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Art at the Intersection of Politics and Popular Culture

Art at the Intersection of Politics and Popular Culture February 21, 2023
A painting of “Winter Scene” by Martha Levy.
“Winter Scene” by Martha Levy.

Martha Levy is best known in this area as the painter of “Men Working in Slate Quarry,” the 1939 mural that hung in the Granville High School and then in the Town Hall before being moved to the Slate Valley Museum in 1995.

Levy was also an easel painter who attended the Arts Students League’s summer sessions in Woodstock, NY, in the company of artists many of us now associate with the Adirondacks – Rockwell Kent, David Smith, Frank Chase Swift (who painted Lake George from Abenia, the estate of Adolph Ochs) and even Judson Smith, the creator of the mural in the Lake George Post Office.

I recently came upon a 1934 winter landscape by Levy set in upstate New York, one that features a man with a rifle walking through snowdrifts, evergreens and bare trees, possibly returning home from a hunt.

It might be mistaken for a Christmas card – unless, or until, one looks at it a bit more closely.

“Winter Scene” was painted in the depths of the Great Depression, when Martha Levy was employed by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first federal government program to provide financial support to artists, one that lasted a mere seven months, from mid-December 1933 to June 1934.

Alice Neel, who, like Levy, was employed by the PWAP, said that painters were paid roughly $30 per week. For that sum, they produced at least one painting every six weeks for the federal government.

(Levy’s painting became the property of the Department of Labor, which may or may not have put it on display. Though still owned by the U.S. government, its whereabouts are unknown.)

The 3,500 artists selected for the program were expected to capture “the American Scene” in works that would transmit traditional values such as hard work, community spirit and optimism, according to the Smithsonian Institution, which organized an exhibition of the government-funded work in 2010.

Levy’s painting is hardly a celebration of American life. As an artist named Will Barnett said, “You were faced with a social situation, and if you couldn’t respond to that, you had to be a jackass of some kind.” Levy’s painting is, perhaps, just that: a response to “the social situation.” Rather than a celebration, it is, if anything, a commentary on life during the Great Depression, a visual critique of a political and economic system that many artists believed was the source of the decade’s bleak conditions. 

Compare, for example, Levy’s painting with a more famous portrayal of hunters – the Elder Pieter Bruegel’s “Hunters in the Snow (Winter),” painted in 1565, which Levy probably had in mind as she worked. 

Like the hunter in Levy’s painting, these men and dogs are returning home empty-handed. The difference lies in the home to which they are returning. In Bruegel’s “Hunters,” we see not only an inhabited landscape but one brimming with communal work and play.

(Indeed, Levy’s “Men Working in Slate Quarry,” is in many ways a modern equivalent of the collective spirit portrayed in Bruegel’s “Hunters.”)

Levy’s hunter is not part of a cohesive group, but, rather, a solitary figure; the farmhouse to which he is returning appears darkened, empty. Perhaps it is not his own home, but rather, an abandoned farm, one deserted by the occupants or one from which the tenants have been evicted. Perhaps Levy is portraying, not so much a faltering economic system, but its collapse.

“The country was in a severe depression and there was no welfare or social security, so people just starved or were evicted from their homes. If there had been no (New Deal-era relief programs) there might well have been a revolution,” said Alice Neel.

(In fact, according to the organizers of the Smithsonian exhibition, which was titled “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” Levy’s painting appears to be one more affirmation of the connection between hunting and rural people’s survival during the Great Depression).

Levy’s “boss,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, would have immediately apprehended why she chose to paint a landscape of denuded hills, with an aging, perhaps failed, farm at the center.

Upon becoming New York’s governor in 1929, FDR set out to restore and repair the state’s rural landscapes, damaged by deforestation and improvident agricultural practices.

Through the wide distribution of seedlings and the reforestation of exhausted farmlands, Roosevelt hoped to restore soils, prevent erosion, protect streams and to regulate ecosystems naturally, interrupting the recurring cycles of drought and floods.

During those same years, Roosevelt developed the ideas that would produce the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, whose plantation of white pines is still visible at the former Alma Farm in North Bolton.

The short-term goal of the CCC was to provide work for the unemployed. But FDR’s long-range vision “was nothing less than to heal the wounded American earth,” writes the historian Douglas Brinkley in “Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.”

Roosevelt’s political philosophy was not unlike his philosophy of conservation: the preservation of our institutions, like the lasting preservation of the American landscape, requires continual reform or restoration and, on occasion, emergency measures.

Roosevelt may actually have seen Levy’s painting. In April 1934, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. exhibited more than 500 works created as part of the Public Works of Art Project. President Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and government officials who attended the exhibition in Washington “acclaimed the art enthusiastically,” the Smithsonian noted. 

After the PWAP program was terminated, Levy was employed by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), which funded the creation of the “Men Working in Slate Quarry” mural in 1939. 

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