Tag: 1930s

Exhibitions: Agitprop! at the Brooklyn Museum

agitprop-postersVarious posters and ephemera on view in Agitprop!. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

“Agitprop” is a word I never learned in my art history classes, despite the fact that there has pretty much always been political art. I guess the term sounds too Communist for the classroom. Historically, political motivations were generally seen in portraiture, monuments, and materials, with artwork intrinsically linked to wealth, power, and faith. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, artists have increasingly found ways to create politically charged artwork that speaks for the oppressed rather than the privileged, often moving into the public sphere with poster campaigns, performances, protests, and press. Now more than ever it seems harder for new artists to operate in a world separate from their surroundings, with ever-present media over-saturation and the volatile state of current affairs, and increased awareness of how race, gender, class, and sexuality affect personal experience (and therefore, artistic production).

On view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 7, 2016, Agitprop! is a thought-provoking group exhibition that collects together over 100 years of work made “as a call to action to create political and social change.” There are posters and newspaper clippings, films and documentary photography, performance records and public sculpture, with work from long-established artists like Jenny Holzer and Yoko Ono, as well as newer collectives like Occupy Museums and Not an Alternative. Participating artists were invited to recommend others for the show, making even the curatorial process a study in collaboration and egalitarianism. The resulting exhibit is organized loosely by theme, connecting decades and different activist approaches, addressing both domestic and international issues.

intlworkingwomensday-postersPosters by Valentina Kulagina, 1931. Right-hand image via The Charnel House.

eisenstein-miseryStill from Misery and Fortune of Woman, 1929. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Eduard Tisse.

The first room I went through greeted me with a series of Soviet propaganda promoting women’s health and labor, with vintage posters for International Working Women’s Day, and an educational film by Sergei Eisenstein advocating for safe abortions across the world (the USSR had legalized abortion in 1920). The posters were created by Valentina Kulagina, a leading Constructivist designer in the 20s and 30s. Her work combines monochrome photo-collage with brightly colored illustration in the bold social realist style, pairing real women of the USSR with the ideal, sturdy working woman seen in official advertising. The sharp diagonals, stark text, and heavy use of red are perfect examples of the Constructivist aesthetic popular in the early years of the USSR, which endeavored to establish its own unique art style that visually symbolized utilitarianism, unity, and strength. Meant to be inspirational, Kulagina’s imagery also highlights the struggle women still faced entering the workforce after the revolution, while still expected to retain domestic duties. The artist’s creative output was later restricted under increased Stalinist scrutiny and her progressive revolutionary ideology was rejected.

Communist messages were further represented by a section on Tina Modotti’s photography, taken in Mexico during the 1930s. Born in Italy, Modotti immigrated to San Francisco as a teenager and, after a brief career as a film and stage actress, she moved to Mexico City with photographer Edward Weston. There she became part of the revolutionary avant-garde alongside artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, joining the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. She was known for her documentary photographs of murals, peasant farmers, and laborers, and her work was often used in Communist literature and propaganda. Agitprop! features a selection of her photographs paired with magazines and newspapers that featured them, including The New Masses. Her style is characterized by its empathy, stark contrast, and attention to details.

tinamodottiWoman With Flag and Mexican sombrero with hammer and sickle by Tina Modotti, seen in issues of A-I-Z and The New Masses, respectively.

suffragette-banner Standing Together… by the National Women’s Party, 1913-1920.

dykeactionmachineLesbian Americans: Don’t Sell Out, 1998, and Do You Love the Dyke in Your Life?, 1993, by Dyke Action Machine.

granfury-guerrillagirlsWomen Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From it by Gran Fury, 1991; When Racism and Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?, 1989, and Dear Art Collector, 2015, by the Guerrilla Girls.

Soundararajan-DalitWomenFight-2014#DalitWomenFight by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, 2014.

