In 1920s America, liquor had just been banned, women were new voters and the economy was thriving in a post-WWI industrial boom. It was an era of unprecedented novelty and exuberance—and artists were living as highly as the flappers and bootleggers, because they too were exploring greater expressive freedom than ever before.
A sampling of this artistic daring is now on display at the Brooklyn Museum through January 29, 2012 (prior to a national tour). Comprised of paintings, sculptures and photography by 67 artists, Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties distills this seminal decade’s art into a showcase of simplicity.
Not that the work itself is simple. In fact, many of the pieces are striking for their organization and clarified tonality. Rather, the collection, curated by the museum’s own Teresa A. Carbone, has chosen works that easily fall into categories of still life, nature, figures and urban life. The exhibit feels a bit like a starter kit for an era whose complexities ran much deeper than what’s suggested here.
Of course, American art in the 1920s was arguably more modest than the innovations happening in Europe and especially Paris—where many American artists fled in order to maximize their audacity. But Youth and Beauty falls short of relaying what truly inspired our country’s visual innovators. Paintings by ingenious artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper are represented, but their power feels diminished, perhaps because of their somewhat homogenized context. The same holds true of the photography included here, which is confined to familiar portraits, nature, cityscapes with a few nudes tucked in.
For the decade that began with women’s suffrage, Youth and Beauty sadly lacks in early feminist representation, as well as work rooted in the Harlem Renaissance. Of course, no exhibit about the 1920s would be complete without at least one Sapphic work, and here that is Romaine Brooks’ stark 1924 portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge, lover of novelist Radclyffe Hall. To see Una standing proudly in her suit and monocle in a quiet corner is a small reminder that what was truly outrageous from the riotous Jazz Age went on whether or not anyone noticed.