Painting the American Scene: Artists Assess the Federal Art Project
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Painting the American Scene: Artists Assess the Federal Art Project

New Deal arts projects were guided by two novel assumptions: artists were workers and art was cultural labor worthy of government support. That commitment was demonstrated most dramatically in the Federal Art Project (FAP), a relief program for depression-era artists. Some painters and sculptors continued working in their studios with the assistance of relief checks and the occasional supervision of WPA administrators—their work was placed in libraries, schools, and other public buildings. Others lent their talents to community art centers that made art training and appreciation accessible to wider audiences. FAP also sponsored hundreds of murals and sculptures designed for municipal buildings and public spaces. In essays written as part of the New Deal’s documentation of its own efforts, artist Louis Guglielmi found the social consciousness of the 1930s and the support of the New Deal a spur to his artistic development. Artist Julius Bloch praised the FAP for bringing art to new audiences, including his African-American subjects.

After the Locusts

Louis Guglielmi

It was a charming, decadently gay period before the locusts came to lay waste a world madly preoccupied with the enjoyable pastime of forgetting its spiritual and moral bankruptcy.

The early 1930s were coldly sobering years. The artist, a highly sensitive person, found himself helplessly a part of a devastated world. Faced with the terror of the realities of the day, he could no longer justify the shaky theory of individualism and the role of spectator. As with many other creative workers, I reached out for a more positive and objective basis of thought to displace the inadequate destructive negativism that so deeply pervaded all thought and aesthetic production at the time.

From an honest translation of the French painters and in particular the Surrealists (to whom I was later to return because they expressed our decaying society), my work gradually changed to a more literal and objective representation of life about me. Summers spent in New Hampshire further developed this tendency and awakened a latent interest in the New England tradition and the American scene.

The paintings I produced for the WPA/FAP form still another phase of my development and are products of observation of everyday life in the poorer sections of New York. My own childhood was spent in a tenement neighborhood on the upper East Side. As is commonly the case, there was the motivation to escape this environment and its frustrated existence into what appeared sunnier—the middle-class world. It was also logical that more recently I should seek to regain the roots of earlier years and repudiate the upper crust of society. My two pictures “Hague Street” and “Wedding in South Street” illustrate this attempt to recapture the past in terms of the present. The social content of these pictures is not only common experience, but is essentially autobiographical. The picture of the boy carrying a flowerpot in a classically lovely painting is the sublimation of an emotion, the suggestion of escape from the horror of living in a mean street under the arched approach of Brooklyn Bridge. The other canvas, “Wedding in South Street,” is almost literal reporting of the marriage custom among the poor, with the amusing anachronism derived from imitation of the rich. This accounts for the hired wedding gown, the hired dress clothes and automobile, against the background of the overpowering warehouse and bridge and the showy Victorian stoop.

I have tried to indicate in this history of my growth as an artist and as a member of society why I feel it is necessary to create a significant art and not merely some super-deluxe framed wallpaper to decorate the homes of the wealthy. The time has come when painters are returning to the life of the people once again and by so doing are absorbing the richness, the vitality, and the lusty healthiness inherent in the people. This source of inspiration necessarily dictates the creative forms that evolve. Coming from within the people, the resulting art will celebrate the experiences of the race.

This is only possible through government patronage, with its facilities for employing artists in great numbers and for creating a huge audience. The private gallery is an obsolete and withered institution. It not only encouraged private ownership of public property, but it destroyed a potential popular audience and forced the artist into a sterile tower of isolation divorced from society. The Project has cleared the path toward a sounder and brighter future. Speaking for myself, I can say that without the financial benefit of the Project, it would have been impossible for me to have continued to work and grow in stature. The collective output of the past year has clearly revealed the enormous amount of young talent that, under less fortunate circumstances, would have been crushed on the wheels of poverty. It is of the greatest importance to the culture of our nation that the Project be maintained on a permanent basis, free from the offensive stigma of relief.


The People in My Pictures

Julius Bloch

Most of my work deals with Negroes and their lives. For more than fifteen years I have been observing the Negro population of Philadelphia, attracted by the rich color, rhythmic movement, laughter, and religious fervor so characteristic of the race. Hundreds of notes, made from life in districts where Negroes predominate, fill many of my sketchbooks. These I have frequently used in making compositions for paintings and lithographs. Most of my people have been humble workers, ditch-diggers, hodcarriers, bootblacks, ragpickers, washerwomen, household workers, parkbenchers, preachers, and an occasional tapdancer, boxer, or saxophone player. Each one I selected because I found him or her not only typical of the race, but also revealing in character and bearing the complex problems which are the by-product of life in a large, densely populated city.

