artists & participants
The Brooklyn Museum presents the first wide-ranging exploration of American art from the decade whose beginning and end were marked by the aftermath of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression. Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, which includes some 138 paintings, sculptures, and photographs by 67 artists.
American life was dramatically transformed in the years following the Great War, as urbanization, industrialization, mechanization, and rampant materialism altered the environment and the way people lived. American artists responded to this dizzying modern world with works that embraced a new brand of idealized realism to evoke a seemingly perfect modern world. The twenties saw a vigorous renewal of figurative art that melded uninhibited body-consciousness with classical ideals. Wheareas images of the modern body were abundant, artists represented American places and things as distilled and largely uninhabited arrangements of pristine forms. Encompassing a wide array of artists, Youth and Beauty celebrates this striking and original modern art and questions its relation to the riotous decade from which it emerged.
The first section of the exhibition’s two primary thematic sections is Body Language: Liberation and Restraint in Twenties Figuration, which investigates the realist portrait, naturally erotic figure subjects, and heroic types. Throughout the twenties, motion pictures, advertising, “healthy body culture,” and the theories of Sigmund Freud all contributed to an era of physical liberation, sensuality, and a near obsession with bodily perfection. Many artists celebrated the modern physical ideal in nude subjects that pictured the newly exposed body freed from conventional restrictions and empowered through fitness or liberating forms of dance. Artists also responded to the rising influence of urban black culture with representations of the idealized black body. Although startlingly direct, these images are also restrained in a way that suggests an uneasiness with the accelerated energy and action of modern life. The new realism was also apparent in portraits that portray natural beauty with decisive clarity and assertive immediacy. Often cast in the format of the newly popular “close-up,” twenties portraiture emerged from a culture in which advertising prompted rigorous self-scrutiny and current theories of psychology suggested complexly layered personalities.
The exhibition’s second half, Silent Pictures: Reckoning with a New World, explores subjects as diverse as still life and industrial and natural landscapes while highlighting their shared qualities of compositional refinement and muted expression. Painters and photographers depicted the ready-made geometries of industrial towers, stacks, and tanks, and the webs of struts and beams, with little reference to their utilitarian actualities or to human activity. Challenged by the sensory assault of the modern urban-industrial world around them, artists also portrayed American landscape settings as precisely distilled and largely uninhabited. Intent on maintaining their own individuality in a new era of mass-production and mass-market advertising, they described the features of more remote American places with a marked intensity and austerity. In their still-life compositions, American artists of the twenties applied a modernist penchant for essential form to exacting arrangements of insistently simple things. Objects as disparate as flowers, soup cans, razors, eggs, and cocktail shakers, appear in compositions that suggest the new tensions between the traditional and the modern in art and in life.