Progression of Art
Texas Guinan and Her Gang
This is one of many paintings that Marsh created of the burlesque shows that were popular in New York during the 1930s, particularly as they often provided a place to purchase alcoholic drinks during prohibition. As with most of his pictures, Marsh portrays real people in it. The woman on the left of the image is Texas Guinan, a well-known silent movie star and live performer, who ran multiple burlesque clubs which were frequented by famous figures including Al Jolson, Gloria Swanson, and New York City mayor Jimmy Walker.
The women in the image are curvy with long legs and this style of depiction is seen throughout Marsh's work. The representation of Guinan as a strong and controlling figure full of energy rising above the leering faces of the men is contrasted with the world-weary expressions and states of undress of the performers to the right of the painting. This distinction is further enhanced by the bright colors of the performers' clothing and the effect of the stage lights in focusing attention onto the right of the canvas. The monochrome of the men's evening dress merges their figures into an indistinct mass on the left.
This juxtaposition between power and sexualization in the portrayal of women in Marsh's work has led to debate about his motives. Whilst author Marilyn Cohen argues that Marsh presents women as strong and purposeful and men as less imposing voyeurs, art historian, Erika Doss has suggested the opposite. Doss notes that Marsh's portrayals "...not only denigrated the lower-class women who worked in burlesque but helped to defuse the potentially threatening social and political ambitions of all modern American women".
Tempera on canvas - Collection of Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York
Bread Line - No One Has Starved
This etching, produced at the height of the Depression, shows a line of men waiting for governmental hand-outs of food. The bread line was a common theme in 1930s Social Realism as it demonstrated the tangible effects of the Depression on the working classes. Comparative examples can be seen in Iver Rose's Breadline (1935) and Margaret Bourke-White's iconic photograph, The Flood Leaves its Victims on the Bread Line (1937) which shows African American men and women queuing for food in front of a billboard that proclaims that America has the "world's highest standard of living". More recently the theme was revisited by sculptor George Segal in Depression Bread Line (1991).
The title of this piece is part of a quote taken from President Hoover, who running for reelection in 1932 stated that the American economy was fundamentally sound and that "No one has starved". Rather than seeking to depict individual representations of poverty, Marsh uses the line of similarly dressed men to present a collective image of the effects of the Depression. The line extends beyond the confines of the etching without suggesting a beginning or end and this, alongside the lack of space above and below the figures, alludes to their social and economic immobility.
Marsh briefly engaged with ideas associated with Communism, attending a few classes and contributing illustrations for New Masses, a magazine affiliated with the movement, the title of the piece, therefore, can be seen as a social commentary. The fact, however, that many of the men are attempting to pick the pockets of those in front of them in the line also implies an element of gentle satire to the work. This dichotomy is furthered by the parallels that can be drawn between the image and classical friezes. This can be seen as either a glorification of the average man by presenting them in a classical style or the satirical comparison of the out-of-work poor with the heroes of classical myth.
Etching on paper - Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
Smoko, the Human Volcano
Marsh painted many scenes of people gathered at Coney Island, in this instance, side-show performers at the venue's carnival and amusement park. Marsh first visited Coney Island as an illustrator for Vanity Fair where he found inspiration in the large crowds of New Yorkers escaping from the city on hot days. He continued to make regular sketching trips and produced many paintings of the subjects he found there. Around the time he created this canvas he wrote to his wife Felicia, who was in Vermont, that "The wind was fresh and strong blowing great whitecaps in on the seas-the sea a rich blue-The crowd as thick as I've ever seen, much to my delight. The noise of the beach could be heard for miles and there was scarce room on the sand to sit down".
The painting is presented from the perspective of a member of the crowd and Marsh uses an elaborate background of oversized posters to frame the performers in the foreground and this is one of his reoccurring compositional elements. The final image was produced from both photographs and sketches and these demonstrate that Marsh reproduced the signs, along with the appearance and dress of the performers, faithfully. This documentary style of painting ties Marsh's work to a very specific period in time and this is reinforced by his compositions, representational style, and use of color which reflect the energy and alienation generated by a growth in advertising and commercialization.
