Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 31, 2009 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the author at:
American Women at Work: Women Printmakers and the Federal Art Project
by Mary Francey
In 1932-33 the lives of more than ten million Americans were profoundly affected by widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, conditions that were to become increasingly severe during the following eight years of the Great Depression. With government support, American artists responded to these circumstances with visual statements that describe a society imperiled by a disabled work force. To provide jobs for the 25% of unemployed Americans, the government established the Works Progress (later Projects) Administration (WPA) to identify and create projects that needed workers. Unprecedented in the history of the United States was the government s recognition of the contributions artists make to society by including the Federal Art Project (FAP) in the overall plan. The FAP was designed to nourish a wide range of artistic endeavor by providing work for artists in the areas of production, education, and research.
Of the three areas, more than 50 percent of the visual artists employed by the FAP were engaged in the production of works of art, while 10 to 25 percent were assigned to art education and about 10 percent to research. Production accounted for such a large majority because professional artists were primarily interested in individual development rather than teaching or research, and because one of the FAP s primary purposes was to support the creation of works suitable for distribution to public buildings. By providing artists with opportunities to develop and expand their professional skills, the FAP also met its charge to maintain the professional standards of the American art world.
The highest level of production was achieved by the Graphic Arts section that employed printmakers who created more than 95,000 etchings, linoleum cuts, lithographs, wood cuts, wood engravings, and screen prints (then known as serigraphs) for allocation to public institutions. It is also the printmakers who, because their art form so closely aligns with craft and communicates effectively with a wide audience, best achieved the FAP's goal of producing art about and for the people. The Graphic Arts Division required prints to be produced in editions of 25 or 30, plus an additional five that artists were allowed to print for their personal collections. Prints were distributed to public buildings including state and federal offices, hospitals, libraries, and schools. It is an unfortunate fact that FAP works on paper were so under valued, and often simply unnoticed, that most have been lost or destroyed. The few still available and in collectible condition are primarily from artists own collections.
Prints produced by women who received Project commissions are particularly eloquent expressions of the social distress of the 1930s from the perspective of artists to whom work was as important as it was for the people they portrayed. Assigned to the Project because, as unemployed professional artists, they qualified for government support, their prints convey information about the nature and character of work women did during the 1930s, and why they did it. Most WPA programs were designed to offer jobs in road building, construction, urban renewal, and rural reforestation which were filled almost exclusively by men. While it also provided assistance for non-construction projects, few jobs typically held by women were included in WPA programs, i.e., those in education, community health, libraries, and social programs. As a result, opportunities for Project artists to observe women engaged in government supported work were limited. Therefore, instead of strong, confident men building skyscrapers, bridges, and dams, their subjects were often women bent over sewing machines, typewriters, or selling pretzels on the street.
A significant number of women assigned to the Project had attended classes at the Art Students League taught by artists of the Ash Can School, and by Joseph Pennell. Inevitably they combined Pennell s meticulous printmaking techniques with the artistic purposes and social philosophies of Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, and George Bellows. However, Ash Can artists painted exuberant and energetic immigrants who enthusiastically explored opportunities offered in America s bustling cities during the first two decades of the century. In contrast, their students were compelled to find subject matter within the same society a generation later but now, with 20 percent of the country's population on welfare, no longer cheerfully optimistic. Although familiar with modernist vocabulary, including abstraction, distorted forms, and arbitrary color, most FAP artists responded by producing work with social realist content or American scene themes.
Because of the Project s nondiscriminatory hiring practices, about 40 percent of the artists who qualified for employment were women, a statistic that reflects their numbers in the overall population and acknowledges their level of professional competence. Among these are several whose early careers were helped by their Project experience, including Lee Krasner, Alice Neel, June Wayne, and Louise Nevelson, each of whom made significant contributions to art world developments in the 1950s and 1960s. Others, whose names are less familiar, are now known to have participated in exploring experimental painting and printmaking techniques, a fact long overlooked because their work has been neglected by historians and scholars, and because large numbers of prints and paintings produced for the Project were lost, destroyed, or reclaimed for materials. It is difficult, therefore to identify all the women who worked in the Graphic Arts Divisions of the various Federal Art Programs. The first of these, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was initiated in December, 1933 and disbanded in June, 1934. The Treasury Section and the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) were followed by the FAP, a division of the WPA, established in 1935. The FAP was the largest and most comprehensive program, employing more than 5,000 artists including easel and mural painters, printmakers, and sculptors.
