Monday, April 6, 2009

Art and Realism in the Great Depression of the 1930s

Left: Alta Rock Painting, Alta, Norway

Food images in the arts are part of our centuries-old attempt to express ourselves aesthetically. From Neolithic cave walls to modern film and installation art, food images have been created either to document time, place and spiritual experience or to color characters and places, imbuing them with sensual qualities.

Food and beverage, our basic but pleasurable needs, are an affective artistic device, reminding us of our own sensual experiences: favorite childhood meals, a memorable picnic with a lover, some meager sustenance in a time of crisis, a quick drink at a unique cafe, or a long, lavish meal at a family's holiday gathering.

Left: Reginald Marsh, Ice Cream Cones, 1938. Below: Archibald Motley, The Picnic, 1936
Tasting food together at the beach, on the boardwalk or at a picnic somehow frees us to bond and to enjoy our mutual pleasurable sensations.

In the 1930s, America favored a populist Social Realism over European-engendered Abstract art, although Art Deco and Precisionism flourished. The images of Cubism, Expressionism and other non-objective styles lost their vigor and became socially irrelevant unless they captured some essence of America's struggle with progress.

Francis Criss (1901-1973) Alma Sewing, 1935 (Precisionist style of the 1930s)

(Left: Stuart Davis, Eggbeater #4, 1928, and, below Paul Kelpe, Man and Machinery,1934).

Right: Thomas Hart Benton, Politics, Farming and the Law, 1934-1936. This image is part of a large mural, the Social History of the State of Missouri.
The business and opportunities of Midwestern agricultural are hammered out in small, local cafes and the clientele are linked to banking, herds, slaughter, brewing and other means of food production.

Consider the contrast in style of these two Vogue overs, 1930 and 1937:

The U.S.government formed the Public Works of Art Project (under the Treasury Department in 1933 and widened that effort in 1935 under the WPA and the Federal Art Project (which included the Federal Music and Federal Theater Projects). Ethomusicologists recorded hundreds of jazz and folk music performers (e.g. Leadbelly and Lightening Hopkins), building America's musical tapestry towards Duke Ellington and Aaron Copeland. Other programs commissioned hundreds of artists to document and interpret American life, especially in the relatively new medium of photography and in public murals.

Perhaps best known among these artists was photo journalist Walker Evans who co-authored with writer James Agee the documentary study of southern rural life of a sharecropper's famly, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. When first published in 1941, the book was ignored or poorly received; only in its new edition, 1960, was it recognized as an American classic. The contemporary photographers, William Eggleston and William Christenberry produce similar images from today's South:

Left: Christenberry, Bread of Life, 1989

Right: William Eggleston, Peaches, near Greenville, MISS, 1973

Left:Walker Evans, Roadside Stand, Birmingham, AL, 1936

Walker Evans, Kitchen, 1939

Russell Lee, Christmas Dinner, 1936

Author Nelson Algren (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1949; film version 1955) got a commission through the Illinois Writers Project (a branch of the federal WPA) from 1936 to 1939 to document regional food traditions.
Among Algren's best topics were picnics: school picnics, Old Settlers' picnics, grange picnics, etc. but also fish frys and church suppers. America Eats was published by the University of Iowa Press. Eudora Welty and Ralph Ellison did similar work, and such studies later became standard targets for scholars, as in Barbara G. Shortridge and James R. Shortridge, eds., The Taste of American Place (1998) and Kaplan, Hoover & Moore, The Minnesota Ethnic Food Book (1986).

Berenice Abbott was another skilled photographer who documented "Changing New York, 1935-1938," followed by an exhibit and a book under that same title.

Below: Oyster Houses, South Street & Pike Slip, 1937

A&P (Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.), 246 3rd Street, 1936


Simplicity Patterns and dotted Swiss fabric were both popular in the 1930s, and some of these images would suggest some similarities.

