The Early 20th Century: The Age of Anxiety
It’s quite interesting to think that the first half of the twentieth century dealt with, at length, the same issues that persist today, even if they are presently not as violently represented. If we’re to be honest, the Age of Anxiety has not even begun to come to a close—the perpetual darkness of inhumanity, those who would take and take if only ever for themselves, so that they could gleefully offer the crumbs leftover to the rest of the people. The imbalance of money and power only exists to illustrate the tumultuousness of a world population who by and by beginning to blame others who find themselves at the same kind of disadvantage. Overwhelmingly toxic white patriarchy is largely to blame for the inequities and inequalities that are still troublingly present in America today.
At the beginning of the twentieth-century America was definitely dealing with its ups and downs, not only on a global scale but also within its own borders. The First World War was the first of many troubling times for the United States to deal with as a nation—this war raged from July 28, 1914, until November 11, 1918—but it was far from the last. The age of Prohibition was a harsh, thirteen years where the honest man or woman couldn’t legally enjoy an adult beverage from 1920 to 1933. This time period brought about mob bosses, boot-legging, and a criminal underground that now is looked upon with a certain glamour—as if the Great Depression didn’t begin four years before the ending of Prohibition.
The Great Depression hit everyone—although some less than others—and on October 24, 1929, the United States would see yet another disturbingly miserable time, punctuated only by the beginning of World War II, on September 1, 1939.
Street Scene, New Orleans (1936) by Walker Evans
Let me preface this particular medium with the age-old query—is photography really artwork? In comparison to works that have come from the depths of the artist’s imagination, frescos that took years to complete can photography truly be considered a work of art? The supposed effortlessness nature of the medium doesn’t really measure up to the same standards as painting or sculpting, because the art of photography is measured by different standards altogether—after all, a good photograph takes more than just pointing and clicking. Photography takes a special eye—photographers at the beginning of the twentieth century didn’t have the option to obsess over every single detail of the scene they were capturing as we do with digital displays. That means that the photographer had to be able to identify their perfect opportunity for composition and being able to capture it at the exact right moment.
Art is creativity and photography
is best when captured by a true artist.
Walker Evans—Perspectives of Hardship
American Photography, especially in the years leading up to World War II largely depicted life during the later years of the Great Depression—seen here, Walker Evans’ Street Scene, New Orleans (1936), just three years before the beginning of the Second World War, we see an African American man, in somber juxtaposition to an otherwise happy caricature of a white woman on an advertisement—only one of the obvious displays of imbalance of representation at the time. This gelatin silver print, of a photograph taken by Evans, is just one example of how an image can be worth a thousand words.
In a single frame, Evans displayed not only his superb ability to compose, crop, and frame his images to offer a striking narrative that emphasized the dichotomy of privilege, class, and race in the American South. This image, in a sense, is representative of a time it was still illegal for interracial relationships and where lynching was still not criminalized on a federal level.
Surprisingly, this scene would not even come close to touching upon the narrative of some of the more atrocious events that would ravage the modern world—in truth, despite this being an amazing commentary on the social injustice of the mid to late 1930s, it would serve to only briefly touch upon what would follow for the black community in their struggle to be recognized as equals to their white counterparts.
Before the Parachute Opens (1939) by Tullio Crali
Futurism originated in Italy in the early 20th century—it provided a focused emphasis on speed, technology, youth, violence, and objects that were symbolic of modernized technology. This movement really was a reflection of an obsession over the newness of these developing technologies—in the shadow of the inadequacies of military technologies during World War I, there came about a realization that in order to win future wars there would be a large need for newer technologies that would allow for more devastation in a shorter period of time.
Despite the fact that Futurism was largely an Italian phenomenon, futurism had parallel movements in Russia, which then further developed on its own, but it had limited impact in other countries, which generally ended up only inspiring other movements in art. Futurists weren’t limited to paintings, however, this movement was practiced in every medium of art, including sculpting, ceramics, graphic design, industrial design, interior design, urban design, theater, film, fashion, textiles, literature, music, architecture, and oddly enough—cooking!
Aeropittura—Perspectives of Flight
When America’s Great Depression finally ended in 1941, the Second World War was still underway and I believe this particular oil on canvas is a fair representation of Futurism’s narrative on World War II. Before the Parachute Opens was painted in 1939 by Tullio Crali, it is specifically considered a part of Aeropittura (Aeropainting), a major expression during the second generation of Italian Futurism which was a mainstay in art between 1929 and the early 1940s. This particular expression romanticized technology and the excitement of flight—with a new somewhat geometrical perspective on the thrill of flight.
In 1928 Tullio Crali experienced flight for the first time and it left him wanting more; his enthusiasm for flying and his eventual experience as a pilot indeed influenced his artwork and in 1929 he officially joined the movement of Futurism. When the manifesto for Aeropittura was signed that same year, the founders stated that “the changing perspectives of flight constitute an absolutely new reality that has nothing in common with the reality traditionally constituted by a terrestrial perspective,” and that “paining from this new reality requires a profound contempt for detail and a need to synthesize and transfigure everything.”
