- Anne Newlands (Author)
Canadian Art: From Its Beginnings to 2000. Firefly Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Wanda M. Corn (Author)
The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935. University of California Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Adam Frank
Canadian Art, a coffee-table book arranged alphabetically with page-long entries on artists and (usually) one representative work each, aims to make available a Canadian heritage that would "reflect the enormously diverse history of Canadian art." An encyclopedic introduction to a range of Euro-Canadian and Inuit and First Nations artists from many regions of the country, it aims for coverage at the expense of context or chronology. It’s a book to browse in, though I wish it had found some other organization, something more specific and less blandly idealizing ("from its beginnings"?).
The Great American Thing, despite its title, is less idealizing in how it approaches questions of nation and history. Corn introduces herself as an art historian who entered the field in the 1960s and was engaged by the writing of post-war American Studies scholars (like Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx) who posed the question of "Americanness": what is dis- tinctively American about American literature and art? While such exceptionalist studies are now generally received as offering falsely singular views of the nation—as Corn writes, "today [they] are considered forms of cultural aggression, compelling conformity of behavior and belief and asserting political claims for American national superiority"—they did set the terms for the study of American art history. Corn’s book aims to provide a genealogy for this post-war American exceptionalism, to describe its roots in "the practices and theories of the small modernist community gathered around Alfred Stieglitz in New York City and in international circles advocating a new machine age" in the two decades after World War I.
Elegantly organized and written in a style that is at once scholarly and accessible, this book focuses on seven artists: Marcel Duchamp, Gerald Murphy, Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Scheeler. Each chapter begins with a full-page reproduction of a work which Corn makes a centrepiece and reads throughout the chapter. Her readings of these pieces are careful and thorough, formal and thematic, and open leisurely onto social history, the reception of the work, and the creator of the work. These are highly textured, multilayered interpretations (as she calls them), in which we never lose sense either of the composition in question, or of the various environments in which the piece was created and which it then inhabited. And artists’ lives become cultural texts for Corn: how they dressed, wrote letters, and the relationships they had with others are indispensable parts of her readings.
Corn’s writing very adroitly and generously negotiates between older styles of writing on American literature and culture, which appeal in part because of their flair and passion, and revisionary writing in American Studies. She accomplishes this negotiation through what she calls a "plain style" of writing, one that she locates in her own agrarian roots, and which avoids specialized vocabulary in favor of a more pragmatic and accessible language.
Corn introduces what is at stake in the term "American" at the beginning of the century by describing Alfred Stieglitz and the artists and critics surrounding him who insisted on a "spiritualized America," a revitalization of the mid-nineteenth-century transcendentalist emphasis on nature and the soil. These critics and artists responded to the materialism of the smug boosters of the 1920s boom economy with a smug, purist idealism of their own. In the first part of the book on transatlantic modernism (the New York-Paris axis), Corn locates Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal "Fountain" in deeply embedded relation to américanisme,or European fascination with, and at once condescending and rapturous appreciation of, industrializing America, including a love of American spoken language, comics, and plumbing, and an exoticizing of the American girl. European américanisme lets American artists in France shift attention away from the European masters they went to study, and revalue what may previously have been understood as American provinciality. American expatriates in France between the wars could find explanatory power in their "Americanness," and Corn’s chapter on Gerald Murphy and precisionism introduces a discussion of what will be a major model or object of attention for modernist painters on both sides of the ocean, billboard posters. After a chapter focusing on Joseph Stella’s paintings of New York, which offers a fascinating account of depictions of skyscrapers and "New York-mania," Corn moves in the next part of her book to treat artists whose work made claims for regions other than New York as the locus of "Americanness."
Taking Charles Demuth’s portrait of William Carlos Williams in "The Figure Five in Gold" as a focus (this was one of a series of Demuth’s intimate billboard portraits of various artists and writers), Corn offers a brief history of signage, a clear sense of the love-hate relationship many artists had with the intensity of commercialization in the U.S., and some of the debates around vulgarity and the use of the language of advertising as American vernacular. If Corn’s next chapter on Georgia O’Keeffe gives the book its title, and serves in some ways as the centrepiece of the project, her final chapter on Charles Shcclcr clarified for me some of the implications of this book. In this last chapter she argues that the category "folk" helped make the past "safe for modernists" through an emphasis on craft and "the thingness of material goods." This desire for the creation of a usable past, in the words of Van Wyck Brooks (one of the American critic-historicists she discusses), motivates Corn’s project.
For this reader (not an art historian, but someone who studies American literature and culture), Corn’s extraordinary research illuminates how the terms "American" and "modern" or "modernist" overlapped in twentieth-century writing on art and aesthetics, whether in américanisme and New York-mania, or debates between the "new vulgarians" who tried to exploit advertising practices and purist descriptions of "spiritual America," or the distinct regionalisms she describes.
- Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll by Douglas Ivison
Books reviewed: 19 Knives by Mark Anthony Jarman, The Fall of Gravity by Leon Rooke, and The Pornographer's Poem by Michael Turner
- (Inter)National Art by Richard Brock
Books reviewed: Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King
- Realistic Vision by Jack F. Stewart
Books reviewed: Kurelek Country: The Art of William Kurelek Key by Avrom Issacs and Ramsay Cook
- Land, Culture, Property by Sophie McCall
Books reviewed: Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia by Cole Harris and Preserving What is Valued: Museums, Conservation and First Nations by Miriam Clavir
- Sensitive Souls by Jerry Wasserman
Books reviewed: Clever as Paint: The Rossettis in Love by Kim Morrissey, The Final Performance of Vaslav Nijinsky, St. Moritz-Dorf, 1919 by Jeremy Long, and Dancock's Dance by Guy Vanderhaeghe
MLA: Frank, Adam. National Out-Takes. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 116 - 118)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.