Sunday, February 5, 2017

America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age

Director's Statement
By Michael Maglaras

View clips from America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age

When I begin a film, I generally have a rough idea of how it will begin and how it will end. I’m usually not sure of much else, except the music I will use, since my films are constructed from the music up. But in America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age, both the beginning and the end were not settled ideas at inception. As a result, this was a tough film to make, to write, to edit, and to produce.

At first, there were a number of false turnings in the story line that took me to places that I thought were important but were not; areas of consideration that seemed, at the time, to be exactly the right things to emphasize, but turned out to be not as important as I had thought.

As we filmed and as the ideas began to come together, and as Terri and I began to edit things down, I realized that the Gilded Age has less to do with chronology and more to do with combustion. American life exploded during the Gilded Age. It was an explosion so dynamic, so forceful, and so lasting that we may not always understand how much we still live with this era’s legacy.

The Avenue in the Rain, 1917, Childe Hassam.
Courtesy of the White House.

In the 45 years between the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the death of Mark Twain in 1910, America came into its own as an economic and political power… and just as importantly as an artistic force, which is the object of this film.

In painting, in literature, and in sculpture, no period in the history of America was more fertile or more meaningful, and therefore more relevant to Americans today. This fertility produced special challenges for me as a filmmaker. We produced so much art during the Gilded Age. I had to make hard choices about what I could show within the scope of a reasonable attention span. As a result, this film will not please everyone. I left out of this film some important creative Americans of the period whose work I admire, in order to make room for others whose creativity seemed more emblematic of the dark as well as the light side of the period when America asserted herself for the first time.

I also decided that I wanted to show that the artistic influences on the period that we call the Gilded Age seeped earlier into our national consciousness than any simple chronology of the era suggests, and that similarly the results influenced American lives and perspectives beyond the generally accepted historical boundaries of this period of intense effort. In America Rising I make the argument that movements in the arts “leach beyond the stiff chronologies we assign to them.” America Rising is less about when the Gilded Age began and when it ended, and more about the soul and spirit of who we were then and, as a result, who we are now…for we are all products of the Gilded Age.

Detail from Diana, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1894. Bronze sculpture. Gift of Lincoln Kirsten, 1985. Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art

America Rising begins with the work of Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church, and it ends with Childe Hassam’s American flag series and John Singer Sargent’s monumental painting Gassed. Some may feel that, by doing this, I’ve stretched the acceptable boundaries of the period otherwise known as America’s Renaissance. I certainly have, if a discussion of the arts of the Gilded Age is defined by and confined to the stiffest of chronologies. When we entered the First World War in 1917 (something we observe the 100th anniversary of this year), some of the most productive and creative Americans of the Gilded Age were still alive and still working. This is the most simple of points: painters such as Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent, certainly thought by some in 1917 as being archaic relics of a closed period in our artistic history, were still showing us how to look deeply within ourselves for the answers to the most pressing issues of our time. Not only were they doing that, but they were perhaps doing it more tellingly than were the Modernists, who had begun to supplant them in our attention after the 1913 Armory Show.

In Hassam’s case, it was simply the question of whether we should become the World’s Policeman. In Sargent’s case, it was whether the first widespread use of poison gas marked the beginning of the end of what we mean when we speak the word “civilization.”

If you think the debates provoked in 1917 and 1918 by the art of these two old men of the Gilded Age are over, think again. Whether we should be the World’s Policeman is still the most important of questions. Whether we should idly stand by as populations are gassed is as important an issue now as it was 100 years ago.

In my forties and fifties I knew men and women who had lived through the First World War. There were still family members alive who had been born and had come into young adulthood during the Gilded Age. As I made this film, I realized that I am somehow a product of all the magnificent creative force of the American Gilded Age, in some modest way, just as I am also a product of the Gilded Age’s swagger, self-confidence, and aggressive life force. That means all of you reading this have the DNA of the Gilded Age inside you as well.

The continual boom and bust, the disparity between the haves and the have nots, the great art created by a society so patently philistine in nature…all of which is at the heart of the American paradox…all begins here during the American Gilded Age. Much of what we lived through as citizens between the deaths of Lincoln and Twain seems to me to be always with us. Indeed, we continue to develop, to grow, to strive as a people, in glorious ways. We also fail, we self-destruct, and we go through cyclical churnings within our American souls which set our progress back, just as we did during the Gilded Age. The regular appearance, in our history, of these twistings and turnings away from the true path of the progress of our nation…and thus the true progression of who we are as a people and what we can be as a great example of an ideal pluralistic society…can be predicted with as much sureness as the rising of the sun.

Audience at the world premiere screening
at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

We live in troubling times. When I started America Rising, I could not have foreseen just how troubling. What America is now is the direct and unequivocal product of the American Gilded Age, a period when we swung back and forth between the squalor of the American slums and the ethereal brightness of Saint-Gaudens’s Diana, as she caught the sun’s rays at the highest point in Manhattan.

America Rising had its premiere on January 20, 2017 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Terri and I questioned the wisdom of holding a premiere on that date. We didn’t question it for very long. It seemed to us a deeply meaningful day. It apparently was viewed similarly by the hundreds of people who attended the premiere that night.

I do not make political films, and America Rising takes no political position…but whatever side of the issue you come down on with respect to what happened to us on January 20, 2017, the discussion and the debate should not be, in fact should never be, about America’s greatness. If it is true that within the dark complexity of a nation’s life, rays of light reveal who a people are and what they stand for, then the art created during the Gilded Age and hanging on the walls of hundreds of museums across America should illumine the true face of who we are. Our greatness should never be in doubt.

This profound greatness of our American artistic heritage is what America Rising celebrates. That is the only thing. I am suggesting to you that it may be enough.

When you see this film, and you see the work of Childe Hassam, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Alfred Stieglitz, and Maurice Prendergast, and Mary Cassatt…and when you see, on the screen, Mark Twain walking toward you, ever-present cigar in hand, in the only known film footage existing of the man who was the Conscience as well as the Father of the Gilded Age…I hope you will remember and then reflect upon the things that endure in America: our history, our values, and, of course, our art.


Mark Twain, 1907. Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.