The Last Cow, a Dust Bowl scene, and Southern Landscape and The Cradle Will Rock, presenting mob and lynching scenes, are conspicuously at variance with the pictorial methods of some of the revolutionary propagandists. There is no play upon the sense of horror, no reveling in macabre detail, such as was seen typically in Georges Schreiber's Unknown Soldier, nationally exhibited in 1930. This picture was a realistic reproduction of the piled-up details of physical death, intended to make war intolerable, but more successfully belittling the dignity of all human life as seen from a grossly materialistic point of view. It suggested the sadism of the CounterReformation artist Domenichino, in the Martyrdom of St. Agnes, of which a critic wrote, "I thought I had never seen anything so powerful, and I wished I had not seen it at all."
Clarity and restraint are qualities of Gropper's painting. By some intuition, his color appears often as an instrument of plastic expressiveness and as a key to the emotional tone of the theme at the same time. Some of the scenes are in somber, sulphurous greenish yellows and browns; but in a mural, Wine Festival, commissioned by a liquor manufacturer, he produced one of the gayest and most vivid records of the folkways of workers close to the soil to be seen in contemporary painting.
"My conception of the artist's function," Gropper says, "is to be aware of the life and conditions of the times, and to portray his experiences sincerely and to the best of his ability without fear or compromise. The artist should at all times be progressive in his ideas, and fight against reactionary groups who are fascist and who would destroy art or expression in any form. I think the artist has come through a transition period of abstract art, and has, especially during the depression, come face to face with the realities of life. The Government has given him a new lease on life and has been largely responsible for the creation of a new art public. Young artists are painting the social scene. With the complex society of our times, with science, electricity, radio, capitalism, fascism, wars, and the Big Apple, the artist cannot sit in his ivory tower any longer painting still-life pictures."
Philip Evergood, also born in New York (in 1901), and educated in England, has an unusual flair for pictorial effects and a sense of the ludicrous, sometimes resembling that of Marsh but sympathetic and often laughter-provoking. He likes to use thin bright paint, oil or water color, and to present everyday people in crowds, adroitly organized and shown in all their slyly observed peculiarities of appearance and behavior. Street Corner ( 1937) and Music ( 1938) belong to this group, as does a painting, Art on the Beach, in the permanent collection of the Australian National Gallery in Melbourne. Social Security, which is reproduced, is more akin to Gropper's work.
In this painting, the eye is carried into the scene along lines of bent and decrepit figures that move in the aimless processionals of the old. The starkly bare trees, even the desolated ground scarred by dragging feet--everything contributes to the pictorial unity that is focused where the hastening personage in top hat and spats appears. The eye travels along diverse lines beyond him, only to be brought back to this point for the emphasis and the meaning. Evergood was awarded the Kohnstamm prize by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1935. He is represented in the Brooklyn Museum, the Denver Art Museum, and other public galleries of this country. He was president of the Artists Union when it joined the CIO.
Joe Jones of Missouri, painter of wheat fields and field workers, painter of social-protest murals that are now under lock and key in Arkansas and of others that are in public institutions, is a genius.
Joe Jones, still under thirty, arrived practically unassisted at the place where his work was hung in the Metropolitan Museum and in other public and private collections, from beginnings made in obscure and painful poverty in the slums of St. Louis. His fine mastery of color organization has been realized most completely in outdoor scenes painted under direct, bright light. He sometimes achieves a strong and simple compositional unity in paintings representing the Workingclass struggle. American Justice, a lynching scene with hooded Ku Klux Klan figures, is one of these. After the success of his pictures of wheat fields (including the one that is now in the Metropolitan) his friends warned him that his work was becoming too "slick," and he went home and painted a loathsome negro prostitute. "That's us," he told his New York representative. "We all prostitute ourselves." Some of his work, always intensely sincere and purposeful, is immature and sentimental, but his accomplishment as an artist is already notable, and gives rich promise of achievements yet to be made.
Nicolai Cikovsky (born 1894), like Joe Jones, is conspicuously stronger as an artist when he is not consciously working as a propagandist. Cikovsky was born in Wisconsin and lives in Washington, D.C. His painting range is wide, and he is responsible for sensitive and competent work in still-life studies, landscapes, and interpretive figure paintings. In the landscapes there is a quality of combined strength and delicacy suggesting, as in the Cranbury Lake, John Twachtman's approach. In the portrait studies of young women, in the Girl before a Mirror (in the Metropolitan Museum) and even more in the later Girl in Green (which suggests the work of Carl Hofer), there are strength and distinction. "The trend towards reality, revolutionary content, and emancipation from Paris influences towards a pure American style, I consider an important development," he says. "I believe the future of American art will be more closely identified with the working class; that it will tend to the realistic and will gradually evolve more and more of its own form as well as its content."
