The Brooklyn Museum will present the first wide-ranging exploration of American art from the decade whose beginning and end were marked by the aftermath of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression. “Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties,” which includes some 138 paintings, sculptures and photographs by 67 artists, will be on view October 28 to January 29, prior to a national tour.
American life was dramatically transformed in the years following the Great War, as urbanization, industrialization, mechanization and rampant materialism altered the environment and the way people lived. American artists responded to this dizzying modern world with works that embraced a new brand of idealized realism to evoke a seemingly perfect modern world.
The twenties saw a vigorous renewal of figurative art that melded uninhibited body-consciousness with classical ideals. Encompassing a wide array of artists, “Youth and Beauty” celebrates this striking and original modern art and questions its relation to the riotous decade from which it emerged.
The first section is “Body Language: Liberation and Restraint in Twenties Figuration,” which investigates the Realist portrait, naturally erotic figure subjects and heroic types. Throughout the twenties, motion pictures, advertising, “healthy body culture” and the theories of Sigmund Freud all contributed to an era of physical liberation and nearly an obsession with bodily perfection. Many artists celebrated the physical ideal in nude subjects, which, though startlingly direct, are also restrained in a way that suggests an uneasiness with the accelerated energy and action of modern life.
The new Realism was also apparent in portraits that depict natural beauty with decisive clarity and immediacy. Often cast in the format of the newly popular “closeup,” portraiture in the 1920s emerged from a culture where advertising prompted rigorous self-scrutiny and theories of psychology suggested complexly layered personalities.
The second section, “Silent Pictures: Reckoning with a New World,” explores subjects as diverse as still life, industrial and natural landscape while highlighting the shared qualities of compositional refinement and muted expression. Painters and photographers depicted the ready-made geometries of industrial towers, stacks and tanks, and the webs of struts and beams, with little reference to their utilitarian actualities or to human activity.
Challenged by the sensory assault of the modern urban-industrial world around them, artists also portrayed American landscapes as precisely distilled and largely uninhabited. Intent on maintaining their own individuality in a new era of mass-production and mass-market advertising, they described the features of more remote American places with intensity and austerity.
In their still life compositions, American artists applied a Modernist penchant for essential form to exacting arrangements of insistently simple things. Objects as disparate as flowers, soup cans, razors, cocktail shakers and eggs appear in compositions that suggest the new tensions between the traditional and the modern in art and in life.
The exhibition has been organized by Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon curator of American art at the Brooklyn Museum. Following the Brooklyn presentation, it will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art from March 4 to May 27 and to the Cleveland Museum of Art from July 1 to September 16.
A multi-author exhibition catalog, co-published by the Brooklyn Museum and Skira Rizzoli, accompanies the exhibition.
The Brooklyn Museum is at 200 Eastern Parkway. For information, 718-638-5000 or www.brooklynmuseum.org .