SOCIAL REALISM DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION OF THE 1930’S. BEN SHAHN (1898-1969)AN OVERTLY POLITICAL ARTIST WHO TOGETHER WITH REGINALD MARSH (1898-1954) AND ISABEL BISHOP (1902-1988)DEPICTED SCENES OF WORKING CLASS LIFE HIGHLIGHTING POVERTY EXPLOITATION AND OPPRESSION :PART 1

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In this posting I am going to consider the great Social Realists of the 1930’s in America who painted and depicted what they saw. Taking their advice from the great Founder of Realism Gustave Courbet who painted as he said because it was there.

Art Spoke writer Robert Atkins starts his comment on social realism with this opening comment.

” Marsh and Soyers for instance sympathetically depicted the depressions hard-pressed Everyman’s -Woman”.[1].

” Social realist works range from ambitious Mexican Muralists to painting on topical themes of  class struggle by the American Painters Philip Evergood and Ben Shahn”. [2].

American Art starts its commentary on social Realism by introducing us to Isabel Bishop and her paintings of Union square in New York.

” In the years immediately prior to the First World war Union square had become particularly associated with political dissent and by the 1920’s a site for mass Demonstrations and protests”. [3].

” During the 1930’s both the socialist Party and the Communist Party established  their HQ’s here. this left wing Milieu suited Bishop well whose works often depicted the urban poor and in particular Working women”. [4].

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American art continues its commentary on Bishop’s contribution to Social Realism.Referring to Pageants of Ordinary Workers and their families.

” This pageant however is made up of massed ordinary workers mostly women crowded into the square”. [5].

” By representing the massed ranks of workers forming an impenetrable barrier across the square Bishop alludes to the potential strength and social threat of the masses when united”.[6].

American Art continues with its commentary on Reginald  Marsh and his depiction of working class scenes in New York.

” Here in 14th Street New York Marsh depicts a b road section of Society gathered  in front of a department store during a sale”. [7].

” The crowd is made up of predominantly of shoppers of all classes and ages. The close proximity of this crowd adds to a sense of claustrophobia to the scene”.[8].

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American art now considers the immense contribution of Ben Shahn as you can see with the images was very involved politically showing scenes of unemployment and posters by the American Trade Union Federation the Confederation of Industrial workers posters.

” The widespread collapse of the American economy brought about the Wall street crash of 1929 had a devastating effect on the art market”. [9].

” In response to these desperate circumstances many painters abandoned the avant-garde experimentation of the early 20th century in favour of a more realist- inspired art addressing the social concerns of the day”. [10].

This can be clearly seen in the work of Ben Shahn.

” Ben Shahn was one of the most prominent of the left wing social realists artists to emerge at this time. Shahn was obsessing with exposing injustice”. [11].

” Shahn’s work Sacco and Vanzetti 1931-2 set out to promote their cause presenting them as martyrs and victims of the political oppression of the American Justice system”[12].

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American art shows that Shahn also engaged with propaganda material during the 2nd world war with his denunciation of Nazi Brutality.

” Thus in the autumn of 1942 the Office of war Information hired Ben Shahn to produce a series of posters supporting the war effort”. [13].

” This  Nazi Brutality is an explicit condemnation of Nazi atrocities in what was then Czechoslovakia “. [14].

” Shahn’s forceful image shows an imprisoned victim handcuffed , hooded and placed before an enormous wall presumably in the moments before his execution”. [15].

Matthew Baigell in his Concise History of American Painting and sculpture depicts Shahn as the first Social realist painter to depict socially relevant pictures of oppression and injustice.

” Earlier in the Gouache studies commemorating the trial and death of Sacco and Vanzetti painted the first major monument of social realism”. [16].

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Baigell continues to show how Shahn used political subjects to represent his type of social Realism.

” Interpreting politically loaded subjects in an increasing personal way and developing and enlarged range of imaginative imagery”. [17].

Baigell asserts that Bishop and Marsh were non- political painters in the following commentary.

” Non-political  urban painters , such as Reginald Marsh and Isabel Bishop”. [18].

I refute the suggestion that they were not political painters. as realists they painted what they saw and that involved at times  political subjects showing the activities of Working class men and women whether at work or participating in Leisure pursuits. Baigell shows his ignorance and political bias. Both Bishop and Marsh were outstanding Social realists who acted politically when depicting Working class oppression very much as the Ashcan School of Robert Henri ( George Luks , Everett Shinn , John Sloan and George Bellows).

This concludes my first part of my investigation of the great Social realist political painters during the depression of the 1930s, Ben Shahn , Isabel Bishop and Reginald Marsh. In Part 2 I will further discuss other aspects of their social realist art.

FOOTNOTES

  1. ART SPOKE 1848-1944 ROBERT ATKINS PG.52
  2. DITTO.PG.193
  3. AMERICAN ART FLAME PUBLISHING PG.194
  4. DITTO.PG.194
  5. DITTO.PG.194
  6. DITTO.PG.194
  7. DITTO.PG.36
  8. DITTO.PG.36
  9. DITTO.PG.118
  10. DITTO.PG.118
  11. DITTO.PG.118
  12. DITTO.PG.118
  13. DITTO.PG.124
  14. DITTO.PG.124
  15. DITTO.PG.124
  16. A CONCISE HISTORY OF AMERICAN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE MATTHEW BAIGELL . PG.267
  17. DITTO.PG.268
  18. DITTO.PG.269

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