Crali’s most famous work, Nose Dive on the City (1939) we can see what it is like from the perspective of the pilot, with the buildings included for perspective on the often terrifying nature of flight which was a profound new element in the art world—views outside of the normal earthbound perspective.
In Before the Parachute Opens, we see the literal moment before the parachute of a paratrooper would open—or at least, what it looked like from the artist’s perspective from his own experience flying. I can see how this painting might be easy to pass by if you were viewing it among other works of art—the illusion of the geometry almost hides the scene taking place within the painting. The geometrical focus within this painting also creates the illusion of movement, with emphasis on the paratrooper’s arms and the semi-opaque triangular cut points to the ground within a rural area. The free-fall that is happening at the moment captured here is realistic enough to, after spending thoughtful meditation upon it, instill within the audience the thrilling sensation of falling. It’s truly enough to give you the chills.
The End of an Era of a World at War
When the end of WWI came on September 2, 1945, the world was forever changed and humanity was in desperate need of intense healing on a global scale—the decades to follow would bring that at an agonizingly slow pace. Of course, WWII wasn’t the end of war in the world, it wasn’t even the end of American influence in war—but perhaps we can leave that for another day.
The Struggle III: Assassination (1969) by Jacob Lawrence
The Harlem Renaissance
Between 1919 and 1930, we saw the development of African American ideas being expressed through the visual arts, music, dance, theater, and literature—this was of course centered in Harlem in Manhattan, NY. At the time it was called the New Negro Movement and was an immediate important influence that flew through the rest of the country and then, the world. With an expansive number of mediums in which this particular movement could be expressed, we got great painters such as Jacob Lawrence, as well as amazing singers such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong—men and women who paved the way for other African American creatives within the oppressive United States to express themselves and their perspective of being Black in a country where their future was uncertain.
While this particular painting was not created during the Harlem Renaissance it is still considered part of that style, as Lawrence’s style revolved around that era and on. His artwork depicted atrocities that were committed against black Americans throughout the twenties, thirties, through the civil rights movement, and up until his death in 2010.
Jacob Lawrence in Painting the Struggles
Jacob Lawrence was a painter within the Harlem Renaissance movement who not only painted amazing artwork, he based his artwork on actual history. It is said that throughout his incredibly long career, Lawrence spent long hours at the public library sifting through historical texts, memoirs, newspapers, as well as attending established history clubs. He then took these historical narratives and translated them into images that would provide a relatable message.
Now, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day wasn’t written during the Harlem Renaissance, but it certainly embodies the spirit of the time about which it speaks. I highly recommend this book, it’s highly moving and allows a perspective that would otherwise be unattainable for white people in general—at least, in this white girl’s opinion, it does.
When we look at the body of work created by the African American community, we see such colorful cultural influence and power that provides incredible commentary on the crushing oppression that has been endured, but the joyful spirit that still remains despite the lengths that those in power have gone to, to keep them underfoot.
As a result of slavery, segregation, civil rights movements, and now Black Lives Matter—we have the hauntingly beautiful art, music, and literature that illustrates the tragedy of the lottery of birth and how that translates to a wave of justified anger that after generations of disgusting treatment, has finally boiled over.
The Age of Anxiety Continues in the 21st Century
So, this is one of the things that has kept me from getting this article up before now. We, as Americans, are still awaiting the results from the 2020 election and this seems to be a defining moment for this country. This is a nation in crisis and at this point I’m not sure what the future is going to look like, going from here. Right now, to be perfectly honest, we are fighting for the soul of this nation and for those of you who are reading this and not a resident of the United States—we’re sorry that it took this long to do something about it.
“Art Movement: Harlem Renaissance.” Artland Magazine, 31 Mar. 2020, magazine.artland.com/art-movement-harlem-renaissance/.
“Harlem Renaissance Art Overview.” The Art Story, http://www.theartstory.org/movement/harlem-renaissance/.
“Jacob Lawrence and the Harlem Renaissance.” MOAS, http://www.moas.org/Jacob-Lawrence-and-the-Harlem-Renaissance-1-57.html.
Mobilio, Albert. “A Zoom with a View: Tullio Crali’s Death Loop.” Hyperallergic, 27 Aug. 2014, hyperallergic.com/145119/a-zoom-with-a-view-tullio-cralis-death-loop/.
Waters, Tom. “Unpublished Black History; Revisiting Walker Evans.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Mar. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/your-stories/unpublished-black-history/stories/tom-waters.
Opam, Kwame. “How Futurism Transformed the Art World by Worshipping Technology.” The Verge, The Verge, 11 May 2014, http://www.theverge.com/2014/5/11/5706898/how-futurism-transformed-the-art-world-by-worshipping-technology.