"The Age of Anxiety", a small but triumphant show currently on view at Paris' Musée de l'Orangerie, examines the enthralling new forms of expressions which arose in the aftermath of the economic crash of 1929, revealing how a troubling social reality allowed for a great diversity of artistic sensibilities to bring forth a distinctively American sense of modernism in painting.
Opening with Georgia O'Keefe's enigmatic still life Cow's skull with Calico Roses (1931) and Grant Wood's iconic American Gothic (1930)—both on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago—and closing with Edward Hopper's Gas (1940), the show provides a unique opportunity for European audiences to contemplate a number of masterpieces rarely, if ever, exhibited outside the US.
Guy Peellaert's appreciation of Hopper is well-documented and the American master's signature use of the negative space provided a key reference point for the Las Vegas, the Big Room series. The pensive woman from New York Movie (1939), off-centered from the stage and reclining against a wall, exemplifies a sense of isolation dramatically contrasting with the popular entertainments from a new urban age of escapism that are the focus of the show's strongest room, titled "Show Town".
But it is the raw energy of the street as captured by Reginald Marsh—a long disregarded painter virtually unknown in Europe who nevertheless counted among Peellaert's personal heroes—which exudes the most peellaertian vibe : the Belgian artist's composition for 42nd Street from Twentieth Century Dreams (1995-1999) bears a strikingly similar composition to that of Twenty Cent Movie (1935), Marsh's exuberant egg-and-tempera rendition of the craze for burlesque theaters in New York City. By his own admittance, the garish billboards and thrill-seeking city dwellers that were the hallmarks of Marsh's populous spectacles were a revelation to the young Peellaert, who discovered them in the pages of Life magazine in the 1940s. Growing up in a conservative bourgeois household in Brussels, the young Peellaert found in these "vulgar" paintings a liberating sensory escape that would prove decisive in shaping his own future aesthetic.
Thomas Hart Benton is another popular American painter whose legacy would be largely overshadowed by the advent of Abstract Expressionism in the post-war period. In Europe, the young Peellaert could only have come across the former illustrator's work through the pages of Life or Saturday Evening Post. Benton, a Regionalist painter whose favored subject matters included ordinary people and common lore, is known for his soulful depictions of the American midwest, in particular his native Missouri. Peellaert often cited Benton's life-affirming large-scale murals, such as America Today, as a formative influence, as he made particularly clear in the bold cinematic composition of his Gerswhin Frieze (1991).
The highly stylized rural scenes from two of Benton's less grandiose undertakings on view here, Haystack (1938) and Cotton Pickers (1945) bring to mind Peellaert's little-known Cinema Blues, which was originally created as the cover art for the jazz album of the same name in 1993. Peellaert's evocative depiction of a lovelorn bluesman, executed in pastel over a photographic base, seems to reference Benton's characteristic sinuous landscapes as well as his ability to infuse paintings with an emphatic sense of rhythm and sound, although Peellaert injected his homage with a characteristic dash of sex-appeal in the form of a curvaceous babe in high heels and skintight faux-leather dress walking into the distance, suitcase in hand.
The 1930s also marked the advent of the car as a central motif of the American Way of Life. In a room titled "Nightmares and reality" hangs Grant Wood's famous Death on the Ridge Road, where the emblem of modernity and mobility takes on menacing qualities as two vehicles enter a collision course with a red truck atop a narrow and curving hillside road. The 1935 painting, which once belonged to Cole Porter, was a clear source of inspiration for Peellaert's untitled 1994 depiction of a wartime ambush, originally commissioned as a promotional poster for the Claude Lelouch film Les Misérables. The dramatic perspective and fierce lines of force from Peellaert's high-octane composition seem to take several cues from Wood's ominous narrative of pending disaster.
"The Age of Anxiety" is on view until January 30th