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The IVAM reviews the iconography of the American dream in the exhibition 'America, America'
Installation view of the exhibition at the Valencian Institute for Modern Art.
VALENCIA.- Since its transformation into an irrefutably dominant power after the Second World War, the lifestyle model and cultural production of the United States have sporadically been both the object of fascination and of profound rejection amongst the various circles of Western Intelligentsia.

At the end of the 19th century and, to a large degree, due to the circulation of new illustrated magazines and journals, Europeans expectantly embraced the transformation undertaken by cities such as Chicago and New York, characterized by their modern urban planning, yet above all by the construction of their colossal steel skyscrapers and extraordinary engineering projects. These new metropolises, and more specifically, their human agglomerations, bridges and skyscrapers were the first link in the creation of a new iconography whose heroism and utopian nature would fertilize the reflections and meditations of the majority of Europe's artistic avant-garde throughout the 20th century. Writers, journalists, architects and artists of all ages and corners of Europe (such as Mayakovski, Adolf Loos, Francis Picabia, Richard Neutra, Mario Bucovich or Robert Frank, to name but a few) set out on their own respective journeys of initiation to the United States in search of their own confrontation with the myth.

During the period between the wars, the magazine or illustrated weekly publication saw a spectacular rise in popularity in Germany, the USSR, France and the United States. Together with the radio and the daily written press, these weeklies became one of the principal sources of news, thematic reports and, no less importantly, the inclusion of advertising targeting the middle classes. Via these magazines (which often counted on contributions from great photographers and avant-garde artists) Europe gained access to the great inventions which would slowly but surely give shape and form to the American dream and its aesthetic of abundance: its production lines, its monumental buildings, its Ford automobiles, its tractors and harvesters, its light, airy apartments and its domestic appliances -even the very notion of comfort itself.

The American magazine Life, the most widely-read and influential publication of its kind in the world, represented –together with Hollywood films- one of the best letters of introduction of the American utopia until the popularization of television at the end of the 1950s.

The end of this decade saw the emergence in England of a new generation of artists and architects drawn together under the collective The Independent Group (an association in which Richard Hamilton played an important role). The group reacted against the elitist academic culture of its country, in turn vindicating the innovation, aesthetics and achievements of North American popular culture, combining large doses of admiration with subtle irony. And so the bases of Pop Art and its complex relationship with the myth were established.

The controversy regarding the American way of life was a phenomenon which ran in parallel to its very own construction process of a powerful iconography, and took place on both sides of the Atlantic. At the beginning of the 20th century, Lewis Hine used his photography to denounce the widespread use of child labour in American factories. The writer Upton Sinclair became one of the most vocal critics of the American capitalist system through his novels and writings. Walker Evans depicted the desolation and misery caused in his country by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. And American film noir provided the harsh counterpoint to the glitzy Hollywood star system.

In Europe, the principal groups condemning the American myth came from artists and intellectuals with left-wing revolutionary sympathies. In 1925, the Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky travelled to the United States and narrated in his work America his mix of admiration and deepest condemnation of the social differences existing in the country. In the 1930s, the artist John Heartfield (the designer of various covers for Upton Sinclair's books) showed through his photomontages a grotesque, degrading vision of the American way of life. Deeply influenced by the work of this German artist, the Valencian Josep Renau undertook a series of photomontages The American Way of Life, one of the artistic proposals most committed to the systematic deconstruction of the American Dream.

IVAM | "America America" | Second World War |




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