Histories of the last century's art typically tell a linear story of increasing abstraction. The Cleveland Museum of Art, in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum, complicates this narrative with Youth and Beauty, a survey of American art of the 1920s which places art's emphasis back on the realistic human form.
The show documents societal reactions against the industrialization and repression of 20s culture, as well as the dematerializing abstraction of Impressionism and Cubism. The assembled works strive for an "idealized realism" which depicts the beauty, strength, and freedom a healthy attitude towards the body could produce.
The paradigm of this aesthetic is manifest in Thomas Hart Benton's 1922 "Self-Portrait with Rita," in which the artist boldly depicts himself in heroic fashion in his beloved Martha's Vineyard retreat. His chest is bare, tanned, and defined. Though he is prepared for beachside recreation, his eyes and mouth are fixed with determination like that of a competitive athlete. His newlywed Rita (née Piacenza) wears a provocative-for-the-times swimsuit baring her shoulders and thighs, but is posed like a Renaissance model. The image asserts the vitality and dignity of the "clean" human form in open air.
Many artists dared to express more frank sexuality than Benton, as in the nude photography of Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, and Gaston Lachaise's bronze sculpture of his wife's torso. Some artists even catalogue the reaction against bodily liberation: Guy Pène du Bois' oil painting "The Beach" depicts a confrontation between a cohort of conservatively dressed men and two women in bare-limbed suits like Rita's.
The show's title belies the breadth of its coverage of 20s' art. Three rooms are also given over to still lifes, architectural paintings, and landscapes of the era — some of which draw upon the abstractions that the show's headliners resist.
In a novel experiment, attendees can use their smartphones or an iPod borrowed from the museum to listen to a jazzy playlist of the era's music. The overall effect of the exhibition is to present a glimpse into an era whose struggles with embodiment, expression, and restriction played out much as our own.
Here's hoping we can learn something from it.
The exhibition continues through September 16 at 11150 East Blvd. Adult admission is $15. Learn more at 216-421-7350 or clevelandart.org.
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