Roaring to Life

The Cleveland Museum of Art explores the 1920s.

Jazz music and everything modern. It’s official: The 1920s have come to the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties,” a traveling exhibition organized and presented by the Brooklyn Museum, offers a comprehensive look at the works of more than 60 painters, sculptors and photographers. These artists, including Thomas Hart Benton and Georgia O’Keeffe, saw the frantic pace of their society and produced art grounded in realism and austerity.

“It’s interesting that when people think of the 1920s, [they] do think of the Roaring Twenties, full of freneticism,” says Mark Cole, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s associate curator of American painting and sculpture. “Artists have a sort of ambivalent attitude towards that. They’re responding to social change.”

Art lovers young and old will appreciate that as they walk through the spacious exhibit, which is accompanied by music. The museum provides iPod Touch players and headphones that will play a carefully selected playlist of 1920s music, including jazz, ragtime and classical music. If attendees prefer to use their own MP3 player or smart phone, a QR code scan will lead them to the playlist hosted on Spotify. Cole says this is the first time the museum has incorporated music in such a way, and if people like the option, they may offer it for other exhibits.

Shifting World
The exhibition is divided into sections. Some, such as “Heroics” and “Body Language,” celebrate the strength and movement of the human body. In “Closeups,” artists focus on a single subject and show the deeper, sometimes darker, issues lying beneath the surface. Perhaps the most chilling section is “Silent Pictures.” None of the works feature human subjects — their focus is on the surrounding world and man’s tiny place in that world. One can get lost staring into the uninhabited spaces on those canvases.

And maybe getting lost in the art is what it’s really all about. Whether these artists embraced the vitality and modernity of the times or wanted to impose stillness and order on the world, their work reflects the everyday American’s struggle to find a place, a purpose and a future in a constantly shifting world.

“The ’20s were really a tipping point of American culture,” says Cole. “[People] were turning their backs on the rather staid Victorian past, turning their backs on tradition. There’s very much an eye on the future, on the idea of being modern and launching in a new direction.”

Cole’s favorite piece in the exhibit? “My Egypt,” he says immediately. “No matter how often you see it, when you see it in person it’s just stunningly beautiful.”

“My Egypt” by Charles Demuth is an iconic painting of a grain elevator in the artist’s hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It is architecturally beautiful, but very austere, formal and devoid of human activity. But the meaning of the painting goes beyond the image itself. Demuth suffered from diabetes at a time when it was misunderstood and insulin treatments were just beginning. The artist was forced to leave the cultural centers of Paris and New York City to live in a town he found artistically stifling.

“Egypt is the land of exile and the Old Testament. The grain elevator is being presented as a very awe-inspiring monument. It’s almost like an ancient pyramid,” explains Cole.

Understanding an Era
The museum is offering a range of programs to complement the exhibition, which closes Sept. 16. An architectural tour of Cleveland landmarks from the 1920s is offered Sept. 9, and a number silent films are being screened.

“Youth and Beauty” may challenge museum guests’ perceptions of the 1920s. It may also resonate with them in light of today’s social changes and cultural interactions. The Cleveland Museum of Art is the third and final museum to host the exhibition, and when it leaves the works will return to their respective collections. Cole says this truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see great works of American art in one place.