Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 22, 2008
Alejandro Anreus, Diana L. Linden, and Jonathan Weinberg, eds. The Social and the Real: Political Art of the 1930s in the Western Hemisphere University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 384 pp.; 97 b/w ills. Paper $50.00 (027102691X)

As “the first anthology to deal with the painting, sculpture, graphic arts, and photography of the 1930s in a hemispheric context” (xiii), this ambitious collection of fourteen essays makes a significant contribution to the vigorous literature of this seminal decade. While more than half of the volume is focused on the United States, articles take a Pan-American approach in considering work from Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, and Canada. The inclusion of Latin America and the Caribbean with North America reveals remarkable cross-cultural commonalities that remind the reader that the borders demarcating the countries where these artists worked were more political than aesthetic. Cultural nationalism was another distinctive international discussion throughout this period. Rather than define specific characteristics of national identity (a slippery endeavor in multiethnic societies), the authors focus on “intrahemispheric exchange and artistic production” (xiv), and challenge “the dominant modernist paradigm that sees art of the Americas as solely indebted and subservient to European Art” (xiv).

That modernism was as much an attitude as a style meant abstraction was not necessarily at odds with social realism. These essays demonstrate how making art that “responded directly to the political and social issues of the times” (xiv) was in itself an act of modernity. The editorial stance is emphatically political (as was that of the artists whose work they consider), and they frankly acknowledge “the economic, military, and cultural imperialism of the United States” (xv). Sparked by the Depression, artists embraced social engagement, and the flashpoints of politics and art give a contemporary edge to this history, as they remain hotly contested topics of current public discourse. Class and labor are important themes, along with “how the representation of race, gender, and sexuality operates within the visual culture of the period” (xviii).

Some of the articles were written specifically for The Social and the Real, while others were revised from previously published material. They are organized within a thematic matrix into five broad topics that suggest the issues of central concern to the authors: “Representing the Nation: Reality and Authenticity,” “Men, Manhood, and the Male Body,” “Labor and Labor Conflict,” “Voices on the Margins,” and “Extending the Discourse.” An introduction positions the essays that follow. Several are studies of single artists, while others focus on either a particular country or theme.

In “Signifying the Real: Documentary Photography in the 1930s,” Alan Trachtenberg succinctly tackles a topic about which there is a vast and variable literature, and considers how photographers working for the Farm Security Administration both documented and defined American cultural values during a period when it was not always easy to distinguish between the real and the artful.

Juan A. Martinez explores the relationships between left-wing ideology and politics in “Social and Political Commentary in Cuban Modernist Painting of the 1930s.” Like the Mexican muralists, Cuba’s artists were “socially oriented” and “revolutionary” (25) in their portrayals of peasants, “the Afro-Cuban, the industrial worker,” and national heroes (xix). His essay balances well with Mary Coffey’s “The ‘Mexican Problem’: Nation and ‘Native’’ in Mexican Muralism and Cultural Discourse,” in which she considers a group of artists who remain “synonymous with national populism” (43). How to negotiate an elitist art practice within the context of post-revolutionary discourse proved difficult to resolve. The literature on the work of the Mexican muralists in the United States is considerable, and Anthony Lee, in “Workers and Painters: Social Realism and Race in Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals,” shows how those who “claimed inspiration from him” (202) utilized “competing, indeed contradictory, social realisms” (202) in their work.

Canadian art during this period is the subject of two lively essays. Marilyn McKay’s “Canadian Political Art in the 1930s: ‘A Form of Distancing’” discusses work produced in a country with a small, conservative population whose art was long defined by the “repressive clericalism” (71) of the French Catholic church. Further, “there were no federal art programs in Canada, like those in the United States and Mexico” (79), to unify a nation geographically dispersed, and divided into English and French sectors. Most Canadian artists of the 1930s were landscape painters, and those that were not addressed social and political concerns more covertly than their contemporaries: “In such an environment, art tended to be uncritical of social, economic, and political problems” (72). McKay’s consideration contrasts with "‘Come Out from Behind the Pre-Cambrian Shield’: The Politics of Memory and Identity in the Art of Paraskeva Clark,” in which Natalie Luckyj focuses on a Russian immigrant who “was one of a small number of Canadians who publicly challenged the nation’s wholesale rejection of political art” (223). Clark was a fascinating, socially-liberated individual who did not hide an extramarital affair from her husband, who continued to be supportive of his wife. As a “mother, wife, society matron, artist, socialist, communist supporter, and immigrant” (240), her engagement with contemporary issues was negotiated through a lens of gender, class, and ethnicity.

