When you look at the economic numbers during the Great Depression in France, there are some similarities: From 1930 to 1936, unemployment in France was 10.2% and by comparison, in the US, we're currently at 6.1%. From 1929 to 1932, GDP in France was down 13.64%; in the US, from the second to third quarter, GDP was down 0.3%. In France, where the base period was 1929, the consumer price index was 93.6. In the US in September 2008, where the base period is 2002, the CPI is 123.2. In regards to food production, the numbers are quite a bit different. In 1929, France was producing 7% of the world's wheat despite the fact that, as Golan writes, "France postponed its 'second' industrial revolution to the 1950s and 1960s." This "return to the land" was supported by the rhetoric of Marshal Petain and in authors such as Gaston Roupnel. In Histoire de la campagne Francaise (1932), Roupnel writes:
"...human work, developed on the theme of natural quiet seasons, realizes the conquest of land, and the adaptation of the earth to the needs and wishes of humans."
In stark contrast to the aspiration for returning to an agricultural past, by comparison, according to the USDA, in 2000 just 23% of the American population lived in rural areas and only 1.9% of the population worked in agriculture. With the rise in the popularity of organic foods and CSAs, apparently Americans want some return of farming culture, but most of us don't know how or have too little time to spend cultivating it.
One of the artists who displayed a more dramatic change from abstraction to naturalism was Auguste Herbin, whose work prior to the end of World War 1 was largely influenced by Cubism. Golan writes, "between 1921 and 1926, (Herbin) featured an equally and unabashedly academic approach to composition and the rendering of forms." Likewise, Fernand Léger also did a dramatic about face in the inter-war years. Whereas in 1928, Léger entitled an essay, "The Machine Aesthetic," which scorned "sentimental...imitative values," in 1932, he wrote a personal letter on his new found appreciation for working on the land:
"An afternoon spent with real peasants - in a rough farm - where everything is stamped by work - the lines of people, the folds of clothes - all marks are made by the repetition of the same movements, the same efforts... I've eaten cheese with raw bread and drunk cider - gone to see the sheep - learned a thousand things about the animals."
André Derain became a paragon of what French artists should become during this time, having gone from a post-Fauve direction to a naturalistic landscape artist. Golan describes the praise Derain had received for this new direction: "in an article in the popular L'amour de l'Art as the great 'regulator,' the ideal model for the younger generation of French painters if they did not want to surrender to the seductiveness of a colorist like Henri Matisse or the overpowering influence of Picasso's cubism." In 1920, fellow artist and critic, André Lhote wrote in La Nouvelle Revue Française that Derain was "the greatest living French artist." Going by the numbers, the ticker tape of his rise was dramatic; in 1925 he sold paintings for about 10,500 francs, and three years later his works were going for 87,000 francs.
The changes within individual artists these days are not as plainly seen in an environment where images are referenced indiscriminately or for very different personal reasons. Gerhard Richter's comment on his landscapes is telling in this regard: "My landscapes are not only beautiful or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all 'untruthful'...and by 'untruthful' I mean the glorifying way we look at Nature - Nature, which in all its forms is always against us, because it knows no meaning, no pity, no sympathy...Every beauty that we see in landscape...is our projection; and we can switch it off at a moment's notice, to reveal only the appalling horror and ugliness." Some parallel between France's inter-war years and today's post 9/11 climate can perhaps be seen though more sweeping comparisons. It was perhaps revealing that on September 11, 1995, Arthur Danto chose to review an exhibition of Nam June Paik . Danto opened with:
"A dedicated collector of contemporary art told me, not long ago, that she had become enthralled by video now, perhaps to the exclusion of everything else. 'The next time you visit, maybe none of this,' she said, sweeping her arm demonstratively around to take in the large sculptures and paintings with which I identify her taste, 'will be here.' And then, leaning toward me confidingly, she added: ' I am thinking of having nothing in my home but video."
Cut forward a little more than a decade and now we have the New Britain Museum of American Art commissioning Graydon Parrish's mural about 9/11 - an odd mix of something like three parts idealist Neoclassicism, one part erotic Academicism, one part anguished Romanticism, and one part socially-engaged Realism. The changes in the post 9/11, Great Recession era are also telling if you look at the sale prices of Gustave Courbet works; in 1995 a Courbet sold for $261,330 (adjusted for inflation) and in 2007, his work sold for $7,269,434. For those whom find that looking at rural images only evokes retrograde sensibilities, the renewed interest of the "return to the land" couldn't be all bad these days, considering that a 2007 survey found 22% of 1,073 adult Britons didn't know where bacon or sausage came from. Perhaps in the future the point may become irrelevant anyways, when cities end up using vertical and urban farming out of necessity.