At the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Summer is winding down, but it’s not over yet; one excellent way to spend the days that remain is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a refreshing pair of exhibitions make a stop in that lovely little city well worth it. The first, Biting Wit and Brazen Folly: British Satirical Prints, 1780s – 1830s (up through August 22, 2018) is delightfully small and stimulating, serving as an aperitif to the second, a sprawling smorgasbord: Modern Times: American Art 1910 – 1950 (up through September 3, 2018). These two shows offer much to savor, considered both on their own merits and together.
A glance across the three rooms of satirical prints might produce a familiar impression: the gaudy colors, caricatured faces and poses, and intricate detail in these small works (most are not much larger than an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper) are reminiscent of comic-strip images, or even online memes, as the museum acknowledges in its brief introductory text. (Many of the labels include cartoons, reproduced from The New Yorker magazine, that touch on themes similar to those that appear in the prints, reinforcing this point through comparison.) The prints were created for everyday consumption, and as such appeared all over England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, write the curators Eileen Owens and John Ittmann: “pasted in shop windows, rented out for a night’s entertainment, or sold for private viewing in homes.” Appropriately, given their wide audience, the prints offer knowing, and generally unforgiving, observations of a wide array of English subjects. Young and old, men and women, “geniuses” and fools, the wealthy in their finery and the poor in their garrets—all are subjected to the sharp eyes of such artists as George Cruikshank (a frequent illustrator for Charles Dickens), James Gillray, William Heath and other of their contemporaries. While the artists’ individual drawing styles are recognizably distinct and compelling in different ways, they share a finely honed sense of humor and a generally critical approach to those they depict.
One of the most pleasing—and again, most “contemporary”-seeming—elements of this exhibition is that the prints are so insistently self-aware. Isaac Robert Cruikshank (brother to the above-mentioned George) provides an especially good example of this with Dandy Pickpockets, Diving (1818). In it, two rather smug-looking Londoners are quietly relieved of their wallets as they gaze into a shop window that displays a collection of—what else?—satirical prints. While the pudgy-fingered gentleman of the pair appears to pontificate upon the works before him to the mincing lady at his side, the dandies, fashionably swathed in uncomfortable-looking cravats, gloves, tight jackets and pointed boots, are free to connive at his pockets, one of which has already been emptied and hangs, pitifully, inside out on the back of his coat. The print both rewards and punishes the sort of close reading that it requires. The viewer who, enjoying the work, slowly grasps the full implications of its narrative may, in turn, check suddenly for his or her own wallet.
Other of these works force a viewer to question her environment differently. The well-dressed lady in William Heath’s Monster Soup Commonly Called Thames Water […] (c. 1828), whose contorted face stares out at us with a marvelously rendered tragicomic expression, has just looked through a microscope at a drop taken from the Thames. The print presents that drop, so enlarged as to take up most of the image, and filled not only with dirt but with hideous aquatic creatures of all sizes, many apparently imaginary. In response, the lady drops her elegant saucer and teacup, from which she had, of course, been drinking tea made with that water. The full inscription on this print, again, implicates the viewer directly: “[…] Thames Water, being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us” [italics added]. Any Londoner of the period would either have nodded in chagrined agreement or, coming across such a claim for the first time, recoiled in horror similar to that of the lady in the print.
Most of the prints on view here inspire a smirk or outright laughter; they mock foolish fashions (in facial hair for men, in poorly fitted and wildly exaggerated dress styles for women), the indignities of city life, public figures embroiled in scandal, quack doctors and their self-absorbed patients, failed new inventions. But a select few are far more serious; in particular, George Cruikshank’s 1823 colored etching The Blue Devils is a heartbreakingly insightful depiction of depression. Hunched before a cold fireplace that contains only bills, a man succumbs to the many tormentors we see around him. Some of them are tiny humans representing potential disasters in life (one sits on a container of alcohol, another points to paintings of fire, of shipwreck, and one of an angry wife about to beat a husband who exactly resembles the man in the print). But two of the attackers are little blue demon-like creatures who hand him the implements of suicide—a razor, a noose. In a time when our own culture is so recently aware of the dangers and tragedies of depression, the print is startlingly relevant.
