Magazine article The Spectator

American Beauty

Magazine article The Spectator

American Beauty

Article excerpt

The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock

British Museum, until 7 September

Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s

Dulwich Picture Gallery, until 8 June

Although the potent influence of all things American has had a pernicious not to say deleterious influence on street culture and social attitudes in Britain, American art of the last century has offered a stimulus to many and certainly a yardstick to measure up against. Our art has not simply been made in the shadow of the American achievement (whatever Clement Greenberg might have wanted to think), but the extent and richness of the experimental territory covered by American painters (and to a lesser degree sculptors) between 1850 and 1950 remain a lasting inspiration. Two exhibitions draw attention to this period, one of them a model of scholarship, the other strangely disappointing.

The British Museum show is a revelation. Not only are there a number of artists of real quality here whose work I was totally unfamiliar with, but the images by the better-known artists are for the most part marvellously fresh on the eye, too. Prints are sometimes disparaged as mere reproductions, poor man's art, multiple editions intended to reach a larger audience than the exclusive painting, and, as such, somehow cheapened and diluted in effect. This is rubbish. A good print is a very fine thing indeed. In this show we see what can be done with techniques as different as etching and lithography, woodcut and screenprint.

The range of imagery and the mastery of medium is wonderfully displayed: there are dozens of things here that would grace and enhance any first-class art collection. It is no idle boast when the British Museum claims to have the best collection of American prints from the late 19th century to 1960 outside America itself.

There are 147 works by 74 artists on display. The exhibition was humming the afternoon I visited it (literally so -- the air in the galleries was very close), with a good crowd of people milling about even though it wasn't raining outside. The exhibition is prominently flagged up throughout the museum, so it's difficult to miss it, but there did seem to be at least half-a-dozen serious spectators spending time with the exhibits.

The show is unemphatically divided into 12 loosely chronological sections and starts in 1905 with John Sloan and the Ashcan School of gritty realism. A crucial figure in New York art circles, Sloan is represented here by nine etchings, his wiry line capturing a variety of 'low-life' subjects, from a blowsy lady turning out the light for an expectant male, to overheated sleepers taking to their apartment rooftops on sultry summer nights. Here follow a couple of nicely contrasty drypoints by Peggy Bacon, a pupil of Sloan, showing art students at work and in the lunch room.

Hung off to the left in a place of its own is the best-known lithograph by George Bellows, depicting a prizefight and somewhat obscurely called 'A Stag at Sharkey's' (1917). Bellows was the poet of boxing, his dynamic images full of drama and cleverly worked human detail. There are several of his dark figure compositions on show; for a change of mood, turn to the delicately coloured still-life woodcuts of Blanche Lazzell and Grace Martin Taylor, marvels of compact pattern-making. …

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