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Realism is an art movement that depicts scenes of the poor in working class conditions. It was at its height in America in the 1920's and 1930's when most of the western world was in the middle of a major depression.
Gustave Courbet, was the founder of the realist movement of mid-19th-century France. He concentrated on simple country subjects that were considered vulgar by some. The realists were trying to break away from the traditional styles of 18th century Romanticism. Other Realist artists of the time are Jean-François Millet and Charles-Francois Daubigny.
Figure : The Stonebreakers, Gustave Courbet, 1849.
19th century Realism dealt with rural scenes and the style of painting were somewhat darker than the paintings from the early part of the 1900's.
The style of art that Social Realism deals with are hard hitting depictions of the people affected by the impacts of unemployment and poverty.
In 1920 the United States Government introduced prohibition, which meant the sale of alcohol was prohibited nationwide. The Temperance movement blamed alcohol for the majority of the crime and murder. The Temperance movement recommended that prohibition would stop men squandering what little income they had on alcohol. With the country dry it meant that gangsters cashed in and made a very hefty income on sales on illegal liquor. The most famous of these gangsters was Chicago based Al Capone, he would employ men to smuggle rum from the Caribbean and whiskey from Canada. Speakeasies were opened for people to drink and socialise in.
The 1929 Stock Market Crash and the onset of the Great Depression made everybody think that maybe it was time to repeal prohibition. With millions unemployed, jobs were needed urgently and the government could use the taxes that alcohol would generate.
As the Depression deepened America had numerous social issues to deal with, Prohibition, The Stock Market Crash, racial and religious harassment and mass immigration from all over Europe.
Cities attracted destitute people from all over of the country. Farmers who had lost their land had no choice but to move their families into the already cramped cities. Scores of out of work residents who could not afford to stay in their homes were evicted with the hope of getting into a shelter or relying bread lines for what little food they could get. With so many people in the
Figure : Bootleggers, Ben Shahn, 1934.
city, residents got preference for whatever aid was available. There were vast amounts of people waiting in lines for a hand out or a bowl of soup. City funds were over stretched and resulted in the reduction of relief payments and watering down the soup to help more people over a longer time.
The art of this era showed the struggle and hardship of artists. As a response to the sharp rise in unemployment, Congress passed the Works Progress Administration (WPA) a government organization to help jobless people to work on public projects. The WPA's Artists Project, a part of the WPA, employed many different artists on public commissions, several of these artists went on to become immensely successful.
Three artists that worked for the WPA
Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898 - March 14, 1969) was a Lithuanian-born American artist. His family immigrated to the United States in 1906 where they settled in Brooklyn. He became a lithographer's apprentice after finishing high school. He later attended the New York University and the National Academy of Design from 1917 to 1921. In the 1920s he became part of the realism movement, his early work dealt with the political issues of the time. while his later work depicted the alienation of the cities inhabitants. Shahn came to prominence in the 1930s with paintings he did on the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Shahn dealt with social and political problems. His painting Vacant Lot exhibits dramatic truth. He worked from 1933 to 1938 as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, producing first rate images of poverty stricken farming districts and their inhabitants. Shahn used photographs all through his career for form and content. His job at the FSA gave him the time to travel though the depression stricken country taking pictures. Shahn's would become the most popular artist of his age due to his work with the FSA. Shahn regularly used new themes and mediums to illustrate the human struggle of his time.
After travelling across Europe in the 1920's to study the European style, he was very displeased with the work he had seen. In looking for his own unique style. The number of paintings he did on the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti revealed the social and political concerns of the time. This work was
Figure : The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, Ben Shahn, 1931-1932.
titled The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, it was exhibited in 1932 and it received acclaim from both the public and critics. This work established his reputation as a leading artist in the realist movement.
After the great depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929 Shahn depicted many scenes of human misery.
The subject of the painting, Vacant Lot (Figure 4) is the figure of a small boy standing in front of a large red brick wall. The fact that Shahn has arranged the composition of the painting to depict the atmospheric isolation and struggle of a country plunged into economic turmoil. This painting was inspired by a photograph taken by the artist, the original had two figures in the lower left of the photograph but he chose to emit them to exaggerate the feeling of uncertainty. If we break the painting up into vertical format rather than horizontal, the viewer gets a detailed understanding of the message the artist is trying to portray. In the first of the three formats, the colour could be representative of the great depression that gripped America ten years previously. The second vertical format would be the prosperity that followed the great depression. The final format symbolises a figure entering an uncertain future with the tyranny of war already terrorising Europe. Shahn carefully composes three main colours which symbolises these three prominent stages. The use of the colours plays an important role in the depiction of both the struggles of humanity and the personalisation of the artists emotional viewpoint.
At first glance the viewers eye is drawn to the centre of the painting where the artist has freely used an intriguing rich sienna which almost electrifies the sky. It appears as though the viewer is watching a figure stride slowly across a dream like landscape.
The figure in the Midground mysteriously appears to be becoming slowly enveloped by a shadowy grey colour on each side of him. The tone of light used in the painting creates an enigmatic atmosphere. The artist has combined these colours and his use of tone well, in order to give the viewer a sense of claustrophobia and isolation.
Figure : Vacant Lot, Ben Shahn, 1931.
Shahn's brushstrokes formulate an impression of hazy darkness combined with the vivid brightness of a setting sun. The painting itself appears to be a fragment of the artists imagination, neither the background, the foreground or the figure in the distance appear realistic. The painting at first glance is like a memory of a distant dream. Because of this, the viewer cannot place any depth or texture into the painting, however see it as a normal view point, which is seen flatly.
This movement was crucial in art, it produced awareness and challenged viewers, it was an immense step from the days of pretty oil paintings, it gave society an eye opening challenge.
Realism was perhaps an early form of visual political awareness, which managed to gain a response in action. Never before in art had such a movement created mass recognition as realism.