It has been my good fortune to have my work shown in formal exhibitions throughout the country, but it has always been my hope that my pictures would be seen and enjoyed by the people who inspired them. This wish was recently granted at a WPA/FAP exhibition held in Philadelphia’s subway concourse. Thousands of people streamed by from early morning until midnight, and it was gratifying and inspiring to see how closely they examined the works displayed. “This,” remarked a friend of mine, “is truly the People’s Museum.”

Great numbers of Negroes came to the exhibition, and they manifested an eager and sincere interest in everything on display. There were constantly small groups of them, gazing intently at the pictures, discussing them, and expressing their reactions and preferences. I saw groups standing before “Marble Champ,” a small portrait of a bootblack aged fifteen, which I painted during the past summer. Judging by the remarks I overheard, I believe the spectators for the most part approved. A woman said, “Right out of South Street, you see them just like that every day in the week. My, it even shows the dirt on his neck. I love it.”

Many of my drawings are of workers, men and women of both the White and Negro races. A charcoal drawing and a tempera watercolor represent a gangster who has apparently been put on the spot. “Dead Soldier” is a lithograph made from the vivid and lasting impression made on my mind when, during the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Drive, I came upon the first dead soldier I had ever seen, lying by a thicket near the road to Montfaucon. He was a fair-haired, blue-eyed American lad whose first name was Dennis, according to the tag fastened to the lapel of his jacket. These are the subjects and feelings I have attempted to communicate honestly and persuasively.

That provincialism is the effect of a state of mind and not of geographical location is evident in reviewing the easel painting of the WPA/FAP. One sees each locality in the United States honestly represented without readily observable imitation or influence from the large cities. Whether in the national “New Horizons in American Art” exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art or in the shows circulated in the Federal Art Galleries and Art Centers throughout the country, there can be noted a fresh spirit and positive attack in the work of this great variety of artists. The security of an audience has given them the courage for emotional expression.

For the first time in history American artists as a group, like the Dutch and the Venetians before them, have turned their eyes on themselves and on their own country. The results are both surprising and gratifying. There is only one standard; that is of sincerity and an honest relationship, and in some cases a love for the multiple environments of America.

Somehow the questions of technique and influences do not enter here. Each artist seems sufficiently articulate to communicate his particular attitude without straining after virtuosity or imitating a special school.

Systems of thought fluctuate in the field of economics; that they should do so in the practical field of the plastic arts is proved by the oils and watercolors done under the Project. There have never been enough pictures painted to fill the ever-increasing demand of schools and other public institutions, a demand that comes not alone from communities where the need for beauty is a crying one and not an afterthought of luxury, but equally from the great metropolitan centers.

During the past fifteen years it has been conceded that the American artist has learned how to paint, this even by the most indifferent spectator and by those who believed that only European painting had something to offer. Perhaps the most important contribution of the Project for both the American artist and his audience is something that no school, no museum, and no amount of art appreciation courses could have done.

To the younger artist it has brought maturity and objective results, developing in him a practical and professional point of view where art for art’s sake qualities are rapidly disappearing. Both younger and older artists have reached a directness of expression which is based upon a direct emotional relationship to their environment.

On the other hand, the pictures painted are not in any obvious degree socially conscious, nor do they suffer from elements of preciousness, nor mirror any conventional subject matter or state of mind. They show something as rich and complex as the reality of that life which goes to compose the American spirit—a spirit that has not been forced by any attempt to press the artist into doing work with an artificial stamp of national character. For, with few exceptions, supervision from artists and suggestion by cooperating sponsors has been sympathetic and given only with the idea of extending technical help. The happy effect is that the artists themselves, being thus put on their own mettle, have become their severest critics and disciplinarians, with a resulting disinterestedness that exceeds the best that could have been hoped for.

Again the Project has succeeded not only in bringing out new personalities but it has added to the artistic stature of professional artists in every community where it has flourished. Not only has it brought about an interesting and surprising exchange of ideas among artists themselves but it also has familiarized the nation as a whole with variations of its own civilization and environment that had long been ignored.

To have infused all these varying personalities with a common aim and purpose and to have proved to the American people that their country has something within itself decidedly worthy of record and expression is perhaps the most important contribution of the Project. What may seem more surprising is that the artists have shown that they can grasp this national consciousness without at the same time suffering from the least element of standardization or chauvinism.

Through the painting done on this Project there has begun the development of a tradition which, together with the rest of American art, should lead to a school of painting that in the near future is likely to be the most vital and energetic in the world.

Source: Available in Francis V. O’Connor, Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1973), 113–15, 115–26, 133–36.

See Also:"Art Within Reach": Federal Art Project Community Art Centers
Looking for America: The Index of American Design