The background paintings in this Cruikshank print are significant not only because they create layers of narrative within the image but also because so many of the prints on view portray paintings similarly, using them as a sort of shorthand for further commentary (if one is looking). Thomas Rowlandson’s Connoisseurs (1799), for example, displays a group of elderly gentlemen leering at a painting of a young Venus; behind them, on the wall, hangs what appears to be another Old Master-like painting of the story, found in the Apocrypha, of Susanna and the Elders, who spied upon Susanna in her bath. The overall impression this print offers us is one, of course, of judgement upon the many lusty old men we see (they are all the same, in history as today). Further than that, however, the print also suggests an interesting lack of distinction between itself and an Old Master. Neither is elevated above the other—each has aesthetic and cultural value—their uses are not identical, but they may be similar.
This point—on painting as a medium and a practice—is especially apparent as one moves through the galleries toward Modern Times, a far larger exhibition, of around 130 works, which focuses on American art of roughly a century later. The show’s title suits such an eclectic presentation—the modernity of the times is represented in photography, sculpture, ceramics, textile, clothing and furniture, with music of the Jazz Age playing softly over the speakers in the galleries. But it is painting that predominates here, and one is reminded that, in contrast to the careless attitude toward painting we see in the British prints, it was in this period that painting arguably became synonymous with the idea of “important” art. Thankfully, quite a few of the paintings here are worth the time it may take to view the entire group of objects thoroughly. One could quibble a little with the way the Museum’s collection tends—it’s rather heavy on mild, unengaging Georgia O’Keeffes—and the themed-survey approach to some of the groupings of work may at times feel arbitrary (the writhing, classically proportioned bodies in Reginald Marsh’s forceful Coney Island Beach, of 1932, could just as well be assigned to The Animated Figure as to Modern Life). But it is best not to worry about labels too much, and instead to find your own means of organizing these diverse works. If you’ve just finished viewing Biting Wit you might want to consider Modern Times by way of comparison.
We start with a happy surprise, Florine Stettheimer’s lighthearted 1921 painting Spring Sale at Bendel’s, in which chaos seems to reign as elegantly attired shoppers dive gracefully into bargain bins. In its bright wit, and even brighter hues, it could be considered a direct descendant of a Gillray or Heath print, but in composition it’s more carefully considered and more complicated—squint, and it resembles a Calder mobile (there is one nearby in the galleries), all disorganized pieces that resolve into balance. Stettheimer’s reputation has grown in recent years, and this is especially pleasing given her easy humor; more often than not, the artists in this exhibition (and, arguably, modernists on the whole) are too eager to be serious, which can be deadening.
Yet in some cases, of course, such seriousness is not only warranted but has a quickening effect. Claude Clarke’s moody Jam Session (1943), for example, belies its rather upbeat subject matter (swing dancing in a Harlem club) with a slightly disorienting perspective (the viewer is below the dancers), high contrasts, thickly applied paint, and the stately bearing of its two main figures. Though the painting is rather small—only 20 by 18 inches—it has great presence and seems less a comment on a popular pastime than a monument to the people it depicts. Similarly, Arthur Garfield Dove’s spare, brooding Silver Tanks and Moon (1930) has a valedictory quality—here, however, the artist argues against human presence and for nature, only just visible in the painting as a tiny, glowing circle of moon between two massive, industrial cylinders that threaten to blot it out. The satire of the English prints gives way here to a sort of Romantic anxiety, offered without romance.
In the end, there is this: anything that could be considered as aiming for what might be called beauty—of form, color, concept, composition—is painfully hard to come by in either of these two exhibitions. But Berenice Abbott’s glorious New York at Night (1932) is the fantastic exception. This image is by now an iconic, greeting-card-ready example of what we casually and loosely refer to as “modernism,” and the original is thus easy to overlook, but do not make that mistake. The photograph is a marvel of precision and feeling, and deserves a real encounter, with its sharp, saturated black forms and filmy, edgeless lights delineating the city buildings it lays before us, clearly populated by hundreds or thousands of people, none of whom we can see. It is perhaps this evocation of absence that gives the photograph such power. So many of the works in these two shows tell us precisely what to see when we examine them; Abbott manages to suggest some of what we cannot.