Artworks and Artists of Social Realism
Progression of Art
Cover image for the New Masses
Committed to Marxism and communism, William Gropper drew vast numbers of illustrations for such radical publications as the New Masses and the Communist Party's Daily Worker. Wanting to reach the greatest number of working people, Gropper and others created prints and graphics for radical magazines, which were easy to distribute. Here, Gropper engaged the revolutionary visual rhetoric of the monumental, triumphant worker who both ideologically and physically dominates the puny clerics and capitalists in the lower left corner. Religion, in cahoots with capital, seeks in vain to contain and repress America's worker who is represented almost as a King Kong figure breaking free of his chains; the movie King Kong debuted in 1933. The idea of industrial servitude and slavery are also communicated by the chain links that the worker powerfully splits apart. Gropper's message is as stark and clear as is his choice of black and white coloration.
Ink on paper
Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers
A member of the Communist Party, this is Douglas's fourth panel from a series covering the transition between human slavery and modern industrial enslavement; the final, fifth panel was to show Karl Marx amongst African-American workers leading them to a better proletarian future. At the work's apex, a saxophonist stands triumphantly with his instrument held high above his head, far above the green grasping hands that would draw him back into slavery. Yet his triumph is fleeting, as the industrial cog on which he stands will carry him back into the depths of the city and society; industrialism and mechanization are not friends of the American worker. Beyond the man's reach, in the far distance, stands the Statue of Liberty symbolizing the unfulfilled promises of universal freedom. Song of the Towers showcases Douglas's signature style of concentric, radiating circles that are punctured by bold silhouetted figures.
Oil on canvas - Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library
Death (Lynched Figure)
Isamu Noguchi's early sculptural works dedicated to social concerns, which align with the artistic Left, are often overlooked in deference to his abstract statuary and furniture design. As compared to other Social Realists, Noguchi employed a more modernist vocabulary instead of particularizing the figure and its facial features. Considered a major early piece by Noguchi, Death (Lynched figure) testifies to the artist's progressive racial views and strong social commitment, which position the sculpture within the concerns of Social Realism. Noguchi modeled the painfully contorted figure hanging from a rope on a photograph of African-American George Hughes being lynched above a bonfire, writhing in agony; Hughes was hanged in Texas in 1930. The horrifying photograph of Hughes was later reproduced in the Communist magazine, Labor Defender, which is where Noguchi saw it. In terms of form, the sculpture is unusual since Noguchi suspended the figure above the ground on a metal armature. Noguchi created this sculpture for a 1935 exhibition organized by the NAACP to protest the national rise in lynching and also to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact legislation prohibiting such vigilante violence; Roosevelt did not. Concurrently, the communist arts and cultural organization known as the John Reed Club held its own anti-lynching exhibition. While Noguchi's sculpture was well received, some critics reacted harshly to it, revealing their own racism by claiming the artist was not native-born and, in one instance, referring to the provocative sculpture as "a little Japanese mistake."
Monel, steel, wood, and rope - The Isamu Noguchi Museum
The Working Day; Struggle for a Normal Day Repercussion of the English Factory Acts on Other Countries
By reproducing Marx in mass-distributed magazines, Hungarian-born Hugo Gellert sought to gain a wider audience among the working class and perhaps rattle the nerves of upper class society. Social Realists most often romanticized and idealized the figure of the male worker; Gellert's is a prime example of this trend. Here, Gellert renders a Caucasian laborer and an African-American laborer standing back to back. Originally published in the New Masses, the pairing of monumental men was placed above the caption: "Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself when labor with a black skin is branded." The men stand strong, fused together as if a unit, and are shown wearing workers' overalls, which reveal their muscular arms. Their taut bodies, their position of being pressed together, along with their rather phallic tools, a pick and a wrench, create a homoerotic quality to the image. Images of physically strong working men were prevalent throughout Social Realist works in order to present labor as invincible against capital.
Born and based in Argentina, Antonio Berni was known for his socially engaged figurative painting, rooted in his Marxist viewpoint for interpreting society. During the 1930s, Argentina was in great political turmoil. David Alfaro Siqueiros published a "Call to Argentinean Artists," which profoundly affected Berni who went on to assist the Mexican Muralist on the mural Plastic Exercise (1933) for a private patron outside of Buenos Aires. During the years 1934 to 1937, Berni painted approximately 40 easel paintings of mural proportions including Demonstration, which depicts a crowd of unemployed men and women. Set in the provinces, the crowd marches towards us down a main street; one worker carries a sign aloft stating their dual demand for bread and work. Berni has rendered the many faces of the unemployed pressed up against the picture plane in order to directly confront the viewer. The many faces are painted in a sculptural manner, with a dramatic application of light and shadow, and are rich in detail. The artist eschews painting the dispossessed as falsely heroic or sentimental and instead shows the solidarity of the poor.
