M E R I C A N
R A P H I C
A R T,
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who lived through 1900-1950 faced a tumultuous period
in American history, enduring the devastating effects
of two world wars, and the Great Depression. American
art of this era was, for several decades, considered dull
and even depressing; the works of American printmakers
in particular were overlooked, neglected, and even destroyed.
Today, from the vantage of the freshly minted 21st century,
we are able to view these works with renewed appreciation
and understanding. Not only do they faithfully document
the styles and artistic advances of a critical period
in our country's history, but they stand as a reflection
of our country's character.
At the heart
of these works is not despair but hope. Hope in the basic
values of the agrarian life. Hope in the future and the
progress of man as symbolized by the urban landscape with
its skyscrapers and bridges. Hope in the working man as
the true champion of American life. Hope that in a modernist
exploration, an inner connection will be realized. And
hope in the belief that 'beauty is truth'; that in the
representation of a harsh reality, human compassion will
triumph; that the democratic system will allow an audience
and an appropriate response to an injustice revealed.
In the early
years of the Great Depression the Works Progress Administration
(WPA) recognized the desperate plight of the fine artist
along with that of the country's other unemployed workers,
providing jobs for painters, muralists, photographers
and sculptors, as well as graphic artists (printmakers).
These New Deal initiatives, The Public Works of Art Project
(PWAP, 1933-34), and the Federal Art Project (FAP, 1935-43),
produced the first major body of public American art –hundreds
of thousands of works. With this government-sponsored
support, American graphic art came of age. It gave artists
the freedom to create in a relatively uninhibited structure,
free of the fear of economic insecurity or concern for
how a work might be received. The sharing of workshop
facilities and in some areas weekly meetings and public
exhibitions, generated a sense of comradeship and fostered
a cross-fertilization of ideas and a heightening of consciousness.
The vast outpouring of creativity that resulted was unprecedented
in the country's history. At the close of the WPA in 1943
more than 750,000 prints had been allocated to a multitude
of public institutions.
artists of this period, even the most accomplished, persevered
with little promise of material reward or public recognition.
They worked for the love of their art. Many were first
or second generation immigrants, bringing with them the
heritage of diverse cultures and modes of expression,
as well as the tradition of technical expertise. Often
they had exposure to, or even training in, the most progressive
schools of European modernism. America offered the promise
of freedom of expression in a culture stripped of old
customs and hierarchies, and they guarded that freedom
of events – the World Wars, the Great Depression,
the WPA – with a culture of singularly devoted artists,
produced the qualities which have come to distinguish
American printmaking of the first half of the 20th century:
its great diversity of creative expression, its integrity
of purpose, and its emotional directness.
As we look
at our past through these images, they strike a resonant
chord. In them we recognize the truth that history repeats
itself, or rather that man, despite his technological
advances, remains essentially unchanged; the issues of
exploitation, disenfranchisement, and war, remain with
us today. And the belief that the brotherhood of humanity
will ultimately flourish in peace and prosperity is still
the hope that sustains us.