The three Soyer brothers, Raphael, Isaac, and Moses, are competent painters. Raphael Soyer produces finely realized studies of fife in New York City, including interiors with figure groups, and crowded streets. Under the Bridge is an example. Moses often paints his wife and child, his home and neighborhood, with fidelity to the truths of character. The work of Isaac Soyer is similar, though his subjects are oftener socially conscious.
Maurice Becker (born 1889) has painted continuously, achieving the power to create works of distinction. His color is rich and sensuous and is often applied densely to underpainted surfaces, where it gleam with Byzantine brightness. Like many men trained in positions where their work must be produced under the pressure of daily deadlines, he is a masterly draughtsman. Much of his painting, done over a long period, measures to the standard of museum art and deserves wider recognition than it has yet received. He paints "with the love of mankind and the good life at heart," and in the faith that "the future of American art is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the American people."
Stefan Hirsch has written a statement of his credo that admirably represents the changing attitudes and sympathies of large numbers of painters: "I believe in living in full awareness of the life around me in all its manifestations, in making choices and taking sides in the struggles of which I have become aware; I believe in a continuity of the tradition in art and that therefore it is my business to acquire the technical skills embodied in the tradition; I believe that the interaction of living awareness and plastic skill in the artist will result in works that have both meaning and the power to project this meaning. I do not believe in eclecticism, nor in pigeon-holing such as 'thick paint is bourgeois.' I do believe, however, that the community of purpose of a group based on realistic social tendencies will produce a true 'style,' just as different and similar in its individual manifestations as Renoir and Manet."
He adds: "I believe that the mural-mindedness created by the Mexicans and publicized by a few Americans gave the WPA project a large part of its artistic raison d'être. The mural is apt to be essentially public property and the mural projects forced artists to think of their art in terms of art consumption, which I think is the healthiest thing that has happened since the Armory Show, which was after all a twoedged sword for art. It is true that no particularly 'great' art has come from the WPA; it is true that it has cut the ground from under the feet of the 'arrived' artists; but with its offspring, the artists' unions and the Artists Congress, it has made the artists conscious of their precarious position in society and has started them off to think about it, even those who do not belong to any of these organizations."
The change in style in the work of this painter, since his Cubist days, is apparent in privately commissioned murals which he has recently executed for the auditorium of the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association, New York. Here, the spirit of mass recreation has been captured and given embodiment in a series of panels that are distinguished for the originality of their strong nonnaturalistic designs and for variety and animation of the scenes.
Mervin Jules, a young man and one of the promising contributors to modernist painting within the ranks of the socially conscious, says: "I feel that without an adequate art form the power of the artist's message is lost, therefore my preoccupation with problems of form. Today, if one is alive, and is a creative individual, he will reflect the conflict that goes on everywhere in the world. My only hope is that I, in some way, express the optimism I feel concerning the outcome."
In summary: socially conscious art until 1935 had the character of a belligerent social protest and was used as an instrument in a rapidly widening workers' struggle for power. Since 1935, influences in national and international life have given it the character of New Deal art, with Peace, Culture, and Democracy as its slogan. Although much of the total output is shallow, materialistic, and self-assertive, there is a spreading conviction among artists that the issues both in art and in life are extremely serious and call for a spirit of cooperation.
In the years 1925-1935, then, artists concentrated their attention upon aspects of American life. In the kaleidoscopic array of paintings that resulted, of skyscraper construction, shipbuilding activities, mine disasters, strip-tease shows, country kitchens, broken-down Fords; in the scenes of work and play, birth and death, baptisms and funerals among people of all kinds--with emphasis upon "common" kinds--we have a product which was not primarily intended to further a new plastic tradition, or any tradition of art, but to establish the use of the American subject.
Much of it was produced in revolt against modern French influences. There was the familiar artist attitude that, having tired of cold and formal exercises, the individual had determined to return to painting from his experience in the actual world, which was a confession that the true meaning of abstract art had not been grasped and a suggestion that even the meaning of art and of a consistent tradition was being overlooked.
There was the other familiar attitude that art had emerged from its ivory tower to serve society once more; which, unfortunately, often meant simply that sentimental and melodramatic picture making of wide popular appeal was enjoying a vogue.
The important fact is, however, that as a result of the activities which surrounded and included this prodigious output we have today a large body of painting that is sufficiently original and distinctive to be called American and that is sufficiently informed with a contemporary aesthetic content to be called modern. In other words, as a result of a decade of activity on the part of American seekers of new subject traditions, however various, following the decade of plastic experimentation with which modern art established itself in America, we have one conspicuous part of American modernism.