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Friday, November 24, 2017

1940s Art

Welcome Home American Legion WW II Veterans, Hy Hintermeister.
The war ended...we won, by the way.
Even though I was born half-way through the decade, about three weeks after the War in the Pacific ended, I naturally don't remember much, if anything, of the social chaos that marked the most important decade of the entire 20th-Century. I was a child of five when the decade ended. I vaguely recall playing on the back porch of our home in Stockport, Ohio around 1949. For that reason, in exploring the art of the 1940s I'm forced to choose the art and artists I've read and heard were important, or that which I now find intriguing, or which looks as though it might have been representative of the art from that period. Normally art and war don't mix, but even though we refer to the war as World War II, actually only about half the world was involve. As they are prone to do, artists fled the conflict for those countries which were safer. In most cases, that meant the United States. Thus there was a tremendous amount of art produced during this decade, either by those fleeing the war or those artists such a Norman Rockwell, Thomas Hart Benton, Hy Hintermeister (top), and James Montgomery Flagg seeking to do their part in winning the war.
Salvador Dali, during the war and after the war.
War changes people. Nothing on earth has the power to alter the course of so many lives, for better or worse, than armed conflict, especially on the scale of the Second World War. Salvador Dali's war was the Spanish Revolution as depicted in his Face of War (upper image) from 1940. For some, the changes are temporary, for others the trauma of war runs much deeper. Dali's The Madonna of Port Lligat (lower image) from 1949, stands in stark contrast to the earlier wartime image.

More subtle reflections of the 1940s.
In Europe, especially in England, there was nothing subtle about the war or the art reflecting it. British artist, Clive Branson, in 1940, painted The Blitz: Plane Flying, attempting to capture the war from the point of view of the men and women in the street. Notice the plane has both Nazi and British insignia, underlining the fact that the terrors of war are felt by the civilian population on both sides. The painting has a surreal quality to it, but then too, so does war.

The Blitz, Plane Flying, 1940, Clive Branson
Meanwhile, back on the home front, to see the Cannon Towel ads running in major magazines, one might get the idea that war was fun (below). This is just one of several depicting GIs frolicking in the water, drying off with Cannon Towels, which in some cases barely concealed their nudity. Today, such ads would probably be deemed highly inappropriate, but back then, times were different. Americans were in need of comic relief, no matter how tasteless.

The desert war in north Africa, which this scene suggests, while perhaps having some ancient ruins, they were not known to be littered with ancient swimming pools. Pity the poor guy near the top serving guard duty.
Other companies were quick to feature GIs in their ads. The ad below is supposedly for an airline, but the windows are so large as to suggest a railroad car. In any case, notice that there are no enlisted men along for the ride. In periods of conflict since WW II, ad agencies have generally limited the use of military men and women to recruitment posters.

Officers fly. The enlisted men take the train.
The art of the 1940s reflects three conflicting images insofar as women were concerned. The media depicted them either as loving wives and mothers keeping the "home fires" burning; or as substitute industrial workers of the "Rosie the Riveter" genre; or as sex symbols ostensibly intended to give the GIs something to be fighting for. In any case, the 1940s saw the sowing of the seeds for feminism which, some twenty or thirty years later burst into a full-blown revolution which continues to rage even today.

Women traded in the acetylene torch for a sparkling new kitchen and booming babies..
The war ended with a blast (two of them, in fact). The GIs came home, and despite the best efforts of Norman Rockwell (bellow)and other illustrators to suggest otherwise, found themselves facing problem and shortages that had festered untended for four long years. At the same time, though, the U.S. found itself a world leader, the Great Depression hardly more than a bitter memory. The economy was booming as never before as the U.S. helped the war-torn countries of western Europe recover from the tragedy of destruction and deprivation the war left in its path.

The Homecoming GI, 1945, Norman Rockwell.
Some things remained the same after the war. Hometowns like Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee (below), though they had changed little during the war were destined to explode with prosperity. In other places things remained as bad or worse than before. Harlem in New York City as depicted by Paul Raphael Meltzner, despite the much-touted Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, was even more dismal than before, only slightly better off than the worst small towns in the South with their lingering Jim Crow laws and black poverty.

State Street at Night, Bristol Virginia, Tennessee, Denise Beverly
Harlem, 1940s, watercolor, Paul Raphael Meltsner
Perhaps no other art form brings back the nostalgia for the 1940s more than that era's music. It began with the fading popularity of jazz and ended with what we've happily come to call the "swing" era. Janet Brice Parker's 1940s Jazz (below) suggests both eras. Click the video at the bottom to get "In the Mood."

1940s Jazz, Janet Brice Parker

The Unfinished Portrait of
President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, 1945,
Elizabeth Shoumatoff.

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