Industrialization and its discontents at Reynolda
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Avisit to an exhibit called Partisans: Social Realism in American Art occasions a tour through the gracious estate of Reynolda House, the Reynolds family home that has been converted into a Winston-Salem art museum.
Reynolda in its heyday — it was completed in 1917 — was a monument to the wealth of an industrial barony that dictated the terms of power in Winston-Salem, while also representing a pastoral escape from the gritty reality imposed by industrialization. As the home of the founder of Reynolds Tobacco Co., Reynolda is an example of the American Country House movement, creating a self-sustaining village to support the estate and employing the most current agricultural techniques of the day.
The estate’s early years coincide almost perfectly with the flowering of realism as a retort to abstraction in American art, providing a platform to champion causes and protest social ills. As the exhibit’s introductory panel explains, artists who embraced social realism “painted the realities of their time: the conditions of the workplace, the status of women at work, the rise of fascism as a worldwide danger, the struggles of farmers, the effects of racism, and the wealth disparity caused by increased industrialization.”
Looking at the nine paintings, which are deftly assembled to impress a succinct overview of the movement, one can’t help but be immediately drawn to two by Thomas Hart Benton, who lived from 1889 to 1975.
The images in the 1927 painting “Bootleggers” — sinuous figures surrounded by urban infrastructure and mechanized vehicles juxtaposed at odd angles against each other — suggest an industrial system begetting chaos and social degeneracy.
The foreground depicts an industrial baron in top hat and tails accompanied by a pouting mistress. The baron pulls out a bill or two in an exchange with a bootlegger reaching into an open case. The bootlegger is angled with his back to the viewer, lean, laconic and furtive.
A secondary scene of chaos unfolds below: a stickup of what one imagines is an armored car at a factory gate where the watchman is either asleep or paid off.
“Jesse James,” a 1936 lithograph, reveals a similar preoccupation with social chaos, albeit from an earlier age.
The piece depicts the infamous outlaw jabbing a pistol into an alarmed railroad man’s ribs in front of a stalled locomotive in the foreground, with various scenes of violence involving shooting and pistol-whipping playing out in the background. The mise en scène suggests a society saturated in violence, but the caption accompanying the painting indicates that the piece depicts several scenes from the James legend in the same panel.
If the literary corollary of Benton’s work is John Steinbeck, then Jack Levine’s “The Visit from the Second World” can be considered gonzo journalism. Suffused with a sense of surreality like a double-exposure photograph, the painting captures the procession of Patriarch Pimen I of Moscow. As head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Pimen came to Jerusalem in 1972 to take title of church properties. With motorcycle glasses, headdress, flowing robe and staff, he calls to mind George Clinton surrounded by a group of diminutive Shriners. Alternately, the scene has the triumphal feel of James Brown arriving in Zaire in 1974 for the legendary boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Frazier.
The paintings in the exhibit range in time period, temperament and aesthetic style, but many share a critical stance.
“Convention,” painted in 1949 by Ben Shahn, is both subtle and unsettling, showing a woman in a bikini top and matching skirt approaching a sterile public building, where she is intercepted by a leering man wearing a fedora and pornographic suspenders. The man’s sharpened teeth complete the menacing picture.
George Tooker’s “Landscape with Figures” reflects 1960s-era anxieties with office workers literally enclosed in capsules that stretch back into infinity. The caption tells us that Tooker described the subject of his painting as “the victimization of youth by the military-industrial complex and its servant, advertising.”
In Grant Wood’s “Spring Turning,” the collection takes a twist towards the reverential. Painted in 1936 after the Dust Bowl had left the agricultural heartland of the country stripped bare, the painting hearkens to a simpler time on the rolling Iowa countryside when the land was tilled by small farmers without the benefit of mechanization.
It’s a sentiment with which the Reynolds family could probably relate.
Sarah Lindsay reads from her new poetry collection Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower at the UNCG Faculty Center on Thursday at 8 p.m. and at Glenwood Books on Saturday at 4 p.m. Both venues are in Greensboro.
Partisans: Social Realism in American Art remains on exhibit in the West Bedroom Gallery of Reynolda House Museum of American Art, located at 2250 Reynolda Road in Winston-Salem, through March 16. Call 883.663.1149 for more information.