Favorites from “America After the Fall” exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute

Does anyone else have a frustrated-love for art museums? Though I’ve never studied art in structured scholarship, I still enjoy wondering around beautiful buildings that are home to humanity’s most creative minds. I enjoy trying to figure out what these geniuses are saying, how they think.

Travel Hack: When you are visiting an art museum for the first time, start at the gift shop, specifically the postcards. You’ll be able to see their most popular piece all in one place.

My frustration with museums, art museums in particular, is that they are way too big to take in during one visit. As a tourist, this is a problem. With a limited amount of time in any given place, you can’t visit the museum multiple times. Most of the time, you only get one chance.

Lucky for me, Chicago has an art museum that contends with the Louvre, the Met, the Prado and the British Museum for the TripAdvisor’s Best Museum. This means I have been several times, I get to take my time with the exhibits, and I can better focus my attention when I go to the museum for a specific collection.

american after the fall: painting in the 1930s

Here are my favorite pieces of the collection and the disconnected thoughts I had about each. I hope you are able to see the exhibition before it leaves Chicago.This has been a long introduction to the fact that I went to the American After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. As a lit-head and someone interested in all things Roosevelt, this period of American history already peaks my interest. Walking in and seeing “American Gothic” by Grant Wood stare at me, I knew I was in for a powerful collection focused on America’s work ethic, hope and quiet desperation during the Great Depression and on the brink of the second World War.

American After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s will be a special exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute until September 18, 2016.

“…and home of the brave” (1931) by charles demuth

From the except that the Art Institute provides alongside the painting, Demuth paints the “quintessentially modern American subject—the factory.” What I found most powerful about Demuth’s art is not necessary the final piece, but the efforts of the artist that reveal themselves to the audience; the pencil lines that still show bold and thick to the viewer. He paints that which represents American, the act of creating, and clearly shows his own efforts to create in the final piece.

“…And Home of the Brave” has a forever-home at the Chicago Art Institute.

“…And Home of the Brave” (1931) by Charles Demuth

 “…and Home of the Brave” (1931) by Charles Demuth

“american landscape” (1930) by charles sheeler

The subject here is the Ford Motor Company near Detroit, Michigan. The method is simply and geometric. What left me staring at the painting after my museum companions had moved on was the fact the reflection in the River Rougue is dark and lacks the pops of color Sheeler used to depict the auto factory, as if to say that things seem darker and more bleak than they really are.

“American Landscape” lives in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“American Landscape” (1930) by Charles Sheeler

“cradling wheat” (1938) by thomas benton

From the description provided with the piece, Benton depicts a more traditional method of harvesting wheat: Although farm machines were in use when this painting was done, the artist shows the workers using old-fashioned hand tools. The colors and the lines add to the romanticized narrative of hard work and of the American spirit. And considering this thought with the title–Cradling Wheat–it also gives a sense that hard work and returning to the methods of old is what will bring America out of their depression and nurture it back to strength.

This piece by Benton can normally be seen at the St. Louis Art Museum in Missouri.

“Cradling Wheat” (1938) by Thomas Benton

“Cradling Wheat” (1938) by Thomas Benton

“rrosion no. 2 – mother earth laid bare” (1936) by alexander hogue

This piece is erotic and disturbing. At face value, the work depicts the desolation of a farm by the Dust Bowl; in the foreground is a tool of industry, half buried and probably ruined by the natural event; at the top of the painting is a home is disrepair. But when you step back and view the painting as a whole, you’ll notice that the dust-covered hills forms a woman’s naked body.

What happens to our earth happens to us; what happens to our land happens to our person.

“Erosion No 2” can normally be found in Tulsa Oklahoma at the Philbrook Museum of Art.

“Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare” (1936) by Alexander Hogue

“Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare” (1936) by Alexander Hogue

“daughters of the revolution” (1932) by grant wood

Do you see the similarities between this piece and Wood’s most famous piece, “American Gothic”?

If I hadn’t read the description to this piece, I wouldn’t have been as intrigued by it… again I’m not a student of art, only a fan. The description pointed out Wood’s satire, so I stood there and searched much longer than I care to confess for the satire in the image of three elderly women, staring at me, while George Washington crossed the Delaware in the image behind them. What was satirical about this?

Sidenote: “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze is at the MET in New York… and it’s 100% worth seeing in its gigantic splendor!

So, is Wood satirizing the fact that we need to abandon the concept that our Founding Fathers found fitting for their time and to come up with principles that fit the current needs of our nation? Or is Wood questioning whom we revere as heroes? Are not our mothers heroes in their own right; is not the work ethic and witness they bare to our lives more profound that a filtered-tale of 18th century rebellion? Well, there was the juxtaposition of there being women standing in front of men; of their different sizes; of the women looking at me and of the early American patriots focused on their goal; of the women, assumedly, being alive and ready to engage me, while the early American patriots are frozen in time, perfectly preserved by history and art. At a time in American history when people looked to their government for help unlike any time before, when those who wanted work couldn’t find it, I’m sure the romantic idea of our Founding Fathers seemed like a risky experiment finally meeting its fiery end or the romantic idea from which we had strayed too far. Regardless, we longed for a better time; since the future was scary and unknown, our brave history was the ideal.

This painting can be found at the Cincinnati Art Museum when not out for exhibit.

“Daughters of the Revolution” (1932) by Grant Wood

“Daughters of the Revolution” (1932) by Grant Wood

“american injustice” (1933) by joe jones

With the time period in question, I was disappointed that the exhibited was predominately about the struggle the American society suffered and was light on the struggle, suffering and violence the American society created. Joe Jones’ “American Injustice” was, therefore a shocking addition to exhibition. … and now that I write that out, maybe it’s more powerful and jarring for the fact that nothing else in the exhibit showed the violence of racism that dominated part of society and so closely mirrors the systematic hate that was about to happen in Nazi Germany.

The image shows the Ku Klux Klan standing watch over a dead or mourning woman in the foreground (I honestly can’t tell which) and a burning building in the background. The members of the group are dressed in stark white robes with easy-to-see thin crosses. For me, the emphasis on the Klan and their religious-like attire calls into (serious) question and makes a decisive judgment against the righteousness of this self-righteous group.

(Online research is failing me and I can’t uncover where this piece normally lives. If anyone knows or solves this mystery, please comment below so I can update this post!)

“American Injustice” (1933) by Joe Jones

“American Injustice” (1933) by Joe Jones

“New York Movie” (1939) by Edward Hopper

I enjoyed this painting, one of the last ones I studied before leaving the exhibit, because of its similarity to Hopper’s most famous piece, “Nighthawks” (which can be found at the Chicago Art Institute, just not in this exhibition). Both are alive with color, contrasting the isolation and separation the subject matters clearly embodies.

This Hopper painting lives in New York City in the Museum of Modern Art.

“New York Movie” (1939) by Edward Hopper

“New York Movie” (1939) by Edward Hopper


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