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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Raphael Soyer

Bus Passengers, Raphael Soyer--the Depression depression.
I was born some five to ten years after the worst of the Great Depression. I came into a world of United Nations hope for peace, relative prosperity, countered against the angst of nuclear weapons, McCarthyism, and a "cold" war that sometimes got pretty hot. But in general, it was a period now referred to by many as the "good old days" of the 1950s. Of course, how "good" they were depended largely on ones geography, skin color, and the number of numbers on your paycheck. Though I was never a victim of the Great Depression my parents were. I didn't notice it as a child but in later years, I came to realize what a profound impression the Depression left in their minds--their way of thinking, especially where money was concerned. No one I knew referred to the 1930s as the "good old days." Two artists from the Depression era were very adept at capturing the social psyche of this period. One we know well, Edward Hopper. The other, Raphael Soyer...not so much.

A career lasting more than fifty years.
Raphael Soyer and his twin brother, Moses, were born in 1899. They came from a family of Russian Jews straight out of Fiddler on the Roof, though considerably more intellectual. The two boys had four siblings. Their father was a Hebrew scholar who encouraged academic and artistic achievement. As with Tevye and his family in Fiddler, the Abraham Soyer family was forced by the Russian government in 1912 to leave their land. They emigrated to the United States settling into the Russian colony in the Bronx. Living in New York allowed young Raphael to attend the free schools of the Cooper Union, later the National Academy of Design and, subsequently, the Art Students League. Raphael Soyer (above) was a slender, gaunt, bespectacled man. Anyone making a movie about Soyer today, the only actor to fill the lead roll would be Woody Allen.

Employment Agency, Raphael Soyer
Consolation, Raphael Soyer
If you were an artist living in New York during the 1920s and 30s, Social Realism was the way to go. Soyer fell in with the Fourteenth Street School of painters including such names as Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop, Kenneth Hayes Miller, Peggy Bacon and, his teacher, Guy Pene du Bois. Soyer's painted content included female nudes, portraits of friends and family, the city itself, and, especially, its people. In essence, Soyer painted the Great Depression--up close and personal. Whereas Edward Hopper's work from the same era always seemed cool and detached, Soyer's paintings have a depressing, "gritty" quality to them seldom seen in the work of other artists of the time. His Bus Passengers (top) from this era is an excellent example. Still more disturbing is the desperation and boredom see in the faces of Soyer's Employment Agency (above). Neither have an exact date but the apparel would seem to place both works in the midst of the 1930s. Soyer's Consolation (right), captures the same feeling but in a more intimate moment.

Study for How Long Since You Wrote to Mother, 1943, Raphael Soyer.
The Train Station, Raphael Soyer
Despite showing regularly during the 1930s, in the large annual and biennial American exhibitions of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Carnegie Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Academy of Design, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, it was the WPA Federal Arts Project which put Soyer in daily contact with the rejected and dejected whom he painted. His humorously titled, How Long Since You Wrote Mother? (above), is one such example. Additional income came from teaching stints at the John Reed Club, New York, the Art Students League, the New School for Social Research and the National Academy. Later, during the war years, Soyer turned his attention to capturing the tender moments of separation from loved ones he saw daily all about him. Soyer's The Train Station (left) is about as iconic a depiction of the 1940s to be found in the realm of Social Realism.

Nude, 1980, Raphael Soyer

Café Scene, Raphael Soyer
Soyer was fortunate to survive the 1930s and 40s, continuing to paint well into the 1980s. He flatly rejected the New York school of Abstract Expressionism which arose in the 1950s, insisting, "I choose to be a realist and a humanist in art." His poignant double portrait of his parents at the dining room table seems almost the quintessential Depression painting. Once dubbed the “East Side Degas,” Soyer depicted ordinary men and women in contemporary settings. He was heavily influenced by the Ashcan School’s faithful representations of daily life in New York City’s poorer precincts. In sympathetic renderings of the unemployed during and after the great economic crash of 1929, many of Soyer’s paintings came to embody the Depression, as in the drawn, weary face and soft eyes that gaze out from his portrait of The Artist's Parents (below) from 1932. Soyer also painted women in large numbers and various forms throughout his career, including nudes (above), shop-girls (right), prostitutes, and pedestrians, displaying a fascination with the many faces of humanity. Soyer's Imaginary Wall in My Studio (bottom) is evidence of this element in his work. As the number of self portraits he left behind upon his death in 1987 at the age of eighty-seven would seem to indicate, he had a fascination with his own face too.

The Artist's Parents, 1932, Raphael Soyer
Imaginary Wall in My Studio, Raphael Soyer.
(The upper left face is a self-portrait.

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