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Thursday 23 May 2013 The fun-fair is coming to town

The fun-fair is coming to town this June, with the opening on 21st June of Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York at the New-York Historical Society.

Marsh (1898-1954) started his career as an illustrator and cartoonist working initially for the New York Evening Post, Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar, then later on the staff of the New York Daily News and The New Yorker. He moved into painting in the early 30s, and his work captures the frenzy of leisure time in New York during the 1930s, showing the working class at play at fairgrounds and on beaches, in crowded streets and subways and burlesque clubs. Marsh was born in Paris but returned to the US with his parents, who were American artists, in 1900. In spite of his private income and his Yale education, Marsh saw himself as an outsider – the only man on the beach in a suit, standing at the edge, watching. In contrast to the isolated artist, his paintings are full of noise and crowds. The canvases creak at their seams with the activity and mass of bodies contained within then, just as the dresses of some of Marsh’s women seem barely able to enclose their bodies. His images evoke the noise of the street, subway, fairground and crowded beach. The people dance, spin, rush along in the crowd, applaud, cheer and leer. But the eyes of Marsh’s subjects suggest a distance from the frenetic activity.
The poverty portrayed in East 10th Street Jungle (1934) is in stark contrast to the wealth of the patrons in Texas Guinan and her Gang (1931) or the fun available in George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park (1936), but many of Marsh’s subjects share a dead look behind the eyes. His paintings show the trappings of ‘fun’, but I’m not convinced that the participants are actually enjoying themselves. The light, colour, noise and activity are shouting ‘LOOK OVER HERE, IT’S GREAT!’ and the people want to believe it, want to join in and lose themselves, but seem unable to forget what lies outside the dome of light and fun. The frenzied activity in Marsh’s paintings makes you question what it is that his subjects are so busy avoiding. He paints them trying to lose themselves on the dance floors in Harlem, on the beach at Coney Island, on fair-ground rides and in dive bars. But the participants in these enjoyable activities often look pained – squashed or crushed, trod upon, toppled, contorted, even anguished. The paintings brilliantly portray the mood of working-class New York between the wars, juxtaposing the verve and energy of ‘fun-time’ with the haunting threat of hardship, the constant nagging insecurity of unemployment. The show runs until 1st September 2013, and our book of the same name features essays on aspects of Marsh’s life and work, accompanied by his paintings and sketches and by work of some of his contemporaries, including Edward Laning, Kenneth Hayes Miller, Raphael Soyer and Walt Kuhn.

Swing Time Swing Time Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York
Edited by Barbara Haskell. Essays by Morris Dickstein, Erika Doss, Barbara Haskell, Jackson Lears, Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, and Sasha Nicholas

The Exuberant Chaos of Modern Life

Swing Time opens in New York June 21

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