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Modernism: L.A. Fit in, Like Gatsby

May 29, 2000|LOUISE ROUG

In an essay written especially for the exhibit, state historian Kenneth Starr details the "external environment"--the geographical and historical context--that influenced the development of Modernism in Southern California.

Starr compares Los Angeles to Scott Fitzgerald's famous protagonist, Jay Gatsby:

"Like Gatsby, Los Angeles had sprung into being from a near-Platonic conception of itself . . . Like Gatsby, Los Angeles built businesses . . . some of them uncertain in their morality and operation. Like Gatsby, Los Angeles believed in its own infinite future. But like Gatsby as well, Los Angeles was a city that could not not fully escape the taint of corruption . . . the noir underside of the sun-splashed city."

The explosive population growth of the city--from 101,000 to 2.2 million between 1890 and 1930--and the annexation of hundreds of thousands of acres, brought Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties into "one suburbanized whole."

Yet, the people of this burgeoning metropolis were hesitant about the new art movements. When a nude Aphrodite by American Impressionist Childe Hassam was first exhibited in Los Angeles, many expressed apprehension.

One headline in a local paper read: "Art Censors May Fight Display . . . Word 'Nude' Gives Committee Chills, Fever."

It took until the 1930s for the city to get a Bohemia--"a coterie of men and women dedicated to the arts," Starr writes.

"The 1930s . . . would witness Los Angeles . . . attracting major American talent and brilliant emigres from Europe. . . . Across thirty years the City of Angels, the Great Gatsby of American cities, had actualized itself through what at times seemed a sheer force of civic will."

The city had become a metropolis, ready for Modernism.

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