Articulating a Turbulent Era
By Tom Wachunas
“…I have come to something that is in the image of America and the American people of my time.” –artist Thomas Hart Benton-
“I am primarily concerned with the condition of Man.” –Jack Levine, American Social Realist painter and printmaker (1915-2010)
EXHIBITION: Labor and New Deal Art, at the Massillon Museum THROUGH JUNE 2, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon www.massillonmuseum.org
Here’s a hearty Thank You to the students at Youngstown State University who created this wholly impressive travelling print exhibit. I include here a paragraph from the Massillon Museum web page about the show:
“The exhibition is held in commemoration of last year's 75th anniversary of the Little Steel Strike of 1937—the epic labor struggle that stretched across the Great Lakes industrial corridor from Northeast Ohio to South Chicago. Detailing the history of this turbulent event is a banner exhibit created by students at Youngstown State University.” Click on this link for the entire background statement - http://www.massillonmuseum.org/116
More than a commemoration of a singularly important event, however, this gathering of 55 largely black-and-white prints (including etchings, wood engravings and lithographs) is a collectively powerful vision of Depression-era ethos from artists who experienced it directly. And on a strictly formal level, most of these multi-styled representational renderings (nothing here in the way of non-objective abstraction) are masterfully composed as well as technically stunning.
Particularly compelling here is the range of narratives - the thematic/ideological content. Yes, these mixed images of grand industrial development and blighted rural life are inextricably entwined with often tragic dramas of economic, political and social turmoil that defined a specific chapter in American history. But the overarching emotional impact of this art – its searing vocabulary of societal angst - is a haunting one. It’s a resonance still evident today in the volatile state of affairs not just in America, but globally.
“The New Deal arts programs were intended to expand and strengthen cultural democracy,” we read in the exhibit statement. “Cultural democracy” is an ambiguous enough phrase to make me consider that we do indeed live, now more than ever, in a troubled democracy of cultural dichotomies: poverty and plenty, depravity and dignity, greed and grace, confrontation and celebration.
Art of the New Deal? Call it “old fashioned” art that’s taken on a sobering if not sad new relevance.
Photos (from top) – Breadline, New York, wood engraving by Claire Lieghton; Laborers with Derrick and Structural Steel, lithograph by Russell T. Limbach; Give Us This Day, lithograph by John De Martelly; The Strike, lithograph by Thomas Hart Benton