“Adapting to Argentinean Reality: The New Realism of Antonio Berni” by Alejandro Anreus presents an artist of “socially engaged figuration” (97) whose images of tenant farmers, unemployment, and demonstrations will be remarkably familiar to scholars of art of the United States. His essay parallels that of Patricia Hills, who in “Art and Politics in the Popular Front: The Union Work and Social Realism of Philip Evergood,” considers another politically active social realist who, in his art, made a “sharp critique of capitalist society” (188). Like their Latin American counterparts, Evergood and his contemporaries had connections to many left-leaning organizations, including the American Communist Party (CPUSA), the American Artists’ Congress, the Artists Union, and the John Reed Clubs. Evergood is one of several artists who figure prominently in Andrew Hemingway’s “Between Zhdanovism and 57th Street: Artists and the CPUSA, 1945–1956.” By summarizing the historical intersections between communism and culture, he gives context to the political realignment of leftist artists in the post-World War II era.

The editors acknowledge that, “The visual culture of social realism was in large measure a masculine enterprise” (xx), an issue considered by Jonathan Weinberg in “I Want Muscle: Male Desire and the Image of the Worker in American Art of the 1930s.” Although the male worker is a defining period icon, many scholars have sidestepped the homoerotic hyper-masculinity characteristic of many of the images, in which desire broadly references sex as much as power.

The work of two African American painters is the subject of “Making History: Malvin Gray Johnson’s and Earle W. Richardson’s Studies for Negro Achievement” by Jacqueline Francis. She reconstructs a series of unrealized Public Works Administration Project murals for a Harlem library known only through studies. The artists, who were also lovers and who both died young, made “figural representations of black exceptionalism and leadership mapped across the symbolic terrain of the African Diaspora” (135). Race is also the theme of the oldest article in the anthology, Marlene Park’s “Lynching and Anti-Lynching: Art and Politics in the 1930s,” first published in 1993. Lynching, incidents of which increased during the post-Civil War era, became a subject for Harlem Renaissance writers during the 1920s, and for visual artists during the 1930s. In 1935, responding to the widespread outrage regarding the Scottsboro boys, both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Communist Party’s John Reed Club mounted contemporaneous art exhibitions.

During the decades before World War II, many Jews were engaged by radical politics, and in “Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene,” Diana Linden questions whether Jewishness was “a religion, a race, a culture, or an ethnicity” (241) for the artist, and what this meant in his life and art. Shahn explored Jewish themes “in the hope of effecting positive change for his community and country” (257).

Sally Stein’s “The President’s Two Bodies: Stagings and Restagings of the New Deal Body Politic” is a fascinating exploration of a president who, though crippled with polio since 1921, presented a vigorous image to the nation through his canny use of radio and automobile. A complicit media effectively masked his disability, permitting a vibrant voice to emanate from a “guarded body” (289). As he could “command authority without standing” (294), he was able to maintain “the semblance of physical autonomy” that was “essential to his public acceptance” (294). The politics of disability played out in telling ways in the FDR Memorial, a commission not completed until 1997.

While a volume like this can only suggest the broader topic, several absences are notable. Of the vastness of South America, only Argentina is considered. What of Brazil, which had a lively modernist community? The two articles on Canada are especially welcome as more attention has been paid to art produced south of the United States border, and Canada remains largely unfamiliar territory to many Americanist scholars. For art of the United States, the editors have otherwise taken an emphatically Eastern-centric stance. Although Trachtenberg discusses Dorothea Lange’s famed Migrant Mother, its familiarity as the iconic photograph of the Depression makes it more of a sacred text than a West Coast referent. Given that the Mexican Muralists were aesthetic catalysts in California, the lack of discussion of any significant political art west of New York City is surprising. Nevertheless, The Social and the Real is exemplary revisionist art history written with verve and insight.

Betsy Fahlman
Professor of Art History, School of Art, Arizona State University