american art

from the colonial period to world war two

Ben Shahn, Miners' Wives, 1948 (Social Realism)

Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads (Mexico City version), 1934 (Social Realism)

Thomas Hart Benton, Social History of Missouri, Missouri State Capitol Building, 1935 (American Regionalism)

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930 (American Regionalism)

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

William van Alen, Chrysler Building, New York City, 1928-30 (Art Deco)

Louis Hine, Powerhouse Mechanic, 1920

american regionalism and social realism

people, terms, and concepts: the Great Depression, American Regionalism, Social Realism, the Federal Arts Project (F.A.P.), the Farm Securities Administration (F.S.A.), Art Deco, streamlining, the machine aesthetic, Harlem Renaisssance

This topic is about the visual culture of the 1930s and early 40s, and specifically about artistic responses to the Great Depression of 1929-33, when both the industrial economy and the agricultural economy were in major crisis.

•  The F.A.P. (Federal Arts Project) -- Part of F. D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ work relief programs run by the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) included direct funding for artists to produce public service posters and murals for public buildings such as post offices.

F.S.A. (Farm Security Administration) photography -- Roy Stryker commissioned photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to document the plight of farmers during the Dust Bowl.

•  The Machine Aesthetic -- starting already in the 1920s, artists such as the Precisionists began noticing the ‘beauty’ of machines and using mechanomorphic styles (geometric and precise, as though made by machine) as a way to celebrate -- or resuscitate -- America’s industrial economy.

•  Art Deco -- slick, streamlined surfaces, futuristic design, and modern materials such as Bakelite and chrome are applied to everything from buildings and trains to posters and toasters in order to stimulate consumer interest and suggest a brighter future.

•  The Heroic Worker motif -- Muscular, square-jawed, and indomitable in the face of adversity, the celebration of the blue-collar working man (and even, during WW2, working woman) is one of the most ironic but pervasive visual motifs of the 1930s, when unemployment was as high as 30%.

•  Social(ist) Realism -- Ranging in style from highly naturalistic (Diego Rivera) to somewhat modernist (Ben Shahn), this highly politicized movement criticized Industrial Capitalism and celebrated Communism as a solution to labor problems and the economic crisis.

•   American Regionalism -- See question 1 below ... .

Note that these can overlap:  Art Deco partakes of the machine aesthetic (geometric, precise, interlocking, repeated forms); and the Hine, Benton, and Rivera below are all good examples of the heroic worker motif as well as the machine aesthetic, American Regionalism, and Social Realism, respectively.

Readings:  Craven chs. 28, 29 (pp. 439-43), 31 (476-80), & 36 (543-550)

Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  The students named below will be asked to present a brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) response to their assigned question. Sometimes the works named in the question will not be in the readings, in which case you should use the concepts of the readings and lectures to analyze them independently.

Click on the names of the works to see large-scale reproductions.

1) (*Abby Thornhill*) What was American Regionalism? Describe both its typical style and its typical subject-matter in relation to Thomas Hart Benton's 1936 Social History of Missouri (Here's a slide show of the whole set of works) and Grant Wood's American Gothic (1930). How is the Regionalists' vision of America very different from that of the Modernists we examined last week?

2) (*Mingjie Cai*) What was the FSA? Discuss how the photographers employed by the FSA used ‘straight’ photography not only to factually document, but also to arouse sympathy for the plight of American farmers during the Great Dust Bowl and Depression, with special attention to Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936).

3) (*Sophia Post*) Discuss how Ben Shahn used his art as social activism, primarily calling attention to the difficult lives and unfair treatment of the working class, using his photograph photograph Rehabilitation Clients, Boone County, AR (1935) and his painting Miners' Wives (1948) as examples. Be sure to analyze the form/style of both as well as the subject matter. Which image do you think is a more effective form of social activism and why?

4) (*Clare Thomsen*) How did early-twentieth century African-American artists use art to tell their own history and define their own culture, in opposition to the way they were typically caricatured in European-American art and popular culture? Analyze Jacob Lawrence's Harriet Tubman worked as a water girl (1939-40), Malvin Gray Johnson's Negro Masks (1932), and Romare Bearden's The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism (1964) as examples, paying particular attention to style/form as well as subject matter.

Jacob Lawrence, Migration of the Negro series, panel 3 of 59, 1940-41