A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture

By Matthew Baigell | Go to book overview

6
BETWEEN THE WORLD WARS

THE YEARS covered in this chapter begin and end with major international wars. In the 1920s, inevitable and severe differences of opinion developed and crystallized within American society as the nation emerged from the First World War an increasingly urban and industrialized international power, rapidly growing self-indulgent and consumer-oriented. Social scientists as well as cultural critics and observers from all levels of society, in an orgy of self-doubt and self-analysis, debated the following questions: Could spiritual renewal be snatched from evident moral fatigue? Could a fragmented society ever become a harmonious one? Could mechanization be controlled for positive ends rather than be allowed to trample over the lives of individuals? Could traditional notions of personal initiative survive in an increasingly complex age? Did the past offer any lessons for the present, and was there a viable and useful past worth resurrecting? Should artists grow farther apart from society, or could they integrate themselves into the larger community of the nation? Should they honor the demands of art, separate from those of society, or should they build an art responsive to environmental interests? To what extent should disillusionment with European affairs after World War I influence American artists? The 1930s were marked by the Great Depression, which was triggered by the stock market crash in 1929, and by the rise of totalitarian regimes abroad.

Of course, critics and artists did not articulate these questions each time they picked up a pen, brush, or chisel, but these issues permeated the artistic atmosphere and, to varying degrees, influenced almost everybody concerned with American culture. As a result, a tense and apprehensive climate replaced the buoyant optimism and experimentalism of the pre-World War I days. Some older artists, such as Robert Henri and John Marin, were able to sustain their enthusiasm over the succeeding decades, but others grew more reticent -- the realists finding comfort in more traditional forms of landscape painting and formal portraiture, and the modernists, still stylistically restless, assimilating realistic forms to their modernist images. Nevertheless, all of their works were invariably touched by the warmth of life, even if a few artists, such as Alfred Maurer and Marsden Hartley, allowed their personal anguish to gain the upper hand. Theirs

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A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • List of Illustrations ix
  • Introduction xxv
  • 1 - Colonial Art 1
  • 2 - The New Nation 26
  • 3 - Self-Discovery 66
  • 4 - At Home and Abroad 122
  • 5 - Early Modernism 192
  • 6 - Between the World Wars 242
  • 7 - International Presence 297
  • 8 - Contemporary Diversity 346
  • Selected Bibliography 409
  • Index 421
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