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Friday, September 19, 2014

Depression Art--PWAP

Drought Stricken Area, 1934, Alexandre Hogue, PWAP Social Realism.                   
Apple Vendor, 1933-34, Barbara Stevenson,
the iconic symbol of the Great Depression. 
A couple years ago I wrote on the Roosevelt Administration's WPA and the tremendous impact it had on the struggling art and artists in the U.S. during the 1930s, and the lasting legacy such artists eventually left us in return. At that time, however, I dealt more with the bureaucracy, the privation, and the sheer numbers the WPA eventually came to help. But before there was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) or its artists' branch, the Federal Arts Project (FAP), there was PWAP. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of it (I hadn't either). The Public Works of Art Project was pretty short-lived, December, 1933 to June, 1934, sort of a dry run, an experiment to see if a broader, long-term federal effort to employ "starving artists" of that era, could succeed. The "experiment" was not only brief but relatively small by today's standards, even by later WPA-FAP standards. PWAP hired 3,749 artists who created some 15,663 paintings while earning $36 to $46 per week. That's a little over four paintings per artist for which each artist earned an average total of $936 or roughly $234 per painting.
 Golden Gate Bridge, 1934, Ray Strong, building a new American optimism.
Griffith Observatory Astronomer's
Monument, signed: PWAP, 1934
There were few restrictions. The those participating had to be professional artists. Their paintings had to reflect the "American Scene." Their work would belong to the federal government for exhibition and to decorate federal buildings from the White House to the halls of Congress, and local post offices. The project was run by the U.S. Treasury department. Over five-hundred resulting works were displayed at Washington's Corcoran Gallery in April, 1934 attended by hundreds of Washington politicians and bureaucrats. President Roosevelt and the first lady, Eleanor, chose thirty-three paintings for the White House. Congressmen, Senators, and department heads were left to scrap over the rest. The whole project cost around $15-million. Despite what would seem to be a rather frivolous endeavor during the height of the Great Depression, the PWAP proved popular enough to spawn the WPA's various, short-lived FAPs during the next eight years, 1935-1943. There were changes though. The more than 10,000 WPA artists employed at various times during that period earned a mere $23.50 per week, with the FAP serving roughly three-times the number of artists, but costing just $35-million over its entire eight-year lifespan. If nothing else, PWAP proved artists could be gotten cheaply.

Festival, 1934, Daniel Calentano, dancing in the streets. Depression? What Depression?
Abstract #2, 1934, Paul Kelpe
As might be expected, there was a broad representation of the various styles of the time from the prevailing Social Realism of an earlier generation to a few mild abstractions such as the work of Paul Kelpe and his Machinery Abstract #2 (right, which was abstract only in a formal sense in that it didn't depict a traditional scene). Some where somewhat expressionist in style while others clung to a staunchly hard-edged, no-nonsense narrative art. Surprisingly, there were few "big names" among the 3,749. PWAP was a quickly organized, short-term pilot project, its needy artists taken from local lists of the unemployed with some degree of art training. The PWAP was responsible for murals in San Francisco's Coit Tower, and the Astronomer's Monument at the Los Angeles Griffith Observatory (above, left, sculptors and crafts people also were enrolled). Unlike later WPA FAP works, PWAP art was strictly for government buildings. Schools would have to wait; drab, disheartening post offices were in immediate need of decorating.

Connecticut Barns in Landscape, 1934, Charles Sheeler--symbolic realism.
Somewhere in America, 1934,
Robert Brackman
Under the very broad theme of the "American Scene," two major areas of content dominated--agriculture and heavy industry. Not unexpectedly, some of this "Depression Art" was quite depressing. Some of it, downright ugly in its effort to capture the troublesome times. For months, the politicians in Washington sat waiting, hoping that the artists' efforts would be uplifting, raising the spirits of the masses who were unemployed (upwards to 25%) and providing hope for a brighter tomorrow. In many instances, their goals were met. For the most part though, artists were apolitical, recording the life and times, neither unduly pessimistic not wildly optimistic. There is a profound element of honesty and truth in what they painted. Local streets and landmarks were preserved for posterity. Scenes of daily life and normalcy were deemed important. Images of people having fun, even dancing in the streets or racing sailboats brought sparkle to the collection. American artists celebrated being America, from many points of view and viewing points. Robert Brackman painted the people, Charles Sheeler (above) painted their barns. Reginald Marsh (below) painted America's urban industrial might.

Locomotives, Jersey City, 1934,Reginald Marsh, America chugging ahead.
Tenement Flats, 1934, Millard Sheets
As a New Deal back-to-work project, PWAP made little impact. Even the larger and longer WPA and its FAPs had a negligible effect on the unemployment rate, except perhaps among artists. Coming within less than a year after FDR's inauguration, PWAP was seen as a feel-good tonic, a banner run up the proverbial flagpole to see who would salute. Government social activism was new ground. No one knew what would work and what wouldn't, much less how to manage such endeavors. Edward Bruce, PWAP director, and later Holger Cahill and Audrey McMahon (WPA arts administrators) were learning by doing. Some would claim (with some validity) that the war put an end to such foolishness; but in fact, the federal, state, and even local governments have been involved in promoting the arts and employing artists ever since. And despite various eruptions of controversy from time to time, our American culture is the richer for it.

Draught Stricken Land, 1934, Alexandre Hogue.
PWAP was not big on nudes, but some artists were more clever than others.


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