1930s America and Postcolonial London

Meredith Bergman (’19) admiring the architecture of the RA.

A few hundred feet from Piccadilly Circus in the center of London, there is a grand building and courtyard that make up the Royal Academy of Arts. The RA, as it’s commonly known, is a private independent charity founded by King George III that, according to their website, exists “to promote art and artists – a mission we pursue through exhibitions, education and debate.” I visited one such exhibition, open from now until the 4th of June, entitled America After the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s. The title initially caught my eye because of its reference to where I’m from, but the exhibition’s description is what compelled me to attend: “Fear, paranoia, anger, poverty, conservatism, unemployment. Sound familiar? 1930s America bears a worrying resemblance to 2017 America: a bubbling cauldron of toxic ingredients, an angry, disenfranchised population, crushed by failure and trying desperately to pull themselves out of the mire.”

This strongly worded and highly negative description of America is, in my opinion, a fairly accurate depiction of some parts of the country I have just recently left. The connection to the 1930s, especially portrayed through art, is an interesting spin on the topic, and I decided to go this past Tuesday with a few friends. The admission fee was £13.50 without concessions.

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While there are 45 paintings in the exhibition by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Philip Guston that show life in America from dozens of perspectives, the featured painting, and the one that visibly drew the largest crowd around it, is American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. This painting’s image is used on all the advertisements, and this is its first time outside of North America. American Gothic shows two figures, a farmer and his daughter, standing in front of their farmhouse with stern expressions. The figures were not real farmers, they were based off of Wood’s sister and dentist, but they have nonetheless come to represent the typical white, American, midwestern, working-class family.

This idea of a working class midwesterner holds many stereotypes in US culture. In fact, the white midwesterner can be understood just as much as a discursive idea (like “the Orient”) than it can be understood as a real person. In the 1930s, after the Wall Street Crash, these people, as a general whole, were disenfranchised and fearful of the urbanization and social change taking place. Today, they are similarly seen as stuck in the past and reluctant to move forward. Not only are they generally seen as Christian and politically conservative, but recently, they have taken on the burden of being viewed as the quintessential Trump voter. The Trump voter is characterized as fearful of change, angry, hateful, uneducated, racist, and more.

Entrance into the exhibition

Immigration is an important source of fear in some Americans that Trump keyed into during his campaign and now his presidency. He called Mexican immigrants “rapists” who are “bringing drugs [and] crime” into the US during the initial announcement of his presidential campaign on June 16, 2015. Crowds at his rallies and press conferences have repeatedly chanted “Build the Wall!” over the past year and a half.

This overt resistance to immigration has, so far, been one of the main themes of our literature class on immigration in the UK. The first book we read, The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913), was written by Sax Rohmer about the “yellow peril” invading England, all personified by one evil, animalistic, and feminized doctor who has scientific control over nature that Westerners could not begin to imagine and was formed of “all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race” (Rohmer 1997 p. 13).

We are currently in the process of reading our second book, The Lonely Londoners (1956). This book is written by Sam Selvon, a Trinidadian man born in 1923 who later moved to London. The book shows the perspectives of immigrants from the West Indies and details their encounters with white Londoners who either overtly or covertly resist their integration into London’s mainstream society. One of the characters, Galahad, questions his people’s unfair treatment by the white Londoners: “Lord, what it is we people do in this world that we have to suffer so? What it is we want that the white people and them find it so hard to give? A little work, a little food, a little place to sleep” (Selvon 2006 p. 76).

The themes in these books, although specifically about London in the 1910s and 1950s, are extremely salient to US culture today, which is something we’ve been discussing in class. With both refugees and immigrants being targeted by our president and his followers, it is impossible to read The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu and The Lonely Londoners without thinking about how these issues are still so highly charged in the US today. To not only discover this connection in our readings, but to also see a current art exhibition that focuses on this consistency in culture over a span of 80 years was exciting. I’m hoping this art exhibition will hold even more meaning and connections to our readings and our experiences in the US as we continue learning about immigrants in London.

Hannah Aylward, ’19


Frankel, Eddy. “America After The Fall: Painting in the 1930s.” Accessed April 07, 2017. https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/other/america-after-the-fall-painting-in-the-1930s/ar-AAntlud.

Rohmer, Sax. The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Public, 1997.

Selvon, Sam. The Lonely Londoners. London, England: Penguin Books, 2006.

Author: aylwardh

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