Feminist messages are represented in various ways throughout the show, with historic and contemporary activism side by side. Vintage suffragette banners hang high above a mural by Dyke Action Machine that wryly inserts lesbian themes into 90s advertising imagery. A poster by Gran Fury (displayed in various NYC bus shelters in 1991) calls for more inclusive treatment and discussion of AIDS by the Center for Disease Control. Several pieces by the Guerrilla Girls highlight trenchant sexism in the art world, employing sarcasm, statistics, and advertising to target collectors, art scholars, and museum leaders. Formed in the 1980s, their message continues to be relevant today as museums and galleries remain heavily white and male in their collections and major exhibits. Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s LED text-based sculpture references her project, #DalitWomenFight, which fights caste-based sexual violence in India and promotes the stories of Dalit women across the world.

In the center of it all is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a sculptural installation that is permanently on view as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection within the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art. This room-size work represents the artist’s idea of a dinner table set for important women throughout history, including some mythological figures. Each place setting features an embroidered banner with the woman’s name and symbols connected to her culture or experience, and a porcelain plate with painted or sculpted yonic imagery. The floor is painted with names of many more women, some connected to the major figures with plates. Within the realm of feminist art history, this is a landmark, a quintessential work of second wave feminism with its focus on the body, on vaginal motifs, on goddess culture, and on women’s history. Today many recognize this brand of feminism as being too exclusive, generally prioritizing cis white women, equating vaginas with womanhood and Western-centric historical figures. I definitely agree with this criticism, but I do still view the movement as significant and influential, and I feel art being made by women like Chicago was radical for its time, and I was moved by her sweeping vision when I stood within The Dinner Party. So there that is. The lack of women of color (I think there are, like, three?) is a big distraction while viewing it, though.

chicago-dinnerparty1The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty2The Dinner Party (detail – Virginia Woolf) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79

chicago-dinnerparty3 The Dinner Party (detail – Sojourner Truth) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty4 The Dinner Party (detail – Hildegarde von Bingen) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty5 The Dinner Party (detail – Amazon) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty6The Dinner Party (detail – Sacajawea) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

Moving back into Agitprop!, there are works linking decades of police oppression and government inaction regarding black deaths in this country. One display compiles film (Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates), photography, illustration, and painting to starkly remind viewers of our history of ignorance, prejudice, and, especially, lynching. Wall text relates how the NAACP “made a cultural campaign for hearts and minds” a central part of their strategy to “end the terrorism of these unprosecuted mob-driven murders,” resulting in plays, films, songs, and artwork that sought to combat stereotyping and misinformation about African Americans in the early twentieth century. On a nearby wall hang photographs from Dread Scott’s 2014 performance, On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, which links recent incidents of police brutality (indicated by the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture) with 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, AL, when anti-segregation demonstrators were met with high-pressure fire hoses. In an earlier gallery, a piece by Otabenga Jones & Associates reminds viewers of the Free Breakfast Program launched by the Black Panthers, sabotaged by J Edgar Hoover. (Recently, this inspired their own “People’s Plate” educational nutrition program in Houston, TX.)

A variety of other social and political issues are addressed in further works, again both historical and contemporary. Posters from the WPA advertise theatrical productions about housing and labor concerns during the Great Depression, while a “Mili-Tent” from the Not an Alternative collective is displayed as a sculpture, having been used as a symbol in protests against foreclosure, eviction, and displacement in New York City. Cartoon illustrations by Coco Fusco relate to her infamous performance piece from the early 90s, in which she and collaborator Guillermo Gomez-Peña presented themselves as fake “Undiscovered Amerindians,” with stereotypically “primitive” clothing and language, kept in a cage and put on display in the tradition of World’s Fair displays. Viewers were told that they were indigenous to an island untouched by Western culture, and for a fee they would perform dances and take photos with the crowd. Adejoke Tugbiyele’s sprawling gay pride flag addresses homophobic persecution in Nigeria, made of women’s headscarves (gele) traditionally worn at funerals. In another gallery, a huge mural collects together drawings by Egyptian graffiti artist Ganzeer, responding to violence in his own country as well as in the US. Across the room a powerful piece by The Yes Men and various collaborators imagines a peaceful, utopian future after Obama’s first election through a fake newspaper with headlines like “IRAQ WAR ENDS” and “ALL PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES TO BE FREE.”

lynched-peoplesplateFlag, announcing lynching, flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave, New York City, 1936. Via Brooklyn Museum; and The People’s Plate on the Move by Otabenga Jones & Associates, 2015.

