The 1920s through 1940s were decades of dramatic economic and cultural change in the United States―from the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression to the New Deal. The period saw substantial growth in print culture in America, as the government instituted the Works Progress Administration (WPA), aiming to put unemployed Americans back to work. The Federal Art Project, a division of the WPA established in 1935, employed artists, including printmakers, to create works inspired by the “American Scene.” Alongside this government patronage, many artists also produced works for organizations such as Associated American Artists, founded in 1934, to deliver original prints directly to the public.
America Seen presents a very recent generous gift to the Ackland of 38 prints―lithographs, wood engravings, etchings, and wood-block prints―made between the mid-1920s and the mid-1940s. Each individual print repays close attention to the artist’s choice of medium and composition.
The prints illustrate a broad range of popular and evocative subject matter through scenes from everyday life, both urban and rural: labor and unemployment, the hardship of poverty, the pleasure of pastimes such as cards and music, and cityscapes highlighting the New York City subway. To varying degrees these works of art are critical, documentary, and celebratory, but all are powerful visual statements about America during this turbulent time.
The prints in America Seen have been generously donated to the Ackland by Hunter Allen and his wife, Cathy Allen, a member of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Class of 1973.