Unsolicited Museum Review—American Painting in the 1930s at the Royal Academy, and Paul Nash at the Tate.

As it turns out, lots of pictures does not a great, or even a good, show

What is one to do when you leave an art show that leaves you not just disappointed, but distressed at the missed opportunities that resulted from sheer curatorial laziness? Go to another show that embodies what curators are supposed to be doing—be edifying and, at times, electrifying. The new American art show at the Royal Academy—America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s—isn’t just a disappointment—it’s a bad show, in spite of having some great paintings. On the other hand, the Paul Nash show at the Tate is brilliant.

So what’s the difference? Let’s start with the Nash. Paul Nash was a British artist whose career spanned most of the first half of the 20th century. He is mainly known for his work as an Official War Artist (in both world wars, which must have been dispiriting), and also for his foray into surrealism in the inter-war period. The Tate show puts this into context, tracing his entire career. And the context is important.One of the irritants of the American Art show is the desultory way that context is provided, and often the context provided is incomplete or outright wrong. The Nash show, on the other hand, takes you through his career with great care, starting with his beginnings as a painter with a fascination with trees and landscapes, reflecting his growing up in relatively bucolic environs. Seeing his early paintings, particularly those involving three elm trees that became something of a grail for him, explains why his WWI war paintings are so powerful. While at first his war paintings were concerned with (among other things) the resilience of nature in coping with the war, this mood shifted into one of blasted landscapes, such as We Are Making a New World, or The Menin Road (shown below,) portraying landscapes that no one had ever seen before:

The Menin Road, Paul Nash, 1919 IWM ART 2242

It also explains why he would withdraw (if that’s the right word) into surrealism following the war. I’ve never particularly cared for Nash’s forays into surrealism—they always seemed a bit forced. (Of course, that criticism can be leveled against the entirety of the surrealism movement.) But it was clear that, like many others, Nash was devastated by the war (including having a breakdown in 1921.) There were both general and personal reasons for this—in Nash’s case, his squad was wiped out while he was convalescing from an injury. Not an unusual occurrence in wartime, but it does have an impact. It led him in a direction away from the real world, one concerned with what paintings could say about the imagination and what it could create, both consciously and unconsciously. And, in fact, it was a direction that could be foretold from his earlier interest in the mystical attributes of trees, as is made clear in the first room of the show.

This took two forms, it would seem. The first, and (to me) less interesting was the proliferation of surrealist themes, particularly after Nash encountered de Chirico’s work in 1928. For the next ten years—well, even longer—these themes appeared regularly in Nash’s work. The second was his intent to incorporate more geometry into his paintings, and this to me appears to be considerably more successful effort. One of Nash’s great achievements is his series of paintings set in Dymchurch, where a beach barrier erected during the war as a defensive measure lent itself perfectly to the geometric ideas Nash was pursuing. Hence, this:


Those clouds! But the geometry pervaded much else as well. Nash spend a lot of time on the Downs, giving us this, for example:


Then the next war, this one even more brutal than the last. Some of Nash’s best work emerges from this period, though, including Totes Meer (Dead Sea), which should be as well known as Picasso’s Guernica (but isn’t.) In this Nash combines everything—the geometry of downed aircraft, his fascination with tides, his interest in monsters and nightmares, the Redon-ish moon, it all comes together in one of the great paintings.


And one of the virtues of the Tate’s show is that you learn why this is a great painting, and why Nash is a great painter. It’s all laid out. Nash did some amazing work the last two years of his short life, and it’s all here. Well, nearly all—The Battle of Britain is absent, but in a way it doesn’t matter. And the show is well done in every respect—there is plenty of information about the paintings themselves (and, wow, those photographs he took of driftwood!), but also about the times, and the various stages of Nash’s life and career. It’s a major curatorial effort. And the physical use of gallery space is to be commended—there is plenty of room, the graphics are well presented, and there are two or three absolutely terrific walls—particularly the Dymchurch series. All of this just reinforces my belief that British art of the interwar period was a lot more interesting than American art.

And there is nothing in the RA show that is likely to change my mind on this. The show has already received a positive, if not giddy, critical reception, including from the normally level-headed Jackie Wullschlager over at The Financial Times. The enthusiasm escapes me (other than the usual British tendency to go ga-ga over anything American—even now.) Yes, there are some important paintings there—the paintings by Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton in particular. Much has been made of the fact that Wood’s American Gothic, about as iconic a painting as you can get, is here (because it’s never been out of North America.) On the other hand, the limited commentary on the painting itself, which suggests that this is a painting in admiration of good sold solid Americans and their stoicism, is fairly typical of the occasionally misleading information provided. Well, it is true to an extent to say that these people are stoic, and Wood certainly would have admired that. However, it’s a comment that misses the deep irony in the painting, and Wood was plenty ironic at times. Likewise, Wood’s painting of three members of the Daughters of the American Revolution is treated as a positive portrayal of their pride in their organization (yes, the commentary actually says that,) overlooking Wood’s own comment that the painting was intended to be a satire.