Ruth Bernhard, Life Savers, 1930

Edward Weston, Tomato Fields, Big Sur, 1937

Ralph Steiner, Eight O'Clock Coffee, 1935

Grant Wood, Spring Turning, 1936/1937

Wood produced the famous American Gothic in 1930, referencing American portraiture and photographic techniques, and here worked in a pattern, both realistic for plowing and whimsical, perhaps quilt-like in his composition. Ironically, Benton was one of the principle art instructors for a young man named Jackson Pollock.

More Commentary from Social Realists of Different Backgrounds:

Clare Leighton
, Breadline, 1932
Leighton was a professionally-trained artist and book illustrator, born in London, England, and a Duke University university instructor with a PhD in Fine Arts.

William Gropper, The Coffee Pot, 1932 (pen and ink drawing)
The artist's social consciousness grew out of an impoverished childhood
on New York's Lower East Side where he held jobs to help his family from early on.

Socialist Realism in the USSR, 1930s:

Vladimir Gavrilovich Krikhatsky, The First Tractor, n.d. Oil paint on cardboard, 30.5 x 50 cm.

The artist was born in Kiev in 1878 and became a renown painter in the style of Socialist Realism. his heroic painting celebrates the arrival of a collective farm's first tractor, a symbol of progress in the USSR. The event is urgently needed and thus, spectacular for Stalin's program of collectivization of agriculture and industry, begun in 1928. So important was this event in the 1930s that over a half-dozen different Soviet artists painted similar pictures, all with the same title.

Sergei Vasilyevich Gerasimov, Harvest Festival, 1937
Socialist Realism as practiced in the USSR was strictly "an art for the benefit of the people." That is, it's sole function was to promote socialist ideals and to inspire labor, cooperation and sacrifice. After the death of Stalin 1953, the style slowly faded but has recently returned under the title, "Russian Impressionism."

America's Nationalistic Images:

John Steuart Curry, Our Good Earth, 1040-1941

Curry was once artist-in-residence at the College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin and much of his work reflects his observations in our Midwest. Novelist Pearl Buck published The Good Earth in 1931 and besides a Pulitzer prize, she captured the hearts and imaginations of American readers.

National Socialist Realism in Germany,1930s:

Adolf Wissel, Farm Family from Kahlenberg, 1939
An extended rural family, reflecting seriousness, industry and good
health, relaxes with coffee in a peaceful outdoor setting. Hitler approved and called this painting style"Nazi folk art." His favorite media, however, were architecture and the heroic statuary of Arno Breker.

Spain Prepares for Civil War, 1936
Surrealist painter Salvador Dali created his response to the political strife in Spain between the elected Republican government, its socialist prime minister, and The Populist Front and the monarchist/Fascist forces, the National Front led by Francisco Franco.

Premonitions of War (Soft Construction with Boiled Beans), 1936
A single human body, dismembered and grimacing, struggles to re-unite itself, simultaneously self-mutilating and self-restoring. Scattered boiled beans refer to ancient Catalan offering to appease the gods.

Italy and Rising Fascism:
One of the most highly regarded novels from this period is Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine (1936). Believing that Christianity and Socialism could unite against Mussolini's fascism, the hero masquerades as a priest, spreading his message to the oppressed masses. This is not propaganda, but 1930's literature at its best, commenting on fascism in Italy and in Spain. He received two literary awards for his writing which includes several other novels.

Mexico and Surrealist Nourishment:
Frida Kahlo produced strong, deeply personal statements about her views on nourishment and the role of mother. Ironically, she never had children of her own and continually visualized herself as the infant. In her younger years, she turned to art and virtually taught herself to painting, often specializing in self-portraits.

Below: My Nurse and I, 1937
Kahlo, Fruits of the Earth, 1935

Other Art Events of the 1930s

Early Food Films:
America's early film-makers saw the humorous possibiities in food-related scenes. Consider these two films, significant in their comedic use of food in an ever more-complicated kitchen: The Cook (1918, featuring acrobatic kitchen and dining room scenes by Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle), and Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925), with his famous shoe-eating scene.

