Why were artists in the United States during the 1920s so fascinated by urban landscapes? Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, on view now through September 16, has an entire gallery dedicated to the ways its featured artists engaged with urban life. Planes, trains, skyscrapers, and factories provided subject matter, interestingly portrayed in ways that sought beauty and individuality from things that were at times considered visually unremarkable or anonymous.
This emphasis reflects a post-World War I cultural climate, a time when America’s landscape was becoming increasingly industrialized. Artists who worked during the Twenties vacillated between loving and hating this change—a range of attitudes reflected in the works showcased in Youth and Beauty.
Some artists, like Elsie Driggs, recorded the trappings of mechanization in admiring detail. Her painting Aeroplane (1928), a meticulously factual study of the Ford Tri-motor airplane, documented her experiences with technology that helped her come to terms with her changing surroundings. Others—including Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O’Keeffe—sought to make urban structures palatable by portraying them as austere and orderly, in a sense taming and beautifying the gritty chaos of city life.
Arthur Dove’s Silver Tanks (1929), an image of two industrial storage tanks that borders on the abstract, greatly exemplifies this approach.
Similarly, Charles Sheeler intensifies the color and formal organization in Church Street El (1920), a skyscraper window’s view onto a portion of Lower Manhattan that features an elevated train at right. In doing so, he curiously removed any trace of people. In fact, depopulated cityscapes are typical of Twenties American art, for most artists chose not to depict the crowded aspects of the city.
Church Street El, 1920. Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965). Oil on canvas; 41 x 48.6 cm (16 1/8 x 19 1/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1977.43. Image © The Cleveland Museum of Art.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y. (1926) highlights the competing forces of nature and urbanity, depicting the Shelton Hotel—at the time, the tallest residential building in the world—illuminated by the fierce glare of the sun. Once again, no people are present!
For those who want to check out local examples of Twenties architecture and landmarks, the museum and the Cleveland Restoration Society are offering a Lolly the Trolley tour on Sunday, August 12 from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. Led by architectural historian Dr. Theodore Sande, the tour will encompass public and private structures in a variety of styles. A limited number of tickets remain for a cost of $25 for museum members, and $30 for non-members. Please register through the ticket center at 216-421-7350.