American Expressionism: Art and Social Change, 1920-1950

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9780810942318: American Expressionism: Art and Social Change, 1920-1950

During the 1920s and '30s and until the end of World War II, a distinctly American form of Expressionism evolved. Most of the artists in this movement, children of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, African-Americans and other outsiders to American mainstream culture, grew up in the urban ghettoes of the East Coast or Chicago. Their art was sympathetic to the disposessed and reflected a deep concern with the lives of working people. Providing a look at this art - and the beginnings of a new movement, Abstract Expressionism, which followed it - cultural historian Bram Dijkstra offers insights into the roots of painting in modern America. Dijkstra examines the emphasis these socially conscious artists brought to the pursuit of the American ideals of equality dignity and justice for all. Provocatively he suggests that Abstract Expressionism came to be used as part of a backlash, deliberately fostered by conservative political and corporate interests, against the socially conscious Expressionist paintings and the WPA projects supported by the Roosevelt administration.

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Review:

When Abstract Expressionism burst on the American scene in the 1940s, it elbowed another kind of American expressionism off the stage. Vivid evocations of the poor and disenfranchised in paintings by Jack Levine, Bernece Berkman and many others were now seen as stodgy and unsophisticated. In American Expressionism: Art and Social Change 1920-1950, cultural historian Bram Dijkstra argues that a generation of important left-wing artists, many of them Jewish, were the victims of intellectual, political and corporate interests bent on promoting a brighter, shinier United States. Unfortunately, Dijkstra undercuts his thesis with a haranguing tone, unconvincing analyses of individual works, and a dated view of abstraction as inherently "anti-humanist." His sweeping denunciation of "Nordic" (i.e., white, Protestant) artists leads him to view even an heroically scaled painting of a black soldier by John Steuart Curry—a "Nordic" artist collected by the NAACP—as a racist cartoon. At the heart of this contentious volume are 233 illustrations by dozens of little-known artists united by a passion for social justice. These works can be seen in a traveling exhibition at the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art from May 16 to August 24, 2003.—Cathy Curtis

About the Author:

Bram Djikstra is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the University of California at San Diego. He has published numerous articles and books on American cultural history.

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Dijkstra, Bram
Editorial: Harry N. Abrams
ISBN 10: 0810942313 ISBN 13: 9780810942318
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Dijkstra, Bram
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