The American Scene in the 1930s
Four chime strikes snap our eyes to the bright streetlight, and the following English horn solo allows us to calmly survey the entire scene. As the instrumentation thickens, so our eyes quicken and discover a narrative. George Gershwin’s “Hurricane” from his 1936 Catfish Row suite, an orchestral adaptation of his opera Porgy and Bess, guides its audience from reflection to wild tension. Meanwhile, Joseph Delaney’s 1938 oil painting City Life portrays the lively bustle of Times Square. The two pieces of art join together to express one mood of early 20th-century America, finding commonality in cultural influences and elements of design.
Joseph Delaney was an African-American painter who was born and died in Knoxville, Tennessee, but spent the majority of his career in New York City. Delaney’s artistic involvement influenced him stylistically toward Expressionism, while also encouraging a topical focus on “the American scene” (Welsh). Both in Tennessee and New York, Delaney experienced racism, as his artwork reflects. In City Life, a lighter band of color crosses the wood panel horizontally behind two dark-skinned people, located just above and left of center. The man’s face in particular conveys worry, and both people assume a protective posture; the man wraps his arm around the woman, while the woman holds her purse before her body. Almost every lighter face surrounding the couple watches them unhappily. Two figures with exaggeratedly-white skin are running in the foreground, toward the viewer and away from the African American couple. In this painting, the clash of two races prompts discrimination, which supplants a fun night on the town with inescapable unease and fright.
Just three years before Delaney painted City Life, George Gershwin’s folk opera debuted; it tells of the life and drama of African Americans in a fictional town. While some critics defended the opera as showing the plight of all humans, others found the show to engage in “folk authenticity, racial stereotyping, and cultural exploitation” (Allen and Cunningham, 343-44). “Hurricane,” the fourth movement in Gershwin’s suite, draws its source from the stormy climax of the opera. While the orchestral piece alone does not evince racial tension, we can understand the hurricane as a metaphorical downpour of discrimination present throughout the drama. The dissonant and chaotic sections in this movement reflect a violence similar to that which occurs when social norms are questioned. As drum and cymbal rolls drown the rest of the orchestra, the French horns boldly seize the melody, seemingly evoking a powerful cultural change. Furthermore, the flurry of instruments trilling under the dominant brass brings to mind the frantic, confused reaction of bystanders in times of conflict.
Akin to the French horns’ dominance in “Hurricane” is the powerful idea that two African Americans are walking through Times Square despite what appears to be overwhelming disapproval. While the trumpets, horns, and trombones fight the battle, flutes, clarinets, oboes, and all the string instruments relate to the crowd of people in the painting’s background. Tension is evident in the music through the back-and-forth action between major keys and clashing harmonies, while this same mood appears in the unhappy expressions filling the painting. Human conflict, whether literal or metaphorical, is the predominant theme of both works, thus the strongest point of contact between them.
Texture and repetition combine to further bind this painting and music together. In visual art, texture refers to the surface of a work. In Delaney’s City Life, the thick, rough texture referred to as impasto is instantly noticeable. As an effect of the uniformly rough texture and great repetition of human forms in the crowd, distinctions vanish and the light-skinned people form a single imposing mass. Human figures repeating through the full depth of the scene, particularly those behaving identically, furthers a sense of frenzy and group mentality. While most of the painting employs impasto, the ground-plane, some buildings, and the African American couple are smoother, breaking the repetition and separating these objects from the scene. Rather than nondescript unhappiness, the African-American man has a clear frown and upturned eyebrows. The couple is different, and their respective stances indicate fear of exclusion from the uniform crowd. The textures and repetition Delaney uses create an overwhelming and unsettling sense of a unified crowd, forming tension when differences are introduced.
