Section: Arts

America on Paper displays print culture in Great Depression

America on Paper displays print culture in Great Depression

America on Paper: Print Culture During the Great Depression showcases a spectrum of print media within the limited display space of Greenslade Special Collections and Archives in Olin library. The exhibit will give students the opportunity to see how U.S. writers, artists, and publishers responded to current issues through the lens of American history and social issues. Works on display include photo books, which focus on farming and migration within the American South and Midwest.

Assistant Art History and American Studies Professor Austin Porter, who curated the exhibit with Special Collections Librarian Elizabeth Williams-Clymer, says he hopes the exhibit will change perceptions of art history. He explained, “I think a lot of people assume that [the medium] means painting, sculpture, and whatever else goes into big art museums. But…my [graduate school] advisor encouraged an interdisciplinary approach … She was always pushing me to consider things like posters, cartoons, advertisements, etc., along with paintings and objects more traditionally associated with ‘fine art.’”

Porter drew his inspiration for the exhibit from a portfolio he found in the library with work by Margaret Bourke-White, a distinguished American photographer. Bourke-White’s works captured key issues in the 1930s United States and Soviet Union, earning her a frequent place in publications like LIFE Magazine.

Porter and Williams-Clymer selected pieces that worked with the Bourke-White portfolio from the library catalogue, a process that lasted several months. He chose artwork that touched on a variety of social issues central to the 1930s, including agrarian mobilization, the place of Native Americans in the modern United States and the evolution of fine and commercial art in response to the opening of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the government employment of artists as part of the New Deal. The majority of works Porter has on exhibit are owned by Greenslade, but a few are on loan from a private lender.

America on Paper does vividly captures life in the 1930s-era United States. But the breadth of media displayed and topics covered undermine the impact of each work. Books included range from play scripts to novels. It is difficult from examining a single page of each to see them as a cohesive unit that reveals something about American history.

Among the photographs on display are three large framed images of industrial work in the Soviet Union from the Margaret Bourke-White portfolio. It is surprising that Porter selected these particular photos, as they draw attention away from the deeply American focus of the other works, thus lessening the impact of the exhibit as a whole. In defense of his curatorial choice, Porter said that, no matter the focus of an exhibition or class, considering an international perspective is crucial.

“A lot of Americans and Europeans were interested in the changes that the Soviet Union was going through during the era, including its infrastructure and political culture,” Porter said. “The images depict life outside the U.S., but they are by an American who happened to be a young woman at the time.”

Overall, America on Paper provides a glimpse at all sides of 1930s American society — the economic, social and cultural­ —through an intriguing array of print works. But the exhibit includes books with unconnected topics and one-piece samples of some media, such as cartography, which is represented by a map of Ohio. The collection could benefit from some editing to focus on smaller selection of print media in order to provide a more vivid sense of the Great Depression in the United States.


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