Summary of Social Realism
The Social Realist political movement and artistic explorations flourished primarily during the 1920s and 1930s, a time of global economic depression, heightened racial conflict, the rise of fascist regimes internationally, and great optimism after both the Mexican and Russian revolutions. Social Realists created figurative and realistic images of the "masses," a term that encompassed the lower and working classes, labor unionists, and the politically disenfranchised. American artists became dissatisfied with the French avant-garde and their own isolation from greater society, which led them to search for a new vocabulary and a new social importance; they found their purpose in the belief that art was a weapon that could fight the capitalist exploitation of workers and stem the advance of international fascism. The art period is quite distinct from the Soviet Socialist Realism that was the dominant style in Stalin's post-revolutionary Russia.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Social Realists envisioned themselves to be workers and laborers, similar to those who toiled in the fields and factories. Often clad in overalls to symbolize unity with the working classes, the artists believed they were critical members of the whole of society, rather than elites living on the margins and working for the upper crust.
- While there was a variety of styles and subjects within Social Realism, the artists were united in their attack on the status quo and social power structure. Despite their stylistic variance, the artists were realists who focused on the human figure and human condition. Social Realists built on the legacies of Honore Daumier, Gustave Courbet, and Francisco Goya in their politically charged and radical social critiques.
- While modernism is most often considered in terms of stylistic innovation, Social Realists believed that the political content of their work made it modern. Social Realists turned away from the painterly advancements of the School of Paris.
Overview of Social Realism
During the 1920s, American artists searched for a greater importance within society. The presence of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco in New York City, together with the widespread teachings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, served as inspiration to the emerging artists. Later, with the lingering effects of the Great Depression of 1929, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided many struggling artists with patronage, a sense of community, and the mandate to paint realistically. Within the above historical context, a very large and diverse group of artists later called the Social Realists joined together to publish magazines, organize unions, convene artists' congresses, and publicly agitate for the importance of their revolutionary work, the role of the artist within society, and radical anti-capitalistic change for America.
Important Art and Artists of Social Realism
Committed to Marxism and communism, William Gropper drew vast numbers of illustrations for such radical publications as the New Masses and the Communist Party's Daily Worker. Wanting to reach the greatest number of working people, Gropper and others created prints and graphics for radical magazines, which were easy to distribute. Here, Gropper engaged the revolutionary visual rhetoric of the monumental, triumphant worker who both ideologically and physically dominates the puny clerics and capitalists in the lower left corner. Religion, in cahoots with capital, seeks in vain to contain and repress America's worker who is represented almost as a King Kong figure breaking free of his chains; the movie King Kong debuted in 1933. The idea of industrial servitude and slavery are also communicated by the chain links that the worker powerfully splits apart. Gropper's message is as stark and clear as is his choice of black and white coloration.
A member of the Communist Party, this is Douglas's fourth panel from a series covering the transition between human slavery and modern industrial enslavement; the final, fifth panel was to show Karl Marx amongst African-American workers leading them to a better proletarian future. At the work's apex, a saxophonist stands triumphantly with his instrument held high above his head, far above the green grasping hands that would draw him back into slavery. Yet his triumph is fleeting, as the industrial cog on which he stands will carry him back into the depths of the city and society; industrialism and mechanization are not friends of the American worker. Beyond the man's reach, in the far distance, stands the Statue of Liberty symbolizing the unfulfilled promises of universal freedom. Song of the Towers showcases Douglas's signature style of concentric, radiating circles that are punctured by bold silhouetted figures.
Isamu Noguchi's early sculptural works dedicated to social concerns, which align with the artistic Left, are often overlooked in deference to his abstract statuary and furniture design. As compared to other Social Realists, Noguchi employed a more modernist vocabulary instead of particularizing the figure and its facial features. Considered a major early piece by Noguchi, Death (Lynched figure) testifies to the artist's progressive racial views and strong social commitment, which position the sculpture within the concerns of Social Realism. Noguchi modeled the painfully contorted figure hanging from a rope on a photograph of African-American George Hughes being lynched above a bonfire, writhing in agony; Hughes was hanged in Texas in 1930. The horrifying photograph of Hughes was later reproduced in the Communist magazine, Labor Defender, which is where Noguchi saw it. In terms of form, the sculpture is unusual since Noguchi suspended the figure above the ground on a metal armature. Noguchi created this sculpture for a 1935 exhibition organized by the NAACP to protest the national rise in lynching and also to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact legislation prohibiting such vigilante violence; Roosevelt did not. Concurrently, the communist arts and cultural organization known as the John Reed Club held its own anti-lynching exhibition. While Noguchi's sculpture was well received, some critics reacted harshly to it, revealing their own racism by claiming the artist was not native-born and, in one instance, referring to the provocative sculpture as "a little Japanese mistake."
Useful Resources on Social Realism
- The Social and the Real: Political Art of the 1930s in the Western HemisphereOur PickBy Alejandro Anreus, Diana L. Linden, and Jonathan Weinberg
- Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953Our PickBy Stacy I. Morgan
- Social Realism: Art as a WeaponBy David Shapiro
- Mexican Painters: Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and Other Artists of the Social Realist SchoolBy MacKinley Helm
- The Red Decade: Art with a Gritty HeartBy Gerald Meyer / The Indypendent / March 10, 2015
- The Left FrontOur PickBy Roslyn Bernstein / Guernica / February 25, 2015
- Left Turns: The Radical Art of the Nineteen-ThirtiesOur PickBy Peter Schjeldahl / The New Yorker / January 26, 2015
- Antonio Berni: Juanito & RamonaBy Kellie Hwang / The Arizona Republic / August 14, 2014
- Re-examining the Works of an Obscure Social RealistBy Benjamin Genocchio / The New York Times / December 10, 2006
- Social Realism and the Imaginative in PrintmakingBy Phyllis Braff / The New York Times / July 23, 2000