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Regionalism, Photography and the Great Depression

Regionalism, Photography and the Great Depression

Author: Ian McConnell
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This lesson will explore Regionalism, Photography, and the Great Depression.

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Tutorial

An overview of Regionalism as an artistic movement in the United States, and photography, within the context of the Great Depression.

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name's Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about regionalism, photography, and the Great Depression. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary, and as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the context of the Great Depression and its influence on the arts, and identify examples of regionalism and photography from this era.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is regionalism. An American art movement during the 1930s characterized by depictions of realistic rural scenes. Social realism. Part of FSA, an art movement whose artists focused on everyday conditions of the working class. FSA, Farm Security Administration. First developed to assist resettlement of rural populations, the program was responsible for supporting a highly prolific photography and writing program that documented life during the Depression.

The big idea for today. So the Great Depression influenced the arts in the prevalence of social realism. And the art that we're looking at today dates from between 1920 and 1942. We'll be traveling to Neosho, Missouri, birthplace of Thomas Hart Benton; Iowa City, Iowa, where Grant Wood worked and died; Akron, Alabama, where Walker Evans photographed two of his most famous subjects; and Nipomo, California, were Dorothea Lange photographed her iconic image of a migrant mother.

So regionalism, in a nutshell, is anti-modernism movement that reached its height during the Great Depression. It explores American identity through scenes celebrating rural life. Now, the Great Depression was a worldwide economic downturn of the 1930s and 1940s that saw significant declines in production, spending and trading, and rises in unemployment, reaching around 25% unemployment in the United States alone.

Now, the events leading up to and causing the Great Depression are still debated today, but in chronological terms, most agree that the stock market crash of 1929 sort of marks the beginning, with the depression abating, in the United States, at least, around the beginning of our entry into World War II in 1939.

Now, the Depression and concurrent dust bowls of the Midwest and Great Plains really decimated the local economies. Crops literally turned to dust, and thousands of farming families were displaced as a result. And one of the largest migrations in hopes of finding a better living was the famous migration from Oklahoma to California, which served as the backdrop for the literary classic The Grapes of Wrath, which you may have seen the movie or read the book before.

The plight of western migrant workers and sharecroppers from the south served as the subject matter for the photography that we're looking at today. So we'll begin by looking at two examples of painting. Our first painting is by the Midwest artist Thomas Hart Benton. And though he was born in Missouri, he wasn't confined there, studying in Chicago and Paris, spending considerable time in New York in the Northeast.

Now, "The People of Chilmark" is set in the town of Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard, which is an island south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. In terms of subject matter, it's a group of people at the beach, but definitely recalls romantic works of art, like Jericho's "Raft of the Medusa," in how the bodies are intertwined and dramatically postured.

Now, his style is quite unique. He eschews traditional depictions of perspective and uses vivid colors, bold contrasts, and pliable-looking figures to fill this composition. Benton's subject matter is characteristic of a number of artists who rejected modernism, in turn favoring depictions of rural life in what came to be known as regionalism, which is an anti-modernist movement that reached its height during the 1930s and during the Great Depression.

Grant Wood's "American Gothic" has become one of the most iconic paintings of all time, sharing a tiny place amongst paintings such as the "Mona Lisa" and Edvard Munch's "Scream." Now, it's name derives from the house in the background, which is a real building in Iowa, designed in a regional style that used elements of Gothic revival architecture, like the pointed arch window.

Now, though the figures are based on actual people that Grant Wood knew, they may serve as more symbolic figures representing the pioneering spirit of Midwesterners. Artists like Benton and Grant Wood explored American identity through scenes that really celebrated rural life.

So the Great Depression was very influential in the arts and the presence of social realism. Frankln D. Roosevelt's New Deal plan, which was created to help overturn the effects of the depression, included new programs and agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the FDIC, which protect bank deposits. The Works Progress Administration, which was a huge new agency which targeted employment, and social improvement programs like the Farm Security Administration, which sought to improve the lives of rural agriculturalists.

Now, part of the public relations strategy to create and maintain support was to hire photographic journalists to portray the reality of rural poverty. Now, Walter Evans's photos of Allie Mae and Floyd Burroughs, who were two Alabama sharecroppers, and Dorothea Lange's migrant mother photograph are examples from two parts of the country documenting the suffering that was taking place during the Great Depression, but done in an artful manner.

Now, Lange's photo in particular has become one of the most recognized images from the Great Depression, depicting a 32-year-old mother of seven-- and eventually, she was a mother of 10-- looking to the side as if contemplating her family's future while her children grasp onto her. It's a really heart-wrenching portrayal of the reality facing rural farmers and workers of the 1930s.

Now, the photographer Gordon Parks was the only African American hired by the FSA, and provided a look at the reality facing African Americans during this time as well. His parody of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" painting features a cleaning woman named Ella Watson, who worked at the FSA building in Washington. And she's holding a broom and mop. It was a rather controversial photograph, but it raised awareness among many of the additional struggle that African-American minorities faced with the prevalence of racism, even in the nation's capital.

Now, his work led him to become a writer and photographer of Life magazine, a position he held for some 20 years before moving onto other creative endeavors, like directing the '70s action movie "Shaft." You heard that right. Richard Roundtree's greatest role all time was directed by none other than Gordon Parks.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the context of the Great Depression and its influence on the arts? And can you identify examples of regionalism and photography from this era?

And once again, the big idea for today is that the Great Depression influence the arts in the prevalence of social realism. And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • FSA

    Farm Security Administration. First developed to assist resettlement of rural populations, the program was responsible for supporting a highly prolific photography and writing program that documented life during the Depression.

  • Social Realism

    Part of FSA, an art movement whose artists focused on 'everyday conditions of the working class'.

  • Regionalism

    An American art movement during the 1930s characterized by depictions of realistic rural scenes.