America After The Fall is an exhibition that is currently on at the Royal Academy in London. The Fall refers to the period of economic depression that followed the stock market crash in 1929. People lost their jobs, homes and savings and there was massive poverty, despair and social upheaval. People who stayed in rural areas watched wheat and cotton prices falling, meaning that they needed to produce more crops for the same money, and they over-farmed the land until it turned to dust and could give no more. Share-croppers, people who did not own the land they worked on but took a small percentage of profits, found themselves in a poverty trap where they couldn’t make enough money to survive or to move. People with a little bit more money migrated to the cities to look for work and meanwhile city-dwelling, newly unemployed workers in construction and heavy manufacturing moved back to rural areas to work the family farm.
People looked to the government to somehow rescue the situation and voted in Franklin Roosevelt, who introduced The New Deal, an economic stimulus package that created hundreds of jobs for people including up to 10,000 artists as a result of commissioning public art. This was also the very beginning of the golden age of Hollywood cinema, as the technology developed to produce ‘talkies’ rather than the silent films of the 1920s, providing a cheap form of entertainment for millions of people – a ticket cost about 20 cents.
This well-curated exhibition tells the story through 50 paintings, organised into themes such as city life, the country and heavy industry. I will not attempt to recount the entire story here but I will point out a few of the works that particularly struck me.
Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940
A typical Hopper painting. A solitary human is both participant and observer. A brightly-illuminated interior and a dark, rather mysterious exterior. Liminal spaces – is this the road between the city and the country in which impoverished, Depression-era migrants were travelling in both directions? What awaits them?
Grant Wood, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931
Revere was an American patriot who was involved in the American Revolution in the 18th century. He is remembered for his epic horse ride in New England in 1775, in which he warned American militia of the approach of British forces. I was captivated by the birds-eye view which allows you take in so much of the town and country and also by the toy-like architecture of the houses and the church. In fact, the whole thing looks like a model village or even a picturesque video game.
William H Johnson, Street Life, Harlem, 1939
A well-dressed African-American couple step out for the evening in Harlem. I wish any of my dates were ever that stylish.
Joe Jones, American Justice, 1933
Meanwhile, in the Deep South. The ironic title of this painting communicates the absence of justice. The woman in the foreground has had her house burned down and is about to be hanged and of course the white, hooded figures are Klansmen. Needless to say, these were extra-judicial, unlawful killings and virtually no-one was prosecuted.
America After The Fall is on until 4 June, so you have plenty of time to go and see it.