Art City: Painting America in Paris

Grant Wood's History of Penmanship: Modern Method of Writing -- image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum
Grant Wood’s “History of Penmanship: Modern Method of Writing” — image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum

Paris in the 1920s was a hub of intellectual and artistic activity, luring artists from all over the world. Many American expats fled their homeland and its morass of economic troubles, institutionalized racism and strict censorship laws to Paris’s rarefied atmosphere, holding out the promise of artistic freedom and intellectual openness.

Two influential American painters from very different circles, Stuart Davis and Grant Wood, entered the Parisian art scene at this time. The work they produced while abroad is the subject of a new exhibit at the Figge Art Museum. On display through Nov. 2, Two Americans in Paris: Stuart Davis and Grant Wood identifies unforeseen connections between two artists who occupied diametrically opposed positions in the Modernist debate. Davis was a Cubist painter and champion of the avant-garde; Wood, Iowa’s native son, favored the naturalistic approach of Regionalism.

Two Americans in Paris reveals an unmistakably French influence in both artists’ work. But, as one of the gallery plaques remarks, ironically, the two had to leave the States in order to find their respective identities as American painters. The show includes a few early pieces from Wood—when he was still struggling to figure out what to paint and how to paint it. All the selected works by Davis were completed after he was an established painter.

Davis’s early work conveys the gritty realism of urban life. He started out as a member of the Ash Can School formed in reaction to the genteel tastes of mainstream Impressionism. The name “Ash Can” comes from a George Bellows’ drawing of two men rummaging through the trash for food which is captioned “The Disappointments of the Ash Can [Dey woims in it].”

Fertility, a painting by Grant Wood. -- image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum
Fertility, a painting by Grant Wood. — image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum

Davis would continue to challenge what was deemed appropriate subject matter for art, questioning throughout his career the arbitrary divide between “high” and “low” culture. Credited as providing the prototype for Pop Art, Davis often focused on mass culture: a pack of Lucky Strikes, spark plugs, light bulbs, etc. When Davis traveled to Paris in 1928 as a proponent of the avant-garde, he experimented with the ingenuity of Cubism (a la Picasso and Braque). The formal devices of Matisse, however, had the most abiding influence on Davis, particularly, Matisse’s deceptively simple, yet sophisticated reduction of form.

While abroad, Davis spent much of his time in the Montparnasse district, visible in his work in Two Americans in Paris. One lithograph “Rue des Rats”(1928-29) is a contour drawing of a street with no signs of life: neither human nor vermin. The buildings are streamlined into milk carton-like formations. Their solid black facades contrast against the hatch-marked sky.

Many prints incorporate the symbols of modern life. Side-street cafes, wrought iron structures, fire hydrants, lamp posts and street signs are patterned into pictograms emphasizing the flatness of the picture plane. Works in the show executed after Davis moved back to New York City include “Two Figures and El [Sixth Avenue El No. 2]” and “Barber Shop Chord,” which were both completed in 1931. “Bass Rocks” (1941) comes closer to pure abstraction and was produced not long after one of Davis’ crowning achievements, “Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors—7th Avenue Style” (1940).

By contrast, Grant Wood’s contributions to the show acknowledge the issues of small-town America. Grant Wood went to Paris three times in the ’20s, and Two Americans in Paris has examples of his early forays into Impressionism. “Truck Garden, Moret” (1924), represents a bucolic French landscape. In “Luxembourg Gardens” (1924), a figure strolls alongside the marble balustrade and manicured hedgerows that skirt the Luxembourg palace. In Two Americans in Paris, Wood’s signature treatment of imagery recurs in his round treetops, scalloped rolling hills, and manly, rough-hewn figures—all characterizing agrarian ideals.

"Return from Bohemia" by Grant Wood -- image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum
“Return from Bohemia” by Grant Wood — image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum

A few years after returning to the United States, Wood painted “Return from Bohemia” (1941). In this self-portrait, a stern-faced Wood paints at his easel as a bunch of unexcitable relatives look over his shoulder. Wood liked to joke around and perpetuate a public image of himself as an unsophisticated farm-boy. In fact, after painting “American Gothic” (1930), Wood became a celebrated spokesperson for the common people. Once in an interview during the 1930s he quipped, “I’m the plainest kind of fellow you can find. There isn’t a single thing I’ve done, or experienced, that’s been even the least bit exciting.” On some level, “Return from Bohemia” is serious and poignant but shows undertones of his self-deprecating humor.

“History of Penmanship: Modern Method of Writing” (1933), on display for the first time in decades, depicts a woman at a writing desk with the menacing evidence of urban sprawl outside her window. “Booster” (1936) shows a politician at a lectern pontificating to an implied audience.

Seeing Davis and Wood side-by-side spotlights the representational elements in Davis’s work and the abstract aspects of Wood’s. Both artists depicted the American experience. Davis’s cosmopolitan motifs and jazz-infused street scenes show city life in perpetual movement. Wood’s scenes from rural life to illustrate the struggles of the average Midwesterner. Two Americans in Paris reveals how the work of these two painters embodied pressing concerns of the early 20th century and demonstrates an oft-overlooked stylistic exchange between American Modernism and Regionalism.

Lizzy Schule is pursuing an MFA in Painting at the University of Iowa. Before moving to Iowa City, she worked for several years as an English teacher in New York and Istanbul.

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