Infamous New York: Bosses, Burlesque & Mayhem

by Constance Schwartz



Beginning in the early 1920s, his fellow artist William Gropper threw himself into the radical movement creating political cartoons and caricatures for John Reed's The Revolutionary Age, Liberator, Pearson's, the New York Post, Photoplay, Vanity Fair, and New York World, Morning Freiheit (Freedom), Sunday Worker, New Masses, The New Pioneer and other publications and books. His expertise was in creating cartoons and caricatures for the radical press. His first public exhibition of paintings appeared in a small gallery in New York City in 1936 impacting the art scene with contemporaneous vivid subject matter. It was an immediate success. The paintings by Gropper are imbued with his social feeling and revolutionary political point of view distinguished by a subtle palette and dynamic sense of movement and action. His subjects show a sense of immorality in an insistence and power to ensnare broad masses of people.

In the paintings The Eternal Senator, 1956 (page_) and The Evidence, (1956 (page_) a dramatic scene is staged wherein the protagonists zero in on backward and destructive impulses in the fields of politics and law. His senator, created in an incisive weighty form, thrashes the air with fearsome vitality. Through art, Gropper exposes the degradation of certain elements of public life and society. He captures psychologically an action that bares the evils of what should be the staunchest branch of government to uphold the individual. Yet here it is explored through the visual behavior of individuals who are shorn of their ideals-undignified and unintelligent. (What indeed goes on between society and this type of art? This is questioned by so many of the artists on view.)

In contrast to the almost bombastic quality of Gropper's works, sensitivity and reticent sympathy define Raphael Soyer's paintings. Raphael, along with his brothers Moses and Isaac came New York's East Side where they got such art training as poverty allowed. Their father had been a Hebrew Scholar in Russia before the family came to the city. It was the "People" that intrigued the three artists and each painted a form of humanity with which they identified.

Raphael's gaunt men and hungry-looking women, done in subdued color, reflect stubborn patience in poverty. In Transients, 1938 (page_), two huddled men emerge from the dark shadows in the diagonal foreground.. It appears as if Soyer is pushing these figures into the viewer's arena. The title of the picture reflects a threatening world. Alone, without security of home or family, the two men share an intense secretive communion, that leaves one of them shocked into disbelief.

In the painting Two Models Resting, 1936 (page_), the figures express resignation. Raphael places the lean torsos of his models against bare walls in positions similar to that of Degas' dancers. However, here, they appear a little weary, battered. There's fatigue of course, as the figures gaze dolefully from the canvas, expressing both wistfulness and hope.


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