Thursday, January 31, 2008

Etched into History

Edward Hopper, 1882-1967. Night Shadows. 1921/1924. Etching. Collection of Hannah S. Kully. © The Huntington

Even after Edward Hopper achieved some status as a painter, he continued to keep a press for etchings in his studio. Each day he’d enter his studio and toss his fedora hat onto the rarely used machine. In countless photographs and interview footage of Hopper, that machine usually lurks in the background. Hopper never could bring himself to part with that press, like an old trusted friend. When he wanted to give a special gift to someone, he’d crank up the old press and run off a copy of Night Shadows (above), demonstrating the pride he felt in the etchings he once turned to as a way to make money when his paintings weren’t selling. The exhibition Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905-1950 at The Huntington and the accompanying catalogue by Jessica Todd Smith and Kevin M. Murphy help explain Hopper’s fondness for the print genre and how the prints of that era reflected the people and history of America for nearly half a century. “We have selected prints that seem to capture the spirit of a certain cultural frisson that took place in art and culture of the United States during the first half of the twentieth century,” Smith writes in the catalogue. The prints selected from the Huntington’s massive collection of American prints demonstrate the same incisive eye and mastery of economy that the artists themselves displayed.

Samuel Margolies, 1898-1974. Man’s Canyons. 1936. Etching and aquatint. Collection of Hannah S. Kully. © The Huntington

At the dawn of the new century, the city rose like a natural wonder, flooding the imagination of artists and inspiring them to create works such as Samuel MargoliesMan’s Canyons (above). Towering skyscrapers carried to the heavens the hopes and dreams of all society, offering the promise of endless possibility where the sky was, literally, the limit. Advances in publishing technology created a shift in the illustration world, leaving behind the need for literal journalism and moving forward to a world asking for images “deeply imbued with political and social engagement,” as Smith writes. The 1913 Armory Show brought the innovations of European modern art to America, further challenging artists to develop a new vision of their changing American environment. Margolies’ skyscrapers, rising vertically as the rays of light slash diagonally across the picture, owe as much to modern architecture as they do to Cubism.

Martin Lewis, 1881-1962. Glow in the City. 1929. Drypoint. Purchased with funds from Hannah and Russel Kully. © The Huntington

But not all hopes rose with the skyscrapers. Martin Lewis, who taught his friend Hopper etching techniques, captures the dichotomy of the modern city in Glow in the City (above), a romantic rendering of a woman wistfully gazing across the rooftops and washing lines at the tall building far in the distance. Hopper and Lewis both delved into the mood of the city lingering beneath the bustling excitement and the inexplicable sense of loneliness in the midst of teeming crowds. The artists of the Ashcan school, especially the former newspaper illustrators drawn to New York City for money and inspiration—such as John Sloan and George Bellows–also cast their eye upon the darker side of the city.

Charles Turzak 1899-1986. Man with Drill. ca. 1935. Woodcut. Collection of Hannah S. Kully. Printed with the permission of Joan Turzak Van Hees, daughter of Charles Turzak, Charles Turzak Studio/Gallery, Orlando Florida. © The Huntington

Charles Turzak’s Man with Drill (above) explicitly illustrates the dehumanization through labor of the time, when man and machine seemed troublingly one. Such images recall the German Expressionists and their fear of the machine and, by extension, the woodcut graphic novels of Franz Masereel. Where Masereel strung together long series of woodcuts into silent graphic novels of social commentary, single images such as Turzak’s ring just as powerfully as statements of social unrest. The visible vibrations rippling from the figure with the drill send shockwaves that threaten to topple the buildings in the background. In the face of the Great Depression and two world wars, such images strove to topple the powerful and help regain a sense of balance for the masses.

Childe Hassam, 1859-1935. The White Kimono. 1915. Etching. Gift of the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation. © The Huntington

In response to the ills of the dehumanizing city, many artists turned to small town America and more intimate scenes for an antidote. Regionalists such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton depicted farms and farming in a return to simpler, more natural living. Illustrators followed the Dust Bowl migration to California as those displaced victims searched for an American Eden. The American Impressionist Childe Hassam, in contrast, sought solace in personalized parlor scenes such as The White Kimono (above), a quietly beautiful testimony to the excellence of the American print at the same time it documented and probed the American psyche.

Smith and Murphy provide an excellent, if brief overview of the American print from the turn of the twentieth century up until the dawn of the day of television. They list all the major donations, including forthcoming gifts of works by John Sloan from Gary, Brenda, and Harrison Ruttenberg and the American print collection of Hannah S. Kully, that have made the Huntington’s collection so comprehensive today. The actor and comedian Steve Martin provided funds to make the exhibition possible. Martin collects American art and provided the narration to the video that accompanied the Hopper exhibition at the National Gallery of Art last year. (My review of that video here.) Martin’s involvement in this project exemplifies the mainstream appeal such an exhibit should have for the public at large. These prints hold up a mirror to America over the course of five decades in a way that even great photography can only approximate. Here is the American dream seen through the prism of the American artist’s imagination and rendered in clear black and white. When you look at images such as Pele deLappe’s Rumors of War, Washington, D.C., showing the anxious faces of people listening to a radio and anticipating war in 1939, you see the same anxiety on the faces of Americans today coming to terms with new rumors of war. Pressed in Time provides not just a lesson in history or art but a lesson in the history of the American soul.

[Many thanks to The Huntington for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905-1950 and for the images from the exhibition.]


Anonymous said...

I just want to say that your blog has been a joy to read. I've been coming back from week to week. Your blog, along with the Myartspace Blog rank high on my fave online reading list. You might like that blog as well. Brian Sherwin is the editor of it and he has interviewed legends like Thornton Willis, Sylvia Sleigh, and Julian Stanczak. I think I saw Norman Carlberg on there as well. Here is a link

Bob said...

Thanks, David, for reading. I'm glad to hear you're enjoying my blog.

And thanks for the link to My Art Space. I'll have to check it out and add it to my blogroll.

Thanks, again,


Sally Big Woods said...

Beautiful. I especially like, "Glow in the City." It reminds me of the building near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philly's skyline..... And the stockings on the line, drying.

Thanks, Bob!

Anonymous said...

I want vote for my favorite African American Artist, but you somehow overlooked her in your list. Faith Ringgold has done so much for not only African Americans but Women as well! To leave her out is a huge oversight. Shame Shame, She is not only revolutionary and sensetive, but also amazingly talented. My vote is for her!

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rezkarcfitness said...

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