Mandated to support artists on relief, the FAP included programs in music, theater, literature, the visual arts, and arts education that created jobs for unemployed actors, artists, art teachers, musicians, and music teachers. All were classified as white collar professional and technical workers which gave visual artists a welcome social identity. Especially important to women artists were unprecedented opportunities to refine their skills in painting, printmaking, and sculpture, and time to develop individual styles. Because European modernist directions that had dominated the art world during the century s early years seemed irrelevant in a society that had shifted from affluence and optimism to economic disaster within thirty years, the various forms of pure abstraction were not relevant to the purposes of the FAP. Instead, printmakers in particular developed representational styles that incorporated their knowledge of modernist directions but were visual interpretations of a social crisis with which their viewers could, and did, identify.
Within the contradictory social pressures experienced by women in professional occupations during the Depression, artists received a particularly mixed message. Defined as professionals, women artists were accorded the same recognition as their male contemporaries, but their work inevitably reflected conventional social attitudes. The public was resistant to women in the workplace except for those whose jobs were considered unsuitable for men, jobs that could be closely controlled, and any form of work offering minimal compensation. Unbiased in its hiring procedure, the FAP insured a gender equality that professionally trained women in other fields, especially those without government support, did not have. For example, married women were discouraged from actively seeking employment, and many of those who had jobs were dismissed, often because of the one breadwinner per family directive stipulated and enforced by relief agencies, a practice that forced many professionally trained and experienced women into menial work for pitifully small wages. Therefore women artists, who were qualified professionals working in their field, often drew their subjects from the pool of women working at jobs that were of little concern to the country. For example, Beatrice Mandelman's Pretzel Woman, 1936, and Kyra Markham's Penny Lady, 1936, are street vendors, and Riva Helfond's Custom Made, 1940, shows a woman bent over a sewing machine, repairing or remodeling used clothing for distribution to welfare centers. Curiously, women artists who were acknowledged professionals in their fields, frequently depicted women performing menial, often demeaning, jobs. By representing street vendors, clerks, seamstresses, typists, and rural women carding wool, hanging laundry to dry, or overcome by the miraculous power of electricity, women artists unwittingly contributed to the continuing oppression of women. Images of women produced during the 1930s are rarely, if ever, heroic or idealized; instead they are images of people with few marketable skills determined to eke out a wage no matter how small.
By interpreting the nature of work and working conditions from within the dispirited Depression climate, these artists have deepened our understanding of a period that effected profound social, political, and economic changes. The prints in this collection are subdued compared to recent work by contemporary women artists, yet closer examination shows more similarities than differences. Many of the artists in this collection were militant activists who became involved in social and political causes. They created illustrations and cartoons for the Communist publications Art Front and the New Masses, and made satirical prints that that highlighted social and political foibles of the thirties. They attended meetings of the John Reed Club and participated in the Club s exhibitions, joined the Artist's Union and picketed along with its other members, and staged sit-ins at Project offices. In their attempts to point out society s imperfections and deflate social pretensions they were adjusting cultural perceptions ahead of their time and with a more accessible visual language. Although their own work stands as an eloquent record of their professional credibility and served as a source of encouragement to the following generation of women painters and printmakers, most remain obscure. Beatrice Mandelman spoke for her contemporaries when she stated that the artist does not have a choice and is compelled to create although " ...there is no money in it, there s no glory in it, there's no happiness in it, it's just work all the time -- not even work, you're just driven." Driven though they were, and as under-recognized as they are, artists in this collection contributed an important interpretation by professional women of the role played by many ordinary women during the dispirited social climate of the 1930s.
Artists Represented in The Collection
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About the Author
Mary Francey, Ph.D, is Professor Emerita of Art and Art
History, University of Utah, and retired Curator of American Art, Utah Museum
of Fine Arts.
The above collection was assembled to augment and expand the central idea of work as discussed in Printmakers and the Federal Art Project. The question of what kinds of work women did during the Great Depression and how Federal Art Project (FAP) artists responded to those themes led to the acquisition of this body of prints.
The images in pages 1-3 of Artists Represented in The Collection are from the exhibition catalog American Women at Work. The images of the prints were provided to Resource Library by the author. The prints are the property of the collector with whom the author worked. Each image is credited to Private Collection. The works were produced under government sponsorship.
This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 31, 2009 in Resource Library with permission of the author granted to TFAO on July 31, 2009. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the author at:
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