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Part 4: The New Century, 1900-1960

  • Page ID
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    CHARLES DEMUTH'S I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold heralds the arrival of a new urban vernacular of storefront advertising, graphic design, and neon billboards that increasingly characterized the visual environment of the twentieth century. While abstracting elements from the city night, this pulsating visual collage acknowledges the dynamism of modern commerce while asserting the power of the modernist artist to combine the random events of city living into a meaningful aesthetic unity.

    I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold represents one among many negotiations between 'high" and 'low" culture in the first four decades of the new century. The genteel establishment of the later nineteenth century had put into place a strict segregation of elite and popular culture, along with other boundaries between culture and nature, male and female, and mind and body. The opening of the 20th twentieth century brought with it a new urban modernity, overturning older social and gender roles, and directing artistic expression at everyday energies and toward a new mobility of perception evident in the fractured field of vision that Demuth evoked with such elegance. These years also saw the emergence of the first American avant garde-artists who critically engaged the very category of art itself, as well as the art world institutions that supported it. Such playful questioning was sparked by the presence of French exiles from World War I, who turned a humorously ironic eye on the conservative modernism that had taken shape in New York City between 1900 and 1920. In short, the geography of culture in the first half of the twentieth century became increasingly complex, as audiences, taste, and institutions fractured along new faultlines.

    Measured by sheer volume, the visual culture of these years expanded exponentially with the growth of film, advertising, photojournalism, and commercial photography. These mass media, however, had contradictory effects. They colonized the imagination with manufactured images of wealth, glamour, and prestige remote from everyday lives; but they also brought poverty, social injustice, and international events to public awareness. By challenging traditional representational languages and cultural hierarchies, mass media transformed the nation.

    In an archaeological cross-section, the visual detritus of these years would give us evidence of the period's complexity. It would trace different worlds, from the streamlined gadgets of modern conveniences in millions of middle-class homes, to the handmade fetish-like forms of modernist direct carvers in wood and stone; from the formalized photographs of the skyscraper city, with its severe geometries, to the evocative abstract depths of nature lovingly wrought by modernist painters. Such a cross-section would yield as well the ruins of factories whose form follows function, alongside of houses built in styles nostalgically recreating the past; it would yield historical romances such as Gone with the Wind, alongside of searingly realistic films about urban life such as King Vidor' s The Crowd.

    The pace of historical crisis, in these four decades, would test and stretch new aesthetic languages to their breaking point. Two great wars wrought vast changes in basic assumptions about progress and human nature but sent a revitalizing stream of emigres to America; in between these two wars, a global economic depression accompanied by the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia gave to the arts an unprecedented sense of political and social urgency that propelled ever closer ties to life and history.

    Thumbnail: CHARLES DEMUTH, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (detail), 1928. Oil on composition board, 36 x 29¾ in (91.4 x 75.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

    This page titled Part 4: The New Century, 1900-1960 is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.