"Bullish on Baal" should have been the title of a prophetic cartoon in the show that goes on view today at the National Portrait Gallery.
The Old Testament warns that those who worship idols -- whether golden calves or stock tickers -- are due for a comeuppance. The cartoon's point is obvious, but millions somehow missed it when "The Goal" first appeared just nine months before the stock market began to crash 50 years ago today, Oct. 24, 1929.
Those pre-crash months were a heady time: America was swept by an orgy of greed. Cleaning men grew rich; shop girls became millionaires; on Wall Street the price of the leading industrials jumped, on the average, 110 points between June and August 1929.
John Raskob, whom the exhibition's catalogue describes as "the wunderkind of General Motors," told the readers of the Ladies' Home Journal that all of them could make $80,000 if they were willing to invest just $15 a month. His article was titled "Everyone Ought to Be Rich."
But after "Black Thursday's" panic selling, deep gloom replaced glee.
A pair of exhibitions opening today in neighboring, museums here portray both sides of that turning point. "The Great Crash" at the National Portrait Gallery is full of smiles and smugness. It deals with the "before." "After the Crash," on view next door at the National Collection of Fine Arts, is full of poverty and breadlines and hollow, hungry eyes.
On Oct. 24, and in the weeks that followed, $30 billion and something more important -- optimistic confidence -- vanished without trace. At first the news of Wall Street's crash seemed too bad to be true. Cartoonists poked fun at it; the president insisted that the country was "sound and prosperous." Franklin D. Roosevelt, then governor of New York, dismissed the market's crisis as "the little flurry downtown." In the National Portrait Gallery's exhibit, one feels the laughter fade.
The show opens with a room of 1929 newspaper cartoons, most of which are funny. All of them were borrowed from the archives of the New York Stock Exchange. When Andrew W Mellon, the secretary of the Treasury, told Americans to purchase bonds instead of speculative stocks, cartoonist John Scott Chubb made a pun of his advice: "Gentlemen Prefer Bonds," is the title of his drawing. A sense of eerie giddiness prevails throughout the show.
The Great Depression here is not more than a specter. Mellon, Samuel Insull, Richard Whitney and Thomas Lamont sit sternly in their portraits, staring at the viewer with unshakable assurance. Almost all these men made millions on the rise and lost millions in the crash; a number went to jail. But the troubled days that lay ahead are only hinted at.
When Charles A. "Lucky" Lindbergh flew alone to Paris, the price of the stock in Wright Aeronautical, the firm that built the engine for his plane, enjoyed a tenfold increase. But even Seaboard Air Line -- not an airline, but a railroad -- rose in heavy volume.
When John D. Rockerfeller, then well into his 90s, tried to stop the market's hemorrhage by announcing to the public that "prosperity . . . will come again" and that he was "buying stocks," the New York American headlined his announcement "the Big Fellow Talks!" "I have been purchasing sound stocks," said Rockefeller. "Sure," replied Eddie Cantor, "who else has any money left?" In the Portrait Gallery's exhibit, beside the old man's portrait is a copy of the sheet music for "Happy Days Are Here Again!"
By the time the strolling viewer reaches the National Collection's exhibition, happy days are gone.
The Depression-era paintings here sing the blues. The images are sad and twitching, windswept and discordant. The faces and the color scheme of O. Louis Guglielmi's "Relief Blues" will make the viewer shiver. Joseph Hirsch's "Hero" is selling poppies on the street. The Dust Bowl's sandy wind howls through this exhibition haggard men in old cloth caps hitchhike west or walk the city's littered streets.
The Portrait Gallery's portraits are earnest and old-fashioned; but a devastated and manic spirit sweeps the huanting pictures at the National Collection. Most of these were made not in 1929, but later in the depths of the poverty that swept the country following the crash. "The Great Crash" closes April 20. "After the Crash" will be on view through Jan. 13.