Two Art Exhibits in Washington Tell Stories About American Culture

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.   Today we visit two art exhibits in Washington, D.C. that tell about life in America during two different periods. "1934: A New Deal for Artists" tells about a government- supported art program started during the economic period known as the Great Depression. The exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum shows paintings made during this period.

At the National Gallery of Art, visitors can see black and white photographs taken by Robert Frank during the nineteen fifties. All eighty-three photographs from his famous book "The Americans" have been grouped together for the exhibit.


In nineteen thirty-four, Americans were living through a severe economic crisis. The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a federal arts program as part of an effort to improve the economy. The Public Works of Art Program was the first national effort by the United States government to support artists.

The program was important because it helped provide work for more than three thousand seven hundred professional artists who were unemployed. They created more than fifteen thousand paintings and sculptures designed to lift the spirits of Americans during a difficult time. The art was placed in schools, libraries, museums, post offices and government offices around the country.

Artists taking part in this program were asked to create works that showed "the American Scene."

The Smithsonian's show includes fifty-six public works paintings. They are organized by different subjects such as Nature, Leisure, Industry, and the City.   They show natural beauty, city life and Americans at work and play.

For example, an artist named Ray Strong created a large painting called the "Golden Gate Bridge." It shows this huge bridge in San Francisco while it was being built.   President Roosevelt had this painting hung in the White House as a celebration of American art and engineering. Mr. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor chose a total of thirty-two Public Works of Art Project paintings to be displayed in the presidential home.

Some paintings show how Americans had fun. For example, Morris Kantor painted "Baseball at Night." You might guess from the title that the painting shows people enjoying a baseball game at night. In nineteen thirty-four it was still rare to have lighting in a baseball field.

In Julia Eckel's painting "Radio Broadcast" a group of actors and musicians gather around a large radio microphone. You can almost hear the lively radio theater program they were broadcasting.

Several paintings in the exhibit show Americans working. Max Arthur Cohn's painting "Coal Tower" shows the dark form of a coal tower against a light sky. Under the building, a boat is delivering coal that will help power the city of New York.

"Gold is Where you Find It" by Tyrone Comfort shows a man deep inside a gold mine. The muscular man is working hard to control a powerful drill that is cutting through the rock that surrounds him.

The Public Works of Art Program only lasted six months. But it led to the development of another art program called the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project. The paintings in this exhibit tell an important story about American life during the nineteen thirties. And, the exhibit is especially meaningful during today's economic crisis. It shows the results of a creative government program.


In nineteen fifty-eight, the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank published a book of eighty-three photographs called "The Americans."

It was first published in France. A year later, the book was published in the United States. This book is widely considered one of the most important books of photographs published since World War Two.

"The Americans" shows the country and its people in a boldly honest way. Robert Frank showed the effects of racism, social inequality and poverty. But he also showed a beautiful side of America's people and places. The book was revolutionary for the inventive style of taking photographs that show immediacy and emotional honesty. "The Americans" was also different from other photography books because Frank organized the images according to similar emotions, forms or subjects.

To create his book, Frank traveled across more than thirty American states for nine months starting in nineteen fifty-six. He took more than twenty-seven thousand pictures. He spent another year choosing the best pictures and placing them in a meaningful order.

Frank asked his new friend, the American writer Jack Kerouac, to write the introduction to his book of photographs.  Kerouac had just published his own book, "On the Road." Kerouac correctly predicted that Frank would be praised as a great artist.


At the National Gallery exhibit, "The Americans" is divided into four parts. Each part shows a different side of American culture. Each begins with a photograph that includes an American flag.

In one photograph called "Charleston, South Carolina," an African-American woman holds a white baby. Frank shows the woman's dark skin next to the baby's light skin. You can see the wisdom and experience in her face, which is very different from the baby's wondering expression.  Here Frank plays with contrasts, or opposing elements, as he does in many photographs.

The next photograph in the series shows a diner restaurant in Hollywood, California. Frank captures the tired and unhappy face of a server. Above her head is an advertisement with the smiling face of Santa Claus.

"Trolley-New Orleans" shows a close-up image of people on a public transportation vehicle. Frank frames the photograph so that you mainly see the people looking out the windows of the trolley. There are white people in the front and black people in the back. This is a powerful image about racial separation in society at that time.

Robert Frank took the picture a few days after he was arrested and detained in the southern state of Arkansas. A policeman detained and threatened him because he was a foreigner driving a car from another state. Frank experienced for himself the discrimination that was present in his picture of New Orleans.

National Gallery curator Sarah Greenough organized this show. Here she talks about a different section of the exhibit.

SARAH GREENOUGH: "Frank shifts his focus slightly from the American people to the physical character of the spaces they have constructed for themselves. In his photographs of gas stations, diners and cemeteries he found a beauty so simple but commonplace it was often overlooked, so unspeakably true but poignant it was rarely acknowledged."

In "U.S. 285, New Mexico" Frank photographed the dividing mark on a highway. The road seems to go on forever into the far horizon. Jack Kerouac described the image as a "long shot of night road arrowing forlorn into immensities."

Two images are all the more striking because they are placed next to each other. "Covered Car -- Long Beach, California" shows a car covered with a large cloth for protection. It sits under two large palm trees.  The next photo, "Car Accident -- U.S. 66, Between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona," shows a body on the side of the road that is also covered with a cloth. Four people stand sadly near the body.

In "Rodeo -- New York City" Robert Frank pictures a thin cowboy bending his head to light his cigarette. Because of his clothing, you might expect the cowboy to be   in a rural environment with a horse nearby. But the image is surprising because he is standing on a crowded street in New York City.

The last photograph in "The Americans" is one Robert Frank took of his car. His family members sit inside the car looking very tired. The image reminds us about the man behind this extraordinary collection of images and the effort required of him, his wife and two young children to make this project.

Robert Frank once made this comment about his work: "I am always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what is out there. And what's out there is constantly changing."

The truth and energy Robert Frank captured in "The Americans" make the photographs as fresh today as they were fifty years ago.


This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. You can see pictures of art from these two exhibits on our Web site,  Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.