American artists of the early twentieth century sought to interpret the beauty, power, and anxiety of the modern age in diverse ways. Some turned to abstraction borrowed from European modernism, but those represented in this exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Urban Scene: 1920–1950, took a realistic approach, manipulating light and shadow to create scenes imbued with vitality and imagination. These artists employed precise detail and descriptive clarity to characterize experience, suggest meanings, and convey a narrative.
The representation of twentieth-century urban life provided them endless opportunities to probe the modern human condition. The urban panorama offered unprecedented vistas. Skyscrapers, bridges, and other technological marvels projected wealth and opportunity, while the city’s towering forms invoked the sublime. Simultaneously, the streets and dwellings of the metropolis hosted life’s theater. Depictions of harmonious communities and workers suggest a utopian vision, whereas scenes of crowding, poverty, and hunger point to society’s ills and failures. The same buildings glorified from one perspective could be interpreted from another as blocking light, deepening shadows, and heightening a sense of enclosure and confinement.
The artists represented here chose their subjects, arranged their compositions, and scrutinized details to convey particular aspects of urban life. They used line to capture the specific features of a face or the unique character of a building, and tone to mimic the play of light — from great shafts of morning sunshine spilling onto avenues to the poetry of the city’s riverside at night with reflections in the water. By selectively emphasizing certain elements and minimizing others, images were distilled to their atmospheric or narrative essence. The best artists balanced specificity with ambiguity, drawing our attention to the fundamental while leaving open to interpretation the implied, the hidden, and the undefined.
During the past decade, the National Gallery of Art has added extraordinary collections of prints and drawings to its holdings, from the Reba and Dave Williams Collection to the Corcoran Collection and works donated and promised by Bob Stana and Tom Judy. This exhibition highlights some of these acquisitions and reveals how the Gallery’s American print holdings continue to develop, incorporating new artists as well as works that expand its view of printmakers already represented in the collection.
This exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Sunday, August 6.
The People Work - Evening (1937)
Lithograph | 13 5/8 in. x 19 in.
Quiet Hour (1947)
Lithograph | 8 3/4 in. x 15 in.
Source and Images: National Gallery of Art, Washington