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Light and Shadow: American Modernist Paintings and Drawings

Light and Shadow: American Modernist Paintings and Drawings

The Johnson Museum is strong in its collection of modernist works in all media, created between the 1880s and 1940s. We have been fortunate over the years to receive many gifts from alumni, and several recent gifts can be seen for the first time in this exhibition.

Modernism is a nebulous term, as that venerable institution the Museum of Modern Art has discovered, as day-to-day “modern” is changing. Initially modern meant contemporary, but this term is now associated with a relatively finite period in which artists from all over the globe responded to the art of the Impressionists, Fauvists, and Cubists.

For centuries, France had been the home for academic artists, and many artists, from different countries and all walks of life, ventured there to enroll in the many ateliers that were being spawned in Paris. The romance of the city mesmerized these newcomers, and the light on the Seine insinuated itself into their art. When Pont-Aven and other small towns in Normandy offered similar rural pleasures, artists went there for the summer months, drawn by the piquancy of a place where time seemed to stand still and where the light and shadows gave the appropriate atmosphere to their paintings.

Aspiring American artists were no different than their counterparts. They set forth en masse to learn in the ateliers and studios of the great artists of Paris, and to hopefully return with an honorary showing at the Salon, a feather in the cap that would remain important for the rest of their careers. But within Paris, as artistic influence began to migrate from the various ateliers to the bad boys, the renegade Impressionists, Americans took note, and many responded with an enthusiasm of their own: images painted in the same vein.

All subjects were legitimate: portraits and still lifes; landscapes, cityscapes and city life; and seascapes—all were transgressed by American artists, interested in the art of their time. When Fauvism and Cubism became the art of the moment, American artists quickly responded with their own -isms: synchronism and precisionism. The Armory show of 1913 in New York was a huge draw for crowds, and although many of the visitors did not like the work they saw, it gave American audiences a chance to see all the changes that were going on in European art. It was revelatory.

One would think that these once-radical artistic styles would quietly move into the artistic canon, and in most cases that is true. But in 1947, a State Department traveling exhibition, Advancing American Art, which featured works by Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Ben Shahn, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence, among others, came under attack by several members of Congress. They argued that the use of government funds to support a show that included abstract art was “un-American” and “subversive.” A Congressional investigation of the project found that eighteen of the forty-seven artists in the exhibition appeared in the records of the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a result, the show’s international tour was cut short, and the works were sold at bargain prices in 1948. It is difficult to imagine any of these artists in the bargain category today.

It was at this time that Michigan Congressman George Dondero began his campaign against modernist art as “communistic” and a danger that was infiltrating America’s cultural centers with “depravity, decadence, and destruction.” It was not until the 1960s that government funding for the arts was reestablished under new parameters. Perhaps it is some comfort to know that in the fragile area of the arts, some things remain the same.

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Images from Light and Shadow: American Modernist Paintings... (Click an image to open slideshow)