Skyscrapers are the “Soul of the Soulless City”

We’re used to artists coming to New York and being inspired. That’s not exactly the case with Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson.

Nevinson was a celebrated British painter and lithographer noted for his landscapes and depictions of soldiers during World War I.

In 1919, he made his first trip to New York, where his war prints were on display to great acclaim. “He was immediately impressed by the city’s architecture, declaring to one New York journalist that the city was ‘built for me,'” states the Tate in the UK.

Back in London, Nevinson painted the futuristic work at the top of the page, which he titled “New York – An Abstraction.”

But when his second exhibit in Manhattan later that year didn’t get the same positive reception as his first, the experience “may have accelerated Nevinson’s disaffection with the city,” according to the Tate.

In 1925, when “New York – An Abstraction” went on display in London, it had a new, harsh title: “The Soul of a Soulless City.”

Nevinson painted other images of New York, like the more traditional river view of “New York, Night” (1920). But none had quite the “hard, metallic, unhuman” feel as “the  Soul of the Soulless City,” as one critic described it.

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8 Responses to “Skyscrapers are the “Soul of the Soulless City””

  1. marygerdt Says:

    Reblogged this on Journey Through The Universe and commented:
    My same fascination with the 2 faces of this Giant of Cities. Love and Fear, Beauty and Filth, Infatuation And Mockery. Guest post 🌇

  2. Zoe Says:

    Wow. I just sadly failed at an attempt to defend the City & “New Yorkers” to someone telling me how horrible it & we are. He kept saying how he hated ALL New Yorkers because they ALL had “attitude”. I kept saying “*I’m* a New Yorker.” (Who he liked).

    There were the usual comments about the “high crime rate”. When I attempted to explain NYC has a relative low crime rate per capita this made no impression.

    When I attempted to explain that New Yorkers are so warm & friendly I didn’t even have to pay at my bodega – the proprietor just told me to pay him next time without even making a note – this made zero impression either.

    Multiply that by various other examples.

    I always find it really really astonishing that people – even ‘friends’ from elsewhere in the country – will tell us to our face how rude & horrible we are whilst not comprehending the irony in that. All my fellow New Yorker friends have only positive things to say about the rest of America/Americans. (And a lot of my born & bred Mannyhatty friends moved to places like San Francisco etc.).

    This person who is an Indigenous American is a big fan of the Lebanese American Khalil Gibran writer/artist & my friend Richie Havens (d.2013) who is also half Native (Blackfoot). That they were both *New Yorkers* made no difference either. Richie was born in Brooklyn & Gibran Khalil Gibran lived & died in his West 10th Street Street studio apartment.

    When I attempted to explain the history of loathing “New Yorkers” relating to other Americans; how this was code to people outside of the City for the many peoples who got off at Ellis Island & did not get much further because they were not allowed to; due to redlining & gentleman’s agreement; which affected Jews/Syrian Lebanese/Arabs/Turks/Armenians/Sicilians/Latinos & also native Black Americans; I was met w/ vitriolic anger accusing me of calling this person “antisemitic” & a “racist”. Neither of which I had ever said.

    I had simply attempted to explain how my father a ‘black’ Lebanese (taken as “a black man” where he was originally from in the Midwest & as Jamaican in Jamaica) was prevented as a New Yorker from purchasing a house in the CT countryside in the late 50s.

    And how when he was finally able to buy a house in Westport which had only then recently erased its colour lines – due to its theatre arts/film/illustrator community – I was still not allowed to swim in public pools there (& was kicked out of some) as a small child in the early & mid 60s. (No official policy – just unacknowledged inborn racism).

    This friendship was not able to be saved – despite my best efforts. So this post really means a lot to me as this *just* happened last month. People from elsewhere bring so much of their *own* expectation to the City & they forget how this is our *home* & how we have our own profound histories (eight million of them) some of them a bit more complex than *all* being painted as ‘rude’ (a fallacy) or having “attitude” (another fallacy).

    It stuns me whenever people paint us – eight MILLION people – w/ the same insulting brush. I told him I would never come to your reservation & tell people to their face that they were ALL the same & how I loathed them & loathed the land they live on. Yet people say these things directly to us all the time.

    Sorry for derailing a bit here! This is just not surprising that this artist said & did this. This has really been on my mind! Thanks everyone who gets this. xxx

    • Zoe Says:

      *Apparently nobody is interested in the issue of this painter & others projecting his negativity onto an ENTIRE city of eight million people – which happens hourly. (Due only to his own personal circumstance). “Soulless” & “attitude” etc.

  3. David H Lippman Says:

    Top painting: Third Avenue El zooming down Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. Barely missed the skyscrapers. Only one stop between Fulton Street and South Ferry: Hanover Square.

  4. J. W. Phillips Says:

    Abraham Walkowitz, New Yorker and Modernist was known for his abstractions of streetscapes and Wall Street Skyscapers as well as his innumerable portraits of Isadore Duncan. Cubist works, such as his 1915 New York Improvisation, and his etchings of Wall Street that were published in such publications as The New Masses, were provided with a venue at Alfred Steiglitz’s 291 Gallery on Fifth Avenue from 1911-12.

  5. trilby1895 Says:

    Call me a philistine, but this art leaves me cold. Gilded Age New York is my cuppa tea followed by 1600s, 1700s, 1800s.

  6. Beth Says:

    I like the cubist work very much. Perhaps his more traditional work was too passé for the time and wasn’t as appreciated?

  7. J.W. Phillips Says:

    As I pointed out, Abraham Walkowitz and other NYC based artist influenced by the Armory Show of 1913, were already converts to cubism, so Nevinson’s take may have seemed a bit derivative. As for the ‘souless’ “issue,” the Supremacists, Futurists, and Precisionists would celebrate the alienation of form from the soft humanism before it. Cubism was inspired by an attempt to revitalize and generate excitement about the potential to simultaneously conflate information in two dimensions (multiple perspectives and ‘puns’ of form). But, it became politicized by the Italian Futurists into a style that took on ideological attributes associated with a mechanized fascism, as a ‘good thing.’

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