Baseball, Apple Pie, and Burlesque Queens: Nationalism in Walt Kuhn's Portraits of Showgirls

Article excerpt

During the nationalistic decades of the 1930s and 1940s, there was much concern over what constituted an "American" art. Artists, historians, and critics wrote paragraphs, pages, even entire articles and books calling for a true national art and trying to define a national artistic character. One 1930 New York Times book review entitled "The Riddle of What is American Art" set this out to be a troublesome task: "The question of nationalism in art is much more difficult in a young country of diverse racial origins like ours ... The result is necessarily an art that is hybrid when it is not chaotic." Still, many critics and artists felt it was necessary to mark a definitive set of traits that characterized "Americanness" in art, and frequently created lists that paralleled the country's long-held conception of itself as authentic, masculine, democratic, practical, and direct. In contrast to this concept of an authentic and masculine American art self, modern abstraction, with its European origins, stood as the "other," an infiltrator of "native" culture. Abstraction was seen as something against which artists painting in a realist style had to be wary, and was demonized as decorative, artificial, foreign, intellectual, elitist, and effeminate. These associations became so pervasive during the period that voicing anti-modernism alone often was sufficient to mark an artist, artwork or movement "American."

Walt Kuhn (1877-1949) was one artist lauded by interwar critics for successfully producing an "American" art. Best known for his portraits of circus and burlesque performers and his role as secretary of the 1913 Armory Show, Kuhn was not part of a specific artistic circle, though he was active in the New York artworld, exhibited at major museums and galleries, and fetched high sums for his artwork.1 Painting in a realist style for much of his career, he was very deliberate in his attempt to designate himself and his art "American," and chose the intentionally "buckeye* or vulgar subject of showgirls as part of this aim. Though he employed modernist elements in his own art, Kuhn tied this nationalism to a outspoken stance against modern abstract art, and used his subject matter and figurative style as a means of voicing an antiEuropean, anti-modernist sentiment. In essence, Kuhn's down-to-earth, lowbrow showgirls were much like that of Regionalist Grant Wood's Midwestern farmers or Thomas Hart Benton's Southern rural blacks; in an era preoccupied with Americana and national character in art, they appealed to artists because they were a ready, recognizable stock of subject matter that automatically carried a ring of authenticity and national identity.

This article explores the interwar debate over nationality and modernism via the writing and art of Kuhn. Recently, scholars of American art have aimed to dismantle this time-worn divide of interwar modernists and realists, seeing it as a binary hangover from modern historians, and are more concerned with pointing to the many similarities between the two camps rather than their differences. Citing such commonalities as a fascination with folk culture and a quest for authenticity, scholars now acknowledge that most artists working in the United States between the wars, regardless of painting style, vied for the "American" label. By introducing the art of Walt Kuhn to this discussion, I hope to expand our focus beyond the few canonical artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Alfred Stieglitz who have been the center of this conversation, and to show that this divide was primarily a result of artists' selfpromotion. Because "American" meant "good" in the public and critical eye during these years, to promote oneself and one's work as "American" was to campaign for critics' favor. Especially in the 1940s, with the looming presence of Abstract Expressionism and the widening public and institutional acceptance of a European-inspired abstraction, Kuhn would have had additional motivation to mark himself and his figurative art "American" via an anti-modernist stance. …