Introduction to American Modernism before the WWII (Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth and others)
John Marin’s “Cape Split’’ shows the artist drawn to the constant, often violent push and pull of Maine’s coastal waters. (John Bigelow Taylor)
The beginning of the twentieth century was marked by a violent enhancement of the struggle between the two opposing tendencies in art the realist tradition and the reactionary academic and modernistic trends. American modernism, like its European counterpart, is represented by a multitude of trends but with all their apparent differences, all modernistic trends have one common decisive feature: all of them are opposed to realism in art and materialism in aesthetics; they reject traditions in the world of art and advocating extreme subjectivism ("self- expression") in creative work.
While Henri, Luks, Sloan and Bellows were successfully struggling against conservative academism and exalting the primacy of life over art, a new vanguard was emerging and gathering force in America under the idea of art for art's sake. A decisive role in fostering modernism in America was played by the famous Armoury Show of 1913, which was the first vast exhibition of modern European art. It included Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the Fauves, Cubists, and "Dada (Derain Dufy, Manguin, Villon Friesz Picasso Braque, Leger, Picabia, Duchamp, Gleizes, de la Fresnay). The Armoury Show speeded up the decay of art evinced already by some artists such as Morris Prendergast and Arthur Davis, who paved the way for the frank departure from realism to purely formal and subjective experiments.
This vast demonstration of new and bold experiments of the most avant-garde artists of many countries shocked and bewildered the American public. It had a shattering effect on young artists who, lured by the tempting paths of free art free from any obligation to life abandoned realism to experiment with avant-garde style imitating now some European artists, dabbling voraciously in Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism.
The first wave of modernism in America was represented by Cubism (L. Feininger, Ch. Demote Ch. Sheeler), Futurism (J. Stella), abstractionism (M. Russell and S. Macdonald Wright) and Expressionism (M. Weber, A. M. Hartley Marin).
Expressionism was by far the most widespread form of modernism in America in the period between the Armoury Show and World War II. After a few years of experimentation many artists returned to more representationa styles, and about 1925 this first wave of modernism had passed.
There were some serious and undoubtedly very gifted artists who gave up realism search of new forms of expression and developed their talent in fruitful experimentation. Among purely formalistic works they would sometimes produce a work revealing a keen awareness of the beauty of American nature.
One of the most sensitive among the artists converted was John Marin (1870-1953). He was an modernism expressionist and like all other expressionists, he concentrated of which far surpassed own emotions, the intensity of his range of vision. Drawing on the Fauves and late Cezanne for his stylistic devices, he developed his own spontaneous colours and generalized style of painting, a with a number of abbreviated personal symbols of colour and line -a green triangle for a pine, a zigzag for a wave. His favourite medium was which he used with subject and suggestiveness. He found his subject matter in New York or in the state of Maine. In Maine he did his most memorable work - his breezy and buoyant water-colour landscapes of the coast of Maine. His best landscapes are a lyrical expression of the expansive, joyful poetry of earth and sea. He transmuted the rugged coast of Maine into a remarkable and lyrical harmony of form an radiant colour. (see picture above).
Marsden Hartley (1887-1943) as a painter is characterized by frequent changes of style. His early landscapes of the Maine mountain countryside profound admiration for Ryde In France he was influenced by Cezanne and the experimented with a cubistderived style. In Berlin under influence of he began experimentation in abstraction But it was German Expressionism that had the strongest impact on his style. (see picture below)
Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), Camden Hills from Baker's Island, signed with initials ‘M.H.’ (lower left), oil on board, 22 x 28 in. (55.9 x 71.1 cm.) Painted in 1938. Photo courtesy of Christies.
After years of experimentation, he returned to native Maine, where he found his subject and his expressionistic manner. He painted the fishermen, pine woods and rock bound coast of Maine with an elemental simplicity and with great power. His best Majne landscapes, rough, blunt, with their simple colour areas and heavy-handed execution have the direct and uncomplicated impact of a primitive.
By the mid-to late 1920s, a group of modernists approached the changing urban and industrial landscape, transforming it into precisely structured forms that became paeans to American technological advancement. Charles Demuth (1883-1935), more known for his architectural and industrial scenes, which are rendered in the geometric mode of precisionism, is best in his more realistic water-colours of flowers, fruits and also in his night-club and vaudeville subjects. Even more expressive are the water-colour illustrations for Poe, Zola, Balzac and Henry James, which he made for his own pleasure. In these highly original and elegant water-colours he "taps a vein of psychological power practically unique in American art", as D. C. Rich put it.
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887) began with abstractions, giant sized flower forms irises, sunflowers, petunias, Jacks-in-the-pulpit enlarged until they had lost their identity as flowers. In the late twenties she moved to New Mexico and desert landscape provided her with new subject matter she painted its sands and skies, its crouching, hump-backed hills and bleached bones and skulls lying in the sage-brush. Her pictures of dried cow skulls placed against an abstract red, white and blue suggest a parallel with surrealist paintings.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Oriental Poppies, 1927
The second wave began in the thirties. The modernism positions of modernism were largely strengthened by the arrival in America of many representatives of the European avant-garde at the beginning of World War II. In the early forties New York became the centre of cosmopolitan surrealism Surrealists used traditional painting techniques, but objects of the real world were torn from their accustomed environment and recombined illogically and arbitrarily. Surrealists drew for their expression on the subconscious, on dreams, fears and morbid fancies. They rendered their fearful, enigmatic and hallucinatory visions, their obsessions and complexes, in terms images. Their works are filled with the arbitrary and the monstrous with a morbid eroticism and horror of death.
The European fugitives Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Andre Matta, and Andre Breton spent some years in New York while Yves Tanguy and Pavel Tchelitchev settled America for good. They went on with their exploration of the conscious and the irrational and translated their dreams and obsessions. variant of surrealism was American represented by P. Blume's and Berman's hallucinatory pathologic scrutiny of old age, and his obsessions with sensation of disintegration. This surrealistic unsubstantial intensitv of mood continued in the work of the so-called "magic realists" like Henry Koerner and Bernard Perlin.
Another group of surrealists was influenced by the "psychic automatism of Andre Breton. They symbolic semi-abstract forms a direct outpouring of impulses sometimes in symbolic often of sexual or of a estural nature. This of surrealism led to the subsequent gestural Abstract Expressionism or action painting" exemplified by Bradley Walker and Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and others. Continues reading in the next article.
Sources: The Art of USA, painting, sculpture, I.P. Turishev,
Archive Boston , web source
Christie’s Auction American Art Department