OVERT / COVERT: MIAMI DADE COLLEGE STUDENTS USE WOLFSONIAN ART OBJECTS TO DECODE THE ICONOGRAPHY OF LABOR

Yesterday afternoon, I crossed the bay separating Miami Beach from the mainland to deliver a lecture to a class of Miami Dade College students enrolled in a museum studies course. I had been informed that the students had put together an exhibition titled Overt/Covert dealing with the confluence of propaganda and labor, with artifacts drawn from the Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Study Centre in downtown Miami. The exhibition had recently opened in the Museum of Art + Design located in the historic Freedom Tower at Miami Dade College—at one time the tallest building in downtown Miami, though it has since been dwarfed by a plethora of glass towers!

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The subject matter of the student exhibition was not new to me. I have worked at The Wolfsonian museum for more than two decades and have been teaching for another decade at Florida International University, often about the Great Depression and New Deal era.

I had prepared a Powerpoint presentation for the occasion illustrated with examples of American, Soviet, Fascist, and National Socialist labor propaganda with images drawn from The Wolfsonian-FIU museum library collection. Some of the American materials dealt with the irony of the 1930s mania for picturing “men at work” in an era of extreme unemployment; the depiction of strikes (and their suppression) by left-leaning artists; and the celebration (and criticism) of New Deal “back to work” projects, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the Federal Arts Project (FAP).

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My presentation compared and contrasted such images with those produced in the Soviet paradise of “full employment.” In the early years of the revolution, much artwork was done in the Constructivist style; other works conformed to the Socialist Realist style dictated by regime after Comrade Stalin assumed power.

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Turning from the Soviet Union to Fascist Italy, I included a number of images showing the relative tolerance of Benito Mussolini for depictions of labor in radically different styles. Il Duce did not seem to care whether artists worked in the Futurist or Neo-Classicist styles, or even if they employed techniques like photomontage–so long as they supported the values and goals of the regime.

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I ended my discussion of labor imagery with propaganda produced by the National Socialists in Hitler’s Germany. As in Stalin’s Russia, there was  little room for free expression in Germany. Artists and photographers were constrained to depict Der Fuhrer (doing more than his fair share of shoveling), armies of shovel-wielding Hitler Jugend, or Aryan maidens working in the fertile countryside and churning out future soldiers for the Nazi state.

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I actually began my talk and slide show with a couple of iconic images from the depression decade. One was a photograph taken by Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) used to decorate the dust jacket of his Men at Work, published in 1932; the other, was a lithographic print from Comrade Gulliver: an Illustrated Account of Travel into that Strange Country the United States of America, an oversized portfolio published in 1935 by Hugo Gellert (1892-1985).

Although published during the darkest days of the Great Depression, Hine’s photograph celebrates the incredible feats and accomplishments of labor (symbolized by the smiling young man dangling from a skyscraper-erecting crane), even as one-quarter of the American workforce had been thrown out of work.

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As a committed Communist who placed all of his artistic talents into the service of the “cause” of the laboring classes, Hugo Gellert subversively lampooned such images. One of his illustrations, aptly titled “Useless,” instead depicted a despondent construction worker dangling precariously from a derrick with no work to do.

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After the lecture was over and some colleagues and I were given a guided tour of Overt/Covert, I was thrilled to discover that one of the student curators, Giselle Gonzalez, had not only included a small format version of Comrade Gulliver open to the same image, but had juxtaposed it to a color lithograph poster by the same artist, titled: See the Soviet Union in the Making published in 1930.

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She also used a silhouette of the poster to illustrate the cover of the exhibition catalog.

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I had never seen the poster before, and was immediately struck with the realization that the “Useless” illustration dating from 1935 had been recycled and modified from this earlier illustration. Although strikingly similar, the first pictured a confident Soviet worker hanging from acrane and was designed to celebrate the industrialization of the Soviet Union; the latter image substituted a downcast American worker intended to mock the failures of American Capitalism during the decade-long depression.

After some introductory remarks, each of the student curators focused on at least one of the labor-themed selections they had made, providing additional background information, and talking about the piece’s historical and or cultural significance.

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One of the student curators, Johnathan Sanabria, has been interning at The Wolfsonian-FIU library this semester. In addition to talking about the Wrigley’s chewing gum advertisement he selected for the exhibit, he also introduced our staff to a projection of historical clips he had pulled together of people at work.

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The montage included an excerpt from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, a brilliant and hilarious satire of working life in the industrial age.

So, having originally crossed the bay to deliver a lecture, I found myself learning quite a bit about the subject from the student curators. I highly recommend that anyone interested in seeing more on the subject head to the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami to check out this great exhibition.

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~ by "The Chief" on April 18, 2015.

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