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American Scenes Tempered by Tough Times

Ray Strong's "Golden Gate Bridge" celebrates the can-do spirit of those who helped build the structure. Other works in the show are grimmer.
Ray Strong's "Golden Gate Bridge" celebrates the can-do spirit of those who helped build the structure. Other works in the show are grimmer. (U.s. Department Of The Interior, National Park Service)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009; Page WE39

In the depths of the Great Depression, American artists received their own version of a stimulus package from the federal government. From December 1933 to June 1934, the Public Works of Art Program put to work 3,749 artists (many of whom were hurting, just like their neighbors) to create more than 15,000 murals, paintings and other artworks for post offices, schools, libraries and government buildings. They were intended to lift the spirits of a demoralized nation through depictions of "the American scene." Whatever that means.

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Fifty-six of those pictures, most by people you have never heard of, are on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in "1934: A New Deal for Artists," a timely and thought-provoking show.

So why, if these paintings were supposed to make us feel better, are so many of them so depressing?

For one thing, I doubt whether it is -- or ever was -- the purpose of art to make people feel better. Some art certainly does that. And a bit of it is on view here. Agnes Tait's "Skating in Central Park" is one such picture, depicting an almost Currier-and-Ives-style scene of outdoor recreation. Ray Strong's "Golden Gate Bridge" is another, in the way it celebrates the can-do spirit of those who designed and built the engineering marvel despite setbacks. (A storm on Halloween 1933 had washed away a trestle.)

Escapism is a popular theme. See Paul Kirtland Mays's "Jungle," which is anything but American, or Julia Eckel's jolly "Radio Broadcast," which drew attention to the popular diversion of live radio theater.

But the overall mood of the show is, by far, less chipper. (That's a compliment, by the way, not a complaint.) No, there aren't any bread lines, but there's a pervasive feeling of, for lack of a better word, winter. That's due as much to the prevalence of snowy scenes in works by Beaulah R. Bettersworth, Jacob Getlar Smith, Raymond White Skolfield and numerous others as it is to a general sense of reserve, restraint and belt-tightening. There's a sense of living during the lean months (or years) on what was put away yesterday.

There is also, in some pictures, the promise of better to come. Erle Loran's chilly "Minnesota Highway" looks to a blue horizon. But a far more common temper is that found in Kenjiro Nomura's "The Farm" or Robert A. Darragh Miller's "Farm," both of which feature barns sitting empty and dark, devoid of people and animals.

E mptiness is, in fact, a recurrent minor chord. The show itself is officially divided into eight sections that cover natural beauty, city life and Americans at work and play. Still, the show's emptiness reverberates .

It's there in such obvious pictures as "(Underpass-New York)," a painting-over-photograph by an unidentified artist that is among the show's most starkly lovely images. But it's also there in such pieces as Paul Kelpe's "Machinery (Abstract #2)," the show's only nod to abstraction, and a formal study of now-stilled gears. Other street scenes show darkening shadows and emptying sidewalks. Even pictures that are populated, such as Saul Berman's "Riverfront," depicting New York shipyards, show workers engaged in little besides the busywork of shoveling snow.

Morning in America may have been just around the corner, as some of these artists hint at, or wish for, with their art. But judging by these paintings, during the winter of 1934 -- and even into the spring -- it felt like it was going to be dark and chilly for a long, long time.

1934: A New Deal for Artists Through Jan. 3 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW (Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown) or online at http://flickr.com/groups/1934. Contact: 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). http://www.americanart.si.edu. Hours: Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission: Free. The public can also make a movie about the 1930s at http://americanart.si.edu/picturing_the_1930s.


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