Academic journal article The Space Between

"That Abused Word: Genre": The 1930s Genre Painting Revival

Academic journal article The Space Between

"That Abused Word: Genre": The 1930s Genre Painting Revival

Article excerpt

By the spring of 1935 the New York art scene was in the midst of a full-scale genre painting revival.In February, art critic Helen Appleton Read explained that the genre tradition had dropped out of the national consciousness because "homely anecdotes of American life...were considered even more provincial and inelegant by those who inherited them than the native school of landscape painting and were therefore lost sight of in their migration from parlor to attic and subsequently to junk shop or antiquarian society" ("George C." C5).By May, Helen Buchalter could observe that in the works on show at the Corcoran Gallery's Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art, "The 'discovery' of the American scene, the new realistic ideal, the revival of genre painting have had their effect" (368).Painters whose names had barely been mentioned since the Civil War appeared on the walls of prestigious museums and fashionable galleries; artists, critics, and curators explored the implications of and possibilities for contemporary genre painting; and attention turned to the definition and scope of this slippery addition to the critical vocabulary.

Lewis Mumford referred to his 1930s contemporaries as "a people...addicted to crazes over periods and antiquities" (Mumford 96), and the buzz around genre painting was sustained by journalists recycling each other's copy and bandwagon-jumping galleries spotting a way to repackage storeroom relics.That the revival was, amongst other things, a fad does not diminish its significance.Genre's journey from junk shop embarrassment to artworld phenomenon was conditioned by the Depression era spirit of revivalism and nationalism, and imbued with multiple meanings by the ingenious ways the tradition was used and abused in heated debates between the decade's various aesthetic and political factions.1 Attention to the discourse surrounding genre painting in the mid-1930s illuminates the ways in which category definitions and canons are shaped by contingencies, the blindspots and revelations that emerge in the pursuit of a "usable past," and the problems inherent in painting everyday life in early-twentiethcentury America.

Quoting Keith Moxey's definition of history as a "constructed narrative" in which "It is the context of the present...that determines the attitudes that permeate our interpretations of the past," Donna Cassidy argues that "History clearly functioned in the cultural products of 1930s and 1940s America in this way: what was esteemed in the nation's past told much about the concerns and values of this time period" (99).The definitional uncertainties that surround genre painting-conventionally glossed as "the painting of everyday life"-make it particularly susceptible to such manipulations.As Thomas Crow has recently observed, "The notion of genre painting contains an obvious ambiguity: how can one genre among several - history, portraits, animal and still-life subjects - assume the name of the category given to them all? What is it about scenes of contemporary human types in ordinary, everyday settings that defies their having a positive and exclusive descriptive term of their own?" (91).These ambiguities meant that conservative critics could use narrow definitions of genre predicated on the "homey" repertoire of antebellum painters to browbeat contemporary artists who insistently depicted the damage wrought on everyday life by the Depression, while artists and commentators could nuance and expand definitions of genre painting to argue that Regionalist, Social Realist, and even abstract painting represented the true art of everyday life in contemporary America.Genre painting's association with the everyday, and thus its claim to represent normative experience, gave weight and depth to these debates.

I

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's 1933 purchase of George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845; Color Plate 6) was a symptom of and catalyst for the genre revival. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.