Thursday, May 7, 2009

1934 Depression Era Art Resonates Now

(Washington, D.C.) -- Between December 1933 and June 1934, in the first U.S. government program to provide direct support to the arts, 3,750 artists traveled the country to portray the “American Scene.”

It was the Great Depression. Unemployment was rampant. American confidence was shaken. Food was scarce. But the artists saw beyond the economics. They portrayed an America, still rippling with a muscularity in its people, landscapes, buildings, industries and cities.

That brawniness of America even under challenging circumstances is a physical and spiritual presence at “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum of 56 paintings from the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) on the 75th anniversary of its creation. Fifteen thousand artworks were produced in the program, costing $1.3 million.

The artists helped shape a narrative of the value of hard work, perseverance and community for the nation as it hoped to overcome the hardship of the Depression. The artists weren’t told what to paint but knew their works would get public display.

In fact, President Franklin D. Roosevelt hung 32 paintings in the White House, seven of which are in the exhibition. Another 130 paintings hung in the Department of Labor Building and 451 in the House of Representatives Office Building. Building on PWAP's success, other New Deal programs gave artists opportunities to paint murals in federal buildings and the Works Progress Administration supported writers, musicians, actors and artists from 1935 until 1943.

The aesthetic of the paintings in "1934" is deemed Social Realism, an art movement of the early 20th century that depicts working class activities as heroic, social and racial injustice and the economic hardships people face. While some of the artists may have had socialist leanings, their works are distinct from Socialist Realism, the official art of communist Russia. Both are similar in honoring the common man, but America’s social realists probably had more choice in what they painted and could criticize the status quo.

Above are three examples of the exhibition's paintings, all 56 of which can be seen on a Flickr site put together by the museum. The portrait of an old woman in “The Farmer’s Kitchen” by Ivan Albright (above left) shows the burden of life she bears and has beared, more than words can ever describe. Yet even given that hardship, she does her chores and peels her radishes. As do workers building the Golden Gate Bridge during the height of the Depression, even though they are physically absent in Ray Strong’s painting (above right), which Roosevelt hung in the White House.

Leo Breslau’s “Plowing” (below) is an idyllic landscape of a farmer plowing his field. The notes say Breslau never left his Brooklyn apartment to paint this picture, but instead relied on his imagination. They continue:

"What could be farther from the despairing of breadlines in Depression-era New York City or the Dust Bowl than this green, rustic realm where honest work is richly rewarded? The farmer, raising a new crop, offers hope for the nation.”

All the paintings in "1934" likewise offer hope to the nation today as we struggle through a new hard times. America got through that period and presumably will get through this difficulty.

Yet, the exhibition raises many art historical questions, such as how did the artists manage after they lost government support? What was the selection process in determining which artists would get support? Why did so many of them seem to paint from a similar “school of art”? What were the political ideologies of the artists and how did they influence their works? How did these PWAP works influence other artists, whose names we actually recognize and are in museum collections?

And, finally what would artists today paint given a similar mission as those from PWAP?

The exhibition runs through January 3, 2010.

(Images courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)


  1. Oh, and thanks for the encouragement.

  2. A great article on a timely exhibit. I think the questions you raise at the end are especially relevant. The art of the 1930s often seems overshadowed by post-war developments, and it seems an area of study that is wide open.