by Ray Zone
(Bakersfield Museum of Art, Bakersfield) A few years ago, I discovered the fiction of a writer named Jim Tully who was known as the proletarian writer of the 1920's and 1930's. Tully's fiction deals with hoboes, boxers, circus performers, jailbirds and shanty Irish, portraying their humble lives with tersely poetic language that is laced with empathy and compassion. Several of Tully's books feature dustjacket art and cartoon illustrations that perfectly mirror his love and understanding of the downtrodden of humanity. These illustrations have a sinewy artisanship that wrenches the heart. It was my first exposure to the work of a cartoonist and painter named William Gropper.
Titled "William Gropper: A Nation's Conscience", and curated by the Heritage Gallery of Los Angeles, this retrospective includes over 45 paintings and drawings by Gropper who, from 1917 to 1977 produced a large body of work in a variety of media beside painting and drawing that included lithography, murals and a great many published illustrations. The curators have divided Gropper's work into several general categories, including Senators, Attorneys or Legal, Farm Subjects, Workers, Women, War Themes and Drawings. There is also a self-portrait by the artist.
Gropper was born in 1897 on the lower East Side of New York into a world of poverty. Though his father was highly educated and could speak eight languages, he had menial jobs. The artist's mother was a seamstress, and this occupation was a subject he would paint many times over. In 1912, at the age of fourteen, Gropper left school and began working twelve hours a day, six days a week, for five dollars. At the same time, Gropper began taking evening art classes under Robert Henri and George Bellows. It was then that his artistic philosophy began to take shape. "Right then," Gropper has stated, "I began to realize that you don't paint with color---you paint with conviction, freedom, love and heart-aches, with what you have."
With his visual treatment of senators and attorneys, or anyone in authority, a caustic satire is immediately evident. The Senator is a good example. The bloated and balding figure clothed in black and holding his daybook of names or connections seems a mere effigy, more scarecrow than human. The background is a murky jumble of earthtones. The twisted countenance of the senator is permanently lined into a frown, held imperiously high as an overfed and fat chin juts out into the impoverished air along with a pointed nose that seems to be seeking the foulest of odors. The eye is a large black hole, a void as empty as the heart of this thing that walks in human clothes.
Gropper's soldiers rendered in the war-themed painting Hostages, 1942 are similarly inhuman. They are low and green, small faceless hulks that wield rifles and bayonets that they point at women and children standing before a large, white stone. One can discuss Gropper's technique, the way he constructs his narratives, his massed forms or use of color. But always you will come back to the emotion that his imagery evokes, to the simple and overpowering idea of humanity. And that is at the core of his art.
More playful works are also in evidence. The Wedding Dance is a brightly colored arabesque in which musicians play their instruments, while in the background the bride and groom twirl about. To the side is a table laden with the wedding feast. There is a vibrant musicality to this work, with light pastel shapes and lines playing over the bright red background. Another example in this vein is Haywagon, a radiant celebration of work painted with a lovely chromatic array of green values.
In his sixty-year career, Gropper had many one-man exhibitions, forty alone between 1956 and 1960. His cartoons produced an impact in the world. One in particular, drawn in 1935 for a magazine, and satirizing the Japanese emperor Hirohito, resulted in the Japanese government beginning a civil suit against the magazine. Years later when called to testify in 1953 before the House Un-American Committee by Joseph McCarthy, Gropper refused to appear. Gropper drew warbond posters during World War II, created art for the United Nations and received numerous awards in his lifetime. Here is an artist whose work went out into the world and served to humanize it.
"I react to life and it's a stimulant to me," Gropper has summarized for us. "I love people, and when I draw or paint it comes out people, and the landscape is what these people make it."