Sunday, April 28, 2013

"1934: A New Deal for Artists" -- what about the art?

Agnes Tait, "Skating in Central Park," 1934, Smithsonian American Art Museum
I had never heard of the American painter Agnes Tait, who was born in New York in 1894 and who died in Santa Fe in 1981. Few people have. "Skating in Central Park" is her best known painting, and the only reason it's known is that it's in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And the only reason it's in the Smithsonian is that it was paid for by the federal government.
Agnes Tait had long wanted to make a large, festive painting of winter revelers in Central Park, but without a patron she could not take on this project. When the Public Works of Art Project gave her support in the winter of 1933–1934, the artist had her opportunity. As skaters and sledders flocked to the frozen lake and snowy slopes of Central Park, Tait joined them to sketch the winter fun. Then she retreated to her studio to make her painting.
1934: A New Deal for Artists is a Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit of works from its collection marking 2009's 75th anniversary of the New Deal's short-lived Public Works of Art Project. It's been traveling the country, and today it completed its run at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison. "Skating in Central Park"  was probably my favorite work in the show. You can see it on the Smithsonian's website, which also contains more information about the painting as well as a bio of the artist, who moved to Santa Fe in 1941, became a regional painter and also an accomplished children's book illustrator.

The government sponsored art during the Great Depression is often mocked for mixing art and politics in the style of "socialist realism." Sure, if you hunted for examples of overly idealized portrayals of workers and farm laborers you could find them. But few of the works in the exhibit conform to this old stereotype. Most are refreshingly free of overt political messages. Agnes Tait, for example, seems to be influenced more by Bruegel than some faceless Soviet cultural commissar.

If there's a message it seems to be, "Look! This is beautiful."

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