September 24, 2010

WPA Printmaking

        During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt's New Deal economic program was intended to relieve unemployment by providing jobs so that people would not only have money for food and housing, but would also gain the moral and emotional value of having meaningful work.  The WPA Federal Arts Project was founded in 1935 and anyone who could demonstrate need and that they had previously worked as an artist was eligible.  Men and women, all ethnic backgrounds, all styles of art were accepted.  The government identifies 1,114 printmakers that worked under the WPA/FAP program, and it's estimated that about 11,300 different images were produced.  Moreover, the program's system of setting up printmaking studios and fostering education and innovation ended up having a huge influence on the course of 20th century printmaking.
        WPA printmakers worked with wood blocks, linoleum, lithography, etching, and screen printing.  They made both abstract and representational images, and they depicted all variety of subject matter.  Generally speaking, the works tend to be populist and reflect a democratic ideal, but (except in the poster division) there was no explicit political agenda.  A printmaker made a proof, and a workshop director would decide how big an edition should be run.  Most were very small editions, many under 25, and the prints were used to decorate government offices and other public buildings.  Except for a few proof copies that the artists might keep, everything belonged to the government.  (Even now the government claims ownership of art produced under the WPA, so there are some interesting murky issues for collectors trying to buy WPA art for private collections.)
        The program allowed artists to cross-pollinate in wonderful ways, and gave all sorts of artists access to high-quality equipment and supplies, as well as mentoring and collaboration.  Unfortunately, after the FAP program ended, the prints don't seem to have been valued much.  Some were destroyed accidentally, some lost, others used as scrap paper!
        Obviously, I tend to appreciate the relief block prints, although of course there are also some wonderful lithographs and other print media works.  I particularly love the industrial scenes and some of the landscapes.  I've posted what I could find on the internet that I especially liked, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

[Pictures: Railroad Bridge, wood block print by Edward Jansen, c.1937;
Near Franconia, N.H., wood engraving by Isaac J. Sanger, c.1937;
Coal Barges, wood block print by Isaac J. Sanger, c.1937;
My Backyard, wood block print by Hyman Warsager, c.1937;
Mountain Pines, wood block print by Charles Reed Gardner, c.1935;
An Old Town in Illinois, wood block print by Todros Geller, 1940;
Railroad Crossing, wood block print by John P. Heins, c.1937.]

(I found much of the above information in an article by John A. Stewart, and the pictures are all from the Gibbes Museum of Art and Rona Schneider Fine Prints.  I appreciate that all these resources are posted where I and everyone else can use them.)

1 comment:

Pax said...

Although FDR was hated by some for this "waste" of money, his vision of both the value of work and of art enriched us all. Would that in this "recession" we could raise up leaders with similar vision.