WPA-postersFederal Theatre Project posters, late 1930s. Right-hand poster via Wikimedia Commons.

notanalternative-mili-tent-2011Mili-Tent by Not an Alternative, 2011.

cocofusco-theamerindians-2012The Undiscovered Amerindians: “Oh Please!” Begged the Gentleman at the Whitney Biennial by Coco Fusco, 2012.

AdejokeTugbiyele-GelePrideFlag-2014Gele Pride Flag by Adejoke Tugbiyele, 2014.

ganzeer-urgentvisions-2015Urgent Visions by Ganzeer, 2015.

yesmen-nytimesThe New York Times Special Edition by The Yes Men with Steve Lambert, et al, 2008.

Agitprop! is jam-packed with work, and at times can be overwhelming as a viewer, but only because the emotional content is so high. Almost everywhere I turned I was met with evidence of people who cared, deeply, about the world around them, and who earnestly try to effect change through their art and activist practices. In many ways the exhibit moved me, and there were moments when I had to turn away because the subjects were too upsetting. But that’s good, that’s the point, we should be upset by what we see here, especially the realization that so many of the historical issues are still relevant today. Often when confronted with such knowledge and imagery of suffering, I shut down and try to take my mind off it, because it’s too much, and I feel helpless. But seeing a show like this makes me realize I can be hopeful that things can get better, and that people from all around the world are using what skills they have (in this case, their artistic and collaborative abilities) to gradually make things better, bit by bit.

Art: Joseph Cornell’s Assemblages

Cornell-Untitled-Celestial-Navigation-1958Joseph Cornell: Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1958. via Washington City Paper

The instinct to collect may be a basic part of human nature; we acquire and amass and stockpile a variety of things, be it nostalgic keepsakes, artistic treasures, emergency snacks, or cherished memories. Parents hold on to their children’s baby teeth, bibliophiles fill their houses with books, sports fans hunt down memorabilia from their favorite teams; my own mother dutifully collected Longaberger baskets for a good ten years. I myself collect all manner of things, often to the level of hoarding, but that is a discussion for another day. Perhaps this shared tendency is why the work of Joseph Cornell strikes a chord within so many, as I have yet to meet anyone who dislikes his thoughtful and intricate assemblages of found objects. A collector as much as an artist, he has inspired generations of artists and art-lovers, tapping into that seemingly innate human interest in stuff.

Born in 1903, Cornell grew up in the small village of Nyack, New York, a picturesque spot along the Hudson River. His four years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts became the longest period he would spend away from home. After leaving school without a diploma, he moved back in with his family and became a textile salesman like his father, who had passed away in 1917. During the 1920s he collected various paper and secondhand ephemera, but it was not until around 1931 that he began making art out of such materials. Inspired by Surrealist exhibitions at the Julian Levy Gallery–especially Max Ernst’s collages–he created three-dimensional boxes and sculptures assembled from found objects. By 1932 he was exhibiting at the same gallery, with a solo show that fall. He also experimented with filmmaking, cutting together bits of collected film strips to create collaged movies (he returned to the medium in the 50s, collaborating with auteurs like Stan Brakhage to make films with new footage).

