GREENWICH, CONN. – The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science presents “Prints of American Life: WPA Works on Paper from the Webster Collection” from September 1 through November 25. Drawn from the collection of Maida and William Webster of New Canaan, Connecticut, the exhibition features 45 prints from Depression-era America, dating from 1935 to 1943. The prints, of which 41 are black and white and four are color, cover a broad range of styles, subject matter, and techniques that include etching, lithography, wood engraving and silk screening.
Following the stock market crash of 1929, the ensuing Depression left one out of every four Americans unemployed. In an attempt to restore the financial and psychological well being of the American people, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted his “New Deal,” which included relief for the unemployed.
As part of this plan, the Works Progress Administration/Federal Arts Project was formed in the fall of 1935 under the direction of Holger Cahill. The WPA/FAP, as it was commonly known, was a work-relief project for artists who were admitted to the program after establishing financial need and passing an exam that determined artistic ability. In the eight years of its existence (1935 – 1943) the Fine Arts Project provided a living wage for over 5,000 artists out of a total of 3 million individuals on the WPA payroll.
The Graphic Arts Division of the WPA/FAP was established to provide work-relief for printmakers. The first of many local workshops was established in New York City, where temporary quarters were set up at WPA/FAP headquarters in February 1936. This New York City facility, where all of the works in the Webster Collection were produced, was vitally important. It was one of the best-equipped workshops in the nation, producing 75,000 prints, which comprised more than one quarter of the total 250,000 produced nationally. The facility was also the test case for gauging the success or failure of the arts projects on a national scale.
“Prints of American Life” captures the mood of this period as uniquely interpreted by America’s printmakers. The common man became a symbol of America’s national strength, and depictions of the American worker emphasized the uplifting value of industry and hard work. The exhibition also features realistic images of our nation’s life, portraying factories and mines, city streets and river views, men laboring on construction sites or on farms, and women ironing or at rest after a hard day’s work. Scenes of people enjoying the pleasures of daily life or witnessing its tragedies are included along with humorous and satirical sketches that offered welcome relief in the face of the Depression’s harsh realities.
In order to create a democratic art reflecting the lives of the common man, many artists embraced realism as the only true American style while rejecting modernism and foreign styles such as Cubism, which were thought to be incomprehensible. As a result, most WPA/FAP work was done in a realistic style, though there are examples of other styles, including Joseph Vogel’s “Seamstress” and Fred Becker’s “Cafeteria Still Life,” which are both surrealist inspired.
Also included are a group of color prints, one of the most important achievements of the Print Division. Prohibitive costs of equipment and printing had previously made it impossible for the graphic artist to work in color lithography or color woodblock. In the New York City workshop, however, the WPA/FAP artists worked with three printers to produce color lithographs.
“In lithography, Project artists did not confine their efforts to crayon work on stone,” wrote artist Hyman Warsager in his 1936 essay “Graphic Techniques in Progress,” reproduced in WPA Art for the Millions. “They struck out boldly with washes of tusche or opaque tusche and scraped with razor blades, sandpaper, or carborundum. Project artists took to this medium with rare enthusiasm.”
Artists in the New York workshop also produced significant examples of color woodcuts, color monotype, wood engravings in color and especially color silk screen, which Warsager referred to as “the most startling contribution to color prints” because of the economy, ease and diverse possibilities of the process.
With America’s involvement in World War II, unemployment became virtually non-existent as additional manpower was put toward the war effort. Federal funds were also shifted into the war effort. As a result, Congress terminated the Federal Art Project in 1943.
Accumulated art was stockpiled and eventually sent to city schools for use in art classes to demonstrate printmaking techniques. At the end of the school year, classrooms were cleaned, and the majority of these prints, considered worthless, were discarded. Maida Webster’s stepfather worked at one of those schools and salvaged the art from the trash, storing the prints for decades in the back of a closet. More than 30 years later he gave them to Maida and William Webster, who contacted experts in the field to learn about the period and the prints’ artistic significance. They then began to acquire additional prints to enhance their collection, a process that continues to this day.
The exhibition “Prints of American Life will include a descriptive publication, which explains the WPA/FAP program and the various themes in the works on view.
The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science at 1 Museum Drive is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday 1 to 5 pm. For information 203-869-0376.