Braving the Worst of Times

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Roosevelt put the nation to work -- employing even artists, who left us a vivid record of that dreadful, hopeful time.

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Franklin Roosevelt had his detractors.  But if those critics could have seen 75 years into the future, they might have felt differently.  Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of the 1930s built much of the infrastructure that we still depend on in 2009.  Roads, courthouses, dams, schools, parks (and the list goes on) were funded to improve life in the U.S. and to provide jobs for the unemployed.

Among the many legacies that Roosevelt left us is the gift of record — a glimpse into the 1930s. One such window is now on public view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum:  1934: A New Deal for Artists. Its pictures let us look back at the Great Depression, at lives full of uncertainty but also of hope. The time mirrors our own with economic troubles, environmental problems and war, also the expectation of recovery and faith in the human capacity to endure.  The artists of the ‘30s conveyed these dual messages, an understandable fearfulness yet strength and optimism for the future.  

The paintings in this exhibit were created for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), a cultural program operative during the fall and winter of 1933-34.  The PWAP was part of Roosevelt’s multi-pronged experiment to relieve the 25% unemployment rate and heal the country’s economic distress.  A forerunner of the better-known Works Progress Administration (WPA), the PWAP employed 3,749 artists and produced 15,663 works of art — paintings, sculptures, murals, prints, and drawings — at a cost of $1,312,000.  Fifty-five of these works are in the current exhibition; three of them hung on White House walls during FDR’s administration.

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Farmer’s Kitchen, by Ivan Albright
Of the many powerful pieces in A New Deal for Artists, two of the most striking are Ivan Albright’s Farmer’s Kitchen and Kenneth Adams’s portrait Juan Duran. 

Farmer’s Kitchen exposes the fear and emotional uncertainty of the time. Albright’s aging woman embodies weariness borne of a lifetime of hard work. With no relief in sight, no guarantee of financial security in her final years, the farmer’s wife faces the same dawn to dusk kitchen labor that has been her lot for decades. Now her hands are gnarled and her face grotesquely creased with years. Her stringy gray hair is pulled back in a fraying bun. The stove and pot beside her are reminders of the work yet to be done. 

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Juan Duran, by Kenneth Adams
In Adams’s Juan Duran, the solid, stocky figure of the laborer sits squarely in the picture and confidently in his chair.  His thick, neatly kept, softly graying hair adds to his air of dignity.  The bold orange and yellow of his jacket and his strong worker’s hands tell us that he will not be daunted by hard labor.  The hot colors and prominent plaid tell an entirely different story of perseverance than do the many small patterns of cold blues and grays in Albright’s image of the timeworn old woman in her kitchen.  Juan Duran’s formidable figure reflects the defiant resilience of the American people during the trying times of the 1930s.

Less dramatic, but with the same conflicting message of anxiety and optimism, is Ross Dickinson’s Valley Farms.  At first glance, serene green fields are a pleasant and interesting contrast to the stark, orange, treeless mountains.  But on closer look, smoke from distant and foreground fires wafts upward, threatening the tranquility of the fertile farmland.  During the early ‘30s, Dust Bowl farmers migrated to California to find work.  The sudden influx of competition for farm jobs during a time when the country was already suffering severe financial losses was hard on Californians.  So, what appears to be a beautiful rural setting, in fact, hints at impending danger and fear of uncontrollable outside sources. 

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Filling the Ice House by Harry Gottlieb

As well as recording the emotional mood of the 1930s, PWAP works of art recall a time of early transitioning from old ways of living to new modern conveniences.  With our 21st century sensibilities, we can look back at a time when refrigeration was new but men still heaved blocks of ice for home iceboxes. (Filling the Ice House by Harry Gottlieb) Cotton picking machines had been developed but African-Americans still labored in the cotton fields of the South.  (Employment of Negroes in Agriculture by Earle Richardson)   Hydroelectric power was making life easier but people still chopped wood for home heating. (Natural Power by Raymond White Skolfield)  And newly available telephone and electric lines were proudly displayed as the primary subject in a rural landscape. (Old Pennsylvania Farm in Winter by Arthur Cederquist)  Considered essentials today, these luxuries were only gradually becoming available in rural areas 75 years ago.  

Sometimes the pain of a crisis gives life to the creative human spirit, and sometimes the result is an enduring legacy. Without the Roosevelt “stimulus package” of the 1930s, thousands of artists would not have made art during those years; they would have struggled just for existence.  And we would not be able to see their interpretations of life in an economic downturn, the difficulties and the triumphs.  Those of us too young to have lived through the Great Depression have heard about it all of our lives; in this exhibition we can see those times with our own eyes. 

Cyndy Clark of Lexington, KY, has written about WPA-era painter Beatrice Mandelman. The exhibit she reviews here,
1934: A New Deal for Artists, will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., until January 2010.

 

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