to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
And I'm Barbara
Klein. Today we visit two art exhibits
in Washington, D.C. that tell about life in America during two different
periods. "1934: A New Deal for Artists" tells about a government- supported art
program started during the economic period known as the Great Depression. The exhibit
at the Smithsonian American Art Museum shows paintings made during this period.
At the National
Gallery of Art, visitors can see black and white photographs taken by Robert
Frank during the nineteen fifties. All eighty-three photographs from his famous
book "The Americans" have been grouped together for the exhibit.
nineteen thirty-four, Americans were living through a severe economic crisis. The
administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a federal arts
program as part of an effort to improve the economy. The Public Works of Art
Program was the first national effort by the United States government to
The program was important
because it helped provide work for more than three thousand seven hundred professional
artists who were unemployed. They created more than fifteen thousand paintings
and sculptures designed to lift the spirits of Americans during a difficult
time. The art was placed in schools, libraries, museums, post offices and
government offices around the country.
taking part in this program were asked to create works that showed "the American
The Smithsonian's show includes fifty-six public works
paintings. They are organized by different subjects such as Nature, Leisure,
Industry, and the City. They show
natural beauty, city life and Americans at work and play.
example, an artist named Ray Strong created a large painting called the "Golden
Gate Bridge." It shows this huge bridge in San Francisco while it was being
built. President Roosevelt had this
painting hung in the White House as a celebration of American art and
engineering. Mister Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor chose a total of thirty-two
Public Works of Art Project paintings to be displayed in the presidential home.
Some paintings show how Americans had
fun. For example, Morris Kantor painted "Baseball at Night." You might guess from the title that the
painting shows people enjoying a baseball game at night. In nineteen
thirty-four it was still rare to have lighting in a baseball field.
Julia Eckel's painting "Radio Broadcast" a group of actors and musicians gather
around a large radio microphone. You can almost hear the lively radio theater
program they were broadcasting.
Several paintings in the
exhibit show Americans working. Max Arthur Cohn's painting "Coal Tower" shows
the dark form of a coal tower against a light sky. Under the building, a boat
is delivering coal that will help power the city of New York.
is Where you Find It" by Tyrone Comfort shows a man deep inside a gold mine.
The muscular man is working hard to control a powerful drill that is cutting
through the rock that surrounds him.
Public Works of Art Program only lasted six months. But it led to the
development of another art program called the Works Progress Administration's
Federal Art Project. The paintings in this exhibit tell an important story
about American life during the nineteen thirties. And, the exhibit is
especially meaningful during today's economic crisis. It shows the results of a
creative government program.
In nineteen fifty-eight, the Swiss-born
photographer Robert Frank published a book of eighty-three photographs called
It was first published in France.
A year later, the book was published in the United States. This book is widely
considered one of the most important books of photographs published since World
"The Americans" shows the
country and its people in a boldly honest way. Robert Frank showed the effects
of racism, social inequality and poverty. But he also showed a beautiful side
of America's people and places. The book was revolutionary for the inventive
style of taking photographs that show immediacy and emotional honesty. "The
Americans" was also different from other photography books because Frank
organized the images according to similar emotions, forms or subjects.
To create his book, Frank traveled across more than
thirty American states for nine months starting in nineteen fifty-six. He took more
than twenty-seven thousand pictures. He spent another year choosing the best
pictures and placing them in a meaningful order.
Frank asked his new friend,
the American writer Jack Kerouac, to write the introduction to his book of
photographs. Kerouac had just published
his own book, "On the Road." Kerouac correctly predicted that Frank would be
praised as a great artist.
the National Gallery exhibit, "The Americans" is divided into four parts. Each
part shows a different side of American culture. Each begins with a photograph
that includes an American flag.
In one photograph called
"Charleston, South Carolina," an African-American woman holds a white baby. Frank
shows the woman's dark skin next to the baby's light skin. You can see the
wisdom and experience in her face, which is very different from the baby's
wondering expression. Here Frank plays
with contrasts, or opposing elements, as he does in many photographs.
The next photograph in the
series shows a diner restaurant in Hollywood, California. Frank captures the
tired and unhappy face of a server. Above her head is an advertisement with the
smiling face of Santa Claus.
"Trolley-New Orleans" shows a close-up image
of people on a public transportation vehicle. Frank frames the photograph so
that you mainly see the people looking out the windows of the trolley. There
are white people in the front and black people in the back. This is a powerful
image about racial separation in society at that time.
Robert Frank took the picture a few
days after he was arrested and detained in the southern state of Arkansas. A
policeman detained and threatened him because he was a foreigner driving a car
from another state. Frank experienced for himself the discrimination that was
present in his picture of New Orleans.
National Gallery curator Sarah
Greenough organized this show. Here she talks about a different section
of the exhibit.
SARAH GREENOUGH: "Frank shifts
his focus slightly from the American people to the physical character of the
spaces they have constructed for themselves. In his photographs of gas
stations, diners and cemeteries he found a beauty so simple but commonplace it
was often overlooked, so unspeakably true but poignant it was rarely
In "U.S. 285, New Mexico" Frank photographed
the dividing mark on a highway. The road seems to go on forever into the far
horizon. Jack Kerouac described the image as a "long shot of night road arrowing
forlorn into immensities."
Two images are all the more
striking because they are placed next to each other. "Covered Car -- Long
Beach, California" shows a car covered with a large cloth for protection. It
sits under two large palm trees. The
next photo, "Car Accident -- U.S. 66, Between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona,"
shows a body on the side of the road that is also covered with a cloth. Four
people stand sadly near the body.
In "Rodeo -- New
York City" Robert Frank pictures a thin cowboy bending his head to light his
cigarette. Because of his clothing, you might expect the cowboy to be in a rural environment with a horse nearby.
But the image is surprising because he is standing on a crowded street in New
The last photograph in "The Americans" is one Robert Frank
took of his car. His family members sit inside the car looking very tired. The image
reminds us about the man behind this extraordinary collection of images and the
effort required of him, his wife and two young children to make this project.
Frank once made this comment about his work: "I am always looking outside,
trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing
is really true. Except what is out there. And what's out there is constantly
truth and energy Robert Frank captured in "The Americans" make the photographs
as fresh today as they were fifty years ago.
This program was written and produced
by Dana Demange. I'm Barbara Klein.
And I'm Steve Ember. You
can see pictures of art from these two exhibits on our Web site,
voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again
next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.