“The Left Front: Radical Art in the Red Decade, 1929-1940” shares the aesthetics and the revolutionary spirit of some of the first artists entrenched in America’s progressive political movement.The groundbreaking exhibit runs through June 22 at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. The is the first exhibit to recognize the socially conscious work of artists, who associated with American journalist John Reed and also exhibited work in Reed’s New York collective. Reed’s firsthand accounts of the Russian Revolution inspired the award-winning movie, “Reds.”
At a time when artists banded together to promote social justice, this exhibit features dozens of significant pieces by such artists as Rockwell Kent, William Gropper, Carl Hoeckner and Morris Topchevsky, a Chicago artist, who embraced the motto, “art as a social weapon.” The exhibit encompasses silk screens, woodcuts, oil paintings, etchings, watercolors, pen-and-ink drawings and other treasures, including limited editions of the poetry of Langston Hughes.
John Murphy and Jill Bugajski are co-curators for the exhibit.
Murphy said the featured artists flourished right after the Stock Market crash when racial inequality and the struggles of American workers and immigrants tore at the American psyche.
“What drew me to this art work is that the definition of art changed as these artists banded together to create social change,” Murphy said. “What was important to these artists was how art affected society.”
There are many jarring and beautiful images, including an immigrant’s perspective of the Holocaust, a colorful woodcut of sensual Harlem dancers, a bleak image of workers standing on a breadline, and skyscrapers from a distorted angle.
“The works are incredibly beautiful and striking in terms of their material qualities,” Bugajski said. “It’s not just social realism. It wasn’t just pictures of laborers with their fists in the air. It was artists who experimented with surrealism and cubism. They pushed the parameters of their art.”
In their printmaking, many of the artists made their strongest statements.
“What was unique about the artists is they were making a conscious statement against the preciousness of art work,” said Susy Bielak, Block Museum’s curator of public practice. “Part of what makes you want to get your face in these images is the renderings are haunting. In printmaking, you can share a multiplicity of your political messages. You can feel the immediacy of the prints.”
Murphy feels in these times of economic distress, the anti-establishment messages of the leftist artists remain relevant.
“Some of the pieces that address the bureaucracy of Wall Street resonate in the Take Back Wall Street movement,” said Murphy. “Some of these works of art look like they could have been created today.”
Bugajski said the artists in this exhibit were visionaries.
“It was really a radical re-thinking of what artists should and shouldn’t do,” she said. “These artists were constantly debating what art should do. A lot of questions emerged. This was what made the time period so rich and interesting. These artists were comrades in a collective.”
Murphy said this exhibit represents a turning point — the convergence of art and politics.
“Artists are constantly asking what is my responsibility to society, making art political or turning politics into art,” he said. “I’m fascinated with how artists negotiated this minefield. It was very important for them to be good artists and good activists. Many of these artists were the voices of America.”