13 February 2012

Youth and Beauty

“Self-Portrait with Rita” Thomas Hart Benton (1922)

When one thinks of art in the 1920s, European artists usually spring to mind. Yet American artists, here and abroad, were just as productive, creating works that reflected the changes in American society, from the impact of industrialization (machines, urban expansion) to the sexual freedom that replaced Victorian mores. This art helped to define the look of the Jazz Age and was the recent subject of an exhibit, “Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties,” at the Brooklyn Museum.

The first two paintings on view when you walked into the gallery set the tone for the entire exhibit. “Self-Portrait with Rita” by Thomas Hart Benton shows a bare-chested Benton and his wife clad in a bathing suit on the Vineyard looking like the model American couple—young and good looking— while the nearby “Aeroplane” by Elsie Driggs (1928) symbolizes modernity and one of America’s great obsessions during the decade—flight.  

Another room contained a series of photographs by some of the greats—Imogene Cunningham, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, and Man Ray. Cunningham's ethereal prints of flowers are exquisite and prove once again that nothing beats a beautiful gelatin print.

 “Razor”Gerald Murphy (1924)

Also included in the exhibit were works by Americans with strong ties to France. Two paintings by Gerald Murphy who along with his wife, Sarah, played host to many a member of the Lost Generation in the South of France, remind us of Murphy’s talent as a painter. “Cocktail” (1927) represents an important aspect of Jazz Age culture while “Razor” shows just how keenly aware Murphy was of the impact of consumerism on society. 

“Una, Lady Troubridge” Romaine Brooks (1924)

The portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge by Romaine Brooks recalls the Paris salon of Brooks’ lover Natalie Barney. Whip thin and bobbed, wearing a monocle and men’s tailored clothing, Troubridge is commanding in the portrait even though it's perhaps an extreme example of feminist liberation in the 1920s.

"Screenwriter Anita Loos" Edward Steichen (1928)

"Gloria Swanson" Nickolas Muray (ca. 1925)

And speaking of portraits, no exhibit on America in the 1920s would be complete without the inclusion of Hollywood. A fine portrait by Edward Steichen of the always-entertaining Anita Loos was included as was sleepy eyed Gloria Swanson in a print by Nickolas Muray. And my favourite, Olive Thomas, was also to be found; a small screen near the end played a clip of Ollie riding on top of a bus down Fifth Avenue in a scene from The Flapper (1920).

"Djuna Barnes" Bernice Abbott (1926)

“Youth and Beauty” was probably one of the best exhibits I’ve seen in a while. I just wish I had gone earlier so I could have made a second trip. Although it's too late to catch that exhibit, there is another, much smaller one on Lost Generation member Djuna Barnes at the museum through August 19. “Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913-1919” explores the Nellie Bly-like exploits of Barnes for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other publications before she moved to Paris. Find out more here.


  1. Actually not cross dressed but an Eton cut wildly popular in London n the high fashion statement among with upper class women. The monocle perhaps a sly encoded lesbian gesture for those in the know. Romaine Brooks was in the know n her portrait tells a lot more than meets the eye. My www.romainebrooks.com fills in some blanks as will my book n show scheduled for 2013 at Brooklyn museum of art

  2. Yes, the Eton cut or Eton crop was an extreme form of the bob hairstyle favoured by some during the 1920s. Good luck with the book and show. I saw a Romaine Brooks exhibit years ago at UC Berkeley—"Amazons in the Drawing Room"— that I quite enjoyed.

  3. Sandra, just reread your comment and realized your "Eton cut" reference was regarding the cut of her clothing not her hairstyle. That's what I get for reading too quickly! I saw a quote from Brooks in which she said "Una is funny to paint, her getup is remarkable." I think her "getup" is quite stylish.



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