At the American Art Museum, A Trip Back to 1934

In the Barber Shop

In the Barber Shop, Ilya Bolotowsky, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Though the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition of Depression-era paintings, 1934: A New Deal for Artists, has been on since February, I haven’t been in the mood to see it. I’ve watched three friends and family members lose their jobs this year; why be reminded that things could get bleaker?

Well, the sun came out in DC today after a week of relentless rain, and my mood lifted just enough to brave it. I’m glad I did.

The show’s 56 paintings are drawn from the 1933-34 Public Works of Art Project, which commissioned 3,700 artists to depict “the American Scene.” The result is a snapshot of country down on its luck, and while the factory scenes and landscapes can be ominous– lots of rolling clouds and long shadows– the best pieces convey a community warmth that endured in tough times. Bright spots include “Baseball at Night” set amid the twinkling lights of West Nyack, New York; and “In the Barber Shop” (left), a brightly-colored homage to New York’s immigrants. Worth an hour pondering history’s parallels? I thought so.

Obama supporters, at least, have a chance to end their visit to “1934” on a high note: In the adjacent National Portrait Gallery, you’ll find a mural-sized (and fancied up) version of the iconic Shepard Fairey Obama “Hope” poster . A different take on difficult times, but equally American.

1934: A New Deal for Artists runs through January 3, 2010.