Politically-conscious graphic art has a long history, from Daumier up to Lynd Ward and Eric Drooker. The 1930s and ’40s were a rich period in this respect, as the rise of Communism and Fascism coupled with the Great Depression brought issues of social justice to the fore. The John Reed Club, an organization founded by staff members of the Communist magazine New Masses, formed in 1929 to support leftist artists and writers. It allied with the American Communist Party, and spread to thirty chapters nationwide before it was replaced in 1936 by the American Artists’ Congress, which survived until the Second World War.
The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has mounted “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929–1940,” an exhibition of artists who showed with the John Reed Club and the American Artists’ Congress. Drawn from the Block’s collection and elsewhere, the show naturally features artists from the Midwest, among more famous names. Some of the lesser-known works holds their own: Mabel Dwight’s “Danse Macabre” (1933-34, above) with its vaudeville show of political caricatures, and Carl Hoeckner’s “The Yes Machine” (1935, below), a scathing look at the capitalist fat cat. Among the famous fine artists included are Rockwell Kent, Stuart Davis, and Raphael Soyer. Diego Rivera, who made such a bad impression on Club members when he addressed them in 1932 that they repudiated him, is represented by his 1934 book, “Portrait of America.”
Artists who worked in cartooning and animation are also represented. William Gropper, who helped found New Masses, produced many paintings and cartoons on social themes, and is represented by several lithographs. Boris Gorelick has three lithographs, including his brilliant, Cubist/Surrealist-inflected work, “Sweatshop” (1938, pictured below). Gorelick’s career as a background artist in animated films spanned decades, including UPA’s Brotherhood of Man (1945), Friz Freleng’s Oscar-winner Birds Anonymous (1957), and television work on The Alvin Show and the animated Star Trek.