Andrew Lambirth

American beauty | 30 April 2008

<strong>The American Scene</strong><br /> <em>The British Museum</em> <strong>Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s</strong><em><br /> Dulwich Picture Gallery</em>

The American Scene
The British Museum

Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s
Dulwich Picture Gallery

Although the potent influence of all things American has had a pernicious not to say deleterious influence on street culture and social attitudes in Britain, American art of the last century has offered a stimulus to many and certainly a yardstick to measure up against. Our art has not simply been made in the shadow of the American achievement (whatever Clement Greenberg might have wanted to think), but the extent and richness of the experimental territory covered by American painters (and to a lesser degree sculptors) between 1850 and 1950 remain a lasting inspiration. Two exhibitions draw attention to this period, one of them a model of scholarship, the other strangely disappointing.

The British Museum show is a revelation. Not only are there a number of artists of real quality here whose work I was totally unfamiliar with, but the images by the better-known artists are for the most part marvellously fresh on the eye, too. Prints are sometimes disparaged as mere reproductions, poor man’s art, multiple editions intended to reach a larger audience than the exclusive painting, and, as such, somehow cheapened and diluted in effect. This is rubbish. A good print is a very fine thing indeed. In this show we see what can be done with techniques as different as etching and lithography, woodcut and screenprint. The range of imagery and the mastery of medium is wonderfully displayed: there are dozens of things here that would grace and enhance any first-class art collection. It is no idle boast when the British Museum claims to have the best collection of American prints from the late 19th century to 1960 outside America itself.

There are 147 works by 74 artists on display.

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