Scenes of American Life: Treasures From the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Through Aug. 13
Tennessee State Museum
505 Deaderick St.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat.;
1-5 p.m. Sun.
For information, call 741-2692
If art is to survive it must describe and express people, their lives and times. It must communicate.Raphael Soyer (1899-1987)
Soyer, a Russian immigrant who came to America in 1913, is one of 55 artists whose works are included in the Tennessee State Museum’s exceptional show drawn from the Smithsonian art collections in Washington, D.C. A painter, draftsman, and printmaker, he excelled in following his own advice about art, as his single painting in this show illustrates. “Annunciation,” painted late in the artist’s life, catches two young women in an unguarded moment as they dress. One, already attired in a simple skirt and blouse, leans against a bare wall. Her companion, still in a full slip, holds a towel in her hands. A simple white sink separates the women. The languid, almost dream-like mood of the moment is conveyed in hushed tones of oil paint on linen. The title may allude to the biblical annunciation in which the angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her she will bear the Messiah, but the imagery speaks only of two women sharing a quiet moment. What confidences they are also sharing, and what their relationship is, are questions for each viewer to ponder.
“Gold Is Where You Find It,” a 1934 oil on canvas by Tyrone Comfort, communicates a very different situation and set of questions. The work depicts a miner hunched in an unbelievably tight underground space behind a huge hand-held drill. Surround by sheer rock and squeezed into a near-fetal position, the miner’s body conveys both physical strength and intense mental concentration. While saluting the miner’s skills, the work also suggests that the peril such mining techniques pose to the individual is not worth the profit it puts in the mining company’s pockets. In doing so, the painting asks the viewer to confront not only the plight of miners, but of the working man in the Great Depression. Not surprisingly, the work was chosen by Franklin D. Roosevelt to hang in the White House during a term of office.
While Comfort did not work with the Works Projects Administrationa federally supported program during the 1930s that included public art commissions and artists’ stipendsabout a third of the artists in the Smithsonian show did. Because of that program then, we have works by artists like Pedro Cervantez now. A New Mexico artist originally hired to create reproductions of older religious images for schools and public buildings, Cervantez proved so talented he was eventually paid to paint what interested him personally. Still living today, he is represented in this show by “View of Artist’s Home,” a 1938 oil depicting his own front porch and the Southwestern landscape beyond. A strong sense of place and personal peace pervades the simple but evocative work.
WPA artists also created murals for public buildings. Two examples in the show are Gertrude Goodrich’s “Scenes of American Life (Beach),” a lively conglomeration of beach umbrellas, sunbathers, cops, and kids painted in 1941-47; and Joseph Rugolo’s “Mural of Sports,” a 1935 work featuring a runner modeled after Olympic great Jesse Owens and a tennis player inspired by eight-time Wimbledon champ Helen Wills Moody. Both express an idealized, even heroic, vision of American leisure pursuits.
African American artists are also represented in the show. Jacob Lawrence, once a WPA artist, celebrates African American culture and heritage in his abstract vision of blacks poring over books in “The Library,” a 1960 work. William Henry Johnson’s signature stick figures and bold primary colors are in evidence in “Café,” a 1939 view of a couple enjoying a drink at a café table, and in “Early Morning Work,” a 1940 painting of a sharecropping family about to begin a day in the fields.
Most of the works in the show were created in and depict scenes from the 1930s and 1940s, while only about a dozen works fall outside those decades. Consequently, the exhibition reflects the art styles, as well as the lifestyles, that dominated from the Great Depression through the post-World War II era. Precisionism, which applied Cubist geometry to straight representational painting, is expressed in several works, as is Social Realism, with its pointed commentaries on American life. Regionalism, which celebrates the beauty and character of rural America, is also highlighted.
While the exhibition includes a few works by famous artists, including Andrew Wyeth, Grant Wood, and Edward Hopper, most are by minor artists. Whether by celebrity artist or relative unknown, however, each of the 62 works in the show explores American life in the 20th century. If that seems a vast subject, it is. But as these works demonstrate, it is entirely possible to capture the spirit of a nation in the body of a miner, the furrow of a field, or the whirl of a carnival ride against the night sky. All it takes is an artist.
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…
Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.