Throughout the next several decades, Cornell worked full- or part-time as an artist, never moving out of his mother’s house in Flushing, NY (where he helped care for his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy) but taking frequent trips to New York City and establishing an ever-growing assortment of artistic connections and friendships, from artists Mark Rothko and Yayoi Kusama to dancer Allegra Kent and poet Mina Loy. He continued to make collages and assemblage boxes until the end of his life, dying of heart failure in 1972 at the age of 69. Though his art was exhibited across the country and was gaining value by the 1950s, he often preferred to make work as gifts to friends and people he admired, instead of commodifying everything he produced.

cornell.hotel-edenJoseph Cornell: Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945. ibiblio

cornell-ASwanLakeForTamaraToumanova-HomagetotheRomanticBalletJoseph Cornell: A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova (Homage to the Romantic Ballet), 1946. via The Old Curiosity Shop

The wonderful thing about Joseph Cornell is he created works of high art that could easily be read as pure knick-knacks if not for their powerful associative effect. He taps into the nostalgia inherent to so many objects, deftly combining his found items so as to elicit a response related to memory or personality, expressing feeling and experience through secondhand castaways. Putting together things like glassware, maps, stuffed birds, torn book pages, and keys, he silently invites viewers to extrapolate their own connections with such everyday items. We bring along our own baggage, our own memories, our own wishful thinking, and we are able to take it personally. Generally, Cornell is not making bold political statements or irreverent art historical references; he is not caught up in the manifestos and rampant theories of many artists of his day. He is sharing his own interests and perspective with others–often specific friends, colleagues, and crushes–through his own belongings. Many early-twentieth-century artists made art out of the everyday, but Cornell made art out of his everyday, which in turn could easily become reinterpreted as our own.

Many of his boxes can actually be read as portraits, combining photographs with symbolic ephemera so that a person’s essence might be distilled down to a few objects in a box, a shrine to their persona or legacy. His tribute to Lauren Bacall is dark and haunting, emphasizing both her alluring sexuality and her youth, along with her unattainable, iconic status. His assemblage for Tilly Losch seems to cast her as a delicate paper doll, floating above an abandoned landscape, possibly referencing her skills as a ballet dancer. She appears aloof and alone, but not unhappy, and clearly treasured in her mottled-marble frame. There is an air of preservation about Cornell’s assemblages, containing newly-precious objects behind glass and assuring they remain forever. Knowing many of his boxes were gifts or tributes of sorts, it’s hard not to see them as parts of the artist himself, given in trust to those he admired. Known as something of a recluse and a loner (by choice, though of course affected by his ailing younger brother and the early death of his father), Cornell nevertheless formed many significant relationships, and seemed keen to fall in love with various artistic women. Perhaps sharing bits of his own collections was his way of sharing something of himself.

Cornell - BacallJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), 1945-46. via MSU

Cornell _Untitled-TillyLosch-1935.jpgJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Tilly Losch), 1935. via MBA Lyon

cornell - medici boyJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Medici Boy), 1942-52. via ibiblio

Cornell-untitled-no3-1955Joseph Cornell: Untitled No. 3. via MBA Lyon

cornell - solar setJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Solar Set), 1956-58. via ibiblio


The Archives of American Art

The Joseph Cornell Box

Adam Gopnick. “Sparkings: Joseph Cornell and the Art of Nostalgia” in The New Yorker.

Graphic Design: Chinese Cover Design in the 1920s and 30s

chen-zhifo-1927Chen Zhi-fo: The Short Story Magazine, August 1927. via 50 Watts

Between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the People’s Republic, China experienced a wave of social and political change that at times resulted in an identity crisis as Chinese citizens were sandwiched between centuries-old traditions and an influx of Western trade and influence. Commercial art and design of this period- especially magazine and book covers- reflect this duality, as experienced by many Chinese artists fighting for a new modern aesthetic that maintained a recognizable national flavor. Aimed at members of the growing urban middle class in the 1920s and 30s- most notably in Shanghai- these designs reached a greater and more diverse public than traditional painters showing their works in galleries, art schools, or private collectives. Graphic designers helped establish a new identity for their Chinese audience, one that displayed pride in their national heritage while also promoting China as a modern, forward-looking country even in this politically unstable period.

