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Springfield museum exhibit portrays America during Great Depression

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"Barn Dance," 1938 by Clyde Singer, is an example of work that reflects Americans "Seeking Community."

    PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
    "Barn Dance," 1938 by Clyde Singer, is an example of work that reflects Americans "Seeking Community." Purchase photo reprints »

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"Abstract," ca. 1930, by Valleja "Wally" Strautin, is in the section of the exhibit labeled "Toward Abstraction."

    PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
    "Abstract," ca. 1930, by Valleja "Wally" Strautin, is in the section of the exhibit labeled "Toward Abstraction." Purchase photo reprints »

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"The Smelters," 1934 by Earl Rowland, is on exhibit in the section called "American Industry."

    PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
    "The Smelters," 1934 by Earl Rowland, is on exhibit in the section called "American Industry." Purchase photo reprints »

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"Portrait of  Stanley Young," 1932 by John Steuart Curry, is an example of work that portrays "America in Isolation."

    PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
    "Portrait of Stanley Young," 1932 by John Steuart Curry, is an example of work that portrays "America in Isolation." Purchase photo reprints »

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"The Stairway," 1921, by George Copeland Ault, can be found in the exhibit section called "The Surrealist Influence."

    PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
    "The Stairway," 1921, by George Copeland Ault, can be found in the exhibit section called "The Surrealist Influence." Purchase photo reprints »

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"Adam and Eve," ca. 1912-15, by William Sommer, is in the "Early Modern" section of the exhibit.

    PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
    "Adam and Eve," ca. 1912-15, by William Sommer, is in the "Early Modern" section of the exhibit. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Janet and Nicolas Gross in the dining room of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Janet and Nicolas Gross in the dining room of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Front door of Nicolas and Janet Gross's Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Front door of Nicolas and Janet Gross's Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"Barn Dance," 1938 by Clyde Singer, is an example of work that reflects Americans "Seeking Community."
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"Abstract," ca. 1930, by Valleja "Wally" Strautin, is in the section of the exhibit labeled "Toward Abstraction."
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"The Smelters," 1934 by Earl Rowland, is on exhibit in the section called "American Industry."
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"Portrait of  Stanley Young," 1932 by John Steuart Curry, is an example of work that portrays "America in Isolation."
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"The Stairway," 1921, by George Copeland Ault, can be found in the exhibit section called "The Surrealist Influence."
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE D'AMOUR MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS<br/>"Adam and Eve," ca. 1912-15, by William Sommer, is in the "Early Modern" section of the exhibit.
  • Janet and Nicolas Gross in the dining room of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Front door of Nicolas and Janet Gross's Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

The tumultuous years of America in the first half of the 20th century — the rise of industrialization, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, participation in two world wars — have been well documented in history texts.

But a fascinating exhibit at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield offers a new interpretation of that dramatic era, showing how American painters responded to the changes sweeping the nation. The exhibit, on display through Feb. 24, also demonstrates how American painters of that time began incorporating new styles such as modernism, cubism and surrealism.

“Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Houseman Collection” features more than 60 works dating from the years just before World War I to the mid-1940s. The Housemans, a Missouri couple with an extensive collection of American art, have worked with the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn., to put this and other traveling exhibitions together over the last several years.

The Springfield exhibit presents a notable contrast between the paintings from just before World War I and the late 1920s and the work that artists created during the Depression years. Colorful, idyllic landscapes and everyday scenes give way to dark, brooding images: clusters of unemployed people gathered near a job notice, empty city streets, old graveyards and houses falling into ruin.

Julia Courtney, the show’s curator, notes that in some cases artists were hit hard by the Depression and chronicled their own experience, while others simply tried to capture the larger mood of fear and despair that gripped the country.

“There was so much happening between the wars and so much happening artistically, with American painters developing their own forms of the styles from Europe, like cubism,” Courtney said. “That’s one of the things I find so compelling about the exhibit, the sense of history and the variety of art it offers.”

Part of the exhibit’s appeal is that it features paintings from lesser-known American artists. There’s nothing from Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and other big names of the era. But many Midwest artists are featured, particularly from the area around Cleveland, Ohio, which at the time rivaled New York City for artistic experimentation.

