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.
One of the most somber works in the entire show comes from Florida. Not made for the WPA but for another public entity, the Miami Post Office, the oil called The Building of the Tamiami Trail by George Snow Hill was painted in 1938. The workers here are black prisoners in a chain gang, hauling huge chunks of material to help tame the Everglades, while white bosses oversee the process and a lone Seminole Indian observes from a corner. There are no heroes here, only a numbing violence.
The clash between technology and modernism versus old-fashion labor and values is a constant theme in the exhibit. On the one hand, “technology” can make life easier and better, or it can destroy the soul and the landscape. It can enrich some, and impoverish others. That tension is as visceral today as it was 70 some years ago.
Two facing paintings may tell this story best, and they are two of the most remarkable individual portraits in the exhibit. The 1942 oil painting The Welder, by Francis de Erdely, is a gorgeous portrayal of a young man almost subsumed by the trappings of his factory-worker life – but not quite. He is wearing huge, heavy gloves that seem to weigh him down, and goggles on his forehead, but his shirtless, handsome torso defies his surroundings, shining out like a Greek god. Next to it hangs a Doris Lee painting, Girl Sewing. The subject is sweet and diligent-looking as she works the new sewing machine, but you’re left to wonder, will she lose the ageless female craft of making clothes by hand? Today that feels quaint, but this 1931 painting foreshadows what would become a 1950s prototype of women, happily working the household inventions that wash and dry and sew.
Several pieces were made for the New York World’s Fair of 1939. That fair, and the new-found popularity of fairs themselves after the turn of the 19th Century, were perfect examples of the conflicted times that are reflected in art. For the General Motors Pavilion of the New York fair, Waylande Desantis Gregory made a couple of terracotta soldiers, but they are warriors for the old way of life – sculptures of tobacco and cotton field hands, not factory workers in the auto industry.
These sculptures seem particularly poignant in light of the fact that the 1939 world fair, one of the largest ever, was firmly focused on the future. In fact, it was dubbed “The World of Tomorrow,” and it’s where those trippy iconic structures, the Trylon and the Perisphere, were premiered, with moving sidewalks and all. A couple of paintings in the exhibit illustrate the fair, and far from a brutal, demoralizing landscape, they depict an exciting new world. Other fairs also make an appearance, those ones with ferris wheels and gadgetry that took the edge off of mundane life, as shown in paintings filled with hope.
The exhibit culminates in one of the most recent works, from 1947, when both the Depression and war had come to an end. The painting by Ralph Fabri, titled Americana, depicts a far more opimistic outlook. Fabri has thrown everything into the mix – a Ferris wheel, the U.S. Capitol dome, Indians, a boxing ring, and in the front of it all, a blond woman with a “Miss America” sash. There is an exuberance within the frame, but some cynicism too – gone are the Grant Wood stoic farmers and striking workers, the earnest representations, the hard edges and angles and austere hues of pre-World War II art. In would come the American styles and movements that would overtake the world for the second half of a bold century.