Distinguished by its vibrant international community and loosened censorship laws, the city of Shanghai became a thriving cultural center in the early twentieth century, and a haven for many artists and writers. With an increasing literacy rate and the rise of a working class desperate for entertainment, new publishing houses bloomed throughout the city, encouraging the spread of new magazines and books, many written in the vernacular. Improvements in publishing techniques, such as the movement from string-bound books to stapled and glued binding, as well as the introduction of lithographic printing, led to general changes in book layout and cover design, including the incorporation of Western styles like Art Nouveau. These developments resulted in an elevated prominence of graphic design as a profession, with Shanghai becoming the first Chinese city to sustain a substantial graphic design industry. Prior to this, most advertising and publication design work was done by classically trained painters and illustrators, but in those early decades commercial art rose to prominence as an individual creative field, becoming an influential aspect of modern art in China, especially in Shanghai.

theark-jan1937Unknown artist: The Ark, January 1937. My scan.

The establishment of graphic design as a new profession was supported by highly influential writer and activist Lu Xun, who became a patron of cover designers as part of his many writing and translation projects. Remembered by art historians for his role in the Modern Woodcut Movement, Lu Xun was also a major figure in the New Literature Movement, promoting accessible art and literature for the middle class and in turn advocating for new design styles. He encouraged artists to learn from Western techniques, but stressed the significance of China’s own unique artistic heritage, such as traditional textile patterns and ancient stone carvings. He advocated for native imagery to feature in design, “so as to create a particularly Chinese style” (Andrews, A Century in Crisis, 187).

This mindful blending of interior and exterior influences within popular design is evident in many journal and book covers made by the most prominent designers of the 1920s and 30s. Pulling from Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Soviet Suprematism and Constructivism, as well as ancient indigenous Chinese bronze, stone carvings, and architecture, these artists forged a uniquely Chinese aesthetic that situates itself neatly within the more sweeping developments of graphic design history. An investigation of these various movements and their incorporation into Chinese design reflects the methods with which artists sought to promote a new kind of modernism to their audience, one respectful of their country’s artistic history that also looked forward to the future of their people. These stylistic influences can be felt in the intricate patterns and flattened figures of several influential graphic designers, many of whom worked to advance Chinese design aesthetics through modern tactics while also injecting indigenous visual ideas into their work.

Many artists were introduced to both Western styles as well as traditional Chinese arts through their studies in Japan or with Japanese-influenced art teachers in China. Chen Zhi-fo (1895-1952) is considered China’s first professional graphic designer, but before that he was the first foreign design student at the Tokyo Academy of Arts in 1919. There, he gained a knowledge of ancient Chinese motifs, which, coupled with his earlier studies of Chinese textiles and weaving techniques, gave him a large well from which to draw for his design career. He worked as a cover designer for magazines in the 1920s, and wrote what is thought to be China’s first textbook on graphic design in 1930. He often relied on pattern and motifs lifted from traditional Chinese architectural ornament, and like Lu Xun he incorporated hand-drawn modern-style Chinese characters into his designs, as well as some English text. By the 1930s, some of his works were more influenced by Cubist, mechanical, and Art Deco imagery, but he continued to create whimsical designs drawing from Chinese art and handicrafts, until he devoted himself to bird and flower paintings after World War II.

chen-zhifo-experienceofcreation-1933Chen Zhi-fo: Experience of Creation, June 1933. My scan.

chen-zhifo-modernstudent-1931Chen Zhi-fo: Modern Student, June 1931. via 50 Watts

chen-zhifo-luxuncollection-1933Chen Zhi-fo: Lu Xun’s Self-Selected Collection, March 1933. My scan.

