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Depressed state

Home is where the Thomas Hart Benton is

It's hard to imagine a time like the Depression era, when next to economic devastation also came one of the biggest boons to the arts in American history.

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In the face of terrible hardship, a popular art movement was born employing a range of artists, including some of the most significant of the 20th century who often clarified national identity through their images.

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It was, as the text accompanying Coming Home: American Paintings 1930-1950 at the Georgia Museum of Art declares of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, "a period when the federal government actually promoted a national culture."

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Coming Home captures this unique, definitive period in American history from the Wall Street crash of 1929 through the conclusion of WWII, incorporating a range of artists. There are individual images by well-known social realist artists like Ben Shahn and Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton and a wealth of less familiar ones too, often adapting the avant-garde techniques of Salvador Dali, Picasso and Giorgio De Chiricio to the American landscape in remarkable ways. Especially haunting is "For National Defense" (1940) by Dorr Bothwell, which uses dreamlike, surrealist imagery to show the devastating impact of a bullet for a fallen WWII airman.

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The work is wildly diverse, offering both tender and saccharine visions of nationhood.

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There is the reassuring Regionalism of bucolic Midwestern landscapes and Georgia artist Lamar Dodd's sand dunes.

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At the other extreme, there are also brutal critiques of American institutions. In William Gropper's bitterly satirical "The Incumbent" (1938), for instance, Congress is presided over by a shriveled, nearly toothless, bellowing senator who has held onto his position well into irrelevancy.

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There are vivid depictions of quotidian misery, like John Langley Howard's "Hooverville" (1933), featuring a nearly apocalyptic vista of the kind of shantytowns that sprung up in the wake of Depression-era homelessness and unemployment.

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Skies tend to reflect that twofold perspective, ranging from a resplendent blue to glorify nobly laboring workers and abundant wheat fields. But just as often, skies turn a roiling, vicious gray as in works such as "The Hitchhiker" (1940) by John O'Neil in which a man waits at the roadside for the ride that will carry him out of his grim, broken town.

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For every remarkable work, there is a mediocre one. Some may wonder if Depression audiences ever screamed "uncle!" over one more landscape of undulating hills, heroically idealized farm life and Frederick Remington cowpokes surveying their wondrous spreads of mesas and cacti. It is clear that along with the critiques of American life came often simplistic celebrations that rival the worst strains of Soviet Socialist Realism. More dramatic than such national myth building is James Chapin's pasty boxer in "A Prize Fighter and His Manager" (1930) whose shrunken eyes and broken nose give a personal face to the kind of beaten-up plight of American workers.

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Perhaps the most memorable works in Coming Home capture the age of their creation, but contain powerful connections to our own. Jerry Bywaters' oil painting "Texas Subdivision" (1938) rivals any contemporary conceptual photograph for its pungent evisceration of unchecked American growth. The image of a barren Texas plain where a cheerily red, white and blue office and billboard promise a suburban utopia-to-come that illustrates the widening gap between what the American dream promised and what it could deliver.

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There is the impression that in the midst of so much economic hardship came a rise in advertising's narcotic promises.

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What several of the works in Coming Home identify is a strange parallel, where the worlds of advertising and art may have in some ways shared a similar agenda, offering a vision of comfort and solidarity that may have been inaccessible in daily life.

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But unlike advertising, which denies the uglier dimensions of the world, art both promised the best and reflected the worst of what America could be.



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