“THE LEFT FRONT: RADICAL ART IN THE ’RED DECADE,’ 1929-1940”
In the wake of the Great Depression, progressive artists, writers and intellectuals coalesced to form a “left front” dedicated to making socially conscious art. “The Left Front” is the first exhibition to examine the visual culture of two activist collectives formed during the 1930s –the John Reed Club, named after the journalist who witnessed the Russian Revolution firsthand, and its successor organization, the American Artists’ Congress.
“Members of these collectives embraced the motto ‘art as a social weapon’,” said John Murphy, Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University and co-curator of the exhibition with fellow graduate student Jill Bugajski. “They sought to redefine what it meant to be an artist working in the shadow of the Great Depression by making no distinction between art and political struggle.”
While many of the artists featured in the exhibition are known for art they created in the Works Progress Administration programs, “The Left Front” brings their more provocative, political work to light.
“These artists dove headlong into controversial events of the day, from the stock market crash to the infamous Scottsboro case, from the New Deal to the rising threat of fascism in Spain and Germany,” Murphy said.
“The Left Front” highlights Chicago-based members of the John Reed Club and the American Artists’ Congress, considering specific conditions of the city — its industrial legacy, massive immigration, ethnic neighborhoods, historical association with anarchism and labor unrest, and commitment to social reform through institutions like Jane Addams Hull House — as the backdrop against which their work evolved. The exhibition brings together artists with Chicago connections, including Morris Topchevsky, Henry Simon, Mitchell Siporin, Bernece Berkman and Carl Hoeckner.
Related “Left Front” events will include lectures by scholars and cultural critics; a poetry program recalling the history of writers and activists such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright; a printmaking workshop bringing to life the radical democratic history of the medium; a series at Block Cinema featuring left-leaning films of the 1930s and 1940s and blacklisted filmmakers; and a reimagining of a 1930s American Artists’ Congress meeting. A newspaper-format publication will link the historic issues raised by “The Left Front” to the present through essays by curators and scholars and thoughts by contemporary cultural producers, thinkers and activists on what constitutes revolutionary art today.
Block Museum programs complementing “The Left Front” include:
• Opening day program at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18. After welcoming remarks by Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro, scholar and theorist W.J.T. Mitchell, editor of “Critical Inquiry” and professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago, will connect artistic concerns of the 1930s to present-day artistic practices, specifically the relationship between art and activism. Following his presentation, Mitchell will interview the exhibition curators. Throughout the afternoon Northwestern students, in collaboration with D. Soyini Madison, chair of the department of performance studies, will perform scripts based on left-leaning texts from the 1930s.
“WORK PRINT PROTEST REPEAT” exhibition, Ellen Philips Katz and Howard C. Katz Gallery, Jan. 17 to March 16.
This companion exhibition was organized by undergraduate students in Northwestern art history professor Christina Kiaer’s “Radical Art in the 1930s” course. It juxtaposes prints by Great Depression-era activist artists with prints by more contemporary political artists to explore the change in protest imagery over time.
• Lecture by Julia Bryan-Wilson, 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5. Bryan-Wilson is a professor of modern and contemporary art the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include art, labor and the politics of art as practice.
• Poetry reading by Mark Nowak, 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26. Nowak, a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow, is a poet and labor activist who has led workshops with autoworkers (Saint Paul and South Africa), domestic workers (NYC and London), and taxi workers. Along with a reading on campus he will conduct a workshop with workers in Evanston/Chicago.
• Talk by Vasif Kortun, 2 p.m. Saturday, March 15. Kortun is curator and director of research and programs at SALT, Istanbul — Turkey’s leading contemporary art center. Kortun will bring an international perspective to questions of art and social change in a program that will address Gezi Park and Taxim Square’s history, Istanbul’s so-called public spaces, art and architecture.
• Living Newspaper performances by Jackalope Theatre, 6 p.m. Thursday, April 3, and 5 p.m. Saturday, April 5. The Chicago-based theatre company and Northwestern students will enact four new short plays that reflect the themes raised by the Block Museum’s “The Left Front” exhibition.
• Lecture by Andrew Hemingway, 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 16. An emeritus professor in art history at University College London, Hemingway is the preeminent scholar on American artists and the communist movement. He will speak on the culture of the John Reed Club and the concept of proletarian art.
Additional programming will be announced throughout the course of the exhibition.
Generous support for “The Left Front” is provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art, as well as the Terra Foundation on behalf of William Osborn and David Kabiller, and the Myers Foundations. Additional funding is from the Carlyle Anderson Endowment, the Louise E. Drangsholt Fund, the Kessel Fund at the Block Museum, and the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.