Roaring ’20s on display in impressive CMA exhibit
|“Self-Portrait with Rita,” by Thomas Hart Benton, is on view in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties exhibit.|
|Photo courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art|
With the Cleveland Museum of Art’s (CMA) exhibit Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, which is on view through Sept. 16, we get something different — artists trying to give sense to all the disorder of their times, to include responses to rapid changes in urbanization, mechanization and industrialization.
In this exhibit, which was organized by the Brooklyn Museum, we see 130-plus works by 67 painters, sculptors and photographers who explored a new approach to realism in the years between World War I and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Many of the names are eminently recognizable and bound to lure art lovers in: photographers Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz; and painters George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and Grant Wood.
Viewers are likely to have many reactions to the several rooms of the exhibit. One, however, has to be a changed, informed and enlarged respect for the work of O’Keefe.
Even though the rooms in the galleries take up different topics — the human body and beauty, eroticism, urbanization, the modern city, nature, racism, down-home types of workers, among others — O’Keefe’s works seem to appear in them all. Not only that, but they draw the eye of the viewer upon entrance. She knew how to bring attention (and serious interest) to her work. They seem minimal in approach, like the painting “Lake George Barns,” in muted blues, grays and greens that inject an austerity and a wistfulness at the same time, and her “City Night,” which takes the angle of looking upward through skyscrapers with a hazy, small and shadowed moon glowing and barely lighting the darkened mammoth structures of the city. But they invoke layered responses when viewing them.
The artists took up big topics, like the movement of people from farms, rural areas and towns to the large cities. Even then, though, we see they were not yet jaundiced and intimidated by the massiveness that large urban places meant. Elsie Driggs’ “Queensborough Bridge” depicts the gigantic structure in simplified lines, as though the abstract representation demonstrated the power and importance of the structure as light in the background makes vivid the tower, struts and smokestacks surrounding the bridge.
For those partial to photographs, and especially of notable figures, there are plenty to be had in this exhibit. Stieglitz and others drifted to the burgeoning movie industry and its stars. Nicolas Muray’s “Gloria Swanson” (the most well-known movie queen of the time) shows her in a highly stylized pose that is meant to reveal the sultriness and eroticism of her screen persona.
Elsewhere there are photographs of writers Sherwood Anderson (who wrote “Winesburg, Ohio”) and famous poet Carl Sandberg. There are portraits of O’Keefe by her lover Stieglitz and of screenwriter Anita Loos (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”).
Youth and Beauty covers so much ground — and an entire era in American history — that it simply needs to be seen and taken in as much as it needs description. There are big ideas developed throughout the galleries, so viewers should plan about two hours for a good and satisfying visit.
Tickets cost $15 for adults, $13 for senior citizens and college students, $7.50 for children ages 6-17 and free for children 5 and younger. The exhibition is free for museum members. The museum has planned complementary programming including architectural tours, gallery talks, lectures, silent films and musical programs. For more information, visit www.clevelandart.org or call 888-CMA-0033.
Roger Durbin is professor emeritus of bibliography at The University of Akron and an avid art enthusiast. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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