Grant Wood’s American Gothic is among the most acerbic of the paintings at the America After the Fall exhibition (at the Royal Academy until June 4). The Wall Street Crash was making fools of those who believed in the American Dream, while the farmers of the Midwest were being driven into the dust by falling crop prices. Wood chose the flattest medium he could muster – elongated, with bas-relief paintwork, with a modernist hint on the flat landscape – full of pathos and loaded with irony at the mess these founding fathers had left America in. In recent times, American Gothic has become popular again, with original and bootlegged versions gracing covers of several British magazines.

In another overloaded painting, we see O Louis Guglielmi depicting an oil derrick with a portrait of Lenin propped against it. This was a footnote to the events of 1934, when oil man Nelson Rockefeller ordered the destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural Man at the Crossroads at the Rockefeller Center in New York, because the artist had included a portrait of Lenin. With fascism on the rise in Europe, there was a quasi-political argument smouldering in the US between the Regionalist art movement – rooted in the depiction of the American countryside and cartoonish images of working-class and black oppression – and the American modernists, such as Stuart Davis, who followed where Europe led. The Regionalists had contradictory followers – some were nationalist or even xenophobic by nature.

Elsewhere in the exhibition we see Philip Guston’s Guernica – Bombardment (1937). In Guston’s response to German and Italian forces “slowly and systematically” bombing every structure in the town, he creates a circular tondo, where a man with a gas mask, an El Greco-like robed man and naked babies radiate out from the horrifying point of explosion.

“To them, the American scene was a dilapidated house with a broken-down buckboard out front and a horse that looked like a skeleton,” said Georgia O’Keeffe, of the trend among US artists of the 1930s for depicting the Depression. In the exhibition the work can seem to be a bit like this. There are a fair few too-noble workers painted with that flat, modernist twist, and faux naïf (or maybe just plain naïve) Harlem Renaissance men and women, to go with Paul Cadmus’s radiant The Fleet’s In!, Alice Neel’s tender, macabre portrait of communist organiser Pat Whalen and Edward Hopper’s glowing peach, amber, red and greys in the nostalgic New York Movie.

The 1930s were the gateway to war – and it’s said we are living them again. Perhaps the lesson to taken from this show is that not all work responding to times of upheaval is uncoded and overtly political. We should decipher the codes of our current art scene for scraps of clues, for when the tipping point came – the cut-off point – where the forearm becomes the wrist, where the wrist becomes a clenched fist.

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