After World War I, the "Far West," as the United States was called, began at last to enter the consciousness of "old" European culture. Germans, in particular, began using American products, listening to American music, and watching American movies. Artists active during the Weimar Republic heatedly debated the Americanization of their culture. Their artistic assessments range from the admiring, to the distrustful, to the bitterly critical.
Envisioning America: Prints, Drawings, and Photographs by George Grosz and his Contemporaries, 1915-1930, on display at the Fogg now, is a relatively cohesive exhibition featuring a number of provocative pieces from this time of flux in German culture.
At the Fogg Art Museum
Through March 18
The sixty drawings, prints and collages that comprise the exhibit are organized around four themes: "The Wild West," "The Metropolis," "Social and Political Critique," and "Popular Culture: Jazz, Dance, and Film." The images depicted run the gamut from reverence to condemnation of an American culture viewed with ambivalence.
The works in first three sections are well-presented, adhering to a clear theme of the power and modernity of the American culture. The artists perceived the United States as an industrial mecca and a military power within which men are mecanical, corrupt, and agressive. This view was supported by the writings of the "muckrakers" and the untamed violence of the "Wild West" lore.
The exhibit is in four rooms, one for each grouping, and the artists' works are well interspersed between the rooms. This lay out emphasizes the four major subjects common to the artists. At least in the first three rooms. The last collection, "Popular Culture," lacks the analytical qualities that make the rest of the exhibit evocative.
The prints and drawings of Charlie Chaplin, jazz musicians and dancers, because of their lack of message or commentary, fall flat when contrasted to the powerful images and criticism that make the rest of the exhibit interesting. The "Popular Culture" pieces only detract from the otherwise cohesive display.
Although George Grosz, as the central artist of the show, is the most widely represented, his works do not present any stronger images or critiques than those of the other artists. Stylistically, the pieces are little more than sketches, characterized by bold strokes and two-dimensionality. They acquire their value mainly from the compelling German perspective on the American culture.
One especially striking woodcut, "Things American," by Gerd Arntz, is a decidedly unflattering representation of a hypocritical America. It depicts a lynched Black man, a row of "bathing beauties," and a Ford production line in simple, heavy lines and basic colors. The juxtaposition of the three images is, to say the least, a biting commentary on the morality of our culture.
Juxtaposition of contradictory images is a favorite technique of these artists. Another piece which does this admirably is Grosz's "Keep Smiling," portaying a well-dressed urban man, whose capital silouhette is suggestive of the lines of a machine, under a dollar-sign halo. The man is stamped "100% U.S.A.," and is stereotypical of the mechanized and greedy citizen of metropolital America.
The exhibit is thoughtful in presenting its strong criticism of American culture, even in its bold, artistic style. There is much to be gleaned from the social and political commentaries represented in the works, especially for those interested in the history of German-American relations or foreign perceptions of America. The art in the exhibit, if weak in spots, is an undeniably powerful vehicle.