew Wyeth.
“The clash between the urban realities of a rapidly modernising society and a nostalgia for an idealised American countryside is a theme that runs throughout much of the exhibition,” MoMA notes in an official release.
Take for example Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925), which shows a Victorian manse’s quiet existence ruptured by the “harsh horizontal” line of a railway track. This shows that the country was at a crossroads between the quiet and simple world of yesteryear and the busy, complex reality of a new age.
“By the early twentieth century, railroads crisscrossed the entire nation, allowing for easy travel and exchange of goods,” said Glenn D. Lowry, an American art historian and director of MoMA.
“Hopper painted the tracks from a vantage point so they appear to slice off the bottom of the house. A train running across these tracks would obscure it entirely.”
There is something symbolic in that understanding from Mr Hopper. Though the view of the house would, from the vantage Hopper painted it from, be obliterated by a passing train, yet, elsewhere, the only encroachment would be its sound.
Regardless, the metaphor is in the ability of technology to close historical chapters. We must all move forward, for better or worse, as is exemplified in Charles Sheeler’s American Landscape (1930).
Here we see a surreal depiction of the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant near Dearborn in Michigan. The cars rolling off its production line were revolutionising transport, which in turn was fuelling growth.
However, for all the successes of this burgeoning industry, the painting is desperately vacant. While smoke slowly bellows out of a chimney there is no real sign of life save for one solitary individual. This was made a year after the Wall Street Crash.
There is a certain longing in many of the works. While modernisation has certainly bettered the lot of our species – through welfare, responsible government and healthcare – industry has done much to estrange us from who we are and where we belong.
The next time you are standing at the top floor of a skyscraper, admiring the beautiful view, take a glance at the facsimile picture of a flower hanging in the very plush room. It could be something painted by O’Keeffe or one of those mass produced images from a popular furniture store. It would be nice to feel the grass between your toes.
American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe at the Museum of Modern Art in New York runs until January 26th 2014.
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