During a week when America celebrates its independence, the current exhibit at the Wolfsonian-FIU offers a gripping and fascinating trip down history lane — a reminder of how much our country has changed over the decades, and how much it has fundamentally remained the same. “Manifest and Mundane: Scenes of Modern America From the Wolfsonian Collection” includes more than 50 art works from the 1920s to the 1940s, an era of turbulence and transformation, a time of uncertainty but also infused with an incorrigible optimism. A time not dissimilar to our own.
The most striking example of this jumps out as you walk through South Beach museum’s seventh floor and take in the paintings. Exaggerated scenes of bucolic rural life and portraits of strong, upstanding, hard-working men and women are juxtaposted with cold images of lifeless steel beams suffocating cities, leafless trees wilting, billows of smoke from factories or bombs choking out life. The title evokes notions of both Manifest Destiny, with the positive and the negative that comes with expansion and conquest, and the nobility of the mundane and simple life.
The introductory work, however, is not a painting but a vase, made in 1940 in North Carolina. This lovely turquoise pottery is encrusted with images of mythical Americana, like the covered wagon being pulled by buffalos. Next to it is a depiction almost as implausible: a pale violet-colored barn set next to a vibrant green tree painted in 1938 by Torvalt Arnt Hoyer. It’s hard to reconcile this image with the reality of the depth of the Great Depression, when regions of the country morphed into barren dust. To answer, Lucienne Bloch’s 1933 print Land of Plenty is placed on the other side, a drawing of a faceless family walking by towering stalks of corn and newly installed power lines, which are fenced off from them, inaccessible.
This first foray into “Manifest & Mundane” accurately portends what is to come with the rest of the show. It is a tension-filled journey through a significant juncture in the artistic, cultural and economic history of America.
Some of the paintings and especially, the sculpture, reveal influences from the Socialist Realism movement, born in the Russian Revolution and adopted by artists recognizing — and sometimes idealizing — the downtrodden and working class. One example is Family Group, a 1938 plaster-painted sculpture by Thomas G. Lo Medico of a father, mother, and son, all well-built and looking resolute in the face of adversity — maybe looking to a brighter future.
Other works fall in the category of social realism and portray people not as overcoming, but simply existing, in the mundane. In Harry Sternberg’s 1938 painting Steelworker’s Family, for instance, a gray, brutal industrial world frames an ordinary domestic scene of a woman primping in front of a dresser mirror, surrounded by flowered wall-paper, while her (presumably) husband, fresh from the mines and still covered in dirt, sits on a stool downstairs. It’s almost emotionless.
Many of these works were commissioned by the WPA, or the Works Progress Administration, the massive New Deal project that put millions of people to work, including unemployed artists. One such piece, a dark luscious painting from Carl Saxild, resulted from a WPA project that took him to Alaska to chronicle the Pacific Northwest. This oil-on-masonite work from 1937 is focused on a totem pole from a native Alaskan tribe – it both romanticizes and documents a slice of American culture.