How American Artists Responded to the Tumult of the 1930s ~ ‘Art for the Millions’ at The Met

 

 

 

Stuart Davis, Men and Machine (Painting: Oil on canvas, 32 × 40 in. (81.3 × 101.6 cm)) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jay R. Kraus, 1981 (1981.406) © 2023 Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The 1930s was a decade of political and social upheaval in the United States, and the art and visual culture of the time reflected the unsettled environment. Americans searched for their cultural identity during the Great Depression, a period marked by divisive politics, threats to democracy, and intensified social activism, including a powerful labor movement. Featuring more than 100 works from The Met collection and several lenders, Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s explores how artists expressed political messages and ideologies through a range of media, from paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs to film, dance, decorative arts, fashion, and ephemera. Highlights include paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, and Stuart Davis; prints by Elizabeth Olds, Dox Thrash, and Riva Helfond; photographs by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange; footage of Martha Graham’s dance Frontier; and more. The exhibition is on view September 7 through December 10, 2023.

Installation view of Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s, on view September 7 ~ December 10, 2023 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Richard Lee, courtesy of The Met.

“American artists witnessed astounding hardships in the 1930s and responded fervently,” said Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and CEO. “As the nation confronts similar issues of political polarization and widening inequality today, this insightful exhibition serves as a poignant reminder of how artists then, like now, used their craft to connect with audiences, take action, and illuminate social ills. This presentation also brings to the fore women artists and artists of color who were often shut out of the mainstream art world.”

Image: Elizabeth Olds (American, 1896–1991). Miner Joe, 1942. Screenprint. 16 1/2 x 12 1/4 in. (41.9 x 31.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum Accession, transferred from the Lending Library Collection (64.500.1) © The Estate of Elizabeth Olds

Allison Rudnick, Associate Curator of Drawings and Prints, said: “While visual culture in the United States has always been suffused with ideology, cultural production in the 1930s is notable for representing an exceptional range of social and political messages. Every visual medium—from prints to film to fashion—played a role in transmitting these messages to millions of Americans. The works provide a unique framework for understanding a fraught and fascinating decade, one that mirrors today’s world in many ways.”

Installation view, Art for the Millions. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Exhibition Overview

The exhibition is made possible by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and The Schiff Foundation.

Organized thematically across three galleries, the exhibition provides an unprecedented overview of the sociopolitical landscape of the United States during the 1930s.

Dox Thrash (American, 1893-196), Untitled (Strike), ca. 1940. Watercolor. 17 1/8 in x 12 in (43.5 x 30.5 cm), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Museum Purchase

The dire unemployment situation during the Depression galvanized many Americans to take up communist and socialist causes. Protests, demonstrations, and strikes erupted across the country, and in response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration established the WPA, the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration). The exhibition’s first section, “Leftist Politics and Labor,” features the work of left-leaning artists who participated in the workers movement by joining artist unions and depicting laborers in their art, often using printmaking to broadcast their political beliefs to a large audience. Examples include Elizabeth Olds’s celebratory portrait of an ordinary worker, Miner Joe (The Met), and Charlie Chaplin’s parody of assembly-line work in his satirical film Modern Times. A watercolor by Dox Thrash offers a rare depiction of people of color organizing and participating in a 1930s labor strike (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), and Norman Lewis’s lithograph The Soup Kitchen (The Met) calls attention to the particularly damaging effects of the Depression on Black Americans and other marginalized groups. Artists also spread their ideological messages through illustrations in communist and socialist magazines, including  Hugo Gellert’s, William Gropper’s, and Phil Bard’s contributions to New Masses.

Installation view of Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s, on view September 7 ~ December 10, 2023 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Richard Lee, courtesy of The Met.

Many who faced unprecedented hardship during the Depression found solace and a sense of belonging and pride in their American identity. The second section, “Cultural Nationalisms,” reveals how the visual and material culture of the 1930s ultimately reflected nuanced and often conflicting stories about American identity. Some artists looked to the past, reviving historical American subjects, styles, and techniques, while others focused on the present by documenting the plight of those hit hardest by the economic downturn. Martha Graham romanticized the rural United States in her dance Frontier, while photographs by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange reveal the harsh realities that tenant farmers faced during the Depression. Charles White sought to lay the groundwork for a more inclusive narrative of the nation’s history by bringing into focus the contributions of Black Americans, as seen in his graphite study of Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington (The Newark Museum of Art) for a larger mural composition. The prevailing interest in cultural nationalism was evident in the expanded market for Indigenous American art, such as Tonita Peña’s Pueblo Parrot Dance and Velino Shije Herrera’s Deer Hunters (both from National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

Josh Binder (american, 1898-1972), New York World’s Fair, The World of Tomorrow, 1939 poster, 1939. Lithograph, 51 x 35 in. (129.5 x 88.9 cm). Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Even as the country weathered unprecedented financial strife, the United States became a world leader in technological and industrial innovation, as showcased in the third and final section, “The Promise of Progress.” The world’s fairs of the 1930s celebrated American exceptionalism and projected visions of a prosperous future. Millions of visitors experienced patriotic propaganda in exhibitions and at performances, and many more who did not attend were still exposed to it through posters, postcards, and other ephemera, such as Joseph Binder’s New York World’s Fair, The World of Tomorrow poster (Library of Congress). Augusta Savage’s 16-foot sculpture Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp), one of the most popular attractions at the New York World’s Fair but destroyed after it closed, is represented in the exhibition by a small-scale replica (New-York Historical Society). The fields of graphic, industrial, and architectural design led the way in developing aesthetic movements that emphasized advancement and modernization. Examples of streamline—the most influential design trend to originate in the United States—include Norman Bel Geddes’s “Patriot” radio, Isamu Noguchi’s “Radio Nurse” baby monitor, and Gilbert Rohde’s electric clock (all from The Met).

Installation view of Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s, on view September 7 ~ December 10, 2023 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Richard Lee, courtesy of The Met.

The phrase “art for the millions” in the exhibition’s title comes from an unpublished 1936 national report on the WPA’s Federal Art Project. Essays by participating artists and administrators were ultimately published in 1973 in what became a well-known anthology of the same name.

Designed by Norman Bel Geddes (American, 1893-1958), Manufactured by Emerson Radio and Phonograph Corp., New York, “Patriot” radio, ca. 1940, Catalin, 8 x 11 x 5 1/2 in. (20.3 x 27.9 x 14 cm), Weight: 6.6 lb. (105.589 oz). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, John C. Waddell Collection, Gift of John C. Waddell, 2001 (2001.722.11)

Credits and Related Content

Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s is curated by Allison Rudnick, Associate Curator in The Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, the catalogue is available for purchase from The Met Store.

The catalogue is made possible by the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund.

The Museum will offer a variety of related programs, including performances by dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company, a Sight and Sound concert by conductor Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now, an Artists on Artworks event featuring Chase Hall, and more. Programming details are available on The Met website.

The exhibition is featured on The Met website, as well as on social media using the hashtag #ArtForTheMillions.

Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s will be on view from September 7 to December 10, 2023 at The Met Fifth Avenue, Galleries 691-93, The Charles Z. Offin Gallery, Karen B. Cohen Gallery, and Harriette and Noel Levine Gallery.

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