Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

Culture Through Art: The 1930s edition

Some of the most powerful, insightful and dynamic chroniclers and anthropologists have actually been artists. Through their art, artist captured and preserved not just important events in a particular time and space, but they also used their art to pass along cultural traditions, identity, news, social commentary, reflections of the world around them. Many anthropologist utilize art as a way to learn about a groups methodology, changing ideologies, a society’s beginning, as well as its end.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to hear some dancers discuss and lecture on the ways in which culture is imprinted on to the body, or embodiment. The body as a reflection or site for studying culture is a fairly new exploration within the world of anthropological epistemology. The scientific revolution, rise of the natural sciences, and the valuing of rationality and over emotion and feeling would have made such investigations of the body as a site for culture unpopular, wishy-washy, and lame.
However, what made this lecture so interesting was the ways in which the dancers discussed how they trained their bodies. There are many dancers that master a particular style of dance and that is what they are known for. However, more and more, especially in the professional world, dancers mastered the art of making themselves a blank canvas for the vision and statement of the choreographer.
They began to show us a few dance clips to illustrate how dance and art could be used a statement or reflection of the time. Take a look at this clip from dancer, Martha Graham, called Steps in the Street, 1936 (skip ahead to 2:09):
Note the dancer’s small, harsh movements. The motions are rather angular and minimal; their forms center on pelvic contraction and release- almost as if in some movements they’ve been hit. The angularity of the movements seems forced, and without the graceful flow that had characterized traditional ballet. This isn’t romantic and dramatic. It’s traumatic and disruptive. The set is stark.
What’s going on?! Well, in 1936, the nation is about 6 years into the biggest stock market crash in American history, which prompted the Great Depression, the Third Reich was expanding, the world was on its way to WWII, the Dust Bowl had catastrophic effects on American agriculture, there was a political assassination, and there were technological innovations coming from every angle! The 30s were crazy world wide!
Let’s look at another piece of art from the same time period that sought to capture and reflect the the upheaval and turbulence of the time period:

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937
Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

Pablo Picasso’s, Guernicacertainly showed the chaos and violence that typified the global mayhem of the time. The muted tones, angularity, death, disruption, and trauma from Graham’s dance are repeated in this work.
What if you saw this image and found a video of this performance of Graham’s dance? Further excavations of earth revealed, propaganda art, bullet casings, and skeletal remains that showed indications of starvation, malnutrition, violent fracturing all from the same time period? You would probably begin building a case for a time period of complete lunacy!
In any case, these artists provided more than a mechanical, narrative of an event. They displayed the chaos and discomfort of it through their own point of view. This was their daily lives that they were deconstructing. They were more than participant observers. These works allow an audience to connect with the humanity, or lack there of, of the time period. Although I didn’t live through the 1930s, I still feel jarred and get goosebumps of uneasiness viewing the pieces.
Emotion as a motivator of action and a response of social connection and shared experience provides valid and robust insight into the daily lives of human behavior, event, and response. This is another way to understand what it is to be human.
Additionally, a change in style can reflect a change in social philosophy, change in politics, structure and can echo intention.
Do you have a favorite work of art that connects you a specific time and place, or capture an experience that resonates with you? Share it in the comments!

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