Selective Memory

An artist's look into the 1920s


in Archive


Start with the painting “People” (1927) by Guy Pène du Bois. The large canvas is not the first painting in the Brooklyn Museum’s show “Youth and Beauty,” but it should be. It presents a crowd of fashionably dressed men and women gathered on a hillside, all looking off toward some distant event or perhaps admiring the expansive view of the countryside. We aren’t really sure why these people are gathered, but this uncertainty keeps us looking. The canvas is cut through with afternoon light that illuminates the body of a young woman just off the center. Her dress hugs her long and lean body; her hair is cut short. It suggests a scene out of a Fitzgerald story, for the style and body gestures are unmistakably from the 1920s. The woman’s profile, like the other slim-dressed women and tuxedoed men, is an outline of indistinct features. They all look a bit like mannequins, each turning away from us, staring off with faceless faces toward something we can’t see. The wall label asks, “What do you think is happening in this painting? What do you imagine lies just beyond the frame?”

  • “Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties.” Through January 29. Brooklyn Museum, New York. March 4 through May 27, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas. July 1 through September 16, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland.

While these questions were meant as an instructive consideration to the show’s younger patrons, I found them to be much more adult in the issues they raise. The question of what lies just beyond the frame resonates throughout this large, meandering show filled with more than 130 works including paintings, photographs, and sculptures. “Youth and Beauty” presents a slightly new story of early 20th century art. Organized to reflect and comment on the tremendous historical changes of the 1920s, with sections themed around the exposed and heroic body, urban and rural landscapes, and experiences of travel and movement, among others, the show is more history lesson than art exhibition. It expands our sense of the era to encompass much more than the Parisian cafes or New York high society we often associate with that lost generation living between the Great War and the Great Depression.

It also sidesteps avant-garde aesthetics in its effort to center realism as crucial to the era’s social changes. “Youth and Beauty” presents what it defines as an “idealized realism.” This aesthetic pulls in a big net of art: the urban landscapes of Edward Hooper, nude photography of Imogen Cunningham, homespun regionalism of Grant Wood, misty Hollywood movie-star photography, for example, each one framing the heavily iconic era that gave birth to much of our modern sensibilities. Such a range of works, writes curator Teresa Carbone in the extensive catalogue, “attempts to recapture that part of the collective experience that remains etched in the decade’s distinctive realism.” But like the du Bois’ painting, a mystery hovers over this show and raises a deeper question for me: What are we really looking for in the youth and beauty of the 1920s?

Bodies dominate the first half of this show. The tanned and well-toned chest of Thomas Hart Benton, champion of regionalism and dismissive of European modernism, confronts you first. In “Self Portrait with Rita” (1922), Benton portrays himself as a dashing figure against a brilliant blue sky and seascape; his handsome face stares directly at you.

His wife huddles next to him, her own body slender and defined in a new, risqué bathing suites that could get one arrested. Children play on the rocks just behind the pair, their own bodies exposed and stylized in light and gesture. But it is Benton’s muscled torso that centers this painting. It exudes a healthy vitality. The painting’s palette recalls a Giotto fresco in a dusty Florentine chapel, but its bodily bravado and composition remind us more of a Hollywood movie poster than a self-portrait.

There are other bodies here. George Wesley Bellows “Two Women” (1924) contrasts one naked women and one heavily clothed (or they may be two views of the same women).

Framed in an ordinary domestic scene, both sit on overstuffed chairs more appropriate of Victorian aesthetics than the art nouveau style of the Jazz Age. Winold Reiss’s “Black Prophet” (1925) is part of the artist’s series of paintings of African-Americans in Harlem.

The pastel painting uses the subtleties of the medium to turn the man’s exposed chest and determined face into signs of strength. A similar transformation also occurs in Imogen Cunningham’s photograph “Nude” (1923), where the woman’s torso twists in a sharp line of light, her body intertwined with the man behind her.

The photograph exudes an intriguing paradox in which the women’s body is both the object of our looking but also captured in her own moment of movement. These bodies, so often stylized, turn into their own force, presenting their shapes and forms in implicitly and explicitly suggestive ways. It is not only the flapper with her short skirt and thin limbs that emerged in the ’20s, but also the new man whose naked strength and vitality appear in a number of paintings and sculptures here. Such works remind us that just as the era brought us the Model-T, radio, and silent film stars, it also popularized Freudian psychology, turning our experiences and images into layered tensions of sexual expression.

Such tension anchors many works, mixing eroticism with popular culture — or more precisely, showing us the origins of our eroticized popular culture. Nickolas Murray’s photograph of Gloria Swanson in 1925 presents a cool luster of the actress, whose bare arms twist around her chest, suggesting a demure coyness. But such a thought evaporates when you consider her hungry gaze. This is a woman ready to strike.

