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Vibrant First Half of 20th Century Shown in American Print Art Exhibit


The first half of the 20th century was a time of transformation in the United States. The country experienced two world wars, the Great Depression, and the rapid growth of cities. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the changes that swept across the country are now on display in an exhibition of art prints at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California.

The prints show farm hands harvesting wheat and urban workers building the skyscrapers that changed the face of the cities. Assistant curator Kevin Murphy says the pictures, like the period, are dynamic.

"We've got images from the teens when America is becoming a world power and trying to figure out what it means to be a world power economically and politically. We've got images from the boom years of the 1920s, and then the depression of the '30s," said Murphy. "So we've got artists who are struggling with what it means to be an American, and what specifically it means to be an American artist."

There are scenes of people at work in factories and mines, socializing in nightclubs, or getting a haircut and manicure in a barber shop. The images show the growing urban landscapes of New York and Chicago.

The art works range from wood carvings and lithographs to color screen prints, and include the work of such well-known American artists as Edward Hopper.

Kevin Murphy says some of the art works celebrate changes taking place in society, while others critique them. A number of prints portray the vitality of the cities, while others show the dislocation and poverty of the people who were living there. Hungry men in overcoats stand in a crowded bread line. A caravan of cars returns from the beach to the city.

"They're coffin-life cars, and the artist is questioning speed and technology, and the specter of death hangs over all of these cars racing back from a nice weekend in the Hamptons," he said. "But there is this idea that speed and technology ultimately may cause death and accidents."

The first half of the 20th century was a turbulent time, with a major financial depression and two world wars. A print from 1939 shows people listening to the radio for news of impending conflict, and one from 1943 shows warplanes and parachutes.

The half-century was also a time of cultural change, as people moved from the farm to the city. Jessica Todd Smith, curator of American art at the Huntington Library, says women took a more active role in society than they had earlier, and were seen more in public places.

"In places such as amusement parks, movie theaters, dance halls, night clubs where people of different classes and backgrounds were mixing more for the first time," said Smith. "And we have a whole section in the exhibition devoted to women in public spaces, which you wouldn't have seen in the 19th century."

This was also a time of change in American art, as native-born artists studied overseas and immigrants brought new techniques and perspectives.

"And a tremendous proliferation of types of styles, between American artists who are going abroad and experiencing influences there, European artists or artists from Mexico, in one case, coming to the United States and bringing their cultural heritage," added Smith.

She says a creative surge in American art reflected the changes taking place in society.