The seismic social, political, and economic events of the early twentieth century—the Mexican and Russian revolutions, World War I and its aftermath, the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, the rise of Fascism, and the Great Depression—radicalized many artists, leading them to organize international networks, federations, congresses, and unions as forums through which to rethink the form, content, and function of art in uncertain modern times.
By the early 1930s, many leftist artists had abandoned abstraction and other modernist idioms in an effort to create what the art historian and social critic Meyer Schapiro would term a new “public use of art.” They employed easily legible realist, narrative, and reportage approaches to image making that focused on the daily life, social concerns, and political activities of the working class. At stake was the proposition that the modern artist is a laborer who participates in social action and uses art as an instrument of persuasion and dissent.
The models for this radical approach to contemporary “history painting” or “document pictures” as they were sometimes called arose from an earlier generation of American realism, interwar realism in Russia and Germany, and the work of the Mexican muralists. It also drew from the rising cultural force of mass media. Documentary photography and film played a particularly critical role in the visual culture of the 1930s and 1940s, serving as media for artistic expression, source material, and the basis for a broadly shared aesthetic rooted in eyewitness journalism.
The Harvard Art Museums’ collection of American social realism and related material is especially strong in the works on paper that were pivotal in the movement.