Date of Degree
American Art and Architecture | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Modern Art and Architecture
Portraits, Self-portraits, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, 1920s
Between 1918 and 1930, American artists began depicting themselves and their intertwined circles of creative collaborators with unprecedented intensity. Creative Figures: Portraiture and the Making of the Modern American Artist argues that American artists turned to their own images during this formative period of American modernity to vie for cultural authority and to navigate pressing questions of creative, social, and national identity. The dissertation studies a kaleidoscope of portraits that exemplify this phenomenon, focusing on paintings and photographs by Berenice Abbott, James Latimer Allen, Thomas Hart Benton, Florestine Perrault Bertrand Collins, Imogen Cunningham, John Stuart Curry, Aaron Douglas, Yun Gee, Palmer Hayden, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Archibald Motley, Addison Scurlock, Alfred Stieglitz, Florine Stettheimer, James Van Der Zee, Edward Weston, and Grant Wood, among others.
Creative Figures proposes that these artists embraced self-portraiture and imagery of their creative intimates in order to advance ambitious, sometimes competing ideals of what it meant to be a modern American artist. These ideals were integrally related to the cultural, social, and aesthetic transformations of the post-World War I period. Responding to the rise of mass media, a new ethos of cultural nationalism, and the expansion of the American art world, their portraits eschewed the abstract impulses that preceded the war and the elite subjects of traditional portraiture. Instead, they used figurative approaches to craft distinctive public personas and capitalize on new opportunities for appearing before mass audiences. Focusing on themselves as subjects, American artists explored questions of creative identity in relation to the national upheavals that followed World War I, including the Spanish influenza pandemic; rising racial violence and nativist politics; new demands for civil rights; the women's movement and the ratification of Suffrage; and great waves of migration and immigration that reshaped urban culture. The portraits studied in this project evince the multifarious and nuanced ways in which these phenomena transformed American artists' self-perceptions and sense of purpose in national life, inspiring them to claim new agency and to imagine alternate personal and national realities.
Creative Figures is divided into three parts, each comprised of several chapters. Part I of the dissertation, "Our America," studies artists who embarked on serial portrait projects that nurtured intimate, local creative groups and simultaneously promoted expansive visions of American identity, often through the nascent "publicity machine" of the post-World War I years, as critic Walter Lippmann dubbed it in 1927. Part II, "Through the Eyes of Others," focuses on portraits by both Black- and Asian-American artists, whose work was jointly exhibited under the interwar rubric of "racial art" and aligned by progressive activists like Alain Locke. While maintaining distinctions among individual and group experiences, Part II considers how figures working in multiple contexts and locations navigated the challenges of becoming an artist and engaged in resistive self-fashioning amid the era's alternately inclusive and restrictive ethnoracial politics. Part III, "Prodigal Sons, Wayward Daughters," examines portraits that defined creative identity in relation to metamorphosing gender roles and family structures, from the decline of the nineteenth-century model of patriarchal fatherhood to the rise of the archetypal "New Woman." In depicting themselves and family members, the figures studied in Part III used shifting gender and familial norms as platforms for new visions of American artisthood.
The first project to study portraits of American artists and their significance in national culture in the years following World War I, Creative Figures writes a new chapter in portraiture's storied history as a site for formulating and contesting what it means to be American. In arguing for figuration's vital role as a springboard for modernist exploration in this period, this dissertation also challenges standard narratives of 1920s American art, which largely privilege work that fits within teleological accounts of abstraction. By foregrounding the communal over the personal, the figurative approaches used by the painters and photographers studied in this project facilitated connection with broad audiences and advanced social and cultural change, often from the perspective of a marginalized "other." Envisioning the modern American artist with a paradoxical mix of exhilaration and anomie, realism and fantasy, openness and deception, their portraits anticipate many postwar and contemporary artistic practices as well as the compulsive processes of self-fashioning spurred by new technology in the twenty-first century.
Nicholas, Sasha, "Creative Figures: Portraiture and the Making of the Modern American Artist, 1918-1930" (2023). CUNY Academic Works.
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