American Art Before and After the Second World War

The great depression was a significant stage in the transformative change that American art would take after the Second World War. It is during the great depression that the Seattle Art Museum was created and funded till completion by an art collector; Richard Fuller. This is because until after the Second World War, most American museums exhibited European art. Adams (1979) argues that the American artists were not taken seriously before the Second World War The popular belief was that the artists had to visit European countries for them to become fully fledged American artists. Nearing the Second World War American artists took to developing individual styles that would later have enormous impacts on social reform. The artists developed contempt for a public that had contempt for them (Adams, 1979). This paper seeks to explore American art before and after the Second World War by highlighting two artists during the great depression and one abstract expressionist artist.

The Great Depression

The great depression is characterized by the appearance of numerous murals of the social realist style that were part of the New Deal movement of the time. Murals were artworks applied on permanent surfaces such as walls and ceilings.  Most of these murals are associated with progressive industrial visions. Gray & Schulze (2001), point out that the paintings often depict stern scientists at work, laborers and grand cities characterized by skyscrapers. The ‘Chicago -Epoch of a Great City’ by American artists Harry Sternberg is one of the greatest murals of all time. The painting was made in 1938 and hangs in the Lakeview Post Office, West Irving Park Road, Chicago. The canvas is divided into three thematic categories. The right and the left sections seem to depict a celebration of Chicago’s agricultural and industrial strengths respectively. These two sections in the piece of art represent strong male working-class figures. The male figures symbolize the explosive growth that the city of Chicago is set to undergo. Behind the diminutive Fort Dearborn in the foreground, stands the wooden 19th-century city consumed by a fire out of which emerges the sleek popular metropolis.

Secondly, there is the piece of artwork by Seymour Fogel; the wealth of the nation. The painting is collected as part of the Work Administration Project (WAP) and the New Deal theme (Gray & Schulze, 2001),. The subjects of these paintings are laborers, industry, and public works. The painting depicts figures devoted to collective building and development. The far middle left sits a scientist engrossed deep in microscopic studies with beakers and other laboratory objects behind him, at the foreground sits an architect inspecting a blueprint using a tool to measure. The center middle ground houses a shirtless man pulling on a lever of some machine. The far right of the painting portrays two construction workers one in an overall and the other without. The man in overalls carries a sled hammer. The far right background depicts a factory scene with smoke coming out of the chimneys.

Most artworks before the Second World War were aimed to enhance quality of the American life. The government intervention to employ artists was a move to help them make an honest living from their artwork which had petite recognition at the expense of their European counterparts (Adams, 1979). The art was later used for purposes fo creating a unifying national culture among the struggling American people. The two pieces of art explained above were used for the same purpose of social reform and purposes of working hard collectively for a better nation. Paintings from this era relayed various messages such as collective economic struggles and the benefits that a state can acquire by joint planning. These pictures call for cooperation in the communities where every individual contributes to the goal (Gray & Schulze, 2001).

Abstract Expressionist Art

The emergence of abstract expressionism is much rooted in works done during the great depression. Doss (1995) argues that the artists, who would later pioneer abstract painting, were stamped by the experiences from works of the great depression. The transitional change to abstract from styles influenced by social realism and regionalist movements derives much benefit from the great depression. After the Second World War, the artists abandoned artwork associated with physical characterization and turned to non-objective imagery that was fueled by emotions and personal feeling. Gibson (1997) argues that abstract expressionism dragged along conceptualists who conceived art as a language. A work of art was now a concept rather than an attractive object characterized by taste. The differences between paintings after the war and before the war can arguably be attributed to the purpose. The purpose of paintings in the 1930s was to influence teamwork and collaborative cooperation. After the war, paintings lost the focal point and expanded based on what an artist had in mind. The works after the Second World War focused across a broad range of subjects and artists’ personal interest emotions and thinking.

Willem de Kooning, an American abstract expressionist, is popularly known for the creation of the ‘woman 1’ painting. The picture of the ‘woman 1’ depicts an overly aggressive woman with wild eyes drawing amalgam from female archetypes (Gibson, 1997). The brush work of the artist heightens the woman’s threatening ferocious grin and stare. The painting depicts the cultural ambivalence lodged in between reverence for and the fear of feminine power. The woman’s pink legs emerge from the yellow skirt with white flecks. The woman is best described as the monster of fantasy due to the un-natural depictions such as the mountainous breasts and big eyes (Doss, 1995).

The styles used by De Kooning show a close elision of abstract and figurative imagery styles. The painting arguably opens up new avenues for erotic and everyday life to abstract art (Doss, 1995). The art takes a style of a sexually frustrated artist; the woman is a woman in the painter’s thoughts and minds apparently depicting the original sexual vision that the artist had in mind (Gibson, 1997). This work impacted on the artist’s following drawings which explored figure and ground. The woman’s form blends with the background in consecutive paintings by using brushstrokes that draw ground and figure together. This picture is related to how the real world dealt with sexual ambiguities. The painting also illustrates the unleashed feminine power.

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