Depression Art

The Georgia Museum of Art on the UGA campus in Athens is presenting a panel discussion this Friday night at 6 about art created during – and in response to — the Depression. And to be perfectly clear, I mean the economic catastrophe that began with the stock market crash of 1929 and sucked at our nation’s lifeblood throughout the 1930s, not the current “Great Recession” from which we appear to be emerging.

It should be a thought-provoking evening. The moderator, Dr. Paul Manoguerra, the museum’s chief curator, is well-schooled in Depression-era art. So are his guests, Jonathan Stuhlman, curator of American art at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, and Amanda Mobley Guenther, associate curator of Nebraska’s Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art. And the museum has no shortage of notable pieces for show-and-tell.

Even if you can’t attend Friday’s free event, it’s worth a pilgrimage to the museum’s redmodeled and expanded galleries to look at such humbling works as John Langley Howard’s painting “Hooverville, 1933,” William Gropper’s “The Last Cow” and Clare Leighton’s wood engraving “Bread Line, New York, 1932.” Leighton’s work is on extensive display at the moment, as are paintings of Midwestern farm life in the 1930s by Dale Nichols, an artist and illustrator nearly as popular in his heyday as Norman Rockwell.

These pieces and others at the museum are stark reminders that there’s really no comparison between then and now, our high unemployment numbers and foreclosures notwithstanding. The Depression mercilessly pummeled a population that was much poorer to begin with. Poverty has been redefined upwards since those bleakest of times. Almost any night, one evening newcast or another spotlights a hard-hit family whose clothes and furniture and cell phone and TV set would have been marks of undreamed-of luxury in 1936.

The one area in which we surely have the 1930s beat is in our poverty of rhetoric. We are an oratorical dust bowl.

“Tenements” by O. Louis Guglielmi. Georgia Museum of Art, The University of Georgia; University purchase.
“Tenements” by O. Louis Guglielmi. Georgia Museum of Art, The University of Georgia; University purchase.

Doubt that? Seek out another piece on view at the Georgia Museum, a 1939 oil painting by O. Louis Guglielmi titled “Tenements.” Guglielmi, who had known dire poverty himself as a child, was a champion of the underdog. He has been labeled both a Social Realist and a “Magic” Realist. Either suits “Tenements.” It’s an arresting work, a portrait of a blocky, artless tenement building with surrealistic touches: pastel touch-ups, a huge flowered wreath swinging incongruously from its roof, chunks of fallen masonry strewn around its foundation like coffins.

Guglielmi painted “Tenements” in literal response to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second inaugural address, delivered in early 1937. The Georgia Museum includes the pertinent passages from FDR’s speech in the annotation posted to alongside the canvas.

Read Roosevelt’s words (below) and weep. Read them and be inspired. Read them and wonder why neither our current President nor the Republican contenders determined to unseat him never seem to rise to the level of Roosevelt, the patrician Roosevelt, in eloquence or undeniable empathy:

“But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.

I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the Nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

If I know aught of the spirit and purpose of our Nation, we will not listen to Comfort, Opportunism, and Timidity. We will carry on.

Overwhelmingly, we of the Republic are men and women of good will; men and women who have more than warm hearts of dedication; men and women who have cool heads and willing hands of practical purpose as well. They will insist that every agency of popular government use effective instruments to carry out their will.

Government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people. It can make constant progress when it keeps abreast of all the facts. It can obtain justified support and legitimate criticism when the people receive true information of all that government does.

If I know aught of the will of our people, they will demand that these conditions of effective government shall be created and maintained. They will demand a nation uncorrupted by cancers of injustice and, therefore, strong among the nations in its example of the will to peace.

Today we reconsecrate our country to long-cherished ideals in a suddenly changed civilization. In every land there are always at work forces that drive men apart and forces that draw men together. In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people.”

Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.

  1. A fine program that I wish I could attend. A related exhibition remains in many old buildings like post offices with murals painted under the auspices of New Deal programs like the WPA. I’ve yet to see any that were less than stunning.

    1. Noel Holston

      Makes me wonder (shudder) what will happen to WPA murals if they’re in P.O.’s marked for closing come March.

  2. I wish I lived closer. Good piece. I can’t help but recall the moving photos and narrative James Agee and Walker Evans preserved for us all in  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Look at the faces in that book and you’ll see the empty eyes of true hunger, poverty, and despair. And yet they moved onward.

  3. Well, Roosevelt was wrong, probably because the likes of Romney are not able to attend.  Moreover, it was fine to speak of popular government at a time when the majority of the people had no access to the vote, most were not able to read and write (even today up to 35% are functionally illiterate) and our sovereign office holders held all important information close.  It’s fine to promote something that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance; harder to comply with habeas corpus and FOIA and governors actually going to jail. Then the patricians have to rethink their commitment to populism.

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