A graphic designer known primarily for his use of indigenous motifs is Tao Yuan-qing (1893-1929), whose short but vibrant career made him an influential presence on the Chinese design scene of the 1920s. He was trained in China but like many other artists had an interest in Japanese design (which itself often drew from Chinese sources), and studied Western watercolor techniques. He worked closely with Lu Xun on several book covers, inspired by the writer’s ideas about re-discovering Chinese design sources. Lu Xun, in turn, believed that Tao’s works “were free from the clichés of the period and representative of ‘China’s eternal soul'” (Minick and Ping, Chinese Graphic Design in the Twentieth Century, 30). Pulling from Han art and traditional patterns, his work was known for its “simplicity, asymmetry, and sometimes casual quality” (Andrews, A Century in Crisis, 186), characterized by flat shapes, profile views, and expressive brushstrokes. His designs acted as a showcase for the re-discovered ancient arts of China, showing average consumers that the nation’s seemingly outdated art forms could be adapted to suit modern aesthetics. This reflected his belief that “only by continually referring to and integrating China’s traditional visual motifs could a design maintain strong emotional connections to traditional culture and project an authentic Chinese spirit” (Minick and Ping, Chinese Graphic Design in the Twentieth Century, 31).

tao-yuanqing-wandering-1929Tao Yuan-qing: Wandering, 1929. via 50 Watts

tao-yuanqing-hometown-may1926Tao Yuan-qing: Hometown, May 1926. My scan.

The most prolific graphic designer of this period was Qian Jun-tao (1906-1998), who was influenced by both Lu Xun and Tao Yuan-qing. He trained in Shanghai, studying Japanese technology and modernism, and recognizing the Chinese origins of that country’s aesthetics. He was innovative in his personal approach to design, often relating visual elements to broader concepts of the creative experience, such as applying music theory to book cover layouts. He worked as a designer and music editor for the Kaiming Book Company as well as the Wanye Book Company, and dedicated himself to promoting other designers and establishing graphic design as a legitimate profession. He was a well-known and much-imitated artist, encouraging his followers to move away from the nineteenth-century European manner into simpler, modernist design modes. Qian’s earlier designs of the 1920s were known for their playful, harmonious patterns and stylized forms, often incorporating vegetal motifs or archaeological images. His work of the 1930s is identified by its simplified, abstract compositions and the use of prominent lettering within the design; he drew more on Art Deco, Cubism, and Constructivism but maintained a strong Chinese identity.

qian-juntao-childrensmusic-1930Qian Jun-tao: Children’s Music, 1930. via 50 Watts

qianjuntao2Qian Jun-tao: Shanghai Private Kaiming Correspondence School, Members’ Club Quarterly, 1930. via 50 Watts

qian-juntao-modernwoman-1933Qian Jun-tao: Modern Woman, 1933. via 50 Watts

Michael Sullivan describes the struggles experienced by Chinese artists of the early twentieth century as “torn between the demands of a newly discovered self-expression, the problems of form and technique… and the challenge… to use their talent not for their own or for art’s sake but for the sake of society” (Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China, 25). As a new and expanding field, graphic design was able to reach a larger audience than traditional art. Designers could create a new face for Chinese visual culture and see it commercially distributed through books, magazines, and advertisements. By merging Western design styles with indigenous imagery, these artists promoted a new national identity, a China that was advancing and industrializing to grow with Western powers, but still connected to its rich, centuries-old cultural traditions. It was also a China that- likes it art- could re-invent itself, as would become increasingly apparent during the later revolutionary movement. This message reached urban Chinese audiences subtly and gradually through the work of artists like Chen Zhi-fo, Tao Yuan-qing, and Qian Jun-tao. In a time of national confusion and sweeping changes, graphic designers offered a unique and purposeful aesthetic, guiding China into a new modern age.


Julia Andrews. “Commercial Art and China’s Modernization.” A Century in Crisis. Edited by Julia Andrews and Kuiyi Shen. Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1998.

John Clark. Modern Asian Art. University of Hawai’i Press, 1998.

Stephen J. Eskilson. Graphic Design: A New History. Yale University Press, 2007.

Scott Minick and Jiao Ping. Chinese Graphic Design in the Twentieth Century. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.

Michael Sullivan. Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China. University of California Press, 1996.