In his photograph “One Talking Picture” (1929), Ralph Steiner captures a movie poster deteriorating on the side of a building surrounded by the debris of an urban alley. The woman in the poster clings to her co-star, a tanned shirtless man, in a gesture similar to Benton’s self-portrait. But unlike the serene faces of Benton and his wife, here the actors look at us with panic, which, in Steiner’s framing, suggests a fear of their own decaying image. Youth and beauty slip easily away on such a tattered poster.

Steiner’s urban scene is a rare moment of social commentary in a show filled with landscapes of vibrant colors and balanced compositions. Like the bodies and faces in the earlier galleries, the urban and rural landscapes transform geography into lyrical vistas. The landscape galleries are titled “Silent Pictures,” underscoring their absence of human life and the focus on the stylized geography. George Copeland Ault’s “Brooklyn Ice House” (1926) contrasts the flat squares of the buildings with the organic lines of trees and shrubs, merging the black plume of the smokestack with its natural surroundings.

There are also the rural landscapes of Georgia O’Keefe, whose flat and simply composed barns are much more stark than her urban paintings, and Japanese-American artist Bumpie Usui’s intriguing “14th Street” (1924), which rearranges the Manhattan streetscape into a towering cluster reminiscent of a walled medieval town.

The landscapes merged into a series of paintings of consumer objects by Gerald Murphy. “Razor” (1924) composes three common objects as art in a work that echoes an advertisement from one of the fashion or lifestyle magazines that exploded in the 1920s.

Murphy’s canvases also remind us that the Pop Art of the 1960s had its predecessors. You begin to notice that so many of these works engage with the newly emerging forms of popular culture, of silent films and celebrity culture most obviously, but also the expanding reach of advertising (riding a wave of Wall Street speculation), and the changing sensibilities of the first real youth culture in America.

There is much to admire about this show with its number of familiar works by well-known artists and gems by lesser-known ones. But getting a handle on the whole of the show is difficult, and I found myself once again in front of du Bois’s painting of well-dressed men and women gazing outward toward nothingness. Or perhaps they are simply looking at each other — and we are admiring them. In this way, the distance between that crowd and us doesn’t seem so far.

“Youth and Beauty” recalls an era that seems to be recalling itself a great deal of late. In Woody Allen’s Paris at Midnight, Owen Wilson’s disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter unexpectedly travels back to the American expatriate milieu of 1920s Paris. The character’s romanticizing of the era’s creative exuberance entices him with an escape from his lifeless work in Hollywood. The film ultimately questions our nostalgia, showing how our imaginings of the past forget that those earlier eras were as mundane and routine to their inhabitants as our own can feel to us. Even so, it is hard to leave the film and not be wrapped in the excitement for the Parisian Left Bank of the 1920s, for it entices you with a sense of the past as timeless and ageless. This is what nostalgia offers: a kind of continual youthfulness.

A more recent return to the 1920s occurs with the silent film The Artist by French director Michel Hazanavicius, which recreates not simply the era on screen but the viewing experience itself. The film’s romance is a backdrop to the haunting noise of talkies that threatens to transform the art and business of filmmaking — and more profoundly the art of acting. This film recalled for me a line from Sunset Boulevard, in which Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond declares while watching her old silent films: “We didn’t need words. We had faces.” Her delusional nostalgia, lived out in a mansion caught in the nouveau ’20s, captivates and turns the film into a disturbing longing for the past. What to make of our own pleasure at sitting in a theater today immersed in the black and white aura of a silent film? Perhaps we have adopted a bit of Norma’s delusion.

Many of the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby hold their own delusions. The story and its writer encapsulate so much of what we think about the ’20s, and so much of what we define of American literature. The latest film adaptation will arrive later this year, pulling us back to the world of attractive and wealthy young flappers and the dubious men of East Egg, Long Island. But, like the ’20s, The Great Gatsby ends in tragedy and failure. Fitzgerald narrates the story through the distance of Nick Carraway, who both despises and admires the world of his wealthier friends. The novel’s deep psychological realism makes it a difficult work to portray on film, leaving us with a tale of beautiful people doing destructive things.

Maybe this is the image of the ’20s we find so intriguing: a world swirling in surface joy that plasters over a fragile psychological interior. The story of the ’20s is a complex one. So often our image of the period’s history excludes its rampant xenophobia, its interest in eugenics, the struggles of workers and African-Americans, the attacks on civil liberties. “Youth and Beauty” offers only hints of the social conflicts that raged underneath the beautiful patina we have given the ’20s. Nostalgia more easily simmers through much of this show. I’m reminded that for much of the 19th century, “nostalgia” was used to describe a mental illness, a kind of deep and devastating homesickness. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the word took on its more kindlier, contemporary meaning as a sentimental longing for the past. In this sense, the ’20s gave us nostalgia as well. Perhaps our enchantment with its ageless beauty and its uncomplicated exuberance reflects more our love for nostalgia than our love of any particular decade. • 11 January 2012