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By Andrew Jack

aris - At a time when France is suffering from high unemployment, growing inequality, near universal pessimism and an intense political debate over free markets and free trade, it is perhaps tempting to draw parallels with the gloomy era that characterised much of the Western World during the 1930s.

A new exhibition in Paris covering the artists of the period based in the USA highlights a few similarities, but demonstatres overall how fallacious such comparisons can be across both space and time.

The Seita gallery is certainly not one of the city's larger exhibitions spaces, but it packs a surprising number of lithographs, paintings and woodblocks illustrating how much material was created and survives today.

You find yourself periodically passing back and fro - between partitions symbolically constructed from rusting metal plates which have been crudely welded together - to re-examine works only skimmed on a first inspection, or which take on new meaning in the context of their neighbors.

That provides the first surprise: just how many artists, most of whose names have since faded into obscurity, were active during the period. In contrast to many of their modern counterparts, it is intriguing to see that some 5,000 were funded by the state, through the Works Progress Administration, which assisted not just the better-known murals and large public works, but also commissions on a more modest scale to encourage "committed" art.

The names of the artists themselves - Eichenberger, Schwartz, Gellert, Hoeckner and dozens more - are a reminder that even during some of its bleakest days, the US remained open to waves of immigration from the Old Continent.

Their themes and styles reflect the energy of the newly-arrived, moulded by both the sadness of the Europe many left behind and the despair and disillusionment of the daily realities of New York and other cities that greeted them.

A few, like Harry Sternberg's "Riveter" balanced on a girder, or Claire Mahl Moore's "Modern Times" portraying metropolitan construction, modernity and progress, can arguably be seen as a positive or optimistic commentary.

Most take a far more stark view, such as Eli Jacob's "Line up" or Jack Markow's "Free Soup", where the men waiting in the food queue have turned to skeletons. Yet all were statements about the huge transformations taken place in the society of the time. None can easily be viewed in a neutral or detached way.

What most bear witness to is the birth of the industrial age, of urban alienation, mass society and the onset of an intensely conflictual era, pressaging in some cases almost prophetically the apocalyptic approach of war.

Take Vera Andrus' "New Jersey Cyclops", with its huge rows of factories, their fragility highlighted by the fact that all are constructed on boats floating on a river. Or Herman Volz' "Factory", with its procession of automaton workers weaving around one side of faceless buildings, and a huge pipeline thrusting forwards from the other.

Most of the artists shown prefer to concentrate on the poverty of the period, like James Turnbull's "Sleep" drawn in 1941, with two adults and two children huddled onto a single bed, almost hauntingly reminscent of the sketches made in the concentration camps already well in place in Europe at the time.

Some stress the contrasts, like Moore's "Domestic workers" with women scrubbing floors against a backdrop of decadent restaurant guests, or Albert Potter's "Brother can you spare a dime?", with neon lights and skyscrapers of Manhattan behind the flat-capped but dignified beggar pleading for help.

Only a few pick as themes the oppressors rather than the oppressed, notably Mabel Dwight's "Merchants of death", with swooping vultures turning into a line of top-hatted, gloved and spatted fat capitalists, led by a sceptre-carrying skeleton. It looks rather crude today, but then the raw struggle between capital and labour is also perhpas rather more subtle or less visible in the modern world. The naivit? of the approach certainly adds to its power.

If the extremes of poverty, violence and abrupt modernisation seem somewhat less relevant to the other side of the Atlantic, or to contemporary society, the themes of urban pressures - vividly illustrated by Letterio Calapai's "Underground" with its hectic subway spiral of movement or the intense crowds in Benton Murdoch

Spruance's "The people work: Evening" - still have a strong resonance.

What is also striking is to see styles familiar elsewhere - such as the propagandist use of socialist realist art in the Communist world of the era, and its Nazi equivalent - subverted here to send a far more negative message.

The exhibition organisers ask whether the quantity of the work supported by the WPA was matched by its quality, at least sufficiently to justify the current show. While there may be some faults (perhaps not enough description to place each picture in its context?), for this reviewer at least, the answer is definitely yes.

L'Amérique de la Dépression
Artistes engagés des années 30

Musée-galerie de la SEITA
12 rue Surcouf, 75007 Paris
Tel 01 45 56 60 17

Ouvert tlj (sauf dimanche et fêtes) de 11h à 19h
Jusqu'au 22 février 1997
Entrée: Frs 25


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