Crystal Bridges recently opened an exciting new exhibition in the North Exhibition Galleries: This Land: Picturing a Changing America in the 1930s and 1940s explores artists’ responses to the challenges of the Great Depression era. The exhibition was curated in collaboration with University of Arkansas professors Jeannie Whayne, Patsy Watkins, and Greg Herman.
The upper gallery highlights paintings and prints by Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton, Joe Jones, Joseph Vorst, Marvin Cone, Ethel Magafan and Thomas Hinton. Faced with unemployment, poverty, and the plight of the Dust Bowl farmers, the country withdrew politically and culturally from international involvement. Artists adapted by focusing on themes from America’s Heartland, depicting American values and challenges.
Marvin Cone’s Stone City Landscape (1936) is a new acquisition, and this is the first time the painting is on view in the galleries. The idealized, peaceful agrarian landscape reflects the transition of a rural community (Stone City, Iowa) from an industrial boomtown with limestone quarries back to a sleepy agricultural town. More drastic changes in rural landscapes are addressed by Thomas Hart Benton’s and Joseph Vorst’s paintings: Benton’s Ploughing it Under (1934, reworked 1964) comments on the controversial Agricultural Adjustment Act, which was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs; and Vorst’s After the Flood (ca. 1940) depicts the devastating effects of a major flood on the poorest members of the rural population: the sharecroppers.
Two mural studies (Smithsonian Art Museum), designed for Arkansas post offices by Joseph Vorst and Ethel Magafan, are examples of government sponsored art from that era.
In the lower level gallery guests will discover iconic images of the Great Depression: Dorothea Lange’s photograph Migrant Mother (1936) and Arthur Rothstein’s Farmer and Sons Walking in the Face of a Dust Storm, Cimarrron County, Oklahoma (1936, both Nelson-Atkins Museum) documented how people adjusted to the forces of nature and economic hardships. Other Farm Security Administration (FSA) commissioned photographs by well-known artists such as Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee capture the disastrous effects of the 1937 Mississippi flood, destitute Ozark Mountaineers, and hardworking cotton pickers.
A group of prints from the Museum’s American print collection focus on changes in urban and industrial landscape due to modernization. These works contrast the often-idealized agrarian views by Regionalist painters. Some of the bleak scenes feature dark factories and polluted skies and are sparsely populated—perhaps alluding to jobs terminated by new technologies. Many printmakers, such as Chet LaMore, empathized with subjects like unemployment and poverty. LaMore was among thousands of unemployed artists hired by the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) printmaking division to put them to work through creating art for public buildings.
The prints in this exhibition also introduce several art movements from that time period including Cubism, Precisionism, and Social Realism. Howard Cook, Riva Helfond, and Irving Lehman, for example, applied abstraction and Cubism to celebrate technological progress.
Similar to the FSA photographs, the art prints of the Great Depression reflected American life and stories of survival.
Crystal Bridges partnered with the Fayetteville Roots Festival for this exhibition: for the first time the museum’s audio tour includes a music component in addition to information on the art. This new feature will provide guests the opportunity to experience 1930s and 1940s art on a different level.
Crystal Bridges will also host a panel discussion in conjunction with This Land on Friday, September 27, from 7 to 9 p. m. in the Museum’s Great hall. University of Central Arkansas art history professor Gayle Seymour will present about Post Office murals funded by the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts; U of A journalism professor Patsy Watkins will discuss the history of documentary photography, the FSA photo project, and the assumptions viewers make about historical photos; U of A history professor Jeannie Whayne will provide the historical context for this Great Depression exhibition in her presentation; and U of A architecture professor Greg Herman will talk about the architecture-related contents from this time period.