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This Year in American Arts: 1951, An Age of International Intimacies

It’s no surprise that in 1951, the imagination of American artists went abroad. The U.S. was learning a new foreign-affairs juggle, and its sprawling fight against communism ranged from funding post-war reconstruction to the Korean War.

Meanwhile, painters, singers, and actors produced narratives of foreign relations on a personal level. These relationships were real and imagined, romantic and platonic, entertaining and political. They reflected and shaped (and often misshaped) Americans’ views of the rest of the world. A surprising amount of 1951 art has enjoyed undeniable staying power. These moments are worth revisiting, but not just for their artistic value: In trying to portray other countries, American artists shed a light on their own.

1.The film “An American in Paris” is released, Oct. 4
The international affair: The score is Gershwin. The setting is the Parisian arts world. The leading characters are an American World War II veteran (Gene Kelly) and a beautiful French woman (Leslie Caron) who do a pas de deux along the Seine.

The bigger picture: The film won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of 1951. A United States-France romance was a cheering prospect at a time when the two countries were new NATO allies and the U.S. was giving France billions of dollars for Marshall Plan rebuilding. Still, it was not the plotline but rather the dancing that earned the most attention.

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2. “The King and I” opens on Broadway, March 29
The international affair: Another classic 1951 musical and another Western traveler protagonist. The genteel (and heavily fictionalized) Anna Leonowens uses Western educational methods, a motherly sternness, and the power of ballroom dance to tackle slavery and misogyny in the uncivilized Siamese court.

The bigger picture: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s fifth musical shows more about U.S. Cold War maneuvers than it does about 1860s Siam. By 1951, the Truman administration had identified Thailand as a potential buffer against communism in Southeast Asia and pledged $10 million in aid for “modernizing” Thailand. If only they could have sent a lone schoolteacher to do the job.

3. Georgia O’Keeffe visits Frida Kahlo in Mexico, February
The international affair: In February, O’Keeffe drove to visit her bedridden friend Frida Kahlo in Coyoacan as part of her first trip to Mexico. O’Keeffe wrote in a letter, “It is the first that I have felt free.”

The bigger picture: She would return to visit Oaxaca in 1957. In the years in between, the Mexican-American border became increasingly contentious and policed, but the desert that she painted stretched through political boundaries. The artists’ friendship also crossed borders: They differed in age, nationality, and style, but their visitations and a passionate 1933 letter from Kahlo to O’Keeffe illustrate a loving connection.

4. “I Love Lucy” airs its first episode, Oct. 15
The international affair: Like the characters they portrayed, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were a Cuban-born bandleader and an American entertainer, respectively, in real life. They consistently drew laughs from their characters’ cultural differences.

The bigger picture: By 1952, the U.S. was backing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, the same man whose 1933 revolt had caused Arnaz and his wealthy family to flee to Miami. In contrast, the Cuba of “I Love Lucy” was merely seductive and exotic. It guided American viewers toward a collective, happy misinterpretation of the country.

5. The beginnings of journeys to come
1951 also saw the birth of art that would later migrate in unpredictable ways. Jazz luminary Thelonious Monk created his first recording of “Straight, No Chaser” in July, and he would take this off-kilter, nine-minute track on tour for recordings in Italy and Tokyo in the 1960s. “The Catcher in the Rye” was published the same July. Though its story was firmly planted in the American Northeast, it would become a hit in the Soviet Union later in the decade, thanks to a Russian translation complete with slang and the Soviet Union’s increased access to foreign culture. Meanwhile, in Cuba, an up-and-coming singer named Celia Cruz joined La Sonora Matancera orchestra. This kicked off the politically fraught journey that would eventually bring her to the United States, American citizenship, and international legend status.

All these works have complicated legacies. The New York Times gave the 2015 “The King and I” production a glowing review but also called out the show’s “colonialist-minded” nature. Just as there will always be cross-national love stories, there will always be opportunities for self-reflection in them. In a modern example, the vivid debates around 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians” fit the bill. It is impossible to tell how we will regard its influence 60 years from now, but surely it will join the ranks of far-flung narratives whose ideals and styles were rooted in United States history.

—Staff writer Liana E. Chow can be reached at liana.chow@thecrimson.com.

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