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Thursday, 1 October 2009

Exhibition - The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock – Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester until 13th December 2009

Star rating – 7/10

This exhibition of American print making from the early 1900s to 1960 is a welcome loan from the British Museum. It looks at the way artists used prints to reflect the great social and economic changes that happened during this period, and some of the pieces are really very moving.

George Bellows shows an illegal boxing match or ‘stag’ from the turn of the century. His fighters in ‘A Stag at Sharkey’s’ are strong, muscular and shown in a pyramid shaped tussle. In ‘Isolation’ he shows a lonely man surrounded by courting couples in Central Park. He reflects his strong moral and left wing views in some of his works, such as ‘Electrocution’ from 1917 where the prisoner is strapped to the electric chair awaiting his fate. An d his ‘Dance in a Madhouse’ is a haunting vision of inhabitants of the asylum wards in a macabre dance. All his works are in black and white, and very striking.

Later artists featured here reflect the changing New York skyline, such as Louis Lozowick with his ‘New York’ from 1925 showing the rising skyscrapers in another distinctive black and white print. Martin Lewis shows a clever use of shadow in his prints. His ‘Quarter of Nine, Saturday’s Children’ features smart young women going to work in the fashionable New York department stores as they ‘work hard for their living’ as the nursery rhyme goes. Robert Figgs returns to the imagery of the mentally ill in his ‘Psychopathic Ward’ from 1940. He shows the inmates in a fragile and vulnerable light.

The displays reflect the economic hardship of the Great Depression, and also the Federal Art Project which revitalised print making as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. By the 1940s the prints are more abstract, such as those by Jackson Pollock, and the vivid horror of a piece depicting the threatened nuclear holocaust by Hans Burkhardt in his ‘After the Bomb’ from 1948.

This is a fascinating exhibition, which is a real window on the social, economic and moral issues absorbing America in the first half of the twentieth century, shown via some spectacular and insightful prints.

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