The socially engaged realist art produced during the Depression under Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project — depicting home and farm, city and factory, landscape and people — has gotten a raw deal. Cold War political conservatives, eliding social with socialist, denounced it as anti-American (Rep. George Dondero, R-MI, branded modern art a communist plot!). Likewise, art radicals preaching the postwar gospel of abstraction mocked its realism and its accessibility, Arshile Gorky’s “Poor art for poor people” being the pithiest of those dismissals. Social realism’s subsequent neglect by capitalist culture has lasted three generations. With the collapse of our economy two years ago, however, social content is newly relevant; and with the collapse of modernist dogma a generation ago, realist form no longer seems stylistically regressive. The American Scene: New Deal Art 1935-1943, curated by Carrie Lederer of The Bedford Gallery and Harvey Smith of the National New Deal Preservation Association, features works in a variety of media by some 75 artists who worked in the Bay Area. This assembling of little-seen works from local museums, galleries, and private collections should not be missed by art or history buffs, young or old. The FAP’s aim “to hold a mirror up to the country, to open a dialogue about what [is] going on” is as timely now as then.
The usual art suspects — Beniamino Bufano, Pele DeLappe, Claire Falkensttein, John Langley Howard, Reuben Kadish, Dong Kingman, Dorothea Lange (whose “Migrant Mother” photo is now an icon of the desperate 1930s), Erle Loran, John Haley, Ann Rice O’Hanlon, Mine Okubo, Emmy Lou Packard, Anton Refregier, Diego Rivera, Jacques Schnier, Ben Shahn, Raphael Soyer, Clay Spohn, Glenn Wessels, Bernard Zakheim — are of course well-represented. Less-familiar delights include: Julius Bloch‘s powerful, somber, dignified lithographs (“The Prisoner,” “Battle Casualty,” and “Young American”); Blanche Grambs‘ darkly Rouaultesque “Miner’s Head;” Milton Hebald‘s cubist bronze relief, “Family at Table;” Domenico Moretellito‘s B. Altman war bond murals and his oil, “Mover;” Otis Oldfield‘s depictions of the 1936 construction of the Bay Bridge; Walter Quirt‘s cubo-surrealist landscape with strange denizens, “Obeisance to Poverty;” and Herman Volz‘s study of life on the job, dockside, “Lunch Time.”
FDR wrote: “Our soldiers and sailors are … free individuals … farmers and workers, professional men, artists, clerks. … They are the United States of America. That is why they fight. We, too, are the United States of America. That is why we must work and sacrifice.” The sign in one Lange photograph warns: “This is your country. Don’t let the big men take it away from you.” The American Scene runs through December 19 at Bedford Gallery (1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek). 925-295-1417 or BedfordGallery.org