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Feature

The painting "Workers--Five O'Clock" by Dorothea Lau

Dorothea Lau's painting "Workers--Five O'Clock" is one of many pieces in the exhibition under the theme of "Industry."

Art of the New Deal

Exhibition at the Weisman commemorates 75th anniversary of 'New Deal' programs

By Rick Moore

May 23, 2008

The Great Depression was an extended period of unprecedented challenge in America. From "Black Tuesday" to the dawn of World War II, the country weathered a stock market crash and resulting economic collapse, a prolonged drought, and staggering rates of unemployment.

Out of the depths of the Great Depression sprang the New Deal, a wide-ranging relief and reform initiative by President Franklin D. Roosevelt designed to put people to work and stimulate the economy. Millions of Americans were employed by New Deal programs, and thousands of them were artists.

The work from more than 60 of these artists is the subject of the Weisman Art Museum's new exhibition, "By the People, for the People: New Deal Art at the Weisman," which runs through July 27.

The Weisman is an official federal repository of New Deal art, with more than 1,000 works created by nearly 200 artists. The works in the exhibition include artists from Minnesota and elsewhere across the country--names such as Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, and others who went on to success after the New Deal era.

The artworks span various forms--including oil and watercolor paintings, prints, photographs, drawings, and a few pieces of earthenware--and a wide range of styles from social realism to surrealism.

One of the exhibition's goals, says curator Diane Mullin, is "to show audiences the plethora of artists involved in this project--men, women, photographers, painters, expressionists, social realists."

A number of pieces focus on the University of Minnesota campus and surrounding neighborhood--one of the exhibition's four conceptual categories. (The other three are "Minnesota as Subject," "The Other Half: Women and the WPA," and "Outside the Box: American Modernism and the New Deal.") Dewey Albinson's "University Bridge" offers a glimpse at the corner of University and 14th Avenues--pre-Annie's Parlour--with the Dinkytown trench (the topic of light-rail line discussions), the river, and the downtown milling district all visible components. Another of Albinson's works depicts life at the river flats on the West Bank, circa 1934.

There are three lush watercolors by Stanford Fenelle--of University Avenue, East River Road, and Folwell Hall--and another by Cameron Booth of the "University Farm Campus."

Some of the most iconic images of the Great Depression were captured by American documentary photographers, some of whom were funded by the Farm Security Administration (another of the New Deal's many components) to document the plight of farmers.

An oil painting of the Robert Street Bridge in St. Paul by Bennet Swanson features a signature view of the capitol city, and other regional works highlight scenes from Duluth and Stillwater.

A varied section of abstract and surrealistic works offers a change of pace, spiced by Robert Van Rosen's "Checkerboard in Ward Eleven," a wild piece with one-eyed heads and body parts dotting a checkerboard floor beneath a patient who has three wooden limbs and an arm in traction.

Another large section of the exhibition centers around the theme of industry--one of the barometers for economic success, or lack thereof, during the depression.

And then there are the photographs. Some of the most iconic images of the Great Depression were captured by American documentary photographers, some of whom were funded by the Farm Security Administration (another of the New Deal's many components) to document the plight of farmers.

These are dramatic and stark images of rural citizens, young and old, often wearing vacant looks of fatigue and despair. One image by Marion Post Wolcott shows children of migrant packing house workers biding time in a "lean-to" shelter made of rusty galvanized tin and burlap while their parents work through the day and deep into the night. An older girl looks at what appears to be a coloring book, sandwiched between two disheveled boys with dirty hands in their mouths. It's a harsh portrayal of the reality of the depression for much of America, for many years.

The exhibition, like those photographs, is a great example of the power of art to both document hard times and provide an avenue to help rise above them.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays and all major holidays.