Gershwin composed “Hurricane” based on variations of a single melodic phrase, or motif. The motif varies in length, complexity, and instrumentation. After the fourth chime sounds at the start of the piece, a solo English horn introduces the motif: three small phrases each fall and climb before landing back where they started. Texture in music refers to simultaneous layers of sound, often created by overlapping melodic and harmonic lines. This movement’s texture quickly thickens when the introductory solo ends and other woodwinds enter. The music continues and similar phrases build from this idea, often separated by heavily-textured lines. When the powerful French horns enter, they play the motif, but end one whole-step below the starting note, creating a feeling of discomfort. Through the rest of the movement, the motif transforms in its pattern of dips and climbs, speed of delivery, and pitch, but its concept continues to resurface over a complex web of new rhythms and ideas. In the same way that Delaney develops uniformity and disquiet, Gershwin’s various textures for the repeated motif evoke a range of emotions.
While theme, texture, and repetition bring the two art works together, the artists’ use of color contrasts them. Delaney’s paint colors remain dark and muted, visually blending into various hues of brown, and creating gloominess. A few spots of vibrant color, such as the red of a scarf, attract the viewer’s attention and add a sense of alarm otherwise only available through other techniques. Bright highlights on most figures and objects help to break up the dark painting and they add a hint of contrast that is otherwise mainly lacking.
On the other hand, Gershwin makes full use of contrasting colors. Color in music refers to the distinct sounds and uses of different instruments. “Hurricane” displays a large quantity of bright colors from flutes to trumpets to tympani. However, at times the colors of the woodwinds and high strings run together to create a muddy rhythmic sound, much like Delaney’s browns. Though the artists use similar color techniques, Delaney rarely steps away from a dull brown, while Gershwin balances indistinguishable washes of sound with bright and clear phrases.
Line is a point of comparison and contrast between these two pieces. To understand line in City Life, we can inspect directionality and Delaney’s application of paint. Many forms – such as lampposts and the sides of buildings – are long and vertical, while others – mainly the humans – include diagonals. Traditionally, vertical lines dictate a sense of height and power, and diagonals suggest movement. Just as Times Square’s verticality may suggest a power that exists outside of the human figures, so too we understand that the racist implications extend beyond these particular people in this specific situation. Meanwhile, the implied diagonal line between the closest two people emphasizes their urgency to escape the hostile scene. While the directions of implied lines distinguishing shapes suggest significance and activity, the forms themselves are blocks of shape and color made by the short, individual lines of brushstrokes. These short and broken lines express quick-paced activity.
Gershwin’s approach to line can also be evaluated in multiple ways. In the same way that Delaney creates shapes, Gershwin forms larger ideas from a blend of short rises and falls, particularly in the non-melodic flurries between the main motifs. The vertical lines present in the painting may even be compared to the proud brass sounding over the rest of the orchestra. In contrast, the melodic phrases have many dips and turns and can vary significantly in duration. Although a similar idea could be expressed visually with turning lines of many various lengths, this quality is not employed in City Life. Furthermore, the overall line of “Hurricane” grows significantly from start to finish, another idea not present in Delaney’s painting. In “Hurricane,” Gershwin uses short lines to develop a larger picture like Delaney approaches mark-making, but his range of variation in phrasing and the overall growing line are unparalleled in this painting.
Delaney’s City Life and Gershwin’s “Hurricane” complement each other to promote exploration into ideas otherwise unnoticed. By understanding the context of both works, we can better see similarities in their underlying themes. Use of texture and repetition also unify the two, while color separates them. Finally, line provides a chance for us to simultaneously examine similarities and differences between the painting and the music. Together, Delaney and Gershwin present a more complete understanding of 1930s America than either work provides on its own.
Welsh, Teresa Smith. “Joseph Delaney.” The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Last modified April 19, 2000. http://sunsite.utk.edu/delaney/retro.htm
Allen, Ray and George P. Cunningham. “Cultural Uplift and Double-Consciousness: African American Responses to the 1935 Opera ‘Porgy and Bess’.” The Musical Quarterly 88, no. 3 (Autumn, 2005): 342-69.
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