The Great War robbed Nevinson of his love of Futurism: war had proved a tool of destruction, not liberation. Yet he still had one really great period of Futuristic work ahead of him. Following in the recent footsteps of Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, in May 1919 Nevinson headed for New York, where he was to have a one-man exhibition.
‘Having lived among scrap heaps,’ he explained in an interview with the New York Times Magazine on his arrival, ‘having seen miles of destruction day after day, month after month, year after year [Europeans] are longing for a complete change. We artists are sick of destruction in art. We want construction’ (C.R.W. Nevinson quoted in M. Walsh (ed.), A Dilemma of English Modernism: Visual and Verbal Politics in the Life and Work of C.R.W. Nevinson, Newark, 2007, p. 91). New York – and its skyscrapers and bridges in particular – offered Nevinson an exciting new subject, one ideally suited to a return to his earlier Cubo-Futurist idiom.
Surprisingly, the Manhattan skyline was not a subject that had yet been tackled by a significant modern artist. Whilst the printmaker Joseph Pennell had produced an excellent series of prints of New York views in the early years of the twentieth century, it was not till around the time of Nevinson’s arrival that native painters such as Charles Sheeler and Joseph Stella seriously began approaching the subject. ‘The whole time I was in New York,’ Nevinson later recalled, ‘I worked hard day and night, drawing the city, which in a moment of enthusiasm I had described to a pressman as ‘having been built for me’’ (C.R.W. Nevinson, Paint and Prejudice, London, 1937, p. 179).
In April 1921 he returned to New York for a second solo exhibition. He included a number of views of New York based on his first visit, possibly including this painting of a distant view of the Statue of Liberty, made from a characteristically elevated perspective high above the city. He subsequently claimed the fact that he was in the vanguard of modern artists painting New York meant his show there was a ‘disaster’:
‘This was the worst crime of all. That a foreigner should do this first and do it well, was something the [American] Press decided they just could not stand. George Bellows had done a few sketches of the Bowery and Coney Island, mostly figure work; Pennell had dome some etchings of the Hudson River; but no one had tackled the beauty of this modern city. All American painters had gone to “Parus” for their inspiration, and even their landscape painters, such as Winslow Homer, had painted American scenery in the European tradition. My work caused an outcry’ (C.R.W. Nevinson, Paint and Prejudice, London, 1937).
It was for this reason, he claimed, that he failed to sell many of these pictures in America. In fact, a review in The American Magazine of Art was very positive. It reported that Nevinson’s views of Manhattan were ‘among his finest things’. He had painted the city ‘with real enthusiasm and gusto … The magic beauty, but above all the tireless energy, of New York deeply impressed Nevinson, whose set of New York pictures form a series only second in interest to his pictures of the war’ (A.E. Gallatin, ‘Mr. Nevinson’s paintings of New York,’ The American Magazine of Art, Vol 12, no. 4, April 1921, pp. 118-20).
Yet Nevinson had not simply found beauty in the city – he had identified something of its alienating quality, too. A view along an elevated railway, now in the Tate, is titled The Soul of the Soulless City – New York – An Abstraction, whilst a view down into Wall Street carries the equally cynical title, The Temples of New York – for money was the new god in this new world. And whilst there are ships and boats on the water, there are no people to be seen, dwarfed as they are by the towering buildings, isolated by machines and modernity. These paintings and prints of an urban, lonely America would prove the peak of his artistic achievements. Nevinson never recaptured the fame or notoriety he had enjoyed during the Great War.
We are very grateful to Dr David Boyd Haycock for preparing this catalogue entry.