Social Realism in Art
Although Social Realism took the American art world by storm following World War I, the social realist art tradition was first seen in France decades before its American expression. Unsurprisingly, both of the European and American art movements were fueled by artists desperately trying to portray the harsh realities they saw every day. By 1870, European artists began depicting the harsh working conditions fueled by the Industrial Revolution and the plight of the working class. Artists often created works with social and political goals in mind, particularly using their work to criticize wealthy elites and monarchies. To these artists, 19th and 20th century social problems were not faceless. By sharing the experience of the individual, the artists of the Social Realism movement invited their viewers to experience the true emotions that accompany exploitation, confusion and reality.
History: Out of NecessityIn the wake of the shared trauma of the Civil War, the romantic works from Impressionists and Transcendentalists no longer satisfied the public. Most Americans faced harsh poverty, pain and trauma on a daily basis and by the mid 20th century, it was finally time for those realities to take center stage on the artistic scene. When a twenty-four year old Stephen Crane published his hallmark novel Red Badge of Courage in 1892, Civil War veterans asked Crane how was able to capture the personal mental anguish of war with such accuracy. In this novel, war is not romanticized. Henry, the “hero” of the novel, confronts his own cowardice and ultimately flees from battle. The men who experienced these war zones refused to believe that Crane, only eight years old during the Civil War, never took part in combat. The immediate popularity of his breakthrough novel marked a significant turn in America’s social and artistic zeitgeist.
Shared Experience: Social Realism Across the Globe
FranceThe Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet, first displayed at the 1850 Paris Salon, scandalized salon-goers. Romanticism was the dominant style of the time; the movement emphasized beauty and fantastic drama over reality. Most of these early viewers were ill-prepared to see a realistic depiction of the “every man” manual laborer, and Courbet makes his concern for the plight of the poor clear. Here, two figures break and remove stone from a road that is being built for the sake of industrialization and progress. Faceless, their clothing in tatters, Courbet intended his viewers to empathize with these laborers in a revolutionary, universal way. This breakthrough artwork would come to embody the growing European Realism movement, the precursor to Social Realism as it developed during the early 20th century.
MexicoPictured below are three figurative works by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, each depicting the everyday routines of working-class Mexican women. These paintings are small but mighty, and portray an unglamorous reality not often seen in the elite art spheres. Rivera is well known for his monumental figurative murals inspired by industrialization, Mexican identity, capitalism and communism. Much like his Social Realism art contemporaries, Rivera consistently criticized political elites, turning the focus to the masses. These remarkable works are representative of the Social Realist movement as it combined the political with aesthetics, and challenged popular decorative art styles of its time.