Inside USD

Character and Crisis: Printmaking in America, 1920-1950

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Character and Crisis: Printmaking in America, 1920-1950 brings together more than 60 works by 43 artists, surveying an especially rich phase in the visual history of the United States. From the Jazz Age to the end of the Second World War, American artists experimented with prints – etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, mezzotints, and linocuts – in an effort to document and respond to an unprecedented depth of social, political and economic upheavals.

Character and Crisis is an experiment, too. The concept for this exhibition grew out of discussions with a small group of students at USD during the spring of 2012. These young scholars participated in the selection, interpretation, and display plan for images produced during this tumultuous time in American art history.

The job of evaluating and organizing works of art for an installation like this one is complex and ordinarily, it is something reserved for professional curators. The students devoted substantial energy first to studying more than 100 prints and to sharing their reactions to these varied images with each other. We hope this experiment will be judged worthwhile both within the campus community and beyond.

American printmakers of the 1920s to 1950s employed a variety of styles. One of the most popular styles was known as regionalism. Artists associated with regionalist movement tended to turn away from depictions of sprawling urban centers in favor of simple, rural subjects. Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton became famous for producing lithographic images of a mythical American past, rather than confronting unpleasant facts of the present. We probably cannot fault either artists or their audiences during the 1930s for fantasizing about a Mark Twain-inspired countryside filled with rivers, truant children, revival meetings, wild horses, and happier times.

Images of cityscapes and the countryside served to juxtapose ideals of American progress and pastoralism in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. While some idealized country life, others such as Philip Evergood’s “Sorrowing Farmers,” conveys the all-too-grim circumstances that many families faced during the Great Depression.

The period between 1920 and 1950 encapsulated a generation of sweeping societal change. Not surprisingly, many American printmakers chose to address racial and gender issues through their artwork. These range from depictions of Klansmen in James Turnbull’s haunting image, “Southern Night” to caricatures of African-Americans in prints such as Lawrence Beall Smith’s lithograph, “The Skaters.”  Several works in the exhibition are by African-American artists and provide an interesting contrast. Emma Bourne’s “Young Child,” presents its subject with a dignity and concern for portraiture that seems missing from some representations made by other artists in the exhibition.

It is also interesting to consider the reasons why printmaking flourished across such challenging years. In part, this was connected to the sheer proliferation of images, both high and low in the United States. Mass-market magazines gripped readers , and the rise of Hollywood films became a mainstay of the common culture. The graphic novel got its start in the 1920s and early practitioners, such as Lynd Ward, are still regarded as legendary figures in that literary genre. Furthermore, artists found new ways to circulate their work through museum-sponsored print clubs or by working with new organizations such as the Associated American Artists. Founded in New York in 1934, Associated American Artists promoted affordable prints to middle-class audiences.

A number of these works in “Character and Crisis” were first distributed through these means. Additionally while the works gathered here are truly diverse in terms of their subject matter and in their demonstration of print techniques, they were made accessible to broad audiences because of their shared realist values. Indeed, virtually every work in this exhibition aspires to a recognizable likeness and some degree of verisimilitude. Perhaps this was because urgent times encouraged both artists and print consumers alike to focus on their all-to-real experiences.

– Liz Harman; Derrick R. Cartwright, Director of University Galleries; and USD students Jake Zawlacki, Mari Mazzucco, and Kelly Wilson.

Character & Crisis runs in the Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Galleries in Founders Hall through Dec. 14. For exhibit hours and other information go to

Credits: Edward Hopper, American (1882-1967), Night Shadows, 1921, Etching, 17.46 cm x 20.96 cm, Museum purchase through the Edwin S. and Carol Dempster Larsen Memorial Fund, The San Diego Museum of Art, 1991.105.

Philip Evergood (1901 – 1973), Sorrowing Farmers, 1938, Lithograph, 21.8 x 30.8 cm, Art, Design & Architecture Museum,UC Santa Barbara, Gift of Don Trevey to the Ken Trevey.

Emma Bourne (1906 – 1986), Young Child, 1940, Lithograph, 40.6 x 29.3 cm (sheet), Print Collection, University of San Diego, Anonymous Gift in Honor of Therese Truitt Whitcomb.

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