Review of America Observed by Paul Hogarth and Stephen Spender…
As coffee table format books go, America Observed by Paul Hogarth and Stephen Spender ranks up there with my all-time favourites. First published by Potter in 1979 it contains seventy eight illustrations by Hogarth in a refreshingly large scale size. Anyone familiar with Paul Hogarth’s work will know he loved America. He first travelled there in 1962 on assignment for his New York collaboration with the Irish author Brendan Behan and returned every year bar one until 1978.
He had previously published three wonderful ‘walking tour’ books on Boston, Philadelphia and Washington so this was a natural progression in many ways as it includes his work from 1969 until 1978 taking us beyond his early years covered in his book Paul Hogarth’s American Album (1962-1965).
Stephen Spender (1909-1995) needs little introduction, a prolific author, poet, essayist and biographer of W.H. Auden, T.S. Elliot and D.H. Lawrence he made for another interesting collaborator with Hogarth.
The front flyleaf of the book describes the contrasting views of America by the artist and author, Hogarth sees the country with humour and a sense of romance whilst Spender takes an historical and cultural view and the combination is a fascinating one. The style of the book and more especially Hogarth’s illustrations reminded me of his book London A La Mode written with Malcolm Muggeridge a decade earlier. The characters are quirky and Hogarth is painting with such natural ease that the combination of architectural and portrait pieces weave together beautifully.
Split into four chapters; The East, The South, The Midwest and The West, Spender and Hogarth cover all the bases which make up this remarkable country. From skyscrapers to electricity pylons, fishermen to farmers, lighthouses to the vast Colorado landscape, this is a wonderful look at America in the late seventies and contains some of Hogarth’s best work.
Hogarth would, whenever possible, work ‘on site’, a street scene would be drawn on the street with onlookers happily interrupting him and this goes some way in explaining the landscapes with people painted in front, Hogarth literally painted what was in front of him and gave him his unique role as a reportage artist. Twenty eight of the illustrations are in colour, the rest a blend of inks, charcoal and pencil and the combination of sketch and detailed pen drawings makes this such an interesting collection.
One of my favourites is this man stood beside his huge MACK truck in Texas. It personifies America, gives scale to its vast size and the proud Texan and gives proof to Hogarth’s assertion that Americans are ‘communicating their search for identity’. Spender sees the country and its people going through a transitional period: “It seems that the American tradition that looked to England is breaking down. At times-taking a taxi in New York, for example, and finding that the driver can understand not a word of English and very few words of American-one has the impression that America, aided by the considerable decline of the educational system, is becoming forcibly multilingual and, moreover, that as the spoken or written language changes, the dominance of groups whose speaking and thinking was closest to England and Europe diminishes while the influence of Latin American, African and Asian groups increases”
The first chapter takes in the east of America and begins like most of Hogarth’s travelogues with the airport: ‘The American airport reveals the supreme American paradox: the combination seen everywhere of individual eccentricity with pervading sameness. Nowhere than in America is there greater freedom of expression in manners, attire, behaviour than at JFK, O’Hare or Miami airports. At the same time nowhere is there greater conformity of things produced and consumed’
New York and its people take centre stage in the opening pages, the Empire States Building, Madison Square, people jogging in the parks, walking dogs, the hustle and bustle of the traffic and subways, Hogarth depicts them all and Spender’s observations are littered with references to Henry James.
Hogarth loved painting American architecture and some of his finest pieces can be found in his Walking Tour series, the painting of Independence Hall in Philadelphia (opposite) is indicative of his style and those in his books. Spender questions Americans touristic attitude to their own history declaring they visit such places as though they were ‘pure spectacle, a puppet show, different from their world‘. I am not sure how else he would expect them to react, much the same as an English tourist visiting Buckingham Palace perhaps?
Washington is beautifully captured by Hogarth, Spender lived and worked there in 1968 at the Library of Congress as Consultant in Poetry, he compares the great capitol cities of the world to a beautiful man or woman, London and Paris he says has such beauty whilst Washington is disproportioned ‘like a body with an immensely swollen head, beautiful hands and feet, no genital organs; these separate parts connected by straggling, overextended arms and legs’ Hogarth takes a less snobbish approach, he paints the buildings which make up Washington’s heritage and the monuments to America’s independence, I find critical comparisons between the New World and the ancient cities fruitless, everywhere has its beginnings and in the case of America’s great capitol, what must surely matter most of all is where its future lies and where that future takes ‘us’.
Spender is rather more gracious about California: ‘Everything in California is large scale: great coastlines, huge estuaries, long beaches, mountain ranges, deserts, plains…..California is-though much spoiled by man-paradisal. Orange groves, vineyards, palm trees, many small bays in which the sand is golden against which the sea, the colour of blue petals, presses its white-edged lines of waves. The young, often stark naked, lie on the beach or swim in the waters’
Hogarth observes the hip and the hippies, the state truly is a melting pot of people which, according to Spender, are viewed upon with suspicion by the rest of the nation. Spender believes Californians look not across the American continent but west, across the Pacific and onto the Orient where the exotic and the mysterious meet their own beliefs and way of life. Los Angeles is described as ‘the most amorphous of American cities’ a place made for the automobile with its vast scale.
The book is littered with wonderful sketches and paintings of Americans going about their everyday business; of waiters scurrying, tourists taking photographs, fashionistas, hopefuls playing the slot machines in Las Vegas, cowboys and oil men in Stetsons and shades, this collection has it all. For those relatively new to Paul Hogarth’s work this is a wonderful collection and overview of his observations of America. His Walking Tour books focus more on architecture so if you can find a copy of America Observed then I would highly recommend it.
Paul Hogarth’s life, career and bibliography including many book reviews can be found here
Walking Tours of Old Philadelphia
Walking Tours of Old Washington and Alexandria
Categories: Paul Hogarth, The Reading Room
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