Saturday, 7 March 2009
American scenes and the WPA
When visiting art galleries in my teens, I used to dash past small, dingy prints for the lush expanses of oil on canvas. There were exceptions: I recall an exhibition of Durer which fascinated me and the Henry Moore lithographs for Auden poems - lovely to look at if not quite belonging to the poems that inspired them. Even now, I expect less of prints than of gaudy paintings so the touring exhibition The American Scene was a revelation.
I was reminded of the work of print-making - the various intricate methods from woodcuts to etching and engraving - which require the marriage of craft skills with inspiration. And in an exhibition in which most works were in shades of grey or brown, I soon realised how much variety, detail and texture could be achieved in a small space. Prints are also a more democratic form of art than the one-off big canvases. Public buildings that can never afford an original oil painting can display prints which convey the artist's work better than muddy reproductions. I began to understand why so many American artists had spent time learning to cut, etch and engrave.
The prints in this exhibition, made from the beginning of the 20th century to the early 1950s, are also a history of American life in miniature. There are cityscapes that still look like an imagined future and rural scenes from an age when electricity had not yet reached the remote farmlands. Grant Wood's print Sultry Night was judged obscene by the U.S. postal services for its depiction of a nude man. But what I see in the print is the farm-worker's exhaustion after a day's work in the draining heat. With no running water, he cools down by going to the horse-trough and tipping buckets of water over his aching body.
Violence and war are recurrent themes but despite the artists' shared love of their country there's no consistent approach. Sometimes, as in a print of a boxing match, it's hard to tell how we are expected to respond. War is both a source of pain and a matter for celebration. One print echoes Picasso's Guernica while another enjoys the geometric patterning of U.S. bombing aircraft. But to my surprise, the prints responding to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed nothing of the triumphalism that was the initial public reaction - the artists could imagine the victims.
Many of the prints from the 1930s and early 1940s were produced under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, which funded public works including artistic projects. WPA-funded prints could be sent to schools, libraries and public offices, fulfilling the WPA's double purpose of employing the unemployed (the artists and print-makers) and benefiting communities across America through the hard years of the Depression. But the WPA had its own aesthetic, as the exhibition notes made clear. Realism was favoured over abstraction and experimentalism was discouraged.
The WPA's preference for the figurative is disappointing. For me, the figurative prints that work best in the exhibition are those which suggest a mystery, whether its a wider, undisclosed story in the works of Edward Hopper and Martin Lewis or the terrifying enigmas of John Ward McClellan. Untutored audiences can respond to "difficult" abstraction - even the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock - so long as they aren't intimidated by overly obscure notes and allowed to experience their own responses.
My personal favourites in the exhibition were a sequence of plates with text by Louise Bourgeois with the title "He Disappeared into Complete Silence." The text heightens the mystery of the illustrations. There's a book, apparently, but it's out of stock at Amazon. One day, perhaps, it will return. Perhaps it will re-appear in time for Christmas. Or perhaps it's disappeared forever, as mysteriously as the tales it nearly tells.