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Books: American art from Norsemen to Culture Wars

A well-written history of art in North America for students

As any survey of modern art bookshops reveals, the topic of American art is not currently in short supply, but it is salutary to be reminded, as this book does so effectively, that America had art, or, at least, artifacts, long before the European settlements. Frances K. Pohl’s deft and even-handed approach to still-vexed topics of appropriation and colonialism steers clear of polemic, but throughout adduces quotation and visual evidence to examine both the humanity and ghastly cruelties the struggles engendered.

The book’s structure, an interweaving of chronological and geographical settings, is clear enough to allow even the most “topographically challenged” to follow the ebb and flow of settlement and uprooting, from the Vinland Norsemen and the Jacobethan settlements to the Spanish and French Catholic missions and gold-searching expeditions in the the south and west of the country.

The inevitable collisions of faith and culture are signalled by relics and emblematic imagery: “France bringing the Faith to the Indians of New France” (about 1675) depicts a “savage”, clothed in the fleur-de-lys and kneeling before a portly matron symbolic of Old France. Not that the conquerors had it all their own way: over a century later, Romantic pathos and a reversal of the Rousseau-esque “noble savage” is conveyed by John Vanderlyn’s “The murder of Jane McCrea” (1803-1804). Professor Pohl links this athletic scalping of a female victim whose pose recalls the weeping women in David’s “Brutus” with the ingratiating attempts by the American-born Benjamin West and his follower John Turnbull to introduce classicised native figures into their historical epics of 18th-century battles between British and French or British and American rebels: in each case native Indians were hired, cajoled or blackmailed into service, phenomena to which the greatest witness was J.F. Cooper’s The last of the Mohicans.

But furniture, cartography, graphic and newspaper illustrations, as well as fine art, are marshalled into depicting the turbulent and seething forces at work. The sacred in native Indian art is juxtaposed with the illuminism and transcendentalism of the “American sublime”—Cole, Church and their landscape-painting colleagues.

The Civil War overlaid and disrupted the earlier project, but that redoubled its force and fury from 1861. The Civil War dead are photographed in after-battle repose and similarly wrenching evidence of “assimilation or extermination” results are seen in “The end of the Ghost Dance” (1891) and in “Wounded Knee”.

Professor Pohl manages to provoke a frisson by then jumping to consider American artists’ responses to European artistic developments, as avidly explored by the likes of Thomas Eakins, Sargent and Cecilia Beaux.

It seems nothing is left out; Aesthetic architecture and design, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (in photographs) and American Art Nouveau are the prelude to a chapter on “The machine, the primitive and the modern” as the 20th century crashes into the view. The worlds of labour and industrial prowess and discontent are ably discussed and illustrated via the Ashcan School and the wily, wiry realism of George Luks and George Bellows, the latter with an imagery of sporting violence perhaps unlike anything seen before.

From then on in, the book is likely to surprise less, but inform more, as the subjects become more familiar: the influence of the 1913 Armory Show flows into the “Harlem Renaissance” and the “New Negro”, then into the “New Deal for art” and the 1930s federal programmes that allowed so many of the arch-Modernists of the post-World War II years to find their way. F.D. Roosevelt’s socio-political aims and the purpose of government policy in the arts are skillfully presented, with excellent charting of events and work from the general to the particular and back again.

Perhaps the latter part of the book is even more admirable since the range and amount of material is so much greater; the coherence never falters. “From Cold War to Culture Wars” is under a hundred pages long, but such condensing (and more frequent illustration) produces an up-tempo narrative that has, for example, the Vietnam conflict’s causes fundamentally outlined in 25 lines—a tour de force.

This book is essentially for students and is well equipped with a bibliography citing sources for each chapter along with a list of books for further reading. It includes a trenchant chronology from about 1345 to 2001.

Frances K. Pohl, Framing America: a social history of American art (Thames & Hudson, London, 2002), 560 pp, 382 b/w ills, 337 col. ills, £45 (hb) ISBN 0500237921

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 129 October 2002