Egg tempera on masonite - Collection of Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Museo Thyssen, Madrid, Spain
Here Marsh captures a crowd on the beach at Coney Island. In the foreground a provocatively posed woman attempts to capture the attention of a young man who seems oblivious to her actions and instead looks down at a sleeping man by his feet. In the background, barely visible through the throng of people, are attractions including a roller coaster and carousel. The two characters in the foreground frame the canvas and draw the eye into the crowd, the real focus of the piece. The limited color palette, overlapping limbs, and wide variety of poses makes it difficult for the viewer to pick out individuals within the jumble of bodies. This type of complex composition, with a flattened perspective was a hallmark of many of the artist's works. The figures on display are robust and the forms, both male and female, are energetic in their rendering with a sense of unfettered sexuality pervading the piece, suggesting both enjoyment and an element of the disreputable. The widespread use of yellows throughout the painting represents warmth and sunlight with the occasional red highlight pulling the focus towards the entwined bodies.
Whilst many artists of the 1930s focused on the hardships of the period, Marsh's work celebrates the cult of leisure that emerged in the same period, emphasizing the perseverance of New Yorkers to find what little happiness they could in difficult times. Cultural historian, Morris Dickstein supports this when he states, "Marsh's innumerable images of burlesque, of Coney Island, and of robust street life show us how much more was at stake in Depression-era pastimes than mere escapism...To Depression-era audiences, such diversions represented not simply escape but freedom, mobility, and gratification at a time when they felt hemmed in by grievous economic troubles and limited horizons".
Egg tempera on panel - Collection of Syracuse University Art Collection, Syracuse, New York
Down at Jimmy Kelly's
Jimmy Kelly's was an infamous bar in New York's Chinatown district and here Marsh portrays one of the strippers at work. It has been suggested that the seated man with a cigarette is a depiction of Marsh's friend, Lloyd Goodrich, a curator who would eventually serve as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The male audience are animated in their enjoyment of the entertainment and their leering and focused expressions contrast starkly with the appearance of the workers - the bored waiter in the background and the mask-like appearance of the dancer. Heavily made-up and naked apart from her shoes she seems entirely disengaged from her environment and the audience and instead gazes directly towards the viewer. The painting highlights the perspective of the dancer, portraying her in a sympathetic manner that seems to emphasize that she is simply going through the motions of her job, probably out of financial necessity. This lack of enthusiasm does not impinge on the audience who are viewing her merely as a sexual object.
Egg tempera on panel - Collection of Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia
Twenty Cent Movie
Twenty Cent Movie depicts the Lyric Theatre, covered in advertising and with a crowd outside, members of the working classes who frequented cinemas for the escapism that movies offered. Marsh was drawn to the cinema and often utilized cinematic imagery within his paintings, playing into the stereotypical themes and characters of 1930s films. Here he combines the make-believe world of cinema with that of the people who frequent it, drawing parallels between the images of movie stars displayed on the billboards and the confident self-presentation of the viewers who imitate them in dress and pose. The curve of the entrance to the cinema forms a proscenium arch at the top of the canvas and Marsh represents his figures acting out their lives with the street becoming the stage and the brightly colored advertising, the scenic backdrop.
Many of the posters on display on the front of the building suggest themes of sexual activity including 'Emotions Stripped Bare', 'Joys of the Flesh', and 'Dangerous Curves' all of which were real movies of the period. This theme is echoed in the partially clad statues in the foyer of the theater and the division between women on the left of the image and men on the right. Unlike many of Marsh's other images the figures are all full clothed and consequently the sexually charged nudity of other paintings is replaced by written rather than physical sexual content.
The use of sex as an advertising technique does, however, mirror the transactional nature of nudity and sex within the burlesque clubs that Marsh portrayed with such frequency.
Egg tempera on composition board - Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
Untitled (Bowery Street)
This photograph depicts a scene in the Bowery part of New York City. Men in coats and hats walk down the sidewalk while to the left a parked car is just visible. On the right are shops with signs including an advertisement for a ten cent shave at a barber shop and the entrance to the Owl Hotel. Marsh was fascinated by advertising and replicated it in many of his paintings. This photograph may have helped to inspire Tattoo and Haircut (1932), which features similar signs.
Marsh became an avid photographer during the 1930s, utilizing the medium as both an independent way of documenting what he saw and as a method to rapidly capture subjects for future paintings. He often meticulously combined figures and groups from different photographs onto the same canvas to create the complex compositions for which he was known. His photos, particularly those of Coney Island, still feel fresh today and he excelled at capturing movement and taking images from new and unusual angles.
Gelatin silver print - Collection of Whitney Museum of Art, New York, New York