Far more dramatic was Eric von Stroheim's Greed (1924), based on Frank Norris' sinister and naturalistic novel, McTeague (1899), in which gluttony, greed and averice consume the characters.

During the 1930s, food-centered films included George Cukor's Dinner at Eight in 1933 (upward social mobility and downward financial status) and Easy Living in 1937 (an automat, a restaurant and other food environments spring a young couple's romance during the Depression).

Following WWII, the use of food as a major theme in ethnic life, comic food-play, restaurant dilemmas, cooking competitions, and the like began to emerge by the 1960s (e.g. Tom Jones and Dinner for One, both in 1963). The trend built and expanded through the 1970-80s (Soylent Green, 1973, Tampopo, 1985, Babette's Feast, 1987,and The Cook,The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,1987), and came to its broadest expression in the 1990's, with Like Water for Chocolate, 1992, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, 1994, and The Big Night, 1996.

Left: Joseph Albers, Black Circle, 1933

Kazimir Severinovich Malevich,
Black Square, 1930. The artist died in Leningrad in 1935 and, despite a reign of terror in the art world, this image was secured within his legacy and was displayed above his death bed.

In the 1930's, we saw Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps," one of the most remarkable espionage films ever made, Hitler closed the Bauhaus and Joseph Albers moved to Black Mountain College, NC, Picasso painted "Guernica," Andre Malreaux published Man's Fate, Sergei Eisenstein screened "Alexander Nevsky", James Joyce published Finnegans' Wake, and Diego Rivers, Andre Breton, Leon Trotsky and others published a manifesto, "For a Free an Independent Revolutionary Art." It was one heck of a decade, considering.

Lee Miller, 1937: Femme Fatale, model for Conde Nast, Chanel and Schiaparelli, professional photographer, resident of Paris, artist's Muse and companion to the famous
, shown here on a sunny day in Mougins, France, on the Cote d'Azur. She was the first female combat photographer to enter Paris on Liberation Day, 25 August 1944

In this photograph she is picnicking (and sunning herself) with surrealist artist Man Ray, husband Roland Penrose, and others. She was often called "The world-famous icon of love, sex and sensuality."

Below: Self-portrait, 1932. Lee (Elizabeth) Miller was born in 1907, Poughkeepsie, NY. But then, so was I, in 1931.

"Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" (Irving Berlin, 1932)

Just around the corner
There's a rainbow in the sky.
So let's have another cup of coffee
And let's have another piece of pie!

Mister Herbert Hoover
Says that now's the time to buy.
So let's have another cup of coffee
And let's have another piece of pie!

So it would seem that food images in music, as compared to the visual and literary arts, are sparse but nevertheless entertaining.

From the concert hall there is the occasional opera such as Puccini's La Boheme, 1896, Prokofiev's The Love of Three Oranges, 1919, and Ralph Vaughn Williams' "March Past of trhe Kitchen Utensils" (from the Aristophane Suite, The Wasps), 1909. Important but less than overwhelming.

Popular music offers richer finds as demonstrated by such oldies as "I'm Tired of Eating in Restaurants," by Bert Williams (1906), the ever-delightful "Tea for Two (1925, but popular well into the 1930s and beyond). Rogers and Hart's Sing for Your Supper (1938), and Cab Calloway's "Everybody Eats When They Come to My House (1942). And there is, of course, the imaginative, irrepresible and irreverant Cole Poter. From the show, "Fifty Million Frenchmen," 1939:

The Tale of the Oyster

Off they go though the troubled tide,
The yacht rolling madly from side to side.
They're tossed about about 'til that fine young oyster
Finds that it's time he should quit his cloister.
Up comes the oyster.
Back once more where he started from,
He murmured, "I haven't had a single qualm,
For I've had a taste of society,
And society has had a taste of me."
Wise little oyster.

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