Although they were organized independently, the thought-provoking exhibitions currently at District Fine Arts and Hemphill Fine Arts effectively span the 20th century, the former examining the gritty urbanity of American prints up to 1950 and the latter focusing on how the landscape genre has changed since the end of World War II.
The century was fresh and new when the first works in "American Prints: 1900-1950," at District Fine Arts, were made. Printmaking was coming into its own as an affordable art form with unique expressive potential, and masterly artists such as Joseph Pennell contributed to its growing popularity.
Like most of the more than 30 artists in the show, which was curated by Washington print collector and dealer Paul Jackman, Pennell (1857-1926) was fascinated by the explosive growth of urban America. That development was most visible in New York City. Manhattan was rapidly evolving into a teeming, high-rise metropolis. Pennell's subjects included the skyscrapers as well as the charming, human-scale sections of the city that suddenly found themselves shadowed by their giant new neighbors.
The America that Pennell and artists such as Reginald Marsh, Earl Horter, Thomas Hart Benton, Harry Sternberg and Adolf Dehn depicted with such consummate skill in their black-on-white prints is a huge, brash, wildly growing place, filled with big buildings, sharp angles, harsh incandescent lights, sooty streets and ominous shadows. The frenzied growth is driven by a combination of technology and human muscle. Industry, as in Sternberg's "Blast Furnace," is shown as an enormous beast, its fiery maw defying the darkness, consuming raw materials and the dwarflike men who feed it.
The printmakers also produced images of the young century's new landmarks, such as Elisa M. Grossman's picture "Rockefeller Center," and S. Chester Danforth's fine view of "Chicago Board of Trade."
Others turned their attention to the people who were flocking to the rapidly expanding cities and eradicating the veneer of late-19th-century gentility. Dehn's "Nine Whores," which is heavily influenced by German expressionism, shows a group of leggy, elegantly dressed flappers lit from behind, shamelessly peering out at the viewer.
One of the few prints with rural themes is Benton's "Slow Train Through Arkansas," a reminder that there was another America far removed from the cities, where the wonders of modernity had yet to arrive.
Benton, who lived from 1889 to 1975, was best known for his paintings. He began his career as an abstract painter, but abandoned that style in 1920 and became one of the leading lights of the regionalist group, which made dramatic, romantic pictures of rural life in the Midwest and of the pioneer days.
One of Benton's prominent regionalist colleagues was John Steuart Curry, whose lithograph "Our Good Earth" provides the title for the group exhibition at Hemphill Fine Arts that takes a look at how landscapes have changed since 1945 and how contemporary artists are depicting landscape at the end of the century.
That's an awfully big topic to address in a gallery show, particularly in Hemphill's modest space, which has been filled to the ceiling with prints, photographs and paintings like some European monarch's picture gallery. While the exhibition includes fine works by gallery artists such as Colby Caldwell, Fred Easker, Sharon Knox Sanderson and Wade Hoefer and such notables as Gerhard Richter, it just doesn't have the scope needed to live up to its theme, which would be better suited to a museum. But the attempt is eye-catching and provides plenty of food for thought, beginning with Curry's picture.
It shows a stalwart young farmer, standing in the middle of a windblown wheat field with his two children. The brawny young man holds three stalks of wheat in his right hand and his little son's hand in his left. His daughter stands by his side, arms spread, as if she is blessing the earth's bounty. It's a warm, fuzzy print, evoking the kind of mystical bond between man and soil that is so prevalent in French culture. The print is taken from a painting that Curry did in 1940. The image later was made into a poster supporting the U.S. effort in World War II.
But the fruitful, pastoral world that Curry depicted would prove to be ephemeral. The dawn of the nuclear age meant that war could unleash forces, such as radioactive fallout, that could despoil any landscape.
At the same time, the structure of American society was undergoing dramatic changes. The exodus from the farms to the cities that had been underway for decades accelerated. At the same time, city dwellers yearning for their own piece of the American dream began flocking to mass-produced suburbs that ate up vast tracts of what was once farmland.
That development helped shape a new environmental consciousness in America. People began worrying about the ravages of pollution and overdevelopment and squabbling over whose Earth it was. The actual landscape was changing, often for the worse. So, too, was the landscape's psychological, sociological and political connotations.
Naturally, those changes have affected the way that contemporary artists depict the landscape. One of the most interesting changes documented in the show is the elimination of human beings and most other creatures from the picture, often leaving an idealized but empty landscape unsullied by man. Hoefer's "Carmina I" is a typical example. It's a beautiful bit of pristine, imaginary countryside, glowing with California's strong light and vivid colors. There are no people, pollution, politics or problems here. Just big trees, clear sky and clean water.
David Shevlino's "Sunbather," an oil on canvas from 1998, is one of the few exceptions, showing a woman catching some rays in a big back yard. But she seems disconnected from the landscape, as if it were just a grassy backdrop, our good Earth reduced to a place where one goes to get a tan and flirt with skin cancer.
American Prints, at District Fine Arts, 1726 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-328-9100, through July 10.
Our Good Earth, at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1027 33rd St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-342-5610, through July 2.
CAPTION: John Steuart Curry's "Our Good Earth," in Hemphill's show of the same name.
CAPTION: In "Sunbather," by David Shevlino, the subject seems disconnected from the landscape.