Art from the Great Depression resonates today.
American history from the late 1920s through the 1930s is remembered as a time of upheaval, sparked by the Stock Market crash of 1929 and its aftermath. It was a period when devastation swept across the country as people lost money, went hungry and lacked employment. Artists, coming to grips with their new reality, responded to the events taking place and explored many aspects of American life through various subjects and styles. Indeed, the plurality of artistic voices during these post-Depression years point to an experimental decade in American art.
“America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s” at the Art Institute of Chicago captures this spirit. The financial impact of the 1929 Stock Market crash is well known. But the assortment of artwork produced during this period reflects the subjective impact: reactions and attitudes toward cultural, economical and political changes of the day.
The show starts with a bang by radiating a powerful message: the strength of America. It is a point made clear by Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting, “Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue;” its patriotic colors radiate with American pride. The show’s many industrial scenes add to the fervor. Some artists embraced the changes taking place, such as the move towards cities and manufacturing. Charles Sheeler’s “Classic Landscape” depicts the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant, which manufactured the company’s Model A car. The subject and clean aesthetic — geometric shapes and crisp lines — imply a recovered and prosperous America.
The exhibition also suggests that not everyone saw hope in America during the 1930s. Alice Neel shows the taxing reality of life during the Great Depression. Her painting, “Pat Whalen,” stands in sharp contrast to the pristine industrial scenes. Visible signs of stress — bloodshot eyes, furrowed brows and clenched fists atop of a newspaper — reveal the angst of the day. At the same time, some Regionalist artists seemed unable to part with the past and portrayed utopian visions of rural life. Thomas Hart Benton’s “Cradling Wheat” depicts men working in lush, rolling fields. It optimistically suggests an abundance of food and work, which lacked during the Great Depression years.
A highlight of the show is its thematic organization, such as “urban entertainments.” Contributions from Archibald J. Motley, Reginald Marsh and Paul Cadmus, among others, showcase how people detached themselves from economic woes, spending leisure time shopping, dancing, eating, going to the theater and thinking. These cheerful scenes are a striking juxtaposition to the paintings governed by the theme “dystopian visions.” Scenes of chaos and destruction point to anxiety and uncertainty felt at home and abroad. The museum contextualizes the situation, explaining that the rise of Fascism, racial tension and inequality were among the fears of the day.
America recovered from this disastrous decade. But its lasting impact resonates today, as the country faces another fearful time characterized by social, racial and political divides. This exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to see how early 20th century artists dealt with a wave of change during the Great Depression years, and gives visitors hope for America’s future in the 21st century. A time of despair inspired great creativity in the arts.
“America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s” is on show at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 18, 2016.