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Saturday Art: Why Not Take The “L” by Reginald Marsh

Reginald Marsh, Why Not Use the “L”?, 1930
Why Not Take The “L”, 1930. Image courtesy of Gunther Stephan(kraftgenie) via Flickr

The 1930’s was a bad decade for the U.S. economically, but it was a very rich era for art. Some of the more well known names that got their start in that era were Jackson Pollack, Ben Shahn, Grant Wood, Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe. There were also scores of other wonderful artists, most of whose names we are not familiar with.  However we may have seen their works without realizing it, because many of them were in the form of murals which are a legacy from the Great Depression in many state and federal buildings, hospitals and even jails around the country. 

The painting above was done in 1930 by Reginald Marsh, and is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Marsh painted in a style known as social realism. His habit was to wander around the city sketching people in their natural settings, both individually and in large groupings, rather than formally posed.  He is known for his colorful paintings of New York that capture the atmosphere of that era; the subway, the city streets, the harbor, the theaters and burlesque houses and the Bowery. His favorite painting locale was Coney Island.  Marsh said “I like to go to Coney Island because of the sea, the open air, and the crowds—crowds of people in all directions, in all positions, without clothing, moving—like the great compositions of Michelangelo and Rubens”.

Marsh was one of the artists engaged in mural painting as part of the WPA. In 1936 he executed two panels for what is now the Federal Building in Washington, D.C. In August, 1936, the Treasury Relief Art Project hired him to paint the ceiling panels in the great hall of the Customs House on Bowling Green in Lower Manhattann, New York City(which now houses the Museum of the American Indian). Between September 18 and December 21, 1937, he painted in fresco seco, or on dry plaster, eight small and eight large panels, the latter chronicling the arrival of three ocean liners in New York: the American Washington, the British Queen Mary, and the French Normandie.  Marsh was a socially concious artist, although he came from a prosperous family and attended Yale University. He was also one of the first cartoonists hired by The New Yorker magazine. As you can see from “Why Not Take The “L”,  Marsh’s pictures often contained ironic political commentary. One of his most famous pieces, also in the Whitney’s collection, is of a breadline, and the title is “No One Has Starved”, supposedly taken from a remark made by Herbert Hoover.

I have a theory about the reasons behind the flowering of culture during the Depression Era;  first of all, there were the federal government’s programs under Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. The CPAP(Public Works of Art Project) operated in 1933 and 1934 under the Civil Works Adminstration, with the objective of giving work to unemployed artists and beautifying public buildings. In the course of less than a year, it employed 3,700 artists who created 15,000 works of art.  In 1935 CPAP was succeeded by the Federal Art Project which operated under the WPA(Works Progress Adminstration). This program employed over 5,000 artists in various creative fields and continued into the 1940’s. The second main reason for the extraordinary output of art, I believe, was the exodus of talent from Europe due to Hitler’s rise to power. Many of these exiles ended up in the U.S., to our great benefit. Of course this applied not only to art, but in every other field from science(Albert Einstein), literature(Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov) music(Kurt Weill and Erich Korngold), the humanities(Erich Fromm, Hannah Arendt) to cinema(Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder). A short list of artists who fled Europe for the U.S. before or during WW II would include Marc Chagall, George Grosz, Hans Hofmann, Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger and Max Ernst. Some of these exiled artists worked as teachers, and many of their American students later became famous themselves. With so much great art to choose from, it was hard to pick one artist to feature today, so I’ll probably return to the Depression era again.

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I am a baby boomer, born, raised and still living in New Jersey. I have been a waitress, programer/systems analyst & paralegal, among other jobs.
Interests: art, music, politics, reading, cooking.

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