24 November 2011

‘Youth and Beauty’ at the Brooklyn Museum

Portrait of the Artist as a Beautiful Youth:
Paul Cadmus, as seen by Luigi Lucioni

Somewhere there exists an alternate United States, where, on the day after Thanksgiving, Americans throng not to shopping malls but to art museums. Well, it’s a nice thought, anyway.

If for some reason you’re inclined to do something besides shopping, a new-ish exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum is worth your attention. Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, curated by Teresa A. Carbone, finds quite a lot to bring together — and to say about — pieces the Museum owns already, as well as paintings, photographs, and sculpture from other collections. (Through 29 January 2012.)

We get an idea of what it meant to be “clean,” in the context of the times, and why the artists wanted to depict “clean” bodies, for example: it wasn’t only a version of Art Deco streamlining, the whiz of high-speed modernity, that they sought to capture, but also the antithesis of the ugliness and mess they’d seen in Europe during World War I.

We also get some of the first stirrings of an explicitly gay sensibility in American art, and quite a lot of the work in Youth and Beauty anticipates the Museum’s latest exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, a meditation on sexuality and gender in portraiture that opened last week (and running through 12 February 2012).*

Guy Pène du Bois’ People, one of the creepier images in the Youth and Beauty exhibition. I grew up on du Bois’ illustrations for children’s books, representative of the ways in which some of these artists were tamed, in a sense, later in life.

The portrait of Paul Cadmus by Luigi Lucioni is arrestingly beautiful in itself — and my desire to see it up close, instead of in a subway poster, is in fact what brought me to the Museum. But knowing that it’s not just any pretty boy but Paul Cadmus points you toward the boys in Cadmus’ own paintings, and the burgeoning sexuality in his work. Suddenly, you think that it may have been pretty easy, after all, for Cadmus to find models for even his most outrageous paintings.

The Youth and Beauty exhibition doesn’t have any of Cadmus’ work, but there are plenty of “liberated” bodies, freed of constraining clothing (in the early 1920s, even a woman’s form-fitting knit bathing suit would have made a bold fashion statement, Carbone’s notes remind us) and free in gesture, too, often captured in tumbled-together, almost orgiastic compositions. Such images hearken to Classicism but also to ultra-modern Madison Avenue advertising and cinema — and there’s a portrait of movie star Gloria Swanson to prove it.

We had faces: Swanson, as seen by Nickolas Murray, circa 1925.

A kind of eroticism pervades the landscapes and cityscapes, too. Architectural forms, especially, when “cleaned” of details, become more sensuous, weighted and shaded as if you could reach out and fondle them — and in a booming industrial society (or in the Great Depression that marks the end of this exhibition’s survey), the potency of a smokestack hardly need be explained.

Carbone’s texts link one artist to another, and also draw on the works of writers who were, one way or another, influential at the time: Sinclair Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Fitzgerald, and so on. I yearned to buy the exhibition catalogue, but even the paperback edition is expensive, and it’s in the nature of museum culture nowadays that it’s nearly impossible to replicate or record the experience more cheaply by purchasing postcards (the Brooklyn Museum gift shop has almost none from this exhibition). Our contemporary Depression has its own chilling effects, it would seem.

Aaron Douglas, Congo, circa 1928.
Somewhere in this group is a figure based on Josephine Baker.

I first set foot in the Brooklyn Museum a couple of decades ago, on a Saturday afternoon jaunt with friends, and didn’t return until Joyce Castle performed William Bolcom’s Hawthorn Tree there last autumn.** Each time I go, I vow to spend more time there: there are wonderful collections of all sorts of things, not merely accessible but friendly. Here, for example, is a collection of Egyptian antiquities of such proportions and display that I might at last get a clear sense of the meanings and movements of that art — if only I’d go back and spend an afternoon or two puttering around and studying!

I expect I will go back to see Hide/Seek (and to look again at Youth and Beauty) in the coming days, and since I’m to be Louvre-deprived for the near future, I hope to make the closer acquaintance of the treasures in Brooklyn.

Get used to it: Berenice Abbott’s portrait of writer Janet Flanner in the 1920s suggests the sitter’s sexuality. From Hide/Seek.

*NOTE: Hide/Seek is best known for the brouhaha it stirred last year at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, when an overhasty G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian, removed David Wojnarowicz’s short film A Fire in My Belly from the exhibition following complaints from some representative of the American Taliban.

**The Brooklyn Museum would be an absolutely brilliant setting for a performance of Statuesque, the marvelous little song cycle that Jake Heggie wrote for Joyce.

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