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At the DMA, the '20s Roar

by Stephen Becker 12 Mar 2012 10:53 AM

Some art historians have written off the decade as largely irrelevant when it comes to American art. But “Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties” — a major exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art — aims to change that.


The Bathers, c. 1928, John Steuart Curry, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Gloria Swanson, c. 1925 Nickolas Muray, © Estate of Nickolas Muray

A major exhibition of American art from the 1920s is on display at the Dallas Museum of Art. Many art historians have written off the decade as largely irrelevant. But “Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties” aims to change that.

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The Artist recently dominated the Academy Awards. And Boardwalk Empire is a big hit for HBO. Even our current obsession with mixology and classic cocktails shows no signs of waning.

Our current interest in all things 1920s can be chalked up to a lot of serendipity. But “Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties” asks us to reconsider the art of the time. One hundred and thirty paintings, sculptures and photographs by sixty artists are set against walls at the DMA, painted in pastel purple, green and yellow, giving the show an art deco feel.

To fully understand the exhibition, it helps to have a little context. The ‘20s were a time of massive change in America and the beginning of what we now consider modern life. People were moving to the cities in droves. Automobiles and advertising were becoming a part of everyday life. And winning the First World War included a loss of American innocence.

“There was this attitude – live now,” says Teresa Carbone of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, who organized the exhibition.  ‘There were so many strictures that had to be dispensed with during the war.”

The result was the Jazz Age.

People danced. Prohibition made drinking seem all the more alluring. And when you mix dancing with drinking, well, you know what comes next.

The Birth of Venus, 1925 Joseph Stella, Salisbury House and Gardens

Suddenly, physical beauty was being celebrated anew. The first Miss America Pageant was held in 1921. In 1923, actress Fanny Brice got a nose job, kicking off the plastic surgery craze. And by 1927, Max Factor was selling non-theatrical makeup to everyday women.

Artists working in America wanted to be a part of that popular culture. Carbone points to The Birth of Venus, a portrait of a woman painted by Joseph Stella, as an example of this new focus.

“She is this beautiful, sensual figure, she has the proportions of a modern, slender American girl … Here she’s shown in these beautiful, sleek proportions, her arms raised above her head in a pose that was very current in advertising imagery from the ’20s … This is an image of liberation and modernity in terms of the American woman.”

The war years that immediately preceded the ’20s are considered a high point in the nation’s art history. American painters solidly kept up with their European counterparts as Western art delved deep into abstraction.

So when American artists returned to recognizable objects, some experts considered the move conservative and a retraction from the progress of the previous decade.

What can’t be argued is that these artists created a visual representation of what was on Americans’ minds in the ’20s. The picture that emerges from “Youth and Beauty” is lots of moving parts coming together to form a unified whole. It would all come crashing down in 1929, but it looks like it was an exciting time to be alive.