Art Thoughts, Week 39 -- Demuth & Progress

Masts, Charles Demuth (American, 1883—1935) 1919, tempera on composition board, BF343.

America has always been a place of transition; of change; a country of forward resolve and restlessness. There is a continuous line of transitional figures and groups that make a bold line across the country, east to west and north to south. In many ways, the conquests that began America have never ceased. Perhaps this is linked to our unique place in the world as a cobbled-together entity, as opposed to a country with deeply-rooted common cultural identities – we are always adjusting; recalibrating – looking for something new. This mentality comes out more strongly at some times than others, and more strongly in some art than others. In art, this is often coincidental, or at least situational. Important art is always interested in meaningful progress; not always the society.

A case where society and art seemed to be in syncopation is in Masts, by Charles Demuth. Painted in 1919, there is in this painting a curious mix of both revelry in our country’s progressive past, and a sense of the massive, global sigh, having just exited from the Great War. The former is expressed through the beautifully stylized and honed lines of masts and booms of harbored ships in Nantucket; the latter may be seen in the optimistic dynamism with which Demuth has composed the formal shapes of the scene. He has taken a cliché of traditional art – the harbor or boating scene – and divested it of sentimental identity, then distills it into a sleek, modernist machine of upward and onward progress. The romanticism of boats – not unlike other romantic American tropes, such as the cowboy or mountains – was, and still is an Achilles heel for many artists who are seduced by the tendency to soft-pedal critique of American myth. Demuth, however, has uncovered the mix which ended up being the key to the progression of American art towards the forefront: he has isolated certain elements of the ships – the masts and booms, namely – and juxtaposed them with the harbor roof-tops. They create an alternative mythic machine of progress, its arms spread like a drawn crossbow, ready to jet forward with brutal and ruthless speed; and a full quiver to boot. Herein, as we later come to discover, is this idea’s weak spot: the unvarnished optimism. Who can blame the country, however, emerging from an unprecedented blood bath?

Demuth emphasizes this potential change and progress symbolically, as well. The most dynamic of these symbols is the bolting line which meanders crisply through the masts, eventually flying out of the picture space. Additionally, the composition moves dramatically from dark to light; from larger elements to smaller, creating a culmination; an acme; a focus on the tip-top. It is also a common factor, drawing as it does the two more disparate elements of the composition’s bottom into the bound rope of a goal at the top. There are two other subtle elements of this painting which are both interesting contrasts, and also highlight those two essential parts of meaningful progress: the past and the future. Firstly, Demuth has used a medium which is a bastion of traditional painting craft, tempera. And secondly, the execution is not filled with the accoutrements of realism, as tempera is wont to encourage; it is rather sporting the cartoonish polish of purposeful stylization. Both of these point to Demuth’s talent in meshing the traditional and futuristic, and therefore seeming supremely prepared to comment on societal change and progress. The best artists are limnal in function; becoming a Janus for their society.

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