Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Propaganda and Painting

Recently I was looking at some examples of art used as propaganda. As a society experiencing a constant barrage of advertising, YouTube videos, "reality" television, and the opinionated musings of seemingly infinite websites - including blogs - we've perhaps become less sensitive to the overt employment of imagery to shape ideology. In a historical context, however, we know it when we see it, to paraphrase a federal judge's definition of pornography. Indeed, most Americans will recognize images of "Rosie the Riveter" and "Loose Lips Sink Ships" from the Second World War. Even more familiar is James Montgomery Flagg's iconic images of Uncle Sam. Less familiar are examples of the "yellow journalism" that nudged public opinion and U.S. diplomacy on the eve of the Spanish-American War, or Thomas Nast's editorial cartoons from the Gilded Age. Art as propaganda has a long history. Just look at some of the religious-themed art of the Middle Ages. One sees mass-produced art in the service of propagandists for the first time during the Reformation, which happened to coincide with development of the printing press.

But enough of the sleepy historical background. My point is . . . as I was looking through some of this propagandistic art - especially in the context of the 20th century totalitarian state - I found some of the painting quite compelling. Most of it was from the 1920s and 1930s and fits easily within the realm of "Socialist Realism," through which art and artists were harnessed to the promotion of the Marxist-Leninist ideology.

The United States had its equivalent, usually produced within the framework of New Deal programs such as the WPA and the Federal Art Project. Indeed, WPA artists, particularly muralists, left behind a legacy of great public art which still graces many post offices and governmental buildings. And although perhaps not as aggressively ideological as examples of Socialist Realism, much of it did have a message. Some Depression-era artists, deciding to depict the privations of that era in a starkly realistic fashion, have even been labeled "Social Realists." My favorites are the "Regionalists" of the 30s, particularly Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. The Regionalists often celebrated the virtues of agrarian life - ironic at a time punctuated by agricultural ruin in the Dust Bowl disaster. And other artists portrayed the stylized "worker" in homage to America's craftsmen and laborers. Obviously the government continued to sponsor and encourage artistic expression after the country's entry into the war in 1941. (The image to the left is by Gordon K. Grant and is located at the U.S. Post Office in Ventura, CA.)

Looking through some obscure paintings that were turned into posters, I ran across an interesting watercolor by illustrator/painter Fred Chance, who also did some covers for Vogue, Harper's and similar magazines during this period. In fact, I liked it so much - and found its linkage of agriculture and industrial production so ironic and innocent,given our country's current disastrous war - that I just had to copy it. I realize that painters copying other painters has gone on for centuries. It's considered part of the learning process for painters: By copying the "masters" an artist refines his or her technique. Yet it's something I had not done to this point. So I tried it . . . and here are the results. My apologies to Fred Chance.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

As I am reading this, with all your wonderful information and observations, my brain was full to overflowing to the point where I thought I could not formulate even a half-way intelligent-sounding comment. It's past my bedtime but that's a weak excuse.
I do however enjoy your watercolors immensely and the one here is terrific. I love everything about it.