You can say that all art is of its time, that it reflects the perceptions of the people living in that moment and the broader cultural trends of the world. • But rarely does art made in another era carry such a visceral feeling of past times as "Turmoil and Triumph," a collection on loan from Robert C. and Elizabeth B. Sanchez at the Museum of Fine Arts. Its subtitle is "American Works on Paper from the World War II Era," and we really get a sense of the fear and foreboding that pervaded the war years and those leading up to them.
Parallels can be drawn between the decade covered in this show (1935-1945) and the nearly 10 years since 9/11; both have been defined by global violence, political unrest, economic downturn and cultural prejudice.
This collection is mostly prints and mostly by little-known artists, though it features two posters from Norman Rockwell's famous "Freedom" series. They all share a specific viewpoint in which nuance and gray areas don't exist. Today there are more efforts to understand the causes of terrorism and prejudice. Back then, uh-uh. There were only good guys and bad guys. The bad guys here were, of course, from Germany, Italy and Japan who were riding roughshod over the rest of the world, and there was good reason to fear them.
Some of the most compelling prewar works in this show are created by artists who were not born in the United States and take the faraway mayhem personally. Leon Bibel came from Poland with his family and responded to the war spreading across Europe in 1937 with an etching in which the head of a corpse dominates the foreground amid the rubble of a destroyed city. In a surrealist touch, the hand becomes one of the ruined buildings.
Ben Tarin, who was born in the United States, is more intellectual in his painting, also from 1937, which is a stylized portrait of Adolf Hitler.
The federal government had at that point initiated projects that employed artists to create works for federal buildings. The most famous are photographs (Dorothea Lange, for example) and large murals. Many of these prints were also part of that collection and celebrate American workers.
Starting in 1941, when the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor, the artists become visual cheerleaders (not a criticism), rallying the public to support efforts at home and abroad. Again, the government enlisted artists to document it, and we see poignant scenes of battle-weary GIs and stirring ones of military might.
Graphic posters were propaganda vehicles, exhorting citizens to buy war bonds and be suspicious of strangers. Ben Shahn, who was born in Lithuania, designed a chilling one featuring a bound man whose head is swathed in an execution hood. The copy overlaid on his figure reports in telegram form the annihilation of a Czechoslovakian village under the headline "This is Nazi Brutality."
It's interesting to compare treatments of subjects on the home front. Thomas Hart Benton's Letter from Overseas emphasizes the loneliness of rural life as a young woman sits alone in a dark landscape. Joseph Meert's Victory Garden is a pastel paean to a farm's bounty as a group of women plow and pick (Women are plentiful in art of this time since they were keeping the home fires and factory furnaces burning) as a big picnic awaits them. Meert was a student of Benton's so the differences are especially noteworthy.
One especially fun juxtaposition is Milton Schechter's screen print and a poster by an anonymous artist. Both advocate for more individual fishing to supplement diets, since meat was heavily rationed. The poster screams that "Fish is a Fighting Food — We Need More." You know you're on the hook when consuming seafood is a patriotic duty.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.