One of those Cleveland artists, William Sommer, produced one of Courtney’s favorite paintings in the exhibit: “Adam and Eve,” circa 1912-14, is a colorful abstract view of the world’s first couple in an Eden-like setting, with lush meadows and a sparkling lake overseen by a radiant sun.

The painting, influenced by the work of Henri Matisse, sets the tone of the first section of the show, which includes other soft, pastoral landscapes. Two other Cleveland painters, August Biehle and William Zorach, reflect the influence of leading European artists such as Vasily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso.

As Courtney notes, Biehle’s “Cleveland West Side, Hillside” uses bold colors, simple geometric shapes and a flattened perspective to depict a row of houses on a hill. The paintings suggests cubism without directly employing the style.

“You can sense it even if you don’t see it,” she said.

Bleak tableau

Three exhibition sections — “America in Isolation,” “Seeking Community” and “American Industry” — examine the Great Depression’s impact in different ways. The decline of small towns as people left to search for jobs is a theme in paintings such as “In Memoriam” by Charles Burchfield, a popular New York watercolorist of the 1920s whose work turned dark the following decade. In this 1936 painting, toppled and sagging gravestones litter an untended cemetery, with leaden skies and a backdrop of dark woods adding to the bleak tableau.

In “Second Floor, Back” by Carl Frederick Gaertner, two women and a child, their features abstracted, are shown at dusk on a rickety wooden landing between a pair of tumbledown apartments. Gray clouds boil overhead, and the only light comes from a tiny window in one of the buildings.

Other works showcase the attempts Americans made to come together — at dances, fairs or just around a pot-bellied stove in a general store — to find distraction from hard times. Clyde Singer, an Ohio painter, celebrates such a moment in 1938’s “Barn Dance,” which shows couples whirling to the strains of a fiddler, with a hayloft and an oil lantern visible in the background.

The 1930s was a decade of growing strife between labor and business owners, and the seeming collapse of capitalism spurred a call for a new political order. In Walter Quirt’s “The Future Belongs to the Workers,” the artist offers a panoramic, surrealistic view of striking workers arrayed against a backdrop that includes a coal-fired power plant and a fragment of a small town. One man hoists a Communist flag as a sheriff looks threateningly at a group of men.

Artists also used a variety of styles to recognize industrial America for the jobs it provided while also decrying its dehumanizing effects.

In Earl Rowland’s “The Smelters,” for instance, an enormous bucket of molten steel hovers over a handful of insubstantial-looking workers below. And in “Cleveland Flats,” by Edmund Brucker, no humans are visible at all — it’s an apocalyptic landscape of smokestacks, coal piles, storage tanks and towering columns of steam and flame.

The most avant-garde forms of European art, such as surrealism and abstraction, took longer to make inroads in America. A 1913 show in New York City of international art “shocked and largely appalled” many conservative audience members, according to exhibit notes.

But Courtney says the Depression and then the advent of World War II prompted some American artists to look for different ways to express the themes of loss, fear and uncertainty that dominated the era. “They used dreamscapes in place of more literal images,” she said of the surrealists.

As Europe lurched into war, for instance, Robert Elton Tindall painted “Winged Victory,” which shows a human skull partially hidden under a soldier’s helmet. Perched on the macabre object, which is nestled in a pile of fallen leaves, is a tiny bird — perhaps a symbol of the ultimate triumph of nature and life itself over the brutality of war.

On the other hand, John Carlton Atherton’s “The Sleepers,” from 1945, depicts a desolate landscape of blackened trees and rubble with five figures sprawled near a ruined building. The exhibit notes that Atherton, hired to produced patriotic lithographs for the government during the war, privately was horrified by the conflict, and that “The Sleepers” was his response to the atomic bomb attacks on Japan in 1945.

It makes a fitting coda to “Modern Dialect,” encapsulating the turmoil of the 1930s, America’s struggle and then victory in World War Two — producing the dawn of the atomic age and a new era of uncertainty.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Modern Dialect” is on view through Feb. 24 at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Quadrangle, 21 Edwards St. in Springfield. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and college students, $8 for children ages 3 to 17; children under 3 are admitted free. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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