It's natural to imagine 1930s America in black-and-white, not only because photos lacked color back then, but because the Great Depression made life so austere. Yet even in those bleak times, people found ways to make our culture vibrant. This theme has been on the minds of several Madison arts leaders, who've incorporated New Deal subjects into their programming this spring.
Framing the New Deal through visual art
Colors abound at the Chazen Museum's 1934: A New Deal for Artists. It's a traveling exhibition of more than 50 paintings from the Public Works of Art Project, which hired almost 3,800 professional artists to depict notable facets of "the American scene" between December 1933 and June 1934. On display through April 28, the collection comes to Madison from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which gathered PWAP works from schools, libraries, post offices and government buildings.
Divided into categories such as city, country, labor and leisure, the show highlights cultural nuances in different regions of the United States. Near the entrance hangs Valley Farms, an imposing landscape by Ross Dickinson. Giant, bulbous hills tower over tiny farms as a bright-orange fire sends a smoke signal to the heavens. A milky river cuts between the peaks, reminding viewers how precious water is in this drought-prone area. This point was especially salient in 1934, when Dust Bowl families fled westward to farms almost as troubled as the ones they abandoned.
A few feet away, a New York City subway car painted by Lily Furedi hurtles toward viewers. Its riders try to avoid eye contact, but their curiosity about one another is abundantly clear. One traveler sneaks a peek at her neighbor's newspaper as a man watches a woman apply red lipstick several seats away. Another nearby painting, Millard Sheets' Tenement Flats, shows a different kind of separation. Victorian mansions peer down a steep hill, toward a jumble of dilapidated apartments. Children and cats scuttle about at the bottom of the slope as women gossip on rickety porches and stairways. Clotheslines crisscross the scene, their brightly colored rags ruffled by a gentle breeze. The faraway mansions have a single visitor while the tenements overflow with life.
In an adjacent room of the museum, the American scene comes alive in paintings of baseball games, ice-skating outings, and jungles dotted with apes and panthers. At first glance, the rainforest scenes seem oddly misplaced, but there's a logical explanation, says Ann Prentice Wagner, the Arkansas Arts Center curator who wrote the exhibition's catalog. Depression-era city folk adored zoos and the idealized jungles of movies like Tarzan the Ape Man because they provided an escape from dirty, crowded streets and intense competition for jobs.
"The project's organizers thought the 'American scene' theme would give the artists lots of options," Wagner says. "Region 10, which included Wisconsin, was mostly oil paintings, watercolors and sketches. Most artists made works that could be identified with a particular place, but there were also some more abstract works."
In addition to documenting regional folkways from the early '30s, PWAP provided much-needed relief to a vulnerable population. According to Wagner, about 10,000 artists were seeking work in 1933, and many had families to support. The program's weekly salary helped participants make ends meet, and public buildings received art that was designed to inspire people from all walks of life.
While this combination of financial assistance and public good was novel at the time, PWAP's speediness was perhaps its most impressive feature.
"It's amazing how quickly the program got going in 1933," Wagner says. "Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in March, the idea for PWAP came together on Dec. 8, and it was announced in newspapers on Dec. 12. Within a week, there were artists at work."
Over the course of seven months, PWAP artists created nearly 16,000 works. But the program's influence stretched far beyond the walls of courthouses and post offices. Several dozen PWAP pieces went on to be displayed in the White House, and many others made their way to the offices of senators and cabinet members. And as part of the Civil Works Administration - a New Deal program that paid workers to build roads, playgrounds and schools - PWAP stressed that art is a valuable type of infrastructure in a modern democracy. This idea would form the foundation of future New Deal initiatives such as the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, which helped launch the careers of key Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
Says Wagner: "Without PWAP, America could have lost a generation of artists, what turned out to be one of the greatest generations of American artists."
Depression-era dreams at Cinematheque
Though food and money were scarce in 1934, life didn't stand still. Quite the contrary, says UW Cinematheque's Jim Healy, who organized a "New Deal Cinema" series to complement the Chazen's art from the era.
Instead of choosing films about New Deal policies, Healy decided to project Depression-era fantasies on the Chazen's big screen. Upcoming screenings include The President Vanishes, William A. Wellman's ensemble drama about a president who stages his own kidnapping (March 14); Fashions of 1934, a musical comedy starring William Powell and Bette Davis (April 4); and King of the Hill, Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of A.E. Hotchner's coming-of-age memoir (April 25).
"Even though these are fantasies, they reflect a lot of the worries and interests of Depression-era America," Healy says.
He notes that 1931-1934 is one of his favorite periods in film history because movies were filled with life, not regulations.
"Early 1934 had the last flare-out of creative freedom before Hollywood started enforcing the production code," he explains.
Healy says the shift from silent films to talkies also erased some limitations.
"Glamour was less important in 1934 than in the silent era. It wasn't just about what your face could project. It was also about physicality and your voice," he says. "William Powell and Bette Davis were offbeat looking, but you can't beat them for charisma."
The series' one contemporary film, 1993's King of the Hill, is perhaps the most poignant. A 12-year-old boy must fend for himself when his ill mother is sent to a sanitarium and his father accepts a job as a traveling salesman on the brink of 1934. Using his imagination as a guide, he seeks out work and friendships while facing grim realities such as illness and starvation.
"It's about this who kid creates wild stories about himself and how his experience of the Depression leads him to be this way," Healy says. "It's also about the creation of a present-day writer."