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One of the most recognizable paintings in the world is one that has a rather odd subject, and without a doubt, you have seen it before. The painting is by artist Grant Wood. Can you guess which painting it is yet? Of course you can. It is the iconic American Gothic, a painting of a house where the most prominent feature is the 19th century couple standing in front of it. The subjects of the painting are a man holding a pitchfork and a woman standing beside him, young enough to be his daughter yet old enough to be his wife, both wearing stoic expressions, who Grant described as the type of people he pictured lived in the home. Both are clearly farmers who have not had easy lives.
Paintings featuring members of the working class in real life scenarios, like American Gothic, are commonly sorted into the genre of Social Realism. The Social Realism movement began in 18th century Europe, with early works featuring the urban poor, a population booming in a time when industry and poor crop yields were driving workers looking to feed their families into the cities. Instead of painting idealistic ideations of these people, Social Realists sought to show these poor in their natural state– disheveled, scrawny, and suffering.
The movement took root in the United States along with the Great Depression of the 1920s, when the desperation seen in the works of European Social Realists was being experienced by Americans across the country. As American artists experimented with the genre, the political nature of the movement became more apparent. By creating a clear vision of the human suffering associated with poverty, these artists were shedding light on the fact that poverty was a rampant social problem that must be addressed. Instead of allowing human suffering to be swept under the rug, these artists celebrated the raw humanity that their subjects helped them to convey.
As the government attempted to address the growing poverty in America and to recover from the Depression through implementation of the New Deal, the creation of the Works Progress Administration by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was structured to pay people to create public works of art. Photography played a big role in the movement at this time, and iconic photography collections were compiled in the aftermath of the Depression, as well. The Farm Security Project played a huge role in this project as photographers were paid to photograph the devastating effects of drought on the West and the poverty of the rural South.
The movement’s growth in the United States was mirrored in Mexico, and one of the most well-known figures of the Social Realism movement there is the iconic Frida Kahlo. Focusing on similar reflections of what it was like living in poverty in Mexico, Kahlo created many pieces in the style.
The idea that what we see everyday, even the ugliest parts of society, can be considered art has been a transformative force in modern art. The Social Realism movement taught artists that if even something as horrible as poverty can create engaging art that motivates social change, the creative power of artists was limitless.