Tempera on burlap - Private Collection
Artists on the WPA
The three Soyer brothers, Isaac, Moses, and Raphael, were all important Social Realist artists. Here, Moses Soyer highlights solidarity and the communal bonds of artists on the New Deal projects by painting them within a common studio. Each artist paints or serves as a model for another artist in a collegial manner. The artists' efforts are collaborative as they together work on their murals, which were made to serve the public rather than for private gain. By the early-20th century, New York City was simultaneously the center of artistic training in the United States and the bedrock of leftist politics, which involved many sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants. Moses Soyer, born in Russia, was all three: Jewish, an artist, and on the Left.
Soyer composed his celebrated Artists on the WPA as if it were a stage set with the curtain having just lifted to reveal the proceedings, inviting us into this artists' studio. The floor of Soyer's studio slants upward, permitting a greater view of the room and the painters at work. Arranged in a semicircle, four painters both male and female, work on oversized canvases that most likely are parts of murals. Each artist paints in the style of the government-preferred American Scene, with its requisite realistic figures and pleasurable depictions of productivity and harmony, blocking out the contemporary realities of unrest and destitution. Soyer creates subtle subterfuge by showing artists as laborers, banded together and diverse in population. As opposed to the more common portrayal of artists as romantic heroes alone and outside of society, Soyer's artists seem to have a positive social role. The sense of group activity echoes the collective actions of artists through picketing, protests against social injustices, and demands for permanent recognition by the government.
Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Presents from Madrid
Paraskeva Clark was twice an immigrant having been born in Russia, then moving to France for a decade, and ultimately settling in Canada. Presents from Madrid was Clark's first artistic exploration of a public political subject, namely the Spanish Civil War. Here, Clark openly declares her opposition to Spanish leader General Francisco Franco. The painter depicts a number of objects related to the war against fascism, such as a cap from the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Brigade; a medieval Spanish missal; a red scarf decorated with three men who represent the Spanish Popular Front; and a Republican brochure. These were mementos that had been sent to her from Spain. Clark chose to create a still life, a genre traditionally associated with the domestic sphere and the feminine arts. The genre was not popular within Social Realism, which was overwhelmingly didactic, narrative, and concerned with the human figure. Through her choice objects, which are indicative of her political beliefs, Clark moved her work into what was traditionally the male sphere of the public and the political.
Watercolor over graphite on wove paper - The National Gallery of Art, Ottawa
An American Tragedy
Philip Evergood's An American Tragedy has been hailed as the "archetypical work of Social Realism" for its bold execution and equally bold subject matter of labor conflict. Here Evergood's heavy line, strident colors, and figurative style are deliberately crude and caricatured, a style called the "Proletarian Grotesque" which was inspired by Spanish artist Francisco Goya's anti-authoritarian stance and expressive line. The scene takes place in South Chicago's Republic Steel plant which was unionizing. Workers armed with sticks show aggressive solidarity with its integrated workforce of men and women, African Americans, Caucasians, and Latinos against the attacking police. At center, a red-haired man and his pregnant Latino wife stand together against the police who killed 10 workers on that day and injured 100 others. Evergood had suffered his own beating at the hands of the police when participating in a sit-down strike organized by the Artists' Union. Evergood asserted, "I don't think anybody who hasn't been brutally beaten up by the police badly, as I have, could have painted An American Tragedy."
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
The Migration of the Negro (One of the Largest Race Riots occurred in East St. Louis), #52
Created when the artist was in his early 20s, Jacob Lawrence's epic series is comprised of 60 panels, which are evenly split between New York's Museum of Modern Art and Washington, DC's Phillips Collection. Lawrence's subject matter is the Great Migration of African Americans from the deep, rural South to the urban North during the 1910s. Promises of industrial jobs and greater freedom propelled the migrants to leave the South, and they were met with overt racism, leading to virulent race riots in St. Louis, substandard housing, grueling, subhuman industrial work, and exclusion from labor unions due to race. Lawrence was the son of migrants and so was drawing both from his family's and community's history.
Lawrence primarily drew his stylistic innovation from his immediate community in New York's Harlem. As he did in much of his early work, Lawrence has flattened the picture plane and any sense of perspective rendering the silhouetted figures as if they were two-dimensional. The works are enlivened through Lawrence's distinct use of vibrant and bright colors, which are not modulated.
Casein tempera on hardboard - Museum of Modern Art, New York