The RA show is plagued with this sort of sloppiness. Of course there are some excellent paintings here, including some wonderful and iconic paintings by Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler, but practically no explication above and beyond some vague generalities about urban alienation and the depression (the agricultural depression that preceded the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression by several years, is not even mentioned,) and that New York was a happening place. The paintings seem to be just kind of thrown together, and if there’s a pattern to the hanging, it’s not obvious. The commentary is distressingly vague—the wall comments in each room are sort of useless. The WPA is mentioned only in passing, and gets about the same amount of prominence as the fact that Thomas Hart Benton was Jackson Pollack’s teacher.

And this is where the issue of painting selection comes up. Yes, we get some of the high points—Wood, Benton, O’Keefe, Hopper, Sheeler. But we also get a mediocre Jackson Pollack from the 1930s that we’re supposed to be interested in because he did great things in the 1950s, as well as some American surrealism that doesn’t even seem to fit, although there seems to be a lot of it. The show did have one positive result for me, which was to remind me why I like Wood and Benton so much—unless there’s a building around, there’s not a straight line in sight, and in Benton’s case not even then. Wood’s hills are rolling, sensuous objects (interestingly, like the Nash painting above.) Benton’s farms are unruly, with horses bolting or something else going on—it’s all action. These are great paintings, to be sure. But there are several layers of context missing, and that’s where the show fails most severely. There is nothing about the regionalism in American painting that so dominated the time, for example. It’s a big country.

There is a clear narrative for the show—how miserable America was in the 1930s. It’s right there in the first panel. Unsurprisingly, this narrative lets the curators exclude a whole swath of American art that was taking place at the time. Where is John Marin? Marsden Hartley? Rockwell Kent? And, more to the point, why confine this show to paintings? American photography in the 1930s was an incredibly powerful medium at that point—but there is nothing from Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans here. If what you really wanted to do was to show how miserable America was in the 1930s, that’s whom you would be offering up in a show like this.

I suspect much of the adulation this show is already generating derives from two points. First, the 1930s was indeed a dangerous decade in America. Well, elsewhere too, but American is, like, America, and it’s a parallel universe. And—look!—they can be miserable too. Second, there are indeed some wonderful paintings here, even though there is a surprising amount of second-rate work as well (mostly in the last two rooms.) The show at least has the virtue of having my favorite Wood painting, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere:


This show in some ways reminds me of a much better show about 15 years ago at the Tate on the American Sublime, which presented a range of fabulous 19th century American landscape artists (Cole, Bierstadt, Church) that no one in Britain had ever heard of. I think there’s a similar reaction to this show—there are enough really good paintings by artists few people here would recognize, and, as usual, there’s some degree of surprise that anyone in America does anything cultural well. This does not, however, compensate for the problems of the show—the paucity of information, the poor hanging, the weird theme selection that defines each room. Was American surrealism really that important? I’m not convinced. At first I thought that the RA curated this since I didn’t think it could have been curated by an American, but I was wrong. It’s the Art Institute of Chicago. Well, that showed me.

The other grievous fault of the show is the only passing mention of the WPA, the Works Progress Administration implemented by Franklin Roosevelt. This federal project had a number of positive impacts, including on artists, who painted murals all over the country—in schools, in libraries, in factories, in offices, wherever. These are major works, and Wood and Benton (among others) did lots of these—as did some Mexican artists, principally Diego Rivera. A passing mention of this art, and its importance, would have been nice, especially since there are no examples on display. One leaves this exhibit unaware of their existence. Where the Nash show succeeds, and where this one fails, is on just this point—you leave the Nash show enlightened (and, not to put too fine a point on it, exuberant.) If you feel enlightened after this American art show, you’re starting out with a very low bar.

The RA show sadly exemplifies the old saw about saying someone is a great general simply because they have lots of soldiers. As it turns out, lots of pictures does not a great, or even a good, show make.

Categories: Arts/Literature, ArtSunday

5 replies »

  1. This taught me a great deal about the art of criticism, which you have mastered. Thanks for the lesson.

  2. Excellent piece. I never knew that curation was in and of itself art until I saw the Gaughin/Vag Gogh show a few years ago and suddenly realized that it’s not just the ingredients, cooking matters. This explains why that is the case. Also I’ve been to a lot of museums but I’m not really a student of art and I’d never heard of Paul Nash. What fabulous stuff. Wow. Thanks for this.

  3. Thanks. I got mindful of this from my daughter, who does museum work and has helped me understand the dynamics of this. And there’s a great book on Vermeer (Vermeer’s Wager, by Ivan Gaskell,) in which he talks about what makes a good wall. It stuck with me.

    • I’ve grown very attached to the concept of a “good wall.” So it’s not just a painting, but everything else around it and whether it helps create a rhythm for appreciation. It’s always a delight to come across one. There have been several here over the years, and they stand out in my memory–a whole long wall of Degas ballerinas at the RA not too long ago, an amazing corner (two walls!) by William Nicholson also at the RA about ten years ago, some Matisse cut-outs at the Tate Modern. The RA can put on a terrific show when it wants to. It just didn’t this time.