Crossroads

Across the landing from House Imaginary in the old museum building was a small collection of government funded prints of the “American Scene.” This is not something I consider myself to be interested in but I always take a walk through all the galleries just in case.

I’m glad I did so. I don’t like most of these but I love what they made me think of.

First off, San José is making the argument that Federal support of the arts is not just a good thing but it’s an inherently American thing. These are important colors to nail to the mast. The importance of art, sustaining that art, and for the rest of the public to access that art is something that we’ve abandoned today. At the same time I recognize the nature of this public art and how it functions as propaganda.

Thomas Hart Benton Cradling Wheat, 1939
Thomas Hart Benton
Cradling Wheat, 1939

The specific images in the exhibition focus on American life and locations. I found them especially interesting to compare with the Mexican Modernism prints which are roughly contemporary and frequently depict similar subject matter yet feel completely different. Where the Mexican prints are explicitly anti-capitalist in their celebration of manual labor and the common worker, the American ones don’t have that edge.

Yes, they celebrate manual labor and the common worker as much as, if not more than, the Communist prints did. But the framing is one of nostalgia. Pastoral scenes have that rosy Grant Wood* idyllic pre-industrial feel. Rather than critique the way that way of life is changing the goal seems to be comfort and reassurance.

*Many of his prints are on display here.

Leon Gilmour.
Cement Finishers.

The industrial and urban prints do better. They’re frequently grittier and show a wider spectrum of life in ways that remind me of 1930s photography. The artists are clearly inspired by many of the same industrialscapes that attract photographers and the social justice cause of humanizing the laborers is also something that occurs frequently in photography of this time. Showing people living and working in the hustle and bustle of the city is a new avenue of investigation.

I’m still intrigued by the subtle differences in how some labor images read “Communist” while others read as “Capitalist.” I’m certainly aware that a lot of the federally-funded artists had communist sympathies but while I can certainly view many of these as being pro-labor, pro-communist images, they’re subtle enough that I don’t have to and, without the museum framing things this way, it’s very easy to see them as pro-development instead.

Anyway I wasn’t expecting  to have these thoughts about this show and I’m pleasantly surprised that I did.

Leon Gilmour.
Pinnacles.

The last section of the room involved landscapes and nature studies. I really liked these in part because how much they reminded me of photography and paralleled the emergence of group ƒ/64. There’s that same sense of deep crisp focus and the seduction of contrasty light. There’s the awareness of how natural views can function as abstract imagery.

I’m curious whether one medium influenced the other or if there was just something in the air at the time which resulted in everyone seeing things in similar ways.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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