Florine Stettheimer’s Cathedrals, a series of Depression-era paintings depicting the excesses of New York social, political and economic life, on view in the American Modern section of the Met are perfectly suited to our times. Three of the Cathedrals are on view, each serving as a portrait of excess and consumption. These three large, chaotic, Art Deco inspired canvases, (and the fourth, the unfinished, Cathedrals of Art, 1942-44) each contain a self portrait of the artist herself, perhaps with a family member and always in costume as if to proclaim everyone’s participation in the world depicted. The scenes are examined and portrayed with humor and wit, yet point to the darker side of life.
The Cathedrals of Wall Street, 1939, depicts a central pediment comprised of the titans of early 20th century Wall Street and Washington in decadent golden paint, above a parade of patriotic American flags and a marching band trumpeting the success of the banks and financial institutions. The red, white and blue composition, laden with the imagery of America and of Wall Street, was painted to commemorate the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration. It seems to act as a reminder today, in light of our recent inauguration, that the worlds of finance and politics have been intertwined. And lest we forget the less fortunate, Stettheimer placed a group of Salvation Army workers on the left foreground, raised off the ground on a red platform, sing God Bless America.
The Cathedrals of Broadway is a glittering, explosion of color which illustrates the escape New Yorkers turned to during the Great Depression- Broadway theater and sporting events. Banners proclaim the names of theaters, a sports announcer holds a baseball as if ready for the start of a game and patrons line up at the ticket booth in this scene of all-over entertainment. Painted in 1929, it is impossible to view this scene of pleasure and happiness without the veil of the political and social reality of the day – especially as the date itself appears on a large red banner on the left side of the canvas. Seeing this glittering side of New York in spite of economic turmoil resonates today to be sure.
The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, 1931-32, proclaims the extreme excess of New York in a swirl of luxury store names, a fine car with a dollar sign across its grill and champagne on ice – all hovering around a wedding party at the center of the picture. Above the wedding couple and their guests, two religious figure seem to bless the raucous activity all around them.
Excess, escapism and economic turmoil – what an interesting time to see these paintings.